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Weird things are known to happen in my kitchen. Especially around breakfast time.

When I walk into the kitchen at 7:30 in the morning before a 9:00 shift at the Writing Center, the choice is obvious. I go straight to the cabinet and grab a granola bar, then contemplate how I’m going to tough out being hungry for about two hours before my lunch break. That early in the morning, that’s about the only thing I can stomach. There’s just something about the morning that murders my appetite. Eggs have always been my mortal enemy, and I seldom have a desire for anything bigger than a bowl of cereal, a cup of yogurt, or a piece of fruit.

Then, I graduated—and became a night owl.

Forget breakfast. If I wake up at 9:00, it’s 11:30 by the time I get hungry, practically lunch time. Sandwich. Soup. Give me anything before I pass out at the keyboard because now, I’m finally awake enough to feed myself, no longer distracted by YouTube or Sherlock Holmes, no longer preoccupied by packing or by proofreading. The need is immanent, and I reach for the first thing I can get my hands on, not because I’m apathetic but because I am desperate to shut my stomach up before it growls loudly enough to register on the Richter scale.

My first Monday off from graduate school, I got up around 9:30 with the flavor of liberty in my mouth. Strangely enough, I was already hungry. I stretched once and walked downstairs, heading for the only thing I would dare eat for breakfast that morning.

The night before, my friend from Chile and I went to The Italian Oven, a local gem where I have spent many celebratory meals, including one to celebrate Gracielle passing her cumulative exams. And then, of course, there was my mom and I, who were unfamiliar with the geography of Mt. Pleasant when we traveled there for our tour of the campus, but since it is one of the best places to eat in town and is conveniently located on the south end by the freeway, we didn’t even give eating there a thought. Besides, we both should have been born Italian.

On this particular grip with Gracielle, Hailee went with us. I had three weeks to move out, and I was running out of food, which I had no desire to buy more of. Besides, I needed to celebrate my thesis defense… again. That’s the sort of thing I felt like celebrating repeatedly. It meant moving on, graduation, no hitch in the plan–until that damned e-mail about formatting that came in today.

Then, I had an idea, one based on years of not eating breakfast for breakfast.

Breakfast Cannolli

Behold, the 1,000-calorie dessert/breakfast.

I ordered a strawberry cannolli to go, and I made a rather lavish breakfast out of it, parked in  front of my television watching season three of Psych in my pajamas. No guilt, no urgency, no frugality. Every bite was a smooth reminder of the ending. This would be my last trip to The Italian Oven. Even now, sitting here and writing about that impulsive breakfast cannolli, I consider my conclusion in Mt. Pleasant to be sudden like a drop-off in the ocean floor. I was prepared to leave two weeks before my actual departure, but when it finally did end, I stood in the empty apartment and listened to my footsteps hammering off of the white walls and the clean floor, unimpeded by the dust of thirteen weeks of chaotic thesising and classwork.

Before then, I had never eaten a cannolli for breakfast, and if I ever do again, I will think of the empty footsteps and the week of sweet celebrations and all the people I knew who are(n’t) there anymore. I will remember the relief that followed the urgency, and I will smile.

Unusual things just tend to produce that reaction.

The most relaxing thing I have ever drank in my life is surprisingly not gin and tonic. Or a Tom Collins. It includes no alcohol in the least.

People who know me would then guess that tea is the most relaxing thing I have ever drank, but that’s not quite it either. While I profess a love for tea and follow it devoutly when I’m not drinking coffee to keep myself on a time table of epically challenging proportions. If I mapped it out, it would probably look like a two year old’s rainbow-colored scribble drawing. I would insist it was an elephant despite being nothing more than an incoherent network of haphazard lines. Apparently, this is just how the female brain works. It makes sense that my schedule, which revolves so heavily on my thought process to make and meet it, should resemble a tangle of yarn. Right? Tea smooths most of the kinks over and helps people unwind… or wakes me up if I’m drinking English Breakfast Tea. But in truth, the properties of tea, much like those of soup, are sometimes not enough to get the truly tough tangles out.

At times like that, I think of lavender, and I’m not talking about the smell.

Sure, lavender soap is awesome, and although there are more exposed nerve endings in the nasal cavity than there are anywhere else in the body, there are other ways of taking it in.

My hometown has a limited number of local tea and coffee establishments. Like many suburban towns, we are composed mainly of golf courses, subdivisions, strip malls, and fast food chains. I used to frequent one about twenty minutes away until their customer service went down hill. After three years of being looked down on for being a minimum wage worker at a pizza restaurant, I expect to be treated like a human being when I am being served at the very least. One of life’s greatest challenges is to respect people who cannot be bothered to at least make an effort to respect me. I personally don’t care if my server is old enough to be my mother. I am a paying customer. I had to put up with plenty of high school students as a pizza slave, disrespectful kids and people whose parents called me demanding to know why they were overcharged (and in the instance I am thinking of, I took the right amount of money; the parents simply assumed that I was wrong… but do I get to tell them that they’re dumb-asses? No! Instead, I have to act professionally and calmly explain that their son paid with the roll of quarters I supposedly. At least they admitted I was right, but still… stuff like that sticks like cheese sticks to the soles of shoes, filling all of the crevices. That kind of thing changes a person). I know friends who have had to deal with the same thing in reverse, middle-aged people who throw temper tantrums about stores being sold out of the television on sale when the flyer says, in fine print, “Limit 4 per store.”

In the hub of this tea shoppe, I discovered lavender lemonade. It was relaxation in a cup, a tranquil taste that followed me all night at work while I was dealing with the evening rush and the chaos at the counter and the testy customers.

At times, lavender lemonade is not practical for instilling a calming sense, particularly at the end of the semester, and particularly when it has to be portable. The conundrum I faced was transforming this relaxing substance into something class-appropriate. Of course, I didn’t have to bring something “British” to Victorian Literature, but since I’ve spent the past four years dabbling with it, studying it, savoring it, absorbing it–hell, living it, I figured I should live a little British on the cooking side as well.

