Spring seems to be taking it’s time, again, to come full into itself in Minnesota. It’s early still, but those few days of balmy sunshine have teased us into wanting more. Can’t blame anyone for being tired of winter, tired of snow and ready for a change. It’s kind of a metaphor, if you think about it.
We weathered, and are still weathering a tough time with nary an end in sight. It’s a vicious cycle and quite frankly, it’s beginning to wear me down. I’m tightening every string I can find and pushing myself to find more to pull taut but there aren’t many left to either eliminate or reduce. While we seem to manage, and I continue to put out feelers for employment that don’t go anywhere, there are times like I am now where I just want to pull a thick hood over it all and disappear. My insomnia doesn’t help it at all, and often makes it that much worse.
There are many things that if I choose to look at them will push my perspective into a brighter, sunnier spot. Mike is gainfully employed and as his own boss, he’s not facing the threat of layoff. He has a lot of work- almost too much sometimes- and he’s exceptionally good at what he does. We are blessed with excellent health, which is such a god-send because our insurance deductibles have increased from ‘much too high’ to ‘scary-high’ and all it would take would be one bad accident or a serious illness to send us spiraling into a deep shade of red. This is something to really be thankful for, and I credit our foods and eating habits with much of this piece of good fortune. And even before this woe settled upon us all, we had pledged to live simply and without a lot of the luxuries that many others have had to cut out lately in order to get their finances under control. For us, the idea of simple living isn’t born from our current hardship; for us it’s been a way of life. It’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t help during some of the lean times.
So with Spring in the air, the sunshine feeling warmer on our faces and the earth awakening all around us, I try to stretch for a more hopeful point of view, one where the chill of an emotional winter and the constant snowfall of economic strain disapears into the warmth of a springtime renewal. I have, if nothing else, always been an eternal optimist. My glass is always half full; it’s just been lately I’ve had the sense that I could drain the last drop from my wellspring of hope and the tap to refill it would be empty. Still, despite it all, I remain hopeful. Maybe not positive all the time, but I am, with all else lacking, eternally hopeful that when it’s all over we’ll come out better, stronger and far more resilient. And that maybe I’ll find a job.
And the sense of seeking comfort in my meals has been strong. On a recent night when my planned recipe didn’t pan out for lack of one necessary ingredient, I turned a proposed Green Chile Rice and Beans meal into a Zesty Italian Chicken and Rice, and with one bite was transported back to one of my favorite childhood dishes.
A one pan meal, Baked Chicken and Rice was a perfect and inexpensive dish to feed our big family. A cut up chicken was placed over a bed of rice mixed with cream soup and enough water, then baked until it was all moist and tender. It wasn’t perfect; sometimes the water proportions were off and it was either too dry and hard, or too mushy. And almost always, the chicken was overcooked. No, there was no perfection in the kitchen of my childhood. But I still loved the meal, and quite honestly, my most favorite part was to pry the crispy edges of baked rice off the pan and crunch my way through them. Later on when I was in college, I fell in love with a simple recipe of chicken marinated in italian dressing and then grilled, to be topped with a slice of melted mozzarella cheese.
This rice dish, the one that morphed itself into existence that night, gave me a comfort and sense of well-being that’s been lacking lately, all for the reason that it took me back, in my mind, to simpler and easier times. It had the flavor of childhood without the overcooked meat; it had the taste of my first years of freedom in college, and yet it was served and enjoyed with my two most favorite and treasured people, the ones that are holding me all together in this mess we call life. For a small moment it instilled in me a belief that everything would be all right- maybe not right away, but in time- and filled my gnawing hunger not only for sustenance, but for some hope as well.
(recipe after the jump)
Kate’s Zesty Italian Chicken and Rice
1 envelope Good Seasons Zesty Italian dressing, prepared to taste
1 1/2 c. basmati rice
3 1/3 c. chicken broth
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red pepper, cored seeded and diced
2 boneless chicken breasts
1 15-oz can great northern beans, drained and rinsed
2 c. fresh spinach leaves, washed, dried and roughly chopped
Dried italian seasoning and dried basil to taste. Salt and pepper
Place chicken breasts in plastic bag and pour about a half cup of prepared dressing over them. Seal the bag, pressing out all the air, making sure the marinade coats all the meat. Set aside.
In a deep skillet with a tight fitting lid, saute onion in oil of choice until very soft and starting to brown slightly. Add in red pepper and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute more. Stir 2 tablespoons of the dressing into the vegetables then add the rice and stir to coat well. Cook rice for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until grains are turning white. Quickly pour in broth and the drained beans and stir to mix. Bring to a boil and cover, reducing heat to simmer until liquid is absorbed.
While rice is simmering, heat a small skillet (with a cover or splatter screen close by) over a medium high flame. Once hot, carefully place the chicken and all the marinade in the pan and cover. Cook for about 5 minutes, then reduce heat and turn pieces over, cooking until meat is no longer pink and basting occasionally with the marinade. Once cooked, carefully shred chicken into bite sized pieces, and when the liquid in the rice is almost all absorbed, stir the chicken pieces, with the cooked marinade, and chopped spinach in thoroughly. Replace the cover and allow the remaining liquid to absorb. Turn off heat and let rice stand for about 10 minutes before serving.
Top with fresh basil, parmesan cheese or shredded mozzarella, if desired. Use more italian dressing for extra taste if desired.
I’ve found when making rice pilafs, that the end result is far more tender and flavorful when you heat up the rice grains before adding in the liquid. I like to cook the grains almost to a point of being burnished- I think the extra step really adds a lot. It is, however, entirely unnecessary. Just remember if you do so to keep them moving to prevent scorching and add the liquid very carefully as the pan tends to get smoking hot.
This recipe would work well with any form of italian dressing. I have used the Good Seasons brand since I was a little girl and just love the taste, but I always add in several extras to make it really sing in the mouth- a few squeezes of spicy mustard, extra dried basil, more onion powder. Change up the vinegars to change the flavor- my favorite is red wine vinegar, although apple cider really gives it a nice sweet tang, and balsamic can’t be beat for a higher level of taste.