Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs

I fervently hope you have at least one recipe in your arsenal that your family is just mad about. In my case, I guess that might be… tacos? Or perhaps, pardon the sub-par photography, pot pie. For my mom, this recipe is a take on Swedish meatballs from an old cookbook with a faded gold cover. Populated by numerous, lightly ethnic recipes from various European and Mediterranean regions, the cookbook is most stained and marked (Mom makes adjustments in the margins with pencil) on the “Myrna’s Meatballs” recipe. On the facing page is a photograph of a woman (Myrna, I guess) with well-teased chestnut hair, large glasses, and a round face, in the process of lighting candles over a nicely stocked dining room table.

Food Blog February 2015-0364The meatballs themselves, with their mixture of beef and pork seasoned with warm spices and draped in rich brown gravy, are definitely a take on the Swedish smorgasbord classic, and my family is nuts for them. Every year when we plan our Christmas menu, the one item that doesn’t change, it seems, is these meatballs. This past year, because the plan was all rolled appetizers, the meatballs didn’t fit the theme. Rather than skip them, however, they became Christmas Eve dinner instead. Christmas was saved. For Christmas 2015, we’ve already decided the theme will be “food on a stick” (because, I mean, what else would we do while eating the current year’s offerings than plot options for next year’s celebration?). My sister has already excitedly declared that we’ll just stab the meatballs with toothpicks, and that’s one dish done.

Food Blog February 2015-0349I must confess: I like these meatballs quite a bit, and I enjoy them when they show up in the Christmas spread, but they aren’t quite on my deathbed menu. They are tender and tasty, and the gravy in particular – depth and extra richness imparted by a mere teaspoon of instant coffee powder – is a savory treat. But something about the meatball itself made me want to fiddle.

Food Blog February 2015-0350In one of those lovely coincidences the universe sometimes hands out, the Cooks Illustrated issue in my, well, my bathroom magazine rack (what?) just happened to contain a Swedish meatball recipe, and though many of the ingredients were the same as Myrna’s immortal list, the procedure was different enough to catch my attention. Since one of the things – I think – I wanted to adjust about the family meatball of choice was the texture, it seemed fortuitous to combine-and-conquer.

Food Blog February 2015-0352The main difference in the CI version of Swedish meatballs is the way the meat is prepared. Mom and Myrna knead together the pork, beef, a handful of parsley, spices (plenty of black pepper, as Mom is always telling me), lightly sauteed onions, and  breadcrumbs soaked in milk (called a panade) in a bowl before forming soft balls. Taking a cue from sausage making, CI recipe tester J. Kenji Alt instead vigorously paddles the pork in a stand mixer with spices, baking powder for lightness, and the traditional sopping panade. A touch of brown sugar goes in too, for a background hint of sweetness. Grated onions and salt join this combination, and the whipped meat paste is only lightly combined with ground beef. This results in a tender, light meatball with a sort of springiness, achieved by stretching the meat proteins in the pork as it is paddled into a paste-y emulsion. It also more evenly distributes the fat through the meat, which seemed worth imitating.

Food Blog February 2015-0353In my version, because I also wanted to minimize the number of dishes I was going to make N. wash (our version of an egalitarian kitchen: whoever cooks, the other one has to wash up. You can guess how this usually works out), I decided to go for the food processor instead of the stand mixer. I was going to use it to make fresh breadcrumbs anyway, and decided relying on it to grate my onions and mix up the meat would keep things easy. In retrospect, this seems counter-intuitive – wouldn’t the blade tear apart the meat proteins, rather than elongating them? Yet it did produce a pleasing texture.

Food Blog February 2015-0355Mom (and Myrna) brown their meatballs in a few tablespoons of butter, then finish them by simmering them in the gravy for half an hour. The CI version, on the other hand, does more of a shallow fry in vegetable oil, cooking the meatballs completely and then just running them through a quick turn in the sauce. I decided, again, on a slight compromise. I used less oil than the CI recipe, and browned the meatballs on all sides, opting to use my electric skillet so I could control the oil temperature. Once the meatballs were golden and felt almost crisp, I drained them, whisked up the sauce in the same skillet, and returned them to the gravy for the requisite half hour simmer. Any opportunity to add flavor seemed like the right thing to do.

