Chatterbox

I’ve just begun rereading Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s genius collaboration Good Omens for perhaps the sixth or seventh time.  One of the characters introduced early in the novel is a Satanic nun named Sister Mary Loquacious from the Chattering Order of St. Beryl.  In looking back through some recent posts, I’ve noticed myself falling a bit on the loquacious side, with posts extending perhaps a bit longer than you’d like for a casual evening read.  So today, with three Bittmans to report on, I’m going to try to keep this brief.

54. Cook onion, curry powder and chopped ginger in oil until onion is soft; meanwhile, steam cauliflower florets until nearly tender. Add cauliflower to onion mixture, along with raisins; cover and cook until the cauliflower softens.

Two of my most hated food items as a child were cauliflower and curry.  Cauliflower was drab and slightly bitter – worthless unless smothered in sharp cheese sauce, and even then a bit suspect.  Curry powder was musty and unpleasant, and the two of them together sound like one of my youthful nightmares.  I kept this selection on the list because N. loves the flavor of curry.  But I knew that I would have to doctor up Bittman’s procedure to give this dish even a fighting chance.

1 head cauliflower

1 tsp curry powder, divided

½ tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper

generous glugs of olive oil (quantity will depend upon the size of your cauliflower)

¼ of a red onion

¼ cup golden raisins

2 TB fresh ginger, grated (this is easiest to do while it is mostly frozen; you keep your ginger in the freezer, don’t you?)

Brush a layer of olive oil on each of two cookie sheets and preheat the oven to 400F.

Core the cauliflower and slice it across into flat steaks of about ½ inch thick.  Some will collapse into florets.  That’s okay, but ideally you want nice long, horizontal pieces of cauliflower.  They look like flattened sprigs of Queen Anne’s Lace.  Toss the cauliflower with ½ tsp of the curry, salt, pepper, and more olive oil, then place on the tray in a single layer.  Don’t crowd them too much – the more space they have, the better they will brown.  Roast for 40 minutes, pausing at the 20 minute mark to flip each piece.

While the cauliflower roasts and caramelizes and browns, sauté the red onion in a little more olive oil.  When it begins to brown, toss in the raisins, the ginger, and the other ½ tsp of curry powder.  Cook together for another 2-3 minutes until the raisins plump and the curry aroma mellows a bit.

When the cauliflower is just tender and darkly golden, take it out of the oven and toss it with the onion and raisin mixture.

We had ours alongside some roasted chicken breasts I’d marinated in yogurt and garam masala.  It was delightful – if you favor a strong curry flavor, add more to both the cauliflower and the onions.  I was happy to have just a mild hint of earthy spiciness, and the unexpected sweetness of the raisins cut even this dankness in a very pleasant way.

16. Sauté equal amounts chopped, peeled apples and onions in butter until soft. Add stock or water to cover, then simmer for 10 minutes. Cool and puree. Serve sprinkled with Stilton or other blue cheese.

We weren’t sure about this one.  Nevertheless, we bravely decided to make just a small portion and see what happened.  These quantities will serve two.

1 medium apple, peeled and cored

1 medium onion

salt and pepper to taste

2 TB butter

1 ½ cups chicken stock

blue cheese

Melt the butter in a small pot over medium heat.  When it foams, it’s ready.

Meanwhile, dice the apple and onion into small chunks.  You want equal sized piles – we probably ended up with just over a cup of each.  Add them to the pot and cook over medium, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes.  You want softening and tenderizing, not aggressive browning.

When the apples are tender and the onions soft and translucent, add the broth and seasoning (though we didn’t make any additions, some thyme or sage might be very nice here – try 1 tsp of finely minced fresh herbs) and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and cool slightly, then puree and serve with 1-2 TB blue or gorgonzola cheese sprinkled on top.  We had a nice blue stilton.

