…a first-world sob story resolved in 3 dinners.
Buckle in, we are going for a ride.
I got a new camera last week. To be fair, I had to get a new camera last week because in late October I dropped my faithful long lens, Big Betty. We were together for 8 years which made this an unexpected and frankly, quite emotional departure. While there is always the repair option, an entire new line of mirrorless digital equipment is arguably becoming industry standard. Seemed like the universe was telling me to move on, but the universe didn’t have to be so nasty to poor old Betty. So while I only damaged my lens, I took the hint and upgraded to a whole new digital camera system. It’s going to be fine, and I repeat that mantra hourly, but I’m still reeling from the whole drama.
Okay, maybe that’s a tad hyperbolic, but there have been feelings: shock, fury, remorse, loss, acceptance, anticipation, temporary joy, more shock, frustration, dismay, determination and finally, hope. To my credit, I did not go straight for the brownies and in fact have consciously avoided sugar as a remedy. Instead I cycled through the stages of grief at dinnertime and these recipes are now forever part of my emotional first aid kit.
When Betty went down, the first thing I had to do was stop the bleeding, which I did with simple distraction – festive music, dedicated cooking and dancing therapy in the kitchen and a decisive zinger for dinner.
Years ago I stumbled upon one of my favorite exotic sauces because it was a staple on my boys’ school lunch menu, thanks to Chef Mohammed. Granted, the entire lower school had garlic breath for the afternoon but…it👏🏼was👏🏼worth👏🏼it. I began to recreate the sauce during the pandemic and have since fiddled with the herbs and proportions so much that I’ve resigned myself to this general guide, rather than a strict recipe.
It was raining the night I made this, so I turned on the vent and went to work inside. As a reminder, reverse-searing means that I baked the steaks at 250° for about 30 minutes and then finished them to crusty perfection in a blazing cast iron skillet with butter. And yes, typically I grill but, also typically I use chicken thighs that have been marinated overnight in half of the sauce. It’s killer when you plan ahead, but this was an emergency consolation meal and a good NY Strip can hold its own. (Also works with pork chops, shrimp and sturdy white fish.)
Chimichurri Marinade & Sauce
- 3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 cup flat-leaf or Italian parsley with stems
- 1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves (about 10 stems)
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 3 Tbs red wine vinegar
- squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice
- 2/3 cup olive oil
Chop or press the garlic and then pulverize with salt using mortar and pestle.
Finely chop parsley, oregano and cilantro. Add garlic paste and chop/mash a little more to fully incorporate.
In a medium bowl combine chopped herbs, red pepper flakes, black pepper, vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. Use as a marinade and sauce drizzled on seared meat, poultry and seafood.
The new camera rig made her debut at an afternoon football game and well…yikes. For most things in life I tend to thrive with a certain amount of mastery and control, but I suddenly found myself without either. I was starstruck by its crazy, I mean crazy precision, but simultaneously humbled by my complete lack of expertise. I won’t bore you with technicalities and fancy camera jargon, but the raw potential of this beast is alarming. Yet what really irked me was loss of control. Even the most advanced mechanical devices require some amount of human inertia, but this damn thing barely needed me at all. It’s probably linked to SkyNet. I felt like a glorified camera bag.
At one point during the game, I pulled out my old DSLR camera and attached a stubby little lens because I wanted/needed to feel comfortable, even for just for 30 minutes. While I did go crawling back to the familiar, I didn’t feel defeated. I don’t give up or scare so easily, but I was very much aware that I needed to give myself a break. I needed to hit the easy button, or at least my version of the easy button – we all pick our own safety nets and that day it was my old camera. That night it was roasted chicken.
I discovered this Cooking Light recipe in 1997 and have been pulling it out in times of need ever since. Of course it’s been twisted and tweaked over 25 years, so now I just throw it together from memory. But I’m surprised by its deceptive one-pot simplicity every time. It seems that each flavor element stands alone but somehow manages to compliment the neighbors – it is a kind and generous recipe.
Skillet-Roasted Rosemary Lemon Chicken
- 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1 lb baby gold potatoes, quartered
- 1 large onion, sliced into thin crescents
- 8 oz. cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 cup Kalamata olives
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 3-4 Tbs olive oil
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- pinch of fresh ground pepper
- 1 Tbs dried rosemary
- 3 small lemons
- 2 Tbs freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a large bowl, toss the potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and olives with the olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and rosemary. Set aside.
