an ALT sandwich (with sprouts and cheddar)

Yesterday, I made a sandwich for lunch.

(I also threw away two dozen old magazines. And made a donation pile for Goodwill. And listed things to sell on Amazon and eBay.)

Here is how the sandwich part went.

1. I took two pieces of bread, covered one with sliced raw cheddar and stuck them in the 350-degree oven for a little while (maybe five to ten minutes).

bread and cheddar

2. I sliced an avocado in half, removed the pit, sliced the flesh while it was still inside the skin.

add avocado

3. When the bread was good and toasted and the cheese all melty, I put avocado slices on the plain piece.

building the sandwich

4. I sliced a big, fat, juicy red tomato into slices.

add tomato

5. Lettuce (aka mixed greens) goes on top of the avocado, then tomato, then salt and pepper—they’re key.

add lettuce and tomatoes

6. I wanted to add sprouts, but all I could find at Trader Joe’s were microgreens. They’re fun.

add sprouts or microgreens

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Sweet & Tangy Meatballs

grass-fed sweet and tangy meatballs

My family’s never been big on annual traditions.

I mean, sure, at Christmastime, there’s a tree and presents. We mail greetings and watch movies that come on TV, like most people do. We eat cookies (but then we always eat cookies). And then there are a few other recipes we associate with the season, you know, things that sometimes get made, sometimes don’t, from fudge to cream cheese to the gem I bring you today: sweet and tangy meatballs.

sweet and tangy meatballs

But these meatballs aren’t just for Christmastime, and they’re not always with Christmastime—with my family, few things are. In fact, some of you may remember seeing them at our (hot and balmy) blog party last August, where 32 people managed to eat over 100 in the space of a few hours. There were so many requests for the recipe afterwards—Mom gets all the credit there—that I had to post a quick version over on our Facebook page, with plans to give these year-round appetizers better treatment later on.

Now’s that time. Because while these meatballs aren’t just or always for Christmas, I usually think of them now, at the end of December, when I remember holiday parties and buffet tables lined with snacks, from chips and dip to cookies to that enormous glass bowl of tropical punch we always had. I remember decades of Christmases, filled with a decorated world of twinkling lights and celebrations at school or work or with friends.

That’s what traditions are supposed to do, I guess, even the ones we practice sporadically.

meatballs on the buffet

Because whether it’s an Advent calendar or the annual reading of Luke 2, we can build rituals into our lives to create reminders, tangible illustrations of something we don’t want to forget, something we want to hold onto in the future. Like birthdays reminds us to express affection for our loved ones, like Thanksgiving, to give thanks, so Christmas points at memories and meaning, in the midst of a crazy festive season.

plated meatballs

Meatballs—and cookies and pies and comforting pot roasts—are nice in that way, too. They serve as hallmarks of this season that comes every year, in which many of us will do traditional things: find time to be with family, try to think of gifts to give, talk about the greatest gift: that the Creator became creation.

individual meatball

And while some may argue our traditions aren’t that meaningful, as Christmas trees come from pagan religions and stockings from tales of Saint Nicholas, I like to see things another way: the truth is, I love tradition, even the irregularly practiced kind.

used toothpicks

If traditions are valuable for what they remind you of, then what we’re reminded of is what makes the tradition. Ornaments remind you of your grandma. Christmas cards of your friends faraway.

And meatballs, of the good gifts you’ve been given, this year and every year before it, from sweet and tangy things to eat to loved ones to share it with.

Merry Christmas!

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Grass-Fed Pot Roast

Early last month—it might have been the cooler weather or the fact that I hadn’t eaten red meat in a couple weeks, or it might have been since I already had a couple grass-fed chuck roasts in my freezer, purchased from a local farm—I got a fierce craving for pot roast.

Now if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably made pot roasts before. My versions were usually in a crock pot and surrounded by carrots and potatoes. Pot roast is one of those classic American dishes—like mashed potatoes and apple pie—that we have all had and made and probably prefer a certain way.

crazy good pot roast

As for me, I like my pot roasts very tender, flavorful and fragrant enough to turn the kitchen into a different place while cooking. It’s kind of like my morning routine: where you might wake at a set time, have breakfast, read the paper and get in the car, I like to read and pray in bed before pulling out my laptop, still without having taken a shower, and get a few work things done.

So early last month, when I tested a new pot roast recipe, the combination of several ideas I’d seen online, and it turned out the be the most moist, tender, dark and wonderfully smelling piece of meat I’d ever had, you’ll understand when I say it became my morning routine of pot roasts.