It wasn’t that we didn’t like this, it was that it seemed odd as a soup.  It was slightly reminiscent of a butternut squash soup, but the apples were slightly sweeter than a squash, and the combination of their sweetness with the sharpness of the onion made this seem like an applesauce with too many ingredients.  Left chunkier, this might be nice draped over a roasted pork tenderloin – a meat that goes nicely with both sweet and sharper, savory flavors.  It might also be a good base for a butternut squash soup – the one additional player in this game could be the additional complexity it might have needed.

 

6. Cranberry-Corn Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with about a cup of corn kernels, some chopped scallions, ¼ cup brown sugar (or to taste) and a splash of water, just until thick.

Our third Bittman this week was part of a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner.  When you grow up with a set collection of dishes that come to equate to this holiday, it can be hard to make a change.  When N. started having Thanksgiving dinner with my family, he missed his mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.  So I try, in the weeks that surround the holiday, to make up for these omissions. I make several smaller dinners featuring the dishes that don’t quite fit onto our holiday menu.  This seemed like the perfect side – not traditional enough for our Thanksgiving table, but satisfying in the mean time.

1 bag cranberries

1 cup fresh or frozen corn

3 green onions, thinly sliced

¼ cup brown sugar

¼ cup water

I tossed the cranberries, corn, water, and brown sugar together in a saucepan and set them over medium heat.  I added the green onions at this point too, but were I making this again I would add them later – the 15-20 minute simmering time resulted in a slightly adulterated color, and the fresh greenness would be so much nicer.  I advise adding them during the last five minutes of cooking time.

I let this simmer for about 20 minutes, until most of the cranberries had popped and the whole pot was a sticky, almost syrupy texture.  I let them cool off the heat with the pot uncovered for a few minutes, both because I like the flavor of cranberry sauce better the cooler it is, and because I wanted to let it gel up a bit further.

These weren’t as sweet as your typical cranberry sauce.  At least, they were not as sugary sweet.  The corn added a beautiful vegetal sweetness that seemed at once the perfect fit and a strange accompaniment.  We talked through this dish as we ate it, appreciating the maple overtones of the brown sugar and the tender crunch of the sweet corn, but thrown off slightly by the same qualities.  What we finally decided, as we sampled second helpings, was that they were a delicious side dish, but they didn’t feel like Thanksgiving.  Since the rest of the meal (garlic mashed potatoes and the old standard green bean casserole, slathered with cream of mushroom soup and the salty, salty crunch of french fried onions) was so traditional, having this difference, even in its subtlety, felt wrong.  If you’re a stickler for tradition, this cranberry dish would have a better chance as a chutney for grilled pork or maybe even lamb.

Next week is the big feast.  Oddly (odd because the entire Bittman list was conceived for this single day), I had some trouble figuring out where to fit his ideas in.  I’ve come up with a pair of selections to try out, and I will report back.  In the mean time, what dishes will grace your menu on Thursday?

Counting Down

It’s interesting that as I left my 20s behind chronologically, I entered my 20s in this Bittman project.  As of this moment, on this particular Sunday afternoon, I have 25 Bittman concoctions left to make, most of them soups and desserts.  At a rate of two per week, I will finish by the end of this year.  This means we’re getting toward some major milestones, some very big deals, some lasts on the list.

The first of this pair is one such last.

“34. Combine cooked bulgur with chopped or grated apple, minced orange rind, grated ginger and chopped parsley. Back in an oiled dish, use as stuffing or serve as a salad.”

This was the final remaining entry on the “Stuffings and Grains” list. We left it till last for no particular reason, but during a week in which a collection of Valencia oranges sat languishing in our fruit bowl, it seemed like the right thing to do.

I’ve been fairly good lately about writing down ingredient quantities as I add them, but for this entry I never even lifted a pen.  It happens.  I can own up to it.  A week of non-stop grading, perhaps, made me leery of that inky instrument.  Or maybe it was our relative rush: leave it to me to design a complex, glaze-bearing dinner on a night we needed to eat early.  Some things must get sacrificed, and it turns out it’s not the glaze, it’s the notations.

