love & butter

Archive for the 'vegetables' Category

NaBloNoMo, plus Shrimp and Braised Fennel

Friday, November 30th, 2007

gambas and braised fennel

I can’t believe I did it. I honestly cannot believe that I posted every single day on two blogs for 30 days. More importantly, I can’t believe November is over and December is here and 2008 is nearly upon us and oh God I think I just got short of breath from a touch of anxiety.

Today I got a little wild hair up my ass and decided it was well past high time to get on the organization train. Late this afternoon I went around town procuring items for baking (although what is up with most stores having only sweetened coconut?) and I scrubbed the holy hell out of my sink. We’re talking a serious deep clean – I soaked it in hot water and bleach, scoured it with Bar Keepers Friend (how that missing apostrophe breaks my heart) and with S.O.S. pads, used a toothbrush in the hard to reach places, and wiped it down repeatedly with paper towels and dish rags. Oooh, does that baby shine. It’s great! But also sort of a bummer because a) was it that dirty before and if so, ew and b) now I don’t want to use it.

gambas and braised fennel

I was going to start baking tonight, but by the time errands and sink spit-shining were done I was so hungry I could barely see straight. So instead I cooked, and messed up my nice pretty sink.

The other day, my mom (who is a physician) told me that fennel is supposedly very good for digestive problems. Well, boy howdy, and here’s me over here been dying to try that braised fennel with Meyer lemon and parmesan that Luisa wrote about earlier this year. And I have all these Meyer lemons lying around because I’m making so many of those Meyer lemon sablés. So at the store, I got some fennel, and tonight I made it.

There must be an error somewhere in whatever information my mom was given, because there’s no way something that tastes this fantastic can also be good for me – particularly not me of the endless digestive woes. Oooh, if this is good for me, I am in heaven.

I laid it atop some pre-made grits-in-a-tube (thank you Trader Joe’s! Like polenta-in-a-tube, only white) and I paired it with one of my favorite quick ‘n’ easy main dishes: gambas a la plancha. Or, at least, my version of them.

gambas and braised fennel

Do you have frozen shrimp in your freezer? No? You should. Especially if you are an IBS-sufferer. Frozen shrimp are so perfect and so very handy, when it is 7:30 p.m. and you are starving and you need to eat NOW and there is nothing in the fridge and you refuse to risk getting sick and you’re also not hauling your ass to the store. I have both the e-z to peel shell-on shrimp, as well as the pre-shelled kind; the latter come in handy when I’m putting the shrimp in something or need to chop them up into bits. I get both at Trader Joe’s, I’m sure you can find a similar version at a happenin’ store near you.

The rich saltiness of the shrimp played off the creaminess of both the fennel and the grits, and the deeply infused lemon flavor of the fennel gave the shrimp the extra bit of pizazz they needed. And the grits were the perfect foil to the powerful, complex flavors of the two stars. Best of all? It’s honestly good for you, IBSers and gluten-free people alike. Lactose-intolerant too, if you leave off the parmesan! Ah, a meal for the arsenal. So to speak.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go lick out the pot and re-scrub the sink.

Gambas a la Plancha, a la Leah

4 oz. jumbo shrimp, preferably shell on/e-z peel (16-20 count, so this will be about 5 or 6 large shrimp)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
Italian parsley, chopped (I know there’s none in the photo – in my rush to eat, I forgot to put it on)
lemon wedge

1. Defrost the shrimp: place in a strainer and run cold water over them for 5-7 minutes until they are defrosted. They’ll be nice and pliable.

2. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook until soft, 1-2 minutes. Before the garlic browns, add the red pepper flakes and cook for a minute more to release the flavor. Remember, the more you add, the spicier they will be – I usually do a sprinkle or three of the shaker.

3. Add the shrimp to the pan. Cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until bright pink. Turn the shrimp and cook on the other side. They should be bright pink on both sides, with a nice white inside. Do not overcook or you will have rubbery shrimp. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon on the side.

