*late-summer shrimp rolls.


We're winding down to the end of October, which in Alabama means the trees are just reluctantly beginning to turn, the temperature is like a tricky faucet that runs variously a few degrees too cool or too hot, and although the tall boots and sweaters are everywhere you look, and the specter of Halloween and pumpkins and hay bales looms (not to mention the retailers already stocking Christmas foofaraw), it's pretty still decidedly late summer in the Deep South.

Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.

Because I decided, apropos of pretty much nothing, that a great idea would be to make for dinner last night that most classic of summer sandwiches: the lobster roll.

Except I don't like lobster.

So shrimp roll, it is! A few days prior I invested in a bag of frozen shrimp with which to make spicy shrimp and peanut noodles—Instagrammed here:

A photo posted by onthewoodside (@onthewoodside) on

and I just knew that once that bag was open those little leftover guys were going to go freezer-burned pretty quickly if I didn't find good uses for them.

I was a little skeptical about the frozen shrimp; I don't as a rule have anywhere near the patience required to properly thaw things, and I've tried quick-thawing with mixed results. (See above re: patience.) But these were petite shrimp, so they defrosted fairly quickly, and it was pretty great to have them already peeled and deveined for my lazy pleasure.

I will make no bones here: This is simplicity in sandwich form. I sautéed the shrimp in chili oil to have a hint of heat in the background, but it's not necessary; you can add a little more black pepper or even a few dashes of hot sauce to the dressing, if you like. Use whatever fat you choose sparingly in any case, because a drier pan will help you achieve a nice brown crust on the outside of the shrimp.

Any bread of your choice will work here. I picked a wheat grinder roll, cut the top off, and scooped out the middle to make room for the good stuff. Wheat is by no means a game-changer; my mama always told me wheat > white, and old habits die hard even when I know "wheat" on the bag of bread means just about nothing nutritionally anymore.

In today's Do As I Say, Not As I Do lesson, mix up the shrimp salad before adding the lemon juice. Depending on the moisture from the shrimp and the tomatoes, too much juice can make the mixture a little watery. If you achieve the consistence you like and want more tart lemoniness, stir in a little zest.

The celery leaves were an abstract idea I had noodling around in my head; I wasn't sure I wanted the texture of the celery stalk itself, but I liked the idea of the flavor, and of course the fresh green color for garnish. In the end it turned out to really change the character of the dish in a remarkable and lovely way. I would by no means advocate thinking that buying an entire bunch of celery (seriously, why must I purchase so much at a time?) is necessary for this dish, but if you have some lapsing in your refrigerator, as I did, this is a terrific way to use it.


Late-summer Shrimp Rolls

1 teaspoon chili oil
16 (41-50 count) frozen peeled and deveined shrimp, thawed
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
½ medium tomato, finely chopped
½ shallot, minced
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 grinder or sub rolls, tops and insides removed
4 Bibb lettuce leaves
Celery leaves (optional)

1. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat; add shrimp, and cook 2 minutes on one side or until golden brown. Flip shrimp, and cook 1 more minute or until golden brown on second side; remove from pan to cool slightly. When cooled, chop each shrimp into 4 even pieces.

2. Stir together mayonnaise and next 3 ingredients; gently fold in shrimp. Stir in lemon juice until desired consistency. Chill 15 minutes.

3. Line each roll with 2 pieces Bibb lettuce. Top with shrimp salad and celery leaves, if desired. Makes 2 servings.


*easy grilled chicken skewers + feta-basil yellow squash.


I know that I tend to wax a little hyperbolic around these parts, but after I made this dinner these words came out of my mouth:

"I may never cook chicken any other way ever again."

OK, that's a little dramatic.

But I may never cook chicken breasts any other way ever again. Over the past few years, I've developed a real distaste for chicken breasts, mostly because the texture of your average grocery store offerings has just become dreadful—it tastes waterlogged and pumped full of ... something. It manages to somehow become both mealy and stringy at the same time, and so enormous as to make me uneasy and them impossible to cook to satisfaction. Dry on the outside, suspect on the inside; this is the new world of white meat chicken.

And the smaller, higher quality, more expensive organic chicken breasts don't get a pass, either—they often seem big and bland to me, too.

So what's a carnivore to do? I will continue to buy those better breasts, but instead I'll cook them like this: marinated in tenderizing citrus and jammed onto a skewer shwarma style, and then charred over a great big heat.

