Monday, September 26, 2011

School Lunch: Chicken Pita Sandwiches

It's that time of year again: fall is here. It blew (and poured) in with conviction, unlike summer, that so-called season that never really showed up to the party. You know, like that friend, the one who RSVP'd and said she would be there, then texted and said she was on her way, but then didn't actually show up until the party was nearly over..that was summer. Fall, on the other hand, showed up in a big way. The party pretty much started when she walked in the door, and there was never a  moment of doubt that she had arrived. 

I like fall. I like pumpkins, and soup, and pumpkin soup, and pumpkin beer. I like apple cider and pear crisps. I like the red and orange leaves on the sidewalk, and the feeling of new beginnings. For some of you, fall is back-to-school timetime to dust off the ol' red Garfield the Cat lunch box, and fill it with sandwiches and snack packs (but not gogurt...that stuff weirds me out). I haven't had a first day of school since my senior year of college5 years ago! I guess some of you might not think that's so long ago, but going back now seems nearly impossible. Homework? Tests? Studying?! I can't even imagine giving up paychecks for tuition, and Friday Night Lights on Netflix for term papers. And while it seems crazy to me after only 5 years, Amanda is about to have her first first day of school in 7 years. 

My big sister, the girl I've been following my whole life, is about to start grad school. When Amanda started playing softball in elementary school, I did too…even though I was afraid of the ball. When she campaigned for student government and tried out for cheerleading, so did I. Her first car became my first car, and, like all the hand-me-downs I took from her over the years, I was stoked about the level of coolness her things would bring me. Amanda graduated from high school and moved to Seattle for college, and two years later, I followed her up here. And now, here she is, headed back to school. While I'm not in a hurry to follow her there, I'm once again in complete admiration of how cool she is. And how brave. And how crazy, definitely a little bit crazy. 

So, for the first day of school, while Amanda's sharpening pencils and buying text books, I'm coming up with back-to-school lunches to fill up her Garfield lunch box. The one she left on the bus and cried hysterically over. Boy was I jealous of that lunch box and school bus. 

While this portable lunch might not be quite right for the elementary school cafeteria, it packs up awesomely for work or big-kid school lunches. Super thin, flavorful chicken stuffed in a pita with fresh veggies and hummus. People will be jealous. And it's super easy to pack the components separately and combine at lunch. And, when you grill the chicken for dinner the night before, you get two meals in one. Just the kind of efficiency working moms or working grad students need. 

Grilled Chicken Pita Sandwiches
For chicken:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Juice from 1 large lemon
olive oil
Paillard your bird. Ok, that sounds complicated and fancy, but it really just means to make your chicken super thin (which means it cooks quicker but stays tender, has more of the seasoning rub in each bite, and goes further). Here's a good guide to paillarding
Rub your chicken paillards with olive oil, douse in lemon juice, and heavily coat in oregano, salt, and pepper. 
Grill indoors or out until cooked through, only a couple minutes on each side. Oh the joys of the paillard!
For dinner, slice one breast and add to salad or pasta. Slice the 2nd paillard, and refrigerate. 
For sandwiches:
Pack chicken and a pita. Pack fresh spinach leaves, diced red onion, red pepper, tomato, and cucumber in a to-go container or baggie. 
Add a spoonful of hummus to a baggie.
To serve, cut the corner off the hummus baggie and squeeze hummus into pita (way less creepy than gogurt), then fill with veggies and chicken. 
Done…(school) lunch is served. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ak in AK (and Pancakes)

I just got back from a week of adventure in the last frontier––Alaska. 

Well, sort of. I mean, it was a week of adventure, but not the kind you might associate with Alaska. It was less "Into the Wild," and more "Titanic"… minus the sinking part. We spent half of our time on the high seas, aboard the Golden Princess cruise ship, and the other half in adorable little touristy port-towns on the inside passage of southeast Alaska. We did see plenty of bald eagles and seals, and even kayaked up a stream of spawning salmon, but the most rugged parts of the trip were the mornings after drinking too many martinis and glasses of champagne at cruise formal nights. If you haven't  noticed, I'm quite outdoorsy. 

A huge group of us went on the cruise for my parents' 30th anniversary. Our group had 12 people––me, Evan, Amanda, Amanda's bff Becky, Becky's husband Deric and her mom Sue, my parents, my dad's cousin Kathy, my mom's friend Tina, and the parents of my mom's friend Shelly. We had the time of our lives. A cruise ship is pretty much a floating version of Kellerman's, the resort camp from Dirty Dancing. It has all the same activities…and people. There were the dance people, who taught lessons, then made appearances at the dance club at night, and there was even a woman that we could have sworn was old Mrs. Schumacher. When we weren't singing the Dirty Dancing soundtrack or running around like maniacs looking for clues to our Golden Princess scavenger hunt (which we won), Amanda, Becky and I were playing bingo and trivia, and learning to waltz, salsa, and line dance. We were also becoming best friends with all of the ship's bartenders and activities staff. We were quite popular by the end of the trip. We were also the youngest people on the ship, which may have had something to do with it. 