Food Blog February 2015-0356When we couldn’t take the aroma anymore (the dog kept appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, wagging and smiling. Their eternal hope is so encouraging and so sad), I boiled up some egg noodles, tossed them with butter and parsley, and ladled on the main event.

Food Blog February 2015-0360I don’t think I’m allowed to say that my meatballs were better than Mom’s. But they were very, very good. I think the textural change – a subtle tenseness to the exterior that burst when you bit through it, and a tightness to the meatball that was somehow not at all dense – was an improvement. I also added a reserved squeeze of dijon mustard to both the panade mixture and the sauce, and that, along with the bare hint of sweetness from the brown sugar, was a good choice.

Food Blog February 2015-0366But in addition to the texture and the minimal flavor upgrades, I think the nest of buttery noodles made the dish. When we eat these meatballs at Christmas time, they are usually part of a large spread – one little corner of a plate full of wildly varied appetizer items. Here, resting atop an eggy bed, glazed with thick gravy, we really had a chance to appreciate their deep, warm flavors.

Food Blog February 2015-0364

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs
Makes 25-30 1-inch meatballs
For meatballs:
1½ cups bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ of a large onion)
1 tablespoon butter
½ pound ground pork
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + 1 tablespoon for serving
⅛ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ pound ground beef
1 cup vegetable oil
For gravy:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1¼ – 1½ cups beef broth
salt and pepper to taste (taste first; sodium content in beef broth may vary)
  • Using the disc shredder of a food processor or a box grater, grate the onion and cook it in 1 tablespoon butter over medium low heat until tender and translucent but not browned. Set aside to cool.
  • While onion cooks and cools, use the regular blade of a food processor to create 1½ cups bread crumbs from 1-2 slices of bread (stale is fine). Combine the bread crumbs, the milk or half and half, and 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard in a small bowl and let soak for 5 minutes.
  • Add the ground pork, cooled onions, ¼ cup parsley, salt, baking powder, brown sugar, and spices to the food processor. Squeeze out the soaked bread and add that as well.  Process for 1-2 minutes into a smooth, homogenous mixture. Pause to scrape down the sides as needed.
  • Dump the pork and bread paste into a large bowl and add the ground beef. Using your hands or a spatula (but hands work better), gently fold the beef into the pork mixture until just incorporated. With moistened hands, form generous tablespoon-sized balls (about 1 inch) from the meat mixture.
  • Heat oil in a straight-sided skillet to 350F, or until the first meatball sizzles when cautiously dipped in. I used my electric skillet to help monitor the temperature. Fry the meatballs, turning as needed, until brown on all sides – about 5 minutes. Remove and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate or tray while you make the gravy.
  • For gravy, carefully pour out the remaining oil in the pan, but leave any browned bits behind for extra flavor. These are called fond. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then sprinkle in the flour and whisk together. Let flour and butter cook for 1-2 minutes into a loose, lightly golden smear. Stir in the instant espresso powder, the brown sugar, and the dijon mustard. Add the beef broth, whisking constantly to deter lumps. Continue to whisk slowly until mixture reaches a simmer and thickens to a gravy consistency. Taste for seasoning, keeping in mind flavors will intensify as it continues to simmer.
  • Add the meatballs to the gravy in the pan, cover, and cook over low to medium low heat for 30 minutes, basting the meatballs occasionally.
  • Serve hot or warm over buttered egg noodles, mashed or boiled potatoes, or with toothpicks for an appetizer or smorgasbord spread. Sprinkle the final tablespoon of parsley over the starch or the meatballs themselves for a little brightness.

Sweet Potato and Brussels Warm Salad

Food Blog November 2014-0792The first time I made this dish, which could be called a roasted side dish or a warm salad, depending on how you’re feeling, I didn’t actually make it. Let me explain. Like everyone (she says, because it makes her feel better), I have a few unfortunate… let’s call them character flaws. I’m clumsy. I drop things. I spill. I trip. Last week right in the middle of a lecture about pronouns and antecedents I bumped into the chalkboard and, in my recovery, stumbled into a wheeled desk chair that promptly rolled several feet across the classroom. My students were gracious enough to laugh at me.

