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book review, recipe

Little Fires Everywhere + Blackened Chicken

Celeste Ng’s latest novel Little Fires Everywhere has been one of the hottest reads of the year (pun intended). As a big fan of her previous novel, Everything I Never Told You, I was excited to see what all the fuss was about when my hold recently came through at the library. Ng immerses us in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a town she herself grew up in, and shines some light on the not-so-perfect lives of those that live there.

The story revolves primarily around the Richardsons, an exemplary Shaker Heights family, and Mia and Pearl Warren, a single mother and daughter who become their tenants. All four Richardson children – two girls and two boys, as varied as you could possibly imagine – are drawn to Pearl and her mother, who is an artist and a bit of a mystery. When the Richardsons’ family friend attempts to adopt a Chinese-American baby, who was found abandoned, it divides the town and pits Mia against Elena, the Richardson matriarch, threatening to topple the precarious status quo.

Little Fires Everywhere is full of the quiet drama of everyday life but also tackles something bigger. As Elena digs deep into Mia’s past and the Richardson children exist with little oversight, we’re along for the ride, discovering secrets and taking sides along with the rest of them.

Today’s recipe is inspired not only by the novel’s title but this quote, which stood out to me as I read: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.” I decided to make a blackened chicken, traditionally covered heavily in spices and cooked on high heat on the stove top until the seasoning becomes dark.

I debated between two recipes, one from Pop Culture, a more classically prepared blackened chicken, and one from Gal on a Mission, which is baked. Though a baked version doesn’t get quite as “black” as one cooked on the stovetop, I ultimately went with that option. It’s just as flavorful and the fact that it’s hands-off made it appealing when I was cooking it after work the other day. Additionally, I was easily able to roast some small potatoes and broccoli alongside it, completing the meal in 30 minutes, with minimal prep.

To start, I preheated the oven to 450 degrees F, and combined all of my spices in a small bowl. This recipe uses a lot of spices – salt, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, garlic powder, paprika, black pepper, onion powder, dried oregano and dried thyme – but thankfully, none of them are obscure; I already had them all in my cupboard.

I covered each chicken breast with generously with the spices, making sure each was thickly coated. If you’re using 3 large breasts or 6 small breasts, you shouldn’t have any of the spice mixture left. (I only used 2 breasts but still used most of it.)

Then, I put the chicken in an 8×8 glass baking dish and popped them in the oven for 23 minutes. For the last 5 minutes of the bake time, cover the dish with foil and allow to continue baking while covered. My chicken breasts were definitely larger than average and needed to bake for an additional 10 minutes before they reached 165 degrees F.  

While these pictures probably aren’t my best, the chicken was delicious, very flavorful and moist (thanks to the foil cover). To top it off, it’s easy and hands-off, almost impossible to mess up.

Baked Cajun Chicken Breasts

  • Servings: 6
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Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red peppers
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3 large chicken breasts or 6 small chicken breasts

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease an 8×8 baking sheet or dish. Set aside.
  2. Mix together the salt, cayenne pepper, crushed red peppers, garlic powder, paprika, pepper, onion powder, dried oregano, and dried thyme in a small bowl.
  3. Rub the spice mix onto the chicken breasts.
  4. Bake for 18 minutes. Remove the chicken breasts from the oven and cover with aluminum foil and bake for another 5 minutes.
  5. Once cooked through, allow the chicken to rest for 3-5 minutes before slicing to serve.

From: Gal on a Mission

Notes: Check the temperature of your chicken to ensure it’s cooked all the way through, particularly if you’re using large breasts. Mine had to bake for an additional 10 minutes to reach 165 degrees F.


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book review, recipe

Turtles All the Way Down + Spiral Mac ‘n’ Cheese

John Green has written many young adult novels, including one of my favorites, The Fault in Our Stars. He has a unique way of tackling both the everyday and the unexpected parts of the lives of teenagers. His latest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, is no exception. Like other teenagers, Aza tries her best in school, has an understanding best friend, and doesn’t know exactly what to do when she finds herself in a relationship. Aza also lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder and an often crippling level of anxiety, much of which was drawn from Green’s own experiences.

Because of that, Turtles tells an excellent, unique story. Admittedly, some of the scenes where Aza is having obsessive thoughts were hard to read. It almost felt like I was in her head, and in those moments, I read as if hiding behind split fingers – not wanting to go on but wanting to know what happened all the same. I admire Green’s willingness to not only discuss his own mental health issues but to write about them too, in a way that’s real.

Stories like these help to make mental health something that’s okay to talk about. The existence of a likeable character that readers can connect to and empathize with can help teenagers (and adults) realize that mental illness is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. In Green’s own words, “it’s important for people to hear from [those] who have good fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.” And because of that, it is absolutely a book worth picking up – even if you aren’t familiar with John Green, even if you don’t usually read YA.