Serves 1

I’m A Space Cadet, Plus Some Romanesco Cauliflower

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

romanesco cauliflower

Oh my GOD, you guys. I am so out to lunch. Tonight I burned my favorite (but thankfully inexpensive) little stand-by pan, the 8″ omelet pan I use all the time, I mean all all all the time*. I got off the plane, got picked up by Mister Certain Someone and his dog, came home, and had to eat something. So I fried up some sausage and steamed some greens (that were somehow still good, after hanging around in the crisper drawer for I don’t know how long and don’t want to know and probably shouldn’t even be admitting this), while also adoring the cat, going through the mail, catching up on Internetty stuff, blogging, and watching TV. A little while – ok FINE, quite a while later – I’m on the couch, wondering why the smell of sausage is still so intense and why it’s still pretty smoky in the house and, no wait, why the house is filling up with smoke, HOLY CRAP I LEFT THE BURNER ON UNDER THE EMPTY PAN. Which meant the little cribbly bits in the pan and the wee smears of grease burnt up all nice and fused to the pan, making it a useful pan no more!

Thankfully the flame was low enough that there was no other damage besides the pan. Also, it’s good to know I am at least with-it enough to figure out what’s going on before it gets smoky enough in my house to make the smoke alarm go off. Let this be a lesson to us all: No cooking when overly tired, and less multi-tasking when cooking. See America, you need more rest and you need to SLOW DOWN. I am living proof of that. Rush, rush, rush, and all the things you don’t pay attention to burn down.

Wow, that’s deeper than I meant it to be.

romanesco cauliflower

So right, about that cauliflower! (How’s that for a totally fantastic segue?) On Saturday, my parents and I went to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, and I was entranced by the Romanesco cauliflower. Some people like to call it fractal cauliflower, others (like my mother and apparently my grandmother) call it “alien sex organs.” If I have not totally turned you off eating it now, you should go buy some immediately, because it is beautiful and fascinating and fun and also tasty.

There are probably a million and one fancy ways to cook it. I wanted to roast it and make it all caramelly, but by the time dinner rolled around that would have taken too long, and I was hongry. So I did a quick and easy version of it one night, and it was tangy and sparkly, tender to the tooth but still firm. It’s a perfect “o noes, I have IBS and I better eat more veggies today but they take so long to cook whatever shall I do!” recipe. Go on and get some. Plus I hear alien sex organs are good for the digestive system.

cooked cauliflower

Sautéed Romanesco Cauliflower

1 large head Romanesco cauliflower
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar

1. Remove the tough bottom stem from the cauliflower, and cut it vertically into four quarters. Cut the quarters into slices 1/2″ thick. The cauliflower will crumble, and you may want to cut some of the florets into smaller pieces. Cut the center core into small chunks as well.

2. Heat a pan with about 1/2″ water and place the cauliflower into a steamer basket. When the water boils, place the steamer basket into the pot and cover, steaming until the cauliflower is just tender, about 4-5 minutes.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the steamed cauliflower and sauté until the cauliflower begins to brown. Add the Herbes de Provence, salt, pepper, and the vinegar (you may want to adjust the vinegar depending on how vinegary you like your food – start with less and work up, if you prefer). Sauté another minute or two more, until the cauliflower is nice and brown on the edges.

Serves 2.

*Why is it that the little cheapie items are always the ones I use the most? I have this one knife that I must have bought at a big grocery store, some really basic knife, maybe 4 or 4 1/2″? (I should measure it but that would require effort and right now I have to hurry so I can post this, so maybe I’ll be more specific later.) It’s just this basic $5 knife, larger than a paring knife but way smaller than a big serious knife, and I use it for everything. Even when I know damn well I should bust out the big guns and do some chopping, I’ll lazily slice away using my favorite one, a) because it’s always out and b) because it’s easy. Same with that little pan. Maybe I just like little utensils. I prefer teaspoons over soup spoons. Does anyone know where I’m going with this paragraph?

Today in Oh Hey Great: ok, you know what

Gai Lan with Anchovies

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Oh boy. Here it is, the Monday before Thanksgiving, and I just now realized I haven’t said a whole lot about it. I’m not a very good food blogger, am I. Like most everyone else, I think I had too much going on in the weeks leading up to this one – that minor detail of the dissertation proposal defense – and the time just got away from me. Not to mention the stress. So I’m feeling all at loose ends.

Oddly – for me, anyway, notoriously big on idle consideration and low on active motivation when it comes to homemade gifts – I’m getting all jazzed about making cookies, candy, and other goodies to give away over the next month. The brownies got me in the mood, and I’ve been getting recipes in order and procuring ingredients. I keep thinking of more and more ideas, more must bakes. In fact, I think my “oooh, and then I can make” list is getting out of hand.

