Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Therapeutic Evening in the Kitchen

It’s been so long since I’ve cooked for myself in my own kitchen that I forgot how enjoyable it can be; how washing and cutting up vegetables can be relaxing and therapeutic. Don’t even get me started on the smell that fills the house when there’s something baking in the oven. For this piece that something baking was marinated chicken. My senses perked up the minute the Clean Linen smell of my Glade plugin was overtaken by the sweet smell of the marinade fused with a hint of garlic.

First things first. Before I got to the baking of the chicken I had to cook the base ingredient of the dish I had chosen to prepare. I cooked a pot of red quinoa (pronounced keen-wa). Quinoa is a grain, and, as the back of the box tells me, it contains “one of the best sources of protein in the vegetable kingdom.” It’s a complete protein grain. It’s good for you. That makes me feel good about eating it. For you gluten intolerant folks, it’s gluten free. Trying to eat a health conscious diet in a fast-paced stressful world when sometimes all I want to do is eat a box of cookies is difficult. Finding something that is good for me, easy to prepare, and also tastes good is a gift from the gods. Well, actually the ancient Inca civilization in South America, but I’m not telling their story. Back to the cooking. I cooked the pot of red quinoa and then place the pot into the refrigerator to cool down. For the dish I’m preparing the quinoa needs to be cold. So straight from stove to refrigerator. Of course, with a pot that hot one should place it on a pot holder. Just sayin’. 

While the quinoa cooled, I moved on to the chicken. I took two medium sized chicken breasts, and with a chop stick, poked several holes into each breast, piercing them all the way through. (If you had a frustrating day this is a great way to stab something and not get put in jail.) While shopping at the grocery store I’d purposefully neglected buying a marinade in lieu of a salad dressing I had at home: Brianna’s Home Style Blush Wine Vinaigrette. (There’s a sticker on this particular salad dressing that says it’s perfect for strawberries. Hence the sweet smell filling the house.) I took my holey chicken breasts and placed them on a tin foil bed and poured the salad dressing on top. I didn’t cover them in it to sit for hours I merely coated them with it making sure they were sitting in a salad dressing bath. I then sprinkled them with garlic salt and Goya Sazonador Total seasoning. Lots of the Goya. I wanted there to be plenty of it so that when the juices started flowing all the seasoning wouldn’t end up running off the chicken breasts and flavoring the salad dressing. Can’t you see it? The chicken breasts sitting in that salad dressing bath as it heats up and begins to bubble around them like a Blush Wine hot spring? Mmm!

I poured myself a glass of red wine and turned on a little Miles Davis (thanks “Carrie Mathison” on Homeland for turning me on to his music) and set about creating the rest of my meal for the evening. I mean it is creating isn’t it? Mixing and blending, chopping and peeling, adding color and flavor. Food is yet another canvas on which to be creative. I always enjoy the colors of the food and mixing those colors to create a visual that is just as beautiful to see as it is tasty to eat -- a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.

The washing and chopping began with a medium sized orange bell pepper. Can’t you just see the pop of color that orange bell pepper gives the brownish red quinoa? When I’ve made a version of this dish in the past I’ve tended to use yellow bell pepper, but orange seemed the right choice this time. It is fall after all. Next I peeled and seeded a medium sized cucumber followed by a medium sized purple onion. Are you sensing a size theme here -- two medium sized chicken breasts, a medium sized bell pepper, cucumber, and onion? I’m not really a size queen, I swear. After seeding the cucumber I chopped it into quarters and then diced the quarters into smaller chunks. The same with the onion. Diced. Small pieces. So right now I’ve got a brownish red quinoa canvas onto which I’ve spattered orange bell pepper, light green cucumber, and purple onion. What I chose next was an unconventional addition to this dish that I hadn’t thrown in before -- fresh mango. Yes, you read that right. Fresh yellow mango. I love mango and have a mango corer that I love to use. It slides right down the pesky, odd-shaped core and gets it out of my way leaving the meat of the mango housed inside two halves of skin. I cut the mango into strips, peeled away the skin, then, you guessed it, dice it into bite-sized cubes. To the brownish red canvas I’ve added orange, light green, purple, and now a pop of yellow.

With the veggies and fruits portion peeled, cut, and added, I moved on to the meat and cheese portion of the dish. The chicken cooked for roughly 30 minutes in its foil packet. The sweet smell making me salivate. I couldn’t resist taking a bite of it as I prepared to cube it. It was the first time I had used the Brianna’s dressing as a marinade. It won’t be the last.  

After adding the cubed chunks of chicken to the other ingredients, I prepared one of my favorite ingredients in this dish: crumbled feta cheese. Normally I buy it already crumbled, but his time the only way I could get regular feta cheese (i.e. not flavored or fat free) was to buy a block of it. I cut the block in half and began to crumble it. It ended up being about a cup. Maybe a little more, but who’s measuring? Besides the mango and the chicken, I decided to add another new addition: two tablespoons of capers. 

I love capers. They give such a salty kick to any dish. If you’re keeping up with these ingredients you’ve noticed that it is a mix of sweet and salty. The bell pepper and the mango are sweet. The feta and the capers are salty. The onion adds a bit of bite. The chicken was marinated in a sweet salad dressing. This dish is not only healthy (fresh ingredients, high in protein), it’s colorful, crisp, and crunchy.  

To finish off I tossed three tablespoons of olive oil and three tablespoons of red wine vinegar over top of the ingredients. I sprinkled on a nice bit of the Goya seasoning, some garlic salt, and plain black pepper. Contemplating whether or not my mixing bowl was big enough, I began to blend its contents, making sure the olive oil, vinegar, and seasonings coated everything. Of course there’s the obligatory taste, add more seasoning, stir, and taste again. It’s what you do. It’s the only way to know if it’s right. 

Essentially what I’ve prepared is a summer salad. I know, summer is over, but with the warm days we’ve been having in October this could easily be an Indian summer salad. The colors make sense now, right: orange, yellow, purple, and dark green (the capers) tossed into the brownish red quinoa? It looks like fall even as it hints to the recent hot days when watermelon might have been on the dessert menu.

Of course I needed a couple of side dishes to go with the quinoa salad. I bought a can of turnip greens because they remind me of home. Glory Foods brand Seasoned Southern Style turnip greens. (Kind of makes you wanna sing “Love that chicken from Popeyes doesn’t it?) I let the turnip greens simmer on low while I was peeling, chopping and dicing. When I serve them the finishing touch is always a small pour of vinegar over the top. I don't know what it is about the acidic tartness of vinegar that works on turnip greens, but turnips greens aren't turnip greens to me without it. I also steamed fresh green beans that I snapped myself. Throw a little sea salt on top of the green beans before you cover and steam them. That’s some tasty goodness right there. Don’t let them steam too long though. You’re gonna want them crisp.

Don’t forget to top off your glass of red wine. It goes great with this meal.