reading for roasting…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Halloween is easily in my top three holidays. I have to give the prize to Christmas, because it means family and love and sweaters, but Thanksgiving and Halloween chase each other in circles to gain second place. Despite that love (overwhelming in some cases, especially if you, like N., are not invested in costuming yourself at every possible occasion), this is the first year in almost a decade that I’ve done nothing to celebrate. No costume. No party. No decorations. We bought candy for the six kids that showed up (only six! The whole evening! Was it just because it was a Wednesday, or do kids not trick or treat like they once did?) and I definitely listened to the Halloween party mix my friend D. made for me a few years ago, but it felt a bit like a lost holiday.
I did embrace the season, though, the following day. Having Thursdays off gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years: pillage Target’s day after Halloween sale for leftover clearance items (read: treats!).
The tricks began when I began work on the evening’s dinner. It was, I realize in retrospect, a bit of a Chopped style enterprise: appetizer, entree, and dessert, each made with ingredients I’d not expected to meld. In each case, however, the “trick” aspect of the dish was my doing, not the recipe’s.
“12. Garlic-Rosemary Figs: Soak dried figs, stems removed, in warm water until plump; drain and halve. Heat rosemary and lightly smashed (and peeled) garlic with olive oil on medium-low heat, until softened. Add figs, along with some fresh orange juice. Cook until saucy.
6 dried black mission figs
1-2 tsp fresh rosemary
2 smashed, peeled garlic cloves
1 TB olive oil
juice from 1 small orange (⅓ – ½ cup juice)
I heated some water in my teakettle and poured it over the figs (which I’d halved prematurely. Apparently paying attention to the directions is kind of important), which I let stew on the counter for half an hour.
Figs vaguely plumped, I drained them and set them aside, then put the garlic cloves, rosemary, and oil into a cold pan. I heated it over medium for five minutes or so – just until the rosemary started to sizzle and the garlic turned a little blonde. Then I added the figs and orange juice, and simmered for fifteen minutes or so, until the orange juice had reduced considerably.
I plated, I ate, and I considered. This didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t marry absurdly well either. The rosemary and the figs were lovely. The orange juice and figs were fine (though the orange was a bit overpowering). The garlic and figs were… unobjectionable. They just weren’t my favorite.
I must say, though, I recalled while I was cleaning up after dinner that this entry was in the “Sauces and Relishes” category. I had eaten it straight. This was, perhaps, why I wasn’t enamored of it. Therefore, I’d recommend spooning this over lamb chops, or pork tenderloin, either of which would add some savory notes to make the garlic feel less anomalous.
Though this “appetizer” wasn’t fantastic, I ate it with a fantastic grain-salad-turned-hash inspired by Smitten Kitchen. I want to revisit this hash, because I think it could use some additions, but here are the basics:
Peel and halve a butternut squash. Seed half of it and cut that half into small cubes. In a bowl, toss the cubes with salt, pepper, and olive oil, then tumble onto the baking sheet (where they will sizzle immediately – this is a good thing) and stow back in the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until they have golden edges and creamy soft middles.
During the last ten minutes of squash roasting, push the squash to the sides of the pan (or just grab another pan, if you aren’t invested in avoiding dishes, like me) and stack 4 cups or so of trimmed, cut kale that has also been tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper. The kale and squash will cook down a little more together, and you will be left with something not quite like kale chips, but a bit more textured than if you’d boiled or steamed it.
While the squash and kale roast, cook 1 cup of bulgur wheat in chicken (or vegetable) broth. When done, fluff gently with a fork and toss with squash and kale.
In the pumpkin seed pan (again, avoiding dishes), heat an egregious quantity of butter until foamy and crack in an egg to fry until the edges frizzle and brown and crackle. Despite a few careful taps, on this egg of all eggs – the egg I wanted to photograph quivering atop my hash, the egg I wanted to show just cut and lusciously runny – I somehow shoved my thumb through the yolk and it broke all over the pan. Nasty trick, egg.
