Arlington Heights' Tom Ernst makes Chicken Piccata

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Tom Ernst puts a garnish of parsley on his Chicken Piccata.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Tom Ernst of Arlington Heights shows off the tenderizing mallet he made in high school. He uses it to flatten chicken breasts for his Chicken Piccata, thus shortening the cooking time.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Flattened chicken breasts take only 2 minutes on each side to brown in the skillet and are finished for 5 minutes in the oven.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Chicken Piccata by Tom Ernst of Arlington Heights.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Arlington Heights' Tom Ernst makes Chicken Piccata

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print story Published: 4/21/2010 12:01 AM | Updated: 4/28/2010 6:24 AM

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A certain megastar TV chef and cookbook author has been boasting for years that her recipes will produce dinner on the table in 30 minutes.

Tom Ernst says he can beat Rachael Ray by 10 minutes.

"With a little forethought at the grocery store you can have a really nice meal in 20 minutes or less," says the Arlington Heights resident. Today he offers the recipes that prove it.

Tom isn't trying to steal any thunder from the perky multimillion dollar, multimedia star; cooking, he says, is simply "therapeutic; a little bit of chemistry, presentation, technique - I like the response I get out of guests."

At 67 and retired for four years, Tom has been cooking since he was a child, helping his working mom get dinner on the table.

"The joke in my house (now) is that all the cooking magazines come to me," says the father of three and grandfather of five. "I have a three-inch binder of recipes I think I like."

Even in the bright light and political correctness of the new millennium, says Tom, people still don't expect a guy to cook.

"They tell me, 'you can actually cook,'" he says, "they act surprised."

Throughout his marriage to wife, Linda, Tom has shouldered some of the cooking responsibilities. When they were first married they took turns preparing the evening meal, but when their first daughter was born, Linda stayed home and did almost all the cooking.

That's when Tom became "the party chef."

"Thanksgiving, dinner for 20, that was Tom," he says.

Once he retired, Tom started making dinner more often, and since mid-December, he has stepped up as nightly chef while his wife recovers from back surgery. She is both delighted and a little chagrined.

"Since he's been retired it has been absolutely the best," says Linda, a retired high school teacher and recently, a reading specialist for Oakton Community College. "I've gained 10 pounds."

The 20-minute meals - sometimes 30 - are a necessity given Tom's jam-packed calendar. The former president of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Mount Prospect, he is active in its philanthropic St. Mark Foundation and in his townhouse association.

Most of us can relate to the busy schedule, so our challenge this week is to prepare either his piccata or the beer-battered tilapia with either the mashed potatoes or coleslaw in about 20 minutes. Need to eat even faster?

"The potatoes and coleslaw could be done the day before," he says, "and the chicken could be done through the saute step and refrigerated for a day."

Just finish it in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes while you reheat the potatoes.

Add some steamed vegetables or rolls and "that would give you a first-class meal in no time at all."

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