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Tender Is the Chicken

Lidia Bastianich's cheese-crusted chicken tenders are your new weeknight go-to

It's Baking Month: Switch your oven on and get warm, cozy and festive with us this December.

When Lidia Bastianich says, "I want to take your hand and be with you in the kitchen" in her lilting accent, it makes you want to roll up your sleeves and stand next to the fairy godmother of Italian food at the stove—and even beg for an invitation to her Christmas dinner (she's making a giant antipasto, tortellini en brodo and roasted goose).

The longtime PBS cooking show host, restaurateur (NYC's Felidia marks its 35th year in 2016) and author was talking about the way she wrote her tenth cookbook, Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine ($37.50). While the book contains 400-plus recipes, many are as effortless as the cheese-crusted, baked chicken tenders (see the recipe) she recently showed us how to make.

"In the title you see 'mastering,' but it's really about simplicity," Bastianich says of the book. "There's a lot in there about how to buy ingredients, how to save them, how to substitute. It's a lot of common sense and empowering you to feel comfortable in the kitchen."

That's definitely the feeling you get throughout the book—that she wants each and every reader to be a great Italian cook. There's an extensive glossary, written by her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali, as well as a hefty intro, which covers everything from ingredients (Bastianich is a big fan of items that add lots of flavor, like capers and olives) to basic and not-so-basic cooking techniques (when to use olive oil versus butter, for instance, or how to cook a perfect risotto).

"It usually takes two years to write a cookbook; this one took three," she says. "It's a book for which I've collected along the way, the things that make me who I am."

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A solid 42 pages are devoted to pasta, ranging from spaghetti and meatballs to bread and prune gnocchi, but many recipes are perfect for quick weeknight dinners, like those baked tenders.

"You probably have all the ingredients on hand," she says as she coats the chicken in a mixture of panko bread crumbs, Grana Padano cheese and ground celery and carrots. Into the oven they go for about 25 minutes, then she plates them with a couple of lemon wedges and a green salad. In less than half an hour, boom: Dinner is done.

"I hope this book becomes a reference book in your library," she continues. "And that it can be passed down for generations—it's a gift from my family to yours."

Now if we could only get in on that goose.

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