Honestly, the first thing I thought of when I looked at this book’s cover was spiral macaroni and cheese. I think they eat it once over the course of the story, but in the end, I couldn’t get it out of my head and no other foods really stood out to me. So, no surprise, that’s what I decided to make. I found an easy recipe from Famished Fish and set to work for a quick, easy dinner one night.

To start, I brought my water to a boil and cooked my noodles according to the package instructions. The original recipe called for rotini, but I also think cavatappi would work great here.

While the noodles cooked, I made the sauce. I melted butter in a pan and then added flour to create a roux. To that, I added the dried mustard and paprika, slowly stirring in 1 cup of milk, so that it could fully incorporate with the roux and remain thick.

Then, I added in the remaining 2 cups of milk slowly, along with the salt and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. I continued cooking the sauce, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes more or so, until it thickened. I stirred in three-quarters of the cheese so it melted and became incorporated.

I drained the finished noodles and poured the cheese sauce on top, stirring until the noodles were fully covered. To serve, I spooned the mac ‘n’ cheese into bowls and topped each with a sprinkling of shredded cheese.

It was delicious! And so easy that I’ll definitely be adding it to my repertoire.

Creamy Spiral Mac 'n' Cheese

  • Servings: 4-6
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Ingredients

  • 16 oz uncooked spiral noodles (rotini or cavatappi)
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ tsp mustard
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 cups milk, divided
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, divided

Directions

  1. Add uncooked pasta to a large pot of boiling water. Cook 9-11 minutes, according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter. When butter has melted, stir in flour to create a roux.
  3. Slowly stir in 1 cup of milk along with the mustard and paprika. Stir and cook until the mixture thickens. Add the remaining 2 cups of milk and the salt and Worcestershire sauce. Cook and stir 5 minutes until has thickened.
  4. Stir in 1½ cups of the sharp cheddar cheese. Stir the sauce until the cheese has melted.
  5. Drain the pasta and return to large pot. Carefully pour the cheese sauce over the cooked pasta. Stir gently to combine the cheese sauce and pasta.
  6. Ladle the macaroni and cheese spirals into a large serving bowl and sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of sharp cheddar cheese.
  7. Serve immediately.

Adapted from: Famished Fish

This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

Behind Her Eyes + Spaghetti Carbonara

Every November, my Good Reads & Good Eats book club reads a spooky book. Since we meet on the first Tuesday of each month, this allows us to read it during October and our meeting usually ends up being right around Halloween. This year’s selection was Sarah Pinborough’s novel Behind Her Eyes. The thriller was released in January but it made for an excellent read this month, just creepy enough throughout with a twist at the end I didn’t see coming.

Thanks to the success of Gone Girl, the oft-called domestic thriller has become more and more popular, and generally, I try to avoid them. Gone Girl was so well-written and its twist both genuinely surprising and believable (which is harder to achieve than it may seem) that I’m usually disappointed in those that follow.

That being said, Behind Her Eyes was an intriguing read. I did get caught up in the story and it kept me wondering what exactly was going on and who to be skeptical of, but the devices it used (particularly toward the end) seemed over-the-top and unbelievable. Overall, Sarah Dickinson does a great job summing up how I feel on her blog, but beware of spoilers if you haven’t read the book and still want to.

Pinborough’s novel begins in the middle of David and Adele’s troubled marriage. After a recent move to London, David almost immediately begins an affair with Louise, who turns out to be his new receptionist. It’s not clear how Adele discovers his transgression, but she makes it a point to befriend Louise and tension begins to build. As more about Adele’s backstory is revealed, more questions arise. In the present day narrative, we’re left wondering who we can trust. I’ll stop here to avoid spoilers, but I think it achieved what it needed to for our book club in that it was mostly riveting and twisty and will certainly make for interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say about it.

In an attempt to create some domestic bliss (or at least throw David off her scent), Adele continues to make impressive home-cooked meals almost every evening. On one such evening, she whips up the deceptively easy Spaghetti Carbonara and serves it with a simple arugula salad. I grabbed a recipe from one of my favorite blogs, Damn Delicious, for the pasta and found one for the salad from Everyday Maven. The whole meal took about twenty minutes and only requires a minimum number of ingredients for one so impressive; it makes a perfect weeknight meal.

First, I set a large pot of water to bowl and then prepped the salad. I chopped a half cup of cherry tomatoes in half and tossed them in a large bowl with arugula and the lemon zest. I love Trader Joe’s arugula because it’s the perfect amount for a dinner salad and it’s already pre-washed. In a separate small bowl, I combined the ingredients for the dressing – olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. With the salad mostly set, I turned to the pasta.

