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Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

No matter how festive the gathering, if the cook can't enjoy the fun, what's the point?

That's the entertaining outlook of soap star Robin Mattson, who loves to have friends over to mark holidays, birthdays and just because she's found an intriguing new ingredient and is dying to try it out on somebody besides companion/manager Henry Neuman, her favorite taste-tester.

``My idea of a good time is cooking all day and having a bunch of people over,'' said Mattson, the California born and bred actress who's appeared on ABC's ``All My Children'' since 1994. (She plays Janet Green Dillon; her character married lawyer Trevor Dillon recently after a years-long love-hate relationship that started with her stuffing her sister down a well.)

Mattson does most of her cooking these days in her tiny Manhattan apartment kitchen. But, a devotee of California-style grilling, she'd rather throw something on the barbie whether she's at home in New York or kicking back in her Santa Monica digs.

That goes double for a warm-weather holiday like Labor Day, traditionally summer's last gasp when it comes to outdoor partying.

Mattson said she and Neuman will probably spend Labor Day visiting friends at their Connecticut home.

``We get together and cook a lot,'' Mattson said. ``We'll probably do some lobster, some corn on the cob, peach cobbler - all the things that are in season this time of year.''

Speedy simplicity

But if she was hosting her own gathering, as she did for her birthday June 1, she'd rely on plenty of planning, a fail-safe menu and easy-to-prepare dishes.

To start with, she'd prepare raw veggies to dunk in a homemade cheese-based dip to keep guests occupied.

``Then I'd probably use a big piece of meat - a leg of lamb or a piece of beef - and marinate it starting the night before. I'd wash the salad greens and have them ready to toss with dressing. And I'd cut up veggies for a grilled-vegetable salad. Then all you have to do is put the meat and the vegetables on the grill.

``I go for a big piece of meat rather than, say, individual chicken breasts or even hamburgers and hot dogs because you get up once and turn the meat. You don't spend a lot of time turning individual pieces. You turn it once, and that's it. It's easy. You get to spend a lot of time with your guests.''

The vegetables - peppers, squash, eggplant, onions and mushrooms - are done quickly and can be tossed with dressing to marinate while the meat cooks; once a green salad is tossed and the meat's sliced, everything's ready.

Although Mattson's been acting since age 6, when she starred opposite Namu, the killer whale, in the movie of the same name, she's always had an interest in food. While her mother loved to entertain, her father was a chef who worked in many kitchens, including Canter's Deli in Los Angeles' Fairfax district.

She grew up cooking with her dad, who died several years ago, leaving her his professional knives, pots and a giant butcher block cutting board.

Her father was very much a meat-and-potatoes, old-fashioned kind of cook; his daughter loved to experiment with new ingredients and new ways of putting them together.

Despite her love of cooking, Mattson never received any formal instruction until five years ago, when ``Santa Barbara,'' the soap she was working on, was canceled. Finally, she had time to take a three-month course at Los Angeles Culinary Institute.

``Life as an actress is so precarious,'' Mattson said. ``And this (entertainment) industry seems to devalue women as they grow older. I wanted to be involved in a profession that wasn't so obsessed with age, weight and beauty.''

So for four hours a day, she attended classes on food chemistry, sauces and baking, then worked for four hours ``on the line,'' chopping and dicing, whisking and stirring.

And what she discovered was that she'd already gotten a pretty good culinary education from her father, in spite of herself.

``Learning cooking from your father is like your boyfriend giving you tennis lessons,'' Mattson said with a laugh. ``You can't appreciate what he's trying to do for you, what he's trying to show you. You want to do it your own wrong way. Like I loved my Cuisinart (food processor). My father would say, `In the time it takes you to get that thing out and put it together, I can chop four times the vegetables with a good chef's knife.' Now, I love a good, sharp knife. Of course, I love my Cuisinart, too.''

Her cookbook

Her reputation as a chef grew. The four-time Emmy nominee began appearing as a guest chef at various cooking schools and on television cooking shows and was invited to host the Lifetime network food program, ``The Main Ingredient,'' which ran for 90 shows in 1996 and '97.

