Monday, June 23, 2014

Happy summer!

Yes, after what seemed to be an interminable cold spell, we've finally arrived at summertime! Although the season is finally official, I'm still not totally used to Chicago weather -- I'm used to "summer" just automatically being hot. In Austin, when you go outside on a late June day, you can be certain that shorts and a t-shirt will work. Whereas here, I'm never quite sure... the first day of summer we woke up to 60 degrees. Rick wrapped his hands around a hot cup of coffee that morning and proclaimed the day "too chilly," but it eventually warmed up into the 80s. We've also had some interesting storms the last few weeks -- including a bizarre little pop-up storm that was so insignificant it never showed up on the Chicago weather radar... but it still managed four flashes of lightning with their accompanying peals of thunder.

With the advent of warmer weather, Rick began reminiscing about our days in the suburbs when we always had a grill on the back porch. We had a pretty big charcoal grill that we sold as soon as we moved up here -- charcoal grills aren't allowed in most apartment or condo buildings, even if you have a big porch or balcony. We have a decent-sized balcony -- it's not huge, but it would be big enough for a small table and a few chairs (if we had any :)). Which means it's also big enough for a grill. So on Saturday Rick and I drove to Costco -- Rick had a membership there about a zillion years ago... he even still had his old Costco card (with a picture... where he had hair... that's how long ago it was ;)). But it had been so long since he'd been there that he had to sign up again and get a new card. But we finally walked out with a new, appropriately sized, gas grill. Along with a few other things... that Costco place is dangerous. Why yes, I DO need an inordinate amount of mayonnaise, thank you for asking:

(I didn't actually buy any mayonnaise -- I just took that picture for Eric, because I know how much he loooooooves mayo. :))

Rick spent yesterday morning assembling the grill in the living room (and was very happy to have "accomplished something before noon" :)), and then we moved it out to the balcony:

So of course we had to test it out last night. We bought some filets at Whole Foods... Faisal even braved the inevitability of severe cat allergies and joined us. (He also brought me an Indian movie AND burfi! Actually, I made jam-filled shortbread bars and traded him shortbread for burfi. Totally worth it. We made a pact to continue trading sugary carb for sugary carb on a regular basis... I think it's going to work out great. We're not addicts or anything.) Rick's team at work had an event at a cooking class a few weeks ago where they made steaks and potatoes and salad, so Rick got all Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen and showed me what he learned. And I have to admit, the steaks DID turn out pretty good (especially after experiencing a particularly disappointing visit to Fleming's Steakhouse last weekend).

So I think we'll get plenty of use out of the grill this summer -- at least if the weather will stop being unseasonably chilly. And since Rick is so good at preparing steaks now, I can just sit on the couch and watch baseball while he does all the work. Right? Right. :)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Time for a recipe!

When I first met Rick, I remember hearing him talk about his mom's chicken spaghetti. Having never eaten any kind of spaghetti except the kind with a tomato-based red sauce, I thought this sounded strange. I was picturing a plate of spaghetti noodles, covered in Prego marinara sauce, and topped with random pieces of chicken. And then I actually HAD chicken spaghetti and realized it was totally different than what I was thinking about in my head.

Not too long after we were married, I decided to try making Rick's mom's chicken spaghetti recipe myself. I'm not sure what I did -- too many noodles? too much cheese? not enough water? too MUCH water? -- but whatever it was, my version was horrible. And for years afterward, I left the chicken spaghetti-making to Rick's mom, and didn't even ATTEMPT to try it again.

Until we moved to Chicago, that is. Chicken spaghetti is one of Rick's favorite dinners -- when we lived in Texas, we used to eat dinner at his parents' house just about every week. And every now and then, chicken spaghetti would make an appearance on the menu. This would satisfy the chicken-spaghetti craving for a few weeks, until his mom made another big batch. But then we moved to Chicago, and no longer had our weekly dinners with his parents. So, after years and years of avoiding it, I finally pulled out the chicken spaghetti recipe, which was buried beneath dozens of other recipes in my pantry.

But this time, I had nearly two decades of cooking experience under my belt. I figured if I couldn't make it work, I'd have to assume that Rick's mom was using some form of magic to prepare her dishes, and I'd never be able to make it correctly. And then something amazing happened: my version actually tasted GOOD. I still don't know how I managed to destroy it so completely all those years ago... but now? I've got this chicken spaghetti thing DOWN.

I've made a few tweaks for my own version, but Rick's mom's recipe was absolutely the jumping-off point. In fact, if it weren't for all of our chicken spaghetti dinners at the Brooks household, I'm not sure I ever would've known that chicken spaghetti was an actual "thing." Thank goodness THAT ignorance was averted... :)

Chicken Spaghetti (or Rotini... or Penne... or Farfalle...)

(This recipe makes enough for about four smaller servings... or two large servings with enough leftover for lunch the next day)

*4-5 chicken tenders
*1 small bell pepper, chopped (red, green, orange, yellow -- whatever you like)
*3 stalks celery, chopped
*1/2 small onion, chopped
*4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped (if you don't like garlic, you can use less... but I love garlic, and I really think the garlic makes this recipe)
*4-5 mushrooms, sliced (you can use white mushrooms, or baby portobellos -- either one works well)
*1 2.25 oz can of sliced black olives
*About 8 oz chicken broth
*4-5 oz pasta of choice (I actually love using rotini for this recipe -- it holds onto the sauce and veggies really well)
*Shredded cheese (cheddar works well, but I've also used Monterey and Colby-Jack)
*Olive oil, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne

I like to chop up all my veggies first, since that's the most time-consuming part of this recipe. Once you have neat little piles of vegetables scattered all over your kitchen, cook the chicken. The original recipe calls for poaching, but I usually fry mine in a little olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper, and cayenne. I'm sure you could also bake it, broil it, whatever you like best. Once the chicken is cooked, chop or shred into small pieces, then cover with a plate or some aluminum foil to keep it warm and/or to prevent cats from snacking on it...

