Speedy Chicken Tikka Masala (dairy-free, gluten-free)

Sometimes I don’t feel like talking about food. I feel like posting a pretty picture.

Huntsville Alabama

I took the above shot last month in Huntsville, Alabama, the town where my college roommate Kim lives and where I met her for the afternoon one Saturday. She treated me to high tea at this fancy little shop, and then she drove me around the area’s historic neighborhoods, letting me ooh and ah at the architecture, and to this park off the highway, where we climbed into the woods and looked out through leaves at the parking lot and, off in the distance, the hills of her hometown.

Huntsville Saturday

Tim was away in New York that weekend (you’ll remember his happy homecoming here), and I was missing him, so when I came back to the empty house that night, I was glad to be so tired from driving and touring and eating little scones, because at least that meant I would fall fast asleep, a skill usually reserved only for the male half of this little family, and fall fast asleep is exactly what I did. The next day, he was back, and we ate filet mignon and kale mashed potatoes, and by evening, he was sound asleep beside me the minute his head hit the pillow and, thirty to forty minutes of heavy late-night thinking later, so was I.

There are many things I tend to envy about my husband, not the least of which is his soft, wavy hair, but his sleeping ability is becoming one of the great marvels of our married life. Whereas I need to wind down after a day of work or social activity or drama-filled TV, Tim simply climbs into bed, shuts off the light, and he’s out. Gone. Dead to the world. It’s amazing. We’ve had many long, hilarious conversations about this, wherein I try to prompt him to describe for me what this feels like or how it works (or, ahem, see how long I can keep him awake with me). And over thirteen months of marriage, what we’ve essentially concluded is this: sleeping is one area in which he will likely always have the upper hand.

Indian food, on the other hand, is another story.

speedy chicken tikka masala

I may be the one who’s half Indian, but, in our marriage, Tim’s the one who first loved Indian food. When we were dating, he took me to Sitar downtown, and told me to order his favorite dish, Chicken Makhani (or, butter chicken), and garlic naan. The moment those glistening pillows of garlicky dough arrived on our table, followed by a creamy, spicy chicken mixture I all but licked off the solid white plates, I knew an important change had just occurred. I could never go back to the person I was, one who sometimes tolerated but never especially loved Indian cuisine. From that point and forever forward, I was all in.

We went back to Sitar to celebrate a month of marriage and then again to celebrate two months. More than once over the last year, at random times when the fridge has been lean but the spice cabinet full, Tim’s whipped up a curried dinner out of celery and carrots and rice, leaving me speechless, every time, eyes welling up with tears that such a meal could come from the simplest ingredients and, more than that, that the man who could bring them together was the same one laying next to me each night.

Julia Child Quote | FoodLovesWriting.com

But over time, he’s taught me a few tricks of the trade, and I’ve become more heavy-handed with heat in my cooking, and now one of our regular dinners is a bunch of chopped vegetables, sautéed on the stove and mixed with spices and cream, the kind of thing that just slightly burns your throat as it goes down, a mysterious proof that sometimes the simplest (and cheapest!) foods can make the best meals.

spices

Similar to the butter chicken that first wooed me into this curried world, Chicken Tikka Masala is a classic entrée at Indian restaurants that relies on a tomato-based creamy sauce and a blend of fragrant spices. There is no shortage of recipes for either of these dishes online, but our version has one great advantage going for it: it’s fast. The day I wanted to make it, I had leftover roasted chicken in the fridge and a desire to make a meal as quickly as possible, so I wanted a nuts-and-bolts set of directions to use as a guide instead of a ruler.

sauteeing

Over at Serious Eats, I found this:

“The basics of masala sauce are simple: start with a base of aromatics—onions, garlic, and ginger are common—cooked in oil, ghee, or butter. Add a simple spice mixture, largely based on cumin, coriander, and chilis, throw in some canned tomatoes, cook them down, then purée the whole deal with heavy cream and fresh cilantro.” J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Chief Creative Officer, Serious Eats

making tikka masala

A bunch of chopping, a little sauteéing and less than an hour or so later, we had this meal on our plates, my version of following the general guidelines above. It was easy, it was spicy, and, by the end of the meal, it had us wiping the skillet and wooden spoon clean, wishing for more. I can’t believe how much of my life I wasted not loving this style of food—and I’m glad the one to open my eyes is the same one I sleep next to (OK, he sleeps, I think) every night.

