On Cooking With Friends: Chicago Edition #1 – BA’s Best Lasagna

I was hoping there would be an opportunity for me to host some friends and cook with them, and thankfully, when my friend Melissa asked for help in making bachelorette goodies/crafts, I figured we’d go ahead and make dinner too! We decided that we would make lasagna! Mm mm yay!!! There was one recipe in particular that stood out to me, because, if we were going to do lasagna, that means we were going to make pretty much everything from scratch, except the noodles. That’s a little more time consuming than I was quite ready to take on, and I figured we were doing pretty much everything else by hand, so we can sneak in the premade pasta noodles for this one).

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Lasagna for me is one of the main dishes that remind me of my late grandmother, following her ever famous Cake Box Cookies, which caused everyone to maneuver around the house by way of the kitchen and the Cookie Monster jar that contained all her baking efforts. Whenever my family would visit her and my grandfather in Colorado Springs, she always had a variety of family meals planned, including her infamous Tuna Casserole—one of the only things she ever made that no one really liked, and as a result, left us plenty of leftovers during our stay—and frozen Lasagna (Stoffer’s, always Stoffer’s). It fed the army that is my dad’s side of the family, and there were hardly ever any leftovers because that was the night were you supposed to eat more than your fill and remain seated at the dining table, cradling your food baby, as you caught up on current life news and reminisced about old stories you never really had to be there for to enjoy. Lasagna was also one of the harder things for my brothers to say when they were small, calling it “Bah-sagna,” their little faces contorted in effort as their little pink tongues tried to get the “L” sound just right, only to start giggling hysterically because the new word they made sounded so funny. We actually still call it Basagna in my family, and everyone still laughs at it. Basagna…it does sound a little funny when you say it out loud. Bah-Sahn-yaaaaaaa.

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But I digress. Lasagna, I think, is one of the trickiest things to serve, let alone, the trickiest things to make where EVERYONE likes it…how many of you dear readers don’t like ricotta (Frankie & Melissa: ME ME ME!)? How many of you don’t like the “no-bake” noodles? (Me: ME ME ME!) How many just don’t like lasagna in general (No one? Phew, that’s a relief)? And I bet it’s not because lasagna isn’t a good dish overall, but rather—and I will attest to this—it’s how certain family members and favorite restaurants have interpreted and served the lasagna we have constantly been exposed to. That immediate, and further exposure, is what shapes the foods we like, the foods we don’t, and foods we can never eat again. But on the flipside, what one of us doesn’t like, another may love. For example, my Mamaw (my mom’s mom) LOVES her lasagna to have a lot of meat sauce and a ton of cheese, whereas my main problem with ordering lasagna out is when they SMOTHER it in cheese to the point where that’s all I can taste. And if there’s not enough meat sauce, Mamaw’s got a few words to say about that…but that only proves my point. Lasagna is a hard dish to really get universally right because tastes are so different.

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That being said, since the majority of folks I was actually making this dish for did NOT like ricotta, I chose Bon Appetit’s Best Lasagna, which has a bechamel sauce with parmesan instead of ricotta, which makes this recipe even more of a win-win for those who were going to enjoy it! The one thing I will say is this: the sauce says it takes 3 hours to make, and it kind of does by their standard, HOWEVER, my main recommendation is go with your favorite bolognese and call it a day. Their sauce is good, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think I will ever spend three hours the night before to make it again, when I can spend 30-45 minutes making my own bolognese that I know everyone has enjoyed eating before.

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I will say this: EVERYONE loved it. Honest. I had one serving of leftovers at the end of the night because the girls who ate with me wanted to take some home with them too! I honestly believe the bechamel was the main reason this lasagna worked out so well, but I also believe the bite of the noodles (which held up significantly to the weight of the sauce and the gooey-ness of the cheese so beautifully) and the equal balance between noodle, sauce, and cheese, was what made this a winning dish. If you’re also a lasagna skeptic, then give this recipe a try and see if it doesn’t change your mind.  — Cooking Maggie


Best Lasagna Recipe from Bon Appetit

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On Cooking with Alex #3: Bruschetta Bananza!