Food Blog November 2014-0782Where my clumsiness can be amusing or endearing or even charming in other areas of life (I disagree, but N. seems to find it so), it occasionally winds up being dangerous in the kitchen. I take precautions: my knives are sharp, I stabilize my cutting boards, and I try not to do too many things at once. But once in a while, a knife slips, my mind wanders, and I wind up bleeding.

Food Blog November 2014-0783Food Blog November 2014-0788This unappetizing truth is what almost did this salad in. The first time I made it, this autumnal tumble of sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, prosciutto, and walnuts, I had baked the prosciutto into saliva-inducing crisps, toasted the walnuts, and cooked off the sweet potatoes. All that remained, aside from a tart dressing I knew would involve whole grain mustard and cider vinegar, was to slice up a mess of brussels sprouts. To save on dishes, because N. hates washing the food processor, I was doing this delicate slicing by hand and, well, my hand slipped. In a matter of seconds, I was outside, sitting on the porch step with my hand in the air and my head between my knees thinking it was too early for the sky to be so dark, and N. was running for a bandage and asking questions about something called an emergency room.

Food Blog November 2014-0789When my head cleared a little, I decided the cut wasn’t bad enough to merit a hospital run, but it was bad enough that I wouldn’t be able to finish dinner. You’re up, N! We tagged out and N., usually a bit shy in the kitchen, did an admirable job slicing the rest of the sprouts, whisking up a sharp, perfectly acidic dressing, and tossing everything together. We ate, I recovered, and I suddenly had a fantastic war story to exchange with my sister when she suffered her own bit of kitchen clumsiness a few weeks later.

Food Blog November 2014-0794The dish stayed in the back of my mind. It was good when we ate it – nice for the day we’d had which, though warm, carried hints of cooler evenings to come – but I kept wanting more. The flavors should be deeper. The rawness of the brussels sprouts was okay, but with toasty edges they would be even better. My fix, as it usually is for things involving vegetables, was to roast everything. This created, I’ll admit, a bowl of cubes and shards that would never pass muster on a Pinterest board worth its salt. However,  it makes up for its homeliness by combining all the fall flavors and textures I was yearning for. It is sweet and earthy and vegetal, with the right amount of saltiness from the prosciutto. The walnuts have a slight, slight bitterness, which contrasts nicely against the sweet potato. And the dressing, tangy and light and packed with tiny mustard seeds that pop between your teeth, soaks down into the vegetables and lifts the whole thing back up into perfect, warm, satisfying fall salad territory.
Food Blog November 2014-0799

Roasted Sweet Potato and Brussels Sprouts “salad”
serves 2 as a main, 3-4 as a side
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 cups)
16 ounces brussels sprouts, stem ends and any wilted or yellowing leaves removed, halved or quartered. You want the sweet potatoes and the Brussels sprouts roughly equal in size.
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
5-6 slices prosciutto
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
2 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Additional salt and pepper to taste, if desired

 

  • Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking tray with aluminum foil. Pour 1 tablespoon of the olive oil directly onto the foil-lined tray and place the tray in the oven while it is preheating. While you wait for it to warm up, prep the vegetables.
  • Toss the sweet potato chunks and Brussels sprout pieces in a large bowl with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the salt, and the pepper. Once the oven is preheated, transfer the vegetables to a single layer on the foil-lined tray that has been heating up inside. The additional of the oil already on the tray means the exteriors of the vegetables will start cooking immediately.
  • As soon as you place the tray of vegetables into the oven, turn the heat down to 425F. Roast the sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts for 20 minutes, then toss them to promote even browning and roast for an additional 20 minutes.
  • On another foil-lined baking sheet, spread out the prosciutto so the slices do not overlap. During the second 20 minute roasting of the vegetables, add the prosciutto tray to the oven and cook for about 10 minutes, until the slices are almost crisp and lightly bronzed.
  • Remove prosciutto slices to a paper towel to drain and cool, and add the chopped walnuts directly to the tray that previously held the prosciutto. Roast the walnuts for 5-6 minutes, until fragrant and slightly darker in color (keep an eye on them, though; they burn fast).
  • While the ingredients are roasting, make the dressing. In a large bowl (it can be the serving bowl, to save on dishes, if you like), whisk together the mustard, the honey, and the cider vinegar. While whisking, slowly pour in the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired, but remember that the vegetables are already seasoned and the prosciutto is quite salty.
  • When the vegetables are roasted to your liking (I like them golden with slightly crusty edges, and yielding on the inside), remove from the oven and place them directly in the bowl with the dressing. Toss to combine. Crumble or chop up the prosciutto into bite-sized pieces, and add it and the walnuts to the bowl as well. Toss again to integrate, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Project Sauce: Peppercorn Crusted Pork Tenderloin with Plum Gastrique

