Holiday food

IMG_7354I think we have a tendency to get overly fussy with holiday meals. Everything has to be shiny, tall and fancy–we opt for the several-course dinners culminating in hulking, centerpiece-worthy roasts that are prone to overcooking under pressure. We bravely tackle temperamental cakes or souffles–compulsively checking on them as they bake–their fragile centers threatening to collapse and take our self-confidence with ‘em.

That’s why I like serving things like spaghetti and meatballs, croque monsieur or hash when I host holiday gatherings. Casual food can still be gorgeous–a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven brimming with meat and vegetables makes for a most festive edible centerpiece. Plus, it satisfies what I consider to be the most important characteristic of holiday food: that it can be easily shared.

Case in point: chicken hash.


This makes for a beautiful, casual dinner, but you could also throw a couple fried eggs on top and serve it for brunch. 

As many of you know, I’m not a huge fan of chicken breast. But I think the lean white meat works better in this dish than rich thigh meat would. I stole a technique from Ina Garten (AKA the Barefoot Contessa) by roasting the chicken breast on the bone with basil leaves tucked under the skin. This is a lovely way to cook chicken breast–the end result is moist and delicately anise-flavored. I recommend roasting a whole bunch at once and using the leftovers for chicken salad sandwiches, cobb salad, pasta, chilaquiles … you get the idear.

You may also notice that there’s no garnish on my chicken hash. That’s because I packed it up after snapping these photos and brought it to two dear friends for dinner. (It majorly improved the aroma on the bus.)

Happy Holidays, everyone. Remember to enjoy them. <3


Chicken hash
serves 4


    4 split chicken breasts
    10 large basil leaves
    Extra virgin olive oil
    Salt and pepper, as needed
    2 bell peppers, large diced
    1 large onion, large diced
    3 large garlic cloves, smashed
    2 tablespoons sweet paprika, divided
    1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    1 teaspoon dried thyme
    1 tablespoon tomato paste
    2 pounds boiling (red) potatoes, cut in 1-inch cubes
    2 scallions, finely chopped
    1/4 cup parsley leaves, finely chopped

Method: Preheat the oven to 350F.

Place the chicken on a sheet pan. With your fingers, separate the skin from the breast meat, leaving one side attached. Tuck a few basil leaves underneath the skin, and pull it over the meat to cover as much surface area as possible (to prevent it from overcooking). Repeat with the other 3.


Rub the chicken all over with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast the chicken on a sheet pan for 40 to 45 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer reads 160F when inserted into the thickest part of the breast (it will continue cooking to 165 once you pull it out).


When it’s cool enough to handle, remove the bones and skin and cut into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.

In a large cast iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium high, heat 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and butter. Add the bell pepper, onion, garlic, half the paprika, the red pepper flakes, thyme and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook until softened and slightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomato paste, and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, scrape the veggies into a bowl and set them aside.


Wipe out the skillet. Add another tablespoon each of oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes in a single layer, the rest of the paprika and a large sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook, untouched for 5 to 6 minutes to totally brown one side. Turn the heat down to medium, flip the potatoes, and repeat, until they are are well browned on all sides and cooked through. This will take about 20 minutes (You may have to do this in two batches depending on the size of the skillet, so allow extra time.)


When the potatoes are cooked, add the veggies and chicken back to the skillet. Toss and cook for a few minutes to warm everything through. Just before serving, stir in most of the scallions and parsley, reserving a few tablespoons to garnish each plate.


Filed under Breakfast/Brunch, Chicken, Dinner ideas

What French people bake


I know I’m about the millionth blogger to do a post on Dorie Greenspan since she went on tour promoting her new cookbook, Baking Chez Moi, which is about what French people bake at home. But I can’t help it. She is so likable, and her cookbooks are so likable–and I’m not even a baker.

I saw her during her Chicago stop at Kendall College, which was co-hosted by the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance (GMFA) and Culinary Historians of Chicago (CHC). One of the things I love most about the events put on by these groups is that during the introduction for whoever is speaking, they always do a long plug for the next event–as in the one coming up after the one that we’re all currently attending.

