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Orange Chicken

You know that feeling you’re left with after a major spring cleaning of your house…purging the junk, wiping away the dust, polishing the knick knacks…that refreshed feeling of comfort in your space, when everything is organized, neat, and tidy?

Well, after taking the past few weeks to put a fresh polish on some things around this site, that’s just about how I’m feeling. And it feels good…

  • The Recipe Collection is up to date and organized in a way which I hope will make browsing the vast selection of recipes on this site a bit more user friendly.
  • The Gallery page now includes a much more comprehensive collection of photos, which are bigger and arranged in a more appealing manner. Best yet, clicking any photo will bring you directly to that recipe. Hovering your cursor over any picture will provide a brief description of the featured recipe.
  • A few new step by step guides have been added to the How-To Photo Guides page.

I’ve still got a bit more housekeeping to do around here, but I really hope you enjoy browsing around those pages!

It’s been a productive few weeks. But the best thing about stepping away from new posts for a bit is that it gave me a little time to reflect on where I am and where I’m going with this little blog. I started this blog two and a half years ago as what felt like a natural extension of what I was already flooding my social networks with…ramblings about cooking and eating. Very quickly, I discovered that it gave me a great feeling of satisfaction to produce a blog post…a delicious dish, a few photos, a written recipe…that tangible ‘job completed’ feeling that’s rare in my life as a stay-at-home mom. The very act of clicking Publish was rewarding to me. Even more rewarding was finding that people were actually interested in what I’d published. And that sure felt good!

Rice Krispie Treat ‘Sushi’ for our ninja-themed party

What started as a sort of personal food journal, took on a life of its own, with readers and subscribers and a facebook page and a twitter account (which I don’t really know how to use). But at the end of the day, this is just my little space about food, with no aspirations of being anything other than what it is. It’s not a baking blog or a gluten-free blog or a South Beach blog, though it contains recipes that fall into each of those categories. It’s not a gourmet blog or even a family-friendly blog, though there are plentiful recipes in each of those categories as well. Admittedly, the collection of recipes on this site is a bit scattered.

But you know what? So am I. So is my family. And this blog is a snapshot of our lives… One day I’m intent on losing the weight that’s been nagging at me since having our third son. The next day I’ve craving chocolate-covered bacon-wrapped twinkies. One day I’m cooking hot dog casseroles with my kids. The next I’m serving slow-braised short ribs in a cabernet reduction sauce at an elegant dinner party with dear friends. (I wear sweatpants regardless of the occasion.) My kids are usually clamoring around my feet when I cook and with three boys ages five and under, it’s almost inevitable that one of them will throw a tantrum, fall off a chair, or start coloring the grout between the bricks on my fireplace just as I’m engaged in some crucial time-sensitive step in a recipe. My photos are rapidly staged and shot close because my table is usually too messy to shoot wider. There’s often a baby climbing my legs while I’m frantically snapping the photos.

It’s chaotic. It’s imperfect. It’s my life. And I’m guessing it’s probably some of your lives too.

The Birthday Boy!

And that’s not about to change anytime soon, but there is something new I’d like to bring to this blog… The most wonderful thing about the culinary program I completed many years ago is that it left me with so much more than a collection of tasty recipes. It armed me with an understanding of techniques, which I can now apply towards everything I do in the kitchen…the tools and the confidence that enable me to walk into the kitchen and cook without recipes or to read another’s recipe and quickly understand what I can substitute or alter to fit my family’s tastes. That’s the thing I hope to share with all of you. I want to take my posts here one step further than just some story about my chaotic life and an awesome recipe for braised short ribs or pumpkin parfaits or cheddar bacon biscuits. I want each post to leave you with understanding of why the recipe works and how you can take that idea and make it part of your culinary toolbox. So, from here on out, that’s what I intend to do. Everything else will remain the same, but with each new post, I’m going to pull out one or two techniques or tips which are demonstrated in the recipe and be just a bit more explicit about the how or why.

Ninjago (Ninja Lego) Cake

Ok then, enough chatting about this blog. Time to get back to actually blogging on this blog… We’re throwing our middle guy, Lucas, a grand ninja battle…errr, I mean party, this weekend in celebration of his fourth birthday. It’s gonna be a ninjatastic event with an Asian-themed menu, surprise costumed ninjas, and rice krispie treat ‘sushi’ for dessert. I will share more details, photos, and recipes after the party, but for the moment, I want to share one of the recipes I’ll be preparing for this weekend’s festivities.