Once the water was boiling, I salted it and added the spaghetti to the pot. In a small bowl, I whisked together the eggs and Parmesan and set it aside. I added my diced pancetta (or bacon, if that’s what you’re using) to a heated skillet and allowed it to crisp up for several minutes, before adding my minced garlic.

You’re going to want to make sure your pasta is cooked and drained before you add the garlic. Here is where you need to begin working quickly. Even though this recipe is easy, the eggs leave some room for error. You don’t want them to scramble; they should become a part of the creamy sauce, indistinguishable from the pasta itself. 

To my pancetta and garlic, I added my pasta and the egg-Parmesan mixture, using a pair of tongs to toss and combine everything. I seasoned with salt and pepper, before adding a bit of pasta water, tossing and checking the consistency.

With that all set, I re-whisked my dressing, poured it on the arugula and tossed my salad. Best dishes are both served immediately.

Spaghetti Carbonara

  • Servings: 4
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Ingredients

  • 8 ounces spaghetti
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 4 slices bacon, diced [or diced pancetta, about 4 ounces]
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves (optional)

Directions

  1. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package instructions; reserve 1/2 cup water and drain well.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and Parmesan; set aside.
  3. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add bacon and cook until brown and crispy, about 6-8 minutes; reserve excess fat.
  4. Stir in garlic until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to low.
  5. Working quickly, stir in pasta and egg mixture, and gently toss to combine; season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add reserved pasta water, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.
  6. Serve immediately, garnished with parsley, if desired.


From: Damn Delicious

Arugula Salad with Lemon Balsamic Dressing

  • Servings: 4
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Ingredients

  • ½ pound arugula
  • ½ cup grape or cherry tomatoes, washed and halved
  • zest of a whole medium lemon
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 5 to 6 turns freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. In a large salad or mixing bowl, combine arugula, halved grape tomatoes and the zest of an entire medium lemon.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper together until well mixed.
  3. When ready to serve, pour dressing over salad, toss until well coated. Serve and Enjoy!


book review, recipe

Practical Magic + Apple Tart with Black Pepper

Maybe I watched Practical Magic a little on the young side (it came out when I was 12), but ever since then I’ve loved it. Even though it’s not exactly a traditional Halloween movie, I make it a point to watch every fall season. Next week, in fact, I have a movie date with Deanna to watch it together because she’s never seen it and she needs to. This post isn’t about the movie, though, it’s about the book, which I didn’t even realize was a thing until I heard about the prequel The Rules of Magic coming out a couple of months ago.

Excited about the prequel, I hunted down Alice Hoffman’s book Practical Magic, sure I would love it as much as I did the movie. I definitely enjoyed it, but it’s different than I was expecting. The movie’s plot is so ingrained in me at this point, that it didn’t occur to me that the book wouldn’t follow it as well. Obviously, movies change book plots all the time, often to the disappointment of the reader – it’s just that usually I don’t watch the movie (over and over and over) before reading the book. So I was a bit blind-sided, and the irony is not lost on me.  

All that being said, the book is worth picking up. (This NPR review of the prequel describes the differences in Practical Magic book vs. movie wonderfully, the journalist in a similar situation to me.) Hoffman’s writing style is lovely. She crafts a beautiful story of sisterhood and magic that’s perfect for cozy fall reading. I haven’t read anything else she’s written, but I’m looking forward to trying some of her other novels – I’ve heard good things. And, of course, I’m still excited to read The Rules of Magic too. 

Have any of you read or seen Practical Magic? I’d be interested to hear from those of you who read the book before the movie which you prefer. Any other Hoffman novels you’d recommend?  

At one point in the novel, one of the sisters, Sally, makes an apple tart with her secret ingredient, black pepper. And though it’s midsummer in the story, this recipe seemed perfect to make at this time of year. Local apple orchards are bursting at the seams, and I was itching to make an apple dessert anyway. Black pepper as an addition intrigued me. I found a recipe online that included it in an apple galette and used it as a basis for my own version, mostly so I would be able to better estimate how much black pepper to include.

To keep it simple, I used store bought pie crust. Feel free to make your own, if you’re so inclined. First, I prepped my apples, which Scott and I had picked up at a local cider mill the weekend before. I used Gala because I like those and we had also bought them for snacking, but any baking apple would work just as well.

I don’t have an apple peeler contraption and my vegetable peeler wasn’t getting the job done, so I opted to make my tart a bit more “rustic” and left the apples unpeeled. I sliced them pretty thinly and tossed them with lemon juice, some sugar and a bit of freshly ground black pepper (more on the coarse side).

I laid the pie crust on a parchment lined baking sheet, piled the apples on the middle of it, and folded the crust over around the edges. To help it become a more rich golden brown, I brushed the crust with an egg wash before baking.