Here are my approximations:

1 cup bulgur wheat

2 cups water, stock, or a combination of the two

1 large fuji apple, diced into small squares

2-3 TB finely minced orange rind

1 TB grated ginger (this is really easy to do when the ginger is frozen)

¼ cup chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Cooking bulgur is very similar to cooking rice.  I poured the wheat and the water into a pot and let it come to a boil before simmering for 15 minutes or so while I prepped my other ingredients.

After dicing the apple, grating the ginger, and chopping the parsley, I turned to the oranges.  Since Bittman specified “rind” and not “zest,” I used a y-shaped potato peeler to remove long, brilliant segments of rind.  I slid a sharp knife carefully between the rind and any white pith that got caught in the peeling, and then sliced into very thin strips, rotated them 90 degrees, and sliced again so I was left with tiny squares.

Before these happy bright piles all nestling on my cutting board got too comfortable, I tipped them into the pot of bulgur and carefully folded them in for even distribution with some salt and pepper to taste.  The experience of the still-chilly ginger hitting the hot bulgur was sinus-clearingly intense, but lovely.  An aroma-only aperitif.

With everyone incorporated, I dumped the pot’s contents into a greased baking dish and stowed it in a 350F oven for half an hour.

Orange and ginger suggested an Asian flavor profile, even though apples and parsley didn’t.  I decided to work with the dominant elements, though, and so I paired the bulgur with salmon and spinach.  The salmon would be rubbed with sesame seeds, powdered ginger, and orange rind bits before receiving a heavy sear and then an orange-juice glaze.  The spinach would be sauteed with garlic chips and sesame oil.

As with all things, this didn’t happen exactly as imagined.  It takes a long time, as it turns out, to simmer the juice of six oranges down into a thick glaze without burning their sugars.  Similarly, it takes time and babysitting to ensure garlic chips that are crisp, not charred.  And when you are trying to do all this on the same night as a homecoming football game you’ve promised to attend, certain shortcuts must be taken.

The salmon, while it seared beautifully, received not so much a glaze as a flood of boiled, ginger infused orange juice.  Still, when this liquid hit the hot salmon pan, it did bubble down into something thick and rich (if a little darker than intended).

The spinach, rather than the crunchy, spicy accoutrements I intended, had to settle for a last-minute sprinkle of sesame seeds to keep it company.

Still, the meal was overwhelmingly successful.  The salmon was outrageously delicious, and I’m going to have to make it again, writing down the procedure this time so I can share it with you.  The orange sauce perfumed the fish and kept it moist and buttery and tender.  Even though it was a bit darker than I’d planned for, the sauce took on caramel notes that seemed utterly intentional.

The bulgur was lovely.  It was toasty and fluffy and well seasoned.  The apple had cooked lightly as the dish baked, leaving it just softened but not without resistance.  The orange rind was delightfully not overpowering, but gave a warm spiciness to the grain.  It was good with the salmon, but would also be delicious with pork chops (playing on the traditional applesauce pairing) or, if you replaced the parsley with mint, a lovely side for leg of lamb.

In summary, a triumphant triumph: not only is the Stuffings category successfully completed, but it was completed with a success.

 

With the weather cooling (finally!) and the Soups category still looming largely untasted before me, I decided to try one to close out the week.

“21. Brown a little crumbled or sliced sausage in olive oil; a sprinkle of fennel seeds is good, too. Add chopped escarole, cooked white beans with their juice, and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the greens are tender and the beans are warmed through. Garnish with olive oil or Parmesan.”

I must admit I made some changes to these directions based on availability and personal taste.  I don’t like fennel.  It’s one of a very few spice flavors I just can’t take.  Over-fennel-ed sausage – like the kind that appears on many chain pizza restaurant pies – just doesn’t appeal to me, and the idea of fennel seeds crunching between my teeth and filling a mouthful of soup with their anise awfulness made their addition out of the question.

As for the escarole, I could find none.  I searched through mountains of salad greens at several local markets and this particular strain was resolutely absent.  But I did find a really beautiful bunch of kale and decided it would be a satisfactory substitute.

