Cure for Stress: Make Guacamole
Photo by Kate Andersen
One of my favorite things to snack on is chips and salsa, or chips and hummus, or chips and...any sort of dip. But my absolute favorite is, without a doubt, guacamole. The texture and hearty, refreshing flavors make it a definite winner. When I noticed we had giant bags of chips but nothing to eat them with, I decided I needed to make some. And however much I would've been okay with just chips and guacamole, I figured my roommates might want some other food (shocking, I know), so I ended up cooking chicken and mushrooms too (despite a roommate who isn't a big fan of mushrooms but very graciously agreed to try them).
It was a busy week--33 different sketches due for my drawing class, a paper in art history, and readings galore--and I took solace in the fact that this would be an easy, comforting sort of meal. It's still really all about the guacamole, though. Making guacamole for me is a little bit what baking must be like for some people--sort of calming and home-y. The simplicity of just getting everything out, chopping it up, and mixing it together is somehow very centering.
I started out with a quick marinade for the chicken, so I didn't have to waste any time waiting for it, and it could just sit in its juices in the fridge while I got everything else ready. I usually mix together a little olive oil, lime juice, salt, and pepper, and--in this case, since I had it for the guacamole--some chopped cilantro, and just seal the chicken in with the mixture in a big plastic bag. If you have some other favorite marinade though, feel free to substitute it--anything that was at all in the general scheme of flavors would work just fine (I even thought about doing barbecue chicken instead).
Dips of any sort are usually pretty easy, and that holds true here too.
While the chicken was marinating, I started on everything else. Avocados are a slight splurge item for our house (they're on our "fancy items" list pinned up on the fridge right next to our money-saving Stop & Shop card; the list consists of things we all like--ice cream, berries, fancy salsa, etc.--but can't spend money on all the time, so we rotate them out each week), but luckily everyone else agreed, so I went ahead with my plan. Dips of any sort are usually pretty easy, and that holds true here too. If you're not a fan of any of the flavors I use, or have texture preferences (chunkier, smoother etc.) feel free to change it up as you like. For example, I have a number of friends who can handle cilantro, but don't love its dusty flavor as much as I do, so its easy to hold back on--the same goes for the jalapeño for anyone who don't like much spice. At home, we load up on everything--lots of garlic, lots of cumin (which I know isn't very common in Mexico, but I can't help but associate it with the country's cuisine) and cilantro, lots of lime, and so on--but usually when I make it for other people I tend to dial it down a bit.
Once the guacamole is done, I fit it into the fridge (which required a little finesse on my part in our seriously overcrowded one) to just let it chill out with the chicken while I got working on the mushrooms. After cleaning them, I sliced the mushrooms up, making sure to keep them thick. I don't know any of the science behind it, but I've always felt that thicker mushroom slices allow them to cook longer and soak up more of whatever you put them in without becoming overcooked and tough.
I grabbed the two clean pans we had on hand, and without really thinking about it began to heat the butter for the mushrooms in one, tossing them in as soon as it had melted down. When I went to get the chicken out of the fridge (it had been a little over half an hour at this point), I realized that I had inadvertently left myself with a pan a fraction of the size of the one I used for the mushrooms, for four very thick chicken breasts. I rubbed a little cumin and cayenne pepper on them, and eyed the skillet. Somehow I managed to squeeze them all in (just like a little puzzle! Oh how fun cooking can be) and sear them slightly on either side. After a few minutes I just covered them up--or lay the cover on top of them, thanks to their chubbiness--and let them and the mushrooms cook for another 5 to 10 minutes; it really depends on how many mushrooms you have, and how thick the breasts are. We'd had a sort of "drinks and desserts" party the other day (one roommate was bit by the baking bug and made a very elaborate and delicious chocolate torte), and so at this point I also added a few splashed of white wine to the mushrooms--very optional, but I just like the flavor it adds.
Once the chicken was done I turned the heat off and let it sit in the pan for a few minutes (so the meat had a little time to cool and the juices settled inside) before serving it up. I added the mushrooms (a few lonely slices made it on to the plate of the mushroom-averse friend, who loyally tried them and then politely maintained her dislike) and brought over the bowl of guacamole and some chips. Pretty minimal effort, and very flavorful. The guacamole is a perfect recipe to double and store for eating later, and has a great mix of tastes and textures; crisp red onion, juicy tomato, creamy avocado, spicy jalapeño, earthy cilantro, the acidic lime juice, and the cumin's slightly bitter, nutty flavor all complement and balance each other.
The mushrooms and chicken were both tender and juicy, and the chicken also very slightly spicy--with both the heat from the jalapeño and cayenne, I decided to balance it out with a little lemon and yogurt sauce. In retrospect, I might have added a watercress or sprout salad to cool it down a little further, but at the time it was definitely the sort of flavor boost and familiar meal (quesadillas and guacamole are our go-to easy foods at home) that I needed in the middle of a dauntingly busy week of school.