I have a healthy (I hope) fear of fire, so I will admit I use my sweet little outdoor Weber as a rain gauge. I cooked these inside, on a grill pan, but they would be wonderful with a nice charcoal smoke to them, too. I have convinced myself that the gas flame beneath my pan means it counts as grilling. Don't burst my bubble.

An hour in the marinade is just about perfect—any longer and that lemon will have a chance to overdo it. I used sour cream here, but you can substitute plain Greek yogurt. Just look for the lowest sugar content you can find, because you want the color on the chicken to develop slowly, without burning.

The flavor is bright and summery, which means it pairs beautifully with almost anything—lemony orzo, garlicky new potatoes, even just a simple tomato salad. I went with yellow squash, which I don't even like but thought would be pretty. And it turns out if you sauté that business in butter and toss in basil and cheese, you will like just about anything! I scarfed down those veggies faster than I ever thought I would.

Turns out I'm never making yellow squash any other way again, either.

I used a vegetable peeler to cut the squash into thin ribbons. That's required, but it does mean that it cooked in about 30 seconds. You want it to be tender but still crunchy, and not have a time to sweat out, which will give you kind of a watery mushiness. Just in the butter, toss, garlic salt, pepper, less than a minute, and off the heat to stir in the cheese and basil. It's light, delicious, and perfect for the season.



Easy Grilled Chicken Skewers

1½ pounds chicken breasts, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons sour cream
Juice of ½ lemon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon dry oregano

1. Thread chicken onto skewers, pressing pieces very close together. In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil and remaining ingredients. Pour marinade over chicken skewers in a shallow dish, turning to coat; cover with plastic wrap, and chill 1 hour.

2. Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Grill skewers, turning occasionally, 20 minutes or until outside is well marked and chicken is cooked through. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Yellow Squash Ribbons with Feta and Basil

3 yellow squash
1 tablespoon butter
Garlic salt
¼ cup feta cheese crumbles
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1. Trim ends from squash, and peel into thin ribbons with a vegetable peeler.

2. Heat butter in a skillet until melted; add squash and garlic salt and pepper to taste, and cook, tossing constantly, 1 minute. Remove from heat, and stir in cheese and basil. Makes 4 servings.


*chile relleno soup.


I promise that this will not become a weather blog, but I do find myself almost literally swinging the way the wind blows during this predictably schizophrenic Alabama spring.

This week it went from 80 degrees to a hard freeze in the span of 24 hours, and even though I heard a lot of lamenting of respiratory illness and lauding of the Farmer's Almanac, I rather relished the opportunity to indulge in one last soup of the season.

(There are people who are chilled-soup people in summer, and I respect them, but I much prefer a piping-hot bowl of goodness when it's cold outside.)

I'm calling this one Chile Relleno Soup because that's what it's inspired by and essentially what it is, but I debated whether to saddle it with that name—there's a restaurant near me that serves what they call "Reuben Soup," and I've often felt that there is something vaguely off-putting about the sound of pureed sandwich.

The bright, tangy, soupy base here is blended until smooth, but there is still lots of hearty chunkiness about it from the beef and beans. The protein here is completely optional and flexible—this could easily be vegetarian or feature chicken or shrimp as the meat; just use whatever you like in your chile rellenos!

In typical fashion, I had no solid sense of where this recipe was going when I arrived at the grocery store, so the tomatillos were an impulse buy. They turned out to be the absolute stars of this flavor profile, though, giving a proper punch of acidity that is even more beautifully brightened if you take the time to spritz your serving with a squeeze of lime. (Save your pennies, if you can; limes are puny and pricey these days.)

This bowl calls for more than a whispery sprinkling of cheese. You want, as Dr. Niles Crane once put it, "a full-throated shout." (I do love Frasier.) My peppers were brilliantly peppery but still mild, so I dusted the cheese with a pinch of cayenne, which gave things a nice heat and prevented the cheese from clumping together in the soup. Half of my DNA comes straight from Wisconsin, so I am not ever picky about cheese, but I do think Monterey Jack is the ideal choice here. It was just perfect.

As an aside, that bunch of cilantro in the background represents something I discovered recently, which is that my herbs last much longer if I put them in a tall, narrow glass with about an inch of water at the bottom and do not refrigerate them. They thrive like cut flowers, which, der I suppose they are. Sure, that seems like the kind of thing it should take a person 34 years to figure out.



