I’ve been reading Grace Table almost since it started, and love its message about faith and the table. I joined the contributing team a few months ago, and here’s my first offering. Do click over to read the whole piece, and subscribe there as well. You will love the varied perspectives on the hospitable life and the beautiful, thought-provoking writing.
It was a tall wooden house, two levels high, painted yellow with white trim around the windows. It stood on the corner of two streets with a huge backyard that stretched out behind it, an apple tree with branches that stretched up and flopped over on the sides from the weight of the fruit. We called it The Yellow House, and it was our home in Stockholm, Sweden for two years. There were French doors, an open fire place, high ceilings, a huge kitchen, a foyer that opened into a library. Our books stuffed the shelves.
It was my perfect home.
And in it I lived an open life, people I didn’t know piled in when we had been there for only a few weeks. We made pizza and ate it in at a table that was too small, voices echoed in the room because there wasn’t lots of furniture and nothing on the walls. A few weeks later, our backyard was full of more people we hardly knew, enjoying the late autumn light, drinking warm apple cider and connecting with each other. It was easy to live a hospitable life in a home I loved.
And then it was gone on a late August day last year, we handed the keys to our landlord, watched the light filter through the glass one last time and drove away. An Emirates flight carried us across Europe, the Middle East and most of Asia, across Australia to its eastern shore, and we land in Melbourne, Australia on October 22.
We started looking for a new house, and I could feel my loss in every doorway. The tree would have been full of fruit. Applesauce would have bubbled on the stove while a fire burned. It should be dark and cold.
Somewhere in between Stockholm and Germany and Melbourne, I stopped cooking. Mostly it was because I was in other people’s homes, and also because I was happy to have someone else take up the kitchen work. But last February, I started cooking regularly again, and every time I chopped an onion or peeled a strip of carrot skin while also chastising a smaller member of my family for harassing another small member of my family, it comes to me: I feel more human with these instruments in my hand. And I am creating something every time I cook.
I’ve slid trays of frozen (from Aldi) chicken nuggets into the oven, browned skin-on chicken thighs, blitzed sauces in a blender and spooned batter into muffin tins. It has all felt so good and simple. I’m convinced that cooking is one of life’s ways of keeping me human, normal and grounded here on earth. I can spend an afternoon daydreaming about the months to come, I can read an article and have an opinion about American politics, I can get lost in the world of Kimmy Schmidt, but at some point my hands find the garlic, and as I slice, I come back down to earth. Here in my kitchen where I pull things together and make a meal that feeds us all. It’s not changing the world, but it’s changing the afternoon, and this is good.
There’s a meal I’ve come back to since moving to Melbourne. Maybe because I’m around my family again. When I was a child in a country town in the Philippines, Sunday evenings were for Maggi noodles. My mother usually added veggies into the pot of soup or browned meat of some kind or an egg. It was one of the few meals I cooked for years later in university because two-minute noodles. It is a food group, yes?
Aldi has these two minute noodles that proudly boast “No MSG” on the front, which is probably why it doesn’t taste right. The lack of a certain, what shall we say, enhancement to the flavour notwithstanding, Husband and I slurp this soup straight out of the bowl. I make it for a quick solo lunch, even the boys will eat it if there’s no liquid. They haven’t quite figured out how to eat soup yet.
This is as easy as it gets when it comes to a recipe. There are no real rules. Look in your fridge for the veggies or proteins you have. Cook it separately, add it into the noodles, and you’re done.
My favourite is fried onions and garlic in a pan, add in the mushrooms and keep sauteeing, then add asparagus or bok choy or kale or spinach and some soy sauce and oyster sauce, just a little bit to keep the flavour sharp. Cook the two minute noodles and serve into bowls, ladle a bit of the veggie mix into each bowl on top, slice a red chili and toss in a few sprigs of coriander. And if you want to take it to the next level? Top it off with a fried egg. I promise, it is basically comfort food in five minutes.
Two-minute noodles, for breakfast, lunch and dinner
There’s no need to overthink this. Make a topping, put it over two-minute noodles and eat. Or cook it into the noodles. Done and done-r. The recipe below is for a topping. This is the most basic version of a topping I like to make.
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
mushrooms, as many as you want
butter or olive oil
spring onion, sliced, separate white and green parts
chili flakes, sesame seeds and salt and pepper for garnish
1. Warm the fat in a medium-sized frying pan, and fry the garlic. Keep an eye on it, you want it to fry slowly so the flavours release gently without burning (garlic burns easily).
2. Add the white parts of the spring onion and seep sautéing.
3. Add the mushrooms to the pan and keep going until the it’s cooked to your liking.
4. Put your two-minute noodles in a bowl, top with the mushroom mixture, the green part of the spring onions, sesame seeds, chill flakes and an egg (or two).
