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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.