Tag Archives: Chicken

The Almost-as-Easy Way Out

This is not a sombrero.

This is not a sombrero.

It was a perfect night for takeout.

I’d had a very full day–morning in the office, followed by three rehearsals, each in a different town.  It was fun, but exhausting. I was tempted to call and ask what she might like me to pick up on the way home. But we had prepared for such a possibility. I’d grilled a skirt steak, some chicken sausages, and a pair of chicken breasts; there were plenty of things we could easily form into meals. After far too much time (and money) spent in restaurants during my summer show’s production week, we were not going to take the easy way out.

Speedy Semi-Moroccan Semi-Stew

Add 1 T oil to a non-stick skillet over medium heat.

Boil 2 cups water.

While the oil warms, do the chopping:
1/2 green pepper
1/2 sweet onion
1/2 tomato
1 pre-cooked chicken breast
A handful of salted peanuts
A handful of green beans

Obviously it would be easy–and maybe even prudent–to double all these quantities, but I’d grilled some vegetables on Sunday night to go with the sausages, and taken some thick slices out of a tomato for steak sandwiches; these  amounts were what was on hand.

Use 1 cup of the water to soak 2/3 cup whole-wheat couscous. (Adjust these quantities as necessary according to package directions.)

Use the other cup of water to reconstitute a handful of raisins and 4 or 5 roughly chopped dried apricots.

Sauté the onion and pepper, then add the tomato and beans.

Add the chicken, fruit, and 1/2 t Marrakesh spice blend. (It looked and smelled to me like chili powder, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and salt.)

When the chicken is warmed, add a handful of baby spinach, and half of the remaining fruit-soaking liquid.  When the spinach is wilted a bit and the liquid is reduced a little, remove the skillet from heat.

Fluff the couscous with a fork. Add a little butter if you’re feeling frisky. Pack the couscous into measuring cups, ramekins, or even cookie cutters, and turn out the  molded grain into the center of 2 shallow bowls.

Spoon semi-stew around the couscous. Top with the crushed peanuts. Spoon any remaining liquid over the couscous.

Serves 2, who will probably wish you’d doubled the quantities to have leftovers for lunch.

I’d walked in the door at 9:35 PM. Dinner was on the table at 10. Not the easy way out, perhaps, but the almost-as-easy. Probably the healthier, too.

She put down her spoon. “You did take a picture, didn’t you?”

I think that was her way of saying dinner was all right.

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Travel

There’s a song we sing at the beginning of every car trip–well, every trip that’s longer than an excursion to the grocery store. The song is from a musical I’ve never seen, based on a Rumor Godden novel I haven’t read, but I love the original cast recording. The song is great fun to sing as we venture down whatever highway is next.

Take me where you want to go, make it anywhere at all…

A weekend jaunt to Paris would be nice.  Christmas in the Bahamas sounds like fun.  A marathon run along the Great Wall of China would certainly be memorable.  But those destinations and a thousand more are still a little out of reach.  We’ve gone to the theatre many times, visited family and friends, and become regulars at Home Depot, but time, energy, and budget have not yet permitted more extravagant travel.

For my birthday, she gave me a subscription to a service called Taste the World.  Every two months for a year, we’ll receive a package that takes us on a virtual-culinary visit to someplace new.  In addition to food, each trip-in-a-box contains recipes, cultural information, and a playlist of appropriate music. Of course we could go to a French or Szechwan or Ethiopian restaurant, but cooking with the ingredients ourselves seems more fun than choosing something from a menu.

The first box arrived. It’s very classy looking, about 8 inches square and 4 inches tall, pale green in a shade that reminds me of Tiffany blue–but maybe I’m thinking of jewelry stores more than usual these days. We opened the box with anticipation. We’re going to Marrakesh!

The box contained organic couscous, orange-peel cookies, tinned sardines, kefta rub, couscous sauce, and culinary Argan oil.

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The accompanying booklet was filled with poetry, beautiful photographs, a link to the on-line playlist, and a few recipes. Oddly, they weren’t recipes that call for the items in the box.

We put the booklet aside, ported the playlist to the stereo, and figured out what to do for dinner.

The couscous was simple enough: toast it in a dry pan, add some boiling water, cover, and wait, then fluff with a fork.