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Parsley Pesto Pizza + Squash Apple Pizza with Einkorn Crusts

birthday weekend pizza | foodloveswriting.com

There are people who don’t believe in making a big deal about birthdays, but I’m not one of them—and I have my brother to thank.

Adam in Nashville | FoodLovesWriting.com

My brother, Adam, who is two years and two months younger than I am (but if you heard us together, you’d swear he were the one who’s older), came here to see us last week, arriving around 2 p.m. on his birthday Wednesday and staying through Saturday night. The thing you have to understand about my brother and birthdays is he is kind of the king of celebrating them.

When I turned 21, he took me to a Coach store and told me to pick out one thing I wanted, any one thing, and he would buy it for me—choosing a purse in a store so far outside my price range made me feel like the richest person in the world, and that’s a feeling you never forget. Another year, he surprised me with a party at Ravinia, this outdoor park near Chicago where Tony Bennett was playing for the night. Since then, there have been trips to Maine and, when I was dating Tim, a trip to Nashville, and every year, the building anticipation that my birthday would mean something special and something fun.

It’s his influence that has turned my mom’s February birthday into a family holiday in which we all take off work to do whatever she wants to do, which, last year, meant all three of my family members flying down here to visit together for the first time. It’s his influence that makes me vote for spending Thanksgiving (and my dad’s corresponding birthday) in Chicago every year so I can sit by my dad and tell him why he’s cool. And it’s his influence that makes me want to celebrate anyone I love’s birthday the same way, by saying, Name what you want to do and we’ll do it! I just think it’s such a great gesture, submitting your preferences to someone else’s as a way of celebrating, as a way of showing them love.

So that said, you can understand why, when my brother comes to visit us for his birthday, we want to pull out all the stops.

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Ebook Writing + Poached Eggs over Toast

iPhoneography

I listened to a podcast interview of Sara Kate from the Kitchn this week on Joy the Baker’s “We’re about to Be Friends” show, and, in it, Sara Kate compares the immediacy of a photograph to the long work of writing. She says, from her perspective as a writer, there’s something so satisfying about taking a photograph and, those times when you get it right, knowing you’ve got it; it’s a very different kind of creative work than, say, writing, for example, in which you sometimes have to wrestle and fight and rewrite and pull out the words to say before you reach that same satisfying feeling.

egg | foodloveswriting.com

I was listening to the interview while I was in the kitchen working some dough together. And a few days later, while I sautéed vegetables, I thought of it again. When you go to the kitchen and combine some ingredients into something new, there’s a satisfaction in the immediacy, kind of like taking the right photograph, especially compared to the slower rewards of writing a long project.

chicken broth | foodloveswriting.com

Think about it. Wake up in the morning, nothing prepared, go to the stove and heat up broth; crack an egg into a bowl; and slide it in the warm pot for a few minutes. Scoop out the poached eggs onto toast, shave some Pecorino on top, sprinkle fresh thyme. That’s it, you’re done, there before you is your work completed. It’s nice. It’s comforting.

Writing an ebook, well, that’s another story. True, it’s not that different from writing a blog post. It’s longer and it’s more planned out, but it starts with the same process of opening up a Word document or a WordPress draft, putting words to paragraphs, writing your thoughts to be read. You may have an initial plan for what you want to say; you may have no idea. You sit there, you and the keyboard, willing the words to come, but knowing that, sometimes, they won’t. You also wonder, after some words are finally sitting there, if what you’re writing is any good.

heirloom eggs

I started the ebook project in early July, just before our trip to see family and visit the Wisconsin town where I used to spend weeks of summer as a kid. The ebook was Tim’s idea, something I never would have done on my own, maybe because of fear of commitment or fear of failure or a form of perfectionism or something else. But early this summer, he did me the great favor of forcing me to consider the ebook, something I could sit down and work on right now, and when push came to shove, I knew he was right. And so it was on that trip, while we were relaxing in the cool and the quiet of an Internet-free cabin, that I wrote the first chapter.

