Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping

If you’re following along on Instagram, you’ll have seen that N. and I have been up to big things. Huge things! House shaped things! According to the bank, and the escrow office, and our realtor, and the seller, we are now home-owners! We can’t quite believe it ourselves, but enough independent sources verify it that we’re coming to think it must be true. Between the searching, and the paperwork, and the other paperwork, and the packing, and the paperwork, and the fact that the semester is still in, if not full, at least substantial swing, there hasn’t been a great deal of time for blogging.

But still, home ownership achieved on a house that was, quite frankly, nicer than what we’d expected we would be able to find, feels like cause for celebration. So quickly, on a day during which I need to take care of so many things, I want to give you something with which to pause, and to celebrate.

The nice thing about May is that even though it’s spring, there are still the occasional chilly days during which something warm and sweet is everything you need, and on the others, you can just pile that something warm and sweet over something cold and thick. It’s a can’t-go-wrong topping. Think apples. Think bourbon. Think deeply melted and gooey and caramel-y brown sugar, and the right spice of cinnamon, and a swirl of butter, all melted gloriously together, ready to crown anything from waffles (as we did) to pancakes to bread pudding to french toast to ice cream.

My serving suggestion: make yourself a batch of waffles. I like these, as they allow me to use up some sourdough starter from baking days when I’ve gotten a little too enthusiastic, and unlike many sourdough waffle recipes, don’t require an overnight rise. Layer a waffle, a generous spoonful of caramel, then repeat, and add a heaping dome of greek yogurt right on top. The caramel is decadent and the apples provide excellent texture and fall perfectly into the holes of the waffle, and the yogurt is all tang and creaminess and acidic balance for the sweetness of the caramel. It’s breakfast, it’s brunch, it’s a sweet breakfast-for-dinner, and it’s an unquestionably good late-night-when-you-may-have-already-had-some-bourbon snack.

Enjoy. I hope you have something lovely on your plate to celebrate.

 

Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping
20-30 minutes
Makes ¾ – 1 cup (enough for 3-4 servings of waffles)
4 tablespoons butter
2 apples, quartered, cored, and diced into ¼ inch chunks (I leave the peel on because I like the texture. If you don’t like it, you can peel the apples first)
½ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-4 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream

 

  • In a skillet or saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it is fully melted and foaming, add the apple chunks. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are tender: 5-10 minutes. If they seem to be browning aggressively, give them a good stir and turn down the heat a bit.
  • Once the apple pieces are tender, add the brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla. Turn down the heat to medium-low, if you haven’t already. Cook down until the brown sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture is bubbly and thick: 2-3 minutes.
  • Off the heat, add the bourbon and the lemon juice, then stir to combine and simmer slowly for about 10 minutes. At the last minute, stir in the heavy cream.
  • Serve warm over waffles, pancakes, French toast, ice cream, or (almost) anything else you can imagine.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce

food-blog-february-2017-0351It’s funny, isn’t it, how when we have more time, we usually wind up with less time? I went into this weekend knowing, between my schedule this semester and Monday’s holiday, that I had four days before I had to go back to campus. Four days is a lot following the first week of the term, when there aren’t any papers to grade yet and the readings are short. I planned to clean the house, I planned to bake, I planned to get ahead editing photos for this little space, and I definitely wanted to work on a project working with web sources that I’ll introduce to my students a few months from now. Guess how many of those things I’ve done, and how many linger until today, the very last day it’s possible to accomplish any of them?

food-blog-february-2017-0326Sticking to a plan is hard, especially when you have time. That’s the challenge. It’s a challenge whether you’re thinking about cleaning out the garage, registering voters, writing a paper, or making a multi-component dinner. Here I wanted a play of textures and flavors that all come together perfectly in the finished dish – the soft mellow creaminess of polenta topped with nutty roasted vegetables, just frizzled on the edges, topped with a tangy sauce of red wine, well-reduced, sharp with onion and deep with herbs.