That led to an invitation to write her own cookbook, ``Robin Mattson - Soap Opera Cafe: The Skinny on Food From a Daytime Star'' (Warner Books; $20), that debuted last October. It features many of her own recipes, plus a sprinkling of recipes from friends and co-workers on the four soaps she's appeared on.

Mattson, who recently returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic, admits to collecting recipes wherever she travels, trying local ethnic dishes and incorporating new ingredients into her own recipes.

That's how three of her recipes - Mango Chicken, Mango Salsa and Mango Tango Soup - were born.

``In places like the Dominican Republic, there's a mango season when they're ripe. They're not like mangoes here; they're much smaller. And they all fall from the trees, they're so plentiful. We just came from there, and the streets are gold with mango pulp.''

Because the camera packs at least 10 pounds on an actress's frame, Mattson is careful - but not fanatical - about what she eats.

``When I'm at home, I do a lot of grilling because it doesn't necessarily add a lot of fat. But when I'm on a trip or eating out, I do a lot of splurging, as you can see,'' she said, digging into a green corn tamale at El Cholo Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. ``I can't diet in a restaurant. I can't eat everything I want, or I have to pay for it at the gym. But as you can see, I'm not a slave to a diet.''

Endorsement deals

Even non-soap viewers may soon see a great deal more of Mattson. She's recently become the national spokesperson for Pam cooking spray, which has a new line of flavored sprays, and for T-Fal cookware, for which she'll appear in a half-hour infomercial.

Working in the kitchen involves constant learning - and learning to adapt to cooking with a pressure cooker for the infomercial was a challenge, she said. ``But it's a great way to make stocks and soups, and you can cook pasta - just put it in uncooked with the sauce - right in the pressure cooker,'' she marveled.

Testing recipes for her cookbook tested her patience, she admits. ``I just like to get in the kitchen and cook. But when you're writing a recipe, you have to measure everything and time everything and explain everything so somebody else can do it exactly the same way.''

And some recipes, no matter how they're changed and recooked, just never come out right. That's the ultimate frustration for Mattson.

``I hate it when the food wins,'' Mattson said with a wry grin. ``I'll be testing something and it won't come out right and I'll yell for Henry: `Come in here and help me. The food's beating me.' But when it goes south, I just dump it out and start over.''

But the things that go wrong may just spark another idea, another possibility.

``You never know all there is to know. There are always new ingredients coming out, new things you find. You're only limited by your imagination. I don't pretend to be the greatest, most skilled chef in the world. But I truly love it, I studied hard, and I respect people who do it every day, who create this wonderful food we eat.''

Meanwhile, here are some recipes for Labor Day feasting from her cookbook.


This incredibly quick dip has saved me on more than one occasion when friends have dropped by unexpectedly or we've thrown an impromptu party. You can pipe it into celery stalks or hollowed-out cherry tomatoes, spread it on crackers or use it on sandwiches in place of a slice of cheese.

Fresh or dried dill can be substituted for the basil and onion greens for the chives.

1/4 cup fresh parsley sprigs

3 tablespoons coarsley chopped fresh basil leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons coarsley chopped fresh chives

1 container (12 ounces) low-fat whipped cream cheese

3 tablespoons crumbled low-fat feta cheese

3 garlic cloves, crushed through a press

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place parsley, basil and chives in food processor or blender. Pulse to process until herbs are finely chopped.

Add cream cheese, feta cheese, garlic and pepper. Puree until smooth.

Transfer spread to a bowl, cover. Refrigerate until serving time. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.


1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

3 garlic cloves, minced

6 large OR 8 medium tomatoes, peeled and quartered (see Note)

2 large Vidalia OR other sweet onions, cut into chunks

2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 large green bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 fresh jalapeno chile, halved and seeded

2 1/2 cups tomato juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large mixing bowl, combine vinegar and garlic.

In a food processor or blender, in batches if necessary, puree tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, red and green bell peppers and jalapeno until smooth. Add to vinegar and garlic.

Stir in tomato juice, basil and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, until ice cold or overnight.

