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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sarah’s rice pilaf

I’ve been a little slow on the blogging draw as of late. But rather than bore you with the details of why, here’s one of those dusty old drafts I never got around to posting. Maybe because the photography wasn’t as good as I’d hoped—the actual printed recipe yields a much better-looking dish than what’s pictured here, which was my “I don’t have everything” adaptation! Whatever the case may be, this is a hearty, chewy rice pilaf will make you feel like curling up at a big wooden harvest table with a bunch of good friends. Which reminds me…

How much I miss my Syracuse supper club people. We weren’t a formal club, just a group of couples who loved to eat. I think I only attended three or four of the actual events before I moved off to D.C., but being still relative newcomers to our new town, I miss eating regularly with others. This dish was one of the first, served at a cozy home in Tipperary Hill, Syracuse, but the lovely and fleet-footed Sarah. We ate buttery, garlicky mussels, and then this pilaf stuffed into individual mini pumpkins. Sarah introduced me to trail running and French wine, and to that I owe her the world.

Or at least, dinner. Hopefully in the next few months I’ll be able to return the favor.

last image courtesy of Huro Kitty/Flickr Creative Commons

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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

asparagus naan pizza

A weeknight dinner with a friend last week was colored in shades of green: Armed with key lime cupcakes I managed to lure her out to the Maryland boonies. She followed in a healthier suit, offering fresh, local asparagus.

I began to plan out the sustenance for our evening, but I didn’t have to think very hard. As soon as she mentioned her seasonal stalks, a recent Runner’s World recipe for naan bread pizza sprung to mind. Its unique fusion of an Indian staple, pesto, ricotta, and asparagus caught my eye. The fact that I already had half the ingredients on hand sealed the deal.

She arrived on a May evening almost warm enough to want to keep dinner an no-oven affair. But I wasn’t about to change the plan just because of a little sweat. We opened the windows, and as we snapped the stalks at the point of tenderness and chopped basil, began our many-weeks-in-waiting catch up session.

The frozen naan came from a darling Indian grocery store on University Boulevard—the very same one that ended a recent quest for small eggplants. I had turkey bacon in the freezer as well, and had picked up ricotta on my bike ride home. The recipe called for pesto, but my local grocery store isn’t quite so posh, so I bought fresh basil instead. I wasn’t sure what the block of cheese left in my fridge was exactly (Pecorino? Provolone?) but it was whitish and tangy and I was sure it would do.

The three mini, triangle-shaped pizzas came out light, crisp, and with a creamy pizza bianca base minus all the fat. I devoured my turkey-bacon topped variety, whereas my companion chose an asparagus-heavy vegetarian version. The pizzas were surprisingly filling, but left just a corner for tea and cupcakes on the front porch.

Satiated, we bid the day’s light farewell from the refuge of my blossoming front yard. We talked about our futures in journalism, immigration, family, and of course, relationships.

Yesterday another, less ambrosial occasion for the pizza arose. On my daily, 9-mile commute to work, I had another run-in with a car. Yes, another. It had happened just a few weeks before when a woman made a right turn into my bike lane without signaling. Yesterday’s event was practically a carbon copy, only this time it was a taxi driver (who had apparently signaled), and there was a large container of hummus involved.

There’s nothing like starting your day off with tears, embarrassment, and exploded hummus you got up early to make. Not to mention the family of new bruises and scrapes etched in the shape of tire tread across your shin. I was shaken up all day, and despite ice, my ankle and lower leg ached until sleep arrived to take pain’s place.

After work I took my bike for some minor break tweaks at a downtown bike shop, and, still car-spooked, hopped the metro home. Dinner that didn’t require too many new ingredients or a recipe was definitely in order. I stopped for asparagus, and had dinner ready as fast as you can say “I hate cars.” (OK, I might have said a little more than that, come to think of it.)

I laughed when I found out that asparagus it’s rich in rich in bone-building vitamin K, said to protect the body against fractures. I guess that casual dinner last week was more than just a delivery method for fresh spring flavor.

I smiled again when I sat down to eat and opened up the book I’m reading (subtitled “Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone”) to find that the next piece was about a woman who decided to eat asparagus every day for two months one spring. I leave you with her words:

How to be an asparagus superhero

Begin at the first hint of asparagus in your area.