food-blog-february-2017-0338I had this all planned out so I could start early and have plenty of time to play with photography, make the polenta extra creamy, and do some multi-tasking while the cooking took place, so of course I ended up rushing, and dinner was a good half hour later than I’d intended. But you, I’m sure, will stick to your plan, and have it all ready to ladle together within an hour.

food-blog-february-2017-0343Though I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the photos in this entry (I was rushing and didn’t take enough time to get the lighting I wanted), the dish itself was delicious, and turned out almost exactly how I’d hoped. In future iterations I would strain the onions out of the wine sauce before serving, but in the moment I found I just couldn’t be bothered: bellies needed to be fed, after all.

food-blog-february-2017-0342A bowl of polenta is such a comforting prospect when it is damp out, especially when it is enriched with milk and finished with creamy chevre, as I’ve done here. The meaty roasted mushrooms and toasty sprouts, some soft, some with crisp, almost burnt outer leaves, made perfect sense, and stood up to the pleasant acidity of the sauce. Here’s to making sense, then, and planning, and standing up when needed. Here’s to doing what we can with our time.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce
Serves 4
45-55 minutes
For polenta:
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces goat cheese
For wine sauce:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely diced red onion
2 cups dry red wine
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
2 2-3 inch sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
For vegetables:
2 lbs untrimmed, or 1- 1½ lbs trimmed brussels sprouts
1 lb crimini mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

 

  • Though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists by parts of the dish, in the procedure that follows I go back and forth, showing you where to switch between components, so it can all be ready at the same time.
  • Preheat oven to 425F and line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Start 4 cups broth and 1 cup milk + ¾ tsp salt in a medium saucepan. While you wait for the milk and broth to boil, prep the vegetables. First, finely dice the onion. Crush the garlic, but don’t worry about the papery skins. Stem, wipe, and quarter the mushrooms. Trim the brussels (stem off, outer manky leaves off), halve (or quarter if quite large).
  • When broth/milk barely reaches a boil, add the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Continue whisking slowly, intermittently, until the mixture noticeably thickens. Then pop the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer, whisking every 3-4 minutes or so (be careful: it will bubble and spit!), until it is very thick and soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, as soon as you’ve added the polenta to the pot, start the wine sauce. Put two tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it has melted, add the onions and turn down to medium low. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. While you’re waiting, finish up your vegetable prep if needed.
  • With the onions tender and slightly translucent, add the red wine, the crushed garlic cloves, the bay leaf, the thyme sprigs, and the 2 teaspoons honey. Stir briefly to distribute, then turn the heat up to medium high and let it boil until it is reduced to about ⅔ cup.
  • While the wine works, drop all of the prepped mushrooms into a large bowl and toss them with ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt. When well combined, scrape them onto one of the prepared baking sheets. Now do the same with the brussels sprouts, dumping them into the bowl and tossing with the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt before spreading them out on the other baking sheet. Load both sheet pans into a middle rack of the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Toss with a spatula, assess, and if you want them browner (I frequently do), pop them back into the oven for another 10 minutes.
  • When the wine mixture has reduced, add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, return to a boil, and reduce to about 1 cup. Remove the thyme, the bay leaf, and the garlic cloves, strain out the onions if you want a smooth sauce, then stir or whisk in the final 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.
  • When the polenta is thick, tender, and pulling away a bit from the sides of the pot when you stir it, whisk in a final 2 tablespoons butter, crumble in the goat cheese, and taste and adjust for seasoning. Hold it over very low heat if you need time for the other components to finish cooking.
  • To serve, ladle a thick puddle of polenta in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a mixture of brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and then spoon some of the sauce directly over the vegetables, and some around the outer edge of the polenta. Serve hot.

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Braised Lamb on Kale and Avocado Toast

2016-food-blog-november-0420Are you tired of turkey yet? Good, me neither. But just in case you want an indulgent break, may I suggest lamb instead? The inspiration for this recipe comes from three places: a restaurant near our house that does a braised lamb dip with kale and a garlic jus, the intense obsession of the last few years that is avocado toast, and Ina Garten. Ina doesn’t offer me any dish in particular, but does often take luxury ingredients and serve them in a very simple, homey way, and that’s exactly what happens here.