Pat the thighs dry and season with salt and pepper. Trim any remaining fat if you insist, but it all crisps away when you roast it and really, you might as well use breasts if you’re going to do that. Just cook at a slightly lower temp for your slightly less delicious meal.
Thinly slice 1-2 lemons and line the bottom of a lightly oiled cast iron skillet with the rounds. Zest and squeeze the remaining lemon and add about 1 tsp of each to the chicken mixture, depending on how much lemony goodness you can handle.
Arrange the chicken in a single layer on top of the lemon and then cover with the vegetable mixture. Roast uncovered at 450° for 50ish minutes.
Check for doneness, turn off the oven, sprinkle 2 Tbs cheese on top. Return skillet to the oven finish cooking, about 5 more minutes. Use restraint with the parm – this is not a cheese dish. When the cheese melts and browns, serve immediately with a little fresh parsley for pizazz. Comfort food does not mean savagery, but for best results use large shallow bowls that can rest in your lap.
My final recovery dinner was really a statement of renewal more than anything else. When I first lost Betty I really needed to re-center and catch my breath, but now I know the only way forward is to actually move forward. I got my mojo back by creating this easy, condensed version of Chinese Cumin Lamb Noodles. I say easy because I happen keep a pound of frozen ground lamb in my freezer at all times and went spice-crazy last spring, but with planning this really can be easy for anyone.
The dish is based on Xi’an-style chili oil noodles, which are intensely rich, savory and spicy. This version is more accommodating for family dinners, although I admit I needed to zizz up my own plate with some chili crisp because not everyone likes it viciously hot like me. I compressed several recipes to balance time, authenticity and flavor – in fact the initial versions were so bland I had to double back and re-examine the ground spice mixture.
Full disclosure, not only did I not make the pappardelle from scratch, but it’s not even pappardelle – it’s flat Barilla lasagna ripped into long ribbons post-boil. On this night I found myself without any wide, long noodles waaaaaay too late in the evening 🍷 to venture back to the grocery store. Long unwieldy pasta coated with the rich, spicy lamb sauce is a really important part of the dish – it’s a tactile experience that I didn’t want to miss, so I improvised. And won.
Cumin Lamb with Pappardelle
- 2 Tbs whole cumin seeds
- 1 Tbs Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 Tbs whole coriander seeds
- 1-2 tsp fennel seeds
- 3 Tbs soy sauce
- 2 tsp Chinese black vinegar
- 1 Tbs sesame oil
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 large shallots, thinly sliced
- Kosher salt
- 2 Tbs double-concentrated tomato paste
- 1 Tbs smoked paprika
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 lb ground lamb
- 12 oz pappardelle or any wide, long noodle
- 2-4 green onions chopped
- 2-4 tsp fresh chopped cilantro or mint
Grind cumin, peppercorns, coriander and fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil. Set aside.
Heat olive oil in large on medium+ heat and sauté shallots until brown and crispy, about 5 minutes. Seasons with salt to taste and add tomato paste, red pepper flakes, paprika and reserved ground spice mixture. Stir well, allowing flavors to meld.
Move the shallot mixture to the sides of the pan and add ground lamb. Sauté until cooked, breaking up the pieces and then drenching each nugget with the surrounding fragrant spices.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook noodles to al dente. Drain and add to the lamb along with the green onions, tossing to coat every inch. Garnish with cilantro or fresh mint and serve immediately, after photographing of course.
You might have noticed that I included more than one song recommendation, each reflecting my mood during that particular dinner. At the time, my song choices were meant to stand alone, but looking at this collection I really like the theme. And I purposefully chose cover songs to remind myself that an old dog can not only learn new tricks, but reimagine, reinvent and still be hungry for for more. It’s funny how seemingly unconnected circumstances run parallel in our lives.
I honestly loved the joy and power I wielded behind the lens of that old camera set – it took years and years of practice to get comfortable and a few more to get sorta good. It’s strange to write joy and power in a sentence together like that and not come across as as megalomaniac, so please allow me the power of a few in-focus football images to live out my fantasies of world domination. That, and a killer cumin lamb recipe. I find great joy in both, but change is tricky, so arm yourselves accordingly.
3 thoughts on “cry me a river…”
Ooooh! The Chimichurri!! Always such a hit at MV. I’ll be making that very soon. : )
I just recovered from eye surgery, and during that time one of our daughters came for a week and was our own personal chef! It was wonderful. Now I’m thinking if I ever find myself in that situation again, I just might have to adopt you Betsy! These recipes made my mouth water…
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I’m coming back out in January and I hope we can catch up again! Hope recovery goes well.