Pizza Chicken for Millennials

I read an article recently about Millennials (yes, I realize how “Millennial” it is of me to be reading articles about Millennials) and it really ignited something in me. It’s a long read but, to paraphrase, it essentially notes that most people think we have cushy lives and like to complain about it, but there is a lot of data to show that our exclamations on how hard our lives can be are, in fact, pretty damn true. While I won’t go into too much detail, it did make me feel better that there are legitimate reasons for why I struggle so much to afford to live in my shoebox apartment in a large city on what is only a little more than a minimum wage salary. It makes me feel better to say that I feel “burnout” when I don’t want to work on my side hustle and watch The Bachelor instead. It provides some sort of reasoning for why I just now replaced a lightbulb in my bathroom that’s been out for over a year.

The article also goes on to talk about how a lot of the things that are good for us, that are supposed to be activities that are relaxing and rejuvenating, often feel bad. For example, I go to yoga to enter a space of meditation but somehow thoughts of debt and to-do lists shroud my shavasana body. I go to acupuncture to relieve my stress-induced neck tension, yet the thought of spending an hour laying on a table when I could be working on an art commission just adds more stress.

I mean, just look at this food blog here. Remember when it used to get so much love? Two posts a month! I laugh at that now. Now we’re lucky if I scrape together a pot of rice, divide it between two pyrex containers, and call that meal prepping. Sometimes I actually buy a cheap large pizza because I know that it can be 4 affordable meals. It becomes harder and harder to be healthy, to enjoy putting together nourishing and exciting meals. It’s too exhausting to plan. To execute. To clean up after. 

Luckily, my energy to do these enjoyable life activities seems to be coming back. Maybe it’s the new year, success in the dating realm, a random streak of sunny days, and the prospects of a trip to Mexico in two weeks? Who knows. But somehow I fell asleep in acupuncture today and woke up feeling like a new person. I went to yoga and actually focused on my breathing. And, for some reason, the fates had me scrolling through my safari tabs on my phone the other day (I have about 40, do not judge me) and I just felt so inspired to make a recipe for “Pizza Chicken” that I had opened on my phone years ago. I made a shopping list! I splurged on San Marzano tomatoes! I planned a side salad! …Though I will say the salad is now becoming a bit of a normal thing these days because I’ve just been drenching kale in Ina Garten’s shallot mustard dressing and it’s like crack to me. Not a bad addiction tbh. 

But Pizza Chicken. Oh man. Lemme tell you about this. It’s my new thing. It’s basically a vat of tangy/spicy/smoky tomato sauce and you put some chicken thighs that you seared in bacon fat inside and cover it with mozzarella. Yep. It actually does taste like pizza. It’s a game changer. And maybe part of the point is that it’s supposed to save you carbs but still feel like comfort food? However, it does end up being kinda soupy so I dish it out onto a big ole pile of cheesy polenta and OMG it’s heaven. Then, your shallot dressing salad gets a bit of the overflow of the tomato sauce mixed in too and you’ll never be happier that your foods mingle a little bit. It’s not necessarily the easiest dish, or the cheapest dish. It takes the time and the effort that goes along with giving a shit about food but, overpowering my millennial mindset that takeout will solve my problems, it is worth it.

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Pizza Chicken

Ingredients
4 boneless skinless chicken thighs
2 strips of thick smoked bacon, diced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
2 Tbs capers, drained
1/4 tsp. red chili flakes
1 28oz can whole peeled tomatoes
2 pints fresh cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 8oz container of small mozzarella balls 

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Pat the chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. Place a cast iron dutch oven on the stove. Add the bacon to the pot and set it to medium-high. Cook the bacon until crispy and transfer to a paper-towel lined plate. Set aside.

In the pot with the bacon grease, add the chicken thighs. Cook for 4 minutes each side until browned but not yet cooked fully through. Transfer to the plate with the bacon.

In the same pot with the bacon and chicken residue still fully there, add the garlic, capers, and chili flakes. Cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute. Add the cherry tomatoes and the basil. Additionally, fish out the whole tomatoes from the can of tomatoes and add them to the pot along with a splash of the tomato juice. Discard the rest. Cook on the stove for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and pressing on the cherry tomatoes with your spoon to release some juices. 

Transfer the bacon and the chicken back to the pan. Stir well and place in the oven for 25 minutes. At this point you can prepare polenta if you’d like, or another starch, and make the dressing for a side salad. 

Remove the pot from the oven and scatter the mozzarella balls overtop. Place back in the oven for a few more minutes until the cheese is melted. Serve on its own or overtop polenta with your salad. Make sure each serving has plenty of mozzarella and the briny/bacony sauce. 