I was a little disappointed in finding pre-made sauce–at first thought, it seemed like using a jar of Ragu to represent a trip to Italy. But there was a time when tomato sauce was exotic to American cooks, so I tempered my expectations and opened the jar. The sauce was sweet, a little smoky, and a little tangy, tomato-based and fairly thin. Pouring it over couscous alone sounded awfully boring, and not much of a main dish.  She doesn’t like sardines–and after my tinned-fish pizza experience, I wasn’t game for them either–so I pulled some chicken out of the fridge and simmered it in the sauce along with a little onion and red pepper.  Chick peas would have been appropriate, too, but we only had dry ones at hand and didn’t want to wait until morning for dinner.  I chopped some spinach and added it, too–there should be greens! She was concerned that it was such a lot of spinach, but it cooked down to almost nothing in no time flat.

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Dinner was great. Was it authentic? I don’t know. We poured a jar of sauce into a pan and cooked some chicken and vegetables in it. We probably had all the ingredients for the sauce in our pantry, though we might not have used them in the same combination. (Without a recipe, who knows?) The couscous tasted like any other couscous I’ve had–microscopic grains of pasta. We didn’t use the kefta rub on the chicken, fearing the sauce would be too spicy. The argan oil will wait for a day when we have flatbread in the house.

The orange cookies were breakfast on Saturday morning. They’re cute little things, looking as much like dog biscuits as treats for people–dense and grainy, made partly from almond flour, faintly sweet and nuttily fragrant, with a piece of candied orange peel in the center. They were fun, served with a ramekin of whipped cream for dipping. I wouldn’t buy them from a market shelf, but they might be fun to make if we had a recipe.

Based on this box, I’m not inclined to call my travel agent and book a trip to Marrakesh. Based on this box, I might not even be really inclined to order a second Taste the World box. But I do look forward to finding out what’s in the next one, and to where we might “go.” And to where we might go.

As the boat says to the river…

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The Real Thing

We hadn’t expected to see her mother again so soon after her parents began their cross-country motor home odyssey, but the death of an uncle occasioned a quick flight back north.  She met her mom at the airport after work, and they traveled together by bus and train to where I could collect them for dinner, a quiet evening, and a hearty breakfast before the next leg of the journey.

It was a beautiful day for travel, the snow staying, as I prefer it, on tree branches, fields, and roadsides, and leaving the pavement clear. The memorial gathering was as joyous as such a occasion can be, and remarkably stress-free for the new guy who never had the chance to meet the deceased. I like her family a lot, though, and they seem to accept me without question though I’m not officially a relative.  All told–even including the odd quasi-eulogy given by the family friend who talked a lot about her dinner theatre career–it could have been much worse.

Her beloved Nana insisted on taking a bunch of us to dinner afterward.  She’d intended that we go for pizza, but the nearby place she had in mind closed early on a winter weeknight. Her second choice was a well-respected Chinese restaurant that everyone was delighted about; it is apparently the only place to go for Chinese food in the area–which is not to say that there are not other such restaurants, only that this is head and shoulders above the rest.  It was farther away, though.  “Just keep going,” her mom said after one turn, “until you get to Vermont.” It wasn’t quite that far, but my geography is not good.

The Plum Blossom is beautiful, with intricate woodwork at every turn. It might become a Buddhist temple if the kitchen ever closes, though from what I hear there’s no chance of that happening. I’m not sure who designed or fashioned the 10-foot-tall wooden flowers–lotus blossoms, I believe–but I’m not sure the artisan would have been pleased to discover that their bases were used as sites to store bottles of sriracha sauce and the sound system’s remote control.

I have never visited China, nor grew up eating Chinese food. My dad hated it, so I don’t recall tasting it until college. I like it now, though I don’t feel like I know much about it. I have a favorite dish, but I understand that it’s completely inauthentic. Although General Tso was a real person, there’s a TED talk and a feature-length documentary discussing how the dish named for him is completely unknown in his home country. I’ve had versions that I like better than others, but General Tso’s chicken is my default choice.  And it was, of course, on the Plum Blossom’s menu.  Still, I looked further.  In a restaurant this beautiful, it seemed like a better idea to choose something “authentic.” (I want to call the restaurant itself “authentic,” but since I know nothing about what an “authentic” Chinese restaurant might look like; the Plum Blossom might well be the Disney World version.) I’ve never encountered a waiter rolling his eyes at my choice, but I didn’t want to chance it.

I looked past columns of …lo meins and …fried rices and with broccolis and so on, hoping to find something that seemed just right.  There’d been a plate of cabbage-and-carrot salad presented as an amuse-bouche: sweet and spicy and altogether delightful, I considered asking of a bowl of that salad with some extra salad on the side, but thought it might not be the most digestively prudent move. Still, if the kitchen turned out something that appealing, I was sure that I didn’t have to settle for a potential eye-roll.