Chile Relleno Soup
4 poblano peppers
2 serrano peppers
4 tomatillos
1 pound (93%) lean ground beef
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
Kosher salt
Black pepper
1 bunch green onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
4 cups fat-free, low-sodium beef broth
1 (15-ounce) can low-sodium pinto beans, drained and rinsed
4 ounces sour cream
4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
Ground red pepper (optional)
Lime wedges
Garnish: fresh cilantro leaves

1. Preheat broiler. Place first 3 ingredients on a baking sheet or broiler pan; broil, turning once, until skins are charred. Remove peppers and tomatillos to a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add beef, cumin, chili powder, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and ½ teaspoon black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until beef is cooked through. Remove from Dutch oven with a slotted spoon, and set aside.

3. Remove skins, seeds, and stems from peppers. Return Dutch oven to stove over medium heat; add green onions, peppers, and tomatillos, and cook 3 to 4 minutes or until onions begin to brown. Season with kosher salt and black pepper. Stir in garlic and cilantro leaves, cook 1 more minute.

4. Stir in 2 cups beef broth and ¼ cup pinto beans; puree mixture with an immersion blender until smooth. Stir in remaining 2 cups beef broth and remaining beans; whisk in sour cream until fully incorporated. Stir in reserved beef, and simmer until heated through.

5. Toss cheese with red pepper, if desired. Serve soup with cheese and lime wedges; garnish, if desired. Makes 4 servings.


*mozzarella-stuffed meatballs with eggy noodles.


It's Friday in Birmingham. It's 70 degrees, and the birds are singing manic tunes outside my window, flogging the life out of the few rain-free hours they're going to get today. The sky is still gray, but the clouds have pulled back a bit above the scene so that there's enough light for me to see just how green everything is beginning to get. Inside, it's hushed, as people tiptoe and murmur through the end of this quiet week that children and people who have children call Spring Break.

In short, it's nice. It's calm. Deadlines are on the horizon, but not just yet. There's a weekend of nothing-planned around the corner.

And I'm sick.

Well, let's be clear: I have a cold. A cold is more nuisance than illness. But it does mean that I feel a little more subdued than normal, ready for the clock to tell me I can put on flat shoes and wash my face. More than ready to stop punctuating the stillness around me with the sound of my honking nose.

The weather has been a little rickety in these parts lately, as it is in the South when the weirdest winter in recent memory gives way to an uncertain spring. And the spring tornado season! Yay! (Not to be confused with the summer tornado season or the winter tornado season or the fall tornado season. Pack your moving truck today!) What all that means is that this week we've had a 70-degree day and a hard freeze. And that can make a person feel a little (ahem) under the weather, if the old wives are to be believed.

It's not surprising then, that the Brussels sprout salad that had been noodling around in my head all week got a swift kick to make way for this big bowl of comfort food. I don't remember eating a lot of egg noodles in my youth, but somehow they still conjure comfort to me. They require virtually no effort, so that's a big part of the allure. But they're also slurpy and satisfying, and they cling to sauce like a dream.

I originally envisioned the meatballs as larger than I might normally make them, all the better to envelop bocconcini of mozzarella. But the bocconcini at my local market were much larger than I'd imagined they'd be, so I decided to go with this brand, which sells smaller bites, about the size of big marbles, marketed as mozzarella pearls. Oh and then I squidged some Romano into the meatball mixture because I had some in the refrigerator that needed using and because cheese makes you feel better. Trust me, I'm a doctor.

No I'm not.

It's best to pack the meatballs fairly firmly, so that the cheese doesn't ooze out, but if some manages to escape (see below), well all the better. This is comfort food, after all, and we are not aiming for perfection. Because they are a little more tightly wound than traditional meatballs, though, I really suggest searing them in a pan and then finishing them in the sauce—it keeps them nice and tender.

I sautéed fresh spinach leaves with garlic, salt, pepper, and dried crushed red pepper on the side, because I figured my immune system probably would like to make the acquaintance of a vegetable every now and again. But you can serve this just as it is, whenever you need a little comfort. Whether you're under the weather or just over it already. 