Nevertheless, I piled my hash up on my plate, carefully laid the fried egg over it, and dug in. It was a hearty, pretty, perfectly autumnal dish. It needs some tweaking before I’m thrilled with it – perhaps some sautéed leeks folded into the bulgur, or some light spices on the butternut squash – but this was a delightful start.
I turned to dessert:
“96. Sweet Autumn Gratin: Combine cubed pumpkin or sweet potato with cranberries and hazelnuts in a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with brown sugar and toss. Drizzle cream all over, dot with butter and bake until soft, bubbly and browned, 50 to 60 minutes. Re-warm before serving if you like.
I’m going to give you a list not of my ingredients and procedure, but of what I should have used and done.
1 big sweet potato, peeled and diced
½ cup dried cranberries (I didn’t have fresh, so I don’t know what they would be like. Presumably more successful because they would emit, not swallow, liquid)
½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (I couldn’t find hazelnuts anywhere – who would have thought this would be the food item I would miss most from Oregon?!)
¼ – ½ cup brown sugar, depending on how sweet you like it
¼ cup heavy cream
¼ cup butter
Toss the sweet potato chunks, cranberries, and walnuts with brown sugar. Spread them out in the pan in an even layer. Pour on the cream, then pinch off pieces of butter and dot them over the top.
Bake for an hour, or until the sweet potato pieces are fully cooked.
I did few of these things. My sweet potatoes were in bigger-than-they-should-have-been chunks, piled up in a small casserole dish, starving for cream (I only had a tablespoon or two) and shorted on sugar. As a result, at the end of an hour they were hot but still resistant in texture. I think what you want is melting, creamy softness.
To remedy this problem, I tried several things. First, I made a bourbon hard sauce (equal parts sugar and water, stir to melt. Add ¼ cup butter, stir carefully until it melts. Add a shot or two of bourbon, cook just a minute or two to take the edge off) to pour over the top. This helped, and I willingly ate a serving, but it was lacking whipped cream or ice cream or, bizarrely, pie crust.
I didn’t figure out the pie crust thing until the next day when I was making empanadas for dinner. As I pressed my fork into the edge of the dough to crimp it, I was flooded with the right answer: tiny hand pies stuffed with my sweet potato mixture!
This was clearly the right thing to do. Saturday afternoon, I unrolled a pie crust on my counter, cut out 3 inch circles, and proceeded to fill them with a teaspoon or two each of the gratin, which I’d mashed with a fork to make smoother and therefore more manageable.
Once filled, fold in half, press and then crimp with a fork, and brush with egg wash (1 egg yolk + 1 TB water). Sprinkle with turbinado or other raw, chunky sugar, and bake in a preheated 400F oven for 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the dough is flaky.
These make lovely, tiny snacks. The craisins give a punch of tartness to the sweet, earthy, almost heavy sweet potato and walnut pairing. There are subtle floral hints in there, because before putting it away that first night I admit to dumping the bourbon sauce over the whole thing, but this adds a flavor I wouldn’t change. The dough is buttery and flaky and collapses easily around the filling, and it’s difficult to prevent yourself from standing over the pan as it comes steaming out of the oven and eating four or five in a row, scalding your tongue and not caring at all.
Perfect November treat.
* You could, I suppose, use butternut squash seeds, if you are the sort of person with the forethought to save, rinse, and dry the seeds while you clean your squash. I, clearly, am not.
I can’t remember the last time Labor Day was a holiday for me. I mean, I haven’t worked on Labor Day in a long time – perhaps ever. But I spent the past eleven years or so attending universities organized around the quarter system: school starts in late September and ends in mid June. That means when this magical Monday hit and working stiffs got to switch off their alarms, I was still on summer vacation.
Boo hoo, you say, poor thing! You had to suffer through a non-holiday because you were on holiday! But I’d remind you that for a graduate student, even allotted holidays don’t read as such. A Monday is another toil-on-the-dissertation day.
And yet, today, with one week of class behind me at my new job, I did not have to make the pilgrimage to Burbank. I did not have to spend the weekend lesson planning. Ahead of me spans a week with one (one!) day of class. It’s enough to make a girl sob with joy!
