Huevos Rancheros con Frico

The first iteration of this meal was a lunch I threw together when I wasn’t satisfied by any of the leftovers already in my fridge. And it was easy: egg, cheese, tortilla, a scoop of salsa. Done. But instead of melting the cheese on top, I flopped the toasted tortilla over and held it down with my spatula so the cheese sputtered and hissed directly against the pan. A minute or two later, a quick but determined scrape, and the tortilla emerged with a frico of pepperjack welded on, crispy and seared and ready. And as soon as that happened, I was no longer alone at the stove. Suddenly instead of the sandwich he’d been intending, N. wanted my lunch. He was entranced by that crunchy layer of cheese, so a few days later we had it for dinner, this time bulking things up with the addition of a bed of black beans for the tortilla to rest on.

Three days later, we already wanted it again. A week after that, we had it a third time. That tells you something. And unlike so many of my recipes here, this is quick – no more than 20 minutes and it’s ready to go – and takes a few shortcuts along the way: canned black beans, jarred salsa. Of course you could go the extra mile and start from scratch, but for what is essentially the quickest weeknight dinner I’ve made in months, I’m not going to bother.

Huevos rancheros is a simple dish, usually eggs and salsa atop tortillas, with beans, cheese, and other accompaniments optional. Basically it’s a fried egg taco. Frico, on the other hand, is an Italian creation probably originally invented to use up cheese rinds. Though there is a version that incorporates potatoes and other vegetables fried into something like a rosti or latke (which N. has informed me he now wants), the sort Americans are probably most familiar with – and certainly my version here – is a thin round of plain old cheese, fried until it holds together.

Most fricos are made with hard cheeses – think “parmesan crisps” or similar – and can be fried just until they are malleable, then draped over a jar or muffin tin or rolling pin to shape them into baskets or bowls or other decorative shapes. But they can also be baked or fried until they are crisp and shattering discs you could stack in a savory napoleon or crumble onto a salad or, in my favorite application, crust the outsides of a grilled cheese sandwich.

But this frico is made with softer cheese: I tried both cheddar and pepperjack, and found I preferred the latter. When you first turn it into the pan, a distressing quantity of grease appears and the cheese bubbles worryingly around the outer edges of the tortilla, and you are sure this isn’t going to work at all. Give it a minute or two, though, and then cautiously but firmly apply your spatula, and the tortilla should have a crunchy, orange, lacquered coating. You then have only to set the egg on top, pile with accouterments, and gobble up the whole thing.

You can, of course, use multiple skillets here, and make more than one at the same time. I opted to cook the eggs first and set them aside to stay warm while I did the tortillas, because my dishwasher (I have one of those human models, not the mechanized kind) appreciates when my cooking projects don’t result in a whole sinkful. I’ve also opted in the ingredients to list quantities for each egg-cheese-tortilla stack, which of course can be easily doubled, tripled – or, should you have a large griddle and some brunch-loving friends – multiplied to serve what will no doubt be a happy crowd.

Huevos Rancheros con Frico
15-20 minutes
quantities and instructions for one, but oh-so-easily multiplied
½-1 cup canned black beans
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 egg
1 corn tortilla
1-2 ounces pepperjack cheese, thinly sliced
¼ cup salsa, or more as desired
3-4 avocado slices
optional: torn cilantro and/or a lime wedge

 

  • In a small pot, heat the black beans along with their liquid over medium heat; let them simmer until most but not all of the liquid has been absorbed and the beans are hot.
  • While the beans simmer, heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Crack in the egg sunny-side up, sprinkle a little salt on the yolk, and cook until the white is just set and the edges are starting to brown slightly. Carefully flip over to finish either over easy or over medium, depending on your preferences. Remove and cover to keep warm (I like to place mine in the shallow bowl I use to serve and cover with another shallow bowl).
  • If the pan looks dry, add the other 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, let it heat for a minute, then add the tortilla. Fry the tortilla until well toasted with deeply browned spots on both sides.
  • Remove the fried tortilla from the pan and use a paper towel to wipe most of the oil out of the pan. Top the toasted tortilla with the pepperjack, arranging the slices so most of the tortilla surface is covered. Add back to the skillet, still on medium heat, with the pepperjack side down, directly against the surface of the pan. Cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes. Fat from the cheese will be released and the cheese will look like it’s all going to ooze out the sides. Don’t worry.
  • After 2-3 minutes undisturbed, use a wide spatula to carefully but firmly loosen the cheese from the pan surface. Flip the whole tortilla back over so the cheese is on top.
  • To serve, pile the hot black beans in a shallow bowl. Place the tortilla, cheese side up, on top of the beans. Carefully put the egg on top of the cheese-crusted tortilla. Top with salsa, avocado, cilantro and lime if desired, and eat immediately.