Last month, when I went to a writers workshop with Kathleen Flinn, they introduced Kathleen by talking about an upcoming event about Duncan Hines–the MAN, not the cake mix. “I know it doesn’t sound interesting, but I think it really will be,” GMFA vice president Cathy Lambrecht said. In case you were wondering, Duncan Hines was one of the original restaurant reviewers; he self-published this popular little restaurant guide that he meticulously updated, removing any that fell out of his favor from the next edition.

So obviously I was excited to learn what was coming up after Dorie when I went to see her. Turns out it was a trip to Dekalb, IL that would involve a visit to a couple of wineries (yes, they apparently make wine in Dekalb). Then CHC president Bruce Kraig told a long joke about the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s untimely death, complete with “bun in the oven” and “rising” (yeast) puns.

But then there was Dorie.


Chic in all black and a colorful scarf with her signature close-cropped brown hair and roundish specs, Dorie said great little things like “I miss my oven,” and “I’ve never heard a French woman turn down dessert.” She told us that cream cheese had only just come to France during the last few years, where it’s affectionately known as “philadelphia.” (Until that point, she was the sole provider of philadelphia to her Parisian friends, schlepping it over from Connecticut 10 pounds at a time in her suitcase.)

She invited us into the process of learning what French people buy (macarons and layered cakes) versus what they bake at home (loaf pan cakes, simple tarts). And she admitted that despite swearing that she’d never do a macaron recipe in any of her cookbooks, she caved for Baking Chez Moi at the request of her editor.

It was a delightful morning that left me with an urge to bake–a feeling that doesn’t strike me very often–so I decided to make one of the first recipes in the book: vanilla bean and brown butter loaf pan cake. I chose this cake because I always like bakery recipes that involve cooking prowess of some kind (browning butter!), and because I love the name: gateaux de voyage, which translates to weekend cake. This is the kind of cake you bake and then take with you–on a little trip or to a picnic or a friend’s house. And all the while, it sits there getting tastier and fuller in flavor.


Brown butter and vanilla bean weekend cake


    1 stick unsalted butter
    1 3/4 cups AP flour
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 1/4 cups sugar
    1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped of its pulp (could substitute 4 teaspoons good-quality vanilla extract)
    4 large eggs, room temperature
    1/3 cup heavy cream
    2 tablespoons dark rum or amaretto

Method: Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350F. Butter a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan and dust it with flour, shaking out the excess.

Put the stick of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a boil, swirling occasionally (not stirring). Let it bubble until it turns a deep honey brown and smells quite nutty, 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t walk away from the pan–even if you become tempted to go searching for that lone bottle of dark rum in the liquor cabinet–the difference between brown and black butter is just a few seconds. And don’t be afraid of those little brown flecks coating the bottom of the pan; they provide beautiful flavor and color. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.


Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and vanilla bean pulp in a large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the pulp is well incorporated into the sugar.


Whisk the eggs into the sugar and beat until incorporated, about 1 minute. Still using the whisk, beat in the heavy cream (and vanilla if you’re using it in place of the bean), along with the rum.


Now switch to a large spatula, and gradually stir in the dry ingredients until you have a smooth batter.


Fold in the cooled melted butter in 2 or 3 additions, and then pour the batter into the loaf pan, smoothing out the top with the spatula.


Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Check the cake after about 30 minutes. If it seems like it’s browning too quickly, cover it loosely with foil for the remainder of the baking time.

When the cake is done, transfer it to a rack to cool for 5 minutes, then remove it from the loaf pan and let it cool right side up.

If you have time, Dorie says to wrap the cake in foil or plastic and let it age for a day before serving to ensure the fullest flavor. This cake is heavenly with a cup of coffee or a little shot o’ dark rum.


Filed under Baked items, Dessert

Don’t give me creative ideas for Thanksgiving


I am 30 and a certified chef, but this Thanksgiving will be the first time I cook a turkey by myself. I’m not that nervous about it–a turkey is basically a giant chicken. What I am nervous about, however, is screwing up everything else, because when you do that, you Fuck With Tradition.

I never understood all the hullabaloo in foodie magazines and on the Food Network this time of year about getting creative at Thanksgiving. Smear this interesting spice rub on your boring roasted turkey! Revamp that tired stuffing with chestnuts or pomegranate seeds! Surprise them with parsnip puree instead of those old mashed potatoes! In my family, if I did any of those things, I’d be crucified because the whole point of Thanksgiving is for everything to taste exactly the same as it did the year before.

