A Living Cookbook and Greek Chicken-Lemon Soup

Dear Joey,

As you know, I have a major weakness for cookbooks. If I happened upon an extra bit of money that I could spend on anything, you and I both know I would blow it on a new pile of cookbooks. Never mind the fact that I have three shelves full of them; I can confidently admit that I simply do not have enough of them. There’s always a new release I’m dying to get my hands on; an elusive, hard-to-come-by classic; those charming old cookbooks all tattered and splattered and dog-eared and very well-loved; and the ones I’ve never heard of that I fall madly in love with the moment I lay eyes on the cover.

I seem to go in phases with my cookbooks, working my way through them for a good solid year (at least), learning from them, experimenting with them and being inspired by them. Two years ago, I was all about the family meal. Bringing home baby number two compelled me to take a peek at how other mothers created the sacred rhythm of the family dinner in their own homes. (With two under two? What was I thinking?). Books like Jenny Rosenstrach‘s Dinner: A Love Story, and Laurie David and Kirstin Uhrenholdt‘s The Family Dinner were my guideposts. My cheerleaders.

A year later, disenchanted with the American food system (with particular regard to its meat supply), I was all about vegetarian cuisine and Mark Bittman‘s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and Mollie Katzen‘s The Moosewood Cookbook took up permanent residence in my collection. (Her divine recipe for pita bread is worth finding a copy of your own). And then, cookbook/memoirs took center stage in my cookbook repertoire, and I was convinced that life would be perfect if all cookbooks were written the way that  Shauna Niequist‘s Bread & Wine and Louisa Weiss’s My Berlin Kitchen were written.

 

This year, finally in a kitchen of my very own, and backed with an arsenal of family friendly, environmentally sound, healthy and delicious recipes (that were sure to create a sense of belonging for my little brood), I headed into my kitchen with confidence and my copy of Alana Chernila‘s The Homemade Pantry. If I could make it myself, I was going to. Bring on the memory making.

Before long, the books sat on the kitchen bookshelf, unused. The kitchen was quiet, and I sat idly by. Perceptive little Mia caught me gazing longingly at them during dinner one night. She asked what I was looking at, which snapped me out of my little reverie and made me realize just how much I missed pulling up a chair at someone else’s table, to be inspired by their stories instead of just by their recipes. I didn’t really do that anymore.

Dietary changes made it too painful to thumb through the pages of these books. The recipes reminded me of a time when thinking about eating healthy meant balancing food groups, limiting the bad stuff, going organic and non-GMO. Now, eating healthy meant eating so I didn’t feel like I was dying.

If last year’s theme of my kitchen life was the nostalgic joy of cooking, this year’s theme so far has largely been get me through this meal unscathed. Luckily, for me, it wasn’t really hard to figure out how to cook a meal without any grains in it (Grill some chicken. Steam some veggies. Done.)

The problem is cooking food like that is not my idea of fun–and you know me: I love to cook! And plus, I am so over reading about how and why to cut grains out of the diet. The majority of cookbooks I have read lately devote so much time and energy on explaining the perils of wheat and corn and soy and even rice (among so many others), and spend so very little time on the story behind the food they are promoting as healthy, let alone the story behind the recipes themselves.

 

For me, cookbooks are not so much about learning how to cook, but more about why to cook. Reading them is like peeking into the food life of other people, people who have gone, seen and learned things that I have not. Getting cozied up on the couch with one is not about making a list of ingredients and techniques to master; it’s about steeping myself in another person’s story, imagining the tastes and smells and experiences of another place and perspective for a moment, connecting to the heart of why they cook and being inspired to continue to refine the cooking culture here in our own kitchen.

If you have not figured it out by now, let me drive the point home: for me, cooking much more than prepping fuel to feed our bodies. It is feeding our spirits and nourishing our souls and creating a way of life within our home, knitting together bits and pieces of our collective pasts with the here and now of where we are as a family. It is celebrating heritage and creating a sense of belonging. It is hard to find a gluten-free cookbook (or grain-free one, for that matter) written from that perspective.

I had the loveliest conversation with my dad earlier this week. We were in the midst of running a not-so-fun errand and we found ourselves exchanging gluten-free/grain-free recipes. Ever the cook, he’s been low-carb for years and is always happy to share his recipes for some really yummy foods. I heard all about his lasagna-like casserole (where kale takes the stage), and I told him about my version of Greek chicken-lemon soup (where cauliflower works its cameleon magic). We talked about ingredients and methods, certainly, and also about how delicious the food was and how we really didn’t miss the grains at all. It was nice to share stories with someone who gets it, you know?
Embracing the gluten-free/grain-free way of eating in my own home and filling in my family on the why’s and how’s of why we’re eating differently feels funny enough, but talking about food and cooking with people who aren’t gluten-free or grain-free is even harder. (What do you eat? What do you cook? Is it hard?) So many casual conversations don’t have the room for a genuine answer. Thank God for the handful of people who have come alongside me this week- my dad and two of my dearest friends in the world (both of whom I rarely see–both in the same week!) to ask these questions and to listen to the real answer.