2016-food-blog-november-0395The first few times I watched a Barefoot Contessa episode that did this, I was annoyed. Like Ina’s penchant for advocating “best quality” base ingredients (read: expensive), I found the idea somehow pretentious. If I’m going to spend the money on fancy ingredients, then I want a fancy dinner! But contemplating this dish, it somehow seemed right. Let’s slow braise some lamb with aromatic vegetables and a good splash of wine until it collapses and shreds eagerly, bake a loaf of nicely seeded bread and cut it into thick slices, and spread that bread with a smash of avocado and kale, dosed with a good squeeze of lemon to keep it bright before draping on a healthy pile of the lamb. Fill the belly and keep the darkness away.

2016-food-blog-november-0391In determining how to go about this, I turned to yet another inspiration: the marvelous food mind that is Michael Pollan. In his book Cooked, which I’ve written about before, he spends a chapter discussing braising as a cooking method, and offers a mentor chef’s procedure in seven steps. Though I’ll give you the full recipe below, here’s what he recommends in my own order:

  1. salt the meat, then brown it
  2. finely dice some onions
  3. sauté onions and other aromatic vegetables
  4. place all the ingredients in a covered pot
  5. pour the braising liquid over the ingredients
  6. simmer, below the boil, for a long time
  7. remove pot from oven. If necessary, skim fat and reduce liquid. Bring to the table and serve.

As you can see, this is a procedure rather than a recipe – it’s the kind of steps a grandmother well acquainted with her own methods would give, and answer questions like “how many onions” with “enough,” or the precise temperature at which to braise with “oh, pretty low.”

2016-food-blog-november-0401Within the chapter itself, though, Pollan does give a bit more. Since the section of the book is the look at “Water,” he discusses the merits of using water rather than some other liquid to braise. Though we are always tempted to use broth or stock or wine, he notes that water retains a purer flavor – the meat is not in competition with the flavors of the liquid you’ve chosen. I bore this in mind, but wanted some red wine richness and tang anyway, so I settled for half and half water and wine. Only part way through the miracle, I suppose you could say.

This is a long project. The braise itself takes 2-3 hours all on its own, and that’s after you’ve let the onions cook down slowly for 30 minutes, then allowed the other vegetables to mingle another 15. Plus, as if all that wasn’t enough, you give the lovely, heady broth another good half hour to boil to create your final jus. And if you’re baking the bread yourself (in for a penny, in for a pound, right?), you’re looking at another multi-hour ingredient. You could, it seems, spend the entire day in the kitchen, lazily cooking your way toward dinner. Add some Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and that sounds like the day of my dreams.

2016-food-blog-november-0408When you’re finished, even though the resulting product looks humble, the reward is anything but. The lamb falls apart, and you stand there over the bowl you’re shredding it into trying not to stuff too many pieces straight into your mouth. It is meaty and savory and slightly gamey, and you taste lamb, but also wine and dark, piney, peppery herbs, and a subtle sweetness that comes from the vegetables. And then you pile it onto freshly toasted bread that you’ve smeared with the grassy, fatty spread you’ve made of kale and avocado, and you dribble over some of the juice left behind in the pan, and you eat it. And that was your day: making food, eating food, letting the aroma of the long braise fill your nostrils and your house, and you sleep happy.

2016-food-blog-november-0412Not that you need telling what to do with leftovers as luxurious as braised lamb, but if you aren’t sure, I think they would make amazing filling for tacos, perhaps with some shredded cabbage and feta cheese, and maybe a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, thinned with a squirt of lime and sprinkled with wafer thin slices of jalapeno and radish.

