Cool as a frozen pea

A gorgeous opalescent bowl at 75% off.A never-worn pair of Louboutin pumps in size 10 at a consignment store.

A pot of hydrangeas that are a little past their prime; and half price.

A rotisserie chicken from Costco.All items bought in the heat of the moment because they’re pretty and inexpensive.  Then when you get each one home, you think, “What now?”.

Last week I had the ‘what now?’ moment with a rotisserie chicken.  But, there wasn’t any real stress in the question, because it was, in fact, a roasted chicken.  And having a couple zip-top bags of cooked chicken is never a bad thing.

I could make soup.Avgolemono is a Greek chicken soup with a hit of lemon.  Heat up three or four cups of chicken stock, with a quarter cup of orzo in it.  Combine 3 eggs and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  Whisk in a little hot soup to the eggs to raise the temp, then pour it all back into the stock.  Cook on medium-low until the orzo’s cooked.  To serve; put some shredded chicken in the bottom of the bowl, then add a cup of the soup.    Sprinkle a little fresh parsley on top, and you’ve got soup for four.

But, it’s been too hot for soup lately.

I could make open-faced chicken sandwiches.

Get some chewy sourdough and lay down some chicken meat and put crispy bacon on top.  Cover with hoop cheese.  Then melt the cheese under the broiler.

But I wasn’t in the mood for sandwiches, no matter how tasty they may be.

I could make tacos.Heat up Chubby’s guacatillo and stir in some chicken.  Pick up some fresh tortillas at your local tortilleria (tortilla bakery), and heat them in a dry skillet.  Layer the saucy chicken on tortillas and top with cilantro and white onion.

But it was Tuesday, and my local tortilleria is closed on Tuesday.

I could make chicken Alfredo.

It’s actually very simple.  Just sauté four or five minced cloves of garlic in a tablespoon of butter.  When the whole house is redolent of garlic, add two cups of heavy cream and 1/8 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg.  Bring it to a boil and let it go until it’s cooked down, thick, and creamy.  While the cream reduces, cook some ridged pasta a couple minutes less than it says on the box.  When the sauce is done, stir in a quarter cup of grated Parmesan.  Place the par-cooked pasta in the sauce and let it finish cooking.  Add a couple cups of bite-size chicken and serve with a green salad.But, it’s bathing suit season.

I could make a cool pasta salad.

Which is what I did.Oh, and that bowl, the flowers, and those shoes?Put some water in the bowl and float some hydrangea flowers in it.  They’ll be a beautiful decoration at your cocktail party where you’ll show off your fabulicious shoes.

Thanks for your time.

Pantry chicken & pasta salad

Dressing:pasta dressing1 ½ cups mayonnaise

1 teaspoon horseradish

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons oil from sun dried tomatoes

1 teaspoon olive oil

½ teaspoon honey

Very hot water

Salt & pepper

2 or 3 tablespoons snipped Chinese or regular chives, or scallions,

very thinly sliced on the bias.

At least 2 hours or up to 24 hours before service:

Whisk together first 6 ingredients.  Whisk in hot water until dressing’s about the consistency of pancake batter.

Season, taste, and season again until it’s right.

Stir in chives.

Salad:

chicken pasta salad

8 ounces ridged pasta

1 ½ cup frozen baby peas, thawed

¼ cup sundried tomatoes, packed in oil, drained, rinsed, and chopped

2 or 3 big handfuls of baby spinach

2-3 cups rotisserie chicken, cut into bite-size chunks.

6 slices of bacon, cooked until very crispy

Put cut-up sun dried tomatoes into bottom of colander.  Cook pasta according to directions in very heavily salted water.  When finished, pour into colander over tomatoes.  Let cool.

Into large bowl, place pasta, peas, sundried tomatoes, spinach, and chicken.  Toss with enough dressing to give everything a thin coat.

Plate salad, then top with one slice of crumbled bacon.  Serves 6.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alright, I give, it’s spring

They say when you’re drowning there comes a point when you give up fighting, a sense of peace envelops you, and then it’s all over.

And, here in Durham, it’s the beginning of April, so I just need to get over myself and my grudge against Mother Nature, and accept that spring came very early this year, and all the hoping in the world won’t slow it down, so that the dogwoods bloom on my birthday, in the middle of the month—Like.They.Are.Supposed.To.

It ain’t gonna happen.

So, taking the immortal advice of Queen Victoria, I’m going to lie back and think of England—which coincidentally has a much later spring.  I’m giving up the fight and accepting that winter is over, early or not.

Uh….

When it’s sunny and 80 degrees in mid-March, a hearty, slow-cooked meal just doesn’t feel right.  But, despite feeling like late spring, produce hasn’t received the memo and caught up.

So, what’s a diner seeking seasonal fare to do?

A lighter springtime meal this time of year necessitates using a combination of imported fresh, frozen, and if possible, locally grown.

The first thing to do is figure out the flavors that epitomize the season.  You may have different ones in mind, but these are the tastes and colors speak to me.

Vernal chicken en papillottepaper chicken4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 lemon, sliced

8 cloves of garlic, cut into thick slices

2 leeks, cleaned and sliced, white part only

1 tablespoon fresh mint, cut into chiffonade (long thin strips)

4 tablespoons butter

Salt & pepper

4 12X12-inch pieces parchment paper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Crease the paper halfway across.  Lay the chicken in the center of one side of the paper.  Cover each breast with lemon slices.  Sprinkle each with ¼ of the leeks, garlic, and mint.  Place 1 tablespoon butter on the top; then season with salt and pepper.