I covered the tart loosely with a tented piece of aluminum foil and put the tart in a 375-degree oven to bake for about an hour. I set my timer for 45 minutes and checked it every 20 minutes or so. Once it seemed close to being done, I removed the foil and allowed it to bake for another 10 or 15 minutes without, so the crust would get some good color.

It smelled amazing, but I patiently allowed it to cool completely before serving. I cut into 6 slices (though it could certainly be cut into smaller or larger pieces, depending on the size of your family/party). We enjoyed it without any additions, but it would absolutely be delicious with a scoop of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream while it’s still a bit warm from the oven.

What’s your favorite apple recipe in the fall?

Apple Tart with Black Pepper

  • Servings: 6
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Ingredients

  • 1 pie crust (use your own recipe, or use refrigerated store bought)
  • 3 – 4 medium apples, cored and sliced (¼” – ½” thick)
  • 2 TBS granulated sugar
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 TBS lemon juice
  • 1 egg, mixed with a little bit of water

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Prepare the apples and toss them with the sugar, black pepper, and lemon juice.
  3. Place dough on parchment paper or a silicone mat on a baking sheet. Arrange the apples in the center of the dough, leaving about an inch border. Fold the extra dough over the sides of the tart.
  4. Brush the crust lightly with an egg wash.
  5. Cover the tart loosely with aluminum foil and bake for about 45 minutes to an hour. After when there are about 15 minutes left (apples should be soft, dough should be mostly cooked), remove the foil to allow the dough to become golden.
  6. Let cool completely before serving. Best served at room temperature. Enjoy!

Adapted from: Earth Powered Family

Notes: It’s not much more work to make 2 tarts at a time, especially if you’re using store bought crust. Plan to use 6 medium apples and double the sugar, pepper and lemon juice. Divide apples evenly between both crusts. Baking time shouldn’t change.

You can peel your apples if desired, but with thin slices, it doesn’t affect the texture much to leave them on. Plus, it makes it much quicker!


This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine + Pasta al Pesto

I first heard about Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine when someone suggested it for one of my book clubs. I jotted it down, added it to the poll for September, hopped on the library wait list (just in case), and didn’t think much more about it. I’m actually glad I came into it with no real expectations because the whole experience turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Eleanor Oliphant has worked in finance in the same small company her entire career. She is socially awkward and a bit of a curmudgeon, who is very reliant on her routine. A routine which includes eating pasta with pesto for dinner every night and drinking vodka until she passes out most weekends. Despite all of her peculiarities, Eleanor on the page is quite charming. My heart warmed to her, and I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions.

I’m excited to see what the rest of the book club thinks of Eleanor. I hope they enjoy her as much as I did! And while we chose to visit an Irish pub for our book discussion (as close to a British pub as we could find), I opted to make Eleanor’s favorite staple for today’s post – pasta with pesto.

I very much doubt she makes her own, but I couldn’t exactly plop some store bought pesto onto some pasta and call it a day. (However, if I had to make a recommendation for store bought pesto, I quite enjoy Trader Joe’s Pesto alla Genovese.) The pesto recipe I chose was so easy and delicious though, that I’ve been thinking of taking up my herb-growing again, just so I could have an abundance of basil and make this more often.

Best of all, it uses walnuts which are much more affordable than pine nuts – I think Eleanor would approve of that choice. To start, I toasted the garlic until it had some little brown spots.

Then, I moved them out of the pan to cool and toasted the walnuts as well. While those cooled, I assembled the rest of my ingredients – basil, parsley, grated parmesan, olive oil and salt and pepper.

I added everything to my food processor and blended everything until smooth.

I ended up having to add just a touch more olive oil, but use your best judgment as it comes together. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if necessary.

I tossed some ribbed penne pasta (great for the pesto to cling to) with my freshly made sauce, dished it up and topped with some extra parmesan cheese for good measure.

Use your pasta of choice, and if you have any leftover pesto, it will keep in the fridge for a short while, or it can be frozen. Enjoy!

Basil Walnut Pesto

  • Servings: 8
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Ingredients

  • 6 cloves garlic unpeeled
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • 4 cup packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 cup packed fresh parsley
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

  1. Toast the garlic cloves in their skin in a small skillet over medium heat, shaking often, until brown spots form, about 5 minutes. Remove to a small bowl to cool before peeling.
  2. Meanwhile, return the skillet to medium heat and add walnuts. Toast until fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes, shaking frequently to prevent scorching. Remove from heat.
  3. Combine peeled garlic, walnuts, basil, parsley, parmesan cheese, and olive oil in a blender or food processor; blend until smooth.
  4. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Serve as a topping on pasta (3/4 c. pesto per pound of pasta), as a spread on sandwiches, or as a garnish to soups.


This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.