Today’s entry rounds out my eighth month of this sauce project. I’ve learned a number of things thus far, but the one that remains the most challenging is this: sauce is a component, not a complete product. That means you must not only execute the sauce itself, but you also have to decide what to drizzle, spoon, scoop, pour, or dab it over!

Food Blog August 2014-0442Sometimes this is quite simple. Hollandaise, for example, is such a classic that eggs benedict spring immediately to mind. A few weeks ago, my meunière sauce had a similar effect, demanding as it does a particular fish to moisten and flavor. And in fact, once I figured out what the next entry in my little project would be, I had no trouble dreaming up how I would serve it. It would be a gastrique – a French sauce that melts sugar and vinegar together into a thick, sweet-sour glaze. Mine, since it’s the height of summer and every week I can’t help but fill a bag with stone fruit at our local Farmers’ Market, would be dressed up a touch with the addition of plums. As soon as I knew this, I knew I wanted to serve it over moist lovely slices of pork tenderloin. Easy. Done.

Food Blog August 2014-0440Except.

Let’s straighten out an unfortunate item of business here, friends. N. doesn’t like pork. Oh he loves bacon. Sausage, especially breakfast sausage, is a treat. He’ll eat various smoked and cured pig-based items: prosciutto and pancetta are consumed with gusto and exotics like guanciale or chorizo are just fine. He’ll even tolerate ham, though it wouldn’t be his first choice. But pork itself, not treated with smoke or salt or brine, elicits a sneer. He would never order pork tenderloin in a restaurant. Ribs are more trouble than they’re worth. Even pulled pork had better be swimming in a pretty flavorful sauce to keep him interested. I have to get my pork chop fix when I visit my parents without him. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s breaded and fried, grilled up, or seared and roasted. He’ll have the chicken, thanks.

Food Blog August 2014-0426This, as you can imagine, was a considerable wrench aimed at my little plan. But the idea of silky, tangy, liquid plum dribbling over a thick slice of tenderloin sounded too good. I decided he would just have to deal. So I rolled the tenderloin in a blend of crushed peppercorns, coarse salt, and thyme leaves. I seared it, I roasted it, I let it rest. I cut it in thick, moist slices and served him a few with a coating of ruby sauce.

Food Blog August 2014-0428He went back for seconds. Later, I caught him in the refrigerator tasting just one more slice. He considered piling the leftovers onto some sourdough for a lunch sandwich the next day. Um, pork.

Food Blog August 2014-0432I can only figure one of two answers here. One, it could be that the heat from the crushed peppercorns was so powerful that it disguised the porcine flavor he’s so tepid about. Two, and this is the option I choose to believe: the pairing was so perfect, and the gastrique so sublimely flavored, that he couldn’t help himself but to fall hard for the combination.

Food Blog August 2014-0434Whichever it was, and however you feel about pork, this sauce is definitely worth trying. No butter this time; this sauce contains no dairy, no eggs, and no flour. It’s completely different from every other sauce I’ve approached thus far, with one exception: it must be simmered to thicken. Here, though, rather than emulsifying butter or letting flour granules soak up liquid or gently cooking egg yolks to coax out their protein strands, we’re contending with melting sugar and evaporating water content. In my version, the sugar and vinegar required to make this a gastrique are joined by gloriously ripe red plums, cooked down into a jammy pulp (helped out with the determined application of a potato masher), strained, and then returned to the pan just to help a few bits of diced raw plum heat through, for some texture. And all of this happens while the pork is cooking, so everything is ready to go at roughly the same time.