Mozzarella-stuffed Meatballs with Eggy Noodles

½ white onion, divided
1 pound lean ground beef
1 large egg
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup fine dry breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup shredded Romano cheese (optional)
4 ounces mozzarella pearls or chopped fresh mozzarella
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups fat-free beef broth
Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Ground red pepper, to taste
16 ounces dry egg noodles
Garnish: flat-leaf parsley leaves

1. Cut onion into quarters. Grate ¼ onion on the fine side of a box grater into a medium bowl. Add beef, egg, next 5 ingredients, and Romano cheese, if desired; mix with hands until just combined. Place about 2 tablespoons beef mixture into the palm of your hand, pressing lightly into a small patty. Top with a mozzarella pearl, and form mixture around cheese to make a meatball. Repeat with remaining beef mixture and mozzarella.

2. Heat oil in a large, heavy bottom skillet over medium heat. Cook meatballs, in batches if necessary, until seared on all sides. (Meatballs will not be cooked through.)

3. Meanwhile, dice remaining ¼ onion. Remove meatballs to a plate, and add diced onion to skillet. Cook 2 minutes or until softened and lightly browned. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add butter, stirring until melted. Whisk in flour, and cook 2 minutes. Whisk in beef broth until smooth. Season with salt, black pepper, and ground red pepper to taste. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Return meatballs to skillet, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 20 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.

4. Meanwhile, cook egg noodles according to package directions. Top noodles with meatballs and sauce; garnish, if desired. Makes 8 servings.


*parsley-marinated chicken and cheddar on rye.


I do believe I'll keep this one short. (You're welcome.)

After all, there isn't much to be said about a sandwich. (Other than the fact that it's the most genius idea anyone ever had for food architecture.)

I do, however, love a sandwich, always. (You can find other great ones here and here and here.) 

The fact that it was St. Patrick's Day was a terrific excuse for me to make this one, which is studded with green things. (Arugula, avocado, parsley ... and Irish cheese.)


You can say that seeded rye bread is not the best thing in the world, but you would be wrong wrong wrong. (There's a restaurant in town that serves an amazing patty melt on rye, and do not think for a minute that I don't have plans for the rest of this loaf.)

For lunches, turned this into a chicken salad made of the leftover chopped meat, avocado, onion, and sour cream dressing on a bed of arugula, and packed it up alongside an easy cheese sandwich with the rye, whole grain mustard, and Cheddar. (Because mama don't like no soggy bread.)

The dressing here is the real revelation. I bought vegenaise for the first time, because I am a person who loves mayonnaise, has hypertension, and is always curious about new things. This can absolutely be made with traditional mayo, but I was floored by how much I liked the vegenaise—it has a brightness and complexity that mayonnaise just cannot match.

Yes, I put a vegan product on my chicken and cheese.

I have a brightness and complexity, too.



Parsley-marinated Chicken and Cheddar on Rye

½ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 garlic cloves, chopped
¼ cup lowfat sour cream
2 tablespoons vegenaise or mayonnaise
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Pinch of ground red pepper
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
2 large chicken breasts
1 tablespoon canola oil or vegetable oil
8 slices seeded rye bread, toasted
4 ounces aged Irish Cheddar, grated
Red onion slices
1 avocado

1. Place first 7 ingredients in a blender; blend until smooth. (You can also use a tall vessel and an immersion blender, as I did.) Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour half of sour cream mixture over chicken breasts in a shallow dish, reserving remaining marinade. Cover chicken and marinade, and chill 1 hour.

2. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add chicken; cook 6 minutes, turn over, and cook 6 more minutes or until a thermometer inserted in thickest portion registers 160 degrees. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool slightly.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Top 4 bread slices evenly with cheese. Bake 4 minutes or until cheese is golden and bubbly.

4. Slice chicken. Top cheese with onion slices, avocado, arugula, and chicken. Spoon over reserved marinade, and top with remaining bread slices. Makes 4 servings.


*farro salad with arugula, beets, and ricotta salata.


I'm sure there's some easily identifiable psychology behind this fact, but I find that when I eat out or opt for convenience foods, I'm attracted to routine: the same turkey sandwich meal after meal, the same cheese snacks or Mexican food. I don't know if there's comfort in that familiarity or if I just cannot ever get enough sandwiches, but I do know that the precise opposite is true when I'm cooking for myself.

Keeping my brain—and my stomach—engaged in the kitchen has a lot to do with trying something different. Of course I do have recipes that I return to again and again (ahem) because I am nothing if not a firm believer in the delicious, but I get stymied a lot just trying to answer the question, "What sounds good for dinner tonight?"

