Fake-out “beef and broccoli” over brown rice cakes

I fell off the wagon in a big way. I know. Between the time of the semester and the recent loss of my best canine kitchen helper*, I haven’t felt particularly inspired in the kitchen as of late. And I’m behind on my Chopped Challenges. The producer/judge has been informed of this and is apparently “cooking” up a basket for me… But I do have one little triumph I’d like to offer.

I tend to vehemently resist foods that try to be other foods – I like tofu and tempeh, but I like them for what they are, not as “fake meat.” I’ll happily buy both soy-based sausages and bratwurst in the same shopping trip, because I like the taste of each one. So it’s not really common for me to concoct vegetarian meals for the purpose of substitution or imitation. But when, a few weeks ago, I unceremoniously tipped a few tablespoons of oyster sauce over a skillet full of well browned mushrooms and kale and the result tasted almost exactly like a plate of beef and broccoli from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and when we spent the part of the evening usually reserved for reluctant washing of dishes instead picking the leftovers out of the skillet, I decided this one was worth sharing.

Recently I’ve discussed my new obsession of crisping rice in the pan before serving, and as the owner of a new stove with magnificently hot burners, this practice is getting easier and more dependable, and I just can’t. stop. doing. it. Here, I thought the crisp nuttiness of the rice would be a great flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables and their savory sauce. In lieu of a fancy ring mold, I packed steaming spoonfuls of cooked brown rice into a biscuit cutter, pressing the rice down firmly to create a disc that stayed together, before levering it carefully a pan of extremely hot oil to brown and crisp on each side.

It’s a classy looking presentation, too, if you’re careful enough that the cakes stay together during transport, as you can stack or fan the cakes artfully across a plate or platter before smothering them with their umami-laden topping.

For a light dinner (but heavy in flavor), we didn’t think this needed another thing, but if you want added substance, a good bowl of won ton or hot and sour soup as a lead-in certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

* At the very end of March, after much discussion and heartache, we let our Lucy go. She was almost fifteen and her quality of life was beginning to diminish due to mobility problems and increasingly frequent infections that were becoming resistant to antibiotics. Don’t worry, though; we sent her out with true foodie-style aplomb: on her last day she had bacon for breakfast, and a big slice of chocolate cake after a lunch of chicken, rice, and broccoli bits (her favorite vegetable), because why not? Eventually, her remains will fertilize and hopefully help grow a raucous mix of wildflowers in the back corner of our yard, beneath a pink trumpet tree. We think she would like that.

She couldn’t stand like this anymore, but this was her favorite way to be in the kitchen with me: interested and close to the food.

Fake-out “beef” and “broccoli” on brown rice cakes
Serves 2-3
About 60 minutes (brown rice takes a while…)
1 cup raw brown rice
24 ounces crimini mushrooms
8 ounces kale
about 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce or to taste
black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons sliced green onion tops, dark green parts only

 