About two weeks ago, Alex & I changed up the game plan because of the warmer weather and decided to make a couple different bruschetta’s as part of a delicious and fairly light Sunday lunch/dinner! What a way to spend a Sunday afternoon! Not to mention that Frankie & I spent the evening on our porch for a really delightful dinner once he was done with work! Also, these are probably the prettiest things (savory wise) that I’ve ever made!

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I mean, LOOK AT THAT! And almost all of them were spot on! The only one that didn’t QUITE work out as we wanted was the Peach with Whipped Goat Cheese, only because peaches weren’t in season. Alex couldn’t find fresh plums, which is what I used to sub out the peach, and even then it was really bitter, and so she bought canned peaches. I seared off my plums, which helped add a new depth of flavor, but was still a little bitter, and was an odd flavor with the cheese. Alex had a similar experience with her peaches, which she left as they were, and it just wasn’t where it needed to be, so we believe, yes you do need a fresh peach, and it should be a juicy one that is sweet so it will better offset the tang of the goat’s cheese.

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Then there was the traditional Bruschetta that I had presented ages ago (relinked below) that I happened to find some heirlooms for, and that was the RIGHT decision to make. Romas/On-The-Vine are also good alternatives, BUT nothing beats the richness of an heirloom. BUT I did just notice my store is starting to carry orange and yellow tomatoes on the vine, which would be my next alternative for heirlooms. Plus, heirlooms are WAY more expensive, though you do pay for the outstanding quality, which is a plus.

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The third one we made was a bacon and onion marmalade, on top of brie, and this was a TOTAL winner! I mean, it was sweet, tangy, meaty, herbaceous (lots of thyme in there), and it was just the perfect amount of stick to the roof of your mouth kind of good, plus you had the earthy softness of the brie to break up the richness of this mouthful, and it is incredibly rich for such a small bite, but rich enough for you to want another one, then another one, then another one. Alex cooked her bacon first, then added the onion, which allowed it all to caramelize even more, whereas mine was a little lighter in color because I took my bacon out before cooking the onion, adding it all bacon in for the final few minutes. This is DEFINITELY another winner that will likely grace our next Christmas party!

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The last one on my plate is a minted smashed pea and prosciutto crostini, which I understand isn’t going to be the easiest one to make because Prosciutto isn’t always readily available, as was the case for Alex. I will say though, if you find some, make this one! This was by far the favorite (next to the regular bruschetta and bacon/onion marmalade), and I even took it one step further but drizzling a little balsamic glaze right on top, which packed a super punch! The peas were super easy to make, and the combination with the mint made it a very light and fresh bite, which paired beautifully with the subtle earthy elegance of the prosciutto, and the sweet punch of balsamic. Another winner to be sure, and honestly, you could even substitute the prosciutto for sliced ham, or even bacon (because who doesn’t like bacon?).

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All in all, these little morsels were a GREAT treat to munch on in the early afternoons of summer weekends, and I plan to try a couple more crostini recipes for possible party ideas! If you have a favorite bruschetta/crostini recipe, I would love to hear about them! I’m always looking for new ideas and would love to give a couple of your favorites a try! Hoping you’re enjoying the warmer weather wherever you are! — Cooking Maggie


Quick Fresh Brushcetta

Onion & Bacon Marmalade from Tasty Kitchen (Cook in Canuck)

Minted Pea & Prosciutto Costini from Martha Stewart

Peach Bruschetta with Whipped Goat Cheese from Life As A Strawberry

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On Roasted Garlic Chicken and ACTUAL Polenta

Recently, I have been dealing with a polenta craving that stemmed from my grits craving from over a month ago that I never satiated because of Mac n Cheese Fest, which frankly satiated my regular craving for cheese for over three weeks. But that’s when my cravings started to kick back in, and frankly, the idea of grits, albeit delicious, just weren’t really reaching the exact note that my craving desired. So, I turned to the Italian cousin of grits: polenta.

