simple roast chicken

I used to read food blogs on a daily basis, and subscribe to (and yes, read) Cook’s Illustrated. I even made their chicken once. Baking and cooking used to play a much more central role in my life. I even started this wacky thing called a food blog.

All that was before getting a grown-up job (sort of ) and moving to California, where my secondary hobby, triathlon, staged an uprising and usurped Suzie Homemaker. These days, we do consume more meals out, but we also make far more simple meals that don’t require recipes. Because of that, and spending far more time in front of a computer screen than when I started out, freshcrackedpepper has quieted down significantly. But thanks to the recent encouragement of some fell0w fitness-minded friends (you know who you are), I’ve decided that I’m not ready to let it die just yet.

(And, for someone who used to be an obsessive journal-keeper, this blog also serves as an interesting record of my no-longer-journal-obsessed life. The other night Mark and I were trying to figure out when we’d become friends with a certain couple, and what did I do? I checked the blog. There they were! “…a tempting invitation from friends to come over and eat chocolate cake all afternoon kept me away.”)

Anyway, onto the food.

Now that I’m finished my main races of the year (Oceanside and Orangeman) and triathlon training has taken a backseat to yoga and TRX and a new run focus, we’ve started cooking more. There’s been lentil soup and butternut squash soup and pumpkin muffins and muesli (most made without consulting a recipe). I’m focused less on perfection, and more on the creative act of throwing things together. Just the other day I said to Mark, “we have to keep cooking like this when I’m training for Ironman in the spring!” One can dream.

And, thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s fun techniques episode of “No Reservations,” we’ve rediscovered roast chicken. My response to a good, simple roast chicken, is always “why don’t we make this more often?” Seriously. It makes the house smell like a holiday and makes me crave pumpkin pie or some other delicious dessert my mother makes that’s no longer part of my life.

I want to offer you two ridiculously easy methods of roasting a bird. Neither of them require a special pan. Neither of them require trussing (though you can if you want to). Neither of them require anything but a 3-4 pound roasting chicken (go organic for the best texture and flavor), some salt, pepper, and that spice simply made for chicken: thyme. Dried or fresh, no matter. The first is for those of you who own a Bundt pan and wondered what else you could possible do with it besides make ridiculously delicious cinnamon coffee cake. The second is for those of you who own a cast-iron pan, or other oven-safe skillet. Both are equally simple and yield a tender bird with temptingly crispy skin.

So wherever you are on the food preparation spectrum, from microwaving Trader Joe’s meals to becoming the next Thomas Keller, these two methods will restore your confidence. They did mine.

Courtesy of glutenfreegirl.com

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roast beast (and beets)

My second Paleo Experiment-induced trip to Costco on Sunday ended in me taking home a five-pound top sirloin. I purchased it with the intent of making my own homemade (read, additive and sodium-free) healthy roast beef. I’ve never been a big fan of deli meats, and up until trying this new way of eating didn’t really eat much beef at all. But that, along with many other habits and tendencies, has all changed over the past week.

As the days go on, some of the “symptoms” of going Paleo continue to lessen or disappear. Namely, strange stomach pains, a dry mouth, and periods of mental fogginess. Everything seems pretty much back to normal now, with the addition of new energy, better sleeps, and a pretty consistently positive mental outlook.

It’s always so hard to know with these things which are caused or related to a certain factor (here, the diet), or whether they would’ve happened anyway. That’s the complication with the Paleo way of life. Die-hards claim a lot for it, but could many of those “improvements” be due to them incorporating new and fresher veggies and fruits into their diets?

See the above salad. I would often eat salads for lunch at work, but this new diet prompted me to add some turkey and roast beets (which I blasted under the broiler with garlic and olive oil for 30 minutes, skins and all). The turkey was an early-Paleo Experiment slip-up. It’s deli-style, and even though the ingredients are only “turkey, turkey broth (containing less than 2% salt and vegetable oil),” it’s probably not the best. The black flecks on there aren’t pepper, they’re roasted hemp seeds: delish.

