Counting Down

It’s interesting that as I left my 20s behind chronologically, I entered my 20s in this Bittman project.  As of this moment, on this particular Sunday afternoon, I have 25 Bittman concoctions left to make, most of them soups and desserts.  At a rate of two per week, I will finish by the end of this year.  This means we’re getting toward some major milestones, some very big deals, some lasts on the list.

The first of this pair is one such last.

“34. Combine cooked bulgur with chopped or grated apple, minced orange rind, grated ginger and chopped parsley. Back in an oiled dish, use as stuffing or serve as a salad.”

This was the final remaining entry on the “Stuffings and Grains” list. We left it till last for no particular reason, but during a week in which a collection of Valencia oranges sat languishing in our fruit bowl, it seemed like the right thing to do.

I’ve been fairly good lately about writing down ingredient quantities as I add them, but for this entry I never even lifted a pen.  It happens.  I can own up to it.  A week of non-stop grading, perhaps, made me leery of that inky instrument.  Or maybe it was our relative rush: leave it to me to design a complex, glaze-bearing dinner on a night we needed to eat early.  Some things must get sacrificed, and it turns out it’s not the glaze, it’s the notations.

Here are my approximations:

1 cup bulgur wheat

2 cups water, stock, or a combination of the two

1 large fuji apple, diced into small squares

2-3 TB finely minced orange rind

1 TB grated ginger (this is really easy to do when the ginger is frozen)

¼ cup chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Cooking bulgur is very similar to cooking rice.  I poured the wheat and the water into a pot and let it come to a boil before simmering for 15 minutes or so while I prepped my other ingredients.

After dicing the apple, grating the ginger, and chopping the parsley, I turned to the oranges.  Since Bittman specified “rind” and not “zest,” I used a y-shaped potato peeler to remove long, brilliant segments of rind.  I slid a sharp knife carefully between the rind and any white pith that got caught in the peeling, and then sliced into very thin strips, rotated them 90 degrees, and sliced again so I was left with tiny squares.

Before these happy bright piles all nestling on my cutting board got too comfortable, I tipped them into the pot of bulgur and carefully folded them in for even distribution with some salt and pepper to taste.  The experience of the still-chilly ginger hitting the hot bulgur was sinus-clearingly intense, but lovely.  An aroma-only aperitif.

With everyone incorporated, I dumped the pot’s contents into a greased baking dish and stowed it in a 350F oven for half an hour.

Orange and ginger suggested an Asian flavor profile, even though apples and parsley didn’t.  I decided to work with the dominant elements, though, and so I paired the bulgur with salmon and spinach.  The salmon would be rubbed with sesame seeds, powdered ginger, and orange rind bits before receiving a heavy sear and then an orange-juice glaze.  The spinach would be sauteed with garlic chips and sesame oil.

As with all things, this didn’t happen exactly as imagined.  It takes a long time, as it turns out, to simmer the juice of six oranges down into a thick glaze without burning their sugars.  Similarly, it takes time and babysitting to ensure garlic chips that are crisp, not charred.  And when you are trying to do all this on the same night as a homecoming football game you’ve promised to attend, certain shortcuts must be taken.

The salmon, while it seared beautifully, received not so much a glaze as a flood of boiled, ginger infused orange juice.  Still, when this liquid hit the hot salmon pan, it did bubble down into something thick and rich (if a little darker than intended).

The spinach, rather than the crunchy, spicy accoutrements I intended, had to settle for a last-minute sprinkle of sesame seeds to keep it company.

Still, the meal was overwhelmingly successful.  The salmon was outrageously delicious, and I’m going to have to make it again, writing down the procedure this time so I can share it with you.  The orange sauce perfumed the fish and kept it moist and buttery and tender.  Even though it was a bit darker than I’d planned for, the sauce took on caramel notes that seemed utterly intentional.

The bulgur was lovely.  It was toasty and fluffy and well seasoned.  The apple had cooked lightly as the dish baked, leaving it just softened but not without resistance.  The orange rind was delightfully not overpowering, but gave a warm spiciness to the grain.  It was good with the salmon, but would also be delicious with pork chops (playing on the traditional applesauce pairing) or, if you replaced the parsley with mint, a lovely side for leg of lamb.

In summary, a triumphant triumph: not only is the Stuffings category successfully completed, but it was completed with a success.

 

With the weather cooling (finally!) and the Soups category still looming largely untasted before me, I decided to try one to close out the week.

“21. Brown a little crumbled or sliced sausage in olive oil; a sprinkle of fennel seeds is good, too. Add chopped escarole, cooked white beans with their juice, and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the greens are tender and the beans are warmed through. Garnish with olive oil or Parmesan.”

