Princeton native adds ‘sparks’ to recipes

…Katy Sparks is culinary director and chef for Balducci’s, which recently opened a new flagship store in Chelsea

By: Pat Tanner
   I knew that New York chef Katy Sparks had an indirect tie to Princeton, in that she made a name for herself at the highly popular Quilty’s, which got its start, albeit without her on board, here in Princeton before relocating to SoHo.
   What I didn’t know until reading her new cookbook, "Sparks in the Kitchen," co-authored with Andrea Strong (Random House, $30), is that Katy Sparks was born here and lived in Princeton for 2½ years while her father was a professor at the university. He then moved on to Middlebury College in Vermont, where he is now professor emeritus of German. There the Sparkses raised their three children, including Katy, on a 70-acre farm.
   In a recent interview, Katy Sparks told me that her father, an amateur naturalist, "didn’t want us to grow up afraid of open spaces."
   I can think of no better preparation for a future chef than planting gardens, caring for cattle and chickens, baling hay and foraging for wild mushrooms. Except maybe if these activities were interspersed with a year now and then living in Germany, which is what the family did. Eventually, Katy attended cooking school at Johnson & Wales University, trained at Al Forno in Providence, R.I., and worked at the celebrated Quilted Giraffe in New York before moving on to Quilty’s, which closed shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
   These days Katy Sparks is culinary director and chef for Balducci’s, which recently opened a new flagship store in Chelsea. In between, she produced her cookbook, which is as exemplary for the caliber of its writing as for her creative modern American recipes. Reading it, I felt as though I really got to know her educational missteps, boyfriend foibles, and all.
   The recipes below are good ambassadors of the Katy Sparks style. They are easy enough for the home cook yet impressive enough to serve for company; they include helpful, explicit instructions (some of which have been abbreviated here); they employ readily available ingredients — and they are delicious.
For the citrus-chive dressing:
   2 lemons, 2 limes and 2 oranges
   ½ bulb fennel, thinly sliced
   A very small pinch of saffron (optional)
   ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
   2 tablespoons minced chives
   Salt and pepper to taste
For the roasted snapper:
   2 cups coarse sea salt or fleur de sel
   2 sprigs thyme
   1 branch rosemary
   2 sprigs parsley
   2 pounds red snapper fillets, cut into 6 portions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare the vinaigrette: Using a sharp paring knife, trim the zest and all the white pith from the citrus fruits. Work over a small bowl to catch the juices as you remove the sections from between the membranes. Remove any seeds. Add the remaining ingredients to the citrus sections and their juice and whisk together.
  2. When ready to serve, heat a dry stainless steel saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour in the vinaigrette and stir it once or twice — you don’t want it hot, just warm enough to release the aromatic chive and citrus flavors.
  3. Roast the snapper: Spread the sea salt evenly over a baking sheet that has a rim. Strew the herbs over the salt and arrange the fillets (flesh side down, as the skin sticks too much) on the salt; leave an inch or so of space between fillets. Roast the fish for 6 to 8 minutes or until the fish begins to flake on an edge when pressed firmly. (Snapper is at its best when it’s slightly underdone and has a pearly translucence in the center.)
  4. To serve, use a towel to gently brush off the herbs and salt that may cling to the fillets. Serve with the warmed vinaigrette drizzled over and around the fish.

   Serves 6.
For the chicken:
   8 to 12 chicken thighs, bone-in
   Salt and pepper to taste
   1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seed (optional)
   2 tablespoons butter
For the Calvados cream sauce:
   1 shallot, thinly sliced
   1 tablespoon minced fresh lemongrass root (optional)
   6 to 8 small crimini or white mushrooms, brushed clean and sliced
   ½ cup Calvados
   ½ cup dry hard cider or regular sweet cider
   ½ cup chicken stock
   1/3 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream
   Salt and pepper to taste
   Freshly grated nutmeg

  1. Prepare the chicken: Rinse the chicken under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Season well with salt, pepper and coriander if using. Use a large skillet, or two if necessary, to accommodate the thighs with at least ¼ inch of room between them (but not too much space, either). Melt the butter over medium-high heat and brown the thighs on both sides; this will take about 8 minutes. Transfer the thighs to a plate while making the sauce. Reserve the fat in the pan.
  2. Make the sauce: Using the butter and chicken fat that remains in the pan, sauté the shallots, lemongrass (if using) and mushrooms until tender, about 2 minutes. Pull the pan away from the heat before pouring in the Calvados. (You don’t want to get the Calvados anywhere near an open flame.) Pour the Calvados gently into the pan off the heat then return the pan to the stovetop. When the alcohol is warm enough it may spontaneously ignite, but this is fine; just let it burn off. If it doesn’t ignite, it will burn off by boiling down. Add the cider and chicken stock to the pan and, when the mixture is heated through, whisk a little into the creme fraiche, then add the creme fraiche to the pan.
  3. Return the chicken to the pan and reduce heat to a simmer. Lightly tent the pan with foil, which will allow some evaporation but allow the chicken to cook evenly. Simmer the chicken for 15 to 20 minutes. The juices should run clear when a thigh is pierced. Remove all the thighs and reduce the sauce a bit more, until it lightly coats a spoon. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Serve the chicken with the sauce spooned over it.

   Serves 6.
Pat Tanner can be heard each Saturday morning on "Dining Today with Pat Tanner" on MoneyTalk AM 1350 and over from 9 to 10 a.m.