2016-food-blog-november-0420

Braised Lamb on Kale and Avocado Toast
Approximately 5 hours
Serves 4 + leftover lamb
2 tablespoons salt
2 pounds lamb leg or shoulder, in one piece (i.e. not in chunks)
¼ cup olive oil
2 white or yellow onions, finely diced
3 large or 4 medium carrots, finely diced
3 ribs of celery, finely diced
8 garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns, optional
2 inch sprig rosemary, optional
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups cold water
2-3 ounces kale, leaves only – tough stems removed – finely chopped
1 ripe avocado
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chives or green onion tops, very thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
thick slice of seeded toast for each diner
optional: finely sliced pickled radish or onion, to garnish

 

  • Sprinkle the salt evenly over both sides of the lamb. It will seem like a lot. Don’t worry. This is seasoning the entire 2 pounds of meat AND the broth. Let it sit for at least ten minutes, or up to a few hours.
  • When you are ready to cook, heat the olive oil in a dutch oven or other large, steep-sided pot with a lid over medium-high heat until it is shimmering. Carefully add the lamb (the oil may spit) and let it sear until well browned, then flip and repeat until all sides are nicely browned: about 2-4 minutes per side. Remove to a plate.
  • Turn the heat down to medium low or low and add the onions. We are looking to sweat them, not brown them. They will pick up some color from the lamb, but don’t actually let them sizzle too much after adding them. Cook, stirring frequently, until they are very tender and translucent, about 30 minutes.
  • Add the carrots, celery, and garlic cloves, stir to combine, and cook another 15 minutes.
  • Add the bay leaves, the rosemary and peppercorns, if using, and settle the lamb on top of the vegetables. Pour the wine and water in around the lamb as well as any meat juices that collected on the plate while the lamb rested, add the lid, and turn the heat up to medium high. Bring to a simmer, then turn back down to medium low or low – we want to keep the liquid below a simmer – only the barest bubble every so often.
  • Cook, keeping just below a simmer, until the lamb is very, very tender: 2-3 hours.
  • When the lamb falls apart at the slightest fork provocation, hoist it out to a bowl and turn up the heat on the pot to high. Boil the cooking liquid about 30 minutes to reduce it, then strain out the vegetables and, if you wish, pour the remaining jus into a gravy boat to serve.
  • While you wait, make the kale and avocado spread: scoop the avocado out of its skin and smash it up with a fork or spoon. Squeeze in the lemon juice, add the kale and chives and mix well, then taste and add salt and pepper to your liking.
  • Toast the bread and smear on thick, equal portions of the kale and avocado spread.
  • Just before serving, shred the lamb using two forks or, if it has cooled enough, your fingers. Pile a good helping onto the toast, then scoop or pour on a few tablespoons of the jus. Eat immediately.

Photo Essay: Goat House Brewing

Coming back feels like starting over. How do I do this? What do I sound like? Which words should tumble onto the page first? In an article from The New Yorker about language intimacy and its ties to relationship intimacy and communication, Lauren Collins notes that “Bilinguals overwhelmingly report that they feel like different people in different languages. It is often assumed that the mother tongue is the language of the true self. In many ways, it remains the primal vehicle… But, if first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freeing their speakers to ride different currents.”

Though I write and speak in English – it is my first and (aside from garbled, declension-less memories of high school Spanish and college Latin) only language – I have always felt that the spoken and written form of a language might as well be two different tongues (one of which doesn’t require the tongue at all). Thus, though I’ve talked about food consistently during the weeks we’ve been apart, I haven’t written about it (or about much of anything) at all. You can chalk this up to issues of vacation, politics, heat, social justice, laziness, or good old writer’s block, but the result is the same as a month off from practicing a different language: the water in that pool feels cold, and awkward, and heavy. This is why, for my students, coming back even after the summer makes writing feel ungainly and foreign – it is. It’s another language. It’s hard to float when you’ve spent a month on the solid ground you knew first.

So instead of plunging, I’m coming in from the shallow end, a few steps at a time. More recipes to come, I promise; there are only a few weeks before school starts and I want to have a good back-log to keep us going, plus there’s that whole 2016 blog challenge I took on in January that I’m doing so well with… But for today, as my first step back into the pool, I want to offer you something different.

Part one of our vacation was a visit with N’s parents. They live in northern California, in the same town he grew up in. This town, its sleepy rural character disrupted only by railroad and pottery booms, is now a distant outskirt to Sacramento and decidedly in the “suburb” category, boasting itself as an All-America City with wood-planked “downtown” area and well-marked signage advertising the “Wine Trail” in the outer reaches of the city.