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I have only attempted to make polenta once, about two or three years ago, and I did it so horrendously that I just never attempted to make it again. My mistake? I bought the wrong kind of polenta for the kind of polenta I was trying to make. What I wanted was creamy, and what I bought was the prepacked sausage roll of precooked polenta that only required a quick fry in a skillet or bake on a sheet pan. What I should have bought was course corn grits (aka. Polenta), and what I also didn’t know was what brand I needed to be looking for get exactly what I wanted. Enter Bon Appetit, and their recipe for Polenta Cacio e Pepe and their article on baked polenta, which included a feature of Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits (also known as Polenta). Seems like an easy enough mistake, right? Okay, maybe that’s me or I really need to invest some time into researching my local grocery stores better…

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But now that I’ve made Polenta again, and this time made it the right way, I think I actually prefer it to grits! (I also really want to try the baked polenta recipe that was on Dinner: A Love Story’s blog.) This recipe was out of this world delicious, and surprisingly light! I will just quickly note that I ended up adding a little more salt & pepper to it (the power of “to taste”), and I think I added a couple more teaspoons of butter to smooth it out a little as well, but definitely added a pinch or two of S&P, stirred, tasted, then added more if it needed it, so don’t feel pressured to stick with the amounts listed on the recipe.

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But then the question becomes, what to pair with it? Ragu goes great with polenta, but since I’m now hunting for a better ragu recipe, I thought maybe best to try something a little different. Chicken perhaps? And then it hit me. About a year ago, I tried this recipe from Food Network, and it was UNREAL how good it was, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why I didn’t bother cooking it again sooner! All you need, about 2-3 heads of garlic (note the word heads, plural, not cloves), some rosemary, about 4 chicken breasts, and that’s it. Sear, roast, serve! It’s that quick and that easy, which I seem to be all about this holiday season especially. Not only are you getting a really tender chicken, but you’re getting the flavor punch of roasted garlic that you can double as a toast topper alongside the chicken! And who doesn’t love a little garlic toast? Spritz a little olive oil on top, and just, oh my gosh, enjoy that moment. And dare you EVEN try to sprinkle a little kosher salt on top?! STOP IT! However, if you are not a fan of garlic, then this chicken recipe is not for you. Instead, I would do a simple baked chicken, or maybe a balsamic glazed chicken, but if you’re game on for garlic, then get ready to fall in love with it to a whole new level!

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I will also note, that if you think this is a little on the heavy side, it honestly wasn’t, which I’ll admit, I was surprised about. I was expecting these dishes together to be rich, but it was just heavy enough to fill me up and allow some enjoyment of roasted green beans, which I felt added a little brightness to the plate! Simply throw green beans (topped with olive oil, salt, and pepper) into the oven at the same temp you’re cooking your chicken, and let them sit for about 10 minutes, stir them up, then roast for another 10 minutes. Then VOILA! Easy peasy! And I felt they were a fantastic accompaniment to the cheesy polenta and herbaceous chicken! So if you’ve been itching to try polenta, this is definitely the way to do it! Spread that delicious holiday cheer ya’ll! — Cooking Maggie

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Polenta Cacio e Pepe from Bon Appetit

Garlic-Roasted Chicken from Food Network

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On Pesto, To Taste, & Bravery

A month ago, during the week of Easter, I did something outrageous, something totally unlike me, courtesy of something Frankie found and encouraged me to try. I filmed myself, which the help of Frankie & one of my besties who also happens to be a director & film maker, and submitted said film to Food Network (for Guy’s Next Big Project). Now, before I go further, no, I have not heard back, nor do I expect to because we essentially did the submission in roughly three hours, so it was rushed—bad, I know—but the point of this is that, for me, this was bold, terrifying, and exciting. I am just not the kind of person who normally seeks out the spotlight—though I guess this blog, in its own way, does kind of put me in the spotlight…but I can hide behind my words, behind my computer screen, in my apartment, whereas filming puts me front and center with no where to hide. It’s just not something I’m used to doing, but that’s what this whole 2017 experiment was all about. Getting outside of my comfort zone and doing things I didn’t think I could ever do. I mean, I did start this blog and have been doing my best to keep up with it, right? Right! And would I ever do something like that again? Actually, I would. Not for fame and glory, I’m not looking for that, but rather, I would do it again just to prove that I can do more than I think I can. If I’m learning anything, I’m learning to be brave.