Orange chicken…I just adore the sticky sweet and slightly spicy sauce coating chunks of crispy chicken. As I planned the menu for this little ninja party, it seemed like the perfect fit for a big group of adults and young children. It’s a dish I’ve eaten often and made never. So, I did a bit of searching for a starting point. The big surprise for me was that some of the recipes contained not a bit of orange. No juice, no extract, no peel. Many recipes were more sugar than anything else. And though those recipes may be successful at reproducing the familiar orange chicken flavor from your favorite Chinese takeout restaurant, I just can’t come to grips with an orange chicken recipe made without orange. So, I played around a bit and came up with the recipe which follows. It’s pleasingly sweet, just a bit spicy, and packed with a good dose of authentic orange flavor. Prior to frying, the chicken is marinated in a soy-ginger-orange marinade, then dipped in egg, and coated with cornstarch. A simple sauce, made with orange juice and fresh zest is accented with Asian flavors then thickened to the consistency of a glaze with a bit of cornstarch. Definitely a crowd-pleaser!

Focus on Technique – Thickening with Cornstarch

Cornstarch is an effective (and gluten-free) thickener which can be used in a variety of recipes, including sauces, gravy, pudding, and fruit pie filling. It adds no flavor of its own and produces a clear, glazy result, as compared to the cloudy effect of a butter/flour roux. In general, about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch can be used to thicken 1 cup of liquid. To effectively blend the cornstarch into the liquid to be thickened, you should start by making a slurry, which is simply a mixture of the cornstarch with a bit of cold liquid (usually water). This step prevents the cornstarch from clumping when added to the hot liquid. Add the slurry to the liquid you wish to thicken, then bring to a simmer for a minute or two until the liquid thickens.

Orange Chicken

Ingredients

For the Chicken

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1″ chunks

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

For the Sauce

  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • Zest from 1 orange (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sambal oelek (crushed chile paste)*
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 green onions, sliced

*You can substitute crushed red pepper or cayenne pepper powder to add a bit of spiciness. If using cayenne powder, reduce the quantity.

Directions

For the Chicken

Stir together the soy sauce, orange juice, and ginger. Submerge the chicken in the mixture. Allow the chicken to marinade for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator.

Combine the cornstarch and salt on a plate. Heat about 1/2″ of oil in a large skillet over medium-high/high heat to approximately 375 degrees. (You can use an instant read meat thermometer to estimate the temperature. If you do not have a thermometer, just heat the oil for several minutes until it’s sizzling hot.)

Remove the chicken from the marinade. Place the chicken in a bowl with the lightly beaten eggs. Remove the chicken from the eggs, then dredge in the cornstarch until well coated. Fry the chicken in small batches until crispy, golden, and cooked through, about 5-6 minutes. Turn the chicken once or twice during cooking. Remove the chicken from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

For the Sauce

Combine the brown sugar, water, orange juice, orange zest, rice wine vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, and sambal oelek in a saucepan over medium heat until well combined. In a small ramekin or bowl, stir together the cornstarch with the cold water. Pour the mixture into the sauce and whisk to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Simmer for a couple minutes until the sauce is thickened.

Just before serving, pour the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with sliced green onions and additional orange zest, if desired. Serve over white jasmine rice.

Tips

  • To maintain the chicken’s crispiness, wait until just before serving to toss the chicken in the sauce.
  • To make ahead of time, fry the chicken and refrigerate until using. Prepare the sauce and refrigerate until using. Reheat the chicken on a baking sheet in a 375 degrees oven for about 10-15 minutes until heated through and crispy. Heat the sauce and pour it over the reheated chicken.

Grilled Chicken Tikka Masala Pizza

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Anyone following all of this crazy zombie apocalypse ‘news’ popping up?? There’s some seriously wacky stuff going on out there.  I’ve seen enough zombie movies to know that this is always how it begins…a few random incidents which are brushed off as isolated events with some logical cause. The public is urged not to panic and then all h.e.double hockey sticks breaks loose. (Being told not to panic is a sure sign that it’s time to panic.) And honestly, though I’m inclined to believe that all of this has more to do with dangerous mind-altering drugs than a zombie armageddon, I’m not sure that brings me any peace of mind.