This is decidedly trickier when one also has to determine what sounds good for three ensuing meals. (Trying to learn to embrace leftovers here, people.)

 This was a dish that I first had at Bottega Café here in Birmingham, and I want to go on record as saying I in no way mean to insinuate that I re-created a meal worthy of that kitchen full of talented, professionally trained people.

What I did want was to approximate it, so that I could be reminded of that incredible salad in my own humble cocina. The fact that it's a salad in itself helps; the ingredients, independent of the dressing, are all identifiably in front of your face: arugula, farro (YAY FRESH MARKET SELLS FARRO), beets, ricotta salata.

These are not, in the effort of full disclosure, ingredients that I'm prone to be especially overjoyed by. But that's the genius of those talented, professionally trained people I mentioned earlier—the can introduce you to combinations that change the mind of your palate.

Or, you know, a metaphor less tortured than that one.

I don't know what Frank Stitt puts in his salad dressing. I used what I had on hand. All I knew is that it should be a light, slightly vinegary, brightly citrusy vinaigrette.

Farro might not be a grain that everyone is familiar with, but I loved it instantly. It has a wonderful, hearty chew. And it's terrific for leftovers, because even though this salad is undeniably healthy, it's also extraordinarily stick-to-your-ribs filling. The ricotta and the beets are terrific partners; the super salty cheese and the super sweet beets create a lovely balance with the peppery arugula.

I will admit that this was the first time I've actually dealt with cooking beets myself. I was well prepared for the stained fingers I knew were inevitable, but it was such a nonevent that I was a little surprised. I just dug in with my bare hands and decided to accept whatever red tint came my way, but by the time I was halfway through doing the dishes, it had all washed away.

A couple of notes of caution regarding leftovers: The arugula will wilt considerably. I'm not bothered by that, but if it's not your cup of tea, you can easily stir in some lively greens each time you plate up an individual serving as opposed to stirring it all in from the beginning. Also, I like the way these flavors work at sort of a cool room temperature, so I just pull it out of the refrigerator in the morning, and by lunchtime it's exactly right.

So try a little something different. And when you do, let me know what you think!



Farro Salad with Arugula, Beets, and Ricotta Salata

1 cup farro
3 to 4 medium beets, peeled and chopped into about 1½-inch pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt
Black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large lemon, seeded and juiced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 cups baby arugula
4 ounces ricotta salata, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook farro according to package directions. Set aside to cool.

2. Meanwhile, place beets on a baking sheet, and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast 35 to 40 minutes or until beets are tender. Set aside to cool.

3. Mash garlic and a generous pinch of salt with the flat side of a chef's knife until a paste forms. Place crushed garlic, lemon juice, vinegar, and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a jar with a lid; shake until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

4. Toss cooled farro and beets with arugula, ricotta, and dressing. Makes 4 servings.


*not-at-all-halal chicken and rice.


Recently someone very dear to me challenged me to make an effort to do only one thing at a time. (I say "dear to me" because people who know me well know that the shortest distance between me and an idea I'm not particularly fond of is a challenge.) The idea is this:

When you're watching TV, watch TV (no computer, no phone, no hopping up every five seconds to wash a dish or get a snack or examine your eyebrows in the bathroom).

When you're driving the car, drive the car (no listening to the radio, no checking your text messages at red lights).

When you're writing, write.

When you're talking, talk.

When you're cooking, cook.

Simple, no?

No. This is tough stuff, friends! I make my living, as I suspect most people do, through a great deal of multitasking. So multitasking begins to mean productivity, and then productivity begins to determine just which column your day can fall into: How many things did I do today? 36 things! Good day. 32 things! Tsk, tsk. Do more!

It requires real effort to do less, I find. It is contradictory but true that there can be comfort in a restless mind. (And I miss my NPR, I do.)

But a person can learn a lot about herself in the ensuing quiet, and in the attempts—however futile—at stillness. Even if that thing is namely that she is not very good at being quiet and still.

It stands to reason that doing one thing at a time will mean that you genuinely do that thing—writing, driving, cooking—better than you would otherwise do it. There is no question that quality suffers at the hand of quantity.