BBQ Tofu Salad

I’m back! At least for the moment…

At the end of the semester, I got stuck. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I fell into familiarity. There are some foods we love, and we make over and over again, but they just don’t feel “blog-worthy.” One of the challenges of this format is the urge for new, insightful, creative, beautiful dishes (that are also, somehow, affordable, easy, and don’t take very long to prepare), and while I’m usually up for that, a little cruise through the standards can be comforting. (Interestingly, it’s also probably more environmentally friendly: the book I’m currently teaching in my composition courses – Edward Humes’ Garbology – includes findings from a study that people tend to create less food waste when they eat the same thing over and over. Less adventurous, perhaps, but more sustainable – since we know we like it, we don’t throw away the unexpected results or less-than-beloved leftovers.)

But we recently did our almost-annual road trip up to Oregon and back, and if there’s one thing I typically gain from vacation with friends and family, it’s ideas. Enter S. She’s a frequent contributor to this site, both in terms of feedback and inspiration. Living in Los Angeles has increased our meat consumption considerably, and being back in Eugene and staying with S. (who is vegetarian and whose current job requires her to think and live sustainably) reminded us sharply of meat’s high carbon footprint and resource use. It also reminded me how much fun it is to work one’s way around that protein-center on the plate and develop other flavors.

Perhaps my favorite thing S. made us while we were in Eugene was a salad. That doesn’t sound exciting, but for the five of you still reading, hang with me. Years ago, S. worked at California Pizza Kitchen, and fell, as many have, for their BBQ Chicken Salad. Of course she developed a vegetarian version and made other tweaks of her own to the original, and I found the bright, sharp, fresh and spicy bowl she put in front of us so craveable it was the first thing I wanted to recreate when we got home.

Like S., my version uses thick slabs of tofu drenched in BBQ sauce – either make your own or find a bottled version you like that isn’t too sweet – and then grilled. Toss together everything you like in a Mexican or Southwestern direction that belongs in salad with mixed greens – here we’re pulling together black beans, tomatoes, avocado, green onion, cilantro, and the non-negotiable coup de grace of fried tortilla strips on top. The original salad from CPK uses chunks of jicama and adds basil along with the cilantro; you could certainly do that as well.

As for dressing, S. used a tasty ranch, and added chunks of Monterey jack cheese to the salad. I went in a different direction, whipping up a blue cheese drizzle with equal parts buttermilk, mayonnaise, and blue cheese crumbles. We decided upon reflection we liked S.’s dressing choice slightly better, and in future incarnations of this dish we’ll swap out for that, and maybe some crumbles of queso fresco instead of the rich funk of the blue cheese or the neutral creaminess of the jack.

As you can see, this salad looks really nice in a composed presentation, either positioning all of the non-greens in sections around a center like spokes on a wheel as I did, or Cobb salad style, arranged in rows next to each other atop the lettuce mix. At the last minute, add on the dressing, another drizzle or two of BBQ sauce if you want, and the tortillas in a crispy stack. But if you aren’t feeling fussy, tossing everything together to serve will be easier and just as delicious.

Note: I tend to find in salad recipes that nearly everything is negotiable and, at best, quantities are approximations. That is, some people like more tomato than others, and some want to amp up the cheese. Some might not want as much dressing, and some think a whole can of black beans sounds excessive. To that end, I have provided you with quantities, but you should feel free to adjust as desired. Want more corn? Great. Use three ears. Want less green onion? Okay, do that. Want to backwards engineer the whole thing and replace the tofu with chicken? That would be tasty as well. The point is, it’s an outrageously delicious entrée salad that, minus frying the tortilla strips, requires nothing from your stove or oven, and would pair just as well with a margarita or a cold beer as it does with a frosted glass of lemonade. Certainly, my dog-friend here would have happily gulped it down even without an accompanying beverage.

