August 27, 2010

What I'm Putting Out - Chicken with Yogurt and Indian Spices

Now that Meara is a few months old and a LITTLE bit less clingy, and now that I'm home all day, I'm able to cook much more, which I'm quite pleased about. I found this recipe in my favorite cookbook of the moment, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. It literally tells you how to cook everything and offers lots of simple yet interesting recipes. I especially like that the author often gives you a basic recipe, then follows it with five or six variations so you can easily expand your cooking repertoire.

So, the chicken. The recipe seemed fairly simple and easy, but I got so-so results, probably due mainly to the fact that I didn't follow the directions as well as I could have.

The Indian spices of the title are garlic, ground ginger, cayenne, cumin, coriander, cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon. That's them in the picture at the top in my handy dandy little-glass-bowl-for-holding-ingredients-so-you-feel-like-an-official-television-chef. Aren't they pretty?

I've always had a hard time replicating the depth and intensity of Indian flavors at home. I suspect it's because real Indian cooking requires toasting and grinding whole spices immediately before using, a step for which I never, ever have time. The spice blend called for in this recipe was a pretty good equivalent, though, of flavors I've had at Indian restaurants. The recipe also called for cooking the dry spices for a bit with the onions and oil before adding the chicken and yogurt. I think that helped release more of the flavor. I will definitely use this spice blend and technique in my future Indian-style cooking.

I substituted a package of boneless thighs for the cut-up whole chicken I was supposed to use. I also skipped the browning step that the recipe listed as optional, and after adding the yogurt and chicken, I had the heat too high because I was in a hurry to get dinner on the table. And it cost me. The thighs I chose not to brown were pale, flabby and unappetizing, and the sauce, which curdled because the heat was too high, was too much for the smaller amount of chicken. The sauce tasted good, but looked fairly unappetizing. I think the recipe would have been awesome if I'd given myself the time to make it properly.

Here's the chicken recipe. Enjoy!

Chicken with Yogurt and Indian Spices
from How to Cook Everything

1/4 cup peanut or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 8 pieces, or any combination of parts
1 large or 2 medium onions, sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped or grated fresh ginger or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups yogurt
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Put the oil in a deep skillet with a lid or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chicken, skin side down, and brown it well, rotating and turning the pieces as necessary; the process will take 10 to 15 minutes. (You can skip this step if you like; heat a tablespoon of oil and go directly to cooking the onions.)

2. When the chicken is nicely browned, remove it from the skillet and turn the heat down to medium. Pour or spoon off all but a tablespoon of the oil. Stir in the onions, along with some salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, and spices, along with 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Cook with the onions, stirring, until very aromatic, 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in the yogurt, then return the chicken pieces to the pan.

3. Cover and cook over medium-low heat so that the mixture doesn't boil, turning the pieces every 5 minutes or so, until the chicken is cooked through, 10 to 20 minutes (longer if you skipped the browning step); it's okay if the mixture curdles a bit. The bird is done when an intstant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 155-165 degrees. Taste and adjust the seasoning, garnish with cilantro, and serve.

August 19, 2010

What I'm Thinking About - And Now My Life Has Changed in Oh So Many Ways...

Last time I posted here I was a pregnant working mother of one. I am now a jobless mother of two. Thank God.

Before I got married, I casually assumed I'd be a stay-at-home mother like my own mom. Then I got pregnant much earlier than we planned, we bought a house, we bought a minivan, and that second income seemed indispensable. I was working mainly for the benefits. I didn't much like the actual work I did, and going to the office every day at a job that was purely utilitarian got harder and harder, especially when I got pregnant for the second time.

My husband and I discussed for years the possibility of me leaving my job, but it never happened. Then, just a few days before my maternity leave for our daughter was up, my boss (and the company's owner) died suddenly, the guy who took over drastically cut "overhead," (funny to be told that you are overhead, like a desk or a computer) and I got laid off.

And I am suddenly free to chase after any number of things that seemed out of reach before.

Not that being home with my children is easy. All the things that I thought I'd have so much time for if I didn't work - cooking, knitting, visiting other moms, running, reading, praying and especially writing - only happen if I fight hard for the time and space to do them. I'm only able to write this right now because I forced myself out of bed at 5:45 a.m. Yesterday morning I couldn't even get myself dressed until 11 o'clock. Every day I submit to the demands of my little ones with varying measures of grace.