With the help of the internet (my greatest sous chef aside from my three-quart aluminum sauce pan) and a little ingenuity, I found the answer in comfort food.

I’m talking biscuits. British biscuits.

To this day, the language differences between American English and British English fascinate me. The oddest of the bunch for me is the “jumper” (American: sweater) because I have always thought of Oshkosh when I hear the word “jumper” due to spending most of my very early childhood in them. I’ve very seldom been to the theater with friends, but I frequent the theatre, a spelling difference so minimal that it has become a habit. Others, I acknowledge without that little twinge of discomfort that jumpers cause, like the “x” in “connexion” and the “u” in “colour.” And, despite having family in the South, this semester in Victorian Literature educated me on the original meaning of “biscuit” (American: cookie). Not the most valuable lesson I learned in the course, but interesting enough to sprinkle on a blog post like sugar.

Since I had already made bread for my Writing Center coworkers and minestrone for my creative nonfiction course, I plotted something sweet to finish the week off with, a relaxing biscuit form of the beverage that soothed my troubled mind. Of course, eating lavender doesn’t appeal to everyone; in fact, after trying a sip of Maye’s pear and lavender martini, Caity told her (and later me) that it tasted like bath soap to her. I can’t rightly call it an acquired taste; it is just something that I happen to enjoy, sort of like the act of writing itself.  I went in with reservations and left with a new appreciation for something that I didn’t originally consider edible.

Now, if only I could have that same mindset with seafood…

Lavender Lemon Shortbread Biscuits
(Adapted from this recipe)

Close-up

Ingredients

  • 1 stick butter
  • ¼ cup and 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup corn starch
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp dried lavender flowers (most likely available at your local organic food store for a reasonable price)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Cream butter and sugar with a fork in a bowl.
  3. Combine flour and corn starch in a separate bowl.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Add lemon juice. Mix. I found it effective to use my hands in combining them.
  5. Add lavender.
  6. Flour work surface and knead dough 5 to 10 times.
  7. Pam the pan. Insert dough into pan and press into a uniform thickness of about ¼ inch. (Trust me… this is easier than rolling it out.)
  8. Prick shortbread with fork.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, carefully tap pan against the side of the oven to deflate it. Bake additional 10 to 15 minutes until cookies are golden brown.
  10. Sprinkle with remaining sugar. Let cool for 5 minutes. Slice cookies.

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I have mentioned before that one of the most supreme delights of cooking alone is the absence of mystery. I know what I like. I know the amount that I like things in. My only dietary restrictions are the obligatory exclusion of olives (of all sorts) and mayonnaise (except for dill mayonnaise, which is perfectly acceptable). When I go into a kitchen to cook for myself, the only question I have to ask myself is what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes, I have a stare down with everything in my cabinets. At others, ideas simply bubble to the surface of my consciousness like perfectly cooked ravioli. Admittedly, cooking is probably my greatest form of self-love, and for someone who spends so much time thesising, reading, writing, and working at the Writing Center that they have become known to their undergraduate friends/coworkers as “the vampire” (all in good fun, I have been assured, though the label is in part due to the darkness of my apartment and mostly due to my resulting pale complexion), a hot meal is the knife that cuts through the cold, buttery stress of my crazy day. It is how I survived graduate school.

Exam week is always interesting to witness, especially from my standpoint. My father once told me to run the race of life like it’s a marathon, but even during the first few weeks of the semester, I typically find myself sprinting through hundreds of pages of reading daily, scrawling short papers at an alarming rate.

Much like the rainy, cold weather of this southern Michigan June, the conditions of my final semester were not favorable to sprinting. For once, I had to run the marathon. My weekly writing and reading assignments were completed a mere day or so before they were due. Add in finishing my thesis, and you are guaranteed a recipe for at least some chaos, sort of like slicing one too many onion in a saucepan that is already three sizes too small. Toss it wrong, and on top of still having to cook dinner, you have to clean up your own mess.

As with most things I have finished in my life, I don’t really think about how I do them. I’m not really sure how I wound up with a job in Japan. Was it luck? Hard work? A combination? Some cosmic force guiding me like a lost lamb or dragging me along on strings, a limp puppet? It is the same with graduate school. Trials are often the hardest when you are neck-deep in them, just ready to sink below the surface. Then, there is the obligatory breaking point. After days of being sliced at by everyday rigors, the right knife–still sharp enough to cut but dull enough to lack the poise of its sharper cousins–cuts you deep. For me, this was April. The conclusion of the thesis. I had to get it right the first time. Time–it was running out. My hideous lime green wall clock was ticking, ticking, each passing second a derisive laugh, a reminder that my best was not enough.

The e-mail came back, and beneath the constructive criticism, I forced a message into it. I was a failure.

It was over. There was nothing left to do but weep. Weep openly at my keyboard. This was it… my one chance, and I blew it. Surely, this would send my life spinning off into a catastrophic black hole from which I would never emerge. But this is the real test of dedication. In a moment when everything was eroding around me, I dried my eyes after letting myself have five minutes, engaged in a phone conversation with Melissa to take my mind off things, dusted myself off, heaved myself up at the keyboard, and kept going.

This thesis was not going to beat me.

It was fitting that I should experience this three weeks prior to my thesis defense, three weeks before most of my coworkers and peers were going through the same slump of not sleeping, skipping meals, drinking gallons of coffee, and neglecting themselves entirely for the sake of their studies. Sadistic as it is, I almost see more self-love in this than I do in cooking. The enduring dedication, even in moments of doubt and despair, and even at the cost of almost everything, opens doors that we sometimes can’t see when standing smack dab in the middle of a dark and empty labyrinth of everyday rigors. The subject of my thesis was Victorian literature, but what I learned in the process was so much more than that–and certainly a subject to explore in another blog entry. Empathy was my constant companion during exam week, when I finally caved to  my complete and utter lack of motivation and exchanged my pen and pages for a pot and a wooden spoon. Instead of reserving these tools solely for myself, I share them–and their delicious results–with those still immersed in the rapid boil of finality, a prelude to some well-earned decompression.

