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ONE COOK'S BEST DISH

Chicken salad, lasagna, and a party atmosphere

Claire Sirois and her daughter Nicole Stefanelli with Sirois’s chicken salad in the kitchen of Stefanelli’s Stoneham home. Claire Sirois and her daughter Nicole Stefanelli with Sirois’s chicken salad in the kitchen of Stefanelli’s Stoneham home. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2009

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STONEHAM - On a recent evening, three generations are gathered in Nicole Stefanelli’s cozy kitchen to start preparing food, and lots of it. Son Kevin Fitzgerald, 18, graduated from high school earlier this month, and in a couple of days, 120 guests will arrive to mark the occasion.

And if they’re smart, they’ll come hungry. Everything in this house is made from scratch, from the tomato sauce in the lasagna to the filling for homemade whoopie pies. “I’ve never had a party catered in my life, never brought in food,’’ says Stefanelli. “I wouldn’t be happy with it.’’

Recent years have brought even more compelling reasons to cook at home: Daughter Jessica, now 12, was diagnosed with celiac disease - she cannot eat gluten, which is in many dishes, including pastas and desserts - and Kayla, 14, appears to have the condition as well. Stefanelli, an inveterate baker, had to rethink all her cherished recipes. Undaunted, she experimented, tinkered, tasted, and tested. Ultimately, Mom came up with results that passed muster with everyone in the family. As a result, she recently launched a line of gluten-free baked goods out of her kitchen under the name Strawberry Moon (www.strawmoon.com).

Her daughters’ dietary restrictions haven’t cramped Stefanelli’s style. Tonight, she’s making two lasagnas for the graduation celebration: one gluten-free and the other traditional. Although there are plenty of gluten-free noodles on the market, Stefanelli is picky about taste and texture, and will use only Tinkyada brand pasta made from brown rice.

The lasagna recipe itself is one that’s been in her family at least a couple of generations. “My grandmother was a fabulous cook,’’ says Stefanelli. Her mother, Claire Sirois, agrees. She’s on hand, chopping celery for her famous chicken salad. Stefanelli fondly recalls visiting her grandmother in her Cambridge home and watching Julia Child on television with her. “I used to say to my mother, when she cooked something, ‘It’s good, but you don’t make it like Gram.’ ’’ Now, she says, laughing, her own kids tell her the same thing.

The party menu will include marinated pork and chicken cooked on the grill by husband Dave, baked sausage and peppers, the lasagna and chicken salad, sides, and a raft of gluten-free baked goods. It’s simple, tasty food - just the thing for a multigenerational crowd that’s sure to include lots of teens.

One of the most popular items is always Sirois’s chicken salad. “Every time she serves it, it’s gone,’’ says Stefanelli. “She just puts in the right amount of mayo, the right amount of lemon juice, she cuts everything so it’s just kind of cubed.’’ This simple-looking recipe remains a mystery, even to her. “I know - how can it be this good?’’

Watching Sirois prepare her famous salad provides a clue. She chops the celery swiftly but precisely into well-defined, tiny bits. “If you cut them too small,’’ she warns, “they’ll get watery.’’ Too large, and they lose their delicate texture. Onions are cut even more finely: “I don’t like to bite into a big piece of raw onion,’’ she says. As a result, the onion flavor pervades but doesn’t dominate. Chicken is diced small enough to permit dainty bites, but not so small as to get mushy. The result is a chicken salad that is not trendy, not exotic, certainly not innovative, but ineffably perfect.

Across the room, Stefanelli assembles a lasagna with similar care. With practiced hands, she layers ricotta in just the right proportions, overlaps the noodles just so, spreads on a thick blanket of mozzarella cheese. “He likes mozzarella,’’ she says, nodding at Dave. “Lots of mozzarella. And it looks good on top.’’ This party workhorse is a year-round entertaining staple - good for graduations, showers, and whatever else crops up.

But for all her attention to detail, the hostess says that the secret to successful entertaining isn’t the food. “The key is for us to find each other at the party,’’ she says, gesturing toward her assembled family members. “Find each other and hang out.’’