"Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine to the soul."-Luther Burbank

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said “The earth laughs in flowers,” which I’ve always thought to be such a lovely sentiment. It truly does seem like a burst of joy when you walk outside and see the first brightly colored wildflowers popping up along the roadside, the fist redbuds blooming along the edge of the woods, or the first deceptively gentle-looking purple wisteria draping itself among tree limbs and along fences.

I have been learning to garden over the past 20-plus years, and that’s not counting the years I spent watching my parents and grandparents garden. I’ve tried my hand at quite a few flowers during that time. Ultimately, my favorite flower to grow is the sturdy, heat-resistant and beautiful zinnia. I have a cutting garden full of them almost every year, with some sunflowers mixed in.

However, my favorite flower to receive in a bouquet is the tulip. I can’t seem to successfully grow them, but I certainly can admire them when I get them into a vase after someone else has devoted themselves to the task.

To celebrate my birthday one year, my sister took me to visit a tulip farm in North Texas, in a town called Plot Point. The tulip farm is run by a family who moved from The Netherlands to Texas several years ago, and brought their tulip business with them. However, unlike the vast majority of tulip farms in their homeland, their farm is a U-pick farm, open to the public. I could hardly wait to arrive.

We had a lovely time strolling through the fields, looking at the hundreds of thousands of blooms in all different colors. Each row looked like a beautiful painting. It led to us lingering for quite awhile and taking many pictures, I can assure you. It was a fun day trip, just right for a sunny Saturday! Of course, we left the tulip farm with two lovely bouquets of gorgeous tulips to enjoy for days afterward.

When I got home after our excursion, it was time for dinner, but I certainly didn’t want to do any “heavy lifting,” so to speak, so I made a simple pasta meal. Meals like that are so handy to have in one's rotation of recipes, because life is busy for most folks these days.

With that in mind, I thought I'd share a couple of quick dinner recipes with you this week, in case you find yourself in need of dinner in a hurry, too.

First, cheesy spaghetti. Pasta is so good to have on hand for last-minute suppers, and with just a few other ordinary ingredients, it can help you get dinner on the table in a way that’s much better for you and better tasting than any drive-through meal offerings. It came in handy when I returned from the tulip farm, and it may just come in handy when you return home from work, church, or even a day in your own garden.

 

One-pan cheesy chicken spaghetti

12 ounces of dried spaghetti, broken in half

32 ounces chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces water

8 ounce container whipped cream cheese

2 cups of cooked chicken (about 1/2 the meat from a rotisserie chicken)

1 can of diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon minced garlic (about one large clove)

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1 cup shredded cheese (cheddar, Colby jack, or Mexican blend)

1 cup sliced grape tomatoes (optional)

 

Method:

 

1. Into a Dutch oven or large, deep-sided skillet, pour the chicken broth, and bring to boil.

2. Drop in the broken spaghetti and add salt.

3. Cook the spaghetti at a low boil according to length of time suggested on pasta package, then turn heat to low.

4. Add the garlic, basil, cream cheese and shredded cheeses, and stir until melted.

5. Add the chicken, water, and all tomatoes.

6. Stir well until well-combined and all is melted. If too thick, add a bit of broth or milk to loosen.

Next, my latest chicken recipe is a simple skillet supper with a Mediterranean twist. I doubled this recipe recently, and every bite was devoured by the friends I shared it with. Several even told me the following week they'd made it at home over the weekend; that's a good sign for a recipe writer! I hope you like it, too.

Mediterranean-inspired Chicken & Rice skillet

Ingredients

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• one pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or breast tenderloins, or boneless, skinless thighs, seasoned with salt and pepper

• 2 to 3 teaspoons minced garlic

• 1 small onion, diced

• 1 medium bell pepper, any color, diced

• one 8 ounce package “Ready Rice," or 2 cups of your own precooked rice

• 28 ounce can tomatoes with liquid

• 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (for flavor and heat, if desired)

• 2 teaspoons ground cumin

• 1 small can pitted and sliced black olives, drained (definitely want to drain these)

• crumbled queso fresco (the white, crumbly cheese you find in the Hispanic chilled foods section) or feta cheese, for topping individual bowls

Directions

In a large skillet, heat oil on medium-high. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper, then place in hot skillet, and sauté until lightly browned, 4–5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.

Add garlic and onion to the skillet, and sauté for 1 minute. Add bell pepper, and sauté for 2 more minutes. Add rice, and stir until combined with vegetables. (Note: Uncle Ben's Ready Rice is what I used; it comes in pouch and is already cooked. If you can't find it, cook your own. You'll need about 2 cups of cooked rice.)

Add tomatoes with liquid, red pepper flakes, olives and cumin to skillet and stir to combine. If tomatoes are whole, smash with wooden spoon to break up a bit.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Place chicken on top of vegetable-rice mixture. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off heat, and let sit on stovetop, covered, for 5 minutes.

To serve, place in soup bowls and then sprinkle queso fresco or feta crumbles over the top of chicken-rice mixture. Makes about four servings

Enjoy, and remember, 'You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients.’ (Julia Child)

Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph". She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.

She is married and has three young adult sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com.