“Lovers in a Bird’s Nest” was high on a list of Chef’s Specialties. Shrimp, chicken, and many vegetables, in a light sauce, served in a “birds nest” made of shredded potato. This sounded pretty, and like it might be everything I was looking for. I chose it happily, with no buyer’s remorse, even as she chose “Dragon and Phoenix,” a two-entrees-in-one meal that included General Tso’s Chicken.  (Or, perhaps I had no regret because I suspected she’d offer me a taste.)

The wonton soup could not have been better: a rich broth surrounding paper-thin dumplings bursting with matchsticks of beef. I had high hopes. I also had another bite of the cabbage salad.

Lovers in a Bird’s Nest arrived–or, more accurately, Lovers in Birds’ Nests: her Nana chose the same entree, which I considered a good omen since she is a regular at the Plum Blossom. It was lovely.  Maybe not quite as color-corrected as a food stylist might have presented it, but it was certainly appealing.

The snow peas, broccoli, and carrots were crisp-tender.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly–which is to say, not a second more than necessary. But the slices of chicken breast were bland. The light sauce was flavorless–cornstarch and water, maybe? The potato nest was pretty, but any idea I’d had that it was meant to be consumed like a hash-brown was swiftly dispatched after I tried to break off a piece. It might have served as packing material for a piece of expensive electronic equipment.

Meanwhile, to my left, her Dragon and Phoenix arrived.  I’m not sure whether the General Tso’s portion was the Dragon or the Phoenix, but it looked fabulous, nothing like the bright orange versions one might find at the food court. She offered a bite. The shrimp side–whichever of Dragon or Phoenix wasn’t the chicken–looked just like the shrimp in my nest, but, oh, the chicken. It was coated with the thinnest imaginable layer of batter, and meltingly tender. The sauce was sweet, spicy, delicate, and not a bit gloppy.

A completely underwhelming chef’s specialty, side by side with a remarkable execution of a dish that wouldn’t be on the menu at an “authentic” Chinese restaurant. I’m not sure what lesson is to be learned from this experience, but I am confident what I’ll order the next time we visit. I hope that visit will be for a happier occasion, but even this trip was not maudlin.  There was much laughter. Good food is good whether or not it is ethnically authentic, and a big family dinner is a celebration whatever the reason for gathering.

Picture This

“Drunken Chicken Marsala?” she asked, showing me a photo on Pinterest.

The photo was beautiful.  Chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms, and a silky-looking brown sauce.  “We could have it with polenta,” she said, “and green beans.” I thought the recipe sounded good, but she had said the magic words.  (As far as I’m concerned, the recommended daily serving of green beans is How many are there?) We added the few items we’d need to our shopping list and headed off to do errands.

First stop: the Big Box Home Improvement Store. Clamps and glue to repair a dining chair were easy to find. Tile was a little harder. We need to replace flooring in the entryway, powder room, and laundry closet, and to create a  kitchen backsplash. I’m getting more at home in home improvement stores–I no longer get the sense the greeter wants to take me by the arm and say, “Here, sir, let me help you so you don’t hurt yourself with the sharp things”–but I seldom really feel like I know what I’m doing.  Being faced with the myriad choices of the tile aisle only makes things worse. (Don’t even get me started on the cabinet door pull options. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this difficulty; there’s a lot of science suggesting that more choices makes things harder rather than easier. But she’s gently helpful, and very decisive, and in far less time than I would have taken alone, I had a handful of samples and we were headed for the checkout.

There’s a wine shop across the road from the Big Box Home Improvement Store. I don’t have any particular store loyalty, so we went there for a bottle of marsala. We should probably develop a relationship with a wine seller, someone who knows our tastes and can make useful suggestions. (Come to think of it, maybe the wine seller would have tile recommendations, too.) Fortunately, the wine devotes more shelf space to flavored vodkas than dessert wines, so I wasn’t paralyzed with indecision. We checked the recipe to make sure we were looking for a dry marsala rather than a sweet one, and picked a half-bottle in the middle of the price range.

Our final errand was a trip to the supermarket, where I felt thankfully and entirely at home.

This was her recipe, so she took the lead; I chopped vegetables and pounded chicken breasts and then made a salad and stayed out of her way. It wasn’t going well. There was much concern that the chicken wasn’t browning properly, that the wine was being absorbed too quickly, that dinner was going to be a mess and we would die of salmonella poisoning. (Actually, she wasn’t concerned that we would die; only that would. I think this means she was afraid of killing me with a single bite, but it might mean that she would know enough not to take a second taste.)

I did my best to assure her. I know that chicken breast at this thinness takes a very short while to cook completely. If the pan looks dry, she could add more wine. The tomatoes would provide even more moisture. Most importantly, I hoped to remind her that food stylists make every dish look more beautiful than we can.