Since then, I’ve made it four more times. Really.

grass-fed pot roast

So you know how it is the first time you try something: you’re a little unsure how it will go, so you’re checking the meat every hour, changing temperatures when you think it might help, adding ingredients partway through. Well in this case, all those changes worked so well, that I decided I would always do things that way every time after. This includes flipping the meat and adding mushrooms after an hour, raising the temperature an hour after that, then lowering it again. If you’re less paranoid, you could probably do some other combination of 225 and 325 degrees for a total of 3-4 hours—just keep your eye on it every now and then—but I’m sticking with my routine.

fork-tender pot roast

The only other note I’d add is on the grass-fed meat: I know some of you will wince at the higher price tag and just use regular chuck roast, and that’s fine. But I will say that my mom tried that with her own version after tasting mine, and it wasn’t the same. Grass-fed meat is noticeably more tender, not to mention higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, and, while we’re on the subject, have you seen Food, Inc., yet? It will change your perspective on meat forever.

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Chicken Roulade

The truth is, I’ve been wanting to tell you about this chicken roulade recipe for over a week now—ever since last Tuesday, when I pulled chicken out of the fridge and wondered what to make for dinner. I’d gone through all the usual options in my mind, things I’ve had before, things I’ve made, but nothing sounded like it would be worth the high price tag of the Amish, antibiotic-free poultry I’ve been buying, nothing until this beautiful, impressive chicken roulade.

sauteeing nuts and cranberries

Chicken roulade, if you’ve never heard of it, is essentially rolled chicken: the meat gets pounded and flattened into a large surface area; topped with cheese and a filling made of greens, onions, dried fruit, and nuts; rolled tightly; tied up with string; browned and baked. When it’s finished, you slice the bundled breasts into slices stuffed with flavor and color, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you go wow.

chicken roulade filling

This version comes from the lovely Angela of Spinach Tiger: she’d posted it as an idea for a spring picnic back in April; I’m posting it as a weeknight dinner in December. That’s what’s great about this dish: it’s versatile. Not only is it timely year-round, but it’s also adaptable to the ingredients you like and/or have on hand, whether type of greens, nuts, dried fruit, or cheese.

browning chicken bundles

As for why it’s taken me more than a week to post here, all I can say is I’m sorry. I could say I’ve been busy, but then so are you, and you’re reading this. I could say it’s the holidays, but truthfully my family’s Christmas is pretty low-key. So the best explanation I can give you is the same one I’m always giving, it seems: I didn’t know what to say.

chicken roulade unsliced

I keep wanting to tell you about how things are going around here, I mean beyond chicken roulade for dinner, but the words just don’t come. Do you ever feel like that? Like you’re full of stories but speechless? Sometimes you just have to wait it out. But sometimes, in blogging at least, when you’ve already posted the series of photos to Flickr and already typed up the adapted recipe and then still have nothing else beyond that, you just admit it.

chicken roulade sliced

So it’s like this: If we were on the phone today, you and me, or sitting across a table, or pounding some chicken breasts together while we worked on dinner, this is what I’d tell you: right now, even as we do this, there are a lot of things I’m trying not to think about, things like worry and doubt that I feel like I fight more often lately. And I’d say there are other things, things like these, which I’m repeating to myself over and over again. I’d say I’m, as always, overwhelmed by good gifts, don’t misunderstand, but hey, how about you talk for a while? And you could do me the favor of telling me about your day and what you’re doing for Christmas and how much you’ve whittled down on your shopping list. We could also make roasted carrots—baked for about an hour with coconut oil and drizzles of maple syrup—and maybe a salad loaded with vegetables.

chicken roulade and roasted carrots

And then, when we were done, I’d say, let’s eat.

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Chicken Waldorf Salad Wraps

chicken waldorf salad wraps

These wraps, which I’ve had for lunch for the last three days, illustrate one of the best parts of working from home. Because, are you ready? When you call your kitchen table your office, this is what happens: you pull open your Google Reader on a casual Tuesday afternoon, see a recipe you’d like to try and, instead of just bookmarking it for later, you walk to the kitchen right that moment, pull out ingredients and, in minutes, see exactly what it tastes like.

chicken waldorf salad

Like I said though, that’s just one of the best parts of working from home, and since a couple of you have been wanting an update on the self-employment situation anyway, it’s probably time I told you about some of the other benefits.

First of all: It’s been almost five months, can you believe that? Five months since I set my alarm for the same time every morning. Five months since I said, Oh, I can’t; I have to work. Five months of setting my own schedule and working fewer hours (and, admittedly, also making less money). People ask me all the time how it’s been going, and I’m sorry to say my standard answer is awful—something about how things are up and down, how I’m still learning what I’m doing, that I’ll reevaluate after six months. I’ve got to work on that because, really, the truth is: it’s been good.

chicken waldorf salad wraps

I went through my financial records last week, determining my average monthly income and budgeting time for upcoming projects, and you know what? It’s been really, really good. I’m not rich, I’m not all sunshine and roses all the time, but every one of my needs has been provided, I’ve gotten several new clients when I lost one, I have the free time like I’ve always wanted. So while I know myself and therefore realize things may seem very glass-half-empty come tomorrow morning, right now, this moment, I am thankful—thankful to sip homemade chai tea lattes at my computer, to run errands in daylight, to have time to work out or clean or, no kidding, take naps in the afternoon. I am thankful to not be making a lot but to always be making enough. And I want to remember this feeling.

holding a wrap

In a recent post at A Sweet Spoonful, Meg wrote about remembering forward to next November, imagining what you’d like to change about your life as if it will really happen. And ironically, it got me thinking about last November, when I never would have guessed I’d leave my job or, launch into something risky or, work for myself like I’d always wished I could. I’m so glad these changes came, for as long or as short as they end up lasting, and I’m so glad to find myself where I am right now—working in blue jeans while I eat homemade chicken salad wraps, counting my blessings.