Food Blog August 2014-0437Food Blog August 2014-0438If you’re not a pork tenderloin fan, I think this would also work really well with salmon, or with various varieties of poultry. It would also provide the perfect wilt as the dressing in a warm salad of dark leafy greens; I’d opt for spinach. And save the skins and pulp after you’ve strained out the glorious velvet sauce. Warm or cool, perhaps with an additional sprinkle of sugar, they make a fantastic tart spread for toast.

Food Blog August 2014-0441

Peppercorn crusted pork tenderloin with plum gastrique
Gastrique recipe adapted from The Tomato Tart
Serves 4
 
For the pork:
1 lb. boneless pork tenderloin
1-2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, crushed (we used 2 tablespoons, which was aggressively peppery. If you are concerned about spice, try 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons olive oil, for searing
 
For the gastrique:
4 ripe plums, divided (the riper they are, the faster they will cook down)
½ cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. While it warms, combine crushed peppercorns, thyme, and salt on a large plate or a sheet tray, and roll the pork through it, coating it on all sides.
  • Heat the olive oil over medium-high in a large skillet. When it is rippling but not quite smoking, add the pork and sear it until golden-brown on all sides. This should take 2-3 minutes per side. As each side sears, leave it alone. You won’t get a lovely golden crust if you shake the pan and move the pork around too much.
  • When the outside of the pork is a uniform golden-brown (though of course quite raw on the inside still), relocate it to a rack on a roasting pan (I just placed a rack over the sheet tray I’d used earlier) and roast in your 350F oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the interior tests 150F. Then remove it from the oven, wrap tightly with aluminum foil and leave it for 10 minutes. During this time the temperature will rise to 160F, which is perfect.
  • Slice and serve with warm plum gastrique. A few slices, nicely sauced, over a bed of goat cheese polenta is quite nice.

 

  • While the pork is roasting, make the plum gastrique. Pit and quarter three of the plums. Pit the fourth plum, cut it into a small dice, and set aside.
  • Add the three quartered plums, the vinegar, and the sugar to a saucepan and cook over medium heat until simmering.
  • Turn the heat down, maintaining the simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Then, using a potato masher (or, if they are really ripe, just the back of a spoon), mash up the plums, skins and all, into a pulpy mess.
  • Cook, stirring often, until the mixture gets syrupy – about 15 minutes.
  • Pour and/or smash the mixture through a strainer to separate the pulp and skins. You can do this into a bowl, or right back into the saucepan. Either way, once the mixture is strained, pour the sauce portion back into the pan, add the diced plumps and a pinch of salt, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes just to heat everything through.
  • Serve warm.