What are your memories of Sunday around the table? My Sundays as a child were one of the busiest days in our week, so lunch wasn’t necessarily fancy, many times there was a church potluck involved or lunch on the go or leftovers. But we were always together. Around the table. With people outside our family sitting with us.
I can’t think of a better way to “live church” than to do it around at table full of food, and as part of this month of writing, I’m hoping to intersperse the storytelling with some practical ideas about eating meals with others, with our family, and how simple yet satisfying the process can be.
There are so many ways to “do” food on Sunday, and I’ve tried a few myself in the past few years depending on our family routine and schedule. Last winter I kept it simple with a chicken soup (you can read more about that here). I could prepare everything the day before in the pot, and all that needed to be done on Sunday morning was pour water over everything, put it on the stove and wait. Our lunch was warm, hearty and simple. And it allowed us to slow down and rest. It was beautiful.
But chicken soup during the summer months and even now in the autumn didn’t feel right, it was too warm. We’ve started having a roast chicken lunch instead. It involves a little bit more time on Sunday morning (probably around 20 minutes more), but because the oven is what does most of the work, it’s ok. This is a meal that can easily feed a mid-sized family, and we love sitting down together on a Sunday to eat something a little bit more special, all of us passing food back and forth to each other, Big Boy and Little Bear happily munching along. It’s also a meal that keeps on giving, there are leftovers for Monday’s lunch and sometimes even Tuesday.
Roast Chicken with Cranberry & Thyme Butter
The secret to a good roast chicken is the bird itself. We’ve recently switched to buying organic, free-range meat as much as possible, and we have been amazed at the difference in the quality of the meat and the flavour. We ate this with stuffed and sauteed mushrooms (Big Boy cooked the sauteed mushrooms), and with roasted sweet potatoes using this recipe for sweet potato fries but I cut it into wedges instead, and steamed broccoli.
1/2 TBSP dried thyme (or fresh if you have it)
1.5kg organic, free-range chicken
1. Preheat oven to 150C/300F. Take butter out of the fridge and let it soften in a warm spot. Take the chicken out of the fridge and allow to start coming to room temperature.
2. Boil water, put the cranberries in a bowl and when the water has boiled, pour over the dried cranberries so that they are covered. Let it stand for 10 minutes.
3. Drain the water, put the berries on a chopping board and chop roughly. Mix it with the butter and thyme until the herbs and the berries are evenly mixed throughout (if the butter is too hard, I put it in the microwave for a few seconds to let it soften some more).
4. Put the chicken in a roasting tray, breast side up. Gently pull the skin away from the breast (near the neck), keep pulling very gently so that you can create a space between the skin and the breast of the chicken. Scoop some of the cranberry butter mixture into your hands and start pushing it under the skin of the chicken. (I do all of this with my hands.) I try to push it as far down as I can, so that the breast is completely covered – under the skin – with the cranberry butter, I also try to get it under the skin covering the thigh and leg.
5. When you’re finished, rub any extra butter over the whole bird or melt a bit more butter to pour over and coat it. Crack salt and pepper over the whole chicken, and put in the oven covered with aluminum foil.
6. Roast for 1.5 hours, but I do take it out around the half-way mark to turn the roasting tray around. After 1.5 hours, take the foil off and roast for anther 30 minutes. Mine was done after 2 hours (check by piercing the joint between the thigh and the leg and see if the juices run clear or use a meat thermometer). Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before carving. We scraped the juices out of the pan to use as a delicious gravy.
What are you eating for Sunday dinner? What are your favourite family recipes?
When I started thinking about what to eat on Sunday, I knew it needed to be simple. The simplest, easiest food I could find because I did not want to spend time assembling, cooking, and (most importantly) thinking about it. I wanted something I could mindlessly put together week after week that would result in a nourishing, basic and filling meal.
My Sundays are now an oasis at the end of a week that usually takes everything I have to give. Amazingly the time I spend actively seeking rest and putting busyness and activity away gives me strength for the week to come. The time I spend resting gives me energy for working.
And this chicken soup is a bit like that, a meal that keeps on giving. It takes around five to 10 minutes of prep time depending on what the ingredients are, and it allows for keeping it the same week after week or for a bit of variety if I start to feel bored. But the best part? It feeds us for lunch and dinner on Sunday and then I get to use the left over chicken for lunches for at least two days of the week.
The base of this soup is a whole chicken, cold water, salt and pepper. Depending on the ingredients I have around (and my particular fancy for the week), it turns into a Vietnamese-inspired Asian broth or I go the way of the northern hemisphere and make it into a carrot, leek, thyme and bay leaf affair. The recipe below is for what I made for the past two Sundays. If you make this soup and find that you like the flavours, Smitten Kitchen had a recipe last week for Chicken Pho, which looks amazing.