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Chicken Fingers

chicken fingers

Supersize Me was on TV the other night. Despite the fact that it was created six years ago, I’d never seen the documentary until this year, a few months ago when I streamed it to my computer during my one-month free trial with Netflix. This past Sunday night, I caught the couple minutes where the main character weighs in after a few days of eating a McDonald’s-only diet, something he tried and documented for a full month, gaining weight and hurting his health just as you’d expect. I also caught the scene where he orders chicken nuggets, and the movie does a quick aside, complete with a cartoon illustration, of how chicken nuggets are made.

It’s not pretty.

chicken fingers

A while ago (was it last year?), I also watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (I’m guessing a lot of you did, too?), and saw him explain to children where chicken nuggets come from. And of course I’ve seen this image (click at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you) floating around the Internet and people’s Facebook profiles. I know where commercial chicken fingers or tenders come from; you probably do, too.

But like with everything else we already know is bad for us, chicken fingers have one small thing going for them, and sometimes that’s all it takes to win us over: they taste good. So what are you supposed to do?

Enter homemade, boneless, skinless, marinated, covered-with-homemade-breadcrumbs and then baked chicken tenders.

homemade chicken fingers

I have to say, I love remaking something with good ingredients, taking a fast-food idea and redeeming it with whole foods, whether it’s a chicken panko recipe or french fries. It’s like recovering a chair you got from a garage sale, not that I’ve ever done that, or like renovating a living room, not that I’ve ever done that either. I imagine those things to be all that this is: encouraging, exciting, empowering.

Not only is this homemade version of chicken fingers better for you—not to mention you know which part of the chicken it comes from—but it’s also delicious: crispy and flavorful, perfect for dipping in honey just like we used to. I made mine with a side of roasted sweet potato circles (just wash the sweet potatoes, slice them into rounds or half circles, bake with coconut oil for about an hour). Whether you care about the health benefits or not, these are chicken fingers you can feel good about eating—and while eating, and I think that’s pretty great.

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Gruyère Quiche with Caramelized Red Pepper, Red Onion and Greens

I bought a new purse last week, for the first time since 2006, all because I asked a stranger in a bathroom where she got hers, and she said Target. I enjoy mushrooms now, after 27 years of hating them, because reading this blog post made me want to. I like reading Bon Appetit because I like reading how this girl writes. I’ve taken a photo almost every day this year because I’ve watched other people do it and been motivated.

In cooking as in life, inspiration to try new things can come from almost anywhere. It can be a conversation with a stranger, an article you notice, something quick you look at, maybe sometimes something you read on a blog like this one. For me, with this quiche, it was even simpler: a solid white pan.

ingredients for quiche

The white dish I’m referencing is not mine, but it’s my brother’s, one he set on the counter the other day, and every time I’ve walked into the kitchen and seen it, I’ve thought, Quiche! That pan needs a quiche! So although making homemade pie crusts is not high on my life’s to-do list, I saw no way around it: a store-bought crust could make a quiche, but a store-bought crust could not use that pan. I knew what I had to do.

quiche crust

Turns out the process couldn’t have been simpler. Tuesday night, I mixed flour and salt, cut in butter, added water, and formed the dough into a ball, wrapping it in plastic and sticking it in the fridge. I think it took 15 minutes. Wednesday, I pulled out the dough, rolled it out on parchment (with the confidence that only making perfect homemade apple strudel could have given me) and pressed it into the quiche pan, cutting the edges off the sides.

finished quiche

Choosing the type of quiche was even easier. I looked at what I already had in the kitchen—a red pepper, a red onion, gruyere, some random greens—and found a recipe that made the most of those things. Inspiration by necessity! It begins with caramelizing the vegetables, a step that fills your kitchen with the most incredible aroma of browning peppers and onions mixed with coconut oil. Then you saute the greens, mix all those things with eggs, milk, and cheese, and bam: a golden, flaky quiche with the colors of Christmastime.

sliced quiche

The only change I’d make next time is extra salt—the original recipe said to add to taste, but you add the salt to the cooking peppers and onions, so it’s hard to judge at that point, so now I’d just say to be generous—because when I pulled this out of the oven, it was not only delicious but utterly beautiful, the kind of beautiful that makes you want to take a picture when you don’t have a food blog or have someone over for brunch although it’s not Saturday morning or, you know, make a quiche even without this pretty white pan to put it in.

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