BBQ Tofu Salad

Historical connections to CPK, though I’ve only had S.’s version of their original

Serves 4-6

2 ears corn on the cob

1 TB olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

16 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry

1 cup BBQ sauce of your choice (not too sweet)

6-8 cups mixed greens (I like a combination of romaine, red cabbage, and a kale slaw mix from Trader Joe’s I’m currently obsessed with)

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, dark green parts only

¼-½ cup cilantro and/or basil leaves, roughly chopped

1 can (14-15 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed

1-2 avocados, pitted and cubed (I like this method of pitting from the kitchn)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

½ cup cheese chunks or crumbles: either blue cheese, Monterey jack, or queso fresco

2-3 corn tortillas cut into thin strips

vegetable oil to fry

additional salt to season tortilla strips

~ 1 cup (or desired amount) blue cheese or ranch dressing

Additional BBQ sauce, if desired

Optional: lime wedges to serve

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem for easier kernel removal later. Rub the ears with the 1 TB olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Place on the preheated grill and cook over direct heat for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char. Set aside until it is cool enough to handle.
  • Slice the tofu block into 4 slabs and dredge each in BBQ sauce. Reduce the grill heat to medium and grill over direct heat for about 4 minutes per side, until nicely marked. Set aside with corn to cool while you make the rest of the salad.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the mixed greens, green onions, and cilantro and/or basil. Arrange or toss the black beans, avocado chunks, tomatoes, and cheese chunks or crumbles as desired on or in the greens mix.
  • When the corn and tofu are cool enough to handle, cut the tofu slabs into chunks of your desired size. For the corn, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Add both tofu and corn to the salad.
  • For the tortilla strips, heat about ¼ inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium high heat until the edge of one of your strips sizzles when dipped in. Add the sliced tortillas a handful at a time, spreading them out in the skillet so they don’t overlap too much. Fry about a minute on each side, or until they are light brown and crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and immediately sprinkle with salt. Repeat as needed.
  • To finish the salad, add the dressing over the top in a rough circle. If desired, drizzle 1-2 TB more of the BBQ sauce right over the dressing for a nice contrast of red on white. Collect the fried tortilla strips in two hands and arrange them loosely over the center of the salad like straws. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze on if desired.

Potato Crusted Salmon with Pea and Arugula Puree

There’s not much of a story here, only an observation my sister made that it seems like I’m into fancy food lately. I attribute this to spring break, when I made the dishes in my last three posts, because I had some time on my hands and I wanted to play. This recipe, and the deviled eggs crostini from last month, came from a list I keep on my laptop of food ideas, which oddly enough doesn’t often get used – I write down delicious-sounding concepts, and then I forget about them.

Not so with this one anymore. Very loosely imagined after a dish N. had years and years ago on the Oregon coast that just wasn’t as good as it should have been, I decided to top salmon filets with an herby crab salad, then wrap the whole thing in wafer-thin slices of potato and serve it over a velvety smooth puree of peas and arugula. Very spring.

The finished dish was good, and the flavor was delicious. It was not, however, as perfectly beautiful as it could have been, largely because I think to make this dish as gorgeous as it deserves to be, you really need a mandolin or a v-slicer, which is equipment I don’t have (largely because my kitchen storage situation leaves a bit to be desired). I made do with a potato peeler, as can you, in a pinch, but the results were only passable, not stellar.

Notes below about crab and puree options: jumbo lump is, of course, the premium choice, but lately I’ve found a mixture of jumbo or regular lump and claw meat is just fine. As for the puree, as I note below, you can choose your texture to please your palate (and your partner’s); I went with something pesto-like, but processing or blending further would offer a smoother sauce, and passing through a strainer, though somewhat time consuming, would produce a silky bright green sauce. Proceed as desired.

