I thought of doing a Thanksgiving post because Turkey Day is almost upon us, but I figure I can give you an after-action report next week to see if I can pull it off
This week, I want to talk about how to make something like Thanksgiving work, or really any meal. It took me forever to learn this pearl of culinary wisdom, and I think it is the key to me foisting off my cooking successfully on my family.
The secret: MARKETING.
I know this is a curse word among many writers. How many of us just want to write in peace, without thinking about “the market,” trends, sales, or benchmarks. Totally get it.
But I think for both home cooks and for writers, marketing can be the key to reaching and delighting your audience, your Constant Readers and your Constant Eaters, both.
Take last Friday. I was wrecked, exhausted, demented from over-work. Not coherent, let alone shiny and happy and perky. Pioneer Woman, I was NOT. And yet, I made a huge meal that all my family loved, picky ones and starving I-could-eat-a-house ones.
So how did I do this?
Thanksgiving is coming, and I am already getting intimidated by the hard-core home chefs planning fabulous gourmet family adventures. Rock on, gifted ones…I think it is amazing you can do that without getting chest pain from anxiety.
Me, I used to quietly cry over the turkey from stress, hopefully when nobody was looking. Seriously, I was not able to overflow the table with cornucopia bounty without losing it a little.
But let’s forget Thanksgiving until next week, once it’s all over. I’m talking today about how to think about a meal. Once I learned this crucial ability, I could even contemplate Thanksgiving without chomping a bottle of antacids.
It used to be I would make ONE thing. Hamburgers. Noodles. Chili. All fine meals. But they did not really wow the folks, sadly. I still do this on weeknights at times…just feed the people and move on.
But it wasn’t until I got the hang of putting my best foot forward with my offerings that I got deep appreciation. It was magic, really, because most of the time I was making the same food.
Instead of hamburgers, it was BBQ nite (seriously, add some BBQ potato chips, some pickle chips, and BBQ sauce along with the ketchup and you are in business. If you throw in some hot dogs and relish you have a BBQ fest!).
Instead of chili, it was Taco Tuesday. (I’ll share my version one week…it is a thing of beauty, somehow being junk food and totally healthy at the same time).
And this past Friday, instead of a pile of random food I dubbed our meal “Italian Fest.” I made a bunch of different recipes and served them all together in a harmonious, “Italian” way, family style. And we all ate with wild abandon.
So, tip of the week: find a concept for your dinner. It could be the SAME STUFF that you always cook, but if you pair it with matching sides or even drinks it will make all the difference.
I suspect this is not a big deal for people who always knew how to cook. But for me, who learned it late? This is GOLD. Hope it helps you fellow home cooks!
So here’s how I pulled it off…
ITALIAN FEST SUPREME
Three dishes, 30 minutes, lots of good eats…
Healthy and Delightful Chicken Parm
3 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast (I grabbed whole breasts because they were so much cheaper and nicer) (and you can make less or more chicken as you need…)
good jarred tomato sauce (I love Rao’s but there are many brands out there)(and yes you can easily make great homemade sauce but that was beyond my abilities last Friday night)
a big bag of shredded mozzarella cheese (if you are kosher or lactose intolerant, go with a veggie cheese…there are a lot of great choices out there, and if you have a favorite please let me know and I will put it in this little recipe). You could also use sliced fresh mozzarella if you want to get fancy with it
optional additions that I think will enhance the dish even more:
jar of roasted red peppers (you could roast them yourself, but see my note re: tomato sauce)
white mushrooms, sliced
any other veggie you like in tomato sauce…onions, green peppers, etc.
if you eat bread: get a big crusty loaf of Italian bread to make these into heroes, or to use on the side to dip into sauce.
How to do it:
Optional first step: dress up the tomato sauce. Saute mushrooms, onions in pan with olive oil, then put in the store sauce and let it all simmer. Add spices to taste. You can skip this step and it will be fine but I think the veggies add a lot of flavor and I like sneaking veggies in there where I can.
