For Jennifer Roberts to make a recipe twice, a dish has to be better than "good."
Chicken Riggies -- a specialty of the Utica area -- has made the cut for Roberts, The News' Cook of the Month for June.
By day she is an assistant at the Harold C. Brown financial planning firm. At night, Roberts aims to serve her family dinner six nights a week. "I just like my kids to eat a home-cooked meal without that processed stuff," she said. "We rarely eat out."
And they rarely eat the same thing twice. The Lake View mother of three has a stack of recipes hidden in her kitchen cupboard that she's eager to try. But when she was introduced to Chicken Riggies while visiting her sister Amy-Lyn Zaleski at Utica College, Roberts decided she wanted to make her own version.
"We loved it, and you can only get it in [restaurants in] Utica, so I said, 'I can make this,' " Roberts said. This was before the ubiquity of Internet recipes, so the next time she was in Utica, she examined her plate of Chicken Riggies carefully.
Rigatoni pasta, check. Creamy Alfredo sauce tinged with tomato, check. Peppers and chicken, you bet.
Roberts acknowledges that her version might not be considered canonical -- there's no mushrooms, and the peppers are sweet, not hot, as in some Utica versions -- but she has her audience to consider. Her husband, Terrance, daughter, Jordan, and sons, Layton and Gavin, all like her version, with no scary mushrooms.
Except for Friday night -- pizza night -- Roberts sets the menu. It includes lots of grilled chicken and pork chops, as well as beer can chicken. During football season, Roberts can be counted on for a pot of one chili variety or another for Bills games.
With her husband, Roberts recently started a social club dubbed "Swillers," a band of nine couples who take turns hosting get-togethers. "I do a funky-fancy drink for the ladies, and an appetizer," she said. "Sometimes we have a theme."
Last time she whipped up some lavender blueberry lemon-drop martinis, complete with homemade lavender syrup. "Oh my God, it was so good," she said.
For big holidays or family affairs, Roberts will sometimes make the potato bread she was taught by her grandmother, Julia Zaleski. It's a lengthy affair, with a bottle of Rolling Rock beer among the ingredients, just like when Grandma made it. (It's poured into the cook, not the dough.)
After her grandmother died, Roberts mustered up the courage to tackle the bread. "Everyone was missing it," she said. Others had attempted it without success. "I could have built a doghouse with the one I made," said her mother, Marcia.
With a few tries, Roberts met the challenge, producing a huge, braided loaf that's fluffy but still boasts a moist crumb. The first successful version was driven to grateful relatives in Charlotte, N.C.
Using the dough hook in a stand mixer makes the required kneading easier, she said. But you have to leave time to let the dough rise twice, overnight in the refrigerator and then after being braided.
You could skip the poppy-seed topping, she said, but there's one ingredient you can't do without: "patience."
> Jennifer Roberts' Chicken Riggies
1 pound rigatoni pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, bite-sized pieces
Salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper, to taste
1 onion, cut into strips
1 red pepper, cut into strips
1 green pepper, cut into strips
1 yellow or orange pepper, cut into strips
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup salsa
1/2 pint heavy cream
1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter
1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boil. Add pasta, and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes; drain and keep warm in large bowl.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper, add to skillet, and cook until lightly browned and no longer pink in the center, 7 to 10 minutes. Scoop chicken from pan, leaving oil behind, and keep warm.
Stir onion, peppers and garlic into oil, and cook until onion has softened, about 4 minutes. Return chicken to pan. Keep warm over low heat.
In small saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add cream and cheese. Cook until bubbly and thick, then add salsa.
Add the chicken-pepper mixture to pasta. Pour sauce over the top. Sprinkle with more cheese and serve.
> Potato Bread
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm potato water, from cooking potatoes
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2/3 cup melted butter-flavored shortening
1 cup lukewarm mashed potatoes
7 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
Poppy seeds, for topping
Sprinkle yeast in 1/2 cup lukewarm water, and let stand for 5 minutes.
In large mixing bowl, dissolve sugar and salt into potato water. Add two eggs, yeast, shortening and potatoes, blending well after each addition.
Add half of the flour and beat until smooth. Add remaining flour gradually, and knead until all flour is used and dough is not sticky. Turn dough into buttered bowl, cover with wax paper and a damp cloth and refrigerate overnight.
Roll into three strips and braid. Put on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet, and let rise 1 1/2 hours.
In small bowl, beat egg yolk with milk. When ready to bake, brush braid with egg yolk wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds. Bake at 350 for 20 to 25 minutes. The loaf should be golden brown and have a hollow sound when tapped.
> Jennifer Roberts
Dish: Chicken Riggies
Residence: Lake View
Mouths to feed: 5
Go-to-instant meal: Pasta salad with chicken
Guilty pleasure: Buttercrunch ice cream