Stir soup and season again with salt and pepper before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

NOTE: To peel tomatoes easily, plunge into a pot of boiling water 10 to 15 seconds. Then rinse under cold running water. Skins will loosen and slip right off.


Paired with tart fresh lime, a touch of hot chili and some sweet onion, mango makes a gorgeous golden salsa that will sparkle up any simply grilled meat or fish. You can tell if mangoes are ripe by squeezing gently: They should feel soft like a ripe peach.

1 large ripe mango

Juice 1 lime

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup finely diced Vidalia OR other sweet onion

1/4 cup minced red OR green bell pepper

1/2 to 1 fresh serrano chile, seeded and minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

Pinch salt

Peel mango by starting with a sharp paring knife and pulling back skin in wide strips; if you have any trouble that way, use a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler. Cut mango away from 2 sides of large, flat pit in center. Trim off as much fruit as possible from short sides. Finely dice mango.

In a medium bowl, combine mango with lime juice, orange juice, onion, bell pepper, chile, olive oil and salt. Toss gently to mix. Cover and let stand at room temperature 2 to 3 hours to allow flavors to blend. Makes about 2 cups, 6 to 8 servings.


You can take the actress out of California, but you can't take the California style of cooking away from me. I'm so used to grilling that I couldn't give it up when we moved to New York. We have a charcoal grill in our tiny back yard and a stove-top grill in the kitchen. While the smoke really does add an extra dimension of flavor to this succulent lamb, if you cannot grill, broil it.

Serve warm, thinly sliced, with garlic roasted potatoes and steamed green beans drizzled with fresh lemon juice, or at room temperature along with a grilled vegetable salad with goat cheese.

2 1/2 pounds boned, butterflied leg of lamb

1/4 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil, preferably extra-virgin

4 garlic cloves, crushed through a press

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary OR 1 1/2 teaspoons dried

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Trim all excess fat and connective tissue from lamb so that it is as lean as possible. Place meat in a shallow nonreactive dish just large enough to hold lamb flat.

In a small bowl, combine all remaining ingredients and stir to mix well. Spread all over lamb, turning to coat both sides. Marinate 1 hour at room temperature or up to 6 hours in refrigerator. (If chilled, let stand at room temperature 1 hour before cooking.)

Light a hot fire in a barbecue grill. Remove lamb from marinade and set on a lightly oiled grill rack. Grill about 20 minutes, turning, until nicely browned outside and medium-rare inside, or longer to desired degree of doneness.

Remove to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil and let stand 10 minutes. Carve meat thinly against grain; each part of lamb will go a different way. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


This makes a fine appetizer or, served in larger portions, a light lunch for four people.

1 pound jumbo lump crab meat OR 2 cans (6 ounces EACH) crab meat

1 celery rib, thinly sliced

1/4 cup minced onion

3 tablespoons minced red bell pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon capers

1 teaspoon minced fresh jalapeno chile (optional)

1/2 cup nonfat mayonnaise

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon nonfat milk

Dash hot pepper sauce

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 heads Belgian endive, leaves separated

Alfalfa sprouts OR fresh parsley sprigs for garnish

Sort through crab to remove any unwanted cartilage or shells.

In a medium bowl, place crab meat. Add celery, onion, bell pepper, parsley, capers and jalaSpeno. Toss lightly to mix.

In a separate bowl, combine mayonnaise, lemon juice, nonfat milk and hot pepper sauce. Blend well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Gently fold dressing into crab salad.

Spoon a small mound of crab salad onto end of each endive leaf. On a large round platter, arrange leaves in a circular pattern to resemble a flower. Garnish center of platter with a handful of alfalfa sprouts. Makes 8 appetizer servings.


Fresh sweet corn is what makes this dish realy work. It takes about four ears to obtain 2 1/2 cups of kernels. I've served it often at barbecues instead of those sticky sweet baked beans. Don't go to the trouble of soaking and cooking dried black beans: The canned ones work just fine.

2 1/2 cups corn kernels, preferably fresh

1/2 cup diced celery

1/2 cup diced red onion

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro OR parsley

1 garlic clove, minced

Pinch cayenne OR more to taste

1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Coat a large nonstick skillet with nonstick cooking spray. Add corn, celery, red onion, bell pepper and water. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool.