Another thing was red about my day besides the beets? The roast beast.

Yes, you read that right. The roast beast. With apologies to any sensitive vegans out there (though they surely would’ve stopped reading by now, so I have nothing to worry about), it is rather pleasant to say “roast beast.” It’s from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I’ve always found the expression hilarious.

The beast in this case was that five-pound hunk of Paleo protein procured from that grocery store where couples like us should really not be shopping. (Costco). We cut it in half and froze the other 2.5 pounds, and then followed Saveur‘s sandwich issue instructions for DIY roast beef: season the tied roast with salt and pepper, sear in a cast-iron skillet until the edges are browned, and then bake at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for three and a half hours. Take the temperature to make sure the interior reaches 130 degrees, cool, slice, and you’re done!

By slow-cooking the meat at such a low temperature, you retain that nice even pink color. Who wants brown-grey roast beast? Not this Who. Mark reported that it’s not really thinly-cut enough for a good sandwich, which makes it even more Paleo-friendly than it already was.

Tonight, post “Andrew” yoga, I had 100 grams of this served with sauteed spinach and some of Mark Bittman’s Spiced Melon Balls? (For this simple summer appetizer, simply mix the balls from a whole cantaloupe plus one whole honeydew with the juice of half a lime, ½ tsp. salt, 1 tsp. ground coriander, 1/4 tsp. cayenne, and 1 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro.)


5 Lessons from Today:

1. Don’t add coconut oil to a smoothie with frozen ingredients in it. It will turn to a grimy, greasy slop.

2 .If you’re going to eat roast beast often, invest in an electric meat slicer or marry a butcher.

3. When you go Paleo, it won’t be long before your co-workers start calling you a cavewoman.

4. Roasted seaweed, nuts, or hemp seeds work well when you’re craving popcorn or pretzels.

5. Choose your cheats wisely: I haven’t “caved” (ha ha) often, but tonight am giving in to Stone’s BELGO Anise Imperial Russian Stout while I watch the season premier of Weeds. Hey, it’s not easy being a cavewoman.

spaghetti squash nests with moroccan spices

Seasons are now things of the past. Figments of memory, slices of lives lived farther north. With brisk days and crisp leaves behind me, I must now cultivate awareness—try to notice the small changes around me that signal the onset of what has always been my favorite time of year. McIntosh apples appearing at the grocery store (finally!), slightly cooler mornings and evenings, clearer coastal skies, an indigo-colored ocean. And yes, a tree here and there that’s decided to ignore it’s southerly surroundings, shedding a brown leaf here and there on the sidewalk to wait for the crush of my sandal.

I do miss the fall I have loved so much. But sitting on the beach at “negative tide” (a new term that I’ve learned is a synonym for “wow”) isn’t all that bad. And thank the newly cloudless skies there’s still squash, that harbinger of cozy, indoor evenings to come.

We’ve been eating a lot of spaghetti squash lately. It’s easy to square away in the oven while you prepare the accompaniments, and it’s just so, well, fun. (Not that I don’t LOVE the other offerings in the squash family, as my kabocha-udon noodles, quinoa-stuffed acorn squash, and warm butternut and chickpea salad can attest to. Not to mention the many other squash recipes that have showed up around these parts.) Scraping out the stringy flesh, I always think about the peasant who first discovered this freak of nature gourd: did she giggle when she set the fruits of her family’s labor down on the table? I would have.

Spaghetti squash is as versatile as the rest of the squash family, equally as delicious baked with butter and maple syrup as it is topped with more savory ingredients. But this variety of squash lends itself especially well to the pasta treatment, somewhat obviously, and my favorite way to eat it has been with a garlicky homemade puttanesca sauce. That is until I applied one of my favorite spice combinations to the stringy mass.