But in all this decadence, there has to be a little bit of healthiness. Okay, let’s be realistic: For some of us, there has to be a lot of healthiness, and we can touch very little of the decadence. I keep trying to find healthy recipes to mix in, to keep us balanced and, you know, moving.

Gai Lan with Anchovies

So I feel kind of bad that I’m presenting you with a recipe about which I’m kind of ambivalent.

A while back, I wanted to make some gai lan (Chinese broccoli) after I grabbed a bag on a whim at the farmers’ market. I very nearly made Luisa’s favorite recipe, from The Splendid Table, which I had made before. Instead, I decided to branch out and try a recipe I found in The New York Times magazine for gai lan with anchovies. Some time during the last year or two – I think it was when I finally made Nancy Silverton’s glorious bagna cauda with papardelle – I discovered a love for anchovies. Previously, my experience with them had been limited to a very youthful “I don’t want no anchokies on my pizza,” so it was nice to know my taste buds had grown up and branched out. Anyway, the combo of gai lan, anchovies, and nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) sounded pretty unbeatable. I went for it.

And, of course, was sort of disappointed. The broccoli was overwhelmed. The dish was just too salty. This was compounded by the fact that, in my low-carb way, I didn’t have any rice to cut the saltiness. I missed the more delicate flavor of the ginger. I think I may have pouted a little.

This recipe isn’t a total loss, though, so I’m providing the original version here, as I made it. I’m considering working with it again, and I encourage you to as well (despite this less than glowing review). Maybe cut down a bit on the anchovies, or use a lighter chicken broth or stock. Or both. I think I’ll also include some hot peppers next time. Give it a try and tell me how you find it.

Meanwhile, I’m going to be over here, trying to find my holiday spirit for the week.

Gai Lan with Anchovies

Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli) With Anchovies
From The New York Times

1 pound gai lan, rinsed and trimmed
2 tablespoons canola oil
½ teaspoon minced garlic
8 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons rice wine
¼ cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)
Cooked white rice, optional.

1. Split the large stalks of gai lan in half lengthwise.

2. Place a large sauté pan over high heat and add the oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and anchovies and cook, pressing on the anchovies with a wooden spoon until they dissolve and the garlic lightly browns.

3. Add the gai lan and toss in the sauce to coat. Pour in the rice wine and let it reduce for 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and fish sauce, bring to a boil, cover and steam until almost tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover and cook at a lively simmer until the gai lan is tender and the sauce has evaporated slightly.

Serves 2

Rosemary-Thyme Lamb Chops with Balsamic Reduction

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Man, was I not in the mood to cook tonight. No, it was bigger than that: I wasn’t in the mood to eat. I could have cared less about food. There was this general pall over my evening, the kind of pall that says to you, “Please eat a big bowl of cereal and maybe some ice cream while standing in front of the freezer and then lie on the couch and watch bad television before going to bed late for no good reason.”

But I promised. I promised I would cook something and write about it. And unless I had some fabulous reason to not cook tonight, it seemed like a stupid reason to break a promise.

So I went to the Trader Joe’s in Newport Beach and wandered around for about 20 minutes, with a sort of lost and forlorn look on my face. I was glad that I had remembered to grab bananas but otherwise I couldn’t figure anything out. I seriously reconsidered this whole posting every day in November, being a good writer, making promises to readers thing. Then I spied some lamb chops.

lamb chops!

I love lamb chops. Lamb is one of my favorite meats ever, besides wild boar (no, seriously. Have you had wild boar? Go. Now.) Not only is lamb delicious – and not only have some of the best dishes I’ve eaten in my life been lamb – lamb chops are even easier to cook than steak. Decision made!

By the way, for those of you who are still not convinced about cooking steak, my dear friend Conrad tried the steak cooking technique I wrote about a few weeks ago. He reported back about achieving medium-rare perfection. I’m telling you: Don’t be afraid of steak!

Or lamb chops, for that matter. Somehow, in the midst of the slicing and the chopping and the sautéing, the grumpy mood dissipated and the desire to cook returned. And I’m pretty sure the desire to eat came roaring back when I put the butter in the balsamic reduction and then scooped up a bit of sauce and shallots with a hunk of tender lamb edged with a salty, herbed crust. Oh my. Oh my, oh my.

herbs for lamb chops

Is it bad to tell you that once the pan cooled and I put away the leftover sauce, I swirled my finger around the inside edge, just to get the last remaining drops clinging like salty nectar to the cast iron? It is? I’m so sorry.