Applesauce Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

For the last year, I’ve been doing yoga pretty regularly thanks in part to how excellent it feels and also in part to discovering the most inspirational and community-creating teacher I’ve ever had, Shuja De’Peace. Really, if I can recommend anything, it’s finding a Shuja in your life. Each Friday I go to his hip-hop inspired class (with a touch of freestyle dancing) to “flow hard and love deep” and 10 times out of 10 leave feeling like I just sweated out about 5 pounds of anxiety. We roar like lions, sing Rihanna, and clap when it’s done…that’s how amazing this class is.

This past Friday as we begin, Shuja tells us that he recently learned about the human body’s reaction to the changing of the season and especially the transition from summer to fall. It is a time where it is so important for us to actualize desires. It’s like a “if you want it, then you should have it” sort of time in life. If the body wants exercise, grant it that. If any sort of bodily function needs to happen, do it. Sex? Hell yeah! In a way it mimics how animals prepare for hibernation, to fulfill needs and wants, when they are wanted to prepare for the transition into a time and a season that’s a bit tougher, physically and emotionally.

Per usual, this resonated hard. I’ve had a tough couple of months, to be honest. Being a newly-ish single person requires remembering that person that you were before, that you admired and loved so much, before your life became intertwined in so many ways with another person’s. You emerge into this new space feeling naked and vulnerable, like each day progresses with a missing…something. You sort of grabble at the things that come up in each day and take on each new opportunity because that feels like the only way to make it through. So then of course it would be logical that now especially, now that I’m finally feeling “me” again at this time of transition, I should indulge the desires, the things my body craves.

And last week my soul needed cake. 

One of my many social activities last week was a visit to Book Larder, a cookbook bookstore, to listen to a discussion with Julia Turshen, author of the new Now and Again, and local Seattle food legend, Molly Wizenberg. We also had the wonderful pleasure to meet with Julia during the book signing. Her messages of using food to facilitate change for the good and just generally giving a fuck about what you eat fit in with all of this too, a message about using something that you need to also feed the soul when it needs feeding. And from the good ole world of Instagram, I know already that her applesauce cake has been a mega hit. I just couldn’t resist.

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This cake is everything for me at this point in life when ALL of my baking things live in Virginia and I, lonely and KitchenAid-deprived, live in Seattle. But guess what! This cake doesn’t need a mixer! You just need a bowl, and some jacked yoga arms to whip of the frosting. Good thing I’m well equipped on both fronts. The resulting cake, lightly sweetened and heavily spiced, is what I would describe at the perfect “snacking cake” It’s sturdy, though not stodgy, and only needs a mini little layer of the frosting to amp it up with a bit of tang. Will cake fix everything right now? No, probably not, but it sure felt damn good to feed that craving, to listen to what I want, and do that.

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Applesauce Cake with Honey Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes one round cake
From Julia Turshen’s
Now and Again

For the Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs ground cinnamon
1 Tbs ground ginger
1½ tsp diamond crystal kosher salt
2 tsp baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup sugar
½ cup buttermilk or plain yogurt
1½  cups unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup coconut oil

 For the Frosting
6 oz room temperature cream cheese
2 Tbs. sour cream
¼ cup honey
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch cake tin with a round of parchment paper and spray with cooking spray or rub the bottom and sides with some coconut oil.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, ground ginger, salt, and baking soda. Whisk to combine. Add in the eggs, sugar, buttermilk, applesauce, and coconut oil and whisk again until the mixture is just combined. Use a rubber spatula to transfer to the baking tin.

Bake for 50-55 minutes or until just firm, golden, and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the middle. Place on a wire rack and let cool completely.

Meanwhile, use a whisk or a mixer to combine the cream cheese, sour cream, honey, and salt until light and whippy.

When the cake is cool, invert onto another cooling rack, remove the parchment, and flip again onto a platter so it’s right side up. Frost the top of the cake with as little or as much of the frosting as you desire.

Adventuring Alone

Clutching onto the railing of the Bainbridge Island Ferry, my current home recedes. At a distance, the Seattle skyline is a sight to behold. Despite its shiny skyscrapers, its proud Space Needle, it still appears to be brooding, a cold and shivering shadow, a vast expanse of greenery and grey. It warms my heart with its beauty but also exudes a much deeper, yet still beautiful, sadness. My tears are from the breeze, right? I pull my sweater closer around me as the city fades behind the mist.