In a large pot, heat about a tablespoon of butter and about half the chicken broth on medium-high heat. (The butter is really optional in this recipe -- but I am of the opinion that butter makes everything better.) Add the chopped pepper, celery, onion, and garlic, and season with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Cook until veggies begin to soften... about five minutes.

I like using red pepper because the color is so pretty... that's a totally legitimate reason, right?

Add the pasta to the pot (if you're using spaghetti, I suggest breaking the noodles in half so they fit into the pot more easily), and then add the rest of the chicken broth. The noodles don't have to be completely submerged in liquid, so don't worry if they're not covered. Bring the mixture just to a boil, then turn the heat down to around medium low and let it simmer, uncovered -- the noodles will take longer to cook than if they were submerged in boiling water, but as long as you occasionally stir the mixture to keep the heat even, they'll turn out fine. If it starts to look too dry, you can add some water (or more chicken broth, if you have some on hand) -- I usually end up adding about a quarter to a half a cup of water throughout the cooking process. (If you add water, you may have to turn the heat back up temporarily.)

After about ten or fifteen minutes (depending on your pasta), the noodles should be done (you can fish one out and test it for doneness every now and then). At this point, turn the heat down to low, and stir in the olives and mushrooms. Keep the heat on low (or you can even turn it off) and stir in some shredded cheese until it's melted -- I usually add about half a cup, but you can add more or less, depending on your love of cheese. And finally, stir in the chicken that you've been protecting from the cats.

Serve and eat!

I love this recipe because it's really customizable -- you could leave the chicken out and use vegetable broth, and make it a vegetarian recipe... you could leave out the cheese if you hate cheese (DAD), or add more if you love cheese. Sometimes I add a jalapeno pepper if I have one lying around. And I'm betting you could throw in some broccoli florets or chopped asparagus or some sliced radishes or any number of different vegetables to give it an extra veggie boost. And Rick swears this is even better heated up the second day -- so if you like leftovers, make some extra!

Monday, June 2, 2014

I don't even have a guest room...

Happy June, everyone! (How is it already June?? We're literally almost halfway through the year... I honestly don't understand how each year seems to move more quickly than the last. It's rather disconcerting...)

At least we're finally firmly planted in the middle of spring now. It was touch and go there for a while... winter kept attempting to creep back into Chicago, but Chicago was having none of that. I haven't had to use my heater in weeks... and I've been running the A/C every night -- because as Rick will tell you, I like it to be "freezing" in the house when I sleep. (In reality I keep it around 69 or 70... apparently that passes for "freezing" in Rick's world. :))

Spring usually brings an influx of uninvited guests of the six- or eight-legged variety. In Texas, this usually included weird little unidentifiable creepy-crawlies (which would be quickly dispatched with a cloud of Raid or a handful of paper towels), and the occasional hand-sized spider (the removal of which would involve a carefully choreographed "argh, it's a spider as big as my hand" dance, plus some sort of hazmat suit and an unbreakable, airtight container).

But we've been really lucky in Chicago -- MOST of the bugs stay outside, where they're supposed to be. Every spring, spiders start to appear in the corners of our windows -- but always on the OUTSIDE of the windows, where they spend lots of time and effort creating intricate webs... and then they sit back, take a break, and wait for the food to come to them. (Until the first good thunderstorm of the season washes away all their work... then they start the whole thing over.)

But there's ONE type of unwanted visitor we've been struggling to eradicate -- moths. We started noticing them last year, when every now and then one would flit past our field of vision when we were watching TV... or we'd see one of the cats batting the air with reckless abandon, and know they'd found one. But then I started noticing them more and more frequently -- especially in the closet. I would frantically riffle through my clothing, fearful of finding random holes in my favorite outfits... and then chide the cats for not catching enough of the little annoyances.

I bought cedar blocks and hung them all over the closet. I researched "natural moth repellants," since the idea of spraying my clothes with any kind pesticide was extremely unappealing to me (although at one point, Rick, in a fit of frustration, sprayed some of his own clothes with Raid). I read that lavender oil was a good repellant, so I hung up about ten little lavender sachets in the closet -- this succeeded in nothing more than making the closet smell like lavender for about a day and a half. The moths would still dive bomb my head in a mocking display of superiority, and since the smell of lavender wore off so quickly, I wasn't sure it even had to time to have an effect.

And then as I was perusing Amazon one day, I found moth pheromone traps -- they're non-toxic, and filled with sticky glue to trap the moths. No pesticide spraying necessary. Still, I was skeptical, so I only bought a few of them. I set up a couple in the closet, and waited to see what would happen...

Within 24 hours, there must've been ten moths in the traps... in another 24 hours, there were ten more. I was actually a bit shocked by just HOW many moths these things were trapping -- because I'd never seen more than one moth flitting about at a time. Confident that they actually WERE working, I placed a few more around the house -- the one I set up in Rick's office caught about a dozen of them... the others around the house caught a few stragglers, but not many. So the closet and Rick's office are definitely moth hot spots.

Now, between the pheromone traps, the cedar blocks, and the pest control services of two very agile cats, the moth population has been greatly reduced. I'm slightly less worried that the next time I get dressed I'll look like an extra from "Oliver," but I still go through the clothes in the closet on a regular basis to make sure the moths haven't elected a president to help them oversee their tiny little moth community. So temporarily, anyway, things seem to be relatively under control...

And by the way, I'd take moths over hand-sized spiders ANY day. :)