This is how you prepare a Proper Shea Family Thanksgiving Dinner.

The turkey is smeared with butter, salt and pepper and roasted with the giblets. No, not bouquets of herbs or lemon wedges. Dad bastes in between watching football and mixing (stiff) 7 and 7s for his wife and daughters.

Said unfancified turkey is–naturally–jammed full of stuffing (no, you do not bake it in a separate container for food safety reasons). The stuffing consists of celery, onions, two big tubes of breakfast sausage, a few hefty shakes of Bell’s seasoning and torn up hot dog buns. No, you can’t substitute the hot dog buns with white bread or crusty artisan bread or even hamburger buns. FORGET IT.

After the potatoes are mashed with butter and milk or cream, they’re baked in a disposable aluminum pan with a layer of caramelized onions and more butter on top. Yes, a disposable pan. This minimizes dishes.

The green beans are blanched and tossed with a pat of butter, salt and pepper. Don’t even think about adding slivered almonds.

The gravy is made up of drippings, flour and water–maybe chicken stock. MAYBE. No goddamn wine or herb bundles or any of that. Typically one of the daughters is tasked with skimming the gravy, which begins with a spoon and ends with a fork, because that’s the best way to get those weird little giblet gobs.

The anchor of the Thanksgiving plate is of course cranberry sauce. But not the kind with the glossy, bursted cranberries laced with orange and cinnamon. Instead, it’s the kind that is coaxed out of the Ocean Spray can five minutes before dinner and sliced into rounds with the imprint of the can all around the outside.

One year, Mom tried making it with real cranberries cooked down with sugar and orange peel and fresh lemon juice–all lovely and photogenic and time consuming. We picked at it tentatively for a few minutes before someone bravely ventured, “How come we aren’t having the canned cranberry sauce?”

“Yeah, I like the canned–it’s so good,” another said, wistfully.

Then there was the time Mom tried adding roasted squash with brown sugar to the spread. My sister took one look at it, ran up to her room and slammed the door, refusing to have any further part of this pathetic excuse for Thanksgiving dinner. (She may have been an angsty teen at the time, but we took it for what it was: a stern warning not to Fuck With Tradition.)

And don’t even remind me of the year Mom tested out a Mexican-inspired cornbread stuffing. Let’s just say, fue un DESASTRE.

The one allowance my family will make in the creativity department is probably dessert, because we’re all too full, tired and drunk by then to put up much of a fight. Oh, and you can try out new appetizers, too. But there had better be potato chips with sour cream & onion dip because that’s all we’re really interested in.

So please Bon Appetit and Food Network, don’t give me any creative ideas for “updating” or “shaking up” or “overhauling” or any of the other gerunds you use to describe what to the Sheas essentially constitutes Thanksgiving dinner molestation. Just show me how to make a nice stiff 7 and 7, so my family won’t get too mad if I get something wrong.


Filed under Food writing

Pasta and procrastination


Any of you who’s ever had to write anything for someone else–whether that’s an article, essay, proposal or even an uncomfortable email–knows a little something about procrastination. I think it’s because no matter how often you do it, writing is hard. And turns out, it’s even harder when you do it for yourself.

As a freelance writer who’s also trying to write a cookbook, I’ve become a procrastination queen. Especially when it comes to working on the book–I find literally any excuse not to. This past week, I switched out all the metal hangers in the house for plastic ones, I bathed the dog by myself (no small feat), cleaned the sliding doors, made bread and cleaned out the freezer.

Most recently, I biked to an inconveniently located Trader Joe’s to buy groceries. I wasn’t even sure what I needed when I got there besides olive oil (which I then forgot to buy). So I began wandering around, trying to mentally build that night’s dinner in my head. Twenty minutes later, I left with three types of cheese; some apples; a package of Thai chile and lime almonds (they looked tasty!); boneless, skinless chicken thighs; garlic; an onion; and a package of pappardelle noodles.

It took me a good 30 procrastinatory minutes to figure out how I was going to put chicken thighs and pappardelle noodles together. Luckily, I always have tomato puree and white wine at home.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll get back to chapter one. Oh wait, there’s that arugula in the fridge I’ve been wanting to use up for pesto.