And yet this dinner, prepared in the peaceful calm of just me, just my kitchen, no distractions, was a complete failure of most of the things that would normally fall under the heading of success, where recipes are concerned: I had none of the proper ingredients, I did everything in the wrong order, and I wound up with something altogether foreign to what this is supposed to be ... at 9 p.m.

LOOSELY* speaking (*so, so loosely), this was an attempt to re-create this.

I've never eaten at a New York halal cart, but I'd read enough about it on the World Wide Web to hope that it would approximate the late-night food of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin that I loved so much in college.

I was in trouble almost from the word go. Or from the word halal. For one thing, here's what halal means, according to Wikipedia:

Halal foods are foods that Muslims are allowed to eat or drink under Islamic Shariʻah. The criteria specify both what foods are allowed, and how the food must be prepared. The food must come from a supplier that uses halal practices. Specifically, the slaughter must be performed by a Muslim.

Yeah, I'm fairly certain that's not happening at my Winn-Dixie. So I'm loath to put the word halal anywhere near this dish, lest I offend people who genuinely eat according to religious strictures. This is not that, is what I'm saying.

Winn-Dixie caused further problems by selling no boneless, skinless chicken thighs. And the bony, skinny chicken thighs they had looked ... suspect. Sigh. Boness, skinless breasts it would have to be.

For the sauce, white vinegar! I have that at home.

No I don't. White wine vinegar it would have to be.

Iceberg lettuce? All I have is Romaine. Harissa? Nowhere to be found in my market. Pocketless pita bread? Oops, forgot that entirely.

Once I got home with my rag-tag bunch of ingredients-that-were-not-quite-the-right-ingredients, I embarked on a completely flawed effort to do things according to the recipe. It turns out that a) I am really very rusty when it comes to following instructions, and b) my reading comprehension needs work.

The finished product though, is a revelation. I may never cook another chicken breast without marinating it in this intoxicating (and so simple!) mixture. Lemon, coriander, garlic, oregano—this is piquant business.

The sauce? The sauce is so weird, y'all. I was absolutely convinced that it was inedible when I first stirred it together. I left out the sugar, because I really wasn't sure about stirring an entire tablespoon of the stuff into my mayo/yogurt mixture. But with those 2 aggressive teaspoons of black pepper, I actually sneezed when I tasted it. So I decided to give the sugar a try, and the whole thing tasted ... well, still odd. Still, as a last-ditch snatch at authenticity, I topped my chicken and rice with a few dollops. And guess what? Balance. It turns out that sometimes the route may be circuitous, but it still gets you to the finish line, which in my mind is deliciousness.

Full disclosure: I still think a little bit goes a long way with the white sauce, but it truly is the element here that elevates this to something beyond your typical (albeit yummy) chicken and rice dinner.

According to those in the know, halal cart chicken is always served with a lettuce-and-tomato salad, which pairs really nicely here—it adds both crunch and coolness against the spiciness of all that black pepper and the hot hot heat of what in my case turned out to be sriracha (the only hot sauce I had on hand).

In short, you should make this. Because it is wonderful. And because it is easy. And because I'm going to show you how to make it wonderful and easy in the recipe below. Which is to say, do as I say, not as I do.

In the stillness and quiet, I am still a cautionary tale.



Not-At-All-Halal Chicken and Rice

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
½ teaspoon ground coriander
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1½ cups basmati rice
2½ cups chicken broth
½ cup lowfat mayonnaise
½ cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 Romaine lettuce heart, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
Hot sauce
Naan (optional)

1. Combine first 5 ingredients in a blender; blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place chicken and half the lemon juice mixture, reserving remaining lemon juice mixture, in a large zip-top plastic bag; seal bag, turning to coat chicken in marinade. Marinate in refrigerator 1 hour, turning bag occasionally.

2. Remove chicken from marinade, and season with salt and (liberally) with pepper. Heat canola oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until lightly smoking. Place chicken in pan, in a single layer, and cook without disturbing 4 minutes or until lightly browned. Turn chicken, and cook undisturbed 6 more minutes. Remove to a cutting board and let cool 5 minutes.

3. Chop chicken into roughly ¼- to ½-inch pieces. Transfer to a bowl, and toss with reserved marinade; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

4. Melt butter over medium heat in a large saucepan; add turmeric and cumin, and cook 1 minute. Stir in rice and cook, stirring often, 4 minutes. Stir in chicken broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil over high heat; cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and let rest 15 minutes.