When I dug out the eight-quart stainless steel soup pot after fourteen weeks of neglect, I knew immediately that I couldn’t approach it the same way as I did when I cooked for myself. This soup was not for me; it was for my creative nonfiction class, the class that made me a blogger, which meant I had to deal with not just my own idiosyncratic palette but those of nine fellow students and one instructor.

And then, there were the dietary restrictions.

Some people choose not to eat different things for ethical reasons. Others cannot eat them because of medical conditions. They respect my dietary decisions and/or my lack of food allergies, one that I return, and one that I show by taking things like this into consideration when I find myself staring at my own distorted reflection in the bottom of my soup pot. Of course, it is a challenge. How can I possibly accommodate for a vegetarian and for someone who is gluten intolerant?

Italy provides the answer.

In my early days of exploring soup, I fell for Minestrone. As my tastes continued to develop, we grew apart. The challenge of feeding a class gave me a reason to get back in touch with my old favorite.

What happened afterwards was nothing short of a feeding frenzy of graduate students.

Some may consider it fortunate that I only got two bowls. I consider it a mission accomplished, an opportunity to give back to those who have given me such amazing criticism, those who have contributed to my development as a writer. It’s impossible to forget the taste of something so savory.

Vegan Gluten-Free Minestrone
(Based on this recipe)*

Finished Product

(For anyone wondering, I was in a super-mega hurry to take this picture… ^_^)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups gluten-free reduced sodium vegetable stock
  • 1 can reduced sodium tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2 small onions (or 1 medium one)
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 1 yellow squash, diced
  • 1 can northern great northern beans, rinsed
  • 1 cup kale, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 2 springs fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 8 oz brown rice pasta

Directions

  1. In 8-quart pot, sauté garlic and onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add stock, tomatoes, and spices to pot. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
  3. In a separate pan, cook 8 oz pasta in slightly salted water according to package directions.
  4. Add veggies and pasta to soup. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
  5. Add tomato sauce and water if needed to create more cooking liquid.

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*Note: If any of my readers know about cooking gluten-free, then they will probably tell me that I screwed up big time, the reason being that both wood (like the spatula I used to stir) and plastic (like the cutting board I chopped the veggies on) are both porous enough to absorb gluten and retain it even after being washed. FORTUNATELY, the person I mentioned earlier does not have severe reactions to small amounts of gluten. Otherwise, I would have felt guilty enough to pay the hospital bill.

When cooking for people with celiac disease, they are the best sources of information. The internet and prior experience tie for second. Asking around an organic grocery store to get some ideas could also help if you’re in a pinch. ^_^

http://madamegluten-freevegetarian.blogspot.com/2011/03/gluten-free-minestrone-gluten-dairy.html

Cooking is not a science. Some people say it is, but the truth—or my truth—of the matter is, there has never been anything scientific for me about cooking. I simply walk into the kitchen and observe. Look around me. What is available? I am a forger in familiar territory. My eyes have roamed these shelves more times than the Canadian geese have migrated. I just exaggerated a little bit, but it’s not technically lying if you’re just adding something to the truth, particularly if you’re a story teller. In the same way, cooking is not a science. I don’t let the truth, or a version of it, get in the way of a good culinary experiment. I suspect Benjamin Franklin did not expect lightning to strike his kite any more than Thomas Edison suspected the wire in his light bulb to glow. With cooking, it’s different. I expect the outcome to be positive in the most general sense of the word because I’ve combined ingredients that I like to eat and brought them together in harmony, sort of like a choir, only pleasing to all five senses rather than just the eyes and ears.

Granted, positive things don’t always happen when I mix two things together. I once had a hankering for something sweet and spicy, so I mixed some hot curry powder with creamy peanut butter. The problem is, I used too much and wound up with something that tasted vaguely of sawdust and cayenne pepper. Point taken: curry and peanut butter cannot simply be mixed together. My food taught me yet another valuable lesson.

But I didn’t need food to teach me mathematics. I needed a good high school calculus teacher and a good college calculus professor, and even by their powers combined, they couldn’t make me understand anything past series. Science requires precision, and cooking… well, cooking requires a lot of taste testing. Try that in a chem lab and let me know how it turns out.

I also didn’t need food to teach me philosophy, but it did help a little bit. You are what you eat, after all. I imagine that would make me some sort of chicken soup. Some days, I’m nothing more than ordinary chicken noodle. On others, I’m a zesty chicken chili. On others still, I must be chicken curry since I eat it for breakfast on occasion. In either case, I am an odd arrangement of ingredients that vary only slightly from day to day—and nine times out of ten, a recipe for disaster no thanks to some hereditary clumsiness.

I eat; therefore, I am.

People say baking is a science, too. An exact science. If you put a few extra drops of lemon juice in a batch of soup, then fine. It will be a little lemony. Toss in something to balance the flavor out, and life is good. But some extra flour in the cookie dough, a missing egg, and a sporadic oven, and suddenly, your warm, fluffy dough pillows turn into crumbly pucks of horror and sadness.

Fact: I am not a scientist. Last time I was in the chemistry lab, I nearly set the school on fire. Too bad my air-headed track athlete lab partner was cool-headed enough to turn off the gas. Otherwise, I would have been a hero among high schoolers for the first, and probably last, time in my life (because, at least in my high school, bookworms with straight A’s were hardly material for the “cool” table). I am a literary critic… I guess. That’s what you become when you finish master’s coursework in English, right? I approach recipes for baking the same way I approach recipes for soup, which I approach the way I approach prose: they are blueprints totally open to interpretation. And if my interpretation happens to include cloves where they were not included before, then who’s to stop me if the bread supports my reading?