Fold over the other half of the paper.  Then starting at one end, fold/crimp the paper all around the outside of the package. 

Bake at 375 for 25 minutes.  Place a package on each diner’s plate, allowing them to open the packets at the table.  Serves 4.

Light and sunny pasta saladspring orzoSalad:

6 ounces orzo

6-8 ounces goat cheese (keep in fridge until salad assembly)

1 cup frozen baby peas, thawed

Small bunch of asparagus, the thickest stalks you can find, cut into 1-inch pieces on the bias

1 cup grape tomatoes

2 tablespoon snipped Chinese chives or green onions, thinly sliced on the bias

Baby arugula or pea shoots

Salt & pepper

Dressing:spring dressing2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt & pepper

Whisk together all dressing ingredients until emulsified.  Season, taste, then season again if necessary. 

Assembly: Into a large bowl, place in pasta, peas, asparagus, tomatoes, and chives.    Stir in dressing, leaving out about a tablespoon.  Break off pieces of goat cheese about the size of a thumbnail and gently fold into salad.

To plate: Lightly dress arugula or pea shoots with remaining dressing, being very careful not to over-dress.

Place a small mound of orzo salad onto plate, and top with dressed greens.  Serves 4-6.

Serve the chicken and salad with a piece of fresh baguette, and a cold crisp glass of a Vouvray or a dry Alsatian.  For dessert, I’ve got a fun and easy idea.Take your favorite store-bought biscuits (I’d use Bojangles’ biscuits; but you can use any you like, up to and including canned biscuits) and paint the tops with melted butter.  Sprinkle each with a spoonful of sugar and put under the broiler until it browns and bubbles.

Put 2 cups of frozen and fresh strawberries into a saucepan with a spritz of lemon juice and a couple tablespoons of sugar.  Cook on medium until the berries begin to break down and form a sauce.  Slice each biscuit in half. Fill with strawberries, and top with a dollop of whipped cream—homemade or store-bought.

So, even though the weather and nature’s bounty aren’t quite in sync, we can still eat like it is.  But I still won’t have the dogwood blossoms on my birthday.

Darn it.

You know…that kind of works for me.

Thanks for your time.

 

For the love of all that’s tasty

I’m afraid my topic this week may throw some people into a full-on tizzy.  Knickers will be twisted and pearls will be clutched.

My opinion isn’t going to be very popular.  It’s akin to saying cats are inherently evil and don’t belong on the internet, and texting is a pernicious activity and taking us down the road to illiteracy.

So, here it is.

Contrary to starry eyed cooks/poets, you absolutely do not taste the love in someone’s food.  I’d much rather eat food cooked by a fantastic chef that didn’t know me from Adam, than badly cooked grub by someone who’s madly in love with me.  *But there is a caveat; cooking with love of the food itself, and the process of cooking—those motivations are a delicious game-changer.

A.Big.Fat.Lie.

By the time I was a child-bride, I thought I could cook well enough to keep Petey and I alive.  I was especially proud of something I made when it was almost time to go grocery shopping, called desperation casserole.  I would take whatever cans of stuff I found in my dwindling larder, mix them together and bake it.  It was a gustatory Russian roulette.

Sometimes it was, if not tasty, at least edible.  Sometimes, not so much.

One night Petey and I sat down to dinner and took a bite.  Without speaking, we put down our forks, and went out and got in the car to go to Mickey D’s.  At this time town was a thirty minute drive—each way, which can give you hint as to how truly awful that particular casserole was.

More than thirty years later, we still talk about that horrible, horrible dinner.

One of the best foods in the history of food.

The night I cooked that casserole, I was a nineteen-year-old bride still in the honeymoon phase.  I put so much love in that food it was almost visible.  It wasn’t possible to add a teaspoon more.  If love really did improve the flavor of food, it should have been the tastiest thing since blue bubblegum ice cream.  But rarely in the history of putting fire to food has there been a more unpalatable dish; and I’m counting organ meats, coconut, and raspberries.

It didn’t matter.  The love with which I made that dinner made not one iota of difference.  Even the greasy fast food prepared by anonymous hands we ate that night was better by a factor of at least one thousand.

Too bad I didn’t have the knowledge then that I do now.  Now my pantry is deeper, and there is logic to the food in the house.  But with just a few of the ingredients that I always keep on hand, I could have made a pretty tasty desperation casserole.

Honeymoon desperation casserole1 yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon dried thyme

¼ cup white wine

¼ cup flour

1 ½ cups chicken stock

½ cup 2% or skim milk

2 cups white and dark chicken meat from a rotisserie chicken

2 cups frozen peas and carrots, thawed

6 raw biscuits, homemade, or from a mix or can

1 tablespoon cream

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350.

Heat large, oven-safe skillet (cast iron is best) on medium.  Melt butter, add thyme, then sauté onions until the moisture has been released, cooked out, and they’re beginning caramelize.  Pour in wine, and let it cook out.

Whisk flour into onions and let cook for 2-3 minutes.  Stir in stock and milk.  Continue stirring until the gravy comes to boil.  Season with salt and pepper, taste, and adjust if needed.

Gently mix in chicken and vegetables.  Smooth top and evenly place raw biscuits on top.  Brush with cream, then sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Bake 30 minutes, or until biscuits are golden, and sauce is bubbly.  Serves 6.

You know, to this day, no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember what was actually in that misbegotten bowl of mess I tried to pass off as food.  I think my brain is trying to protect me the same way it would in any other massive trauma.But it taught me a very important lesson: Love is great, but even so-so take-out is better than dreck.

Thanks for your time.