When I need some inspiration, there’s nothing like the good ‘ol Internet to help marinate the creativity. I was excited to find this recipe (from the 2002 issue of Gourmet – RIP), and after perusing some of the reviews and suggestions, took to the kitchen. Chickpeas are usually the featured legume in Moroccan cuisine, but they didn’t go very well with the squash, color-wise, so I chose my favorite lentil instead. My culinary compadre had already cooked up both the squash and the lentils, so all that was left was spicing and assembling.

The results? This is one easy dinner. Bake and scrape squash. Simmer lentils. Whip up a buttery spice mixture. Toss, garnish, and dig in! I think it would be a kid-friendly meal, too (not that I would know), as you can assemble these little nests if you so desire. Alternatively, you could mix the squash, spice mixture, and lentils all together for a more “complete” meal to serve to more sophisticated diners.


That’s all there is to it. As my triathlon training ramps down to base-building and my need for calories drops, these are the kinds of veggie-heavy dinners I want on my plate. A low-glycemic index meal that contains protein (yogurt and lentils) and good fat (cashews), and is vegan/vegetarian to boot? Bring it on. The optional raisins add just a little in the way of quick carbs, and the warming spices kept me satisfied until bedtime. And now, with these darker, post-time change evenings, even life in Southern California has begun to feel a little cozier. Continue reading

tapas for one

Contrary to the do-it-yourself ethos I usually embrace on on this blog, over the next few weeks I’m going to feature some products that have won my urban 9 to 5 heart—one that is often too busy to sweat away over multiple-step bread, edible heirloom cookies, or even my favorite summer salad.

As much as I’ve cherished how resourceful it feels making certain breakfast staples yourself, over the past six months I’ve realize how thankful I am for the commercial luxuries of modern life. Processed foods might be evil, but I’ve come to appreciate the less-processed (but still packaged) ones among them for the respite they bring. Besides, after a long day, tough run, and hours spent applying for jobs, who has the time to slaughter a chicken?

First up: this Al Fresco Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage I picked up on a whim the other day, my nostrils full of the scents of summer barbecues. At only 160 calories and 7 grams of fat per link, these babies deliver 14 whole grams of lean protein—just what I needed after a tough 35-mile cycle this morning with my local riding group.

After postponing tonight’s dinner date to tomorrow, I faced a solo supper. And as another near-perfect weekend slipped away, filtered like evening light through the tree branches, I began to ponder the plate: Burritos with that frozen tempeh I needed to use? Salad with the lettuce I didn’t want to spoil? A new twist on the tomato-asparagus omelette I’d had for a post-bike brunch?

The answer was sausage.

My neighbors had been grilling all afternoon, and I wasn’t going to let them have the best of my cravings. I ripped open the package, doubtful as usual of this type of stuff, and popped a link under the broiler. Then I pulled out the brown lentil-and-white bean mix I’d cooked up last week, part of which were made into the hummus that exploded all over my bag after my unfortunate altercation with a taxicab. Inspired by a recent tapas brunch with Mark at the Bethesda Jaleo, I poured olive oil into a pan and sauteed a small onion and a clove of garlic with some sage. Then I dumped in a few spoonfuls of the legume mix, and stirred away, as if making hash browns. But it needed something green … the kale I’d just bought at Glut would do! In it went to wilt among the beans.

I took the black-tinged sausage out of the oven, piled some of the bean and kale mix on the side, and topped it with fresh lemon and some chili flakes. As soon as my meal’s potential started to waft towards me, I ran upstairs to grab my “lesser” camera. Just in case it was as good as it looked, I wanted a record. Luckily for fresh cracked pepper, it was.

The sausage was surprisingly healthy-tasting (I have friends who question me on whether something can taste health!), its maple-syrup sweetness not overbearing. As the sausage casing gave way with a yielding snap, I was reminded of why my vegetarianism will only ever be of the pseudo- variety. And since this article on vegan ultra-runner Scott Jurek came out, my athleticism no longer justifies my consumption of animal protein.

Regardless of why I gave in to the sausage (craving, taste, or whim), hopefully the shot of protein will help offset last week’s fatigue. What causes tiredness anyway? An unexpected bout of excitement that eventually must give way to everyday life? Sleep patterns? Boredom? Lack of iron or protein? All I know is that I can’t figure out why some weeks I feel like a slug in Savasana, and others like a caffeinated cheetah.