Potato Crusted Salmon with Pea and Arugula Puree
About 45 minutes
Serves 2 (with leftover crab salad)
For the crab salad:
Zest of one lime
Zest of one lemon
3 TB finely minced dill + a few extra sprigs to garnish if desired
1 TB finely minced chives
2 TB finely minced celery and/or radish
10 ounces crab meat, carefully picked through for cartilage pieces
about 3 TB mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste
For the salmon:
2 6 ounce boneless, skinless salmon filets
3-4 medium Yukon gold potatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 TB butter
1 TB olive oil
For the pea and arugula puree:
4 ounces defrosted frozen peas
2 TB butter
2 ounces baby arugula
1 TB lemon juice or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: blanched pencil asparagus

 

  • First, make the crab salad: combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. You can use whatever sort of crab you want; I like a mixture of lump, for the sweetness, and regular or crab and claw meat, for the affordability. Start with the recommended 3 TB mayonnaise, but you can add more if desired. You are looking for just enough that the mixture starts to hold together. Set the finished crab salad aside until it is time to assemble.
  • For the salmon, preheat the oven to 375F. Do a quick but thorough check of the filets to ensure there are no bones. Salt and pepper the fish on both sides, then set aside until the potatoes are ready.
  • The easiest way to proceed is to make very thin vertical slices of the potatoes on the wider side using a mandolin slicer, so you end up with long, wide strips. If you are using a mandolin, you will probably only need 2 potatoes worth of wide strips. Use the third potato to make round slices, like potato chips, by cutting horizontally across the small ends. If you don’t have a mandolin, you can do a passable job with a y-shaped potato peeler. Again, try for the longest, widest slices you can manage. You’ll probably need all 4 potatoes if you are using a peeler, because at a certain point you won’t be able to carve out clean slices anymore. Use 3 of the potatoes to make the long, wide strips, then use the fourth one to make the round, potato chip shaped slices.
  • To assemble, on a cutting board, lay out a row of long, wide potato strips, slightly overlapping, about an inch longer on each side than the filet. Add a second row just above it, again overlapping, so you have a kind of carpet of potato slices, as in the photo below.
  • Set the filet in the center of the potato slices, flesh side up (that is, the side where the skin used to be should rest on the potato layer). Using a spoon, top the filet with a few tablespoons of the crab salad, spreading it evenly across the surface.
  • Now the hard part: working quickly, begin wrapping the potato slices around the salmon. As you bring the overlapping layers up to the top, shingle on a layer of the round slices to hold the long pieces up and together. Check out the photo below to see what I mean.
  • Okay, now the other hard part: heat the butter and olive oil together in a medium skillet over medium high heat. When the fat is quite hot, use a spatula and your hand to carefully but quickly add the wrapped filets to the skillet, trying to get the shingled top side into the butter and oil mixture first. Sear without disturbing for 4 minutes, then carefully flip and place the whole skillet into your preheated 375F oven for 10 minutes.
  • While the fish is in the oven, make the pea and arugula pesto: in a small pot, cook the peas with the 2 TB butter just until they are hot. Add them to a food processor with the arugula, the lemon zest, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Process until fairly smooth, then taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
  • If you want to be fancy, you can strain the puree until a thin, smooth sauce. I decided to leave it more like a pesto texture, though, for ease.
  • If you are making the asparagus, now is a good time to blanch it and toss it with a tiny bit of butter, lemon, and salt.
  • To serve, place a scoop of the puree in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use the back of a spoon to spread it into a circle. Alternatively, if you strained the mixture into a sauce, just pour some into the bottom of the vessel you’ve chosen. Place the potato-wrapped fish carefully just to the side of the center, so you can see some of the bright green circle underneath. If you made the pencil asparagus, you can nestle this between the fish and the edge of your plate or bowl, as in the photo earlier in the post.

Project Cook: Slow Braised Pork Tacos

A few years ago my sister told me it would be nice if, in addition to number of servings, I included in my blog recipes how long the dish took to prepare. I grumbled inwardly about this, since pausing to take photos and make notations on my scribbled plans made any time span I provided an approximation, but decided it was a good idea and put it into practice. A little later, I started buying cookbooks highlighting Middle Eastern food written by an Israeli chef who works in Britain (by now you probably know who I’m talking about by now) who doesn’t typically provide an estimate of total preparation time for his recipes. More than once, I was caught by unexpected directions like “simmer 40 minutes” or even “let sit overnight” that I hadn’t noticed in my initial skim through the recipe, and suddenly dinner was off the rails. My fault for not reading carefully, but still, a little up front estimate would be helpful.