The rounds of polenta had lovely crisp bits on the outside and soft centers. The green beans were crunchy and healthy and altogether wonderful.  And the chicken marsala?  Not only did it not kill us, but it was savory and a little sweet, earthy and hearty and warm. And, for a couple of home cooks, picture perfect.

Marsala is, apparently, a dessert wine. Does it pair well with chocolate chip cookies?

Most definitely not a food stylist’s plate.

What Would Laura Do?

Every year, she reads Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, a story of hardship during seven snowy months in South Dakota. The coal runs out, the woodpile expires, and food is scarce, but the heroine and her family survive.

We’re a week away from the start of winter, but, even more than usual, ’tis the season of work-nights and event-nights; ’tis also the week in which renovations will reach the open-plan living room and kitchen. The combination of late hours and a fine layer of plaster dust on every surface can be as daunting as the forecast of a blizzard. It’s the sort of schedule that demonstrates incredible potential to leave us ordering lots of takeout food or ending up with pints of ice cream and spoons on our nightstands. We wanted to avoid those contingencies for obvious reasons of economics, nutrition, and just plain good sense.

While I was at work last Sunday, she prepared a menu and a shopping list; we marketed together, and then we spent the late afternoon and evening chopping and cooking and packaging.

I spatchcocked a chicken and roasted it. The backbone went into the slow cooker along with onion, celery, and carrots to make stock. When the chicken cooled enough to handle, we ate a little and distributed the rest. The breast meat went into a curried chicken-and-rice soup that was more like a stew. The dark meat was tossed in a bowl with celery, grapes, pecans, shredded spinach, and a not-at-all gloppy dressing to make a bright-but-hearty salad–the sort eaten with a fork, not spread for sandwiches. The rest of the bones then joined the stock. The last of a loaf of Italian bread from her favorite bakery was toasted into croutons that she mixed with ground beef and pork, spinach, and goat cheese to make a meat loaf that is way more interesting than anything I grew up with. Root vegetables were roasted to accompany them. The chicken’s giblety-bits were sautéed with onion, red pepper, and a few grape tomatoes and packed with the last bit of rice for one day’s lunch. Crisp, sweet pears were softened just a little with a bit of water, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a cup of cranberries from the freezer, then tucked into triangles of pie crust and baked into turnovers for breakfast, with a pot of overnight oatmeal for alternate mornings. The house smelled fabulous, and nothing was wasted.

By bedtime we knew we’d miscalculated a little: the fridge was stocked for a family of four rather than two, but that’s a better problem than the other way around.  There’s enough variety that we haven’t gotten bored with our choices.   The power wasn’t disturbed and the home microwave is in good working order (as are the ones in our workplace kitchens), so breakfasts and lunches were well-organized and we never felt helpless to do anything but call for pizza delivery.

The calendar shows that our next seven nights will be just as busy as the last. And now that the ceiling has been repaired, the painter will start on the kitchen and living room walls. It’s time for her to start reading her yearly reminder of courage in the face of adversity. But we have electricity, insulation, and we live along an emergency route to a hospital; in case of a storm, our street will be cleared of snow right away.  If they could survive that winter, we can make it ’til Christmas…

We didn’t have time for a cookathon yesterday, but the toaster oven is set up in our office, and I could put the slow-cooker on my dresser. We can hitch up the wagon and get to town for provisions before The Long Winter sets in. There’ll be more daylight soon, day by day. There’s no cause for despair.

Including Moderation

Her new phone functioned perfectly on Thursday’s overnight.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the rest of the technology her team uses–nor, even more unfortunately, of one of the subcontractors they employ.  She woke from a nap on Friday afternoon to news of an epic failure that might have meant another sleepless night or two.  She was understandably furious.  And maybe a little comically so, but I knew better than to point that out.  Eventually she calmed enough to speak in complete sentences, and reassure us both that we would not incur the expenses of a new laptop computer and additional repairs to the newly painted wall at which she wanted to chuck the old one.  She made herself a mug of tea. A cat settled at her feet, and I left them for a while.

After I returned from a run and showered, I started to bake a batch of brownies.  I wasn’t sure what dinner might be, but thought that after a long night and a terrible afternoon, a little sweetness would be welcome.

While the brownies baked, I started to assemble the last piece of furniture for our office, a cute little rolling cart with many drawers that would hold office supplies and various doodads. She finished her work for the day and came to join me–possibly attracted by the chocolaty goodness wafting from the kitchen.  We worked together happily on the cart (again proving that we pass the Ikea Relationship Test). By the time every Tab A was fitted into every Slot B, every screw was accounted for, and the cart carried to its appointed place in the office, the brownies were ready to cut.

