21 Aug 2014
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Meet Martha's TV Chef: Katonah's Nikki Elkins

The Baker’s Table sits down this week with the head chef of The Martha Stewart Show to discuss cooking on TV, motherhood and life in the suburbs.

Meet Martha's TV Chef: Katonah's Nikki Elkins

It’s not only the iconic star of the The Martha Stewart Show who chose Katonah as her home. 

Nikki Elkins, the program's kitchen manager and TV chef is a recent Katonah settler as well, and is thus far delighted with her decision to leave the city behind. 

Love Katonah. Everyone has been so welcoming,” Elkins told me over cranberry seltzers during my recent visit to her lovely ranch-style home on Croton Lake Road last week.  “It’s a nice mix of country and city folk.” 

The amiable Miami native lives here with her husband, Kent Motland—a high school literature teacher currently on leave and tackling his first novel—and young children, Will, 2, and six-month-old Lucy.

Elkins was, from its launch in 2005, an integral part of Martha’s show—rising through the ranks to her current role where she's stayed for five seasons. If it sounds like a dream job to you—it pretty much is to her, too.

“I have a really amazing and totally unique job. I get to cook something different every day and work with the best chefs in the business," she said. "I’m challenged to create interesting yet do-able recipes for our viewers, and I’m inspired by Martha on a daily basis. She gives me very specific feedback, and she has a great palate."

Here's more of my interview with Elkins—and two delicious yet highly manageable recipes, ideal for busy families. I will definitely be making her Kale, Mushroom & Sausage dip as I entertain over the holidays... yum!

Patch: What's an average day for you during the work week? 

Elkins: We shoot the show three days a week. We do two shows a day, so I’m up at five those days, and on the 6 a.m. train into the city. When I get to the studios in Chelsea, I hit the ground running. 

Depending on how many food segments there are, and what I’m currently working on, there are many things to do in the morning. Food to prep and cook, equipment to set up for rehearsals, and guests or chefs to converse with about any questions I might have regarding their recipes.

We shoot the a.m. show at 10 a.m.—it is live and always a rush. The show goes on whether you are ready or not! At 11, Martha will talk to the audience and then come into the kitchen—this is the time the food producers and I can pitch ideas to her, or have her taste prospective recipes.

After our meeting we prep for the second show which gets underway around 2:30 p.m. It isn’t live, but we try to keep it tight. After this show, we prep for the next day's segments, clean up and head home.

I usually get home around 7, tuck the kids into bed, have a bite with Kent, and get ready for bed. I’m tired just talking about this!

Patch: Any unforgettable episodes, good or otherwise, you might share with us?

Elkins: Yes. OK—so we were doing a typical Martha segment... and by that, I mean a good recipe that is completely over the top—a "do not try this at home." So the recipe was for a dessert that consisted of a strawberry gelatin layer, topped with a vanilla panna cotta layer, topped with a round of pound cake. All layered in a porcelain teacup. You let it set, and then flip it upside down to unmold and serve. Easy enough. My immediate supervisor brought in her mother’s antique china cups. OK. Pressure already—don’t break any!

Things were moving along swimmingly in the first segment. Martha made the jelly layer and the panna cotta layer then layered the cake, so far, so good. And now for the unmolding of the thing—the big “ta da” moment. 

Before the segment, I told Martha to let the teacups sit in the hot water bath for at least 15 seconds to loosen the gelatin. She waved me off, saying she knew what to do. So I watched from our kitchen as she placed the teacup in the hot water for 3 seconds and tried to unmold it. Voila! Nothing. Again, she dips it in the hot water, and shebang! Nothing!  So I am horrified—standing in the kitchen watching and yelling at her (thank God for soundproof windows!) 

This goes on for what seems like minutes. At this point, we are all howling with laughter. Martha is cracking up on the kitchen set, I have tears streaming down my face in the prep kitchen. Finally, I go out on set and try to salvage one.  I bring a blowtorch with me because at this point the water is no longer hot. Eventually we get one to finally unmold. I was VERY glad that Martha had a good sense of humor during this!

Patch: How does being a mom compare to the responsibilities of head TV chef?  Which one is more challenging? 

Elkins: I have two families—my work family and my home family. I would say mothering is much more difficult—it’s constantly challenging, but endlessly rewarding.

Patch: How are your kids as eaters? What’s the secret to get them to try new foods? 

Elkins: The kids are good eaters. Will likes my meatballs a lot, and he’s really into eggs these days. He scrambles the egg, and we pop it into the microwave— he loves it! And he will definitely try things if I keep introducing it. Repetition is the key. 

Patch: Who are the chefs or cooks that influence you?