Much like books, everyone has their own taste in food. Mine wavers somewhere between Italian, Mexican, and Japanese on most days, with heaps of soup and sandwiches to fill the gaps. The original more than likely holds enough interest, but I have a strange way of looking at the world. I read significance into things and savor contradictions the same way I do curry… although some days, I feel like the world is insipid as plain gelatin—or else it sets me smoking like a charcoal grill.

I’m not hard to please, but underneath all that literary critic frosting is a thin remnant of my childhood, the wafer of writer-ness that, like a Twinkie, will endure long past its expiration date. I was, and still am, a storyteller. Even in verbal recall, I can turn something as ordinary as going to the grocery store into a harrowing tale of how the lady on her cell phone was right in front of the stock selection and how some child in the produce asked his mom if they could have broccoli for dinner. Little facts like that stick with me, especially if they stir up some emotional reaction. Of course, by the time I retell the story, the lady with the cell phone will have been there for five minutes instead of 90 seconds. But then, I could get into the whole discussion of perceived versus actual time; it’s not a lie. It’s just my version of the truth, my perception.

I suppose food really has taught me something about that whole perceived versus actual time business, but perhaps I should save that for another blog entry.

I am not a scientist. I am an interpreter. I can’t be boxed in by lines and directions, but I can be inspired by them… hence, the creative nonfiction class. Of course, not crediting the inspiring force in some way is called plagiarism in my line of work (although I suppose creative writers call it artful stealing… or borrowing, depending on who you are). I saw a bread recipe on Stephanie’s blog, Modern Christian Woman, and I knew the minute I did that I had to try it, and as most interpreters do, I adapted this recipe to my diabolical purposes of feeding a hungry Writing Center staff during what would be my last end-of-semester party with them. They have given their heartfelt approval, and I pass it on to her with gratitude.

Interpreting is only half of my job, though. As a literary critic, I am expected to share my interpretations with others, for better or worse. After all, what good are two ginormous loaves of bread without a company to break it with?

Garlic Cheddar Herb Bread

(Inspired by Stephanie’s Recipe for Garlic Cheese Bread)

Epic Loavery

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp spicy Italian seasoning grinder spice (sold at Kroger, but you could easily add salt and red pepper flakes to Italian seasoning.
  • 3 tbsp, plus 2 tbsp shredded Parmesan and Romano cheese

Directions

  1. Heat butter, milk, sugar, garlic, and grinder spice in a small sauce pan until butter is melted. Let cool.
  2. Combine yeast and water in a large bowl and let dissolve. Trust me… use a large bowl. You will kneading (spelling intentional) it later.🙂
  3. Add eggs, milk mixture, cheeses (reserve 2 tbsp of the grated, though) and half of the flour to the yeast. Mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add enough flour to make a dough (roughly an additional 1-2 cups).
  5. Knead dough for 7-10 minutes.
  6. Spray bowl with pam and return dough to bowl. Cover and let rise for an hour. The dough should double in size.
  7. Punch down dough. Remove from bowl and make two loaves of roughly equal size. Place on a cookie sheet, cover, and let rise again (about one hour). The loaves should again double in size.
  8. Give the bread a rubdown with olive oil. I did this with my hands, but a brush would work as well. Grind some extra spice on top. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Pat everything down nicely.
  9. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

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The bane of my existence is human error.

I fully and freely admit that I make mistakes all the time. Poor life decisions? You bet. Just this past week, I learned one of my mistakes first hand. A combination of pre-exam stress and PMS led to writing one e-mail that has changed things for the better, but even here, I am not faultless. Putting things off isn’t something I normally do unless the task involves potentially hurting someone’s feelings. I’m lucky to have friends that understand me enough to get that, friends who are honest enough–and genuine enough, or maybe mature is the word–to seek improvement when I have to be the asshole that sends the long and elaborate e-mail explaining the issue in a manner that will not generate conflict. Bottom line: I will become a better person for it. I will correct my past mistakes and be more assertive.

Damn being an English major. I can do things better in writing than I can verbally half the time, and the other half, I can’t do well in either.

Two weeks ago, I handed over my most precious possession: a paper copy of my thesis, all 94 pages. Its intended destination was the desk of none other than the department head; that which I loved like a child was being sent to a paper shredder to be bathed in red ink. Still, it must be done for the sake of timely departure. I gave it to the secretary, clutching it in both hands, and said, “This is my thesis, and to me, it is the most important thing in the world. Please, be careful with it.”

Cue two weeks of insanity, two grueling weeks where I forget that the sun shines, that the world is peopled, that I am surrounded by bars–temples of temptation that beckon me at nearly every turn. I must resist them. I must resist them to finish my coursework. The nights grew long and sleepless. The days are measures not in minutes but in words that slide out of the keys, shifting like hourglass sand that swept me away in its current. There is no rest for the weary. No food for the hungry. No cool and calming water to slake my thirst. I found spare moments of calmness, but it was not until last night, Saturday, that I felt a wave of relief crash down on me. Ten hours of nearly non-stop work, and I had given birth to the final drafts of the documents that would end my classes. One poorly written twenty-page paper and corresponding handout, and one Friday morning, separated me from the finish line I have been dashing towards for two years.

Of late, my dash has become more of a Smirnoff sort of stagger. My vision is touch and go under the additional stress and fatigue. I’ve lost count of how many meals I’ve eaten out this week. The coffee shop has become my house of worship, and I attend mass daily. Hail coffee, curry, and tea lattes, the lifeblood of exam week students! Still, my perseverance has paid off, and I have much to show for my devotion. One class down, one more to go… and my defense is only six days away. I treat myself with a slightly longer than usual break, then sleep. It took me forty-five minutes, but I finally managed to reign Morpheus in.

Sunday morning began at a slow pace. I threw my laundry in, meandered the internet stream for about a half an hour, and checked my e-mail.

Then, human error struck.

My most cherished possession was not only missing in action; it had never come into the hands of the department head. I can only imagine how it deviously sneaked out of eye shot while the secretary was busy with something else, or how, hapless and homesick, some sinister paper mites crept out of the stapler and gnawed it to dust.

