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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The profound ups and downs of pork chops and pineapple

Making this meal put my emotions on a roller coaster ride. Thankfully it was the type of ride that as soon as you’re finished, you run to get right back in line.

It started with the build up of anticipation. The second I saw this recipe for Pork Chops with Pineapple Fried Rice on The Pioneer Woman’s blog, I immediately posted it to my friend Oliver’s Facebook page with the question, “Should we make this?!” I got back an almost instant reply of “Yes. Like now.” Even though it would be pure torture to wait a whole week, we planned to make it for our next Gossip Girl extravaganza.

I was so excited by the pictures Ree posted, that the next day I couldn’t help but show all the girls in my office so they could drool with me. My friend Ariel, whose desk is right by mine, was immediately hooked. I promised I would tell her the following week if it lived up to the hype, but she told me, in no uncertain terms, that it looked so good, she was going to beat me to making it.

And she did. Two days later she was nonchalantly eating her leftovers for lunch while I hovered enviously near her desk waiting for her recipe feedback. In between bites of rice and pork, Ariel confirmed that the recipe was equally easy and delicious.

Oliver and I spent the next few days eagerly discussing how magical “pork chop night” was going to be. Then — finally!! —  the big day arrived.

If I'm cooking, you can bet that there will be beer involved. That is a promise.

We convened at my house, where I had the rice already cooked and cooled. Oliver arrived with pork chops (we decided to go for boneless chops just because) and a jar of pimentos. We got down to business.

I pounded the chops just a bit and Oliver started cutting the pineapple into chunks. We weren’t ambitious enough to grill it, so we just cranked up a heavy skillet and sautéed the fruit until it was tender with a nice golden color. While that was working, we seared up the pork chops in a separate pan, added the onions and let it cook down into awesome-ness. The smell was overwhelmingly good.

Then came the wet ingredients (honey, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar). The pork chops actually cooked pretty quickly so we removed them and let the sauce cook down with just the onions. Once it had thicken, we poured it on top of the pork chops in a bowl while we got rolling on the fried rice.

Look at how pretty this fried rice is!

Here’s where things took a sudden dive. We cooked the rice exactly as instructed and it certainly looked divine, but when we tasted it, the flavor was a bit flat. It just wasn’t quite snappy enough. We were panicking…well, I was panicking — Oliver wasn’t overly concerned. But after all the anticipation, I was not going to settle for sub-par fried rice. I threw in a bunch of chopped green onions, a squirt or two of sesame oil and reread the instructions. Sure, there was the sauce with the onions, but when we poured it in the bowl with the pork, it didn’t seem saucy enough to punch up the flavor in a full skillet of rice.

After a bit more soy sauce and some lime juice, I finally decided to stop tinkering. It would just have to do, I thought sadly. At least it looked pretty and colorful, and even if it wasn’t amazing, it would be good enough.

Then things took a final upward swing. When I pulled out the chops to slice them, the sauce seemed to have tripled. I felt a ray of hope as I threw half of the saucy onions into the rice and gave it a good stir. Then we plated up our rice, pork and finished it with caramelized pineapple, generously drizzling extra sauce over the top.

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My kingdom for a coffee…

This mug contains everything that is good in the world!

I like coffee a lot. Which is slightly ironic because when I was younger, I hated it with a passion. I did eventually discover the allure of espresso while in Italy but I didn’t get the obsession with sweeter coffee drinks. This was about the time that Starbucks was becoming hugely popular and restaurants were almost required to buy espresso machines because everyone wanted a mocha or latte at lunch. Suddenly coffee shops were opening everywhere, even in teeny tiny Kodiak, Alaska, and people were drinking fancy flavored coffee constantly it seemed. Except for me.

There wasn’t much to do in our town, so nearly every day my best friend Nikki Sea and I would walk downtown just to meander about. Usually we would end up at the same little coffee stand, next to a record store. I would religiously order an Italian cream soda and Nik would always order a “black and white” (which after an embarrassingly long time I finally discovered was simply a vanilla mocha). Every time we would swap drinks so the other could taste a sip, and every time the drink was passed back to its owner while we mirrored looks of exaggerated disgust.

Slowly I grew more interested in her drinks and less enthralled with my still delicious, yet slightly unsatisfying Italian sodas. Finally came the day where I ordered (a la When Harry Met Sally) “one of what she’s having.” And from there, it was all downhill.

coffee goodness