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But enough about being brave, lets talk turkey, or rather chicken. Chicken Piccata from Diana Henry’s recipe book Simple And you might notice, I used chicken cutlets, rather than halving a chicken breast and just pounding it out a little, which is what I would have done under normal circumstances. However, to save time on cooking so I would have more time for filming, I did not—and in hindsight, maybe I should have been filming myself cooking a little too for my submission, but a lesson for next time to be sure. And frankly, while it’s not my favorite cut to cook with, there is nothing wrong with a chicken cutlet here and there, provided you don’t overcook it because it can get really tough given how thin it is. But a quick sear on medium-high heat, about 2 minutes, maybe 3 tops depending on the cut from your store, should be just right to keep it tender.

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Oh, and I adapted her lemon orzo that pairs very well with something like Chicken Piccata. You can make spaghetti, but there’s something really delightful about the texture of orzo that I almost prefer to spaghetti in dishes like this. However, I took some liberties, and kind of, on the spur, threw a quick pesto together because, as I thought about it, and Chicken Piccata is a pretty light colored dish (pop of parsley aside) and thought that a pesto orzo would just look better on the plate. So, I whipped together the parsley with a little basil, some pesto gevonese—you can buy jarred in any grocery store, and honestly is a quick way to help bolster the foundation of your pesto without having to filter through your grocer’s basil, which might not be as fresh, or economically friendly, as you would like—a little olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, and of course a dash of salt & pepper. Throw in the pesto, throw in your Parmesan, and voila! Lemon Pesto Orzo!

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Now, normally this is where I throw out some links to recipes for you to try, and provide you with my take on the pesto. Unfortunately, I made my pesto to taste, which frankly, is how I think most pesto’s are, and should, be made. The ratio between parsley to basil (if you want a combination) is purely to your own preference, but I think that’s what helps to make cooking so personal for you and your family. And pesto can be such a blank slate that it’s SO easy to jazz it up any way you want! Want to use a little sun-dried tomato in your mix? GO FOR IT! Want to add a little pine nuts, absolutely! Garlic? Done. Spinach or arugula? Both make GREAT alternatives for either parsley, or basil, or both! Want to change out regular table salt for pink Himalayan salt, which you can get at your grocer, spice shop, Marshalls, HomeGoods, or TJMaxx (yes, you read that right) and happens to have a lower sodium content than regular salt for those looking to watch their sodium intake. Not to mention it still has small amounts of other good stuff like potassium, calcium, iron, and magnesium! (For those who have used pink salt, but don’t notice a difference in taste, that’s true, there really isn’t one, but it’s fun to cook with and the added reduction of sodium is a plus I think.) But that’s my point! Pesto is whatever you want to make it, and why I just can’t possibly give definite measurements. What I can provide is a starting list of ingredients, things I have thrown together before, and then you can take it from there.

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And the same could go for Chicken Piccata, some like it breaded, others like it very lemony & capery, but me personally, it’s all about that buttery depth to the sauce, in addition to the lemon and capers.