  • Cook the 1 cup brown rice according to package directions. I always use my rice cooker, where it takes 45-50 minutes. You’ll prep and cook everything else while it is working. When it finishes, remove the lid of the cooking vessel to let it cool slightly, and stir in the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F. As soon as you turn it on, line a sheet tray with aluminum foil, drizzle on 2 tablespoons olive oil, then put that in the oven while it preheats, so the oil is hot when the mushrooms are ready.
  • While the oven and the pan heat, prep the vegetables: stem the mushrooms, wipe the caps gently if they seem dirty, then quarter each one. Remove the central tough stem from the kale and chop into bite-size or slightly larger pieces (it will wilt down a bit as it cooks), and set aside. Slice up the green onions and set them aside as well.
  • When the oven has preheated, carefully remove the oiled pan, add the mushrooms and a little more oil, then place back into the oven. Roast at 400F for 20 minutes, remove and pour off any collected liquid, gently toss the mushrooms, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. They will be deeply browned, a bit wrinkled, and concentrated in flavor.
  • When the mushrooms have about 10 minutes to go, heat a scant 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale all at once and let it cook down for a minute or two, then toss in about 1 tablespoon water to help. Wilt until it is as tender as you like; I like a bit of bite in there still, so I only cook it for 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mushrooms and kale are finished cooking, add the mushrooms to the skillet with the kale, stir in the oyster sauce (start with 2 tablespoons – it is strong), then season to taste with soy sauce, black pepper, and/or more oyster sauce as you wish. Set aside (if you want fewer dishes, dump the vegetable mix back onto the sheet tray you cooked the mushrooms on, turn off the oven, and put the tray back inside – the residual heat will keep things toasty while you finish the dish. Meanwhile, quickly wash out the skillet, dry, and continue as directed below.)
  • To make the rice cakes, heat the final 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil is shimmering and almost smoking. While it warms, if you haven’t done so already, mix the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions in with the rice. Pack about ⅓ cup rice into a 3 inch ring mold or biscuit cutter set on a cutting board that can handle the heat, pressing down very firmly with the back of a spoon. Carefully remove the cutter; if you’ve packed tightly enough, the rice should stay together. Repeat until you have sufficient rice cakes; plan for 2-3 each (I found 2 per person was perfect; I think N. would happily have gone for a third).
  • Use a spatula to carefully transport the rice cakes from cutting board to skillet one at a time. Once they are in the skillet, do not adjust or move them. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and let them sit and sizzle for 3 minutes without disturbing them. This is essential for structural integrity.
  • After 3 minutes undisturbed, gently but firmly flip each rice cake using a thin spatula, and cook another 3 minutes until nicely browned on both sides.
  • To serve, arrange rice cakes on a plate as desired, add a few scoops of kale and mushroom mixture on top, and eat immediately.

Chopped challenge: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, kale

2016 Food Blog February-0360One of my favorite games to play with N. when we are out, about in the world, is a riff on my favorite television show: Chopped (another favorite is noting a couple and trying to determine the status of their relationship based on their clothing and body language, and sometimes, how we think their evening will conclude. We are, clearly, lovely people). Specifically, he will tell me whether I’m to build an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert, and will then list four random ingredients. Unlike the show, where the contestants have a mere half hour to create a meal that incorporates all four, I simply have to describe the dish I would make.

2016 Food Blog February-0350I love this game. Like this year’s blog project, it gives me a chance to stretch my imagination; it’s like a trivia game, except instead of just knowing the answer, I get to invent it. Last fall we were waiting in line somewhere and N. gave me the following as an entrée round basket of mystery ingredients: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, and kale. “Easy,” I said, and rattled off my entry: diced bits of bacon, rendered until crisp. Halibut cooked in the bacon fat with just a little bit of brown sugar. Bright kale sautéed until just wilted, then tossed with the crisp diced bacon, all balanced over a puddle of rich, creamy polenta and crowned with a few spoonfuls of some kind of vodka cream sauce.

2016 Food Blog February-0354Typically, after the presentation of a meal idea, we discuss briefly and move on. This one, though, sounded so good that I decided I should actually make it. As this process usually goes, I then spent the next few months thinking about it, gradually adding layers and complications, and ultimately being influenced by the show itself for several of the components (notable the kale: in one episode a contestant slices kale across the grain into a fluffy pile of thin confetti before sautéing and salting so aggressively that judge Alex Guarnaschelli, on whom I have a relentless lady-crush, admiringly declares it somehow like a potato chip in addictive deliciousness).