When we first started visiting N’s parents there as a couple, every time we drove through town he would remark on something that had changed. Family grocers became Walmart. Undeveloped fields became track housing. He’s now able, thanks to the number of new roads, to get lost in the city he grew up in.

The one area of the sleepy old town that remains is where N’s grandmother lives: on an old ranch house a ways outside the center of town. We visit her when we make the pilgrimage through, and the last few times we’ve noticed signs for a relative newcomer to the scene: Goat House Brewing.

2016 Summer-0123

Brewery’s sign from the road

Around since late 2013, Goat House is the epitome of local. Their taproom is a converted barn. They grow their own hops – about 20 varieties – which they use in their brews. They experiment and collaborate and incorporate hometown ingredients – hop honey from their own vines in a light honey ale, Valencia oranges from their orchard in a Belgian, and an interesting wine-beer blend using a red wine made less than three miles away. It’s a very vertical, rather than horizontal, business plan – there is no sense that Goat House wants to stretch outward, only that they want to work closely and deeply with what is nearby. Because they are only open four days a week, until this recent visit we hadn’t had a chance to stop by.

Logo inside the barn

Logo inside the barn

This particular day, we spent an hour or so with N’s grandmother, listening as she coasted through stories about far-flung relatives and trying together to work out how the slim, distant branches of the family tree weave together. As we headed out to the car, we’d already decided to stop at Goat House Brewing on the way home. After receiving a friendly, detailed run through the tap offerings, we selected our first pours and settled in on the picnic style tables made from wood salvaged from an old stadium in San Francisco. It was in the mid-90s, but there was a breeze blowing through the barn’s wide open doors on either side, and we spent a comfortable hour or so sampling and enjoying this little sparkle at the end of a dusty drive.

Growlers ready to be filled

Growlers ready to be filled

So here are some glimpses of Goat House Brewing, a place we’re already planning to return to when we next pass through N’s hometown, to try new flavors, to chat with the owners, to see Rory the donkey and Georgia the dog; to carve out a space of familiarity in this new-old city.

Hop vines awaiting a harvest

Hop vines awaiting a harvest

Hide and seek goat!

Hide and seek goat!

Georgia, the brewhouse dog

Georgia, the brewhouse dog

2016 Summer-0080

“Baciami Prima” (“kiss me first”) – intriguing wine-beer blend. All the mustiness of a wine cellar and all the funk of a Belgian in one deep purple pour.

A “Dark Side” (left – their stout: creamy and roasty with hints of coffee and chocolate) and a “Row Hoe” (right – a red ale on nitro that I didn’t taste)

foam trails from the Dark Side

foam trails from the Dark Side

A brewery and taproom called Goat House better have some goats, and indeed they are right out back behind the barn (along with Rory the donkey, who helps keep them safe)

2016 Summer-01052016 Summer-00992016 Summer-01022016 Summer-01082016 Summer-0106

See you next week, when I hope my treading water in this form of my language will have smoothed, with the application of both kitchen and keyboard, into more practiced strokes.

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Beer Braised Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri

2016 Food Blog June-0973 The first heat wave of the summer has hit Southern California (actually, if I’m honest, it has hit most of the country. Stop cackling, Seattle), and as a result, the things I most want to consume are tacos, grilled anything, bright, herbaceous sauces with plenty of acid, and beer. Fortunately for everyone concerned, today’s recipe combines three of the four. Entirely decent odds.

2016 Food Blog June-0946I had these tacos at a brewery restaurant in Venice, just on the other side of Highway 1. We’ve done cauliflower in tacos before, but that was a wintry dish. This one, with bright, sharp chimichurri sauce and briny crumbles of feta, is all summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0964As many breweries do, this one tries to use their beers in their food as well as in pint glasses, which makes a lot of sense. A glug or two of dark beer into a cheese sauce is perfect, and braising everything from beef to cauliflower in a simmer of ale rather than red wine just fits the venue.