On Quick Bruschetta

Holy smokes! It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, and my apologies for not posting sooner! I’ve been cooking and photographing, and attempting to write up posts and edit my photos, but then I get distracted with packing because we are moving at the end of the month! I know that’s a ways away, but this wasn’t really expected, and being the overly OCD one in the house, I promised not to be that person who leaves packing to the last week. I’m on a 5-6 box per day regimen, with Frankie helping when he can, but worry not, the kitchen will be the last thing we pack up. We aren’t moving far, like to another city far, but just to a different neighborhood far, which makes this whole moving business easier. And because I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants for the next few weeks, slowly siphoning my equipment and tools to the bare essentials, I just don’t have as much time to spend on making, I’m going to call them “new” dishes, but the doesn’t mean we can’t make delicious food! In the meantime, I will be returning to my personal recipe collection and binge on the quick & easy meals I know and love until we get more settled into our new space, which should have more natural light, and if not, there’s a backyard that gets all SORTS of sunlight during the day, so there should be, hopefully, a nice change to my photos that my hard marble background just can’t really handle…but c’est la vie, we do what we can with what we have, no?

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And in the spirit of quick and easy, what could be better than a quick and easy bruschetta? The one thing I’ll say about this is that I LOVE to use heirloom tomatoes when I can get my hands on them. I find them to not only be more visually appealing, but I think they have a deeper flavor than your typical, everyday, red tomato, but if you can’t get heirlooms, I recommend sticking to roma or vine ripe tomatoes. Beef steaks are going to be just a little too firm and I think cherry tomatoes are too sour. And then there’s really nothing to it! Dice your tomatoes, throw in some garlic, splash olive oil, balsamic vinegar (maybe even get a little crazy with your olive oil and balsamic flavoring if you so choose, which is definitely on my list of things to do), and chiffonade your basil, add your salt & pepper and TA-DA! You’ve got bruschetta!

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As for bread, honestly, if you want to get REALLY authentic, you’re going to want to go with a baguette. Otherwise, any bread and size will do. I’ve used rolls before (sliced), and I’ve used crackers, but the one that I’ve pictured is an Italian Loaf because it was smaller in length than your normal baguette, and because it wasn’t necessarily so tough around the edges, it made it a little easier to toast! I love to rub garlic halves over each slice and brush some olive oil over the top. Now, I had run out of fresh garlic, didn’t have time to get some more while I was in the midst of packing and getting hungry, so I deferred to my ever handy jar of pre-minced garlic. Yes, I use this stuff, but only because it makes everything so darn convenient! And if you use a slotted spoon or dry them off a bit, and soak them in olive oil, it’s just like using the real thing. So I used that to add to my little toasts, and boy oh boy did they come out a beautifully toasted color!

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But there you have it! And everything in this recipe is easily adjustable to personal tastes with regards to recipe amounts, and it only takes maybe 10 minutes tops to pull it all together, making it a great afternoon snack or appetizer for a dinner party (which I have done and got GREAT reviews for). And if you run out, or think you will, it’s ridiculously easy to prep a second batch beforehand or make one on the fly! If I add any crazy and weird oil or vinegar flavors, I’ll be sure to mention them as I go! (Olive Oil stores are wonderful thing I must say! Especially if you find a flavor that you really like!) — Cooking Maggie

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Quick Brushetta

Ingredients

  • 3-5 heirloom tomatoes, preferably ones that have some different coloration to them*
    • If you can’t get heirloom, you’ll want 4-5 Roma Tomatoes or Vine Ripe Tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of minced garlic
  • 7-8 basil leaves, chiffonade into ribbons
  • 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, adjust for natural wetness of tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar**
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper (or to taste)
  • 1 baguette/Italian loaf, sliced into rounds 1/4″ thick
  • olive oil & garlic for toasting

 

Instructions

  1. Dice your tomatoes into nice, small cubes, and either pat dry or leave as is. Add garlic, basil, oil, vinegar, salt, & pepper. Stir to combine.
  2. For the bread, either 1) rub fresh garlic halves on the top of each slice, then brush on a little olive oil on top, or 2) mix olive oil and minced garlic in a small bowl and brush a little on top of each slice. Toast under the broiler, and remove when golden brown. (Be sure to keep your eye on it or the edges will catch and burn!)
  3. Top each slice with a large scoop of tomatoes and proceed to stuff your face with this deliciousness!