Adventuring alone is an art, one that I've nearly perfected in my days. Right now I'm rusty but it comes back to me with surprising ease. It requires a certain stillness of the mind, openness to the whole idea of "being in the present." Maybe there's a book, a song, or a podcast involved in that present. These days it’s Lana del Rey, Mazzy Star, and Joni Mitchell. Maybe silence itself becomes the companion, sharing what I see, what I feel. 

In the silence, I become much more aware of the oddly intimate moments I share with strangers or even with objects. In one afternoon I found myself standing still at a crosswalk next to someone intensely eating tapioca pudding and then, moments later, hearing a hoard of wind chimes sing in the breeze and feeling like the only person witness to their sad tones. These moments are so small yet are amplified in my meandering consciousness, a strange connectivity with the world. 

Oh, my father sighs, if only we had a screwdriver that could unscrew wrongheaded ideas; if only we had a hammer to drive home good intentions; if only we had a pipe wrench to tighten hearts in everlasting love; a saw that we could use to make a clean cut with the past!
— Stefano Benni, Margherita Dolce Vita

I’m more aware of my own mind too. These days it’s more prone to making me cry and worry, like a bully who tries to convince me that all of the rational things, all of the things that I know for sure, are not actually what I should follow. I know that this will normalize again soon. It’s these solo adventures that help with the process and remind me of the good that my mind can do for myself. They inspire me, encourage me, and provide me with simply the fresh cool air that revives my spirit. 

In addition to these explorations, I still let my hands work, of course. A little macramé every day, the sort of non-recipe cooking that depends on instinct rather than rules, even washing dishes. These act as the sort of the scotch tape of my life. It’s no super glue, but it’s doing the job right now.

While I mend, the long walks I take in this cooling, hint-of-fall weather send me on a whirlwind trip through nostalgia. It takes me back to London, which smelled like cigarettes mingling with the warm coffee air that wafted from cafes. It takes me to a brisk fall in Boston and a 7-course dinner with my sister, to chasing my dogs in the leaves, and to memories of other times I’ve crawled my way back from the darkness. With each day, wherever I am, the breeze washes away loneliness, pain, confusion and I’m left with pure and true me, and nothing could be better than that.

Cherry Oat Crumble

I moved to Seattle at the very start of winter and even before I felt like I was given the chance to hit the ground running, the world itself seemed to be losing its energy. Trampled leaves blanketed sidewalks in grey and brown rot and the sun sighed out every last bit of life by the time I’d leave work. For my first 6 months here, I knew only rain and cold and darkness and listened to the tales of the elusive “summer” that shyly crawls in each year for its brief time to shine. And, at last, that time arrived.

This summer has been tinged with its own bit of magic I’ve never really seen in summer before. Far from the sticky hot, firefly and cicada ones of my home, these don’t hesitate to remind you that there are still snow-capped mountains across the sound, touching the perpetually blue skies. It lets you know that the sun does, in fact, know how to stay up past bedtime, and that, unfortunately, everyone suffers through a heat wave together because this place has no concept of air conditioning. To my utter delight as well, it has been a haven for cherries and the only place I know of where Whole Foods has the occasional $3.99/pound of Rainier Cherries.

With cherries aplenty, that I normally just decide to snack on, I was reminded that fruit desserts so often are the best kind: thrown together. And that is exactly the only kind I can make when the larger portion of my baking supplies remains boxed up in my parent’s garage 3000 miles away. So tell me that I only need a bowl and a pyrex dish?? Hell, I’m game even if it does require a brief span of time where the oven is on. And given that some of my favorite summer desserts fall into the category of crumble/crisp/cobbler, not only for the crunchy, buttery bits but also because of their natural affinity for ice cream, I couldn’t resist a little cherry crumble action.

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This particular crisp makes use of a gluten free topping, one that is comprised of both whole oats and oat flour. Although quite wet and sandy when mixed together, it bakes up beautifully into crisp and golden nuggets with a deep nutty flavor due to both almonds and almond extract. The filling uses sweet cherries mixed with blueberries and lemon juice for an added bit of tang. This is a time where a cherry pitter would have been a nice addition to life but, alas, a paring knife and 30 minutes of spare time had to suffice. Regardless of how you get there, however, that deep rich cherry syrup will make it worth every last bit of effort from your cherry-stained hands.

Cherry Oat Crumble

Adapted from The Kitchn

Ingredients

For the Fruit Filling
12oz blueberries
1lb 4oz pitted sweet cherries, quartered
½ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs cornstarch
zest of 1 lemon
1 Tbs lemon juice

For the Crumble Topping
2 cups gluten free oats, divided
½ cup slivered almonds
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
½ tsp. salt
8 Tbs (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9x9 inch glass baking dish.