Once again, I find myself turning to soup for the answer. The last of last week’s leftovers, also the last in the fourteen-week soup for the sole challenge, is sitting in the fridge. Between page 15 and 16 of an English paper, and after two thoroughly irritated phone calls, one to my parents, one to Melissa, I heat the last bowl and depart to throw my laundry in the dryer. There are some things in life you can help, things like how spicy your soup gets; and then, there are some things you just can’t. Some people deal with it in sighs and complaints. I deal with it using a slew of clauses strung together by frustration… and a shrug. I can sleep easy knowing I’ve done all I can.

After fourteen weeks, the soup is finished, as the thesis will soon be… but it’s not quite the same. I don’t plan to write another thesis, but I plan to keep making soup. My life is made of soup and stories; what good would I be without one or the other?

Chicken Tortilla Soup for the Sole

The Final Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3-4 tbsp canola oil
  • 4 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper, plus another ¼ tsp
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh lime
  • 1 package of 10 corn tortillas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese to top soup

Directions

  1. Dice onion. In three-quart sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and garlic and sauté.
  2. While onion is sautéing, heat canola oil in a separate pan. Cut six of the tortillas into ½ inch strips and fry until crispy. Remove with whatever cooking implement you have that works best for that sort of thing, and place on a plate covered in a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and ¼ tsp cayenne pepper. Set aside.
  3. Add chili powder and cumin to the pan. Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  4. Add chicken stock, frozen chicken, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer until chicken is cooked (about 20 minutes).
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Tear remaining 4 tortillas into bite-sized pieces.
  7. Add frozen corn and tortillas to the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes.
  8. Dice cilantro. Remove soup from heat. Add cilantro, remaining cayenne, and the juice of one lime to the pan.
  9. Top with crispy tortilla strips and shredded sharp cheddar (or cheese of your choosing).

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One of the great things about being a sole chef is that, nine times out of ten, you don’t have to worry about cooking for anyone but yourself. That means you get to make what you like with ingredients you like in the amount that you like. You also get to cook things how you like them. No time to defrost the chicken? Boil it. All you have is a giant bag of frozen chicken tenderloins? Good enough if you like white meat. Want some extra curry? Go for it. Being a sole chef is like Burger King on steroids: you can have it your way, anyway you want. There are no cheeseburger limits. The kitchen is your oyster, the pan your pearl, and the fridge the gateway to possibilities.

But sometimes, admittedly, it gets a little lonely.

I’ve cooked for a lot of people since moving out. Friends, coworkers, classmates. I’ve even been known to throw down enough from-scratch alfredo or shredded taco meat for a small gathering on occasion, but more often than not, whatever is in the pot is for me and me alone. There is a fine line between selfish and solitary. Have I crossed it?

But sometimes, when soup is not enough to keep me going, I rely on people outside the four walls of my apartment. I have to. Even though I am self-reliant most of the time, the undeniable fact is that people need other people, sometimes in their highs, sometimes in their lows.  That’s why I’m glad my friends were with me in Chicago when I got the job. That’s why the minute my thesis defense is done, one of my friends is (hopefully) taking me to a bar to toast to the end of an era. But more than anything else, that’s why my friend panicked and called me when I told her I was about to break down in tears. She missed the eruption by mere minutes, but it was one of those days when all the chocolate in Hershey wasn’t going to fix a damn thing.

“It’s the thesis,” I explained. “And everything else. I’m just tired.”

It would have been mortifying to break down crying on the phone, but luckily, I had gotten that out of my system. I talked in circles for twenty minutes, mainly because it made me feel better, but partly because I was grateful. And as I walked around in my own words, I found enough solace to press onward. There are just some things that soup can’t fix. If fixing my thesis was as easy as chopping it up and throwing it in a pan with a bunch of fancy seasonings, then I would have done it ages ago. I guess a thesis is kind of like that. Word soup, made of blood, sweat, tears, and carpel tunnel.

I, of course, reciprocate this “dealing with the chatter of a very disgruntled and thesisbound graduate student” thing when the time calls for it. Some people simply need to vent about their lives to get through the day. Birds of a feather flock together, I suppose. I’ve taken phone calls for every flavor of trauma and stupidity. Parents, significant others, health issues, coworkers… you name it, and I’ve probably heard it at least once on the phone, and I don’t mind that sort of thing because, hell, I complain about what I perceive as everyday stupidity as well. It vexes me to no end that a bunch of college-educated people still haven’t learned how to use common sense. Every time someone misses a beat, I scratch my head and call people whatever expletive happens to spring to mind. When driving, I’m a little less judicious about bottling up my frustration. Things like my infamous road rage make me thankful that my friends understand I can be a jack-ass because I am ninety percent sure that not everyone would.

This soup actually started two weeks ago in a conversation. “I’m running out of ideas,” I confessed. “I can’t think of anything else to make. I’m saving my favorite for the very end because I’m not sure how well it’s going to work.”

“Make sweet potato, then.”

I confess that I have been leery of sweet potatoes ever since the first time I laid eyes on a canned yam. I don’t consider myself a picky eater, but when something looks so foreign and repulsive, like some sort of alien egg out of a sci-fi movie, even I’m a little put off by it. Irrational, yes, but so is much of what goes on around me.

Not too long ago, around the same time the soup discussion took place, my old coworker Morgan celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen her in three months, so I decided to attend her party. On the menu was, of course, sweet potatoes, but mashed, not canned. Suddenly, I was faced with one orange mound of terror that remind me of all the other fears I had faced over the years. When I was eleven, I faced my fear of roller coasters with my best friend from childhood. A few months ago, I faced my fear of sushi with my friend Korrin and a martini in my hand. Raw fish is now something I’ve been indulging in once a week now. Sweet potatoes, of course, were no exception. Overcoming fears is a part of life, I guess, and if our friends aren’t there to do it, then how will we overcome?