What a perfect weekend. Swimming, followed by yoga with a thunderstorm soundtrack. Running, yard parties, and a new bra. An impromptu Turkish picnic. A long ride, “chewy” coffee, and a conversation with a much-loved cousin. A slow afternoon eating Spanish tapas for one, and later sipping wine with wonderful housemates.

Whatever tomorrow brings, my arms are open.

(Stay tuned for the next “product placement” post, coming to a cracked-up blog near you.)

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Product: Al Fresco Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage

Ingredients: Skinless chicken meat, pure maple syrup, evaporated can syrup, evaporated cane juice, dried apples, salt, lemon juice, water, spices, natural pork casing.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1 Link(85g)
Serving Per Container 4 LINKS
Amount Per Serving
Calories 160    Calories from Fat 60
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 7g 11%
Saturated Fat 2g 10%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholestrol 60mg 20%
Sodium 480mg 20%
Total Carbohydrate 10g 1%
Dietary Fiber 0g 0%
Sugars 9g
Protein 14g
Vitamin A 0%     Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 0%        Iron 6%
*Percent daily values are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs:
Calories 2000 2500
Total Fat less than 65g 80g
Saturated Fat less than 20g 25g
Cholestrol less than 300mg 300mg
Sodium less than 2400mg 2400mg
Total Carbohydrate 300g 375g
Dietery Fiber 25g 30g

pakora patties

There’s no point in avoiding this blog just because I’m in a slump. Cooking slumps can be easily weathered, thanks to the spoiling of visiting in-laws, surprises in the freezer, and beer—that liquid nourishment. But life slumps? Those are far harsher on the writer’s fragile bones.

A bike accident this week left me banged up and my faithful Raleigh doomed for the dumpster. Rain and cooler temperatures marred the memory of last week’s sudden spring. Some unexpected and minor blips at work on Friday launched an unusually reflective weekend.

As the writer Thomas Moore says in his book The Care of the Soul, these are the days that reveal the most to us. They slow us down and force us to look at the weeds growing along the path: Loneliness (how did I end up here and where are all the people I love?), stagnancy (where exactly do I think I’m going with all of this?), restlessness (when will I be able to do, and be recognized for, something that makes me happy?)

When this stuff is staring you in the face there’s not much else you can do but stare back. I’m used to this, right? This is familiar. I’ve dealt with this before. But no: why does each new disappointment, each new criticism, each new failure, bear so little resemblance to the last one? Why is facing old demons so hard?

I thank God for these small and saving cheers: a co-worker reminding me of the Sex and the City episode where Samantha has to rush into the elevator to hide her emotions; good discussions about being a woman in a male dominated workplace; distractions of parties and board games and beer and friends who get me, even if they haven’t known me long; keeping up with the boys at a neighborhood bike shop ride through the wilder parts of Maryland; simple thoughts of afternoon cooking; excitement for next weekend’s Easter excursion with a friend I don’t get to see enough of.

I was holding off on posting about these Indian-spiced vegetable fritters (or pakoras if you’re trying to sound exotic) so that I could make them again and take better photos. That’s not going to happen, though, so here they are. I made them for friends awhile ago, and am finally sharing them on this sorely neglected blog.

As I type, Patty Griffin’s words become my prayer on this strangely and sedate Sunday:

Be careful how you bend me
Be careful where you send me
Be careful how you end me
Be careful with me

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lebanese-style stuffed baby eggplants

The city is finally shedding its white crust. Our luminous winter cover is turning to brown slush, as snow melts into blinding, sunlit puddles. After spending last Monday, Wednesday and Thursday working from home (or battling treacherous sidewalks hunting for coffee and wifi), I was craving company and food more nuanced than snowbound snacks of popcorn, toast, and leftovers.

Thankfully, Mark was on the way, offering not only companionship, but a car to chauffeur me around on my quest for baby eggplants.