Fig, gorgonzola, and prosciutto crostini

Let’s talk about hazing for just a minute. I don’t mean the kind that covers the skies down here in Southern California – that filmy grayness that hangs a little thicker the closer to get to the skyscrapered center of Los Angeles. I don’t mean the kind that fills your brain when you remember there’s still a week of school left, and who knows how much grading after that. I mean the kind that happens when you’re the new guy. Being the new guy at my job means, through none of your own doing, that you are the party planner. At the department meeting in November, with no previous knowledge of customs or expectations, you suddenly get told that you (with any other new hires for the year) are in charge of planning the holiday party.
April May June 2014-3780You do it. It turns out fine. And in my case, you end up with some funds left over. And suddenly the hazing becomes self-inflicted. You find yourself sitting in your boss’s office suggesting we organize something for the end of the spring semester as well because, well, why not? We work hard. We might want a party to celebrate the close of the school year. So when May rolls around, you remember that suggestion, and those leftover funds, and suddenly you’re planning a happy hour for the colleagues you can’t believe you’ve grown so fond of in just a year, and feeling, under the weight of the grocery bags, again quite lucky to have landed this position.
April May June 2014-3770When I plan a party, I have a tendency to go overboard. Potlucks N. and I hosted during graduate school became theme parties. We were late to our graduation party because I wanted to make sure the pulled pork I’d made to share was perfect. Though I was determined to keep this work function a casual, easy-to-throw-together affair, I still found myself sketching out a shopping list two weeks in advance, when we weren’t even sure where the party would take place yet.
April May June 2014-3771And then I was suddenly not just adding ready-to-serve items to the list, but ingredients. I was menu planning.
April May June 2014-3773It seems to me that a gathering of the sort I executed this past weekend – a casual happy hour in a gorgeous community clubhouse in San Pedro – is perfectly lovely with entirely purchased snacks. A selection of red and white wines, good cheeses, some crackers and a vegetable platter, and perhaps some nice briny olives and hard salami, more than does the job. But adding one or two homemade items really makes things special. For me, these included some spring rolls and peanut sauce (I may share the recipe at some point, if I can get my act together), some freshly baked sourdough bread spiked with rosemary, and a crostini combination I am crazy for that was gone within the space of an hour.
April May June 2014-3775This crostini blends salty and sweet in a tremendously successful way. It’s pretty, it smells fantastic, it looks impressive, and it is so easy there’s barely a recipe at all. That’s what we all need, I think, for the end of the semester.
April May June 2014-3778Ready?
You slice a baguette, drizzle the slices with olive oil and pepper, and toast them. No salt, since we’ll be adding cured meat and cheese in a moment. You spread them with fig jam, nestle a half slice of prosciutto atop each, and then add a sprinkling of gorgonzola cheese. Then you shove the whole tray under the broiler for a few minutes until the edges of the prosciutto are crinkling and toasting with heat, and then you scoop your little toasts onto a platter and send them out to watch them disappear. Done. If you want, you can add a little wisp of baby arugula to the top for greenness and another peppery punch. As you can see, I did a tray without prosciutto, to allow vegetarian snackers to partake as well.

April May June 2014-3781*Note: these quantities are approximate. Depending on how well oiled you like your bread, how peppery you want your toasts to be, and how thick a layer of jam and cheese you want to offer, you may need slightly more or slightly less than I’ve suggested here.

Fig, gorgonzola, and prosciutto crostini
Makes 24-30 toasts, depending on how thick you slice your baguette
1 french baguette
¼ cup (approximate) olive oil (or olive oil spray)
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup fig jam
10-12 slices prosciutto, halved into fat rectangles (as opposed to long, skinny ones)
¾ cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
1 bunch baby arugula, optional
  • First, preheat your broiler.
  • Slice your baguette on a bias into ½ – ¾ inch discs. Arrange on two baking trays in a single layer. Brush (or spray) with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper. Broil for 2-3 minutes or until the top of each slice is golden. Flip over each slice and broil another 1-2 minutes until these, too, are golden. Set aside to cool slightly.
  • When the toasts have cooled enough to handle without toasting your fingertips, spread each one with a thin layer of fig jam, being sure to get all the way to the edges.
  • Top the jam with a slice of prosciutto, fluting it a bit as you set it on the bread so that it sits up like a rumpled napkin, rather than lying flat. This will ensure a bit of crisping, and it looks awfully pretty.
  • Sprinkle some gorgonzola crumbles atop the prosciutto, trying to keep them on the toasts as much as possible, rather than on the baking tray around the toasts.
  • Place your loaded sheet trays back into the broiler and let them go for just a minute or two, until the edges of the prosciutto are sizzling and crisp, and the gorgonzola starts to wilt and bubble slightly.
  • Remove from the oven, settle on a serving platter, and top each with a curl of baby arugula, if desired.

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.

Three for One

Sometimes you are faced with not enough: not enough time, not enough money, not enough to do…

And sometimes you are faced with too much: too much bounty, too much responsibility, too much joy.  These are both their own kind of problem.  And if I have to choose, faced with these Januses, I will always go for too much.  Even if I fall short.

Last week I only managed one Bittman.  This week, in a startling display of ambition and motivation, I did three.

One of the biggest challenges of this project (aside from cooking, photographing, and writing about the food… you know… actually doing it…) has been deciding what to serve these dishes with.  I’m not up for roasting a chicken or a turkey every week to emulate the Thanksgiving spirit of the project, so I try to piece them together with other entrees.  As you’ve seen, if you’ve been following the project for any length of time, sometimes I choose well, and sometimes I decidedly don’t.