So here’s what I ended up with:

8 oz. bulk sausage

1 big bunch kale (chopped, this was probably 6-8 cups)

3 cloves garlic (some spice to replace the abhorred fennel seemed appropriate)

1 15 oz. can white beans with their liquid

2 cups chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste

Eschewing olive oil, I squeezed the sausage into a pan and let it brown over medium heat, separating and crumbling it as it cooked with a flat-sided wooden spoon.

I rinsed, stemmed, and chopped the kale into manageable pieces, and when the sausage was cooked through, I tossed in the mountain of greens.  No, that’s not true.  I inserted handfuls carefully so they wouldn’t spill all over the stove, and ran out of room with only half my kale added.  N. came into the kitchen when he heard me laughing hysterically, and stared in amazement at the mound of kale pieces sitting inches above the top of my pot.  I had to press it down with my hand, compacting the frilled, tough leaves down toward the bottom of the pot.  It always looks like too much.  It’s always not.  In the time it took me to mince the garlic, the kale had already begun to wilt and settle more comfortably into the confines of the pot.

When I could barely smell the garlic and the kale was level with the sides of the pot (as opposed to threatening to spill over them) I added the white beans, their juice, and barely two cups of low sodium chicken broth.  One of the things I’ve discovered about myself is that when it comes to soups and salads, I like them to be full of, well, stuff.  Lettuce with the odd crouton is no good.  I want dried cranberries, and walnuts, and avocado, and gorgonzola.  Thin, brothy soups don’t please me either.  Give me big chunks of vegetables, or slurpable noodles, or rich shreds of meat.  In the days when I’d indulge in the occasional Cup’o’noodle, I always drank the broth out first so I could concentrate on the important part: the just dripping mounds of noodles left behind.

So this soup, for true enjoyment, needed only enough broth to make its categorization accurate.  A scant two cups and we were assured plenty of “stuff” in every spoonful.

While the soup simmered, I stretched, sliced, and sprinkle mozzarella onto some pre-made pizza dough.  Twisted and snuggled on a baking sheet, these when into the oven to become bread sticks.  Fifteen minutes later when they were sizzling and firm, the soup was done.

This is not a soup you want to let simmer for hours.  The beans, especially if you are using canned like I did, will eventually become mealy and then disintegrate.  The kale begins to lose its emerald brilliance after a while, and though it will still taste good, it won’t be as pleasing to consume.  Simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes max.

Then you get to shave on some parmesan and eat it.

Neither of us was sure we would like this soup.  But we shouldn’t have been so foolish.  N. has placed the products of this project on a pass/fail system.  This is what happens, I suspect, when you have two teachers in the family.  He announces his verdicts after dinner, and he treats them as though Mr. Bittman has just submitted an exam or a paper assignment.  “Bittman passes on this one,” he told me last night as we cleaned up.  It wasn’t just his happiness at pairing his dinner with the first Jubelale of the season.  He really did like the soup.  And I think he was right.  This was a fast, easy, delicious little warmer.  Cooking the kale in the sausage grease gave it some additional flavor and took away that raw bitterness dark leafy greens can sometimes have.  The beans got creamy and delicate, and the starch from their liquid thickened up the minimal broth I used.  Even without the broth, these ingredients seem like a stellar combination that should be taken advantage of at many opportunities.  Sautéed together, perhaps with the addition of chopped onion and maybe butternut squash or sweet potato, they could be a nice little hash.  Wrapped in pastry with some thickened gravy, they could be a pot pie.  Folded with some grated mozzarella and enclosed in pizza dough, they become a perfect calzone.  And as the weather continues to cool (I hope, I hope, I hope), gravies and pot pies and warm cheesy casseroles are exactly what I want to pair my remaining Bittman dishes with.

It seems a bit stress-inducing to start with a countdown.  It’s a looming certainty of what must be achieved.  “That’s a lot,” N. said when I told him how many were left.  But after tonight’s dinner, it will be 24.  And by the end of next week, it will be 23.  And by having you out there reading, it means I must achieve, yes, but it also means I’m promising something to you.  Food.  Words.  Proof of my experiments.  And stress-inducing or not, that’s a kind of accountability I like having.

25 to go…