But seriously: Talk about a perfect meal for one (with gorgeous leftovers). So good that I wish I could do this whole evening over again, even the grumpy part, just to eat that freshly-prepared dish one more time. I paired the lamb with that sweet, garlicky kale with cranberries and rings of butternut squash roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper. A square or two of dark Valrhona for dessert, and…

Oh, right. Then there’s that. Maybe I don’t want to do the evening over again. Does anyone want to come clean my kitchen?

Rosemary-Thyme Lamb Chops with Balsamic Reduction
Adapted from

3/4 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste
4 lamb chops (3/4 inch thick)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup minced shallots
1/3 cup aged balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon butter

1. In a small bowl or cup, mix together the rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Rub this mixture onto the lamb chops on both sides. Place them on a plate, cover and set aside for 15 minutes to absorb the flavors.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place lamb chops in the skillet, and cook for about 3 to 3 1/2 minutes per side for medium rare*. Remove from the skillet, and keep warm on a serving platter. (Remember, meat will continue to cook after you remove it from the heat.)

3. Add shallots to the skillet, and cook for a few minutes, just until browned. Stir in vinegar, scraping any bits of lamb from the bottom of the skillet, then stir in the chicken broth. Continue to cook and stir over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the sauce has reduced by half. If you don’t, the sauce will be runny and not good. Remove from heat, and stir in the butter. Pour over the lamb chops, and serve.

*You can cook them to your preferred level of doneness, but don’t. I am firmly convinced red meat, particularly lamb, should be eaten medium rare.

Ligurian-style Tuna and Olive Salad

Friday, November 9th, 2007

I’m all for fall: brisk air, crunchity leaves, that particular crisp autumn smell in the air of cool air and warm fires, the sky a paler blue and the colors of the world around you muted as if pulling little blankets over themselves in preparation for the coming chill. I like overcast days and rain, and I’m even okay with a hint of snow now and again (but just a hint). I like boots and scarves and gloves and pretty coats.

Good thing I live in Southern California.

Oh, it gets a little cooler here, but it’s different. A damp kind of cold, the milder version of the bone-deep chill you experience in the Bay Area. It’s not as much of a bundle-up kind of cold as it is wear a few layers, cozy under a blanket, drink something warm, light a nice fire, and get over it.

Even so, I like having something light and sunshiny to eat, to remind me of how sparkly and full of flavor the summer was. Especially this summer, with all those tomatoes. What a dream that was.

I came across two wonderful salad recipes this year, one in September when the farmers’ markets were still overflowing with heavenly produce, and one in October. They’re both vivid and brightly-flavored, with ingredients that complement and elevate each other. The second I’ll leave for another time, because the first should be made now – quick! – while there’s still a good tomato or two on the market. Plus, it’s perfect for those who are looking to stay away from carbohydrates but would like to feel full, at least for a second, and would like to keep enjoying food.

ligurian tuna and olive salad

The salad is a Ligurian-style tuna and olive salad, of sorts. The recipe came from the September issue of Food & Wine, and it looked intriguing. It also looked like something I could sort of throw together given what I had in my pantry, at the moment I was reading the issue – which was a moment at which I was hungry and in the mood to eat. What I made was not exactly the original recipe but a heavily bastardized version (this is becoming a theme here): I didn’t include the bread, because I didn’t have chickpea flour to make the farinata. I was out of capers, and I didn’t feel like opening a whole tin of anchovies for one or two, when I wasn’t sure when I’d be cooking with anchovies again. Instead, I whisked together some red wine and olive oil, put the remaining ingredients in a bowl, and tossed them together, serving them with fresh greens from the market.

The result? A continuation on the theme of “thank you, Italy.” Thank you for having someone clever enough to combine these ingredients, a jumble of salty, briny treats cozying up to fresh, sweet vegetables, tied together with warm, aromatic oregano and a hint of vinegar. Immediately after making my version of the salad, I went out and stocked up on capers and anchovies. I can’t wait to try it that way too. At this rate, I’ll be thanking Italy for the rest of the year.