Did ya know that the CDC’s website has a section on zombie preparedness?? I kid you not. I’m pretty sure it’s a tongue-in-cheek, fun way to educate about general disaster readiness. Or is it???

Personally, I learned everything I need to know from the educational zombie comedy, Zombieland.

Zombie Survival Rule #1: Cardio

Good thing I’ve been running again. And it feels so good. I’d been struggling to get back to a regular running routine ever since having my baby 15 months ago and it’s been an uphill battle, both literally and figuratively. My progress had been dreadfully slow. But, the baby weaned from nursing almost two months ago and my running progress has accelerated ever since. Guess I didn’t realize the toll it was taking on my body. It feels good to get out there for my runs and I’ll be ready when the zombies…errr, I mean bath salt crazies…start chasing me down. (I’m joking…mostly.)

The other benefit of running is that it affords me a little more wiggle room in my dietary choices, so I can afford to enjoy a few indulgences. Ok, my running/indulgence balance is admittedly still a bit off, but it’s getting closer. This grilled chicken tikka masala is one of those indulgences that I think about when I’m running. This mouth-watering pizza combines one of my all-time favorite dishes, chicken tikka masala, with homemade garlicky grilled naan flatbread and a bit of melty mozzarella cheese. Seriously yummy and worth every second of heart-pounding cardio.

I’d like to tell you that this dish is a cinch to pull together, but that would be a lie. There is nothing inherently difficult about it, but between preparing the marinade, making the sauce, preparing the dough, grilling the chicken, grilling the naan, and then assembling and grilling the pizzas, this is a time consuming meal. But it is a labor of love. Definitely worth the time! Just save it for a sunny weekend day and get the whole family involved in the process!

To make things more manageable, you may want to plan to cook the meal in parts. The chicken can be marinated the night before. The sauce, the chicken, and the naan can all be made ahead of time and will hold well in the fridge for a day or two. You could even enjoy the meal as traditional chicken tikka masala with rice and naan one night and make the pizzas for leftovers the next day! However you decide to break it up, I think you’re going to enjoy this delicious meal!

Grilled Chicken Tikka Masala Pizza

Ingredients

For the Naan*

  • 1 packet dry active yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110-115 degrees)
  • 1/8 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 4 cups flour (approximately)
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted

For the Chicken

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
  • 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
  • 3 tablespoons garam masala
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/2 inch segment of fresh ginger, grated

For the Sauce

  • 3 tablespoon butter
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 1-2″ segment fresh ginger, grated
  • 2 small serrano peppers, seeds and ribs removed, diced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala
  • 1 (29 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne (plus more, if desired)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (plus more, if desired)
For the Pizzas
  • 2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • Fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Directions

To prepare the chicken marinade: Combine all marinade ingredients in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Place the chicken thighs in the marinade and toss to evenly coat. Refrigerate and allow the chicken to marinade for at least six hours or overnight.

To grill the chicken: Wipe the grill with a bit of vegetable oil to help prevent sticking. Preheat grill to medium heat. Shake the excess marinade off of the chicken and place it on the preheated grill. Cook the chicken for about 7-10 minutes on each side. (Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the chicken. The chicken is fully cooked when it has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees.) Allow the chicken to cool, then cut into small pieces. Refrigerate until using.

To make the naan: Stir together the yeast and warm water. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes. Stir in the sugar, salt, milk, garlic and egg. Add the flour 1 cup at a time, stirring and kneading for several minutes until a soft dough forms. (Add the flour slowly towards the end, since the quantity of flour will vary. The dough should be slightly sticky, but manageable. If the dough is too dry, add little bits of water or milk. If the dough is too wet, add small quantities of additional flour.) Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a slightly damp towel and allow it to rest at room temperature for 1-2 hours, until it has doubled in size. Then, divide the risen dough into 12 equal balls of dough. Place the balls on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Cover with the towel and allow to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Preheat your grill to medium heat. Prepare a work station near your grill with a rolling pin, cutting board, and flour. Lightly scatter the flour over the cutting board. One at a time, roll each ball of dough into a flat round, then gently stretch the dough into a soft teardrop shape. Place the dough directly onto the grill and cook for about a minute on each side. It will begin to puff slightly when it is done. Remove from the grill and brush with melted butter.

To make the sauce: Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger, and serrano peppers. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent. Add the garam masala, stir, and cook for another minute. Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, and cayenne pepper. Stir to combine. Continue cooking until heated through, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat and add the cream. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional salt and cayenne pepper, as desired.