We aren’t doctors or nurses.  We aren’t dieticians. We know perfectly well that brownies are not an appropriate dinner. Except when they are.  We didn’t eat the entire batch, any more than we’d eat the entire Thanksgiving turkey in one sitting. Just one lovely, rich, still-barely-warm brownie each.

Sunday’s dinner, after her very productive knitting class, my many masses played, and our shared garage clearing, was far more balanced and moderate. She marinated chicken breasts in lemon and olive oil, and served them with sautéed asparagus and rice. Very different from a brownie, but also delicious.

Sometimes there’s a brownie for dinner.  Sometimes there’s a bowl of popcorn. All things in moderation.  Including moderation.

Baked chicken, sautéed asparagus, rice. Nothing immoderate about that.

Baked chicken, sautéed asparagus, rice. Nothing immoderate about that.

Domestic Pas de Deux

Now and again, she gives me an impromptu dance lesson.  It happens as we’re walking along an uncrowded street. She’ll take my hand and raise hers and all of a sudden I’m in mid-spin.  The first dozen or so times this happened, I was as clumsy as could be. I’m getting a little better lately–not so much at the spinning as at recognizing the signs that it’s about to happen.  I hardly ever stumble, and I know she’d catch me were I ever to start to fall. Occasionally, the turn even approximates something dance-like. Sometimes, the lesson is more formal; usually in the kitchen where there’s plenty of floor space for a little waltzing.  We seldom do more than a few one-two-threes, but I haven’t crashed into any furniture or bruised any of her toes. Yet.

She can follow or lead. She’s apparently somewhat in demand in her folk-dancing community, where there seem to be fewer skilled leaders.  I don’t mind following, since she knows what she’s doing and I’m still learning–and I know that both partners in a dance have important roles. She’s a better teacher than I am student, but that’s because I’ve been an accompanist much more often than a dancer. I haven’t quite gotten over my shyness about dancing, but I will.

Fortunately, either of us can lead or follow in the kitchen.  I’ve done most of the leading lately, so I was happy to let her take charge as our holiday continued. She pored over a favorite cookbook and was forming a plan. The object was to make  hearty fare, especially in case we ended up with an unexpected and heartbroken houseguest.  A secondary objective was to use only ingredients that were already on hand. Thus, while happily staying in sous chef position, I suggested against recipes that called for a lamb shoulder, a whole turkey, or a big hunk of beef. Or, for that matter, more than two eggs or the cup of milk that would remain if we reserved enough for this morning’s coffee and tea.

I was a less effective kitchen aide than I could have been, owing to frequent but brief interruptions for chats with our friends in the aftermath of the weekend’s dramatic events. But nothing burned, no knuckles got scraped, and no emergency trips to the market were required. The refrigerator is organized, free of a few items that were unfortunately past their prime and well-stocked for the week. And we dined well.

The skillet rice that is one of her favorite dishes was tasted but otherwise left to cool and packaged for lunches: sausage and sautéed vegetables enveloped in sticky rice, sweet with tomatoes and warm with cumin. Southern Green Beans are nearer to a one-pot meal than a side dish, long and slow-cooked with potato and chicken stock. The recipe called for bacon; we used bacon fat and the last of a stick of pepperoni. It’s not quite the same, but no market runs! Leftover chicken subbed in for a freshly-portioned broiler-fryer; smothered in a mushroom and onion gravy, with timing adjusted to account for the chicken having been cooked already, it was ready in almost no time.  A handful of sautéed turnip greens will be fine accompaniment to a sandwich later today.  The first slices of zucchini bread that may be future breakfasts were a post-dinner treat while we strategized the evening.

Cooking All the Things

Skillet Rice, Southern Green Beans, Smothered Chicken, and Zucchini Bread. The hard part was not eating everything at once.

There was no long walk, as had been originally planned for purposes of errands and exercise.  Instead, the post-half-marathon cross-training consisted of moving furniture and packing some boxes for storage.  A very tall bed (two mattresses atop a foundation, but with no pea tucked beneath) is now in the freshly painted master bedroom, even though new flooring won’t be installed there for another couple of weeks. An improvised padded headboard protects the pretty wall behind it, and the bed’s sturdy cherry frame is dismantled and stowed. The guest room is empty and ready for painting. There’s nothing we don’t really want or need at hand, yet we haven’t put so much away that it appears we’re living in a temporary space.

Lead and follow changed place many times over the course of the day, without tension or stress, as easily as shifting weight from one foot to the other.  A choreographer might have been pleased.  By the end of the long, productive, and restorative day, we certainly were.