Elkins: The chefs that most inspire me on a daily basis are my co-workers at Martha.  I am lucky to be surrounded by a team of fabulous cooks....who I also consider my second family.  We have worked side by side for 5 years now, and they continually inspire me both professionally and personally.  I spend a lot of time in a sound proof room with my Martha family, and I am thankful that I have such talented, fun and interesting people to work with.  

My inspiration of late has been home cooking.  Much like my very talented mother, my goal is to cook good hearty food that my family will enjoy. To me, that still means a protein and 2 sides.... archaic, perhaps, but in my mind, its not really dinner any other way.  

Patch: Have you found any favorite local food haunts?

Elkins: I really like the new Italian market— Love The Blazer. I like to get my meats at in Katonah.  Trader Joe’s is great. And, I’m a big fan of the John Jay Homestead Farmer’s Market [when it's in season].

Patch: The last few years we've seen trends such as "comfort food,""molecular gastronomy", and, as of late, a push for "local" and "seasonal" food.  In your opinion, what do you think the next food trend might be? 

Elkins:  I would love to see a return to sensible eating—delicious food, served in reasonable portions, cooked in season. Cost has gotten out of control—and do I really want to eat food that 25 people have touched before I get it?  Simple is where it is at for me. 

Patch: Ever think about opening up a restaurant or food shop if The Martha Stewart Show eventually winds down?  

Elkins: Yes... I tinker with the idea of opening up a small place all the time.  I miss some of the great take-out options we took for granted in the city. Ideally, it would be a place with wholesome and delicious food that moms could feel good about serving their families.

Patch: What's on your Christmas wish list this year?

Elkins: I am making Christmas eve dinner for 12—my first real dinner party in our new house. I want to get linen napkins to go with my hem stitched placemats, and pretty water goblets for the table.  

 

Nikki’s Recipes:

Kale, Mushroom & Sausage Dip

makes 1 1/2 quarts

1 ¼ pounds curly kale, from 2 small bunches, stemmed and torn into pieces

5 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 oz sliced button mushrooms

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar 

1 teaspoon lemon zest

¼ cup flour

1½ cup whole milk

½ cup heavy cream

½ pound spicy Italian sausage, removed from the casing if necessary

1 ½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 ½ cup finely grated gruyere cheese

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon pepper

Tortilla chips or toasted French bread slices for serving 

Blanch kale in a large pot of salted boiling water until tender, 4- 5 minutes.  Drain and cool under cold running water.  Squeeze completely dry.  Finely chop and add to a large bowl.  You should have about 2 ½ cups.  

In a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with the oil over medium high heat.  Add mushrooms and cook until lightly browned and tender, about 5 minutes.  Deglaze pan with sherry vinegar and add to bowl with kale.  In the same skillet, brown the sausage, crumbling it while it cooks.  Drain well and add to kale mixture.  

In a medium pot, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat.  Add flour and cook, stirring often, until thickened and bubbling, about 3 minutes.  Add milk and cream.  Increase heat to medium high and cook until mixture comes just to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, whisking often, about 5 minutes.  Off the heat, add 1 cup of each cheese and mix until melted. Add salt and pepper. Add this mixture to the bowl with the kale and sausage and mix to fully combine. 

Transfer mixture to a buttered 1.5 quart baking dish, and top with remaining mixed cheeses.  Bake at 375° for 25 minutes until bubbly and browned.

Serve with tortilla chips or toasted French bread slices. 

 

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies

makes about 48 2-inch brownies

Ingredients:

Nonstick cooking spray

6 ounces unsweetened best-quality chocolate, chopped

2 ¼ cups (4 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ (12-ounce) bags mini semisweet chocolate chips

6 large eggs, room temperature

3 cups sugar

1 ½ tablespoons pure vanilla extract

1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 13-by-18-by-1-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment paper; spray parchment with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. 

2. Melt unsweetened chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over (but not touching) simmering water; remove from heat and let cool. In a medium bowl, mix together flour and chocolate chips; set aside. 

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt on high until ribbons form, 7 to 9 minutes. With the mixer on low, slowly add melted chocolate. Fold in flour mixture. 

4. Pour batter into prepared pan, spreading evenly. Bake, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 28 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Brownies may seem underbaked, but will continue to cook as they cool. 

5. Transfer brownies to a wire rack to cool. Transfer cooled brownies to refrigerator; chill at least 2 hours. Invert chilled brownies to remove from pan and peel off parchment paper. Reinvert brownies and trim edges.  Cut as desired. Brownies will keep, wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated, up to 7 days. Brownies may be frozen for up to 3 months. 

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