To assemble the pizzas: Spread a layer of sauce onto each piece of naan. Scatter some of the chicken over each naan. Sprinkle each pizza with a bit of the mozzarella cheese. Garnish with fresh parsley. Heat the pizzas on the grill or in a 350 degree oven until the cheese is melty and all components are heated through (about 8-10 minutes).

*Recipe for naan adapted from the recipe found HERE.

Makes 10-12 small individual pizzas

Spicy Mexican Wontons

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A few weeks ago, I opened one of my kitchen cabinets and set my eyes upon a set of margarita glasses which have been long neglected. And what’s a girl to do when her margarita glasses have gathered dust, but wash them off and host una fiesta pequeña.

With the purchase of a few brightly colored decorations, a sombrero, maracas, and a piñata, plans for our little Mexican shindig were coming along. I taught the boys a few Spanish greetings and we practiced dancing in the kitchen to the sounds of a mariachi album, while we cooked up a chocoflan and spicy Mexican wontons.

It wasn’t until the tequila was chilled and the limes sliced that I realized we were hosting our Mexican-themed party on the weekend when many Americans would be celebrating America’s Independence Day. Oops. Arriba? I will celebrate America’s birthday in appropriate patriotic red, white, and blue style on July 4. Honest.

But, our little gathering was un gran éxito; a grand success. Everyone brought a dish to share and we killed a few bottles of tequila shaken with homemade mango and strawberry lime margarita mixes. The kids even enjoyed kiddie margaritas in sugar-rimmed glasses, as their pockets burst full of piñata candy. My three-year-old is already reminiscing about ‘the old days’…way back yesterday when we had a piñata. That was living!

One of my contributions to the party menu were these spicy Mexican wontons; not exactly traditional Mexican food, but I like to dance to the rhythm of my own maracas anyway. They start with a simple combination of shredded chicken, a hefty dose of Mexican cheese, fresh jalapeño pepper, and green onions which are then seasoned with a bit of chile powder, cumin, and cayenne. Spoonfuls of the mixture are tucked into wonton wrappers, then quickly pan-fried until crisp.

They can be completely made ahead of time and reheated in the oven for a few minutes before serving. They re-crisp beautifully in the oven, which means that you can get that messy frying part out of the way and all cleaned up, long before your guests arrive! Perfect party food.

Spicy Mexican Wontons

Ingredients

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded*
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, ribs and seeds removed, very finely diced
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 3 cups Mexican cheese shredded**
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (plus more, if desired)
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin
  • 40-50 wonton wrappers (check the refrigerated or frozen section of your grocery store)
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

* I poached the chicken breasts in simmering water. Alternately, they can be baked until cooked through.

**I used 1 1/2 cups queso blanco and 1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican blend (cheddar, monterey jack, and asadero). If you are unable to get queso blanco, you can use any combination of cheddar, monterey jack, or other Mexican cheese.

Directions

Combine the chicken, jalapeño pepper, green onion, cheese and spices. In batches of about 5 or 6, place a hefty teaspoon of the filling in the center of each wonton wrapper. Wet the edges of the wonton wrapper with a bit of water and fold over into a triangle. If desired, wet two of the corners and fold them in towards the center. Place the prepared wontons on a tray in a single layer as you repeat the process for all wonton wrappers.

Once all wontons have been prepared, heat about 1/2″ vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium/medium high heat. Get the oil good and hot. Test out one of the prepared wontons by placing it into the oil. It should become golden brown and bubbly-looking within about 30 seconds. Flip to cook on the other side. Cook all of the wontons in small batches. Remove them from the oil using a slotted spoon. Drain the cooked wontons on a paper towel. Serve hot.

If desired, the wontons can be served with a chipotle sour cream, made by blending one chipotle pepper (from a can of chipotles in adobo) with 8 ounces sour cream.

To reheat, place the wontons in a single layer on two large baking sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for about 7-10 minutes, until hot and crispy.

Click HERE for more tips on working with wonton wrappers and a photo guide showing an alternate method of folding the wontons.

Baked Coconut-Crusted Chicken Tenders with Fruit Salsa

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I’ve come to an important realization about the difference between boys and girls. Girls create. Boys destroy.