Notes
* The 3-5 is completely adjustable depending on how much you want to make, but rest assured, it does keep in the fridge for a few days after you make it, so you don’t have to eat it all in one day.
* If you can’t get heirloom, you’ll want 4-5 Roma Tomatoes or Vine Ripe Tomatoes
** The ratio of vinegar to olive oil should be 1:2, so keep that in mind when adding

On Practicing & Frying Chicken [Milanese]

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I’ve been trying to write a post about frying chicken for the last three days, and the words just don’t want to come out. It’s not that I can’t write about frying chicken—because I totally can—but what I want to write about right now is how it’s been a month and a half since I started this project and I can’t believe how much fun I’m having. The sense of grounding I get walking into my apartment with a full bag of groceries just waiting to be transformed into something new and delicious. How I don’t mind that the time ticks by quietly while I concentrate, listening to my Audible Books as I chop an onion, adjusting my silly light fixture as I sauté and brown and plate. Even more than this, I can’t believe how much of myself I’ve recovered since I started cooking for myself again and not my hunger.

 

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The last four years, when I was in grad school, I got too committed [if that can be called a “thing”] to just writing for deadlines and page lengths rather than writing for myself to better my craft. I stopped loving it, and then I kind of stopped liking it, and then I just stopped writing. Last year I don’t think I wrote more than two pages of anything worth revising, and my soul suffered for it, honestly. I was lost after school, not really sure what to make of my complete exhaustion with words and how to recover from it. And while I didn’t stopped cooking [I do need to eat, after all], I just wasn’t excited about making meals or trying new recipes like I used to and would always just repeat the go-to’s till I was just bored of what I was making and food in general. Food had never been boring to me and it was such a weird concept to think about, that while I was eating was good, I just wasn’t moved by it. It became a chore to feed my hungry belly and nothing more. It was clear I had forgotten what I loved about cooking, about writing—since for me, the two have always intermingled in my work and my life—and why I fell in love with them to begin with.

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The only way I knew how to remember was to practice. I love to practice things that I know I’m good at, but not great at, not to reach greatness, but to simply get to that moment where the mundane turns into something extraordinary. It takes time, it takes patience, and there’s a faith that even if the process is a little messy and there are some bumps in the road, the end result is what matters because all that time and energy made something beautiful. That has been my approach with writing for so long that the same sort of mentality has seeped into my cooking now, which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. If anything, it’s making me a more conscientious cook, and I wish I had taken more time away from my writing during my program to cook because I think my heart, mind, and writing would have been better for it. I guess I’m still practicing being me, too.

 

What I’m trying to say is, that I admit to over-practicing [again, if that can be called a “thing”] and not maintaining a balance. What I’m trying to say is that, this whole project, this blog, my cooking, it isn’t about simply feeding me and my loved ones physically like it may have been when all I did was read and write and make deadlines. Right now, my cooking is fueling my creativity and soul in a way that writing just simply can’t do on its own anymore, and I’m okay with that. More than okay, actually. This blog is showing a part of myself that I never thought I’d be brave enough to explore, and it’s frankly a little marvelous to finally be hitting my stride and finding my balance between two things I love to do so much, while balancing and enjoying the other wonderful things I have in my life.

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I’m aware none of this really relates to fried chicken, but I think the fact that this is one of the prettiest plates of food I’ve ever made—albeit a little heavy-handed on the salt, but I don’t fry much and am still practicing the technique—is what got me on this whole transgression of self-awareness and personal growth. And it can only get better from here!

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So here’s to all of you who continue to practice what you love! Make sure to take a break every once in a while for yourself! I promise you’ll thank yourself for it later.  — Cooking Maggie

PS. The chicken milanese above is from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook, SO I’ve included the link to a different chicken milanese that is on her website. The only difference is the salad. The one I made is an arugula and shaved fennel salad with a mustard vinaigrette, but the milanese preparation is the same!


Chicken Milanese + An Escarole Salad from Smitten Kitchen