In a small bowl combine the granulated sugar and cornstarch. In a larger bowl, combine the fruit. Add the sugar mixture, lemon zest, and lemon juice and stir to combine. Tip the fruit into the baking dish.

Add 1 cup of the oats to a food processor or blender and process until you have a fine flour. Add the almonds and pulse a few times until they are the texture of coarse sugar. Transfer to a bowl. Add the remaining cup of oats, brown sugar, and salt and stir to combine. Stir in the butter, vanilla extract and almond extract. Use your hands to combine well and gently squeeze the mixture into chunky crumbles.

Scatter the crisp topping over the fruit and bake until the fruit juices are bubbling around the edges and the topping is golden and crisp. Let cool for 30 minutes before dishing up and serving with vanilla ice cream.

Grain and Kale Salad with Chicken and Cranberries

In case you've been checking back here regularly, because I'm sure soooo many of you are, you will see a significant absence of posts. How is it that back in November I'm saying, "Oh look I'm in Seattle!" and then...nothing? Not a whisper of elaborate dishes, no artfully constructed tabletops, no sun-drenched flights of beer while gaggles of beanie-clad folk mingle and laugh in the background. 

If I must be honest, food for me these days is more about eating on a budget in a kitchen the size of Harry Potter's cupboard under the stairs. I buy takeout with coupon codes and turn it into leftovers. My default uninspired dish of "a pot of rice" emerges more than I care to admit. And then there’s the fact that a trip to the grocery store requires a half-mile and uphill walk, meaning I limit myself to one reasonably-sized bag. 

In addition, the Seattle winter has lived up to its reputation of dreary, drizzly and cold with the occasional spring-like day thrown into the mix that elicits a mindset of, "what soup shall I make this week?" whenever I think about meal prep. I then live on the soup for 5 days, heating up leftovers that precariously tilt and tip in the bowl balancing on my knee while I endlessly tie the knots of some macramé project or another. 

Every now and then I look over at this compilation of years and years of my inspiration and fascination with cooking and get worried that the passion that once filled me so much got muddled somewhere along the way. I used to live for combining flavors, obsessed over putting together lists of recipes I want to try. Now I just linger around the produce aisle in a rut of indecisiveness. “Broccoli or Asparagus? Broccoli or Asparagus?”

Strangely, a few weeks ago, I was struck with an idea out of nowhere for a myriad of flavors that I craved all at once. A grain salad of sorts that combined protein and fiber, crunch and chew, salt, fat, and acid. I went to Trader Joes in a frenzy and once home, concocted something that I loved so much, that I found so incredibly craveable, that I made it again as soon as I was out.  It’s by no means genius but it was mine. For the first time in so long I was inspired and, trusting only what I’ve learned in my years of cooking about how much/how long/how to, I made something that really worked. The inspiration was of course not lost but tucked away, hiding behind the same low-hanging clouds that scrape the tops of the buildings I see from my window. At last, the fog could be lifting.

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Grain and Kale Salad

serves 6

Ingredients

8 oz. quick-cooking farro
1.5 lbs chicken breasts
2 small leeks, trimmed
2 cloves of garlic
2 bunches of lacinato kale, cleaned with leaves stripped from the stems
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1 lemon
6 oz. crème fraiche
½ cup roasted and salted pepitas
salt and pepper, to taste
manchego or pecorino cheese (optional)

Prep the vegetables. Cut the trimmed leeks lengthwise and then cut crosswise into ½ inch half moons. Transfer the leeks to a colander and thoroughly rinse. Mince the garlic and then tear the cleaned and dried kale into rough pieces.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the farro and cook according to the package instructions. Once cooked through, drain, return to the pot, cover, and set aside to keep warm until ready to use.

While the farro cooks, add olive oil to a large and deep skillet and heat over medium. Salt and pepper both sides of the chicken and add to the skillet. Cook until golden on the outside and all of the pink is gone in the center, 6-7 minutes per side. When the chicken is cooked through, transfer to a cutting board to rest. After a short rest, chop into bite-sized pieces.

In the same skillet that you used for the chicken, add another splash of olive oil, the kale and the garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring frequently until slightly wilted. Add a ½ cup of water and cover, leaving a small vent for steam. Let the kale braise like this for about 5-7 minutes.

Reduce the heat to low and add the cranberries, chicken, and the cooked farro. Cover and let sit for another 5 minutes until the cranberries become soft. Remove the pot from the heat and add the zest and juice of the lemon, the crème fraiche, and the pepitas. Mix well and taste, adding salt and pepper as needed.

To serve, dish up a bowl of the grain salad and top with shaved pieces of the cheese, if desired.