5. Whisk together mayonnaise, yogurt, next 4 ingredients, and 2 teaspoons pepper in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.

6. Return same large, heavy-bottomed skillet to stovetop over medium-high heat; add chicken and marinade and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and heated through. Top rice with chicken; serve with lettuce, tomato, hot sauce, white sauce, and naan, if desired. Makes 6 servings. 


*stir-fry beef and broccoli.


I have what amounts to a love-hate relationship with leftovers: My brain loves that they're cost-effective and ideal for lazy people; my heart thinks they are boring boring boring (and don't taste that great).

Even though I can admit that there are even some dishes that do manage to taste good the next day or cold—pizza, these wraps—I simply don't have the taste bud attention span to want That Same Thing for my next meal.

All of that, combined with my distaste for eating out of styrofoam containers (boo! all the food just steams in there! also the environment! probably in that order ... ), means that I don't eat takeout very often. 

I do, however, love the way the simplicity of this stir-fry—rice, beef, broccoli—plays with the complexity of the flavors. Those ingredients are simple, too, but they're just such wonderful friends: ginger, garlic, soy, fish sauce, hoisin. (I probably would have gilded the lily with a drop or two of sesame oil, but my grocer doesn't carry it.)

So far I've made the meal, eaten it, gone back for seconds, and twice (!) partaken of the leftovers. Two separate times! It's a leftover miracle. Even if once I slathered it in sriracha and draped a fried egg over it because That Is How I Do.

Although let's be serious—can you blame me?

A little leftovers note here: If you're going to go this route, put a couple of tablespoons of water in the pan with the rice and reheat it gently on the stovetop. Place the beef and broccoli in a dry skillet and kind of angrily crank up the heat—you want that hoisin to remember to redevelop a caramelized crust on the beef. And please, for the love of all things that taste good, don't put it in the microwave unless you absolutely have to. Microwaves were invented by people who thought flavor was an evil that had to be eradicated. I'm convinced it's half the reason frozen foods have so much salt in them—compensatory sodium!

I love the addition of the prepared Chinese hot mustard. (My grocery store sells this one.) I think it and the fish sauce really elevate this beyond the sweeter or blander versions you may have tried before. The mustard has something of a nasal, horseradish-style heat, so feel free to lather it all up with sriracha or chile flakes if you need a more focused kick to the tongue.

Simple, satisfying, and styrofoam-free—so much better than takeout.



Stir-fry Beef and Broccoli

1½ pounds flank steak, trimmed
Kosher salt
Black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
¼ cup prepared hoisin sauce
½ white onion, finely chopped
1 (1- to 2-inch) piece fresh ginger, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (15-ounce) can reduced-sodium, fat-free beef broth
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons prepared hot mustard
1 large bunch broccoli florets
Hot cooked basmati or long-grain rice
Garnishes: chopped green onion, sesame seeds

1. Cut flank steak in half lengthwise; cut each half crosswise into very thin slices. Toss steak with salt, pepper, and just enough cornstarch to coat.

2. Heat canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add beef, in batches, and sauté 5 minutes or until edges are deeply browned. Place in a bowl and toss with hoisin; set aside.

3. Add onion to skillet, and cook 3 to 4 minutes or until softened and lightly browned; add ginger and garlic, and cook 1 more minute. Stir in beef broth, scraping to remove browned bits from bottom of pan. Stir in fish sauce and next 3 ingredients.  

4. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add broccoli florets. Cover and cook 10 minutes. Stir in beef; cover and cook 10 more minutes or until broccoli is tender and beef is heated through. Serve over rice; garnish, if desired. Makes 6 servings.


*tuna salad niçoise.


I posted a version of these photographs over on Instagram (look me up!) with the caption "trying to get my mojo back."

And it's true—while I could tell tall tales of action-packed holidays and busy work schedules and many too many meals out, the simple fact is that some time in November my wonderful sister and brother-in-law gave me a session with a house cleaner for my birthday, which led me to put my photo lights in the closet and ... well, that's pretty much all it takes to leave me thoroughly distracted.

So how have I fed myself the past couple of months? Mostly with spoonfuls of cottage cheese straight from the container for breakfast, brick-sized turkey sandwiches grabbed out of deli cases for lunch, and convenience foods for dinner. I dabbled in the kitchen here and there, but my efforts felt for the most part clumsy and disappointing and unsatisfying. 

