*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. 




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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.