Ligurian-style Tuna and Olive Salad
Adapted from Food & Wine, September 2007

1 1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/8 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra if desired
1/2 pound tomatoes, diced
1/2 seedless cucumber—peeled, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives
1/4 cup torn basil leaves
1/2 Tbsp. chopped oregano
One 6-ounce cans or jars Italian tuna in oil, drained and flaked
1/2 Tbsp. drained capers (optional if you forget to stock the pantry, but probably fantastic, so make a list)
2 anchovy fillets, chopped (ditto)
Salt and freshly ground pepper


1. Combine the vinegar and olive oil. Whisk gently to emulsify.

2. Place the tomatoes, cucumber, scallion, olives, basil, oregano, capers, anchovies, and tuna in a medium sized bowl. Drizzle with vinegar and olive oil and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with greens.

Serves 4.

Cavolo Nero with Rosemary, Chili, and Prosciutto

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

I had very good intentions for this evening. I don’t just mean that I was going to work out and be in bed by 10:30. I mean I was going to take a break from all this talk of ow, my digestive tract, and hey, check out these vegetables and was going to tell you about a fantastic cake I made a few weeks back that I’m still proud of and secretly dying to show off. Even if I can’t eat things like cake right now. But like the working out and the bedtime, that’s not going to happen tonight.

Instead, I’d like to take this moment to thank Italy. Oh, there are so many things to thank Italy for, most of which I can’t even think about eating right now, which brings a tear to my eye. But there is still this one thing:

Prosciutto di Parma.

prosciutto di parma

You silky, creamy, ridiculously expensive luscious ham, you. The way you tangle up on yourself, too thin to maintain the integrity of your slice. The way you drape over my tongue, almost melting in my mouth as I chew you. It’s so dangerous when you’re in my house, because every time I walk by the refrigerator I think, “Oh, just a little piece. Just a half a slice. A taste. That’s all.” Then I realize I’m halfway through the 1/4 pound I bought and I better slow down or there will be none left for that salad I like so much or the dish I made tonight.

Which, as current obsession would have it, also included kale!

Yeah, about that: Expect to see a few kale recipes here in the next few days. After making that kale recipe on Saturday and hearing from a number of people how much they love kale, I got all jazzed about kale. And it just so happens there’s a full article in this month’s issue of Saveur on cavolo nero, also known as lacinato or dinosaur kale. So, um, the other day I came home from the market with so. much. kale. it was kind of ludicrous. I got swept up in the kale frenzy. I’m going to bring you along with me tonight, and again in the next day or two, because you love kale too. You do!

At least, you will love it this way. A tangle of spicy greens redolent with rosemary, slow cooked just to the point of tenderness, topped with a small but luxurious pile of prosciutto di Parma. The cavolo nero takes on the intense flavors of the rosemary and the garlic without fading into the background. The leaves soften just so, maintaining enough body to give the teeth something to sink into – in fact, the kale and the prosciutto are finely matched, both so tender and satisfyingly chewy at the same time. The cooked kale is so full of flavor (even if you, like me, are making it while watching The Office and forget to put the salt and pepper in until you’re about to turn the heat off), you’d think the prosciutto would be one step too far. Yet the salty pork pulls all the flavors together. It’s the perfect cap. Like a little meat crown.

cavolo nero with prosciutto di parma

Don’t fret, vegetarians. You could top yours with goat cheese, which I bet would be delicious and which I plan on trying one day. And even without a topping, the kale would make a wonderful side dish to all variety of roasted meats and vegetables.

In fact, one of the two original recipes for this particular dish didn’t call for prosciutto at all – it called for goat cheese. It was the other, from Saveur, that used prosciutto. The Saveur recipe required boiling the kale in salted water for 30 minutes, then tossing it with olive oil, salt and pepper, and making bruschetta. I didn’t feel like boiling the kale though, so I found another recipe, and adapted it using what I had available in the kitchen. For obvious reasons, I didn’t make bruschetta and just topped it with the prosciutto. I didn’t even miss the bread.

Like I said, all those wonderful things Italian that I can’t eat – it brings a tear to my eye. Just one. The other one is eyeing the leftover prosciutto.

Cavolo Nero (Lacinato Kale) with Rosemary, Chili, and Prosciutto di Parma
Adapted from BBC Food and Saveur, November 2007

The BBC recipe called for an onion and fresh chili. I didn’t have the latter, and I didn’t feel like chopping up half an onion, especially not when I had a few shallots lying around. Which I always do, and I recommend you always do too – I love cooking with shallots more than almost anything.