Pappardelle with tomato-braised chicken thighs
serves 2

      Canola oil, as needed
      3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
      Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
      Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
      1 medium onion, diced
      1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
      3 cloves garlic, minced
      1/4 cup dry white wine (Pinot Grigio works)
      1 28-ounce container tomato puree
      8 ounces pappardelle noodles
      3-4 ounces shaved Parmesan (I use a vegetable peeler)
      A few tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Method: Preheat the oven to 350F. Heat a cast iron or other large, oven-safe skillet on the stove over medium-high.

Season both sides of the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. When the skillet is hot, add the oil and chicken thighs. Sear for 2 minutes on each side, until browned. Remove and set on a plate.


Wipe some of the grease out of the skillet if desired. Add some olive oil, the onion, red pepper flake, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute the onion until soft, about 5 minutes.


Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the skillet with a wooden spoon to lift up any brown bits, then stir in the tomato puree and a bit more salt and pepper to taste.


Nestle the chicken thighs back into the sauce–along with any chicken juice that was left on the plate.


Cover the skillet with a lid or aluminum foil, and slide into the oven. Braise for about 18 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. (To check, pull out the biggest thigh and stick an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part. It should read 165F.)

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of water to a boil and salt it generously for the pasta.

Take out the skillet and place it on the stove over low heat. Pull out the chicken thighs and place them on a large cutting board. Slice into large, bite-size chunks and slide them back into the sauce to stay warm.


Cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. With tongs, add it to the sauce and toss until combined. Add about half the shaved Parmesan and parsley, tossing to combine.


To serve, heap the pasta into large bowls. Top with the remaining Parmesan, parsley and a few grinds of black pepper.


Filed under Chicken, Dinner ideas, Food writing, Pasta

I made cheese!


Sometimes really simple things get overblown in our imaginations. For me until recently, one of those things was making cheese. I’ve always had a very commercialized image of cheese-making that involves rubber overalls, galoshes, large rakes and rennet–an enzyme used to make cheese that, for me, conjures creepy images of forced cow digestion. But that’s probably because I watch too much TV.

Making fresh cheese at home is actually really easy–and it will make you smile and spontaneously cry out things like, “I made cheese today!”


For this post I made paneer, which is basically Indian cottage cheese made with acid and no rennet (phew).

All you do is heat a gallon of whole milk and add lemon or lime juice a tablespoon at a time until the curds eventually start to separate from the greenish liquid known as whey. Then you rinse, drain and press the curds until you have a semisoft, mild cheese perfect for saag paneer, curries, egg and pasta dishes, or frying in olive oil and piling on a sandwich with roasted veggies.

But what it’s most perfect for is bragging. Because you made cheese!

adapted from Journey Kitchen, makes about 8 ounces


    1 gallon whole milk
    3 tablespoons lemon juice

Method: Line a large pot with double-layered cheesecloth. Make sure the piece is large enough to be bundled and hung up later on.

In a second large, heavy bottom pot over medium heat, bring the milk to a gentle boil and let it stay there for about a minute. Don’t let it boil vigorously. (If it bubbles up too much, turn the heat down and wait for it to come back to a gentle boil.)

Add one tablespoon of lemon juice and quickly stir it in with a wooden spoon. You should start to see very small curdles forming. Add the second tablespoon and quickly stir it in again. The curdles will increase, and you’ll start to see the greenish whey. Add the last tablespoon and quickly stir. Now, you should see the curds starting to separate more clearly from the whey (see below).


Turn the heat off immediately. Pour the whey into the second pot through the cheesecloth, which will collect all the curdles. Bundle them up and rinse them briefly under cold water to remove the lemon flavor.

Tie the cheesecloth into a tight bundle and hang it over the pot to drain for about 30 minutes.


Next, place the cheese under a weight to flatten it and remove additional moisture. I placed it between two large cutting boards with a heavy pot on top and let it sit for about two hours. Don’t leave it much longer than that, or it will become hard and crumbly.


And that’s it! It’s best to use the cheese (that you made) as soon as possible, but if you can’t, wrap the cheese tightly in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for up to one week.