2016 Food Blog February-0355The dish I ended up making doesn’t deviate much from the original plan. I did indeed render the bacon, though I reserved some of the fat for the halibut and used most of it to cook the kale. In addition to bacon and salt, the kale also got a drink of vinegar to enhance the potato chip comparison. The halibut remained as envisioned: salt, pepper, a light sprinkle of brown sugar (at the suggestion of a bed and breakfast owner during a family vacation in Alaska when I was in high school), and a light sear until the center is just cooked, pearly and opaque. The polenta, which is fast joining mashed potatoes as a favorite starch option, ended up with some corn kernels thrown in, which is an easy but stupendous addition I insist you try. The vodka got flamed in some brown butter, then whisked with a bit of lemon juice and mustard to create a rich, barely emulsified sauce that tasted perfect on everything. I knew I was in love when, after only a few bites, I was already texting my sister to tell her about it.

2016 Food Blog February-0364This is one of those dishes that is complicated only because it has multiple components, and you want them to be done at the same time. Therefore, though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists per element (polenta, kale, fish, sauce), in the procedure I’ve indicated when to switch back and forth between pans.

2016 Food Blog February-0360

Brown sugar halibut with creamy corn polenta, salt and vinegar bacon kale, and vodka brown butter sauce
Serves 2
30-40 minutes, but you must be quite organized
For polenta:
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
½ cup fresh or frozen, defrosted corn kernels
¾ cup polenta
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
For kale:
3 slices bacon or bacon ends, diced (about ½ cup)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into very thin slices/slivers
2 bunches kale, washed well and patted or spun dry
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt
For sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup vodka
zest of one small lemon (1-2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt to taste
For halibut:
2 6-ounce boneless, skinless halibut filets
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon bacon fat (from kale preparation)

 

  • Start with the polenta, since it takes the longest: combine the chicken broth, milk, and corn kernels in a medium pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the polenta, the salt, and the pepper, then whisk constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. At first it will seem like there is not nearly enough polenta; keep whisking. Once the mixture has thickened to a loose pudding consistency and is threatening to bubble, clap on the lid and turn the heat down to medium-low or low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it is creamy and thick, and the polenta granules are tender, 15-20 minutes. Just before serving, add the 2 tablespoons butter and gently stir in until well combined. If the polenta is ready before the rest of the meal, hold it over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the other components are ready.
  • As soon as you put the lid on the polenta, place the diced bacon in a large skillet and heat over medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, then remove to a paper towel with a slotted spoon to drain. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the fat and discard the rest.
  • While the bacon is cooking, prepare the garlic and kale: cut the peeled garlic cloves into very thin slivers. Gather the washed and dried kale in a stack and, using a very sharp knife, slice the kale “against the grain” (perpendicular to the stem) into very thin slices. You are looking for the effect of shredded cabbage or kale confetti. Continue to slice down until the stems thicken – about halfway down the leaf. Reserve the remaining stem and leaf segments for pesto or kale chips.
  • Pour two tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat back into the large skillet and heat over medium until it is shimmering. Add the garlic slivers and toast them until they are just starting to brown, about 45 seconds. Immediately add the kale all at once and cook 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally, until it is bright green and barely wilted. Add the vinegar, salt, and reserved bacon pieces; toss to combine. Remove from heat and set aside until just before serving.
  • To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan. It will foam up, then the foam will clear, and the butter will start to take on a toasted color. At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the vodka. Once the alcohol is added, put the pan back on the heat. If you’re feeling brave, light a stick lighter and ignite the surface of the mixture; it will flame up just for a few seconds. Swirl the pan and the flame will go out, then simmer for 1-2 minutes to burn off a little more of the alcohol flavor. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and mustard and whisk to combine. Lower the heat as low as it will go, just to keep the sauce warm, and whisk occasionally to keep it emulsified.
  • The last step is the halibut. In a medium skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil with the remaining 1 tablespoon reserved bacon fat over medium high heat. While the fat warms, season the halibut with salt, pepper, and brown sugar on both sides. When the fat in the pan is shimmering, carefully add the halibut filets. Cook, undisturbed, for two minutes, then carefully flip using tongs and/or a thin, flexible spatula, lower the heat to medium, and cook 3 minutes more until the fish is pearly-white in the center and flakes easily.
  • As soon as you flip the halibut filets, put all the other components of the meal back over medium-low heat, just to warm through until the fish is ready.
  • To plate, spoon a generous puddle of polenta in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use tongs to add a generous pile of kale in the center. Balance the fish at an angle with one end on the pile of kale and the other in the polenta, then spoon the sauce over the fish; it will be thin, so it will spill into the kale and polenta. Serve immediately.