Especially in the food blog world, in which I know some people read for the reading experience, but some people Google a main ingredient they are hoping to cook in the next hour, this time estimate seems particularly important. But again, especially in this forum in which we seem to have decided a story must precede the recipe, as I tell my students, you want to use your time efficiently. Thus if I promise you a perfectly smooth custard and you think “great, that’s dessert, let’s get started” to see only after reading about how well it went over at my latest dinner party that the custard base needs to chill for two hours, well, you’re back to your search engine and starting over again.

All this to say, I think initial warning is needed, so as you can see above I’m instituting a new label: “Project Cook.” This is to designate a dish that is fairly complicated to make, or takes a long time, or uses multiple cooking methods, and thus you’ll know whether to avoid it or to launch in with a full and lazy afternoon to work your way through. As time and memory permit, I’ll go back and apply the label through the archives.

So as you might expect, to launch this label I’m offering something that takes a long time and uses multiple cooking methods. These slow braised pork tacos are a riff on a recipe by Melissa D’Arabian, and though mine take longer, they are actually a bit pared down in terms of equipment and steps, since instead of braising in the oven, I turn to my slow cooker. That means although the pork needs to simmer away in the slow cooker for 7-8 hours, and then ideally it needs to sit in the fridge overnight (unless you’re starting this thing at 8 in the morning the day you want these tacos), after an initial sear and sweating of vegetables this is mostly hands off, which is perfect if, like me, you have a lot of planning to do for a semester that suddenly, now that it’s February, feels a lot closer than it did last week…

Let’s work through what’s happening here: if possible, salt the pork a day or two before cooking. Everything I’m reading (and watching – have you seen Salt Fat Acid Heat yet??) lately about cooking meat suggests the seasoning process begins, and works best, in advance. It doesn’t get salty, but the seasoning takes a while to penetrate past the surface. The pork gets seared in bacon fat for a beautiful crust and some extra flavor. A medley of vegetables sweats down in the pork fat next, before everything tumbles into the slow cooker together with red wine, beef broth, orange juice, and some herbs. Eight hours later, you have a hunk of pork that practically dissolves at the prod of a fork.

But we aren’t done there. The thing is, a lot of fat rendered out of that meat during its slow braise. Shoving it in the fridge overnight (after straining out the spent veg and herbs) means a.) the fat can be easily scraped off once it solidifies on top, and b.) your dinner prep the day of just got about 85% easier. All that remains to be done is to shred the pork, boil off the remaining liquid to reduce, and then crumble in crisp bacon to simulate the crunchy bits a great hunk of barbecued pulled pork has but a braise loses (alternatively, you can spread the pork out on a tray and broil it for a minute or two until some of the edges get crunchy, but I was too hungry to bother with all that).

Of course you can serve this in any way you want, from the taco suggestion in the title to heaped sandwich filling to just a scoop on a plate, but we settled for mounding it into toasted corn tortillas and topping it with shredded cabbage, crumbled cotija cheese, sliced radishes, and a spoonful of guacamole. Oh, and some strings of pickled onions for that sour tang. Since there’s red wine in the sauce you can enjoy the rest of the bottle with dinner, but we opted for a lovely deep stout with orange and chocolate tones that paired perfectly.

Slow Braised Pork Tacos
Adapted from Melissa D’Arabian
Serves 6
Overnight project; time spans divided in procedure section below
To make:
2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
Salt and pepper
½ lb. bacon
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 poblano, stemmed, seeded, and diced
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 TB tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ an orange
optional: guajillo chile, lime juice
To serve:
Corn tortillas, warmed or toasted
Crumbed queso fresco or cotija cheese (I like to add some lime zest to mine)
Thinly sliced cabbage dressed with salt and lime juice
Pickled onions
Thinly sliced radishes
Reserved crumbled bacon

 

Day 0: the day you buy the pork shoulder, salt and pepper it generously, then store it in the fridge until you are ready to cook (no more than 3 days, preferably)

 