NOTE: if you are making broiled veggies, prep them now so that you can roast them quickly later: I used zucchini and eggplant, sliced about 1/2 inch thick. If not, no worries…the chicken is really pretty filling by itself, especially if you serve it on bread. Also if you are making salad you can prep it now but last Friday I just threw it together last minute.
preheat oven to bake at 375.
If you have whole chicken breasts, split/butterfly them so they cook through.
Get a big frying pan and start on the stovetop medium high with olive oil.
Season the chicken. I used salt, pepper, paprika for color, and Italian seasoning.
NOTE: most people would dip these in an egg wash and put bread crumbs on for crunch and flavor. We are semi-low carb so I made this more “paleo” style but this recipe works fine with bread crumbs, or almond flour if you want to get fancy while staying low-carb
Sear the chicken 3-4 minutes on a side. You will get some nice color and sear on the chicken, especially if you use paprika.
Transfer to a baking sheet or casserole dish…use something that can handle some sauce.
Cover with either dressed up sauce or plain sauce straight out of the jar.
Take your shredded mozzarella or veggie cheese and cover the chicken. Don’t be shy with the cheese…use a lot.
Cover the baking dish with foil, and pop in the oven.
Cook chicken for 10 minutes covered, then 10 minutes without the foil (beware hot casserole with escaping steam!).
If you are into crispier cheese, put under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the cheese is lightly browned. Then take it out and put the foil tented on top and let it rest for a couple of minutes while you get everything together. Before you send it to the table, check the thickest one and see if it is cooked through (it should be okay).
Serve this family style on a big platter, or right in the casserole if it will work on your table. Serve the roasted peppers on the side to go with the chicken…if you put it all together on a hunk of Italian bread, it is really filling and yummy.
Not one, but two sides: Mediterranean Roasted Veggies and Rustic Garden Salad
Now, while the chicken was in the oven, I made the sides (I have a double oven which gives me time-bending superpowers but you could broil in a good toaster oven or just do the veggies once the chicken comes out and is cooling off).
I also made a salad while the veggies were roasting (I know, multi-tasking like crazy). I made a simple Caesar salad, but you can put together a green salad with the veggies of your choice. You could also outsource the salad to a kid…my youngest loves making salad and makes it almost every night.
Put the zucchini/eggplant onto an oiled baking sheet and coat with olive oil and salt lightly.
Fire up the broiler to high, and put the veggies under the broiler, 7 minutes the first side, 5 minutes the second side. But this will depend on the fierceness of your broiler, the thickness of the veggies, etc. So watch them carefully, since once they brown they will get very brown very fast.
Once they are nice and golden on each side, take them out of the oven and plate them up. Toss lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (this is OMG delicious) and it is ready to go.
Voila…serve to group of hungry people. I served all of this with Italian sparkling water, but of course wine would work too
I never learned to cook from my mom, and there my culinary troubles began.
I didn’t want to learn, and she didn’t want especially to teach me, I don’t think. My mother is Hungarian, and she knows all kinds of culinary magic: Chicken Paprikash, nokedli (little dumplings in broth), crepes with poppy seed filling, and túrós tészta, a pasta dish made with egg noodles, sour cream, and sugar.
The only dish I learned to make was the túrós tészta, and I will give you the recipe now, though I warn you that when my mother made this for a group of my friends once, they hated it and one kid actually threw up. I think it is absolute deliciousness, but I also don’t think it is suited to an American taste:
My Mother’s túrós tészta
1 package egg noodles
Boil water and cook noodles according to the directions.
While still piping hot, put noodles up in a bowl. Add a dollop of cottage cheese and a dollop of sour cream to the top, and sprinkle sugar over everything. My mother would serve it just like that, and the diner would mix it up themselves. The resulting concoction is creamy, sweet as a dessert, and incredibly filling and satisfying on a winter’s night. Try it at your own risk
American food, she did her best, but it was a challenge. So (like many folks in that generation, immigrant kids or not) we got steak and overcooked hot dogs, and chewy spaghetti with greyish canned peas. It worked, I grew up, but it was not a gourmet experience. I think my mother was much more intent on me getting somewhere in life using my brain and not my kitchen abilities…
She tried her best to feed us American style, though. Saucy Susan was a big thing at my house, a sweet orange glaze that went on all meat products. My mother also had a habit of adding canned pineapple sections to things and proclaiming them “Hawaiian.” She used to make Hawaiian beef tongue often, and it was enthusiastically received at home. So I gotta tell you, the culinary standards were not standard, and I didn’t do much to learn what my mother did know. I pretty much avoided the kitchen altogether.