Mushroom Kale Quesadillas

Food Blog March 2015-0538Because I have the habit of wanting to impress you, the simple, day-to-day dinners I make often don’t end up here because they don’t strike me as “blog-worthy,” as I’m fond of saying. But much as I want to blow you away all the time, this is a silly habit. The point is not over-the-top impressive, outrageously original, faultlessly styled plates. At least it shouldn’t be. The point is good food. And yet because I get sucked in by things like Pinterest and Tastegawking and Foodspotter and vice versa, we had these mushroom kale quesadillas three or four times in a month because they were so damn delicious I couldn’t stop thinking about them before I realized they might be something I should share with you. Even though they are simple. Even though they are just quesadillas.

Food Blog March 2015-0533Because, seriously? Mushrooms. Kale. Cheese. Toasted tortillas. What a combination! Quesadillas are, weirdly enough, a kind of touchstone for me. If I wrote one of those memoir/cookbook mash-ups, a quesadilla would have to find its way in there somewhere, because when I stop and think about it for three seconds, my life contains a number of memory-charged quesadilla incidents. Example: when my family moved from Southern to Northern California shortly after I graduated from high school, some of the first ingredients in our new fridge were tortillas, cheddar, and salsa. As my mom unpacked the kitchen and the movers unloaded box after box after box from the massive truck into our new garage, we realized the morning had wasted thin and we were starving. Cue Chelsea at the stove with a skillet and spatula rinsed free of box dust seconds ago, flipping quesadillas. They weren’t magnificent, because they were just cheddar folded inside a flour tortilla, but when the cheese melted and sizzled out the sides, and the fat hidden in that deceptively dry flour tortilla browned in huge freckles all over the surface, no one wanted anything else for lunch, including the movers. We used up the whole package of tortillas and most of the cheese, but it was nice to watch everyone unfolding the fried half-moons and pouring liberal doses of salsa over the molten orange goo inside.

Food Blog March 2015-0527Quesadillas are best when you don’t think about them too much. What I mean is, they are best when they contain a quantity of cheese you’d rather not cop to. During our second year of living together, my college roommate K. wondered briefly why she liked my quesadillas so much more than hers. Part of it was undeniably the fact that food tastes so much better when someone makes it for you. But part of it, we determined, was that I used more cheese than she did. Great blocks of monterey jack sacrificed themselves to feed our quesadilla longing, and K. placed me permanently in charge of quesadilla production, as long as I never told her how much cheese I was folding inside. In those days, we upgraded from spooning a scoop up jarred salsa inside to smashing a velvet green half of avocado over the top, and maybe a luscious scoop of sour cream. These lunches were probably, now that I think about it, the base of much of my weight gain that year (the post-break-up pints of Godiva ice cream were likely the other culprits). But in retrospect, my “sophomore sixteen” is so much less important than how good those quesadillas were with their different kinds of softness and the crisp, almost oily tortilla in between.

Food Blog March 2015-0523Food Blog March 2015-0525Though I’m still on board with a simple monterey jack quesadilla with avocado, guacamole, or salsa of any kind smeared over the top, I gradually realized quesadillas could also be employed to funnel vegetables into us. I don’t skimp on the cheese – no sense forgetting what I’ve learned – but now I jam in layers of corn or spinach or, in this version, thinly sliced mushrooms pan roasted until golden and almost crisp, folded together with torn leaves of kale barely wilted with some olive oil and salt. In quantity, cheese is non-negotiable, but the variety you mound on is a personal choice. I’m partial these days to pepperjack for that lovely extra kick, but regular, dependable old monterey jack, or a combination of jack and fontina or gouda would also be glorious. Here I’m using spinach tortillas in a combination vain attempt to make these seem healthier, and because I just dig the flavor, but you could use plain flour tortillas, or even corn, though they will obviously require less filling.

