SW chicken salad 2

I’ve been thinking a lot about the passage of time lately.  Struggling with it more than thinking about it, if I’m honest with myself.  It’s because it’s almost my birthday, and this seems to happen every year.  A little birthday present to myself.

This year, though, I’m particularly sunk into my reflections and questions.  Why? Because I’m a perfect storm of hormones and turning thirty.  Oh yeah.  The big 3-0.  Or should I say the big 3-O-L-D?

But, as I find happens with every year and with every big life event, suddenly what used to seem like a sure sign of being grown up or being old doesn’t seem old or grown up at all.  I think I decided in high school that I hoped to be married and have my first child right around the time I was 30 because that seemed like such a solid mature age, one where I would surely feel like I had my footing in life, know what was going on, be mature enough to “handle things.”  Now that I’m there, actually married and having my first child as I turn thirty, I feel like that high schooler was psycho.

30 is totally not old enough to be doing anything like this or have a handle on anything!  What was I thinking?!  Maybe I should’ve shot for 40?

SW chicken salad 1

But seriously, I think some part of me always believed that by age 3o I would feel grown-up.  And I don’t feel grown-up at all.  When I think about it, I can recognize that my life must look fairly grown-up from the outside:  married, having a baby, starting a business, writing a dissertation, and a column, taking care of a house, grocery shopping, cleaning toilets, and such and so.  The times when I really recognize that I must in some sense be grown-up are the little moments like when we get home late and have guests and somebody needs to make up the beds and I realize that there isn’t a mom there to get everything set up for you.  There’s me, and I’m the one who gets out the sheets and extra pillows and towels.  That to me is the clearest indication so far of grown-up-ness.  But I still don’t feel inside like I’m grown-up.  I feel like I’m in process.

Which, I suppose, is simply the reality of all of life.  No matter how old or young, we’re always in process.  And I guess that’s part of why I get so confused by the passage of time.  Each day is just its own little package of activities and being what you are that day, but now and then something urges you and you look back at the collection of all those days and you realize that a great deal has passed and maybe you’re quite different than what you were the last time you really checked.  But at the same time you’re the same person.  Sort of.  You know?

I felt especially confused and overwhelmed by this this last week because I was looking through my baby album to find some photos I needed.  Sitting on the floor with a big old belly, a vaguely aching back, and a brain that’s only firing on one cylinder, I found myself quite unable to comprehend how the tow-headed baby girl in the photos, giggling in a johnny-jump-up, looking bewildered at a bottle of beer held jestingly to her lips, bawling on a diaper changing table, how that baby was me, a woman looking through photos and preparing herself to have a baby of her own.

SW chicken salad 3

Perhaps I’ll understand it down the road when my brain is less foggy.  Somehow I doubt it.  It may be that it’s all a big bewildering thing that we have to live out, in spite of the fact that we can’t understand it.

I read somewhere just the other day, though I can’t remember where now, an admonishment to remember that “the good old days are now.”  It struck me as a rather good thing to remember when one is indulging in navel gazing and nostalgia around the time of their birthday.  I have so many fond memories that I cherish from my childhood, teenagerdom, young adulthood.  And the unhappy memories get softened and made sense of over time so they too become rosier.  And so it will be again on down the line whenever we are lucky enough to have aged and be able to look back at where we came from.  The good old days are now.

Apropos of all this, a memory suddenly came back to me the other day of how much I used to love going to this terrible Tex-Mex restaurant that used to be open in this old brick manufacturing type building down near the water.  I would order a taco salad every time, one of those deep-fried taco shell bowls larger than a child’s head, stuffed with iceberg lettuce, insipid tomatoes, barely flavored ground beef, and generously dressed with ranch dressing.  I’m pretty sure I always got a virgin strawberry daiquiri too.  I loved it so much, I would even request to go there for my birthday.

The memory came back to me because I had decided to make “taco” salad for us for dinner.  It turned into “taco” rather than taco because I had no tortillas or tortilla chips to add to the mix, and Joel insisted that it could not be legitimately called a taco salad without them.  But, the tortilla chips weren’t missed because the salad was plenty without them.  It was a colorful mix of roasted chicken with crisped skin spiced with chili and cumin, burstingly juicy cherry tomatoes, golden caramelized sweet corn, and generous chunks of avocado, all piled onto lettuce we picked fresh from our garden.

We ate it sitting outside in our quiet backyard in warm evening air and the glow of setting sun, drinking homemade strawberry lemonade, and it felt totally obviously that even though I don’t understand the passage of time at all, these really are good old days.

SW chicken salad 4

Southwest chicken salad
Serves: 2-4, depending on hunger level
  • 4 bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • ½ red onion, diced
  • ½ jalapeno, seeded, and diced
  • 1 cup sweet corn kernels (fresh or frozen work)
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 avocado, cut into chunks
  • about 6-8 cups lettuce, chopped or torn into bite-sized pieces
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1½ Tbs. fresh lime juice
  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 Tbs. shredded Jack cheese (optional)
  1. Heat your oven to 425F. Rub the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, the garlic, cumin, chili powder, and cayenne. Roast the chicken in the oven (or grill) until cooked through, about 30-40 minutes.
  2. Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to cool just enough to handle, then cut the meat away from the bone and cut into chunks, leaving pieces of the crispy, spicy skin attached.
  3. While the chicken is roasting, add 1 Tbs. olive oil to a medium saute pan and heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add the red onion and jalapeno and cook, stirring, until the onion is softened, about 3 minutes. Add the corn and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the corn is cooked through and starting to caramelize on the outside, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  4. In a large bowl, toss the cherry tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, and cilantro with the lime juice, 3 Tbs. olive oil, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Divide this between 2 or 4 plates. Divide the corn and the chicken between the plates as well, scattering it atop each bed of lettuce. Sprinkle with cheese, if desired. Serve while the chicken and corn are still warm.