The real answer is Yes, it’s hard, and also No, it’s not hard at all. It is hard to give up the idea and the sentiment of the foods I used to eat. It is not hard to eat differently, especially when the food tastes as good as it does. Yes, it is hard to want to eat anything when you feel like you are dying, and no, it is not hard to not eat the things that make the pain worse.

It has been a week of talking these things out with people who care about me, about us. Talking about the things that are true and good and hard and important. Sharing meals, meager or strange as they may seem. Reliving old memories and being inspired to reinvent old recipes. Creating new memories that inspire new recipes.

I guess this week I learned that my life is a living cookbook, the one I have been looking for.

Love,
Scratch

Greek Chicken-Lemon Soup

adapted from Dinner: A Love Story‘s Avgolemeno

A Living Cookbook and Greek Chicken-Lemon Soup

It may not look like much, but this recipe is proof that it is possible to cook delicious and satisfying food without grains. A favorite of Joey’s, Avgolemeno is typically made with orzo or rice, but my version uses riced cauliflower. Before you freak out, think about this: both my 3 1/2 year old and my 2 year old devoured it. I call that a success. 

Ingredients:

4 cups gluten free chicken broth
10 oz. cauliflower
1 small onion
1 T butter (or ghee or olive oil or, or, or….)
4 large eggs
1/4 c lemon juice
1 1/2 c cooked and shredded chicken
salt & pepper, to taste

Method:

First, make sure you have pre-cooked chicken to work with. Leftover roast chicken works well here, or just throw a chicken breast or two in the crock pot for a couple hours. When done, shred the chicken and set aside a cup and a half for the soup. Or more, or less. Whatever you like.

Next, prep the cauliflower. You could use a cheese grater to “rice” the cauliflower (more time; courser texter), but I use a food processor (less time, finer texture). If you use a food processor, throw the onion in with the cauliflower to process in one easy step. If you don’t use a food processor, chop the onion finely after you finish preparing the cauliflower.

In a soup pot over medium high heat, add the butter (or other fat) and the cauliflower & onion. Sautee for a few minutes – about five or so – until the veggies are fairly soft. Add the broth and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a bare simmer (low heat).

Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs and the lemon juice. Then, ladle in a scoop of the simmering broth and whisk to combine. Then, pour back into the soup pot, whisking as you do so. The broth will turn opaque. Add the chicken and let the soup simmer for about 4 minutes to allow the eggy broth to cook. Add the salt and pepper to taste, adjusting as needed, and serve. Sprinkle dill on if you so desire.

Oh yeah, and DO NOT BOIL unless you want a curdled mess.


And So, I’ll Keep Going

Dear Joey,

When we moved, there were a few things that we swore up and down we would do once we got settled. Get Mia sleep-trained so we could have a full night of sleep. Move the girls into a shared bedroom. Make it a point to go on a date every week. Potty train Addie. Spend time with other adults, like you know, friends.

After all, living back across the hills with “built in babysitting” would change everything. Suddenly maintaining a regular social life with two kids under two years old at home would be not only possible, but simple.

Here we are four months later and the only goal we’ve managed to sort of accomplish is spending more time with other adults. You do so in the form of working grueling hours at the hospital, and me in the form of seeing my brothers and parents on a daily basis.  In some ways, being in on this side of the hills is easier in that I don’t have to drive a half an hour with two sleepy little girls in order to visit family or hang out with friends. But the truth is, family aside, I’m not sure I see them any more than I did before we moved. It’s just easier to do on short notice now, but those days are few and far between.

But, following through on my promise to myself, I joined MOPS, and unlike last time, I kept going, repeating to myself a phrase you said to me several years ago now: Faith isn’t in the knowing; it’s in the going.

And slowly, I’m getting to know some of the other girls, girls who probably joined for the same reasons I did; girls who are diverse and funny and talented and thoughtful; girls who make me realize that the things I face aren’t all that uncommon (loneliness, fatigue, a house that never stays clean); girls who stretch me and listen to me and value me and pray for me; girls who I’m fairly certain would be just a phone call away if I really needed them.
 
There are some mornings that I simply have to make myself go. Getting an infant and a toddler ready to go anywhere before 9 am can be really, really difficult. Sometimes it feels like more trouble than it’s worth. But I’ve never been disappointed, and I walk away encouraged and ready to face the rest of my week.

It’s a lot like cooking, really. I love the idea of challenging myself in the kitchen, and it is not uncommon for me to make lofty mental lists of the things I want to experiment with on a given day or week. Often, I really want to try something new, to step out of what I know and do something different, but when the opportunity presents itself to follow through on my plans (like when I finally have two sleeping kids), sometimes I have to make myself follow through.