And then there are onions. Which are enough to make a girl sob as well, though the accompanying emotion differs a little.
These are two Bittman “recipes.” I realized recently that, as usual, my Bittman project has fallen by the wayside. A brief count reveals that, of the list of 82 with which I began (the whole collection has 101 items, but I knew there were some N. and I would just never eat), 34 still remain unmade. Most are soups. That sounds like decent progress, until I remind you that I began this project 2 years ago. But this year, beginning for me – as for every eternal academic – at the end of summer, is a year of renewed possibility. It’s a year of everything refreshed: new home, new jobs, new opportunities. It’s a year to relish.
1 big red onion, halved, peeled, and cut into thin half-moons
1 TB olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 TB rosemary, finely chopped
1-2 cups red wine
1 TB brown sugar
Onions take a long time to cook down the way I suspected they needed to for this recipe. High heat makes for crumpled, browned, crispy-edged rings. Delicious in their own right, but not for jam. I baby-sat the onions over medium-low heat for at least half an hour. Their pearly-white interiors turned fragile gold as if stained by the olive oil, and their textures changed, gaining an unctuous flexibility.
I added the salt and pepper, the rosemary, the red wine and the brown sugar and stirred together carefully to dissolve the sugar. This simmered for another half hour until the wine, sugar, and onions came together into a sticky heady mahogany swamp in the pan. As the wine reduced, I lowered the temperature to prevent any burning.
The finished jam slumped wonderfully over baked squares of polenta, providing contrast in all the best ways: the colors were sharp, the textures played together, the flavors were rich and lovely. The onion jam was sweet with the tang of wine and the pine-forest warmth of rosemary. The polenta was comforting and even flavored, and it needed the sharp sweetness the jam provided. Steamed asparagus finished out the meal.
It sounds crazy, but the next morning I had the urge to drape some of this sticky, savory jam over a piece of whole-grain toast smeared with cream cheese. It would also, I suspect, serve well spread over a turkey burger.
1. Onion-Pumpkinseed Relish: Roast thick slices of red onion with olive oil until softened and nicely browned. Chop, then toss with minced chives, toasted pumpkinseeds and a little more olive oil.
A number of circumstances divide these two onion concoctions. One was made in Oregon, one was made in California. One was made in the cold drear of an oppressively long winter, one was made on a day of endless sun as August closed. One was slowly reduced over an electric stove, one was browned in a gas oven, and though both were shot with digital cameras, you’re seeing one through the lens of an everything-automatic Canon PowerShot, and the other through a Nikon DSLR. Changes to relish.
3 TB olive oil
3-4 TB pumpkinseeds, toasted in a dry pan until they are flushed with brown and starting to pop
2 TB fresh chives
In a 400F oven, I roasted the olive oil coated onion slices until they collapsed, taking on a lovely burnished crispness. This took probably 10-20 minutes. Check often after 10 minutes, depending upon how hot your oven runs. Liberate the toasty onion slices and let them cool.
When onions are cool, chop them finely and toss them with the other ingredients. I had plenty of olive oil in my baking pan to coat all the ingredients so the relish glistened, but if you need it, feel free to add another glug or two.
I served lovely little spoons of this mixture over black bean cakes. We traded tastes, taking in the relish in one bite and an avocado tomato salad in the next. It was a nice pairing: the relish was moist and crunchy and savory, with the right kind of nutty richness to complement the dense potential blandness of the beans.
But I don’t think this relish ends as a condiment for beans. It would be a spectacular topping for lamb. Spiced with a little chili powder, it would fit perfectly atop pumpkin enchiladas. It might even be a good garnish for butternut squash soup: a small heap of confetti in a velvet orange sea, interrupting the endless smoothness with a well-oiled crunch.
Will I finish this Bittman project by the end of the calendar year? I don’t know. But I’m enjoying it again, whereas during the last few months of dissertating I was finding it burdensome. The thrill of guessing quantities, rather than being annoyed by lack of specificity, is returning. The intuition about temperature and time is audible again. And now, on this holiday that has never felt like a holiday before, I’m relishing it all.