I remember looking at it, reading it to Tim, thinking, so this is how people write things like books? They just, write? And then, wow, there’s more value in blogging than people give it credit for. (I mean, seriously, have you read blogs these days? They’re good.)

pecorino

Of course, I know what you’re thinking, the difference between blogs and books is not as small as I want to make it—Books are edited and revised. Books go through some approval processes. Books are longer and more involved and often require more investment. I wrote an ebook, and it’s sort of a fine line saying if it’s more like a blog or a book at its heart.

All I know is that I had a first draft finished by mid-August, after many long work dates across from Tim at coffee shops and Saturday mornings holed up in the dark office/second bedroom where we rarely spend any time. I sent the draft to a few writers/editors/friends and waited. Tim and I went to Gulf Shores. I turned 30. Feedback came in; I worked at the book again.

poached eggs over toast

Right now, from where I type this post, the ebook is done. It’s edited. It’s formatted. All that’s missing are a few small design touches and it will launch. But right now, from where I type this post, we’re a long way from early July. We’re also hours of work (and yes, tears!) from that first moment when I looked at Tim and said, OK. Let’s do this.

And even though four months is nothing like the two years (or longer) typically involved in printed, published books, contrast it with the steps involved toward making a morning meal like this one. Idea to concept, we’re talking 20 minutes, tops.

In these days leading up to the book publishing, I think you can guess where you’ll find me.

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Poulet Sauté à la Paysanne Provençale + “My Berlin Kitchen”

If you’d been a fly on our kitchen walls this past week, you would have seen a lot of easy weeknight dinners going on. After we followed Tamar Adler’s advice and, in one big batch of cooking, filled our fridge with jars and Pyrex packed with roasted eggplant, boiled potatoes, roasted yellow squash and so on, we then began the daily task of putting her strategy to the test. There were vegetables tossed with quinoa, vegetables inside morning omelettes, leftover vegetable hash pureed with milk and water until it became a hot and creamy bisque so comforting, I almost cried. Roasted eggplant became baba ganoush. Boiled potatoes turned into mashed, soft and creamy and studded with garlic. Preroasting all your produce is not for everyone (and not for every week), but this last week, as we’ve tried it, Tim and I have seen firsthand how simplifying the strategy can be in helping to make dinner every night.

There are other things you’d see from your kitchen perch, too, though, like the failed cookie recipe I attempted, a sort of cookie rollup is what they turned out to be; or the truly amazing cookies I baked a few days after that. We’ve had our morning smoothies and thrown together a quick chicken salad, and listen, if you have two oranges, some Pellegrino and a bit of honey, go pureé it all in the Vitamix and remember what is good about life. Also, there’s been comfort cooking, like yesterday, when I made a new chicken recipe, taken from Luisa Weiss’s soon-to-be-released book, “My Berlin Kitchen.”*

myberlinkitchen

Luisa Weiss is the blogger behind The Wednesday Chef, which, along with Orangette and Smitten Kitchen, is one of the first three food blogs I started reading back when I discovered food blogs five years ago. When I found her, she was a cookbook editor in New York, though today she lives in Berlin; I was reading the day she posted about getting engaged to the man she dated before her now-husband; the day she wrote about quitting her job, “leaping” as she called it, less than a year before I would end up doing the same thing; I remember reading about her sweet and beautiful wedding; I remember the first photo of her brand-new baby boy. Following along with her life the last few years, the way I do with so many blogs, the way I’m amazed some of you do with mine, I felt on some level like I knew her, and I liked that.

whole raw chicken

My friend Jacqui and I always say that the thing we most love about blogs is reading people’s stories. Sure, there are recipes and photos and nutrition info and giveaways—but what keeps me reading, what makes me care about any of it at all, is hearing someone else share their story, like she’s a friend. I started Luisa’s book two days after finishing “An Everlasting Meal,” and it only took me another three to get to the final page. She pours her heart out in the pages, detailing her cross-continental childhood, her search for identity, her eventual settling and family-making in Berlin, the city where she first belonged—and as an added bonus, there are recipes along the way.