In Alaska, we cruised through breathtaking Glacier Bay National Park, and made stops in Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, and we stopped at Victoria, BC on the way home. In Juneau, we kayaked and ate amazing smoked salmon clam chowder. In Skagway, we rode a train up the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, build in 1898 during the Klondike gold rush. 

In Ketchikan––by far my favorite town we visited––we watched a lumberjack show and fantasized about spending a week roaming the town's charming streets. We also went in a lot of tourist shops at each stop. I did love seeing so many things that said "I love AK" (my initials), but after that trip, I never want to see a jewelry store again. Why do cruise ship passengers love buying diamonds in Alaska so much? The majority of the tchotchkes we came across weren't even made in Alaska. We were, however, able to get off the beaten path here and there, and find a few special treats. I came home with smoked salmon, an ulu, and a bottle of birch tree syrup. 

Birch syrup is thin and smooth like real maple syrup, but tastes kind of like molasses, with that slightly bittersweet flavor, almost like burnt caramel. If burley lumberjacks or gold miners ate pancakes, they'd use birch syrup. They'd also be eating hearty pancakes that could hold up to a syrup like that. None of those fluffy, light as air, perfectly white cakes for this syrup. 

So, upon returning home, I whipped up a batch of rugged, burley pancakes––full of blueberries and oats. The kind you'd expect to find in the last frontier. 

Whole Wheat Sour Cream Pancakes with Blueberries and Oats
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks
Makes 6-8 medium sized pancakes
7 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1/4 cup quick cooking rolled oats
1 tablespoon sugar 
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/ 2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream 
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
fresh or frozen blueberries (if frozen, don't thaw first)
Birch syrup (or, if you can't make it up to Alaska, try whisking together molasses and pure maple syrup)

Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium-low heat.
Stir together flour, oats, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the sour cream and gently mix until incorporated, don't over mix. Whisk eggs and vanilla in a separate bowl and combine with the sour cream mixture, until a smooth batter forms (again, don't over mix). 
Coat skillet with butter. For each pancake, scoop a 1/4 cup of batter into skillet at a time and plop in 5-6 blueberries. Cook for about 2 minutes on the first side, or until bubbles appear. Flip and cook for another minute, or until done. Repeat with remaining batter.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Make Time for Dessert: Blueberry Dumplings

Can I just say how much I miss you? This has been one crazy summer. Crazy in a good way, but super busy. I've had very little time for blogging, or even cooking for that matter. Last night Amanda and I made a panzanella salad, and that was the most involved dinner I've made in two months. Toasted bread and tomatoes, people. That's how insane my summer has been…that toasted bread and tomatoes equals serious cooking. 

Evan and I recently went to Cancun for his best friend's wedding, which involved lots of sun, lots of swimming, and even more drinking. Then we returned just in time to see one of my best friends get married to a charming and dashing Englishman, which involved about 30 absolutely crazy lads from the UK dancing shirtless with ties on their heads. I've been on the go so much I don't even know what I've been eating, and that tells me that I need to slow down and get back in the kitchen.  But alas, I have one more big trip before I can get back to normal. This weekend Evan and I are leaving on an Alaskan cruise, along with Amanda and a couple of her friends, my parents, and a few family friends. After that, I can't wait to start cooking and blogging on a regular schedule again. 

Amidst all the hullabaloo, I found one afternoon to enjoy the sun, pick blueberries, and make blueberry dumplings. Thank goodness days like that still find their way into my schedule, to keep me sane. Amanda, our friend Cindy, and I hit up a you-pick berry farm, and filled our buckets with ripe, sweet blueberries, and even a few blackberries. And it was even sunny… I mean, real summer weather. I couldn't have asked for a better day to unwind. 

Afterward, we made blueberry dumplings–based on the gooey, fruity dumplings my Grandma Carol always made when we stayed with her for two weeks every summer. The dumplings are similar to a cobbler, but super quick, and fun to eat. Instead plopping biscuity dough on top of berries and baking, you drop spoonfuls of dumpling dough into simmering berries on the stovetop. Once they've cooked through, you spoon the whole mess into a bowl, and top it with vanilla ice cream, and maybe even a few fresh berries. Then the ice cream starts to melt, and you have a bowl of sweet, creamy, gooey, chewy deliciousness that you won't be able to stop eating. 

No matter how hectic life gets, there's always time for dessert. 

Blueberry Dumplings

2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Pinch of cinnamon
Dash of fresh ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons shortening
¾-1 cup milk
3 cups berries
1 cup water
1tsp vanilla
1tsp lemon juice
1 cups sugar

For dumplings, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Cut in the shortening until combined and pea-like in texture. Slowly add milk, and stir with a fork until dough just holds together.
Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring berries, water, vanilla, lemon juice, and sugar to steady boil over medium heat.
Using a large spoon, spoon in the dumplings, don’t be fancy or worry about getting them round or perfect. Gently stir, and cook for 5-10 minutes until dumplings are cooked through. Be careful to not let mixture stick to the bottom and burn.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. And a smile.
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