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2-3 shallots, sliced
2 small sprigs fresh rosemary
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 bunch cavolo nero, trimmed of tough stems, rinsed and cut into 1/2″ thick slices
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices prosciutto di Parma (you might as well get 1/4 lb. so you can snack on it)

1. Heat the olive oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed lidded pan over a medium heat. Add the shallot, turn down the heat and sauté gently until very tender.

2. Add the rosemary, chili flakes, and garlic and sauté for one more minute.

3. Add the cavolo nero and season with salt. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to its absolute minimum and leave to cook gently for about 20 minutes. Stir once after five minutes, then again ten minutes later.

4. Remove the rosemary stalks, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Divide between two plates and serve each portion with two slices of prosciutto. Serve at once, grating extra pepper on top if desired.

Serves 2

Feast for a king (or a queen)

Monday, November 5th, 2007

You don’t much want to know about my Monday. It wasn’t a “Oooh, someone’s got a case of the Mondays” Monday, the kind in which nothing goes right and it seems like everyone is either out to get you or out to annoy you by telling you to smile. It was just long and tiring and full of a lot of work.

So let’s not talk about Monday. Let’s talk about Saturday instead.

Saturdays are easy to talk about. Saturdays are just plain easy to love. Saturdays leave time for bike riding and coffee drinking. There’s usually a good farmers’ market somewhere – in Berkeley there’s one downtown with the best croissants on earth, and in Irvine there’s one by campus where you can get the softest, most flavorful organic dates every other week. (You can get them every week if you go to the Alamitos Bay Market on Sundays, but that’s Sunday. Stick with me, here.) Even if you have work to do on a Saturday, which I usually do, it’s easy to sort of nudge it gently to the side, quietly promise yourself you’ll do it later, really you will, you have all of Saturday and Sunday ahead of you!

Saturdays are especially nice when you’re in the mood to do some serious cooking. It might even be an extra special Saturday, if you’re lucky: you’ve got a whole meal planned, all sorts of recipes you’ve never tried before, and a very nice person who’s volunteered to do all the shopping for you.

So Saturday. I cooked. I roasted. I cooked. I pureed. I sauteed. I cooked. And I cooked some more. Y’see, last week I had a big idea stuck in my head. It found its way there while I was reading The New York Times, where I came across a recipe for roast duck. A certain someone I know has a very big fondness for roast duck, and since I have a very big fondness for a certain someone, I wanted to try making duck for him one of these days. I’d never made duck before, not in any way. I’d certainly never roasted a whole one. But the recipe not only seemed pretty easy, it was from a Food: Eat, Memory column in the Times magazine that really grabbed me. It had been written that week by Dorothy Allison, the very same Dorothy Allison who wrote Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller. We’re talking some literary duck here, people.

muscovy duck with bacon

So I roasted us a Muscovy duck. I sprinkled it with summer savory and draped it in thick slices of bacon and stuffed it with butter and baby onions and carrots. Toward the end of its roasting, I got to work on a salad and a side dish of kale, and I re-heated the squash puree I’d made before putting the duck in the oven. At the end I stirred up a perfectly creamy gravy. Everything finished at precisely the right time, meaning everything was at the exact temperature it needed to be. When does that ever happen?

Oh, I’m terrible. I’m leading you on. I didn’t make just any old salad or any old side dish of kale or any old squash puree. Here I am, making you think the duck was the star of the show. But the surprise was: It wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the duck was lovely. But it wasn’t the best part, and to be honest, I think the smokiness of the bacon overwhelmed the flavor of the duck a little. So if the duck was very good but not outstanding, why am I so excited about this dinner?

So many reasons. A fantastic dinner is worth more than the sum of its parts. Even if one dish doesn’t quite work, the others will quietly do their job and still make that dish glow. This dinner was one of those rare occasions when all the parts did exactly what they were meant to do.

I managed to put together a group of dishes that complemented each other just right. This was most remarkable considering the boldness of the flavors involved (don’t worry, I’m getting to them!). Each dish worked with all the others; as a whole dinner they complemented each other and turned a cacophony of tastes into a beautiful quartet. The sweet-salty-richness of the salad set off the earthiness of the supple puree, which was a perfect foil for the tart, garlicky greens, which in turn stood up to the tender, slightly smoky, rich duck meat dolloped with a bit of salty gravy. Reverse the order, or recombine, and new flavors would be highlighted, new layers revealed.

