I break for (lemon poppyseed) muffins…

Lemon Poppyseed Muffins

I have been crazy busy lately. Partly professionally — my very good friend (and coworker) Ariel just gave birth to a very adorable little boy. Since she’s now on maternity leave, the office has been a bit overwhelmed lately and some days I feel like I’m struggling to stay afloat. She is also part of my sanity at work, so even though it’s only been a week, I have really been missing her.

But I feel just as frazzled in my personal life too, though (at first glance) it’s harder to understand why. I still have my nights off, and spend most of them by myself. Except for my once-a-week TV and dinner date with Oliver. And my usual Saturday cooking shenanigans with DB. And spending Sunday with my husband. And trying to cook, clean, lay in the sun, garden, work out, do laundry, and write this blog. Hm.

So I guess I needed a mental break — hence my rather sporadic writing schedule lately. The good thing, was on this break, I made muffins. Delicious lemon poppyseed muffins.

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Baked lemon pasta with a side of humble pie

A couple of weeks ago I was on a Meyer lemon kick and every recipe that contained even regular lemons got pulled out of my recipe binder to be examined. I saw one from Cooking Light that caught my eye, this Baked Pasta with Spinach, Lemon and Cheese, but when I read the reviews online, everyone seemed to hate it. There were complaints about how long it took to make, coupled with numerous comments about how bland it was. This was by far my favorite comment because you really got a feel for how bitter this person was after making a dinner that sucked: “We just had the ritual burning of the recipe. Now we’re making sandwiches so we’re not hungry the rest of the night.”

Now since I’ve had years of experience cooking professionally, I have to admit my first thought was to blame the cooks and not the recipe. If you keep tasting while you cook, you should end up with something fairly decent. I have also learned to add copious amounts of salt, as well as extra cheese, to Cooking Light recipes to avoid working hard at a meal just to find it severely lacking in flavor when you sit down to eat it.

So I thought, screw it, I’m a good enough cook to make this pasta dish and have it turn out fabulous. Oh, I was so wrong…I did everything from upping the garlic and lemon tremendously to even making a little more bechamel so the final dish was creamier. Nope. It sucked. The flavor was terribly bland — it was only after squeezing two lemons over the pasta that I found it palatable. The main problem was the spinach. It turned into a gross mush. Ugh. I can’t even express my sadness over this dinner, but I will tell you my lesson in humility was also a lesson in perseverance.

Since I was still craving pasta with lemon I decided to take Pioneer Woman’s recipe for Baked Lemon Pasta out for a spin. I started with fresh pasta which I was a little nervous about, but the chive linguini I had in my fridge coupled with sour cream and lemon sounded too good to pass up. Optimistically I pushed the thought of the failure from the night before out of my head and got started.

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Something old, something new — Meyer lemon chicken piccata

I love chicken piccata. It’s tart, tangy, slightly briny and just a little buttery. It’s a fabulous match for chicken, fish, pork or veal. When I have no idea what to have for dinner, I can usually scrounge up the ingredients to make some variation of piccata.¬† So when I saw this recipe for Meyer Lemon Chicken Piccata in an old issue of Cooking Light magazine, I ripped it out without a second thought.

Two things made it a little different than the other piccata recipes that I use. For one, it didn’t contain butter. I am a big fan of buttering out a sauce, so this part made me hesitate slightly stop in my tracks. I understand it’s supposed to be healthy but a small bit of butter just seems necessary to me when making a sauce. But even though that might have made me rethink things, the fact that it called for Meyer lemons instead of just regular ones, hooked me. I was intrigued enough to give it a shot.

Meyer lemons, thought to be a cross of a regular lemon and a mandarin, are something I enjoy experimenting with in the kitchen. And although I love the sourness of lemons, the sweetness and floral notes that come with Meyer lemons make them fun in their own way. Plus their thin skin makes them perfect for juicing.

I was hoping I had some orzo (which I love serving with piccata) hanging out in my pantry, but I couldn’t find any stashed away. However, I did have half of a bag of cavatappi so I figured I’d give that a shot. In hindsight, I think piccata works slightly better with smaller pastas or even just a grain, maybe some rice or farro, to soak up the goodness. This certainly wasn’t the best application for this particular noodle, but it still came together to make a pretty delicious dinner.

I started by blanching some asparagus, cut into two-inches pieces. The day before I had royally overcooked some asparagus, to the point where I actually threw it away, so this time I watched it like a hawk. I tend to be a bit obsessive with my vegetables.

Once the noodle were al dente, they were drained and then tossed with some raw spinach, just to give it a quick wilt. I threw in a little red chili flake to add some excitement. Because no one likes dull greens — bland is almost as bad as overcooked. I put the noodles back in the pot with the asparagus and added a generous splash of chicken stock and butter to the mix, keeping it on very low heat while I finished things up.

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