Pick asparagus in the early morning while it is still dewy, or find people who wake up on dewy mornings and pick it for you. Have some coffee.

Eat the first piece raw. Test your biceps.

Week One: Cook the asparagus unadulturated for as long as possible. Keep some eggs and starches—rice, pasta, bread—around, and just enough meat to use as a condiment, like some bacon or a jar of anchovies.

See how fast you can run, how high you can jump. Alone or in company, use your fingers. Have plenty of fluids. Pee regularly. Tell everyone you never skip a day. Eat to impress.

Week Six: Just when you think you cannot be a superhero any longer, break asparagus into bits and hide it inside things.

Week Seven (The End): Roast one last time. Squeeze lemon to finish. Finish.

-Phobe Nobles, from Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. Riverhead Books, 2007.

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someone’s in this kitchen

Web journalism comes with equal doses of surprise, commotion, and amusement. There are ups and downs. We may shepherd stories along for months on end, but they’re still lovingly tended. They may not be earth-shattering, but they still contribute good things to the world.

On the flip side, there’s that screen, glowing in my face day after day and making this fresh-air loving soul feel a little empty now and again.

When the hum of machines gives me a headache and the incessant chatter on the internet overwhelms me, where do I turn for solace? The internet of course. From the Economist’s technology blog (via Andrew Sullivan) this bit of pro-technology is brilliant. Especially for this recovering Luddite.

All German terms for radio are derived from a single verb: funken, to spark. I’ve been trying to understand the continued appeal of radio when there are so many different and more convenient ways to get news and music, and I think it has to do with the idea that we know, when we listen to the radio, that someone, somewhere is alive. Es funkt. There is a spark at the other end, a fire on the hilltop.

A blog, done right, provides this proof the same way radio does. You hear a voice, which means that someone is actually sitting in a booth somewhere talking down the signal to you. And if they take your calls, or read your emails, then they’re listening, too. I think blogs and radio are more than the sum of the information or entertainment they provide; they’re a source of human comfort.

This week I got an email reminding me that people do read this blog, and even trust the voice behind it. It was titled “Help! Dolmas tanking!” A woman in California had tried my dolmas recipe, and, having substituting brown rice, found herself with uncooked, unappetizing rolls. She emailed me in a panic, and we had an amusing back-and-forth over the course of the day about cooking, expectations, and rice. I suggested she turn her failed dolmas into a success by dumping them in a pot with some sauteed onion and broth to make dolma soup. She took my advice and deemed her creation Ruined Dolma Soup. The point of the story is only to say that the above quote rings true. The internet doesn’t always alienate.

Last night’s dinner was one of those spontaneous successes, born of exhaustion from a brick workout (bike + run) and dictated by the contents of my fridge.  Cooking this way is freeing, as I’ve said before, and always faster than I imagine it will be. I head home night after night (hoping I’ll be motivated to get the ingredients together for some recipe I’ve had bookmarked for months) only to stumble lazily into a version of a loner’s feast: toast with sardines, cheese and crackers, yogurt and granola, kimchi and a fried egg, a simple salad, a square of dark chocolate.

I love those rare night when I get home early enough to create something actually resembling an entree. While I boiled up some linguine (left by a dear housemate who just left for Texas), I sauteed two minced cloves of garlic in olive oil. I threw in some thawed broccoli florets and let them cook a bit. Then I realized I needed protein, so opened up the cupboard and grabbed what I thought was a can of chickpeas. When I opened it, cannelini beans stared back at me. No matter. I dug my fingers right into the can and plopped them in the pan with the broccoli, adding two huge handfuls of raw spinach and a bit of chicken broth to the mix. I let the greens wilt, sprinkled on some chili flakes and salt and pepper, and then poured the whole sloppy mixture over the linguine and finished it with Parmesan. I’m lucky I had these random pictures on hand, because my camera was nowhere in sight.

This recipe is nothing special … not even worth typing out in regular recipe form. But it sort of restored my confidence in a kitchen that’s become a stranger to me in this 7 am to 8 pm life. I am so glad I remembered the fire in my kitchen (and in my stomach) for good, honest food.

Here’s the leftovers I ate today in the sun, camera in tow.

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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