About three years ago I received a text from a friend of a friend asking if I’d be interested in helping her butcher a lamb. I hardly knew Kelley at that time, but I think my text back read something like; “Hell yea!” Aside from some minor butchering in cooking school, my experience was limited to deboning pork shoulders or legs of lamb, and I was interesting in learning more. Plus, anybody who was willing to tackle a whole animal was definitely worth meeting. I wanted to hang out with this chick.
We’ve gone straight from winter to summer, with temperatures climbing high into the eighties last week. Hey, I’m not complaining, although I’m not quite ready to don shorts and skirts in public (lest my legs get mistaken for lightsabers). Our grill is now back in action, after a scrub-down by James—apparently it made quite a cozy mouse den this winter (eek! I have an inexplicable fear of mice). In any case, it’s been hot out, and we’ve finally been able to break in our back deck dining set, which is where we eat dinner practically every evening in the warm months. One of our favorite springtime meals is Chicken Paillard with Fingerling Potato & Dandelion Greens Salad. Chicken breasts get pounded thin and are then quickly sautéed and piled high with a vibrant spring salad. Since the kitchen has been so hot (particularly since I refuse to switch out my jeans for more practical wear), I decided to take the meal outdoors. Instead of searing the chicken breasts on the stove, I tossed them on the grill. I also changed up the salad to include thinly shaved fennel, baby arugula, golden raisins, black olives, toasted almonds and feta cheese. The sweetness of the raisins and the crunch of the almonds, paired with the saltiness of the black olives and freshness of the fennel, make a perfect counterpoint to the smoky grilled chicken. It’s springtime (which feels like summertime) perfection.
“Rice pasta” is what we call risotto in our house. To our five-year-old, anything that involves pasta is instantly eatable, whereas rice is debatable (if I were to tell her we were having creamy rice for dinner I’d get a scowl, whereas when I tell her we’re having cheesy rice pasta, I get a smile or at least neutral silence, which is almost as good). And hey, isn’t risotto—even though it’s essentially rice porridge—always listed with the pastas on Italian menus anyway? Regardless of my need to justify this white lie, risotto does feel a bit like pasta, with its creamy, often cheesy texture and flavor. The creaminess comes from the starch in Arborio (or Carnaroli) rice, which is released through constant stirring. Ah, there’s the rub. While risotto isn’t hard to make, it typically requires being stationed at the stovetop for about thirty minutes, slowly adding broth to the rice while stirring. While this is fine and dandy, when you have a baby attached to your hip, the rest of dinner to prep, and lunches to make for the next day, being stuck at the stovetop isn’t a luxury to be had. Well, we’re in luck, my friends. Introducing no-stir risotto.
At the risk of sounding like a teenager breaking up with her boyfriend, I’m so over the hardy greens that I’ve been seeing all winter (sorry kale and Brussels sprouts, you’re awfully nice, but we need a break). It’s time for brighter, lighter flavors. Since I have several more weeks to wait for the first bunch of asparagus and bag of arugula to arrive at our farmer’s market (damn fellows always play hard-to-get), I must turn to my freezer. Helllllooo sweet peas. You’re so cute, and you’re always there for me when I need to punch up a soup, add color to pasta, or get my five year old to eat something green. Peas are the only frozen vegetable I buy, and I consider them a pantry staple.
Yes, you can make a roast chicken on a weeknight. In under an hour. Introducing the spatchcocked chicken (terrible name, incredibly delicious results). A spatchcocked chicken is simply a chicken that’s had its backbone cut out. This is really easy to do yourself—you can see step-by-step how to do it here (from my Chicken Under a Rock post a couple of years ago—similar results, but the chicken is cooked on the grill). Or, you can expedite things and ask your butcher to cut the backbone out for you. The flattened chicken gets seasoned any which way you want, then browned on the stovetop and finished in the oven. The increased surface area means more crispy skin, and a much faster cooking time—we’re talking 5 minutes on the stove and 20-30 minutes in the oven. The result, my friends, is the chicken of your dreams—juicy, tender and beautifully browned.
All I can say is that if spring doesn’t arrive soon, I’m going to start behaving like a feral cat. I’m not sure what that would entail, but I envision lots of screaming and tearing up of furniture. This winter has been harsh. We just had another snowstorm last week, for crying out loud. Throw a new baby into the mix, and I’ve been locked indoors for about 6 weeks too many. I’m in dire need of sunshine and dirt (in lieu of all that snow still blanketing my front yard). Here in the Northeast spring produce is still about two months away, but I can fake the season in the kitchen. These flatbreads are just the meal to make me believe that warm weather is on its way.
My mom is not much of a breakfast person (she’s happier with a few bites of leftover steak and potatoes than a pile of pancakes) and often subsides on coffee alone in the morning. She’s been trying to get back into a regular breakfast habit, however, and has started making her friend’s recipe for breakfast “cookies”—little oatcakes of mashed bananas, oats and nuts, which provide just enough fuel to get her to lunch. She made a batch for us when she was visiting in January, and Ella and I fell in love with them, not necessarily for breakfast (we’re hooked on porridge), but as a snack.
I met my friend Jessica in my kindergarten class, where she impressed me with her masterful coloring ability and quiet, calm demeanor. It turned out that she lived in my neighborhood, and we were soon hooked at the hip. She’s been one of my closest friends in the world since then (apart from a brief divergence in junior high, when she forayed into hard-core hip-hop while I stuck it out with Cat Stevens). While we’ve both changed considerably since those early coloring days, our paths have been always been aligned, from college in Colorado (her in Boulder, me at Colorado College), to marrying our college sweethearts, to having children within a year of each other, to now living on the east coast, her in Vermont and me in New York. We make it a point to visit each other several times a year, where we bare our souls, giggle like schoolgirls and cook. Jess and her husband Dustin are both awesome cooks and even have their own company devoted to making custom farm tables and kitchen furniture (Vermont Farm Table – check it out).
As I write this I have a newborn lying on my chest. Our second daughter, Juniper Louise, was born right before the New Year. She is such a miracle. A beautiful, sweet, exhausting miracle. My mom flew in last week to help out, and she has been absolutely spoiling us with her cooking, cleaning and errand-running. The first thing she did upon arrival was to pull out a file folder of recipes and ask us to choose a menu for the week. Since I’m usually the one menu planning and cooking for others, this is luxury beyond words. One of the first dishes we chose was her White Bean & Chicken Chili. This chili is a longtime family favorite and has nourished my two older brothers and me through some of life’s biggest moments, including the births of our (now) nine collective children.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we did a collaborative “friendsgiving” this year. From the turkey, to the stuffing and sides, to the pumpkin pie and spiced carrot cake, the meal was incredible. But the dish that still sends me into reveries was an appetizer that my friend Jeff brought. When we were planning the menu (yea, we’re the type of people to schedule menu-planning meetings) he offered, with a twinkle in his eye and a mention of some family recipe, to bring crab cakes. I’ve always enjoyed crab cakes and didn’t think any more about it (after all, a crab cake is a crab cake, right?). That is, until Kelley revealed that Jeff had tested the recipe not once but three times before Thanksgiving to make sure it was just right. I started to get curious. Jeff is a Brooklyn native with a New Yorker’s attitude and a teddy bear’s spirit. He loves food with a tenderness usually reserved for puppies but he doesn’t mince words if he doesn’t like something. These were going to be good.