Finish line

The problem with cramming for final exams – as many of my students were doing only a few weeks ago – is that you end up trying to process too much information, and just as quickly as you learn new things, the old things you thought you knew start sliding away. That’s the glory and the power of writing. Once it’s on the page, it’s solid. No matter how many holiday dinners you eat (I’m onto my third or fourth at this point), those words will still tell you exactly what you did and (sometimes) how you felt about it.

I feel like I’m cramming for my final. Last week, before the holiday, before the family time, before the outpouring of memories and laughter and swallowed tears of all kinds and barking and yelling and joy, I made three Bittmans in a desperate bid to stay on top of the project.

42. Brussels Sprout Sliders: Trim and halve large brussels sprouts, toss with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees until tender but not mushy. Using the brussels sprout halves as you would hamburger buns, sandwich them around a piece of crispy bacon or ham, maybe a little caramelized onion, and a dab of whole grain mustard. Keep everything in place with toothpicks.”

I always intended to make this one for a Halloween party. It seemed fitting: for some, brussels sprouts are a frightening, disdained vegetable. But this new perspective on them makes them fun and perhaps even appetizing to those disbelievers who see them only as a bitter waterlogged grenade of disappointment. But I never did. So they became an appetizer for two:

6 brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 strips bacon, cut into eight even pieces (you’ll use six for the brussels. Eat the other two, or share with a tall, handsome somebody who shows up in the kitchen when the smell becomes too enticing to ignore)

dab (maybe 1 tsp total?) whole grain mustard

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Line a small baking dish (I used a 9” cake pan) with aluminum foil and drizzle the foil with olive oil. Brush or rub the olive oil into an even layer so every millimeter of foil is covered.

Set the sprouts, cut side down, on the oiled foil, spacing them evenly so none are touching. This will ensure even roasting rather than steaming.

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Roast for 15 minutes, until the cut edges are browned and just crisp. Using tongs, flip over each sprout so they teeter on their curved sides. Roast for another 15 minutes.

While sprouts are roasting, cook the bacon. Mine was already cooked – saved from another porky occasion – so during the last five minutes of sprout roasting I added the bacon pieces to the pan to heat them up a little.

When the sprouts are browned and lightly tender, set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. As soon as you can bear to touch them, add a tiny spread of mustard across one cut edge, seat the bacon atop it, and place another sprout half on top to complete the sandwich. Drive a toothpick through the whole thing and serve as an hors d’oeuvre.

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We gobbled these down like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. They were delightful and I highly recommend them as a party item: crisp bacon, zesty mustard, and the nutty crunchy slight bitterness of roasted brussels sprouts, all collected together in one perfect bite. Perhaps a New Year’s Eve treat to help the hours pass.

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Soup and bread seemed like a good meal to follow our sprouts.

82. Cornmeal Flatbread with Onion and Sage: Mix 1 cup cornmeal with 1 teaspoon salt; slowly whisk in 1½ cups water. Cover and let sit for an hour (or up to 12 hours in the refrigerator). Put ¼ cup olive oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet along with a thinly sliced red onion; stir. Heat the skillet in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, then stir and pour in the batter. Bake at 375 degrees until the flatbread is crisp at the edges and releases easily from the pan, about 45 minutes.”

I followed these directions fairly exactly, with the exception that I used only half an onion. The olive oil and onion went into the oven for five minutes at 400F, at which point the onion slices were sizzling and the oil was shimmering beautifully.

Bittman neglects to note where and when to add the sage, so I stirred a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh sage into the batter just before adding it to the skillet.

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This concoction baked for 45 minutes, until it was set, the onions were crisp-tender, and the whole thing loosened easily from the skillet and slid almost gracefully onto a serving tray.

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We cut large wedges and tasted. It was unlike any other bread I’ve come across – more like baked squares of polenta than anything else, which made sense when I stopped and thought about it. Were I renaming this dish, I think I would call it Polenta Pizza. It was well oiled and spongy in texture, squishing pleasingly between our teeth and driving us back for additional tastes. N. wasn’t sure he liked it at first, but then he went back for a second slice and then a third. When I ribbed him about this, he said he was still deciding what he really thought, and needed more samples to truly make up his mind.

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This odd little bread course could easily be dunked in saucers of warmed marinara sauce, or sprinkled with mozzarella or parmesan for a pleasing salty bite. Though the onions and sage were good, you could probably saute almost anything in that skillet before adding the batter: sausage, peppers, mushrooms… anything you’d put on a pizza.

A decadent appetizer and a well-oiled pizza/bread need a sober, sensible kind of soup to balance them out.

19. Saute chopped onions, garlic, celery and carrots in olive oil, then add chopped tomatoes (boxed are fine) with their juice, lentils and stock or water to cover. When everything is soft, add a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of red wine vinegar. Garnish with parsley.”

Since we were leaving town the next day, I didn’t want huge quantities. (This still made enough for four, but I froze the leftovers so nothing was lost)

½ red onion (left from the flatbread, so convenient), diced

4-6 small cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup each celery and carrots, sliced

¾ cup lentils

13.5 oz can petite diced tomatoes

2½ cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth, or water)

1 TB lemon juice

2 TB fresh, finely chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

I heated 2 TB olive oil over medium heat, then tossed in the onions to sweat for a minute or two before adding the garlic and the other vegetables. When the onions were translucent and tender, I added the tomatoes, lentils, and broth and turned the heat up to medium high until the whole pot came to a boil.

Once boiling, I gave it a healthy stir and then turned the heat down so the soup would just simmer, letting the lentils soften gently and the vegetables tenderize.

Simmer for at least 35 minutes, then taste the lentils to see if they are tender enough for your taste. We like them soft but not mushy, with minimal resistance but still able to hold their shape.

Just before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir gently, and dip into serving bowls. Scatter the surface with a grassy sprinkle of parsley.

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We liked this, though it wasn’t the best lentil soup I’ve ever had. The flavors were enticing and the lemon juice made it a bright, rather than heavy, soup. The problem with it was that I like my lentil soup more like a stew or a chili. The brightness of the lemon made the shower of shredded pepperjack cheese I was considering adding seem extraneous and out of place, and I tend to get crotchety when denied cheese. But alongside the flatbread and the richness of the brussels sprouts, it was hearty but didn’t weigh us down.

2012 is fading like the last sheen of daylight across the hills in winter. 2013 charges toward us, all mystery and sharp promise. I thought about cheating and saying I was done; these three dishes are the final three, I made it, all boxes are checked, all questions answered, funtoosh, kaput (extra points if you can name my source!), but I just can’t. I’m too close. This final exam is too important. This resolution needs to be one I keep. I have two dishes left. I have two days, one of which will be spent driving from the Sierra Nevada foothills where N.’s parents live back to Los Angeles and my little house. I hope I’m going to make it. The finish line is in sight. Now I just have to stagger across it.

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