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Slow-Cooked Vegetable Dinner + “An Everlasting Meal”

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Tim and I are taking our CSA box back to the car, a heavy bushel filled with watermelon, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers and yellow squash. Our usual routine has been to unload this share at home, turning some into dinner with a simple salad or something roasted, storing the rest of it away on the counter or the fridge to be cooked and eaten as the week goes on. But today, instead of setting things aside, I’m cooking it—all of it—one thing after another, often in the same liquids or roasting juices of the previous pan. With two months left on our CSA, I’ve been reading Tamar Adler’s book, “An Everlasting Meal,” and, as most home cooks who’ve read it would tell you, the way I use vegetables—actually the way I use almost everything in my kitchen—will never be the same.

Polaroid_vegetables

I first heard of Tamar Adler, and her book, in May, through an email from my friend Kendra. In the midst of what she called a “life-changing book,” Kendra was writing from her kitchen, where she’d just boiled vegetables, one right after another, in the same big pot, then layered them with leftover rice and roasted pork that “sent [her] through the roof in euphoria.” All the scraps went right back into the same water, boiling steadily for about an hour, after which she took a sip so good, tears came to her eyes. I didn’t know much about Tamar Adler back then, hadn’t read the New Yorker article she would later write about Julia Child, hadn’t caught when people like Tara from Tea & Cookies or Tracy from Shutterbean were talking about how wonderful she was. All I knew, in May, reading a note from a friend, was that Tamar Adler’s way of using vegetables was so mind-blowing and beautiful that it could evoke tears of joy—and so I promptly clicked over to the Nashville Public Library system, became #54 or so in line and, waited.

polaroid_book

I started reading “An Everlasting Meal” less than two weeks ago, just before we went away for my birthday. I continued reading it on the seven-and-a-half-hour drive down, the three-hour drives to and from Louisiana, the seven-and-a-half-turned-nine-hour drive home. Hearing Tamar’s advice is like talking to a woman who’s been cooking a long lifetime, filled with wit and wisdom gained from years of trying different techniques. She reminds me of my grandma, who knew foods so well, she didn’t have to consult recipes; and of Tim, who’s wowed me since we met with his ability to make a restaurant-worthy dinner when we have nothing in the fridge.

polaroid_vegetablescloser

Tuesday in the kitchen, the outside light growing dim, once all my vegetables are washed and drying on a towel on our counter, I push trays of salted, chopped, oiled eggplant in the oven, alongside rounds of potatoes. A pot goes on the stove to boil water for tomatoes, which get cored and skored with x’s on the bottom, plopped into water for eight seconds so their skins peel right off. Then into the same water go six or seven large potatoes, which I’ll eventually throw in the fridge to have when I need them (which turns out to be two days later, when I’m in a rush to a friend’s house for dinner and Tim and I throw together a potato salad).

Then, in my largest, deepest skillet, I warm minced garlic in olive oil and butter, adding half a green pepper, chopped. Next goes all the diced eggplant that wouldn’t fit on my baking sheet to roast and some leftover chicken broth I poached eggs in that morning. I chop the three boiled tomatoes and add them next. Last are fingerling potatoes, diced smaller than I’ve ever diced them, so they’ll soften fully and well.

polaroid_dinner

Tim’s been gone this whole time, at a work meeting, and when he arrives home two hours later, he steps into the kitchen with a smile on his face. “Something smells good!” is how he greets me, and after he helps me clean up, after we salt and pepper the vegetables, then salt them again for taste, we dine on leftover roasted chicken topped with our slow-cooked vegetable hash, the fridge now packed with glass tupperware and mason jars filled with roasted eggplant and potatoes and green peppers and radishes and tomatoes—all of which will contribute to quick meals for the next few days.