Can gratitude be expressed in soup? To me, that seems like a culinary experiment worth trying just once.

Chicken and Sweet Potato Soup for the Sole
(Based roughly on this recipe)

The Penultimate Bowl

(Dedicated with gratitude to my favorite respiratory therapist… never mind that she’s the only one I know)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 3 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp garlic
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp garam marsala
  • A little over a pound of sweet potatoes
  • 1/4 cup baby carrots, chopped
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped

Directions

  1. Saute onions in olive oil for 5 minutes.
  2. Add garlic and ginger. Saute additional 2 minutes.
  3. Add curry and garam marsala. Saute for another minute.
  4. In the interludes between steps 1 and 4, chop carrots and sweet potatoes.
  5. Add 3 cups chicken stock, chicken tenders, carrots, and sweet potatoes. Simmer for 20-3o minutes, or until sweet potatoes are tender.
  6. Remove chicken tenders and shred. Let cool for about 10-20 minutes.
  7. Using a food processor that is hopefully better than mine, puree carrots and sweet potatoes.
  8. Return to pan. Add remaining cup of chicken stock and shredded chicken breast. Heat 10 minutes.
  9. Chop green onions and sprinkle over the bowl.

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Sometimes, life throws little surprises your way.

Here’s the thing: I hate surprises. Mostly.

Up until about a month and a half ago, my entire life and future were nothing but chaos. I couldn’t clearly see what I would be doing in the upcoming year, whether or not I would be employed, whether or not I would even be done. And I hate that. I hate it because I’m a planner. I hate it because I get pressure from all sides about what I’m going to do with myself when I’m finally done. I hate it because it is the unknown, which I’m pretty sure irritates me more than anything else.

Then, suddenly, things started coming together.

There is nothing so delicious as proving people wrong, as triumphing over negative expectations and showing that, yes indeed, you can have a degree in English and get what you want… even if what you want changes quite a bit along the way. My original plan was to go straight to a PhD; I never gave the real world a thought—the only thing I wanted was to learn more, write more, read more. Then, quite suddenly, one negative experience blew the lid clean off of the pan and splattered tomato sauce all over the back of the clean range.

It took me two months to wake up to that reality, and when I did, I wanted to go right back to sleep. I had decided on this course five years ago, so why was it changing now? Then again, that begs another question: when exactly do people ever really know what they want? The truth is that the conception of something is usually so grandiose, so flawless, that the reality of it just stings like a steam burn. Maybe it’s only like that for me. As a perfectionist, I like to think things are perfect, that they really are as good as I think they are and that I’m the one who’s flawed so I have to work that much harder to make them better.

I’ve had the epiphany at least forty times by now, and it will be forty more until I get on the plane, but this morning, I woke up to the thought that I had a job. It wasn’t a sharp realization like it was at one-thirty in the morning a few weeks prior. This one was gentle fingers of steam prodding me into consciousness. No… today, my abrupt realization was that, after nearly a year and a half, I had a full and finished draft of my thesis, ninety-four pages long, and that if anyone hacked, maimed, or otherwise jeopardized the well-being of my computer, I would more than likely try beating them to death with a ladle.

Everything came together, just like that. Thesis, job, and all.

This has nothing to do with soup—or does it? Because if there is one thing I have learned during all of this blogging, it is that soup has a way of coming together just at the last minute. A dubious line-up of ingredients that, at first glance, may raise some eyebrows, but with a little work, a little effort, maybe some tears from chopping the onion, they come together. As someone who likes to be mystified at the goings on in the world, I don’t question why or how. I just savor my soup in gratitude.

I celebrated the end of my first semester in a rather unique way. While everyone else was drinking alcohol, I decided to make soup. Tortellini soup. I’m not really sure where the idea struck me, but I thought I should give it a shot. I assembled my ingredients, and when the last tortellini floated to the top, I served myself a bowl. I have probably made tortellini soup more frequently than anything else since moving out, possibly with the exception of paninis, but those hardly constitute as cooking. Maybe curry beat it out. I’m not quite OCD enough to pay attention to that sort of thing. In any case, I told my dad about it, and he eventually altered the recipe to his own specifications, substituting the type of tortellini, the broth used, and several other ingredients.

“Why did you use beef tortellini instead of chicken?” I asked him. It wasn’t a complaint; more like an inquiry so that, for once in my life, I could get a glimpse into my father’s psychology.

“Because I like beef better.”

Fair enough. To this day, I find it a little vexing that he wouldn’t accept the same answer for the reason that I chose English as my major over engineering, but I suppose he and I have such divergent tastes that it really doesn’t matter. In the soup of life, things come together at the drop of a spoon.

And on the rare event that they do actually come together, I tend to like surprises.

Chicken-Herb Tortellini Soup for the Sole

The Twelfth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 ½ tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 can Italian tomatoes
  • 1 can vegetable broth
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 10 oz chicken-herb tortellini
  • 8 oz frozen green beans

Directions

  1. Saute onion in olive oil for five minutes.
  2. Add garlic and herbs. Saute additional 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add cooking liquid and tomatoes. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Add tortellini and green beans. Simmer for 10 minutes.

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My Microwave, RIP.

Sir Nukesmysoup
Born: 1999-ish
Died: April 9, 2012, 1:37 p.m.

Today is a sad day in the kitchen, and not just because thus far, my soup plans have gone awry. Today, I say farewell to an old friend of mine who has been with me since I moved up north.

Sir Nukesmysoup came into my life in July of 2010, a hand-me-down from a college friend of mine. From my understanding, Sir spent a lot of time traveling Ohio after he was born in China and imported to America. He finally settled in Sylvania but found that his services were no longer needed after my friend’s father closed his business. He was thinking about retiring, anyway, but after a couple years of sitting in a musty garage, he decided it was time to re-enter the labor market. He found his way to me, and I hired him for one thing: to heat my leftovers to perfection.