I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for some time; waiting, I guess, for the right opportunity to try it. Saturday seemed as good a day as any to host my first dinner guests since moving to Hyattsville in January. (I guess most weekends have had me out exploring the city, or more recently, surviving “Snowpocalypse 2010.” But as spring approaches, it’s high time I picked up the dinner party pace.)

The day provided the perfect foundation on which to build a good meal: A lazy morning, good coffee, an exercise day off, and a kitchen confidant/soux chef rolled into one. We set out around noon to explore the collection of international markets near my neighborhood.

Things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped. The traffic was horrendous: I’m not sure if Marylanders were still dealing with these foreign driving conditions, or that people were venturing out to restock their shelves. Then, after sitting through about 10 cycles of green lights near our destination (where baby eggplants were not to be found), I had to make an unexpected trip home to troubleshoot something work-related. Disappointment threatened.  Frustration encroached on my formerly good mood.

When we set out again it was already two o’clock and I still didn’t have my main ingredient. Mark had been on the phone with the local grocery chains, only to be met with busy signals and reports of large eggplants. I started scheming Plan B. But Oh how I’d coveted those eggplants!

We weren’t ready to give up quite yet. Recently equipped with smart phones, Mark could drive while I perused the nearby grocery options. A Halal Meat Market showed up on my map, and I clicked their phone number. I was met with cheerful answers to my questions: Yes, they had ground lamb. What about eggplants? “Yes, we got a vegetable delivery just today,” came the reply. “I’m looking for the small ones, not the big ones…” I began. “The Indian eggplants, yes.” The voice sounded confident enough.

We fought more traffic to the little shop, aromas of patchouli and spice wafting out the jingling front door. Sure enough, there beside the limes and chili peppers a box overflowed with deep purple globes no bigger than a child’s fist. The proprietor had spoken the truth. I immediately squashed Plan B, and left with a warm samosa and plenty of time to make dessert.

The dish was a hit: Stuffed with raw rice, ground lamb, onions, garlic, pine nuts and allspice, a simmering tomato sauce slowly cooks the vegetables into tender purple dumplings. On the plate, garnished with saffron yogurt, goat feta, and parsley, each one bursts with robust and game-y flavors. I followed the eggplants with a lemon pie (post forthcoming), making the meal into a well-rounded foray not only into international flavors, but back into cooking and entertaining.

I can’t wait to do it all over again soon.

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punjabi spinach and chickpeas

This week has flown by. Reunited with my love of swimming (thank you, one-week trial gym pass!), I plunged into cool water on Tuesday night after two months of land-based workouts. I emerged an hour and fifteen minutes later with my sore muscles, a refreshed mind, and a hungry belly.

Thank goodness this was waiting for me when I arrived home.

On Monday night I’d finally gotten around to trying this recipe, collecting digital dust in my recipe bookmarks. It’s the kind of thing you just might already have everything on hand for, provided you’re a hummus, stew, and salad eater who always has garlic around.

In other words, me.

I don’t know why I bookmarked this particular recipe, and I don’t know what made me pick it out of my long list of delicious-sounding dinner candidates. It’s not that it looked that different—I make things with curry and tomatoes and chickpeas all the time. The appeal of habit? Perhaps.

Well, it turns out it lived up to its bookmark-worthy status. With a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as more “authentic” than my usual curry-powder based curries, this stew radiates turmeric, cumin, garlic, and ginger. I learned later that its author (the famed Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey) deems this dish characteristically Punjabi. Perhaps that’s why it seemed new to me.

And I always like a recipe that suprises: usually, you chop up the garlic and saute it along with the onions, right? Not in this stew. I had to re-read the recipe about four times until I believed that yes, putting garlic, ginger, and water in the blender would produce something I’d want to add to my dinner.

This frothy mixture, and the addition of lemon juice at the end, take this bright yellow curry to a whole new level: you just might want to back your chair up a little from your co-workers if you decide to take it for lunch.

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