Fast forward to my current life, where I am the mom and I have a house of kids to feed every night. I don’t make them Hungarian dishes…I tried goulash once, and it didn’t go over very well.
But what I do try to go for is that warm satisfied feeling I used to get from my mom’s noodles, or my grandma’s perfect palacsinta stuffed with poppy seeds or chestnut puree. That happy, homey feeling. My goal with this cooking stuff is to see if I can conjure that feeling on a regular basis.
Maybe not every night…maybe pizza delivery plays a bigger role in my kitchen repertoire than I want to admit LOL. And during deadlines, my menu often devolves to Deadline Chicken, pizza and eggs (see last week’s post).
But coming together to eat something made special for you, even if that something is little baby hotdogs wrapped in flaky pastry blankets, makes a person feel safe, creates a loving circle of family. Dang that is corny. But it is all so true. And sometimes it’s like the little girl I was is sitting at the table with us, as we eat little hotdogs and talk about soccer teams and trumpet practice.
And that is kind of magical right there.
by Michele Lang
Viv Levy, owner of the Sacred Circle magic store in New York City, knows she runs a big risk in her job. All kinds of supernatural currents, including quite dangerous ones, run under, through and above the streets where regular people walk. And evil often seeks a place of power…
A mysterious stranger seeks Viv’s help in dealing with a sinister magic mirror, and another stranger arrives when all appears lost. But will Viv herself have the courage to look into Fear’s Mirror?
An urban fantasy short story set in the world of Michele Lang’s Ms. Pendragon series!
“This is simply a fantastic read….Ms. Pendragon has the best Arthur and Guinevere I have seen in years of reading everything I can find about Camelot. Merlin is completely charming, and not since Mary Stewart has Mordred received a better treatment.” – Amanda Killgore, Huntress Reviews (review of Ms. Pendragon)
It’s that time again! Another volume of Uncollected Anthology has gone live This month, I got to visit with Viv and friends in the world of Ms. Pendragon…it has been too long since I’ve gone there, and I want to catch up with Merlin, Gwen, Lance, Arthur and all of the people dealing with magic run amok in Camelot and NYC.
I’m part of a writer’s collective that gets together to publish to a theme. This is the last volume of the year and I had so much fun with this issue’s theme, enchanting emporiums…
uncollected: not collected or gathered together.
anthology: a collection of selected literary pieces.
oxymoron: a combination of words that have opposite or very different meanings.
The Uncollected Anthology series is indeed an oxymoron. Sprung from the minds of six fabulous authors who love fantasy, short stories, and each other’s writing, the series’ main goal is to bring you quality urban fantasy fiction.
To find out more about the Uncollected Anthology series, please visit us at www.uncollectedanthology.com.
And please check out the other stories in this volume of the Anthology series!
“What You Wish For,” Dayle A. Dermatis
Why does a two-thousand-year-old djinn own a convenience store and spice shop in Manhattan?
The world has changed, for one thing, and Wadid isn’t proud of some of the things he’s done in the past. But really, he loves that he can help the magical community—and enhance the cooking skills and palates of some of his customers.
That’s all well and good until two gunmen burst through the front door and threaten him and one of his customers. Wadid breaks his personal code and uses his darkest ability to make them go away.
Not that it matters. Because the next person who walks through the door is the last person he would wish for.
“All Hallows’ Hangover,” Annie Reed
Teddy woke up the day after Halloween with the mother of all hangovers. The kind that comes complete with wagging tail and a lack of opposable thumbs.
Tabby owns a magic shop that carries just what Teddy needs, but Tabby’s dealing with her own brand of post-holiday hangover. The last thing she wants in her life is another complication.
Even if this particular complication has the cutest grin and the most soulful brown eyes she’s ever seen.