As a little girl, I remember spending endless hours with my younger sisters drawing, painting, planning, assembling, and constructing. We took pride in neatness and paid special attention towards maintaining an unbroken, neatly sharpened set of crayons. My sons, on the other hand are destroyers. They disassemble. They tear to shreds. They eat the shreds. Seriously. In their world, crayons are disposable objects, with a new set required for every coloring session.

The only thing my little men ‘create’ is chaos. When my sisters and I dug holes in the yard, it was in the process of gathering ‘ingredients’ for mud pies. When my boys dig up the yard, the holes are their end game. They are the very definition of entropy. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Mars must be a very messy place. Of that I am certain.

I thrive under conditions of order and organization. I donate sets of drinking glasses when one breaks, rendering the set odd-numbered and incomplete. I cringe at mismatching dinner plates. My coffee mugs are neatly lined in the cupboard with all of the handles facing the same way. When someone else unloads my dishwasher for me, I thank them for the favor and then fix the handles on the coffee mugs. I can’t help it. I have a problem. My boys are determined to fix me.

But what my little men lack in the organization department, they more than make up for in other ways. They are sweet, smart, snuggly, and they are all fairly open to trying new foods. For a mom who loves cooking new things, this is a blessing. But, like most children, there are times when they want nothing to do with something new, no matter how delicious it may be. And when the boys team up in their unwillingness, there’s almost no way to win. This was recently the case on the night I made these delicious coconut-crusted chicken tenders, served with a sweet strawberry and mandarin orange salsa.

My oldest son, at the wise old age of five, proclaimed that he preferred ‘regular’ breaded chicken tenders as he stood there watching me prepare the meal. He decided he didn’t like my new chicken tenders before ever taking his first bite and nothing was going to change that. Once the meal was cooked, he reluctantly agreed to try the chicken. He crinkled his nose and took one carefully small bite. He chewed the bite with his face contorted into a dramatic look of utter repulsion, purposefully chewing and swallowing the bite without it ever touching his tongue. His younger brother watched as his big bro gave us such a notable display of disgust for the chicken he never actually tasted. Taking all of his cues from his big bro, he refused to even taste his chicken, loudly, repeatedly, and confidently stating, It’s ‘b’isgusting! Gross. He wouldn’t even eat the strawberries and oranges, which on any other day he would have loved, since they were somehow contaminated by the ‘b’isgusting chicken.

I assure you, this chicken is actually quite ‘b’elicious. It may even become one of your family’s new favorite meals, assuming your kids don’t team up in turning their noses up at it. Best yet, it’s baked in the oven, rather than fried in oil, making it a healthier meal choice for you and your family. The sweet fruit salsa can be made with whatever fruits you have on hand, though soft tropical fruits will work best. A pinch of cayenne pepper, added to the chicken and the salsa give the dish a nice little kick. Add more or less cayenne, depending on you and your family’s preferences.

Baked Coconut-Crusted Chicken Tenders

Ingredients

  • 2 cups shredded, sweetened coconut
  • 1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 pounds chicken tenders (or chicken breast cut into strips)

Directions

Combine the coconut, panko bread crumbs, salt and cayenne pepper until well blended. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Dip each chicken tender into the eggs, then press in the coconut mixture until well coated. Arrange the tenders in a single layer on a baking sheet. (Lightly rub the baking sheet with a bit of olive or vegetable oil to help prevent sticking.) Bake on the middle over rack for about 15-20 minutes, until cooked through and lightly golden.

For the fruit salsa: Chop assorted fruit into small pieces. (I used strawberries and mandarin oranges. Mango, kiwi, and other citrus fruit would be fantastic!) Combine with a bit of honey and a squirt of lime juice. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper for a little spicy heat. Chopped jalapeño pepper or green onions would be another tasty addition! Refrigerate until using.

Check out this little cutie, already an expert in cupcake destruction!

Grilled Chicken, Strawberry and Spinach Salad in an Orange Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

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Later this morning, I’ll be chatting with the morning host of Charlotte’s Lite 102.9. (Any Charlotte readers out there??) Lite 102.9 has recently begun featuring my blog on their website, which I think is super cool. And they have the great idea to put together a series of short audio clips about cooking, family, and this blog to air for their online streaming content listeners. I think that’s even cooler. I’m just hoping I don’t get stage fright…or phone fright, I suppose.