Sitting across from him at the table, we take a few pictures in the chandelier light, join hands and shake our heads. This rustic spread before us, the combined byproduct of chicken broth (which I made from roasted chicken bones yesterday) and today’s CSA vegetables and a few hours of time, is, without question, one of the best meals we’ve enjoyed all week.

(And there’s more!) Once we’ve eaten our fill, the leftovers go into a mason jar in the fridge, providing us an intensely flavored mixture of vegetables now marinating in their own sauce, ideal for blending or eating again with pasta later on. All of the odds and ends from chopping didn’t go into the trash but were saved in a pile to add to the water once the potatoes finish boiling. We cook them for hours until they’ve created a dark, rich, mineral-heavy vegetable broth now stored in our freezer.

The subtitle of “An Everlasting Meal” is cooking with economy and grace—and, right now, looking at our plates at dinner, the fridge stuffed with ready vegetables, stock boiling long on the stove, I want to cry with Kendra at how good and right and practical this all is.

Tamar Adler, reading your book has been the best kind of cooking school, such an education and a gift. I will be reading it for months and years to come. Thank you.

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Peach Pizza on Kefir-Soaked Spelt Crust

Ready-to-Bake Kefir Spelt Pizza Crust

The month of August has been a quiet one for us. Expected guests had to cancel at the last minute, plans changed and, while you’d think this would be the sort of thing to discourage us, in fact, it’s been the opposite. We’ve been dealing with the wide-open weekends of Tim’s homemade pancakes, afternoons spent writing, evening walks in the park, impromptu trips to thrift stores or out for tacos. The weather’s even cooperated, moving from the abrasive 100s to more reasonable upper 80s, making it a little easier to enjoy cooking in the kitchen again. For years, Tim’s told me about his homemade Chinese food, and this August has been his chance to take a few hours in the kitchen to show me. I’ve baked cookies without recipes. We’ve slow-cooked vegetables via Marcella Hazan. And not once, not twice, but three times, we’ve made homemade kefir-soaked spelt pizza crusts, topped by peaches and spinach and goat cheese.

Tim and the Pizza

In so many ways, August has been a contrast to the months before it, in which we’ve hosted out-of-town guests or traveled ourselves, and, to make up for the hours we’d be missing, worked double-time beforehand. In the same way that you appreciate your sophomore English teacher so much more because you disliked your freshman one, we’ve been basking in the beauty of this August and its slow, steady schedules.

Sliced Spinach, Peach & Goat Cheese Pizza

Most Tuesday nights, we share dinner with Tim’s brother, Nathan, who lives about a mile or two away, in the house where Tim lived before October. Every other week, by the time he arrives, we’re also unpacking our biweekly CSA haul, a tightly packed bushel box of yellow squash and watermelon and sweet corn and tomatoes and so on, which we pick up from the 12 South Farmers Market held late Tuesday afternoons. On one particular week, we’re pulling away from the market, not yet home, when I catch an image on Instagram of a peach-topped pizza. Despite the loot in our back seat, we beeline for the grocery.

At home, we launch into our biweekly routine, Tim slicing up watermelon that we snack on while we divvy up the goods. Meanwhile, I mix together a pizza crust, letting it soak in the warmest spot above our oven.

Slice of Spinach, Peach & Goat Cheese Pizza

By the time Nathan arrives, the August sun is lowering, the house enjoying that late-summer twilight that turns everything golden and dim, and two pizzas are in the oven, one on a stone and one on a baking sheet.

Spinach, Peach & Goat Cheese Pizza

That first time is magic: crackery crust, sweet and soft peaches, the tang of goat cheese mixed with drizzles of honey. We eat it on the sofa, piece after piece after piece, the three of us flipping through channels on TV, occasionally interrupting the programming to marvel at the way the crust holds up or the way the edges have a faint hint of Saltine.