Filed under Kitchen basics, Vegetarian

When octopus attacks


I only tried to cook fresh octopus one time–maybe six years ago. Mom and I bought a dressed octopus from the grocery store and tried broiling it. After a few impatient minutes, we turned the oven light on to check on it, only to see its tentacles curling up sickeningly under the flame–like it was still alive in there.

“Gross,” Mom said. We gave it probably 15 more minutes before pulling it out. She tentatively sliced up one of the overly-singed appendages. We’d already decided we were disgusted, but just for good measure, the meat was chewy to the point of almost being inedible.

We later learned that the best way to cook it is very slowly and for a long time (either baked in a low-ish oven, poached or boiled), till it becomes tender. But I have a hard time bringing myself to try it again. I can’t unsee the curling tentacles.

So when I want octopus, I take the 10-minute train ride to pretty much any restaurant in Greek Town, where the octopus is perpetually tender, charred and salty–tossed in silky olive oil with lemon or red wine vinegar. When I want octopus at home, I pick up a little can of the oil-packed stuff at the grocery store in my neighborhood.

For this Spanish-inspired salad, I fried the octopus and a few mild peppers in olive oil and mixed them with shallot, raw bell pepper and parsley in a simple red wine vinaigrette.

That’s it. It came together in just a few minutes for a lovely appetizer.

Maybe some day, I’ll get over the horror of the curling tentacles and try cooking octopus again. For now, I’ll stick to the can.

Octopus salad with peppers two ways
serves 2 as a side salad or appetizer


    2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for frying
    Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
    1 shallot, thinly sliced
    1 small bell pepper, large diced
    5 or 6 fresh shishito peppers (if you can’t find shishitos, use Anaheims)
    1 4-ounce can octopus (I like Matiz Gallego), drained
    1/4 cup parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Method: Whisk together the vinegar, oil, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Add the shallots and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium high. Toss in the shishito peppers and season with salt. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, turning every 30 seconds or so, until the skin is slightly blistered on all sides. Remove and set aside.


Inmmediately add the octopus and a little more oil to the same pan if needed. Cook over medium high for 3 to 4 minutes, turning occasionally, until the octopus is slightly charred. Remove and let cool for a few minutes.


Slice the stems off the cooled peppers if desired. Add them to the shallots and vinaigrette, along with the octopus, diced raw bell pepper and parsley. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve at room temperature.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appetizers, Fish/shellfish, Salad

Turning the page

photo (7)

Hi there!

Just two short updates for you today on the Life of Marge while Penny takes a little nap.

1. I’m leaving my full-time position at FoodNavigator-USA next week to pursue freelance food writing. 

2. I’m writing a cookbook.

I love my FoodNavigator team and will dearly miss working with them every day. I feel pretty lucky that they took a chance on this lowly magazine writer/massive food nerd in the first place.

As for the cookbook, I don’t want to give away too much yet. Suffice to say, it will be a Chicago-centric tome dedicated to taking back the time so many of us are too busy for by getting in the kitchen to tackle some good ole home cookin’. Possible topics of inclusion are not limited to: Drinking too much wine, hosting white-trash dinner parties, butchering a fresh (eek!) chicken, making dirty Valentine’s Day cards, and cookie and dumpling recipes from old ladies.

JacobOver the next couple months, my dear friend and co-author Jacob (seen left, sniffing rubber cement) and I will be launching a recipe-testing blog, where we’ll no doubt bother any of you amazing folks who are willing to test some of the recipes we hope to include (and give honest, even mean feedback if necessary). More details to follow.

I’m not totally sure what prompted this career move. Maybe it was turning 30. Maybe it was spending a whole year producing more content than I ever knew I was capable of. Maybe it was realizing that I’ve filled my house with cooking tools, books about writing books and various writing surfaces for a reason. (Seriously, you can’t turn a corner without seeing a dry-erase board, chalkboard or notepad lying around.)

But I think the real reason was finally feeling confident enough in my own voice to want to make a real, lasting contribution as a writer who loves food and loves to cook. Obviously, there’s a good chance no one will buy the book–besides the family/friends we force to, of course. But then again, I never became a writer for the money.

OK, that’s it. I promise to return in earnest this weekend with a little post for a Spanish-inspired salad.

And thanks for reading. Really, thanks.


Filed under Food writing