My husband says that I ought to practice my non-regional dialect and annunciation ala Will Ferrell Anchorman style. Unique New York. Unique New York. You know you need unique New York. The Human Torch was denied a bank loan. My husband believes that my accent may be a bit too Long Guyland-y for southern listeners. Of course, he’s just poking fun at me, but we do have some definite differences in agreement over how certain words should be pronounced.

In our 16 years together, some of our biggest arguments have revolved around how to pronounce the names Erin or Aaron and Carrie or Kerry. We’ve nearly come to blows over the proper way to say crayon (It’s definitely not ‘cran’). And don’t even get me started on orange. I can acknowledge that there’s an ‘or’ in the beginning of the word, so it could be pronounced like oar-inj, but that’s just not how I say it. And well…I’m just going to go eat my R-enges now.

However you say it, sweet oranges make me think of summer. And it doesn’t get much more summery than this light spinach salad, topped with a tender grilled chicken breast, sweet mandarin oranges and fresh strawberries, dressed in a vibrant orange and poppy seed vinaigrette. It’s bright, fresh, and perfect if you’re watching your waistline for summer!

Grilled Chicken, Strawberry, and Spinach Salad in an Orange Poppy Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • Juice and zest from 1 navel orange (about 1/3 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 grilled chicken breasts (seasoned with salt and pepper), sliced
  • 8 cups fresh baby spinach leaves (approximately)
  • 8-10 strawberries, sliced
  • 1 cup mandarin orange segments
  • 1 red onion, very thinly sliced

Directions

To prepare the vinaigrette: Combine the orange juice, zest, vinegar, olive oil, honey and poppy seeds until well blended. Season with salt and crushed red pepper, to taste.

To assemble the salad: Toss the spinach leaves in some of the dressing. (Do not overdress.) Arrange a pile of the dressed spinach leaves on each plate. Top with the grilled chicken, red onions, strawberries, and oranges. Drizzle a little extra dressing over the chicken.

Makes 4 meal-sized salads

Southwest Chicken Salad and a Chicken Salad Round-Up

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My oldest son is about to turn five. He is named William, after his great grandfather on my husband’s side. His middle name is James, after my father and other loved members of my family. William James. It’s a good name. But he was almost named Jack Bauer.

I’m not even joking. I’d been in labor for 25 hours by the time my first son was born. I hadn’t eaten. I hadn’t slept. Then, sometime during the last few hours, 24 came on the hospital tv. My husband and I were really into 24 at that point in time. We watched, using Jack Bauer’s escapades to distract us from our own 24+ hour adventure. Desperate for a quick finish to a long labor, we agreed that should our son be born before the end of the show, we would name him Jack Bauer. We would have done it. But he was born a few hours after 24 ended and we named him William James.

Asian-Style Chicken Salad

Sometimes I still think it would’ve been sort of awesome to have named him Jack Bauer. I mean… people don’t get much cooler than Jack Bauer. They say that Jack Bauer sleeps with a night light because the dark is afraid of him. And he once won a game of Connect 4 in 3 moves. When he was a kid, Jack Bauer made his mother finish his vegetables. And the word on the street is that Superman wears Jack Bauer pajamas.

Chicken Bacon Ranch Chicken Salad

And the name would have been appropriate for our little guy. I mean, our oldest son really is a little Jack Bauer.  Nothing phases him. The kid could fall off the roof and he would just stand up, brush the dirt from his pants, and run off making an offhanded comment about how inconvenient that fall was. And he thrives on being busy. Down time is not a part of my son’s vocabulary. As his mother, this is very exhausting. By 8:00 am on any given day, he’s asked me at least 15 times what we’re going to do next. I’m in a constant scramble to keep my little Jack Bauer sufficiently busy.

Autumn Harvest Chicken Salad

Last week, the boys were on their spring break from school, which meant that I needed to work overtime at keeping everyone occupied. Part of my plan for the week included a trip to the zoo. I had it all figured out. I picked the nicest day of the week to go. We’d arrive when the zoo opened and spend a leisurely morning enjoying the sunny day as we gazed at lions, tigers, and bears. (And monkeys. I love the monkeys.) I packed a few snacks, some juice boxes, and my camera. Then, off we went.