Day 1:
Active time: 60-90 minutes
Unattended cooking time: 7-8 hours
Inactive: overnight refrigeration
  • Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium or medium-low heat until it is crisp. For me this took 15-20 minutes. Drain it on a paper towel and set aside until cool before refrigerating; we won’t be using it until Day 2. Turn the heat up to medium-high and carefully place the pork shoulder fat side down in the rendered bacon grease. It will sizzle aggressively; let it sear until it is golden-brown, at least 5 minutes. Repeat for each side, then remove the browned meat to the slow cooker.
  • Lower the heat to medium and add the diced onion, celery, carrot, poblano, and the smashed garlic. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat the vegetables until they are tender but not browned, around 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, being sure it is well integrated.
  • Transfer the cooked vegetables to the slow cooker with the pork. Add the red wine, the beef broth, the bay leaves and the oregano. Squeeze in the juice from the orange half, then add the spent orange as well. Pop on the lid and set the slow cooker to low. It will cook for 7-8 hours, until the pork is extremely tender.
  • Remove the pork from the slow cooker pot and strain what remains, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. Return pork and strained liquid to the slow cooker or to a vessel of your choice and refrigerate overnight.

 

Day 2:
Active time: about an hour
  • About an hour before you are ready to serve, remove your storage vessel from the fridge. While everything is still cold, scrape off and discard the layer of fat that should have collected on top.
  • Remove the pork from the storage vessel and place it on a board. Use two forks to shred it into ribbons (this is easiest once the pork has warmed up a little).
  • Place the liquid from the storage vessel into a medium pot on the stove (or just use your slow cooker on high heat, if it has that function). Taste and consider. Of course the flavor will be stronger when it has reduced, but if you feel like it just.. needs something, drop in a guajillo chile and/or a few squeezes of lime juice. Boil the liquid until it has reduced to a scant 1 cup; for me this took about 35 minutes. While the liquid is reducing, prep your accompaniments.
  •  When reduced, season the liquid to taste with salt and pepper, if needed, and more lime juice. Add in the shredded pork and turn the heat down to low, cooking just until the pork is heated through.
  • Just before serving, crumble in the reserved bacon.
  • If you want additional crunch, spread the warmed, sauced pork out on a tray and put it until a preheated broiler for a few minutes, until some of the edges have crisped and a few have charred here and there. Serve with accompaniments listed above, or your own favorites.

Winter Risotto

In tenth grade, my English teacher assigned us a journal. Once a week, we were to write an entry about a page in length, and from what I recall it could be about whatever we wanted. Mine usually tended toward flights of fancy, as I wrote about elves or nature or about dreams I’d had. To my current shame but my then-pride, these were typically composed the morning the assignment was due, sometimes only in the class period just before English. My teacher, however, seemed to think my hastily penned essays were carefully considered marvels, even mentioning me once as an example to the class about how planning ahead and revising led to beautiful, crafted writing. I tried not to smirk.

One of these spur-of-the-moment entries discussed winter after Christmas: a season of sharp winds, unforgiving temperatures, and frost-slowed aspirations. It was dingy and cold, a harsh contrast to the joy-crammed, spiced festivity of the holiday-gone-by. As a high school student, winter after Christmas meant a return to school, so it’s no wonder I wasn’t enthused. Reflecting now, though, winter after Christmas feels a little different. Maybe it’s that I don’t go back to work until February, but winter after Christmas – winter after New Year’s, really – feels a bit more promising. I’m not talking resolutions, necessarily; I have those, but I’m not trying to turn my whole life around. Instead, it feels like an opportunity for some revising – the kind I never did on my writing as a high school student.

I’m sure you’ve noticed, but I haven’t done very well with this blog lately. So I’m not promising anything, because that sort of promise leads so quickly to disappointment or to shoddy, hasty products, but posting a recipe on January 7th does feel fairly promising, particularly after a disastrous fall/pre-Xmas performance.

As my high school self knew, this promising season is sometimes hard to see. It’s cold (at least colder than usual, yes, even in Southern California). The sun is steely and the sky sometimes threatens to open. But there are already small indications of warmth and growth and goodness to come. Some brave bulb plants have poked a curious tip or two of green above ground. For me, at least, the urge to organize has reared its head – look out, garage! And for my household, if you follow blackberryeating on Instagram you’ll already know there’s promising newness in the form of four speckled, brindled paws and a pair of liquid brown eyes. No one could ever replace Lucy, but this past weekend we welcomed a shy-but-affectionate little pup named Holly into our home and into the dog-shaped holes in our hearts. She’s a little shy about the big camera at the moment, but I’m sure you’ll be seeing plenty of her as she gets more comfortable.