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15 Responses to Southwest chicken salad

  1. Re: Your comment about being 30 and not feeling old: Wait until you are 60. You won’t believe how you think the same as you did when you were 20, 30, etc. You also won’t believe how your body starts to let you down and doesn’t keep up with your brain. Begin a yoga or tai chi or running or ANY excercise program that you can love. Begin it NOW and don’t quit it. Your 65 year OLD self will appreciate it greatly and thank you! Best regards.

    • Emily says:

      Good advice! I already know you’re right. My parents have actually told me the same thing, that it’s so weird to still feel like your 20 year old self, but that your body just doesn’t cooperate anymore. It’s a funny process!

  2. Peach says:

    Oh, dear Emily!
    I asked my mom when she was in her late eighties when she felt “grown up” and she answered “I don’t feel grown up yet!”
    Point is – as long as you continue to find new and interesting things in life – you don’t want to feel totally grown up!

    • Emily says:

      I think you’re totally right Peach! Who wants to feel grown-up anyway, right?! 🙂 Young at heart forever!

  3. Nicole says:

    Ah, I’ve so been feeling all of this as I’m turning 30 this year as well! You put into words exactly what I’ve been thinking a lot about these past months and was just talking to my boyfriend about the other day. I really do only feel ‘grown-up’ in those moments when I’m doing something that it’s so nice to have a parent do or when I’m doing something that echoes how my mom does something, even down to how I wash dishes or fold towels. Otherwise? I don’t even know how people feel grown-up enough to do anything! Thank you for the beautiful post–

    • Emily says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one. 🙂 I guess maybe it turns out you don’t have to feel grown-up in order to get some pretty grown-up things done!

  4. KathyK says:

    Another amazingly written post. This sense that you think “when I’m this age, I will be or feel this or that…’ I remember recently, I was reading something about a 55 year old woman who had a bad accident close to where I live and in my head I thought ’55 – older woman’ and then a second later, I thought ‘wait that is like MY age!’ In our heads, in someways, we always remain feeling like that young version of ourselves.

    • Emily says:

      Oh, that’s funny! I think you’re totally right. Maybe our true selves don’t even have an age! I kind of like that as an idea. 🙂

  5. Sophie says:

    This is so beautifully written! “The good old days are now.” I love that reminder, and with every year that passes, I find it to be more true. And like you (I will be turning 29 this year), I do not feel grown-up yet! The fact that I am always carded for alcohol and assumed to be just out of high school on my looks alone doesn’t help, but I’ll take it as a compliment. The other thing to remember is that we are capable of a lot more than we think 🙂 Look how much you’ve accomplished already! Parenthood is your next adventure!

    I love your taco salad so much and imagine that it is perfect even without any tortilla products 🙂 I always get hung up on dressing a taco salad: I hate the thick, oozy dressings that land in clumps, preferring something light and bright. This is it. You’re a genius!!

    • Emily says:

      Thank you! Good reminders. We really can accomplish a lot more than we think. I think our own minds can be our worst enemies sometimes, over-thinking it all! Lucky you that you still get carded – that doesn’t happen to me anymore, hehe. Anyways, I hope you give the salad a try. I loved it with the lime dressing. Very light and refreshing!

  6. Hello, fellow Emily! Just wanted to say I’ve been browsing around Five & Spice for a bit now, and I’m charmed. This post, in particular, since 1) I, too, just turned 30 and and am feeling completely unprepared for my 30ness, which I expected to feel a lot more…organized, I guess. 2) I still kind of love those sombrero-sized taco shells. Except now I feel the urge to fill them with heaps of quinoa and black beans, so somewhere along the line the idea of balance forced itself upon me. And 3) Chicken thighs. They can do no wrong.

    Oh, and of course, your writing is lovely, too. I’ll be back. 🙂

    • Emily says:

      Hahaha, yes, yes, and yes! Agreed on all points – especially chicken thighs. 🙂 Happy 30s to you! I’m sure they’ll wind up being great for all of us unprepared’s.

  7. Ingvild says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog, and have spent several hours reading it in the last couple of days – I love it! And being Norwegian, I especially enjoy reading your takes on Norwegian food. 🙂

    On the issue of growing up: Unless something drastical happens the next year, I don’t think I’ll feel grown up at 40 either. Being 39 and just having had my second child, at family gatherings I still refer to my Mum and uncles and aunts as “the grown-ups”. 😉

    • Emily says:

      🙂 Thank you so much! We definitely still call our parents to grown-ups too. Or the “real grown-up grown-ups,” hehe.

  8. Kate says:

    Delighted to have found this blog of beautiful food + beautiful words to accompany. I turned 30 last year, and until a week before, didn’t understand the crisis of it all. Suddenly I realized how far I felt from grown-up, but the age looming on my horizon told me I was.

    Speaking from the other side of 30, it’ll all be just fine. 😉

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