Our adventure started as planned. But it took on a very Jack Bauer-esque pace. As excited as the boys were to be at the zoo, my oldest barely glanced at any animal before asking what was next. When can we see the tiger? When will we see the penguins? Where is the wolf? All the while asking about the snack, which he somehow spied me packing. Whoa, Nelly! Slow down and enjoy the elephant standing in front of you. Or the snow leopard, who in twenty-five visits to this zoo, I have never once seen. The snow leopard, with his piercing blue eyes, who is currently nose to nose with you, save for the pane of glass between.

But we booked it through that zoo, barely stopping to glance at each animal. Somehow, I managed to put the snack off to the half-way mark…the snack which he gobbled up too fast to taste, in order to get to the juice boxes that he spotted with his laser vision. The kid misses nothing.

Curried Chicken Salad

Or does he miss everything? I mean, I spent the entire zoo trip telling him to slow down. Relax. Just enjoy the flamingos for a minute. Let’s not rush things. And then I had a revelation, about this whole idea of living in the moment. I admit, I don’t fully buy into the concept of living in the moment. I get it, in theory. But I’m a planner. To me the idea of living in the moment feels a bit reckless. I mean, what about preparing for the future?? If I wanted to live today like it was my last, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting on this couch writing a blog post. I’d be in Disneyworld eating at least eight of those chocolate-dipped Mickey Mouse rice krispy treats. Or swimming with sea turtles in Barbados, with a glass of rum punch waiting on the beach. Or on a lounge chair in the middle of a winery in Napa, with dinner reservations scheduled at French Laundry. But we’ve got kids’ college savings to think about, and retirement accounts that need feeding, and a home that needs tending. Sometimes we need to make choices today based on our hopes and dreams for tomorrow. Those things are important too. If only it were so easy to just live for right now…

Waldorf Chicken Salad

But I recognize that striving to live in the moment does not mean to live recklessly, ignore responsibilities, or neglect planning for future goals. Rather, it’s a reminder to savor each day, be with the ones you love, and make each moment count. It’s the thing my oldest made me consider at the zoo. Slow down. Stop rushing. Stop thinking about the penguins when the flamingos are standing right in front of you. 

As a parent, it’s easy to want to rush through some things. I’m in a rush for the baby to walk, because my arms get tired carrying him. But I know that someday I’ll miss the security of being able to keep him safely within my arms.  I’m in a rush for the kids to do their own laundry, though someday, when they’re grown and off at college, I’ll longs for the days of folding their tiny t-shirts and briefs. I’m in a rush for the baby to sleep through the night, yet I know I’ll panic the first time he does. I’m in a rush for my living room not to be covered in small cars and trains, but I know they will only be replaced by lacrosse sticks and smelly gym bags. I need to slow down. Enjoy the evidence of small children dripping all over my house. Enjoy the snuggles. Pause to savor the giggles and try to find satisfaction in working through tantrums and tears. Enjoy the flamingos for all their beauty and imperfection. Worry about the penguins when we get there.

Tropical Chicken Salad

I’m acutely aware that this blog seems like The Chicken Salad Blog lately. Things have been busy around here and I’m scrambling (in between savoring each moment). As I’ve mentioned before, chicken salad is my go-to easy dinner. Pretty certain that there’s a direct correlation between how full our calendar is and how often we eat chicken salad. Between birthday party planning, spring break, doctor’s appointments, play set building, holidays, and the normal business of a tending to a family with three young kids, it’s been a chicken salad month.
Our most recent chicken salad was this tasty southwest style chicken salad; tender chunks of chicken in a spicy dressing, tossed with sweet corn kernels, black beans, and red bell pepper. Serve it over a bed of greens, wrapped in a tortilla, or stuffed in a pita pocket. And if the southwest inspired flavors of this chicken salad don’t inspire you, check out a few of my previously posted chicken salad recipes. Love ’em all! Fast, easy, and delicious…leaving more time for savoring the things that really matter.

Southwest Chicken Salad

Southwest Chicken Salad

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons diced chiles (or diced jalapeño pepper)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (for mild/medium spice)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 pound chicken breast, cooked and chopped
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 3/4 cup corn kernels
  • 3/4 cup black beans (from a can, drained and rinsed)
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Combine the mayonnaise, mustard, diced chiles, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and garlic. Pour the dressing over the chicken, red bell pepper, corn, and black beans. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and additional cayenne pepper, as desired.