What’s funny to me about all this is that it’s not the group of strangers or the work in the kitchen, or any number of other things that lay on the other side of starting something new that is the scary, cumbersome obstacle to overcome. It’s myself – it’s me being my own stumbling block.

Thank goodness for people like you who push me to get over myself, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the chance to find out that I can still make new friends. I wouldn’t have met these girls, or – and not any less significant – come upon this stack of recipes – Baked Chicken Parmesan, in particular. Sure, I might have stumbled upon similar recipes at some point, but there’s something much more meaningful about being passing recipes from person to person. The sorts of recipes that are staples at their house often end up being staples at our house.

Baked Chicken Parmesan will always remind me of more than just the girl who gave me the recipe (although I’m hoping that we do become good friends). It will remind me to just keep going, even when it seems too hard or just not all that worth it. Baked Chicken Parmesan will remind me that something really, really good can come from simple things, and that what seems difficult really isn’t all that complicated after all.

And so, I’ll keep going.

Love,
Scratch

Baked Chicken Parmesan
All of the ingredients listed below were from Trader Joe’s, but the only thing that really needs to be from there is the croutons. I don’t recommend Marie Calendar’s or similar croutons, as those aren’t substantial enough to hold their shape and texture. The croutons should be big & chunky and essentially be real pieces of bread. 

1 pack of frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts (thawed)
2 T olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
Kosher salt
1 1/4 tsp dried basil
2 1/2 cups Marinara sauce
8 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
4 oz grated Parmesan/Romano cheese blend (not fresh–from the can)
4oz bag of croutons (see note above)
1. Prep the chicken. There were four large chicken breasts in the pack from TJ’s; I cut them in half to make 8 breast pieces. 
2. Spread olive oil and garlic in the bottom of a Dutch oven. Place chicken pieces on top of the oil, sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt & the basil, then pour all of the sauce on top.
3. Sprinkle 1/2 the mozzarella and 1/2 the Parmesan on top of the sauce. Place croutons on top of cheese, then sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the croutons. 
4. Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes or until internal temp of chicken reaches 165 degrees. 

Comfort Food and Grandma’s Chicken & Noodles

Dear Joey,

I deserve an award for making it through the day yesterday on very little sleep, only one cup of coffee, three poopy diapers, one vomiting baby, an unexpected bout of loneliness, and facing one of my fears–all done without crying.

It all started when Mia got up super early and didn’t want to go back down until Addie woke up. I’m telling you–they’re out to get us, Joey. They’re testing our resilience, and some days, I’m convinced I’m failing.

But as I’ve told you many, many times (when you ask why in the world I start buzzing around the kitchen before finishing a proper cup of coffee), I wake up to the day much better if I just keep moving. Yesterday was no different. But boy, did I choose the wrong thing to keep me occupied. It seemed to curse me all day long, it’s fragrance mocking my efforts and making me come this close to declaring myself a vegetarian.

Grandma’s Chicken & Noodles. Sounds innocent enough, right? In some ways, it is. And my memory of it takes me back to more innocent times of my life when a simple bowl of those plump, juicy noodles set down in front of me made me feel that the world was an ok place to be.

Growing up, it was Grandma who was the master of Chicken & Noodles, although my mom made it for us on several occasions. Still, Grandma’s version always tasted a little bit better than Mom’s (I’m sure my mom would agree with me). But Grandma, when we asked for her secret on how to make it, would apologize for the way it always turned out, frustrated that the noodles soaked up all the broth. (Told you I come by it honestly.) But I digress.

The recipe was simple enough: boil a chicken, cook the noodles in the broth, shred the chicken, add it to the noodles and ta-da! You’ve got Chicken & Noodles. A simple, kid-friendly dish that fit right into my current plan for getting Addie to eat more than just chicken nuggets or PB&J. Yesterday was the perfect day to do it, too, since we  were up early and didn’t have plans to leave the house. (Simple as the dish is, it takes a bit of time.)

Perhaps it was my sleep-deprived state that made me stupid enough to think I could face my fear of chicken on the bone and tolerate working with a whole chicken. Then again, being sleep-deprived could be responsible making me more sensitive to working with a whole chicken. Maybe it was both.

In any case, touching a raw, whole chicken and putting it in the pot was hard, but it wasn’t anything compared to taking the meat off the bone. I’ll spare the grisly details, but let’s just say that when (if?) I make Chicken & Noodles again, I will not be doing it the way Grandma always did it.
Truth be told that when it came time for Addie to eat the finished product for dinner, I couldn’t blame her for not really wanting to eat it. After working with a chicken on the bone, I was so grossed out that I had a hard time even watching her eat it.  (Sorry, Grandma. I’m not made of the the same stuff you are.)