So: post-Christmas chill but promising growth. You need something comforting with sparks of brightness. I decided on risotto: the warmth of creamy, just-cooked rice, fragrant with the stock and wine it has absorbed, punctuated by the vegetal freshness of whatever accompaniments you decide to stir in (and this seems to be a common thing for me, as seen here). As we’re working with a kind of winter-into-spring theme, I wanted vegetables that bridged the gap. Brussels sprouts stand in for the ragged roughness of winter, sturdy, but peeled into leaves and sliced so thin they become tender with only a minute or two of cooking. Leeks, my favorite member of the onion family, with their wintry white bulbs but supple, pale-green interiors, provide an aromatic bolster, made rich after a slow sweat in butter. Lemon zest to wake things up, and a generous palmful of dill to pull things forward into spring. Little tastes as springy to me as grassy, fresh, green-tasting dill.

We liked this as-is, but I could immediately see that a few perfect scallops, or a handful of shrimp seared with butter and lemon, would make a beautiful topping. So there you have it. Not a promise, but a dish that is, perhaps, promising. Promising of the season to come, promising of impending freshness and growth, and promising of good things on the horizon.

Winter Risotto
40-45 minutes
Serves 8
5-6 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth or stock
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, white and pale green parts only
2 cups short grain white rice
½ cup white wine
1 pound (16 ounces) brussels sprouts
zest of one lemon
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste, which you will use to season throughout the cooking process

 

  • Start by heating the broth or stock to a simmer in a medium pot. It will warm up faster if you put a lid on it. You might not use it all, but risotto lore affirms absorption will be better and the dish will be ready faster if the liquid is already hot.
  • While the broth warms, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Prep the leeks by lopping off the roots, if there are any, and cutting off the very dark greens, which are quite tough. Split each leek section lengthwise, so you are left with two half cylinders. Run these under water, using your thumbs to separate the layers a bit and rinse away any grit within. Shake off the excess water, then return to your cutting board and slice each leek very thinly into little half-moon shapes.
  • When the butter and oil have melted together, add the sliced leeks, a pinch or two of salt and pepper, and, stirring occasionally, let them sweat down and soften for 7-10 minutes. The goal here is not to brown them, but to cook gently.
  • With soft, tender leek ribbons achieved, crank the heat up to medium high and add the rice all at once, stirring it into and through the vegetables and fat to coat it evenly. Let it toast, stirring gently, for 3-5 minutes. Then pour in the white wine and stir gently but consistently until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
  • Now starts the part of risotto making that people consider labor-intensive: turn the heat down to medium and begin adding the stock or broth about a cup at a time. With each addition, stir gently but firmly and frequently as the liquid absorbs. I don’t think you need to stir the whole time, but the more you stir, the creamier your end product will be. The first few additions of broth will seem to absorb very quickly, so more stirring is needed. After ten minutes or so, the broth will absorb more slowly, so you’ll have time for things in between.
  • Once the absorption rate slows down a bit, you should have time to prep your brussels sprouts. Trim off a bit of the stalk end, especially if it is discolored, and peel away any wilted, yellowed, or discolored leaves. If you are feeling exceptionally patient, peel the sprouts into individual leaves. If you are feeling less patient, cut them into slices as thin as you can manage. Stir in the sprout slices and/or the leaves with your last addition of broth. Sprinkle in a bit more salt to account for the unseasoned veg you just added.
  • When this final addition of liquid is almost absorbed, the rice should be fully cooked, with just a tiny bite, but not a crunch, in the center. At this stage, add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the lemon zest and juice, and the dill. Stir through, sample and add salt and pepper to taste.
  • If you are adding seared seafood of some kind to round out the meal, serve by adding a scoop of risotto to a shallow bowl, then topping with the protein and, if you like, a final sprinkle of lemon zest and/or dill. If you are not adding anything, I’d still suggest a final sprinkle of zest and dill for punch and aesthetics. Serve hot.

Gochujang Glazed Cauliflower

One of the many amazing, beneficial things having a culturally diverse population does is make our food more interesting. Though Sriracha is pretty recognizable to most people at this point and salsa is, of course, an everyday condiment, my newest spice-related obsession might still be a bit of an unknown. Gochujang, which is a Korean staple made from hot peppers that falls somewhere between sauce and paste, has now taken up permanent residence in my fridge. It’s a more complex, rounded taste than a sauce like Sriracha or sambal, with a slight fermented kick and an affinity for sweet companions, but it packs no less of a punch.