In a small bowl, combine oil, lime juice, vinegar, cilantro, garlic and cayenne. Whisk until dressing is well blended.

Add black beans to cooled vegetables. Pour dressing over all and toss lightly to mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours to allow flavors to blend.

Serve chilled or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.


Sometimes combining two ordinary ingredients - chicken and rice, for instance - and tossing them with some interesting pantry staples - such as marinated artichokes and roasted peppers - can both stretch your food dollar and produce a dish that's more than the sum of its parts. Serve it on a bed of greens, if you like.

1 cup converted white rice

1/2 pound cooked white-meat chicken, cut into bite-size pieces

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 jar (6 ounces) marinated artichokes, drained

1/3 cup roasted red peppers

2 celery ribs, thinly sliced

1/3 cup raisins

1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions

Creamy Curried Dressing (recipe follows)

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Cook rice according to package directions. Turn into a large bowl, fluff and let cool.

In a small bowl, toss chicken with oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Add to rice.

Cut artichokes in half and add to rice. Add roasted peppers, celery, raisins and green onions. Toss lightly to mix.

Reserve about 1/4 cup Creamy Curried Dressing. Add remaining dressing to salad and toss again to coat evenly. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight, until chilled.

If salad seem s a little dry, mix in reserved dressing just before serving. Sprinkle toasted almonds on top. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


1/2 cup nonfat mayonnaise

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons Major Grey's Chutney

2 tablespoons nonfat milk

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Whisk until well blended. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes about 1 cup.


If you love to barbecue, this dish can, of course, be made on your outdoor grill, but I tested it on my indoor cast-iron grill pan, which is what the cooking times here reflect. Grill pans are great because they allow grilling in any weather, and you can control the heat. The directions for this salad may look formidable, but if you like to grill, it is really very simple.

The secret of success here is to grill the vegetables until they are nicely browned - almost charred - on the outside for rich smoky flavor, but just tender and not falling apart. That means use as high a heat as you can to allow the food to cook through without burning.

1 large red bell pepper

1 large orange OR yellow bell pepper

2 OR 3 small zucchini

2 OR 3 small yellow summer squash

1 medium eggplant

1 medium red onion

1 large portobello mushroom

1/4 cup Rosemary Garlic Oil (recipe follows)

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

1 large OR 2 smaller bunches arugula

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 ounces soft rindless goat cheese, such as Montrachet OR Coach Farms

Stem and seed bell peppers. Then slice lengthwise along ribs, or ridges, into 3 or 4 large triangular wedges each.

Trim stem and blossom ends from zucchini and squash. Cut lengthwise into thin slices.

Trim eggplant and cut crosswise into 12 slices 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick.

Peel red onion and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Trim portobello mushroom stem even with cap so it will lie flat on grill. Brush all over with 1/2 tablespoon Rosemary Garlic Oil. Set aside.

Set a cast-iron grill pan over high heat and coat with nonstick cooking spray; let it warm up 3 to 5 minutes (or light a hot fire in an outdoor grill).

Using a pastry brush, coat zucchini, squash, eggplant and red onion slices with about 2 1/2 tablespoons of remaining oil; it will be a very thin film, but it should be enough. Bell peppers do not need any oil.

Grill vegetables, except onion, in batches as necessary, turning once and rotating 45 degrees on each side to make cross-hatch grill marks. They should be cooked until nicely browned, but not charred, cooked through but sill hold their texture.

Bell peppers will have black marks on outside, but they are eaten with their skin and bright color intact.

Grill mushroom stem-side down first, so when it is turned and finishes cooking, juices will be retained.

Reduce heat to medium-high and grill onion, turning and rotating as described, until tender and browned but not burned.

Here are approximate cooking times, which will vary with grill.

Peppers, 6 to 7 minutes per side; zucchini and squash, 2 to 3 minutes on first side, 2 minutes on second; eggplant, 4 to 6 minutes per side; red onion, 3 to 4 minutes per side; mushroom, 5 to 6 minutes per side.

