The kitchen counter looked like it belonged on the set of a cooking show. A collection of white bowls contained diced vegetables, rice and shredded chicken. Unopened bottles of spices were lined up next to the stove. A pile of dark green cilantro leaves sat on a wooden cutting board. It all looked out of place in her kitchen, the land of heat and eat convenience foods. Emma studied the page she had ripped out of a magazine and compared the list of ingredients to the real food in front of her. What had she been thinking when she signed up to make the casserole for the potluck?

On the third Friday of every month the residents of the artists’ colony held a potluck dinner. While she always brought chips and deli-made dip, most of the other artists cooked a delicious array of dishes. A rich beef stew with red wine, tender shrimp-filled dumplings and a spectacular crepe torte layered with lemon curd were some of the most memorable offerings.

Two, loud thumps interrupted her thoughts. She opened the apartment door. Daisy, her best friend, stood in the hallway cradling a slow cooker in her arms. “Sorry about kicking your door. I don’t have any hands left to knock,” she said as she squeezed past Emma.

“Thanks for bringing the slow cooker, but I’m not going to need it. I can’t make this.” Emma waved the paper. “I’m not going tonight.”

“The potluck is always fun and you need a break.” Daisy set the crockpot on the counter and plucked the recipe out of Emma’s hand. She slid her fingers along the ragged edge of the page as she read. “All of the ingredients are ready, so you’re half way done. Come on, I’ll help.”

“How about you cook and we eat here?”

Daisy shook her head as she grabbed Emma by the shoulders and guided her to the stove. “No deal. Put on your big girl panties or chef’s hat or whatever. It’s time for you to cook. Show everybody you are more than a pretty face and experienced salsa purchaser.”

Emma sighed as she turned on the burner under the pan. She was an artist who knew what to do with paint and beads, not rice and black beans. She had come to terms with the fact that she wasn’t a good cook, but Daisy seemed to have decided it was her duty to turn her into a kitchen goddess.

“Dump these in and let them warm up,” Daisy said as she handed Emma a can of tomatoes and the bowl of chicken. “The tomato juice needs to be boiling before you add anything else.”

The tangy scent of tomatoes and chili peppers rose from the skillet. It smelled good. Maybe the dish would turn out to be edible. Her mother didn’t teach her how to cook, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t learn. She was a grown woman, after all. A constellation of bubbles formed in the liquid in the center of the pan. “It’s hot. What next?”

“Add everything else, except the cilantro.”

Emma dumped the contents of the bowls into the pan and stacked the empty dishes into a wobbly tower. “Okay. Done.”

Daisy began running hot water into the sink. As she piled dirty bowls into the basin a layer of thick soap foam engulfed the dishes. “When everything is warm, toss in the cilantro.”

“Nobody’s going to believe I made this,” Emma said. She tasted a spoonful of the rice. It was savory and perfectly spicy, not fire-breathing hot like the last time she had made a Tex-Mex meal for Daisy. “You’ve fed me so many times I want to pay you back. Grab a bowl and let’s eat.”

Daisy flicked soap bubbles at Emma. “What’s the real reason you don’t want to go tonight? It’s not like mooching food from me or bringing deli containers to the potluck have ever bothered you before tonight.”

Busted. Better to fess up and admit the real reason behind the sudden change of heart. A full-fledged interrogation from Daisy usually involved large quantities of alcohol and relentless whining. Tired and hungover was not how she wanted to spend the next day. “I don’t want to be around Max and the freaky pin-up girl.”

Max was Emma’s ex-boyfriend. Recently ex. When he broke up with her she had believed his lame excuse that he wanted to concentrate on his career and didn’t have time for a relationship. A few weeks later there was a Marilyn Monroe look-alike clinging to him. It seemed that her main goal was to maintain as much body contact as possible at all times.

“He won’t be there.” Daisy bumped shoulders with Emma before plunging her hands into the dish water again. “You made him go to the potlucks.”

“I did not. I just asked him to go with me.”

Daisy rolled her eyes. “And if he didn’t, what were the consequences?”

“There weren’t any.”

“Okay, then what did he get in exchange for being a good boy?”

“I didn’t reward him for accompanying me.”

“Uh-huh. By the end of the meals he was drooling like a hound who had just gotten a whiff of rabbit and it wasn’t because of the dessert table.”

“Stop it!” Emma was already too warm from standing in front of the hot stove. She didn’t need to remember the after-dinner trysts with Max. Time to steer the conversation in a different direction. She scooped up another spoonful of rice and fed it to Daisy like she was a baby. “Is this too spicy?”

“No.” She dried her hands on the dish towel. “Everybody will love it. So let’s get going. I need to stop at my apartment to grab my brownies.”

“I don’t want to be around Max.”

“He won’t show up.”

“What if he does?”

Daisy tilted her head to the side and then grinned. “You’re right that people won’t think you cooked this. Tell him your new boyfriend made it.”

Mexicali Chicken & Rice
Recipe type: Main Dish
Serves: 4-6
This is a quick and easy way to turned leftover chicken into a tasty meal. This also makes a great taco or burrito filling.
  • 2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
  • 1 - 10 oz. can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies, undrained
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 - 5.25 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • ½ cup frozen corn, thawed
  • 1 - 2.25 oz. can sliced black olives, drained
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  1. In a large skillet combine chicken and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the cilantro. Lower heat to medium and cook until everything is heated through, stirring frequently. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve with any of the following: Salsa, shredded cheese, diced avocado, sour cream or plain yogurt, diced onion, fresh or pickled jalapeno slices