At home with chef Isabella Nicoletti

Judith Harris Solomon Special to The Detroit News

Isabella Nicoletti, corporate chef for The Weight Watchers Group Inc., was born and raised in a small Italian town near Venice called Trissino.

Isabella Nicoletti, the corporate chef of Weight Watchers and owner Florine Mark’s personal chef, pan sears spiced duck breast.
Orange zest, cinnamon and honey are in this Red Wine Poached Pear.
The white wine that is used in Shrimp Busara Style is sauted in a pan until it evaporates.

“I come from a family of cooks and I remember helping my parents and grandparents in the kitchen from the time I was 7 or 8,” she says.

After finishing high school at the age of 14 (“The school system is different in Italy,” she says), Nicoletti, 46, attended a nearby cooking school in the winter and worked at a wedding venue in the summer where “we did everything from scratch,” she says. “After one month, the boss assigned me to make béchamel sauce (for the lasagna) in a 10-gallon pot. At just 14 years old, it was scary. I worked 16 hours a day on weekends and it was a lot of work and a big responsibility, but it was fun as a first experience.”

After graduating from culinary school and working at couple of local restaurants, Nicoletti spent four years cooking at Ca’Masieri, a one-star Michelin restaurant in her hometown.

“It had 40 seats and it was just the chef and me. We made everything from scratch and everything was fresh,” she says.

In 1995, Jimmy Schmidt, the renowned chef of the London Chop House in Detroit in the 1980s and later the chef/owner of the Rattlesnake Club, came to visit the little Italian restaurant, along with his Italian corporate chef, who had once worked there. And that turned out to be fortuitous for Nicoletti, who had long dreamed of moving to a foreign country where she believed women chefs had a better future in the culinary industry.

Nicoletti asked Schmidt for a job and he offered her one as a sous chef at a restaurant he owned called Chianti Villa Lago in Grosse Pointe, where she ended up working for more than two years. In 2011, after a short stint as head chef at Schmidt’s Stelline in Somerset Mall and a longer stint as head chef at Paesano in Ann Arbor, the Madison Heights resident accepted a position with The Weight Watchers Group Inc., where she conducts cooking classes five days a week, develops recipes and writes a blog.

And whenever she has a chance, this busy lady enjoys cooking at home for herself and her husband, Kevin Pollock.

“I make Italian food at home most of the time,” she says. “I really enjoy making and eating hearty, rustic recipes.”

Shrimp Busara Style

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 fresh chili

1/4 cup bread crumbs

12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced small (or 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes)

1/4 cup white wine

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, minced

In a sauté pan large enough to hold the shrimp in a single layer, heat the oil with garlic and chili. Add breadcrumbs, stirring quickly to avoid burning, then add the shrimp. Cook one minute, turn shrimp, and pour in the wine. Let it evaporate, season with some salt and pepper and add the tomatoes. Cover with a lid and finish cooking for 5 to 6 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle parsley all over. Divide the shrimp into 4 bowls and pour the sauce over the shrimp. Serves 4.

Per serving: 130 calories; 5 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 35 percent calories from fat); 12 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 70 mg cholesterol; 426 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Spiced Duck Breast with Polenta and Cabbage

For the polenta

2 cups water


1 bay leaf

1/2 cup polenta (or medium ground cornmeal)

Put water, bay leaf and a good pinch of salt in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil and gradually pour in the polenta, whisking to prevent lumps from forming. Stir occasionally on low heat for about 40 to 45 minutes, until it is the consistency of hot cereal. While polenta is cooking, prepare the cabbage.

For the cabbage

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 pound Savoy cabbage, cored and thinly sliced

1/4 cup water

2 cloves

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat the oil and cook the shallots for a couple of minutes.

Then stir in the cabbage, cloves, some salt, some pepper, the water and cook covered for about 5 minutes or until the cabbage is wilted. Add the vinegar and cook uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 2 to 3 minutes. Adjust seasoning with some salt and pepper and keep warm.

For the duck

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons fresh sage, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

4-6 ounce duck breasts (fresh or frozen), skin on

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground star anise

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

In a large zip top bag, put garlic, sage and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Score duck skin with a knife, making some horizontal and vertical lines throughout. Put duck breasts in the bag, toss to coat well and refrigerate for a minimum of one hour (but can be left for up to 24 hours). Remove duck from the fridge 1 hour before cooking.

In a small bowl, make a dry rub with the cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, salt and pepper. Take the duck breasts out of the bag and coat the skin side with the dry rub, pressing down to make sure it adheres to the skin.

In a large oven proof sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Sear the duck breasts, skin side down for 5 minutes, then turn and sear for 5 minutes on the other side. Then cover the pan and let cook for five more minutes until medium rare. Remove breasts from pan, transfer to a platter, cover with foil and let rest for a few more minutes. Then slice.

Discard any fat from the pan, add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add balsamic vinegar and cook to reduce for a few more minutes to reduce the sauce.

Scoop some of the polenta on the plate, add cabbage next to it, slice duck into diagonal slices and lay against polenta. Drizzle some sauce over the meat and enjoy! Serves 4.

Per serving: 483 calories; 30 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 56 percent calories from fat); 22 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 154 mg cholesterol; 526 mg sodium; 32 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Red Wine Poached Pears with Mascarpone, Gorgonzola Cream and Toasted Almonds

1/2 cup red wine (Merlot or Cabernet)

3/4 cup water

2 strips of orange zest

1 stick of cinnamon

1 tablespoon honey

4 small pears peeled and with stem left on

1/4 cup softened mascarpone cheese

2 tablespoons gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

Pinch of black pepper

2 tablespoons almond slices, toasted

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put wine, water, orange strips, honey and cinnamon stick into a small pan or saucepot. Bring to a boil.

Cut a small slice off the bottom of each pear to make it stand upright, then place the pears in the pan. Put the pan in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until tender, basting 3 to 4 times with the pan juice. Transfer pears to a plate. Return the pan to the stove and reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency.

In a separate, small bowl, mix the mascarpone, gorgonzola and black pepper.

To serve, scoop some of the cheese mixture on the center of a dessert plate, rest pear on top of it and drizzle with the cooking juice. Then sprinkle a couple of toasted almond slices all over. Serves 4.

Per serving: 183 calories; 6 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 30 percent calories from fat); 28 g carbohydrates; 19 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 29 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 5 g fiber.