Links to previously posted Gourmand Mom chicken salad recipes:

Waldorf Chicken Salad

Tropical Chicken Salad

Chicken Bacon Ranch Chicken Salad

Curried Chicken Salad

Asian-style Chicken Salad

Autumn Harvest Chicken Salad

Chicken, Apple, and Peanut Salad

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I’m an emotional eater. It is hands-down my biggest dietary downfall. I know how to lose weight. I know exactly what I need to do. And when things are good, I  can stay focused on my goals and get the job done.

But then there are times when it feels like my head is spinning. Somebody’s digging through the fireplace ashes, somebody else is constructing an elaborate obstacle course of danger and destruction in the living room,  and somebody else is throwing a tantrum because he wanted to wear his Ghostbusters t-shirt for the third day in a row. (My sister says I should just let the kids do what they want so they will be happy. She might be right.) The dishes are piled up. There’s a mound of dirty clothes lying on the kitchen floor, begging to be added to the laundry that is also piling up. The dog’s hair is rolling in tumbleweeds across the living room. And the million tiny Lego pieces, which I just finished picking up so the baby won’t eat them, are scattered all over the living room floor. Again. I don’t even know when it happened. My heart is racing and I’m barking commands like a well-practiced drill sergeant.

Put some clothes on. We don’t cook in the nude (giving new meaning to the term ‘Naked Chef’).

Stop trying to eat the stroller while I’m pushing it.

Books are for reading. Not eating.

The bathroom is not a play place. 

Somehow, the very same things which are my life’s greatest blessings are also the source of my greatest stresses. I often find it difficult to embrace this time in my life when somebody is always crying or whining or complaining or needing something. Whoever said you should live in the moment and be ever present in your life, clearly didn’t have a screaming baby in his arms or small whirling dervishes tearing the world apart around their feet. I don’t want to live in those moments. I just want to get through them. I’m sure they will all seem more magical in retrospect.

My life is beautiful. It’s joyous. It’s filled with amazing blessings. But it overwhelms me sometimes. And when I feel like I’m spinning in everyone else’s needs, with my heart pounding from my inability to keep up, I console myself with food. I can’t take a break or go for a run when the stress builds to explosive levels. Deep breathing doesn’t usually work. A spontaneous dance party sometimes does. But when it doesn’t, I eat. And eat and eat. Until I’m stuffed and refueled enough to pull myself together enough to clean the yogurt off the wall and wash that Ghostbusters t-shirt for the fifth time this week.

Of course, the emotional eating usually just makes me feel worse in the long run. I’m conscious of that fact even as I’m shoveling the food into my mouth, but it doesn’t really matter in the moment. All this goes to say that my head’s been spinning extra fast and extra often lately (these things always seem to come and go in waves) and my progress towards a healthier me has suffered. I was open about my goals and successes when I set about my New Year’s resolutions, so it’s only fair that you know I’m struggling to stay the course right now. I’m remorseful, but not defeated. I have every intention of pulling myself together with some good, healthy, satisfying meals, like this super tasty, protein-rich salad.

This salad came to me in a half-conscious dream, in the middle of the night last week. The baby was in bed with me, sleeping poorly (all four of his top front teeth have come through in the past two weeks). The two of us were in and out of sleep for hours that night. And every time I was stirred, this salad was on my mind. Chicken. Apples. Peanut Vinaigrette. I spent a lot of drowsy time that evening trying to decide whether that flavor combination made sense. I decided it did. We tested it last night. It’s a winner. (The bacon wasn’t in my dream, but it was in my fridge and was screaming to join this salad. A very welcome addition, indeed.)

I know I’m not the only emotional eater out there. What strategies do you use for getting through those stressful moments without overindulging in food?

Chicken, Apple, and Peanut Salad

Ingredients

  • 8 cups lettuce or mixed greens, chopped
  • 6 slices bacon, cooked and chopped
  • 2 apples, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup peanuts, chopped
  • 2-3 chicken breasts, cooked and sliced*

For the peanut vinaigrette:

  • 1/6 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/6 cup olive oil
  • 1/6 cup peanut butter
  • 1/6 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon red curry powder
*I seasoned my chicken breasts with salt and pepper, then baked in a 350 degrees oven for about 30 minutes. Cooking time will vary depending on the size and thickness of your chicken breasts.

Directions

To prepare the vinaigrette, combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until well blended.

To assemble the salad, arrange about 2 cups of lettuce on each plate. Top with the sliced apples, bacon, and chicken breast. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts. Drizzle with the peanut vinaigrette.

Makes about 4 salads

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