Food Blog March 2015-0528I’m not going to make the claim that these quesadillas will turn a mushroom and kale hater into a mushroom and kale lover, because we’re really not hiding the vegetables; we’re celebrating the way they complement the cheese and toasty tortilla. But they might turn a mushroom tolerator into an almost-fan, and someone who is tired of kale might find in them a gasp of fresh breath. And they will without question provide you with a quick, delicious dinner item that is absolutely perfect with a side of these beer braised beans.

Food Blog March 2015-0540

Mushroom Kale Quesadillas
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4-6 as an appetizer
2 tablespoons olive oil
16 ounces crimini mushrooms (1 pound)
5-6 ounces kale, tough stems removed
2 cups monterey jack or pepperjack cheese, or a mixture of soft white cheeses
4 burrito size tortillas (I like the spinach ones)
  • Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until glistening. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté over medium for 8-10 minutes, until they are nicely golden and some are barely crisp.
  • Add the kale to the cooked mushrooms and sauté for another 3-4 minutes until barely wilted but still bright green; season with salt and pepper if desired. Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
  • To build the quesadillas, lay out the bottom tortilla and scatter ⅔ cup of the cheese evenly across it. Add half the mushroom and kale mixture, then scatter ⅓ cup of cheese on top of the vegetables. Top with the second tortilla. This construction – cheese, vegetables, cheese – holds in the vegetables because the cheese melts on both sides of them, binding them inside. This makes for easier, cleaner flipping.
  • Cook the quesadilla in a dry pan (I use the same one I cooked the mushrooms and kale in, just wiped clean with a paper towel) over medium to medium-high heat until the bottom tortilla is nicely browned (or slightly charred, if you like that), and the bottom layer of cheese is well melted; 3-4 minutes. Flip and repeat.
  • While the first quesadilla cooks, build the second one as described above.
  • When both sides of the quesadilla are nicely browned and crisp, remove from heat. Wait 1-2 minutes before slicing to avoid losing too much cheese. Repeat with second and all subsequent quesadillas.
  • Repeat with second and all subsequent quesadillas.
  • To serve, cut in quarters (or smaller wedges) and offer with guacamole, sour cream, salsa, or just bare and crisp and oozing and perfect.

Warm lentil and kale salad

I don’t know about you, but when I get home from vacation I feel at once heavier and lighter.  Lighter, because the toil of dragging overnight bags jammed with clothes, a laptop, a camera bag, two backpacks, a cooler, a sun hat, hiking boots, a satchel bristling with electronics, a grocery sack full of road snacks, a suit bag of dress clothes for a wedding, another satchel, this one loaded with supplies spanning the randomness quotient from shampoo to a day-planner (seriously, how can we have this much stuff???), and the leash of a dog intent on smelling every single thing she’s never smelled before from parking lot to hotel room to parking lot every other night is finally over.

Food Blog August 2013-2458Heavier, because even though I didn’t cook much, I sure ate a lot.  Plus, there’s that whole emotional withdrawal from the glory of vacation, but mostly I’m just shallow enough to be talking about my waistline.

In any case, upon our return from a trip we typically plan out a few particularly virtuous meals to combat the quantity of food we consumed, and the dubious quality of some of those choices – road food is always, alas, simultaneously necessary and a bit specious (take, for example, the Milky Way I bought at a gas station in Coos Bay to help myself stay away for the remainder of the drive to Brookings, which turned out to be open on one side.  I threw it away.  And then I almost cried).  Simple rice and steamed broccoli is one of our go-to homecoming meals.  Whatever can be scraped together from the garden and eaten with a light dressing and curls of Parmesan cheese is another.