Although Sir was old when I met him, he still had some spunk left. Slow but steady, he took three minutes to heat a bowl, but I never once complained. I’m pretty sure one day I’ll have him to thank for getting cancer since the paint was peeling off the top of his insides when I hired him. Sometimes, I wonder how much of it he dropped into my food. He was a crotchety old thing, Sir, but he was willing to put up with me using him as a storage space for the small appliances I didn’t have any room for on the counter. He held my vitamins in plain sight, and the oversized coffee mug I got in Disney World the summer I met him. The funny thing was, once I gave him something to heat up, he was loth to let it go. He would cling to it with the same tenacity with which he clung to life. His door stuck constantly.

The first time I used Sir, I was mystified by my inability to successfully heat a plate of pasta. I hit the “Start” button about seven or eight times and failed to produce even the slightest signs of life. He was sleeping, anyway, so I didn’t want to disturb him since he would be around for the next two years. With a sigh, I decided to eat the pasta cold. It was a hot day, anyway.

On my second attempt, I’m not sure what prompted it, but I pressed the middle of the button. Sir sprang to life with a mechanical whir that meant he was heating my food. Suddenly, my life away from the home I missed so much looked a little brighter, all because Sir was willing to work with me instead of against me.

For two years, Sir and I have worked together to get rid of leftovers, him heating them, me eating them. Of all the things in my kitchen, I have probably turned to him more often than practically everything, maybe with the exception of the dishes and George Foreman. When I was down, only Sir could heat my soup, and on more than one occasion, he also heated my tea. He cooked my popcorn to perfection and burnt the bottom pieces every time, but still… still, I couldn’t part with him, not since he was struggling so hard.

During my time as a sole chef, I’ve learned that I can live without a lot of things. I’ve realized the superfluity of owning a matching set of dishes. I’ve found ways around buying a rolling pin and a knife sharpener. I admittedly have way too many coffee cups and tupperware containers, and in my time of need, when Sir let me down, when he said quite clearly that he had heated his last bowl by giving me a cold leftover taco, I learned that a microwave was an absolute necessity.

Am I bitter? No. Sir Nukesmysoup lived a good life. He made sure my meals were heated for two years, and even if it wasn’t to perfection, it meant something. It meant I didn’t have to eat another meal out. It meant comfort and sustenance and creative ways to get through the night on caffeine highs. The counter feels a little emptier without him. I take solace in knowing that he would approve of his replacement, who may well perform his job better than he did but who will never quite occupy the same high standing that Sir achieved. A first microwave does that to a person, no matter how many hands it has gone through. One thing is certain: these hands will not forget.

Did you ever wonder why hot dog buns come in packs of eight and hot dogs in packs of ten? I’m pretty sure it’s for the same reason that leeks only come three in a bunch at the local Kroger: to force people who hate wasting food, people like me, to get very creative with their cooking.

With hot dogs, the solution is easy. So you’ve got ten hot dogs and eight buns. You serve eight at a party, and cut the other two up and eat them for breakfast. It’s that simple. With or without beans. If you’re feeling creative, you can make little octopus wieners and draw little faces on them with ketchup or mustard. But because I made the mistake of reading the label once, I no longer face this dilemma. Hot dogs will not cross my threshold, and for a good reason. Kosher beef is an option, but how the heck would I make soup out of hot dogs, and how would I go about spinning kosher beef into a blog about chicken soup? It’s best for me to stick to those bags of frozen chicken breasts, which have significantly less fat… at least before I stick them in a cream-based chowder.

Leeks are slightly more difficult. I usually only cook once a week, and when I do, I go through the motions of cutting, peeling, dicing, slicing, sauteeing, and simmering. I do it with a smile or while singing slightly off tune, and I do it so I know I’ve got something good waiting for me at the end of the day. I’ve got this paranoia of illness. At this point in the semester, I know that catching anything will spell sudden death, so if I want to stay healthy, I feel the need to eat healthy, hence the soup.

The trouble with leeks is this: they are slightly more volatile than your everyday hot dog, and you can’t just fry a leek up and eat it (well, you probably could, but I would personally prefer to pair it with something… pasta maybe?) any more than you can just hack it up and put it on top of a salad (now that I think of it, that’s not a bad idea… I’ve never had a raw leek. I’m not even sure if they’re edible). This presents a troubling impasse of options for someone who wants a leek and hates to waste food, and the solutions I’ve come up with hardly seem adequate.

  1. Buy the leeks and throw the ranky ones away. It’s worth it for soup, right? Not at $3.00 a bunch, it doesn’t.
  2. Over-leek the soup. Of course, given the constraints of my personal challenge, this creates a bit of a problem. Over-leeking might create bigger problems.
  3. Get really sick of leeks by week 3. Grin and bear it… and make just one more recipe with leeks. Once the soup is done, proceed to the fridge for a celebratory shot of gin, maybe two. Completely lose the desire to think about leeks until you realize that you haven’t updated your soup blog in a timely fashion. Cuss. Cuss again because there’s simply too much shit to do. Grin and bear it. Write a blog entry and put leeks to bed for good… or at least for now.

I’m ready to leave leeks behind. They really have tested my creativity as a cook, pressed it to its utmost limits. I’ve had to grapple for solutions, altering one old recipe just to use one, then finally getting rid of the last one with an excellent fallback, once again from childhood, and once again because of my father. I was eleven when I was presented with what looked and smelled like an oversized green onion. “What exactly is this?”

“A leek.”

“A what?”

“A leek. It’s like a green onion.”

“What are you going to do with it?” I had just eaten lunch, but I was intrigued by this strange piece of produce.

“I’m making potato and leek soup.”

I knew what a potato was, so I had no doubt that it would be delicious, and I was not disappointed. My expectations were met and then some. I gave my compliments to the chef.