These short times of quiet aloneness happen infrequently and are more precious because they are so rare. I've been planning to wake up early for over a week now, ever since my husband the teacher went back to work. This is the first morning I've been able to make myself do it. But oh, how worthwhile it is. When your time is no longer your own, any solitude is pure luxury. I sit at my window on this late August morning watching the wind toss the trees around in the gray light. The air is cool, a reminder that the season will soon be changing. And I am grateful that I am awake, and quiet enough to notice these things.

February 16, 2010

What I'm Thinking About - Convicted by My Not-Quite-Two-Year-Old

I'm pregnant again, which means that my moods run from high to low in an alarmingly uncertain and dramatic fashion these days. Being a working mother doesn't help, and getting my little son and myself out of the house in the mornings without losing my temper and my patience is one of my great challenges.

It's also Lent, my favorite season of the year, but one in which my good intentions fall far short of my reality. I'm always overzealous in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. Instead of picking one key thing to work on, my mind rifles through the file of faults in my head: I'll give up gossip, meat, sweets, white flour, negative comments, TV, biting my nails, soda, cursing and eating between meals. Oh, and I'll pray every morning, I'll write every evening, I'll go to Adoration once a week, and I'll be more patient with my husband and son.

I will perfect my life in 40 days. It never works.

So here we are, Seamus and I, on a typical morning, driving to his babysitter's house. He's eating a Nutrigrain bar for breakfast in the car, spilling his juice on the floor, taking off his shoes and socks, crying because he dropped his binky somewhere where I can't reach it to give back to him. I'm maybe eating a Nutrigrain bar too, trying to drink coffee without spilling it because my husband took the only clean travel mug this morning, and cursing under my breath (so my mimicking-everything little boy won't hear me) at the driver in front of me who is not driving as fast as I would like.

Every morning we pass our beautiful church (Immaculate Conception in Towson, and thank you to the Maryland Historical Society Web site for the lovely image at the top of this post). It sits on a hill, cathedral-like, soaring above the high rises, apartment complexes and restaurants of this part of our town. A week or so ago, as I was in the midst of my morning meltdown, I heard my son's little voice behind me say, "Jee-Jee house? Hi, Jee-Jee!" And he blew Jee-Jee (Jesus) a kiss. Then he said, "P'ay, Mommy?" and folded his little hands.

There is nothing more heartening than seeing your children absorb and return the things you try to teach them. Struggling for a way to explain church to my toddler, I told him that although Jesus is everywhere with us all the time, churches are His special house. Right in the middle of the stress of everyday life, my baby son reminded me of the simplest of truths - Here is Jesus, let's pray. So we made up a simple little prayer that he reminds me to say every day now, as we pass the church. "Dear Jesus, we love you. We know you love us too. Please help us to love others better."

That's about the only regular Lenten devotion I've been able to manage this year, but it's enough. Thanks, Seamus.

January 7, 2010

What I'm Putting Out - New Year's Eve Dinner

New year, new dedication to my blog. I have been sadly remiss since I started this, and one of my new year's resolutions is to get back to (or should I say start?) posting regularly. So, in the spirit of the new year, this post will address the dinner I and a friend cooked for New Year's Eve.

After seeing Julie and Julia, my friend Courtney and I wanted to cook our own French-inspired, butter- and cream-laden feast. We picked New Year's Eve to give ourselves a few months to practice different dishes and techniques. The practice never happened, but the dinner did. We took most or our recipes out of "How to Cook Everything" except for the dessert recipes, which we found online, and the duck breast marinade, which came from "The Joy of Cooking." Unfortunately, not a single recipe came from any of Julia's cookbooks. Maybe next year.
Here's the menu: appetizers were marinated olives, bread with roasted garlic spread, and broiled figs stuffed with cream cheese, honey and fresh rosemary. Our first course was home-made french onion soup.

The main course was pan-seared duck breast with an arugula blue cheese salad and cream braised potatoes. The potatoes are simmering away in butter and cream in my new red cast iron dutch oven. Oh, the joys of being a food nerd. I love this pot! Dessert was wine and honey poached pears, also simmering away here, and chocolate mousse.