But now we have a third, which might also become a side for roast chicken, a working lunch, or a base for seared tuna or poached salmon: a warm salad of lentils, tossed with lightly blanched kale, briny kalamata olives, and the tang of feta cheese.

Food Blog August 2013-2450A few days after our return, with pantry and fridge freshly stocked, I considered my starch choices.  We eat a good bit of pasta and a fair amount of rice, but our consumption of legumes and pulses is way below par.  This had to change.  I picked out a bag of green lentils that had slowly been pushed to the back of the shelf as new and more exciting boxes were set in front of it.

Lentils are great for us.  They are packed with fiber and protein and folate, which all make them filling as well as nutritious.  But like most dried beans, on their own they just aren’t very exciting.  They call for additional flavors and textures: chilies or acid or salt, crunch or freshness.  Herby sharpness.  Crumbly cheese.  A dance of textures.  You see where this is going.

Food Blog August 2013-2453To give them as much of a fighting chance at flavor as possible, I sautéed some onions and garlic before tumbling in lentils, water, a lone bay leaf, and a bracing hit of red wine vinegar.  “And salt,” you’re surely crying, but no!  Salt should be added to lentils only near the end of cooking.  It can toughen them if you add it right away.  I’ve also read that acidic ingredients – like the red wine vinegar I used – can contribute to this toughness, but I didn’t notice any particularly virulent refusal to soften, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

You want your lentils to be fully cooked – that is, not crunchy – but to still retain a bit of texture.  They should soften but not fall apart into mush – taste a few to be sure they have achieved the level of tenderness you like, but be sure to do a good sampling – five or six – as isolated beans can cook at different rates.

Food Blog August 2013-2459Once done, add salt to taste, let them cool a bit, and then the magic happens, and it’s such easy magic, it’s worth doing any night of the week.  Torn pieces of blanched kale, cubes of feta, and halved kalamata olives.  A drizzle of olive oil if you think it’s on the dry side.   Faced with this combination – salty, chewy, crisp and fresh and soft – we scooped spoonful after spoonful, and ended up eating most of the pot.  So much for virtue.

Food Blog August 2013-2460

Warm lentil and kale salad with olives and feta
Serves 4-6 as a side, 2-4 as a main lunch dish
½ cup diced onion
2-4 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 TB olive oil
1 cup small green lentils, picked through and rinsed
2 ¼ cups water, vegetable, or chicken broth
2 TB red wine vinegar
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
4 packed cups chopped kale, tough stems removed
½ cup kalamata olives, halved (or to taste)
½ cup crumbled feta (or to taste)
Additional splash of olive oil (optional)
  • Heat the 1 TB olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic and sweat them gently for 3-5 minutes, until the onion pieces are translucent but not vigorously browned.
  • Add the lentils, water or broth, red wine vinegar, and bay leaf, but not the salt.  Salt added at the beginning of cooking can toughen the lentils.  We’ll wait to season them until they have cooked.
  • Turn up the heat and bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer the mixture for 35-40 minutes.
  • After 35-40 minutes, the lentils will have sucked up most of the liquid in the pot and they will be tender but not mushy.  You want a slight bite of resistance to remain.  Add the salt, stir well, and then pour out the pot into a colander or strainer to drain off any remaining liquid.  Pick out the bay leaf so there aren’t any unwelcome surprises later.  Set the colander of lentils aside to cool.
  • Meanwhile (if you are proactive, or in the same pot you just used, if you are lazy like me), bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the 4 cups of kale and cook for 1-2 minutes, until the leaves are intensely green and barely tender.  Drain the kale into the same colander as the lentils.  Cool until just warm, or completely to room temperature as desired.
  • While kale and lentils are cooling, halve your olives and crumble your feta.
  • When the lentils and kale have reached your desired temperature, add the olives and feta and toss to combine.  If the salad seems dry, add a splash of olive oil to moisten things up a bit.
  • Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.