Maybe it’s his fault that I had a leek craving three weeks ago and had to go through the pains of finding really creative ways to use them up. Fortunately, this is the end of it. I am happy to report that the leeks are gone and that the cause of my cravings, in a roundabout way, prompted the solution to my problem. As I sat down with the first bowl, I thought of my dad, whom I would soon be seeing because of an impromptu Easter trip home, took a bite of my own efforts, and smiled. Even in the face of a hellishly busy week, I was happy to find that I was still happy to enjoy the little things in life.

Chicken, Potato, and Leek Soup for the Sole

The Eleventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 leek, washed and diced
  • 2 stalks celery, washed and diced
  • 1 mammoth potato, washed and diced
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1/8 cup flour

Directions

  1. Combine olive oil, spices, chicken, leeks, and celery in a pan. Sautee for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add flour to magical magnificent puddle of water from leeks, etc. Combine well.
  3. Add half and half. Whisk like the devil.
  4. Add chicken stock and continue whisking vigorously until all lumps of flour are gone.
  5. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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Mother nature is a bitch, and I’m not just saying that because my ovaries feel like they’re going to pop out of my gut like an alien. I’m saying that because I finally found that heating pad, and I can’t decide whether my back or my stomach hurts more. I’m saying that because, despite nine hours of sleep and an iron pill, I still feel like I’ve been run over by an entire garage of semi-trucks.  I may also have been influenced by Michigan’s schizophrenic climate, which heard all of the people complaining about how hot it was and decided to throw in (hopefully) one more dose of winter before finally letting Spring take the stage.

I don’t have to look hard for the signs of a budding spring. I can already see them. The tiny appendages that will soon grow into leaves dot the end of each branch, and the cherry blossoms on our tiny trees have already bloomed. In places, they echo the snow that for some reason has left us alone this year. It is 7:30 and full daylight. The day looks inviting… until you open the door and say, “Sweet Jesus! It is only 30 degrees!” It’s enough to send me climbing back under the covers… but I don’t, because there is too much work to be done and too much to think about to waste time sleeping.

Friday alone blew my mind in terms of news. Expecting a phone call about my impending move to Japan, I answered my obscenely old cell at work only to hear a strange voice. “Amanda?”

“What?”

“Amanda?”

“…I’m sorry. Who is this?”

It turned out to be a friend of mine I haven’t heard from in two months.

“I’ve got some news for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” She paused. “Guess who’s going to be a Godmother?”

I’ve spent my whole life hating children… namely children that can’t behave, so I guess I’ve really spent my life hating parents that can’t take time out of their busy Farmville schedules to raise their kids. Determined not to have children of my own, I can’t help but look forward to the prospect of being able to sugar what (or is it who at this point?) I now call “the little bean” up and send him/her home to his/her parents. “That’s fine,” the expectant mother told me. “But no noise toys.”

“Exactly. Sugar wears off, but that noise maker will be there for months until daddy ‘accidentally’ steps on it.”

On the exact opposite end of the “awesome” spectrum, my friend lost her cat this past week. Although the cat was ailing, she was not given the opportunity to give her feline companion a fond farewell. Instead, her parents stupidly put the cat down without her input and then acted like it was a big secret. Now, as someone who lost a nineteen-year-old cat just after learning that I obtained a graduate assistantship, I can honestly say that that is grounds for never speaking to someone again. Ever. There are three things people should never come between in life: a woman and her food, a woman and her work, and a cat and its person. People are serious about their cats… and about their friends. Case and point: I am angry, and it isn’t even my cat.

When I was originally planning my next soup, I planned to make potato and leek. I am still working through the leeks, which only come in bundles of three, and I know there is a potato in my cabinet, but all of that changed on Monday, the day of cookery.  By then, I am totally burnt out on my thesis, which I have been notified is in severe need of some connective repairs. Mother nature is cracking her whip, and I’m downright miserable no thanks to the joys of being a woman. What I needed was a hug in a bowl, something comfortable and classic. Something that reminded me of overcoming trials.

The first time I had the pleasure of homemade chicken noodle soup, it was not because I was sick and my mother decided to cook it. I was staying with a friend (the same one who is pregnant) and came down with the sinus infection from hell. She went through the motions of boiling the chicken, of making the noodles from scratch, and even if it didn’t cure the problem, it made me feel like I was swaddled in soup. Best of all, through the dull, woody taste of illness, I could detect the flavor of chicken, and that is the most joyous moment a sick person can have. After a bowl, I comfortably got back to studying, sustained by the savory flavor and its warmth.

Cue big news number four. I got a phone call after cooking my soup, and four days after I expected it. The company offered me a position in Nara-shi (奈良市). Suddenly, Japan seemed very real, not just some far-off exotic place but somewhere that I will actually be going.

I think I might need another hug… and another bowl.

——–

Evidently, this has been a week of coincidences, and it’s only Tuesday. Monday, I managed to sneak into my thesis adviser’s office for some suggestions, and not a minute too soon since I’m leaving for a conference on Thursday. Today, life threw another curve ball at me, the sudden cancellation of class as a result of the instructor still experiencing another side-effect of spring: allergies. Although I am grateful for the extra time, I am also conscious of how much it sucks  to be sick and soupless, and isn’t it amusing that I just so happen to have cooked the soup to counter the cure this week?

Even in cooking for myself, it seems like I can’t escape being somehow connected.

Chicken Noodle Soup for the Sole
(Note: Also includes leeks, mainly by necessity. If you don’t have leeks, use onions)

The Tenth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp parsley
  • 1 tbsp sage
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 4 chicken tenders
  • 1 leek
  • ½ cup carrots
  • ½ cup celery
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup egg noodles

Directions

  1. Sauté carrots, celery, and leeks in olive oil for two minutes. Add salt and pepper. Sauté for an additional 5 minutes.
  2. Add remaining spices. Continue sautéing for about two minutes.
  3. Add chicken stock, milk, lemon juice, and chicken tenders. Simmer for about 30 minutes uncovered.
  4. Shred chicken. Return to pan. Add 1 cup water and egg noodles. Cook until noodles are finished, about 10 minutes.

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