I usually get it ready on Saturday evening by putting everything into the pot except for the water and returning it to the fridge. It is the most lovely feeling only have to add water before putting the pot on the stove to cook and knowing that our meals for the whole day are done.
1 whole chicken
10 slices of ginger
2 lemongrass stalks, crushed with a rolling pin
3 star anise
3 cardamom pods, bruised
egg noodles (whatever quantity suits your needs)
kale, de-stemmed and roughly chopped (For the Asian version of this soup, a variety of veggies would be excellent compliments: mushrooms, broccoli, sliced carrots. Kale was what I had, and it worked very well)
1. Place chicken, ginger, lemongrass, star anise and cardamom pods in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. (I would normally add sea salt and black pepper, but I left it and salted at the end because I needed the chicken to feed Baby who needs everything unsalted right now.)
2. After it boils, lower to a simmer and let it bubble for an hour.
3. After an hour, the chicken should be cooked completely. Remove it from the broth, take the meat off the bones and shred.
4. Bring the broth back to a boil, add the kale and egg noodles and cook according to the instructions on the packet. You could also cook the egg noodles separately and add however much you want. It does lose its texture a bit when it stays in the liquid all day. We keep it like this to serve its simple purpose for our Sunday, but I can imagine it would be better with the noodles left out and added in if you wanted to reheat the soup and eat later.
5. Take out the lemongrass, ginger, star anise and cardamom if you prefer it that way (we like to leave it in), then add however much chicken you want in the soup and put the rest away for lunches (like sandwiches and tacos), serve up in bowls and your done.
When I don’t meal plan, I end up with two situations. Scenario one: The empty refrigerator save eggs and some veggies and some time of carb staple in the pantry like pasta, bulgur wheat or quinoa. Scenario two: Going to the grocery store mid-week with my toddler and baby. You would think both scenarios would keep me meal planning, and well, you would be wrong.
Two days ago after I was down to the last three eggs and had nothing in the veggie basket except for kale, beets and sweet potatoes, I realized I was going to have to resort to scenario two. (We had eggs for breakfast and roasted beets and sweet potatoes for lunch, which the toddler refused.)
Grocery stores with children are not easy in any universe – unless it is for you, in which case let me know immediately where your galaxy is located – but navigating a grocery store in a new country where everything is labeled in a language you don’t know and organized in a different way while you have small children in tow feels like a first-world kind of torture moment.
Enter the Coop at Enebyberg. It’s the largest supermarket close to our house, and we go weekly. Our toddler knows when it’s coming up, and loves riding in the cart inside the store. We have yet to have a mega meltdown experience, which I attribute to two things: fervent prayer and the outstanding customer service of – so far – every single Coop employee I’ve encountered.
It started with the young woman who walked through the aisles after 9pm trying to first understand what I was looking for (chicken stock cubes) and second to look for it. Then there was the butcher who had a friendly chat with me about why I was buying 3.7kg of beef and how I was going to cook it, the fish monger last week who told me about sea bass and how it should be cooked and the ladies at the checkout counters who regularly tell me to get a Coop card. Almost every interaction ends with a, Have a nice day. You would never imagine that you are in northern Europe. (In case anyone is interested, this is not a paid ad, I don’t write sponsored posts, it is a pleasure as a writer to be able to lavish praise on people and companies that make my life a bit easier.)
A few weeks ago as I made my way through the vegetable section, a bunch of thick, green leaves caught my eye: Kale. After years of reading about its super powers but never being able to find it, let’s just say we’ve been eating a lot of kale. As in almost daily for a week or two. It goes into smoothies, salads and even breakfast. We’ve been loving our kale.
Every time I’ve cooked kale for us, I’ve defaulted to this method. It is basic, simple, and as long as you like garlic, all will be well. I found that putting the garlic and rock salt (make sure it’s the chunky kind and not table salt) on the leaves while it’s cooking gives the kale a flavour crunch, which I loved.
8 kale leaves, stems removed and chopped
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1. Put a bit of olive oil into a good frying pan on high heat, and when it’s warm, toss in your chopped kale. Sautee for a few minutes until it looks like the kale is cooking down a tiny bit. (I splashed a bit of water into the pan if it looked like it was starting to stick.)
2. Crush the garlic, and put the sea salt on the kale and keep stirring until it’s to your preferred level of doneness.
3. We’ve eaten kale cooked this way for breakfast with eggs and mushrooms, as a side dish to meat for dinner, as a salad mixed with roasted butternut squash, bulgur wheat and sauteed mushrooms and some chili flakes.