I must admit I made some changes to these directions based on availability and personal taste.  I don’t like fennel.  It’s one of a very few spice flavors I just can’t take.  Over-fennel-ed sausage – like the kind that appears on many chain pizza restaurant pies – just doesn’t appeal to me, and the idea of fennel seeds crunching between my teeth and filling a mouthful of soup with their anise awfulness made their addition out of the question.

As for the escarole, I could find none.  I searched through mountains of salad greens at several local markets and this particular strain was resolutely absent.  But I did find a really beautiful bunch of kale and decided it would be a satisfactory substitute.

So here’s what I ended up with:

8 oz. bulk sausage

1 big bunch kale (chopped, this was probably 6-8 cups)

3 cloves garlic (some spice to replace the abhorred fennel seemed appropriate)

1 15 oz. can white beans with their liquid

2 cups chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste

Eschewing olive oil, I squeezed the sausage into a pan and let it brown over medium heat, separating and crumbling it as it cooked with a flat-sided wooden spoon.

I rinsed, stemmed, and chopped the kale into manageable pieces, and when the sausage was cooked through, I tossed in the mountain of greens.  No, that’s not true.  I inserted handfuls carefully so they wouldn’t spill all over the stove, and ran out of room with only half my kale added.  N. came into the kitchen when he heard me laughing hysterically, and stared in amazement at the mound of kale pieces sitting inches above the top of my pot.  I had to press it down with my hand, compacting the frilled, tough leaves down toward the bottom of the pot.  It always looks like too much.  It’s always not.  In the time it took me to mince the garlic, the kale had already begun to wilt and settle more comfortably into the confines of the pot.

When I could barely smell the garlic and the kale was level with the sides of the pot (as opposed to threatening to spill over them) I added the white beans, their juice, and barely two cups of low sodium chicken broth.  One of the things I’ve discovered about myself is that when it comes to soups and salads, I like them to be full of, well, stuff.  Lettuce with the odd crouton is no good.  I want dried cranberries, and walnuts, and avocado, and gorgonzola.  Thin, brothy soups don’t please me either.  Give me big chunks of vegetables, or slurpable noodles, or rich shreds of meat.  In the days when I’d indulge in the occasional Cup’o’noodle, I always drank the broth out first so I could concentrate on the important part: the just dripping mounds of noodles left behind.

So this soup, for true enjoyment, needed only enough broth to make its categorization accurate.  A scant two cups and we were assured plenty of “stuff” in every spoonful.

While the soup simmered, I stretched, sliced, and sprinkle mozzarella onto some pre-made pizza dough.  Twisted and snuggled on a baking sheet, these when into the oven to become bread sticks.  Fifteen minutes later when they were sizzling and firm, the soup was done.

This is not a soup you want to let simmer for hours.  The beans, especially if you are using canned like I did, will eventually become mealy and then disintegrate.  The kale begins to lose its emerald brilliance after a while, and though it will still taste good, it won’t be as pleasing to consume.  Simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes max.

Then you get to shave on some parmesan and eat it.

Neither of us was sure we would like this soup.  But we shouldn’t have been so foolish.  N. has placed the products of this project on a pass/fail system.  This is what happens, I suspect, when you have two teachers in the family.  He announces his verdicts after dinner, and he treats them as though Mr. Bittman has just submitted an exam or a paper assignment.  “Bittman passes on this one,” he told me last night as we cleaned up.  It wasn’t just his happiness at pairing his dinner with the first Jubelale of the season.  He really did like the soup.  And I think he was right.  This was a fast, easy, delicious little warmer.  Cooking the kale in the sausage grease gave it some additional flavor and took away that raw bitterness dark leafy greens can sometimes have.  The beans got creamy and delicate, and the starch from their liquid thickened up the minimal broth I used.  Even without the broth, these ingredients seem like a stellar combination that should be taken advantage of at many opportunities.  Sautéed together, perhaps with the addition of chopped onion and maybe butternut squash or sweet potato, they could be a nice little hash.  Wrapped in pastry with some thickened gravy, they could be a pot pie.  Folded with some grated mozzarella and enclosed in pizza dough, they become a perfect calzone.  And as the weather continues to cool (I hope, I hope, I hope), gravies and pot pies and warm cheesy casseroles are exactly what I want to pair my remaining Bittman dishes with.

It seems a bit stress-inducing to start with a countdown.  It’s a looming certainty of what must be achieved.  “That’s a lot,” N. said when I told him how many were left.  But after tonight’s dinner, it will be 24.  And by the end of next week, it will be 23.  And by having you out there reading, it means I must achieve, yes, but it also means I’m promising something to you.  Food.  Words.  Proof of my experiments.  And stress-inducing or not, that’s a kind of accountability I like having.

25 to go…

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One thought on “Counting Down

  1. Pingback: Reflecting « "blackberry-eating in late September"

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