By the end of the cooking day, Seamus, who was pretty patient for a 20 month old kept away from his mama all day, had enough and refused to be anywhere but on my hip. Courtney's wearing her mom's apron from Cracker Barrel. It says Anne Marie.

We only had a few hiccups - the figs were (I thought) too sweet, my husband accidentally threw out the wine honey sauce for the pears that had been reducing to perfection for hours, and the chocolate mousse was maybe just a little too thick and rich. The soup, however, was an unequivocal success. I didn't like the duck, but everyone else did, and the potatoes were amazing, swimming in their chowdery, cream-and-butter broth.

I love cooking - I love trying new recipes, I love chopping and slicing, simmering and frying and arranging on a plate. I like the service involved in cooking for others, and I like the communion you can find around the dinner table. Somtimes I just like cooking for the pure sensory joy of taste. I think this dinner had all of these elements. It was a good way to start the new year.

August 5, 2009

What I'm Putting Out - Poem: There Is a Face

There Is a Face

There is skin, and under
the skin, bone and under
the bone, light. The bad blows I strike
break skin and splinter bone,
but the light remains
steady, a tall flame on a still night.

There is a face I love,
but forget I love
when I forget the light
behind the skin, behind the bone,
and strike my misdirected blows.

The one I love is not
the skin nor the bone
but the light behind, as I am
truly light, under everything,
despite the dark, because the light
which is the love
absorbs the blows
and burns the bad.

May 13, 2009

What I'm Taking In - A Poem a Day

For Christmas, my husband bought me "Poem a Day, Volume 1" edited by Karen McCasker and Nicholas Albery , and it has sat on our bookshelf, unopened, since then. Recently I've been trying to read a short reflection and snatch a moment of prayer in the mornings since my infant son is now able to feed himself breakfast. I came across "Poem a Day" as I was packing up our bookshelves in preparation for the move to our first house, and decided to add a poem to my morning routine.

I read the poem for January 1st rather than for May 13, which turned out to be a very good place to start:

New Every Morning
by Susan Coolidge

Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows,
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.

I'm quite excited by this new discipline! I am sometimes overwhelmed by the conflict between my desire for art and literature and the pouring out of my time on my work and my family. But a poem a day is quite manageable, as well as being, I hope and believe, transformative.

On a related note, one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, started the program Poetry 180, which you can check out here. It's a program designed to make it easy for high school students to hear a poem on each of the 180 days of the school year. He says that poetry can and should be part of our everyday lives. I prefer to see poetry as simple daily bread, wholesome and nourishing, rather than a grand, occasional feast. How about you? How do you view poetry? Are you willing to try to incorporate it into your every day?

March 6, 2009

What I'm Thinking About - Ash Wednesday

(This post is a bit late, but still appropriate to the season.)

"This is the time of tension between dying and birth."
T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Today is the first day of Lent. When I go to church this evening, the sanctuary will be draped in purple. The altar will be bare of the usual floral explosions. It will be quiet and dim. Today my face will be marked with ashes to remind me that I once did not exist as flesh, and that one day again, like so much dust, my body will disintegrate. Having a child made me acutely aware of mortality - witnessing the beginning of a life only drove home that there is an end. Ash Wednesday reminds me of the same thing: Rember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

I know that many people - religious and non-religious alike - don't understand the season of Lent. To outside eyes, it seems Christians subject ourselves to guilt, berate ourselves with our failings, and give up our pleasures. All for what? To appease an angry God who demands perfection? To strip ourselves of the trappings of earth in order that we might prepare for the white clouds and bright light of a poorly imagined heaven?

No. To acknowledge the holy dirt that forms our bodies, and to seek the sacred light that illuminates our souls.

Every Lent I return to the knowledge that the dust that forms me has been shaped by the breath of God. I love this tension between the earthy and the ethereal. All that comes with being mortal - beauty, love and intelligence as well as hard work, suffering and plain old dirt - is holy. And just to prove to us how beautiful and holy the heaven that our earthly life leads to is, God became dirt himself. Jesus entered into and sanctified humanity in order that we would see how this world reflects His world, and how His world is the fulfillment of this world perfected. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Amen. Let it be done according to His will.