Peach Pizza on Kefir Crust

When Nathan leaves, it’s barely 8 p.m., so Tim and I clean up the dishes and put away the leftovers and take a drive, headed nowhere in particular, off to enjoy a lazy summer night, with nothing to do. I say to him, This August has been like one long date!, enough that I almost feel guilty!, and he says to me, I know.

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Honey-Glazed Peach Spinach Salad

Tim and I live in the downstairs of a 1940s-style house; I may have mentioned this before. If you walk into our living room from the front porch, you see built-ins around the fireplace, stuffed with the combined libraries of 20+ years of separate lives: a few textbooks, many novels, the guidebook and accompanying tapes for a ‘How to Speak Italian’ course. For the first few months we lived together, the mantel between these shelves was completely bare; December brought a $5 fresh pine wreath from Aldi, which we left mounted weeks past New Year’s; we finally threw it in the fireplace in February, planning to watch it burn, but it’s still sitting there. In its stead are perched a giant canvas engagement shot, a few framed prints and a wooden letter “M” I spray-painted white in a few Pinterest-driven weeks last winter.

3 fresh peaches

Besides the ottomans and the rug, everything in this living room is either from our previous apartments or hand-built by Tim; that’s true in most of the house. The leather couch: from his old apartment with two other guys. The coffee tables: my former nightstand and Tim’s former filing cabinet. As we usher you through to the dining room, we’ll give you the biographies of the entertainment center (built a few weeks before the wedding), the dining table (finished in those days when I was in Chicago making wedding favors) and the buffet (brought to our house just after we got rid of our first Christmas tree).

It’s a small and cozy two-bedroom, just the sort of place you’d think of when you think young newlyweds. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm, with beat-up hardwood floors, painted but paneled walls, white crown molding and natural light brought in through lots of windows—at least one in every room.

Fresh peaches and baby spinach

While you’re sitting at the table, we might tell you how last summer when we toured apartments, this place was last in the long line of possibilities we looked through and, by far, the best. I’d kept a list back then, with all the things we’d hoped for in our future home: an extra bedroom, a garage, windows in the bathroom and kitchen. This place had every one. And sometimes, still, we can’t believe we live here.

After we hand you your plates, piled high with baby spinach and roasted peaches and goat cheese, we might whisper that we’d stay forever if it weren’t for the smell of smoke filling our bathroom lately or the strange phenomenon we witnessed when our neighbor removed items from our trash can and took them to his backyard (!), or the growing desire we both have to plant a garden and, to watch it grow.

Baby spinach on plates

We talk to you from the kitchen, a white, 100-square-foot galley-style space with gray laminate countertops and a floor our landlord laid before we moved in (chosen primarily, we think, because it’s the cheapest kind they sell at Home Depot). There’s a white stone bowl with red tomatoes to the left of the sink and a handful of peaches set beside it.

Tim and I cooked together when we lived in different states and would visit for quick weekends; we cooked together when we lived in Nashville in different houses and traded dinners at his place or mine; but now, in this little house, we cook together constantly, swapping tasks and sharing chores for every meal.

I wipe down the counters one last time before we join you at the table, and Tim reaches into the fridge, past spinach and Pecorino and yesterday’s zucchini fritters, to grab the water pitcher, which, we apologize, is for some reason, the only drink we have on hand today.

Honey-Glazed Peach Salad for Two

Around the table, sitting at mismatched chairs beneath a vintage glass chandelier with cobwebs on it, we look at our plates, like we do most nights, and they’re as colorful and full as any from a five-star salad course in town.

Honey-Glazed Peach Salad Plate

Closeup of Honey-Glazed Peach Salad

With you, we give thanks. Because if any part of our simple, newlywedding life is mature and adult-like and settled, it’s not our careers or our furniture or our savings plans—in truth, we’re more likely to buy extra produce than new stocks—sitting before the spread before us, enjoying it with you, we know, it’s this, the way we eat.

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