2016 Food Blog June-0972I suppose in this instance, braising isn’t quite accurate – a braise is a long, slow cook in liquid, and here the beer deglazes the pan and then simmers just until the cauliflower florets are tender – but the name sounds nice, doesn’t it? Anyway, the normally mild, sometimes musty vegetable picks up some color and char from a very hot skillet, then sucks in some of the nutty bitterness of whatever beer you pour, sputtering and steaming, into the pan with it. It’s not quite the same depth and richness as roasted cauliflower, but a lighter incarnation that is a bit less sweet.

2016 Food Blog June-0958Once you pile the florets up into a nicely toasted tortilla, you spoon on some chimichurri sauce, a bright, Argentinian answer to pesto, possibly of Basque origin, that is traditionally used to both marinate and top grilled meat. It’s usually dominated by parsley, though sometimes cilantro and oregano make appearances, and gets its sharpness from raw garlic and a healthy dose of vinegar. Mine starts out traditional and then tempers the tang with red wine vinegar, rather than straight white, and sneaks in a bit of sundried tomato and green onion (though you could also use shallot) for a sauce that would make an equally good salad dressing, if you have some substantial greens laying around that need a kick. My version also uses much less oil than some, so feel free to glug in a bit more if you want a looser sauce.

2016 Food Blog June-0963A few crumbles of feta on top of the veg, and you’re ready to serve. And if you’re really feeling the beer-y flavor, perhaps a side of these black beans. Hit it, summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0976

Beer Braised Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri
Makes 1 cup chimichurri, and enough cauliflower for 4-6 tacos
About 30 minutes
For chimichurri sauce:
3-5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons shallot or the whites of green onions
1 tablespoon oil-packed sundried tomato, drained
¾ cup packed parsley, stems and all
2 tablespoons cilantro, stems and all
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 tablespoons (¼ cup + 1 tablespoon) red wine vinegar
⅓ cup vegetable or olive oil
For cauliflower tacos:
1 large head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces dark beer
soft corn tortillas, lightly grilled or toasted over an open flame
crumbled feta cheese, to serve
pico de gallo, to serve (optional)
additional cilantro, to serve (optional)

 

  • To make the chimichurri, blitz the garlic, onion or shallot, and sundried tomato in a food processor until the ingredients are well broken up. This ensures no large chunks of garlic in the final product. Then, pack in the parsley, cilantro, salt, black and red pepper, and vinegar, and pulse the food processor 2 or 3 times at 1-second intervals. Finally, drizzle in the oil and pulse again, 2 or 3 times at 1-second intervals, until everything is well chopped, but not so long that a fully emulsified paste is created. We are looking for the mixture to retain some texture. Set aside until ready to serve.
  • In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with the 1 teaspoon salt, the cumin, and the 2-3 tablespoons olive oil. Preheat a large skillet or a grill pan over medium-high to high heat and, when it is quite hot, tumble in the oiled, seasoned cauliflower. It will sizzle tremendously.
  • Char the cauliflower on all sides – you are looking for dark bronzed marks on the outside, but not to cook it through – this should take 3-4 minutes.
  • Deglaze with the beer by adding it all at once and stirring gently. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook until the florets are tender but still have some texture; about 5 minutes.
  • To serve, use a slotted spoon to pile up about ¼ cup of florets in each tortilla. Spoon over a few teaspoons of chimichurri, then a few teaspoons of crumbled feta. Add pico de gallo and a few extra cilantro leaves if desired, and serve immediately.

Chopped challenge: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, kale

2016 Food Blog February-0360One 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.

2016 Food Blog February-0350I 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.

2016 Food Blog February-0354Typically, 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).

2016 Food Blog February-0355The 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.

2016 Food Blog February-0364This 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.

2016 Food Blog February-0360

Brown sugar halibut with creamy corn polenta, salt and vinegar bacon kale, and vodka brown butter sauce
Serves 2
30-40 minutes, but you must be quite organized
For polenta:
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
For kale:
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
For sauce:
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
For halibut:
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.