This week, riffling through the slowly diminishing options, it occurred to me for the first time that I could serve them as complements to each other.  They were all, after all, conceived for the same imagined table.  They should work together quite nicely.

“7. Cranberry-Orange Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with orange and lemon zest, cut up (peeled) orange segments, ¼ cup sugar (or to taste) and a bit of minced jalapeño or chipotle.”

This sounded good and, with the slightly cooler temperatures we’ve been privileged to receive lately, a nice symbol of our entry into Fall.  Cranberries and oranges are a frequent couple – almost too expected – but there’s a reason they appear together so frequently.  And with the addition of lemon juice and some spice, this seemed far enough from traditional to avoid being boring.

1 bag cranberries (probably 1 pound?)

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 large or two small oranges (mine were little Valencias from our Farmers’ Market)

Segments of 1 large or two small oranges

¼ – ½ cup sugar, depending on your taste and the tartness of your berries

Dash of spice, depending on your taste

I bounced the cranberries into a pot, zested the lemon and oranges over them, and then cut the peel from the orange and sliced out supremes.  For good measure, I squeezed as much juice from the wasted scraps of orange as I could, then topped the mix with sugar and a dusting of cayenne (I had neither jalapeno or chipotle available) and pushed it onto the back burner.

I let the pot come to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to melt the sugar evenly and prevent it from burning until the cranberries released some juice to protect the mixture.  Once it boiled, I lowered the heat and let the whole thing simmer for about 20 minutes.  At one point I tasted, decided there wasn’t enough sugar or cayenne, and added more of both.  The addition of sugar was a good thing.  The addition of more cayenne was less so.  I’d caution you to start with less than you think you will want.  The mixture does not taste at all spicy while it’s hot.  When it cools, though, it becomes fiery.  It was still tasty, though.  We ate it sticky and thick and room temperature, dabbing up popped clusters of ruby and letting it linger on our tongues – but not too long – enough to wake our taste buds from the spice.  As an autumnal side, this works very well and is a pleasant update to the traditional cranberry sauce.  It would also make a glorious topping for a baked brie, perhaps with some rosemary or red wine glugged in for good measure.

While the cranberry sauce was heating, I turned my attention to its companion.

“59. Blanch thinly sliced potato and leeks until tender but not mushy; drain well. Layer the vegetables in an oiled or buttered baking dish, then top with a mixture of bread crumbs and lightly sautéed chopped bacon (some cheese mixed in is pretty good, too). Broil until golden brown.”

Potatoes and leeks are a combination that, a mere year or so ago, I didn’t realize existed.  Now it’s such a natural pairing I can’t believe I never knew about it before.  Sliced blanched potatoes and sautéed leeks now fill every frittata I make.  I collected:

2 russet potatoes, peeled

1 massive leek, tough tops and root ends removed, halved vertically (rinse it out well at this point) and sliced into slim, slim, oh-so-slim half moons

1 lb. bacon

½ – 1 cup bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned)

Knowing how good leeks can be when they are sweated and barely brown, and conscious that the beauty of bacon grease shouldn’t go to waste, I made a few changes to Bittman’s directions.

First I cooked the bacon.  You likely don’t need a whole pound of it, but this guaranteed an appetizer: one still sizzling slice each for N. and for me.  If you aren’t cooking for or with someone else, go wild and have two all by your lonesome.

While the bacon cooked and the cranberries simmered and popped, I put a pot of water on to boil.  When its aggressive bubbling demanded attention, I carefully lowered in the potato slices and gave them free reign for five or ten minutes.

When it was edging toward crisp, I set the bacon aside to cool and drain a bit on a paper towel lined plate.  I dumped the potatoes into a colander when they were barely cooked through.

Time for the leeks.  I scraped my board free of the slender, just green shards, capturing a satisfying fizz as the vegetation hit the pan.  You want to stir with some frequency here, and not raise the heat above medium; we’re looking for a light sauté, not a heavy brown.

The shards collapsed into resistant-less ribbons, and I pushed them to one side to add the drained, cooling potatoes.  With adept wooden spoon manipulation, I managed to achieve something like layering: half the potatoes flat on the bottom of the pan, the leeks draped across them, and the rest of the potato slices on top.

