Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Am I late to the party?

Chicken and dumplings. Am I late to the party with this one? Considering we've been going on six months of snow - honestly, guys, six months of snow - and are just now starting to peek our heads out of our burrows with the promise of warmer days this weekend. And I'm just now coming here with a creamy stew that will warm you to your toes?

I can think of so many days this year that would have been the right time to bring out the chicken and dumplings.

Like two months ago, when I went downhill skiing for the first time, my body a gumby after snowplowing in an exaggerated zig-zag down the slopes all day, far into the evening when the sun sank down behind the hills.

Or after any of our Saturday morning runs over the past two months, when my friend Elizabeth and I would meet at 8:30 with our running tops zipped up to our chins and fleece headbands covering our ears.

Or, oh, you know, last week, when Minneapolis sidewalks were four inches deep with slush, and I, wearing my Puma sneakers for the first time since last fall, stood with cold water soaking its way immediately into my socks, then slowly up the back of my jeans while traffic did not move for forty minutes, my bus nowhere in sight.

No, it was not until last Sunday that chicken and dumplings made its first appearance of the year for me. And, late to the party or not, I need to tell you about this!

Sunday was, yet again, a dank and dreary day; cold drizzle with the threat of more snow. I was in a dank and dreary mood, too - owing to the fact I had a been a little "festive" the night before at a bachelorette party. Anyway, I woke up on Sunday with low intentions, and let a few hours pass by without even noticing. When it came time to think about dinner, I sat myself on the floor in front of my shelves of cookbooks and stared at the bindings, hoping one would fall on the floor and flop open to something easy and relatively healthy that I could muster up for dinner that night.

My cookbooks didn't budge. I pulled out a few - Super Natural Every Day and Cook with Jamie - and paged through them, but nothing called to me. So I turned to my laptop and started through the sites I frequent for meal ideas. On Chow, I came across this Chicken Soup with Chive Dumplings.

That seemed about right. The soup part was just a handful of vegetables and chicken tossed into broth. Then, the dumplings were a simple mixture of flour, a bit of butter, milk and chives pinched into dumplings that bob in the broth until they puff into a doughy cap over the soup. I was certain this would be simple to make and fill my belly, but I didn't expect to be wowed. And that was fine for me.

I was wowed. The broth becomes utterly velvety after the dumplings plump up and kick off some excess flour into the soup. I think this soft, unexpectedly creamy broth is the best part. Or, it could be the dumplings. Salty and light with just a bite of chives to wake things up. Yes, the dumplings might be the best part.

Bring on spring, or even summer. But I'm hanging onto this recipe for the next rainy day.

Chicken Soup with Chive Dumplings
From Chow

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups of good-quality chicken broth
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 cups flour
1/3 cup fresh chives, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon kosher salt (if using regular table salt, I would cut this down to 2 teaspoons)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk - 1%, 2% or whole
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
4 carrots, diced
4-5 cups thinly sliced green cabbage (about 1/4 of a medium head of cabbage)

Heat the oil in a large, wide pot over medium high heat. Add the onion, celery and garlic; season with a pinch of salt and cook until softened, about five minutes. Add broth and chicken; raise heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until chicken is cooked through.

In the mean time, stir together in a large bowl the flour, chives, salt and baking powder. Stir in the milk and butter; stir until just combined.

When chicken is cooked through, add the cabbage and carrots to the pot. Then, time for the dumplings: drop spoonfuls of the dough (about one tablespoon-full) into the soup, until you've used all of the dough. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes, until the dumplings are fluffy and cooked through.

To serve: this soup goes great with a pint of dark beer.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

An object at rest

There's a 3-minute window of time that occurs when I get home from work that dictates the way I will spend the rest of the night. It happens immediately when I walk through the door to our apartment. I hang up my coat, put my shoes in the closet and either

(1) keep moving. Maybe I pull out the groceries for dinner, or empty the dishwasher, or sort through a stack of mail while standing at the table - anything as long as it involves movement in a weight-bearing position.


(2) sit. or recline. or lay. On the couch, on the armchair, on the bed. I might allow myself to rest my head on a pillow as long as I'm "thinking about what to cook for dinner." I will eventually close my eyes.

I do believe the laws of physics are at play here. When I am in motion (scenario (1)), I can stay in motion for the rest of the night. And take care of things like laundry, errands, picking up the socks from the floor on my side of the bed. But if I come home and go straight to the couch (2), I am bound to hours of uselessness, becoming increasingly tired and lethargic with each hour that passes. The most I will accomplish in scenario (2) is to peel myself off the couch to make a quick dinner, pout while doing it, and then slink back onto the couch to watch basketball or Family Feud until it's time to go to bed.