As vegetables are cooked, transfer to plates or a large baking sheet lined with wax paper. Transfer mushroom to a cutting board and let cool at least 5 minutes; then slice. Be sure to reserve any mushroom juices.

Season grilled vegetables and mushroom lightly with salt and pepper.

Line a large round or oval serving platter with arugula. Arrange grilled vegetables decoratively in bunches around edge of platter. Pile up bell pepper wedges in center.

In a small bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar and lemon juice with remaining Rosemary Garlic Oil. Mix in any reserved mushroom juices. Drizzle evenly over salad. Crumble goat cheese on top. Serve at room temperature. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


Many chefs add exciting variety and extra taste to their food with flavored oils. While specialty food shops and even many supermarkets routinely stock these now, they can be expensive. Since they're so easy to make yourself at home - why not? Here is one of my favorites. Use it to brush on grilled foods and to drizzle over salads.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, slivered

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh rosemary needles (from about 2 sprigs) OR 1 tablespoon dried

2 pinches salt, preferably coarse

A generous grind coarse black pepper

In a small glass jar with a lid, combine all ingredients. Let stand at room temperature at least 15 minutes, preferably 1 hour.

If not using within several hours, cover and refrigerate up to 1 week. Makes 1/2 cup.


Not all desserts need to be made from scratch. Nothing's quicker than buying one ready-made at your supermarket or local bakery. And angel food cake, made only with egg whites - no yolks - and no added fat, is a fine choice. It is also amazingly versatile: here's a quick way to doll it up.

2 tablespoons granulated OR superfine sugar

2 tablespoons water

4 to 5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 (9-ounce) angel food cake

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

Peel from 1/2 lemon

1 pint strawberries

1/2 pint blueberries

In small saucepan, combine granulated sugar with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil, without stirring, 2 minutes. Pour into a heat-proof glass measure; there should be 3 to 4 tablespoons syrup. Let cool slightly.

Stir 2 tablespoons lemon juice into syrup. Taste and add another 1 tablespoon juice if too sweet. It should be slightly tart because cake is very sweet.

With a wooden toothpick, poke holes all over angel food cake, both on top and bottom. Place cake upside down on a serving plate. Drizzle about 1/2 of lemon syrup slowly over cake, letting it sink in. Carefully turn cake right side up and drizzle remaining syrup over top of cake. Let stand at least 10 minutes, to let syrup soak in.

In a small bowl, mix together powdered sugar, remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice and just enough water so glaze can be spread, 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons. Spread glaze all over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle lemon peel over top.

Halve 4 largest strawberries, quarter or slice remainder. Arrange halved strawberries on serving plate around outside of cake. Set little piles of blueberries between them. Toss together remaining berries and spoon into center of cake or pass in a bowl on side. Makes 8 servings.


I'm no different from anyone else. Sometimes late at night, I get that irresistible urge to raid the freezer and spoon up something creamy, sweet and cold. Well, here it is - light and low in calories - an indulgence you can easily afford.

2 pints fresh strawberries

3/4 cup sugar, preferably superfine

2 cups nonfat plain yogurt

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

Reserve a few strawberries for garnish. Put remainder in a food processor or blender along with sugar and puree. Strain through a sieve into a medium bowl to remove seeds.

Whisk yogurt into raspberry puree. Add lemon peel. Transfer to an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions.

Transfer to a covered container and freeze until ready to serve. This frozen yogurt keeps well about 5 days.

To serve, scoop into glass dessert dishes or wine goblets and garnish each with a few fresh raspberries. Makes about 1 quart, 4 to 6 servings.


3 Photos

Photo: (1--Color) Robin Mattson, soap opera star and cookbook author, picks out a live crab from Tusquellas Seafoods at the Farmers Market, at Third and Fairfax in Los Angeles, to make her Crab Salad With Endive.

(2--Color) Mattson looks for fresh produce at one of the landmark's stands.

(3) Robin Mattson, a cast member of ``All My Children'' and the author of ``Robin Mattson - Soap Opera Cafe: The Skinny on Food From a Daytime Star,'' selects mangoes for her Mango Salsa.

John McCoy/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
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Date:Sep 2, 1998

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