“When Gods Hunger,” Leslie Claire Walker
Beth embraces her new, immortal life and forever job as apprentice to Malek, the serpent from the Garden of Eden cursed into human form. Neither immortality nor her magical gig changes her essential curious, risk-taking nature. In fact, the power Malek passes to her opens the door to greater risk—and more disastrous consequences.
When she takes a short cut with her new magic, she finds herself in Hell—or a hell, anyway. She comes under the watchful gaze of a new enemy—a power of Biblical proportions whose unrivaled skill at temptation threatens to trap Beth forever. Finding a way out—a way home—becomes Beth’s priority number one, but there are more lives and souls at stake than her own.
“For more than a decade now, I have adored the work of Leslie Claire Walker.”
— Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“The Sweet Shop,” Leah Cutter
Tong Yi waits for something to happen—for his brother to return from the war zone, for his boss to trust him again, for his magical training to be expanded.
Then powerful wizard Uncle Bei takes him to The Sweet Shop—a magic shop more special and strange than Tong Yi has ever imagined.
Tong Yi finally returns to the war zone as well, delivering a message to a client he’d never expected.
But he must now make a decision about the war, about his place in it, about his magical training.
And everything, everything, has a price.
“The Sweet Shop” is a sequel to “Dancing with Tong Yi” and “War on all Fronts,” both also available from Uncollected Anthology
“The Magic Bean,” Rebecca M. Senese
After a safe life, an inheritance affords George the chance to leap for his dream: his own coffee shop. He even finds the perfect spot: a small, rundown shop.
Soon George is planning and polishing. Every day the shop looks cleaner, feels newer. Flaws melt away.
But every night strange images haunt him and threaten his sanity.
Is George’s desire to run a coffee shop a dream or a nightmare?
***Note: this essay and recipe first appeared in the wonderful collection Cooking Up Stories, published by Lucky Bat Books and edited by the delightful Louisa Swann and Dayle Dermatis. If you like writing, cooking, or both, check out the whole collection***
I made a whole chicken yesterday, and the burnt little things are carrots…
(In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I offer for your procrastinating pleasure a short meditation on family, eating, and the things that matter…plus a bonus recipe that actually rocks. If you are writing a novel this month, try this recipe. It might save your life!)
In days of yore (like, when I was in my 20s) when any kind of deadline loomed, my food choices quickly devolved to, in order: (1) delivery pizza; (2) hard boiled eggs; (3) chocolate and (4) nothing. Though this sad diet kept me more or less alive when chasing a deadline, the headaches, dizziness, etc did not do much to help me to hit my target.
Then I started having kids (I have three hungry, growing boys now) and the above strategy no longer worked. No matter how heinous the deadline, those little guys had to get something good to eat or a mutiny would soon be on my hands! The pizza worked once or twice, but after that…oh my.
The following recipe emerged in the midst of my desperation. It was 2008, and I had a two-week old baby at home when I got my edits for my first NY published novel.
I had two weeks to edit the whole kahuna. No brain cells, certainly no time to cook a lasagna and throw it in the freezer for just such an emergency. A houseful of hungry guys. AND my husband worked long and hard hours, so he did his best to bring groceries in but wasn’t around to help any more than that.
This chicken dish is amazing. I have made it while bleary-eyed, feverish AND nursing a baby at the same time…and it came out fine. I originally named it Coma Chicken for truly many a time I *was* nearly in a coma when I made this, and it comes out great even if you are barely alive when you cook it.
My dear husband begged me to change the name, because he hated the thought of me being in a coma even as a joke, and it messed with his appetite, which is a real crime considering the tastiness of this dish. So I happily re-named it Deadline Chicken. Now when this dish appears on the table, there’s an added benefit — my little guys know that a deadline is looming once again, and they know to back away slowly once the dishes are done. What’s not to love!
And now, my friends, I give to you my secret, easy recipe for Deadline Chicken!
1 three pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 baking sheet
Dried rosemary (or fresh thyme if you have some)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees (traditional chicken temp is 350 but I like the crispiness when I cook it a little hotter than that)
- While oven is firing up, put chicken pieces on the baking/cookie sheet. Do not oil the sheet — you are dry roasting this bird. If the chicken is damp for any reason, pat dry with a paper towel.