I've had more (2)s in April than I care to admit. I've been in a real funk this month; unmotivated, stir crazy, morose. Bored in my own head, even. I sit down to write, and my brain feels empty. I get to work, and my brain is mush. Ask me what's new, and I get a puzzled look, like I'm trying to work through quadratic formula in my head. The number of things that come my way on an average day that I don't care about is alarming.

At night, I come home careless, bored, tired, slumping along until 11:30 p.m. when I can't sleep, a bundle of anxiety because my home is a mess and I still haven't done my taxes.

I need to get a grip!
This is not good!

I need a change, and soon; to pull me out of same routines, the day-in and day-out. I'm hoping that warmer weather will lift me up a little, whenever it finally comes. Push through some of the dampness and darkness of April. Pull me out of my dark apartment to, I don't know, go for a walk or something, for crying out loud. I'm going to will it along.

And if I have to, I'll will it along with food, like this Spring Quinoa Salad. It doesn't look like much in the picture, but oh, oh is it good. You're going to have to trust me on this one. Adam, who normally laughs "so where's the meat?" when I try to pull something like this, said this was one of the best things he's eaten in a long time. We fought over leftovers for lunch.

This recipe was inspired by my friend Abby's Hostess Quinoa, which you can find on her fantastic blog, fig & fork. I worked with some of the few spring vegetables that are straggling into the grocery store right now - asparagus, mushrooms, onions, with the addition of avocado (not necessarily a spring vegetable, but delicious). I also stir fried the veggies instead of blanching, because I wanted to include the sweet, roasty taste of browned onions that I think goes perfectly with quinoa. The dressing is a light olive oil and lemon juice blend that ties it all together. Finally, used feta cheese, which was great, but I think this would be spectacular with some crumbled goat cheese, too.

This is my plea. Spring, where are you?

Spring Quinoa Salad
1 cup quinoa
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
6 oz cremini mushrooms, roughly chopped (a little more than 2 cups)
1 small bunch asparagus, sliced into 1 inch pieces
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
2/3 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 avocado, diced

1/4 cup olive oil
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp salt

To prepare the quinoa: rinse quinoa well; drain. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add quinoa and return to boil; cover, reduce heat and simmer until tender, 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add a splash of oil and saute the onions, stirring occasionally, until just starting to brown, about 3 minutes. Remove the onions to a bowl and set aside. Next, add a splash more oil and cook the mushrooms (season with a pinch of salt) until browned, about 5 minutes. Remove to the bowl with the onions. Finally, add a splash more oil and sauté the asparagus until tender but still crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Add to the bowl with the onions and mushrooms.

In a small bowl, make the dressing: whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt.

Toss the cooked quinoa with the mushroom, onion and asparagus. Drizzle with the dressing and toss to coat. Finally, add in the feta cheese, walnuts and avocado, and stir gently to combine.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Any given Wednesday

6:40. The first alarm. It's confusing. Give yourself another 10.

6:50. Allow yourself to lay in bed as long as you are "thinking about which clothes to wear."

7:00. Got to hurry now. Shuffle your way through the dark room. When you open the bedroom door, the smell of fresh coffee lifts you up like a bouquet of balloons tethered to your waist, and carries you into the kitchen. Pluck a clean mug out of the dishwasher. Coffee, cream. Lean back against the counter, close your eyes and lift the hot mug with both hands to your lips. The steam tickles your nose. One brief moment of peace.

7:40. The bus winds past the YMCA, stops at the tall apartment complex with the tennis courts out front. 15 Indian people file on, Target badges swinging at their hips. You don't feel like reading today, or listening to music. Try not to fiddle with your phone because it's too easy to spend your life doing that. The bus winds around the empty mall parking lot and past the bank; 24 degrees, says the sign. The sun warms your hair through the dusty window.

8:10. Nine emails waiting for you, all of them garbage. Time for some tea, your tupperware of oatmeal. You g-chat your coworker, "Hey how's it going." Project schedules, creative briefs. What is going on with that data file?

9:30. Project status meeting. You actually say things like, "Can you give us an update on these action items?" "We'll circle back on that." "What are next steps?"

12:00. In the dungeon. Four treadmills in a row facing one television, you on the far right, mirrors lining the walls to your left and back. No windows anywhere, just fluorescent lights -- you're a level underground, after all. Four miles today, a good enough distance, but you keep the pace easy; your legs are aching from the hills yesterday. Edward Sharpe on your iPod, again. It's always Edward Sharpe lately. You've really got to get some new music.