At first, I thought she liked it. After the first bite, she declared, “Good. More?” After just two more (small) bites, though, she refused to even look at the stuff anymore. And then, of course, she threw a fit when I took away her bowl. One of the many joys of having a toddler.

Oh well. There are worse things than a child not eating the meal you slaved over all day. Like having the sort of day that makes you realize how badly you need a friend around, the kind who is close enough (and willing) to come over and de-bone a chicken for you when you just don’t have the stomach to do so, or who would scrub baby vomit from the living room floor while you rocked the over-tired baby to sleep, or who would even just come over to bring you an Iced Soy Chai Tea Latte because she could hear it in your voice that you were desperate for one when she talked to you for the fourth time that day.

That’s why after both girls were in bed and the house was finally cleaned up and quiet, I told you that I didn’t know about you, but I was having popcorn for dinner.

Lucky for me, you said that sounded good to you, too.

Love,
Scratch


Grandma’s Chicken & Noodles

This dish is really a simple chicken noodle soup in which the noodles have absorbed all the broth. Apparently Grandma didn’t intend for the noodles to do so the first time she made it, but it was a happy accident that resulted in one of her classic recipes. There aren’t any veggies in the original, but you could easily add some if you wanted to (I added peas to ours, and it turned out quite good).

Although not the way Grandma did it, you could really use about four chicken breasts if you don’t have the stomach for working with a whole chicken. It won’t have the same amount of fat in it (and thus, it will change the richness of flavor), but on the upside, it would be lower in fat.

 Ingredients:
1 whole chicken
1 pkg. egg noodles
salt
pepper
Method:
Put the chicken in a large pot; cover with water. Give the water a good bit of salt, and bring it to a boil. Simmer the chicken for at least 1 1/2 hours. When it’s done, remove the chicken and strain the liquid, reserving the broth. Do not skim off the fat.
Return about 4 cups of broth to the pot. Bring to a boil and add the noodles. Boil for about 10 minutes, then turn down the heat and let the noodles simmer until they absorb all the liquid. 
Meanwhile, once the chicken has cooled, shred the meat. Add all of it to the noodles. Add salt & pepper to taste. Add frozen peas (or other vegetables) if desired.

It’s Just Too Hot to Cook, and Chinese Chicken Salad Two Ways

Dear Joey,

It’s summer, so don’t be surprised if I answer your daily question of “What are we doing for dinner?’ with Chinese Chicken Salad. You know the one: it’s the salad that I make more times a year than probably any other salad, the one that my friends ask me (beg me?) to make when it’s too hot outside to think about cooking, the one that makes me happy just thinking about it.

My mom got the recipe from my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Terry, who made the salad with cabbage and peanuts and a very oily dressing. Over the years the recipe became my mom’s recipe, and eventually it became my own (as these things often do). Sometimes we make it with cabbage and peanuts, but most often (and especially when I make it for friends), it’s the version using romaine and almonds that shows up. UPDATE: we only ever make it with almonds now that we have a child who is allergic to peanuts.

The reason I make this so much? Well, I guess you could blame my mother (at least I come by it honestly). It was her go-to dish for church potlucks, the easy answer to the “What’s for dinner?” question on hot summer nights, and one of the few salads that my brothers and I would all voluntarily eat and enjoy. It just wouldn’t be summer without having it at least a dozen times, if not more.

Good thing you like it, huh?

Love, Scratch

Chinese Chicken Salad, Two ways
 
This salad is cool and crisp, light but satisfying, and easy. It’s also very versatile. Make it with romaine and almonds or with cabbage and peanuts (or try whatever combination of those things that sounds good to you). You could really prep the ingredients any way you like and toss them together in any proportion you like, but here’s how I do it. Whatever you do, you won’t be disappointed. It’s all around the perfect summertime meal. But I make it all year long because it’s just that good.
Made with Lettuce:
2 Hearts of Romaine, sliced into ribbons
1/2 English cucumber, sliced into half moons
2 carrots, sliced
3 green onions, sliced
2 grilled chicken breasts, sliced
toasted almonds (omit for NF)
                                                       crunchy chowmein noodles (omit for GF)

Made with Cabbage:

1 medium head of cabbage, chopped
3 green onions, sliced
2 grilled chicken breasts, chopped
salted peanuts (omit for NF)
crunchy chowmein noodles (omit for GF)
Here’s where the salads are the same…

Dressing Ingredients:

1/4 cup water
1/4 cup plain vinegar
1/4 cup low sodium Tamari (gluten free soy sauce)
1 1/2 T sesame oil
1/4 c sugar, plus more if you like a sweeter dressing
Method:
Toss everything except crunchy noodles into a big bowl and coat evenly. The more dressing, the better. I find that it tastes better if you let it sit for about 15 minutes before serving. Add the crunchy noodles and enjoy.