I turned on my broiler, and while it heated I crumbled the bacon, tossed it with bread crumbs, and dusted the potatoes with the mixture.  But dust wasn’t enough.  They required a landslide.  I drizzled the top with olive oil, knowing the bread crumbs would need it to brown, and slid the whole pan into the broiler (note: if you use a skillet or pan for this, rather than a casserole dish, be sure you wrap any plastic or rubber with aluminum foil before you put it into the broiler.  We don’t want your nice pan handles to melt…).

Five minutes later, the parts of the crumble I had oiled were beautiful brown (the other parts remained sandy and unaltered, much to my chagrin) and the dog was close by, nose moist with curiosity and the urge to assist.

We loaded our plates, completing the meal with a completely unnecessary slice of toasted jalapeno cheese bread, and ate.

As has proved often the case with Bittman’s layered vegetable dishes, I expected this one to be a gratin, and it just wasn’t.  Some cream, some cheddar cheese, some binding between the vegetables, would have been ideal.  But not crucial.  They weren’t supposed to be scalloped potatoes, after all.  The bacon and bread crumbs made them exciting, and the leeks were almost creamy nestled between the thick slices.  Honestly, forgetting to salt the water I boiled the potatoes in was the only real unfortunate mistake.  Two down, with only one mistake (two, I suppose, if you count the overly spicy cranberries, which I suppose I do), is pretty promising.

 

To make this a trifecta, on another night I chose another autumnal option.

“64. Mushroom Bread Pudding: Put 6 cups of good bread (day-old is best) cut into 1-inch chunks into a buttered baking dish. Beat 4 eggs with 2 cups of milk and ½ cup grated Parmesan and pour over the bread. Sauté 4 cups of sliced mushrooms until tender with a teaspoon or two fresh thyme leaves and mix into the bread. Bake until just set, about 40 minutes.”

Mushrooms and thyme are so nice together.  They are earthy and deep and musty, like the back of a dark pantry into which no anxious hands have reached for some time.  Since they were more precise than usual, I followed Bittman’s ingredient quantities almost to the letter.

I sautéed the mushrooms and thyme in butter, taking time to let the slices soak up the butter, then expel their own liquid.  Only after that, as the moisture from the mushrooms evaporates from the pan, can the mushrooms take on the same kind of crisp brown sear as a steak pressed into a screamingly hot pan.

While the mushrooms cooled, I tore up the crusts of a month’s worth of sourdough bread (I keep them in the freezer for just these sorts of occasions) and pressed them gently into a buttered square glass baking dish.  I grated cheese – swiss and parmesan – and cracked eggs from the Farmers’ Market into a bowl, marveling at the rich orange yolks you just can’t get in the grocery store.  I stabbed them, flooded them with milk, and whisked in the cheese.

I turned to assembly.  First, mushrooms must be tossed with bread.  Attempt even distribution.  Then, a careful, rich pour of the dairy component, taking care to attend to the corners, until the bread almost floated in a puddle of would-be custard.

 

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of bread pudding production is that pressure and soaking time yield the best results.  I carefully pressed a layer of plastic wrap over the top of my pudding and set it in the fridge for an hour, while N. and I answered the velvet brown eyes begging for “walkies.”

Upon our return, it was as simple as preheating the oven to 375F (pull the pudding out of the fridge and let it approach room temperature as your oven heats), sliding the baking dish onto a rack, and reluctantly grading a paper or two as 45 minutes ticked by (I like my bread pudding a little more than “just” set).

A puff in the center signifies doneness.  Mine levitated just barely in the middle, but the custard was set and the edges of bread not submerged were crisp and darkly golden.

The serving spoon broke sharply through the crisp top but then exhaled through the custard underneath.  Piled on our plates next to an amazing skillet casserole of deeply browned sautéed Brussels sprouts and chopped walnuts drizzled with a balsamic glaze, we accepted its golden softness.  With a higher ratio of eggs to milk than most bread puddings I’ve made, this had almost a soufflé quality, though vastly more substantial.  It was rich and earthy and savory, and I suspect it will be just as good for breakfast as it was for dinner. 

Three more down.  This can be done.  2012 has already been a year of many accomplishments.  Why not go for too many, rather than hesitating at not enough?