1:00. Frittata and buttery toast, in front of your email. Doesn't even put a dent in the hallow pit that is your stomach. An apple next. Scrounge through the fridge. Yogurt, I guess.

1:30. Emails, test plans, status reports. Seriously, what is going on with that data file?

2:30. Legs are stiff; time to move around. Walk through the skyway tunnels to Target; think about your writing, or Italy, or a bowl of hot soup in front of a late September campfire.

3:00. In front of your email. What else is there to eat around here? An orange, and a handful of almonds. The last of the Cadbury pastel eggs. Those mini purple bags you bought on Friday sure didn't last.

3:30. Client status call. You actually say things like, "I'm not sure if that's in scope," and "When will you have those assets? We're hitting a time crunch."

5:00. Freedom! The wind wraps around you and tosses your hair in your face, pushes you down the block to your bus stop.

5:10. The bus winds its way back through the maze it drew this morning. Heads are bent forward staring at screens, ears plugged with white headphones, everyone bobbing in concert over the bumps. You doze off but are aware of every stop, every turn, without opening your eyes. The sun warms your hair through the dusty window.

6:15. In the kitchen Adam pours you a glass of red wine. You lean against the counter and take the stemless glass with both hands; one brief moment of peace. Get to work on dinner -- he drops two onion halves and a knob of butter into a pot of tomatoes; you slice some stale bread into strips, then cubes, for the croutons. The chicken goes on the grill pan. A splash more wine, maybe.

7:00. Pasta with tomato sauce, and this chicken Caesar salad, at your round dining table.

7:30. You start laughing, and Adam does that thing where he mimics you until you laugh so hard you cry. He bends over at the waist, bobbing up and down with a silent laughing face, like you, and that makes you laugh/cry even harder. He stands up straight and wipes away pretend laugh tears and shakes his head, like you're doing, and now you've lost it; tears streaming down your face. You don't know why this is so funny, but man is he good.

9:30. Adam is really into Game of Thrones. You are really into falling asleep on the couch, your neck crooked on the armrest.

11:30. You drag yourself into the bedroom, step over the sock graveyard on your side of the bed, the stack of books on the floor. Try to not pull yourself too far out of the slumber you started on the couch. You gently tuck in, your alarm set for 6:40.

And there it goes again, passing by, fleeting. Another page scribbled and turned; Wednesday in the books.

Chicken Caesar Salad
Adapted just slightly from smitten kitchen

In terms of everyday, "I don't feel like thinking about it," go-to weeknight meals, this is our number one: this chicken Caesar salad, served alongside pasta with that simple (luscious) tomato sauce I've told you about. We make this meal almost every week, and we look forward to it every single time.

I've already gone on about the wonder that is that tomato sauce; but somehow, I might like the salad even better. I start with a simple grilled chicken breast jazzed up with a squeeze of lemon. I don't usually like chicken breasts, but with the lemon juice and the Caesar dressing, it really works here. The dressing is a classic, creamy Caesar with a little bite - and it packs enough flavor that you don't need to drench your salad with it. The homemade croutons take just a few minutes of prep time and round out the dish. Toss it onto a bed of crisp romaine, and top it all with grated Parmesan. I think you'll love it.

For the chicken:
Two chicken breasts
1/2 a lemon
salt and pepper

Season the chicken well with salt and pepper. Preferably, grill until cooked through (either on a regular grill, or use a grill pan on your stovetop). Or, cook in a skillet as you normally would. Remove from heat and allow to rest, about 5 minutes. Slice into strips for the salad, and squeeze the half lemon over. Set aside.

For the croutons:
A chunk of good bread - stale is OK
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If the crust of the bread is really crusty and hard, you may want to remove it; otherwise, leave it on. Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes. Set it on a cookie sheet and drizzle a tablespoon or so of olive oil over; toss to lightly coat. Season well with salt. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, and check to see if the bread cubes are toasted well (like a crouton, you know?). If not, put them back in for a few minutes until toasted to your liking.

For the dressing:
2 Tbsp mayo
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup olive oil

Whisk together the mayo, lemon juice, mustard, garlic and Worcestershire sauce. Slowly drizzle in the 1/4 cup of olive oil, whisking constantly as you add it. Season with salt and pepper, and adjust flavors to taste (I like mine heavy on the dijon and Worcestershire sauce).