One of my favorite games to play with N. when we are out, about in the world, is a riff on my favorite television show: Chopped (another favorite is noting a couple and trying to determine the status of their relationship based on their clothing and body language, and sometimes, how we think their evening will conclude. We are, clearly, lovely people). Specifically, he will tell me whether I’m to build an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert, and will then list four random ingredients. Unlike the show, where the contestants have a mere half hour to create a meal that incorporates all four, I simply have to describe the dish I would make.
I love this game. Like this year’s blog project, it gives me a chance to stretch my imagination; it’s like a trivia game, except instead of just knowing the answer, I get to invent it. Last fall we were waiting in line somewhere and N. gave me the following as an entrée round basket of mystery ingredients: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, and kale. “Easy,” I said, and rattled off my entry: diced bits of bacon, rendered until crisp. Halibut cooked in the bacon fat with just a little bit of brown sugar. Bright kale sautéed until just wilted, then tossed with the crisp diced bacon, all balanced over a puddle of rich, creamy polenta and crowned with a few spoonfuls of some kind of vodka cream sauce.
Typically, after the presentation of a meal idea, we discuss briefly and move on. This one, though, sounded so good that I decided I should actually make it. As this process usually goes, I then spent the next few months thinking about it, gradually adding layers and complications, and ultimately being influenced by the show itself for several of the components (notable the kale: in one episode a contestant slices kale across the grain into a fluffy pile of thin confetti before sautéing and salting so aggressively that judge Alex Guarnaschelli, on whom I have a relentless lady-crush, admiringly declares it somehow like a potato chip in addictive deliciousness).
The dish I ended up making doesn’t deviate much from the original plan. I did indeed render the bacon, though I reserved some of the fat for the halibut and used most of it to cook the kale. In addition to bacon and salt, the kale also got a drink of vinegar to enhance the potato chip comparison. The halibut remained as envisioned: salt, pepper, a light sprinkle of brown sugar (at the suggestion of a bed and breakfast owner during a family vacation in Alaska when I was in high school), and a light sear until the center is just cooked, pearly and opaque. The polenta, which is fast joining mashed potatoes as a favorite starch option, ended up with some corn kernels thrown in, which is an easy but stupendous addition I insist you try. The vodka got flamed in some brown butter, then whisked with a bit of lemon juice and mustard to create a rich, barely emulsified sauce that tasted perfect on everything. I knew I was in love when, after only a few bites, I was already texting my sister to tell her about it.
This is one of those dishes that is complicated only because it has multiple components, and you want them to be done at the same time. Therefore, though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists per element (polenta, kale, fish, sauce), in the procedure I’ve indicated when to switch back and forth between pans.
Brown sugar halibut with creamy corn polenta, salt and vinegar bacon kale, and vodka brown butter sauce
30-40 minutes, but you must be quite organized
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
½ cup fresh or frozen, defrosted corn kernels
¾ cup polenta
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
3 slices bacon or bacon ends, diced (about ½ cup)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into very thin slices/slivers
2 bunches kale, washed well and patted or spun dry
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup vodka
zest of one small lemon (1-2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt to taste
2 6-ounce boneless, skinless halibut filets
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon bacon fat (from kale preparation)
- Start with the polenta, since it takes the longest: combine the chicken broth, milk, and corn kernels in a medium pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the polenta, the salt, and the pepper, then whisk constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. At first it will seem like there is not nearly enough polenta; keep whisking. Once the mixture has thickened to a loose pudding consistency and is threatening to bubble, clap on the lid and turn the heat down to medium-low or low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it is creamy and thick, and the polenta granules are tender, 15-20 minutes. Just before serving, add the 2 tablespoons butter and gently stir in until well combined. If the polenta is ready before the rest of the meal, hold it over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the other components are ready.
- As soon as you put the lid on the polenta, place the diced bacon in a large skillet and heat over medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, then remove to a paper towel with a slotted spoon to drain. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the fat and discard the rest.
- While the bacon is cooking, prepare the garlic and kale: cut the peeled garlic cloves into very thin slivers. Gather the washed and dried kale in a stack and, using a very sharp knife, slice the kale “against the grain” (perpendicular to the stem) into very thin slices. You are looking for the effect of shredded cabbage or kale confetti. Continue to slice down until the stems thicken – about halfway down the leaf. Reserve the remaining stem and leaf segments for pesto or kale chips.
- Pour two tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat back into the large skillet and heat over medium until it is shimmering. Add the garlic slivers and toast them until they are just starting to brown, about 45 seconds. Immediately add the kale all at once and cook 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally, until it is bright green and barely wilted. Add the vinegar, salt, and reserved bacon pieces; toss to combine. Remove from heat and set aside until just before serving.
- To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan. It will foam up, then the foam will clear, and the butter will start to take on a toasted color. At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the vodka. Once the alcohol is added, put the pan back on the heat. If you’re feeling brave, light a stick lighter and ignite the surface of the mixture; it will flame up just for a few seconds. Swirl the pan and the flame will go out, then simmer for 1-2 minutes to burn off a little more of the alcohol flavor. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and mustard and whisk to combine. Lower the heat as low as it will go, just to keep the sauce warm, and whisk occasionally to keep it emulsified.
- The last step is the halibut. In a medium skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil with the remaining 1 tablespoon reserved bacon fat over medium high heat. While the fat warms, season the halibut with salt, pepper, and brown sugar on both sides. When the fat in the pan is shimmering, carefully add the halibut filets. Cook, undisturbed, for two minutes, then carefully flip using tongs and/or a thin, flexible spatula, lower the heat to medium, and cook 3 minutes more until the fish is pearly-white in the center and flakes easily.
- As soon as you flip the halibut filets, put all the other components of the meal back over medium-low heat, just to warm through until the fish is ready.
- To plate, spoon a generous puddle of polenta in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use tongs to add a generous pile of kale in the center. Balance the fish at an angle with one end on the pile of kale and the other in the polenta, then spoon the sauce over the fish; it will be thin, so it will spill into the kale and polenta. Serve immediately.