September 11, 2013 has been a beautiful day here in Nashville. Tim and I woke up early to grind popcorn kernels and make skillet cornbread. The cornbread was a dud, but Tim made a berry smoothie that wasn’t. Then, we drove through blue skies and bright sun to our car dealership, twenty minutes south, where a serviceman checked us in to get our air-conditioning fixed and asked the time: It was 9:11 AM on the nose.
Twelve years ago this morning, I was standing in a Wisconsin hotel, curling my hair, when my mom shouted from the TV in the main room, “Come look at this!” and I didn’t say anything, and we called my dad in Illinois, and he was crying. Today, I walked away from a serviceman and into a Tennessee car dealership lounge, where Tim and I would listen to someone making popcorn and watch a 10-month-old baby boy named John crawl around the room.
My mom and I were at that Port Washington hotel because I was scheduled for traffic court on September 11, for driving 24 miles over the speed limit a few months before. I remember telling the judge that day that I was sorry. “I don’t want to ever speed again,” I said to her when it was my turn. Everyone was talking about the planes and the towers, and there I was apologizing for something that was no one’s fault but my own. After court, we tried shopping, but our hearts weren’t in it. I wanted to drive back to school before dark. So my mom drove back to Naperville, and I drove back to college, and, when I got there, I returned to TVs all over campus, broadcasting live coverage of what was going on.
Today, Tim and I drove away from the car dealership and to the grocery store to pick up chicken; I had a dinner idea I told him I wanted to try. In the broad, bright Tennessee daylight, we cruised back up I-65 and then over to our house. We roasted spaghetti squash and tomatoes and chicken, and we boiled potatoes to combine with squash in a puree. We ate dinner by candlelight, the days shorter and the sun gone by before seven o’clock these days. And I exclaimed, over and over again out loud to Tim and Nathan, two men I’d never even met twelve years ago, about how much I liked the dinner tonight and how special it felt.
It occurs to me as I sit down on my bed tonight, fresh from this dinner, trying to write this post, how many people aren’t alive to be able to read it today. There are the ones killed by tragedy on this day twelve years ago, and there are the ones killed on other days by other things since then, from a Boston bombing to a Middle Eastern bombing to cancer to depression to kidney failure to old age. Even as I’ve been writing these thoughts, a mosquito has been bothering me, and I just, almost mindlessly, killed it between my hands and took it to the bathroom trashcan. Death is all around us. Life ends. We all know this, but there are a million ways to pretend it away—and in the pretending away, we miss something true. We are not promised tomorrow. Who of us knows when his or her life will end? Days like today, remembering and reflecting, it’s easy to see. We are finite. Our lives are short. And then, it’s easy to give thanks for the sheer blessing of living, of driving to the car dealership, of eating roast chicken in your dining room, of coming here to write about it in a blog post.
Roast Chicken on Tomatoes + Potato Spaghetti Squash Puree
Serves two to three
Up next on the I-don’t-like-spaghetti-squash-on-its-own train is this marvelous puree, which I swear when you eat it you’ll have no idea it’s spaghetti squash. It would be a great side dish with any number of entrees, but we especially liked it mixed with roasted tomatoes and topped by roast chicken. This chicken, by the way, is sort of a standby recipe, right up there on the top five things we make for company. I told Tim and Nathan tonight it’s one of those recipes that’s hard to mess up—I love recipes that are hard to mess up.
for the spaghetti squash:
2 small to medium spaghetti squash, halved, seeds scraped out (should make about 2 cups of packed, roasted spaghetti squash flesh)
a little coconut oil, rubbed over flesh
for the potatoes:
2 medium to large potatoes, skins on, chopped into large chunks for faster cooking
Enough water to cover potatoes
A dash of salt
for the roast chicken:
2 bone-in chicken breasts, about 1 1/2 pounds
12 super-thin slices of lemon, from probably just under one lemon
12 leaves of fresh basil
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, chopped
Generous shakes of salt
1/2 pound roma tomatoes, sliced into rounds
1 tablespoon coconut oil
Generous shakes of salt
OPTIONAL: chopped fresh herbs, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 375F. Rub the cut side of the squash with coconut oil. Place the squash, cut side down, on a rimmed baking sheet or dish and slide into preheated oven. Bake for about 45 minutes to an hour, until a fork easily pierces the flesh. Set aside and let cool.
Bring a medium pot of water to boil over high heat and add a dash of salt. Place the potato chunks inside and reduce heat to medium. Let cook until potatoes are soft and easily pierced with a fork. Drain water and set aside.
for the chicken:
Place the two chicken breasts in a small or medium baking dish, and stuff lemon slices, basil leaves and garlic under the skin and in any crevices where you can. After doing this, rub chicken with butter and sprinkle remaining butter pieces all over the chicken and in the pan. Salt generously all over the top. Place in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour, flipping chicken once and basting as you like. Chicken is done when the skin is crisp and golden. The meat will be fully cooked but still juicy thanks to the butter and lemons.
for the tomatoes:
Use the tablespoon of coconut oil to grease a rimmed baking sheet or dish and arrange tomato pieces in a single layer. Salt all over the top and slide into the oven. The tomatoes can bake for around a half hour, until wilty and caramelized. They may bake alongside the chicken’s second half of bake time.
prepare the puree:
Fork out the spaghetti squash strands from the roasted squash, and pile them into a bowl or dish. Then, place two cups of packed squash strands in a Vitamix or food processor or super strong blender, and combine with a tablespoon of pesto and a tablespoon of creme fraiche. Once fully smooth, scoop out to a medium-sized bowl.
Place the boiled, softened potatoes in the same Vitamix or food processor and combine with 1/4 cup milk, 3 tablespoons pesto and a tablespoon creme fraiche. Scoop this pureed mixture into the squash bowl and stir it together. Salt to taste.
Scoop a generous helping of squash potato puree onto each plate. Add a few roasted tomatoes. Top with chicken breast or, if splitting meal among three, some roasted chicken, sliced off the bone. Garnish with herbs if you like (optional).