It was a rare feat of culinary artistry for me. If I do say so myself.

But let me give credit where credit is due. I only brought the recipes together, I certainly didn’t create them.

spicy greens with manchego and pear

First was the salad, from the November issue of Gourmet. I made the spicy green salad with manchego and pears, sprinkled with crispy, salted pepitas. I had to deviate slightly from the recipe; we had only roasted pepitas available to us, so instead of toasting them and using the oil in the dressing, I substituted a little roasted walnut oil and used them as they were. The dressing was in turns unctuous and sweet from honey, salty and a bit spicy from my favorite mustard, tangy from the Sherry vinegar, and rich and warm from the oils. It perfectly melded the same disparate notes in the salad – the sweet pears, salty pepitas, spicy from the greens, and rich from the cheese. With the bounty of beautiful pears out there right now, a more casually presented version of this salad would make a perfect weeknight dinner for one or two, alongside some soup or a nice piece of leftover roast chicken. It’s definitely a keeper. But it’s not the recipe I promised.

delicata squash

Then there was the puree. Once Luisa posted this recipe for delicata squash and celery root puree, I knew I’d be making it. She’d already gotten me hooked on one squash puree, so I had no doubts the second would be a winner. And no surprise, it was as plush and earthy and irresistible as she’d said it would be. The roasted squash (which I roasted for nearly 15 minutes before realizing I’d forgotten to brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper) develops the sweetest, most caramelly squash flavor with a silken texture that simply melts in your mouth. The celery root asserts itself but, boiled to softness and tamed by the cream with bay leaf and sage, it doesn’t overpower, instead allowing for a mellow but deeply flavorful harmony to develop. But again, that’s not the recipe I’m going to highlight here. I can’t! I love it, but it’s Luisa’s and she just wrote about it.

celery root

So that leaves the kale. You’re probably sitting there thinking to yourself, “She’s gotten me all worked up, and I’ve done all this reading… for kale?” Believe me. This is one of the best kale (or any greens) dish I’ve ever had, anywhere. Even my lovely dining companion, for whom the duck was roasted, declared the kale his favorite part of the meal. He couldn’t stop remarking on it. The sweet-tartness of the dried cranberries, the softened but still pungent garlic that seems to infuse the leaves, and the kale itself, deep green and tender on the tongue and not bitter in the slightest. How those flavors combine is marvelous. On first bite each flavor is separate, for the briefest of seconds, and then they mingle and awaken every part of your palate, so alive and sassy and vibrant. This, my dears, is the recipe I want you to make. Try it out this week. Introduce it into your Thanksgiving meal. Make it again the next week, when you need some greens but are tired of steaming everything. I’m laminating this recipe.

feast for a king

Oh, and about that dining companion? The one who loves Shauna’s gluten-free chocolate financiers, which I keep making secretly so he’ll keep popping them in his mouth and grinning? Like I said, a great dinner is always worth more than the sum of its parts. I guess it just happens when the parts are worth a lot to begin with.

Kale with Garlic and Cranberries
adapted from Gourmet, November 2007

I will let you know a few things: 1) I forgot to drain the kale and put it in the pot directly from the ice bath. It was a little wetter than intended, so I had to pour off some water after a few minutes. However, I think this worked out fine – it gave the garlic extra liquid to cook in and it plumped up the cranberries. You may have this happen if you drain the kale, as there will still be water in it. But if you forget – like me! – you’ll be fine. 2) I did not measure my salt and pepper, so you can also add those to taste, as I did. 3) This is a good recipe for IBS – if the garlic is too much for you, use less; if the cranberries are too much sugar, ditto. But otherwise – lots of greens, nicely cooked! It is so flavorful you might end up eating the whole pot (like I nearly did).

2 pounds kale (preferably Russian Red), stems and center ribs discarded and leaves coarsely torn
1 tablespoon minced garlic
5 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dried cranberries (2 ounces)

1. Cook kale in a 6-quart pot of boiling salted water (1 1/2 tablespoons salt for 4 quarts water), uncovered, until almost tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain in a colander, then immediately transfer kale to an ice bath to stop cooking. When kale is cool, drain but do not squeeze.

2. Cook garlic in oil in same pot over medium heat, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add kale, dried cranberries, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper and cook, tossing frequently with tongs, until kale is heated through and tender, 4 to 6 minutes.

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