And you know what? It started to really get me down. Granted, I know about the extent to which our heads are in the game when it comes to food more than most, but I realized I was feeling listless and off track. Putting mystery meat, other assorted blech, and much of the world's supply of potatoes into my body day after day was affecting my waistline and my psyche.

I knew that if I wanted to regain my footing, I was going to need an absolute bolt out of the blue.

And here she be:


Beautiful. Fresh. Colorful. "Taste the rainbow" doesn't have to mean Skittles, friends. These are all healthy, unadulterated ingredients, but they're also delicious and indulgent.

For this little jump start, I went to the fancy market and bought all organic ingredients. That's truly not necessary—I find I can't afford to eat that way all the time, in funds or in time—but it went a long way toward making this meal feel like a treat I was giving myself. In all, I spent about $35 on everything you see here (with potatoes and tomatoes and eggs and olives and onion and greens left over), and got four good-size portions out of the deal. That's better bang for your buck than I generally get from eating out.

In the end, this is a salad. Some people just can't get all that excited about a salad, and I totally understand that. Sometimes I am some people, too. But the beauty of this salad is that there are so many components that each bite can taste a little bit different than the last, which makes your taste buds ever so happy. Especially if you save the olives for last.

There are a few tips to making this work as a quick meal, as opposed to feeling like you're making seven different dishes:

1. Cook the potatoes first. Blanch the green beans during the last few minutes of the potato cooking time.

2. Slice the onion, halve the tomatoes, trim the beans, and make the dressing while the potatoes cook. Also set your eggs out on the counter to come to room temperature.

3. Once the green beans and potatoes come out of the boiling water, add the eggs—fewer pots to wash!

4. Grill the tuna first, and slice the cooked potatoes in half; then add the potatoes, cut-side down, to the grill to pick up a little of that charred flavor (OK and maybe also so they'll look pretty.)

5. Set aside some dressing, and toss the warm potatoes in it the minute they come off the grill. FYI this does nothing to make the process easier or more efficient, it's just delicious.

6. Remember to have some ice on hand if at all possible for shocking the eggs. This makes the water cold-cold, so that egg whites gasp in horror and shrink from the shells, which makes peeling ever so much easier. I did not have ice, and ... well, you'll see there are three eggs here instead of four. (RIP fourth egg.)



Tuna Salad Niçoise

8 fingerling potatoes
10 ounces haricots vert or fresh green beans
½ 10-ounce package mixed baby lettuces
8 ounces grape tomatoes, halved
¼ large red onion, thinly sliced
16 pitted kalamata or niçoise olives
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced and divided
1 (8-ounce) tuna steak
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, at room temperature

1. Cook potatoes in boiling water to cover 15 minutes or until just tender. Add haricots vert to boiling water during last 3 minutes of cooking time. Remove haricots vert and potatoes from boiling water with tongs; place haricots vert in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Slice potatoes in half lengthwise. Set aside.

2. Whisk together mustard, vinegar, 2 tablespoons oil, and 1 garlic clove in a medium bowl. Set aside.

3. Season tuna on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat grill pan over medium-high heat, and brush lightly with olive oil. Cook tuna 3 minutes on one side; turn, and cook 1 to 2 minutes (for rare) or until desired degree of doneness. Set aside.

4. Place potatoes, cut sides down, on grill pan; cook 3 to 5 minutes or until potatoes are well marked. Remove to a bowl, and toss with about 2 tablespoons reserved dressing. Set aside.

5. Add eggs to boiling water; cook exactly 6 minutes, and remove to a bowl of ice water.

6. Heat remaining 1 garlic clove in remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet over medium heat about 1 minute or until fragrant. Add haricots vert, and toss until lightly heated through. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Cut tuna into thin slices. Carefully peel eggs, and gently cut in half crosswise.

7. Line a platter with baby lettuces; top with tomatoes, onion, olives, haricots vert, tuna, eggs, and potatoes. Serve with remaining dressing. Makes 4 servings.




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I am a work in progress. I perpetually need a hair cut. I'm totally devoted to my remarkable nieces and nephew. I am an elementary home cook and a magazine worker bee. (Please criticize my syntax and spelling in the comments.) I think my dog is hilarious. I like chicken and spicy things. I have difficulty being a grown-up. Left to my own devices, I will eat enormous amounts of cheese snacks of all kinds.