I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I first learned about gochujang as a result of the amount of food television I watch, but I’m delighted that I did. Since purchasing the bottle that sits jammed in amongst my mustards and capers and olives and preserved lemons on the door of my refrigerator, I have added it to every sauce I can think of and drooled over its application on chicken, steak, anything grillable.

Weirdly enough, though, the food I have applied this wonder-sauce to that made me the most excited was cauliflower. Through a roundabout voyage starting with the hipsterized version of the age old bar-and-tailgating tradition that is buffalo wings, I found my way to a tray of cauliflower lightly seasoned and roasted until tender, then brushed thickly with a mixture of gochujang, molasses, and oyster sauce before being broiled to caramelize. Served over a scoop of fluffy brown rice and topped with conservatively confetti-ed lime zest, it requires nothing else.

I know, I know, I just said it requires nothing else. But I want to add a few notes before we get to the recipe part because how much you love this depends on you doing a little taste testing. I use a spare amount of olive oil to roast the cauliflower because there’s melted butter in the glaze. Were you going light you could skip that, but I love the way it enriches and rounds out the end result. As for the “big three,” so to speak, of sauces we’re combining, you’ll want to start with ¼ cup of each and then play according to your taste. I find I end up wanting a little more gochujang and just a drizzle more molasses, but remember as you sample it in progress that this is going to be divided up over two heads of cauliflower and tempered by the neutral nuttiness – if you choose to serve it the way I do – of brown rice. In either case, the lime juice I couldn’t resist adding winds up being non-negotiable: you don’t taste it, quite, but that little bit of acid, as is so often the case, balances the whole thing.

Gochujang Glazed Cauliflower
Serves 4 (with sauce and rice left over)
50-60 minutes
2 cups long grain brown rice
chicken broth and/or water to cook rice
2 large heads cauliflower
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)
¼ cup oyster sauce
¼ cup molasses
juice of ½ a lime
zest of one lime

 

  • Start the brown rice cooking in a rice cooker or a large pot (if you use a rice cooker, follow its directions for quantities of liquid. If you use a pot, you’ll need about 4½ cups of liquid for 2 cups of rice). It will take about 45 minutes.
  • Set the oven to 450F, then drizzle two large baking trays with 1 tablespoon of olive oil each and put them in the oven to preheat as well. This ensures that the cauliflower starts to roast immediately upon adding it to the pan, since the oil will already be hot.
  • To prep the cauliflower, carefully use a sharp knife to cut out the core from the bottom of each head. Remove that central core and any lingering leaves, then set the heads floret side up on a cutting board and slice into thick slabs – about ½ inch – and florets as some of the slabs separate. Remove the preheated trays from the oven and arrange the slabs and florets in a single layer on the hot oiled trays. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top, 1 tablespoon for each tray, and sprinkle lightly with the salt.
  • Place the trays into the oven and roast at 450F for 20 minutes, then carefully flip over each piece using tongs; return to 450F oven for another 20 minutes.
  • While the cauliflower roasts, make the sauce. In a small saucepan or a heat-safe bowl set over a small pot of simmering water, melt the butter, then whisk in the remaining ingredients. Taste to see how you like it, then add more of the gochujang, molasses, or oyster sauce as desired. I find I like a little more gochujang and just a drizzle more molasses.
  • This is a good moment to check on your rice: once it has absorbed all its liquid, let it sit with the heat off (or on the “keep warm” setting of your rice cooker, if it has that) for a few minutes for a fluffier end result.
  • When the cauliflower is tender and lightly golden on both sides, remove it from the oven and preheat the broiler. If your broiler element is at the top of your oven, move the top rack up so it’s positioned right underneath the flame. Either brush cauliflower pieces generously with glaze, or tumble them into a bowl and toss with the glaze. I prefer the former because it keeps the pieces more intact, but the latter method would make for a more even coating of sauce.
  • However you glaze them, return the trays of sauced cauliflower to the oven, now on broiler mode, and broil for just a few minutes to allow the glaze to bubble and caramelize.
  • To serve, pile a generous helping of cauliflower over a scoop of brown rice, add additional sauce if desired, then sprinkle with lime zest.