- Sprinkle spices over the pieces, and use a heavy hand. Simple salt and pepper would be enough, I guess, but I enjoy these four: kosher salt, garlic powder, paprika (for lovely golden color) and dried rosemary.
- When oven is at the right temperature, pop the sheet with the chicken into the oven. Middle or lower-middle rack is good. Set your timer for 50 minutes.
- When your timer goes off, take out the chicken, put it on a serving plate. That’s it!
Every time I have cooked this dish, the pieces come out crispy and flavorful, with moist, juicy chicken inside.
- OPTIONAL: for added nutritional goodness, once you’ve thrown in the chicken, get another baking sheet and cover it with some nice roasting vegetables. Here are some suggestions:
*cauliflower, cut up and sprinkled lightly with sea salt and olive oil
*onions, carrots, and celery, cut up with a little salt. If you dry roast these they get all crunchy and sweet and yummy
*some sweet potatoes, scrubbed and as is
*acorn or butternut squash, cut in half with maybe some oil or butter if you want (I do it plain)
Throw in the vegetables once you’re done cutting them up and let them cook at the same time as the chicken. When the chicken is done so are the veggies. (The potatoes might take a wee bit more time, so if you have big potatoes throw them in as the oven is warming up.)
And that’s all there is to it. If this dish doesn’t work for you, please write to me and let me know what happened because I am a primitive cook and this recipe has never failed me. Enjoy!
So, I’ve decided to start something new, and before I get to it, I’d like to tell you what I’m up to, and why I’m doing this.
I am a terrible cook. Actually, I take that back…I have become a cook, but will never have the grace to become a chef. After a lot of life experience, I have gone from somebody who had trouble boiling water to somebody who can cook up dinner for 8 without activating my higher brain function.
I did not think this ability was any kind of superpower, just a survival strategy since I have a bunch of kids and a husband, who all get hungry and do not have the kitchen access that I do. But a couple of conversations have changed my mind.
I was on the phone recently with my wonderful mother-in-law (no sarcasm there at all…seriously, she is magical) and we were talking about a hapless child of a friend who did not know how to cook and who hated to cook. At the time, I was in the middle of hacking up a small mountain of eggplant and zucchini to make roasted vegetables with balsamic vinegar (OMG yum but that is a recipe for another post).
I heard myself saying, “oh, she can do it. She just needs to learn some simple recipes that are impossible to mess up, get some practice cranking them out using her lizard brain. Then start branching out. Next thing you know, she will have the superpower and can get dinner on the table at any and all times.”
I hung up with her, watched the zucchini broil, and started thinking. How did I learn what I know? I never wanted to learn how to cook, and had zero native ability to boot. And yet here I was, having a good time cooking up good eats for the people I adore.
So how did I learn to cook, anyway?
The second conversation got me even harder. My oldest son is an amazing cook…he inherited my husband’s chef genes. One night, after a long and bruising day, I grimly made my turkey meatballs, one of my go-to meals. And this teenaged boy, who’d had his own hard day to deal with, beamed at me as I served it up. “I love your meatballs. And I always will.”
That just slayed me. Because he knew I made them out of love and he received them with gratitude, and that is one of life’s beautiful little moments of miracle.
So I replied, “They are easy, totally. I’ll teach you to make them and then you can have them always, whenever you want. I’ll make them for you anytime but you will have the secret knowledge too.”
At that point the light was slowly dawning. I really had learned something. Something that other people like me could use.
So that’s why I am starting this blog series. Because, dear reader, food is great. If you are also the kind of person who is freaked by the idea of cooking, I want to share all I’ve learned with you.
And also, some of my meals are hilariously bad and proudly I will share my flameouts as well. Because the first lesson of learning to cook is:
It’s okay to make a mistake. Mistakes are how you learn.
A good lesson for cooking, and for life.
So, for the non-cooks out there, what do you wish you knew about working the kitchen?
And for the great cooks of the world, do you have a favorite recipe that you consider a fail-safe? Please? My kids are getting sick of hamburgers this week LOL