Winter fruits salad
I think Fall has finally found Los Angeles, and only a week and a half to go before Thanksgiving. Within a week, we went from temperatures in the mid-80s to a high of barely 70F. My living room went from a comfortable lounging 75F to barely hitting 70 despite blinds wide open to catch the sun all day. Thankfully, the items I have left on my Bittman list accommodate this weather change. Today I have to report the last salad of the list, and a foray back into desserts. Both have decidedly autumnal collections of flavors (I wrote “flavor profile” first, and then I thought, “who do you think you are?”). Many of the food blogs I read have been reporting for the past week or two on Thanksgiving recipes, and I thought about doing that too. But then I remember that Bittman’s entire list is conceived as Thanksgiving sides, so if you’ve been following this little blog for any length of time, you’ve been seeing Thanksgiving options – with only a few disruptions – for the past two years!
“67. Sprinkle shelled pumpkin or squash seeds with a little chili powder; roast, shaking occasionally, until lightly browned. Combine with grated sweet potatoes (raw or lightly sautéed in butter or oil), raisins and a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, a touch of honey and maybe a little more chili powder.
1 small sweet potato
1 TB pumpkin seeds
chili powder to taste (mine is really mild – I probably used about a teaspoon)
2 TB butter
2-3 TB raisins
These measurements look small, but I was planning this for just the two of us and didn’t want any leftovers.
We were having this “salad” with spanakopita, so I decided to capitalize on the heat of its baking. I popped the pumpkin seeds onto a baking tray, drenched them with chili powder, and tucked them into the oven for a few minutes. When you hear the first couple of pops, they are done. Don’t leave them too long – not only will they burn, they will propel themselves all over your oven.
I set aside the lightly toasted seeds and turned to the sweet potato. N. and I proved in earlier experiments that we don’t like it raw – the starchy feel when you chew is just too much – so I was glad Bittman allowed for a cooked option. I melted the butter while I grated the sweet potato, and tossed the shreds of bright orange onto the fizzing fat. If you have more patience than I do, you might wait for the butter to brown a bit to add nuttier, deeper flavor to the sweet potatoes.
I let the little ribbons of sweet potato cook for a few minutes over medium heat. The goal was not to brown them, just to lightly cook them through. When I estimated them to be two minutes from done, I tossed in the raisins and folded the mix together. This gave the raisins time to match the sweet potatoes in temperature, and it allowed them to plump up and take in some buttery flavor.
1 TB red wine vinegar
1 tsp honey
1 tsp dijon mustard
sprinkle of chili powder
2 TB olive oil
I tossed this lightly with the sweet potatoes and raisins, then topped them with the pumpkin seeds (which I almost forgot AGAIN! What is it with me and missing the crunch?) and it was ready for tasting.
We liked this. I’m not sure it read as a salad – in fact I’m not sure what it read as at all. At once, it was not quite a salad, but also not quite a vegetable side, and not quite a chutney. But it was tasty. The red wine vinegar was acidic enough to counter the sweetness of the potato and raisins nicely. It was a refreshing bite against the richness of our spanakopita. The crumbling cubes of feta hidden in the spinach blend imparted the final necessary taste: a briny saltiness so welcome to the rest of this sweet and butter-drenched meal.
I took my next choice (partly made because it sounded delicious, but partly to use up the phyllo) to an election party.
“93. Pumpkin-Raisin-Ginger Turnovers: Mix pureed cooked pumpkin, raisins, chopped crystallized ginger and sugar. Brush a sheet of phyllo with melted butter and cut lengthwise into thirds. Put a spoonful of the filling at the top of each strip. Fold down to make a triangle and repeat, like folding a flag. Repeat with remaining filling. Brush the tops with butter and bake 20 to 30 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.
Whether you are elated, distraught, or ambivalent about the results of the vote, these little turnovers were worth celebrating over.
½ cup sugar
½ cup raisins
¼ cup finely minced crystallized ginger (or you could try grating this on your microplane. I’m not sure how that would work, but since candied ginger is gummy and hard to chop, it might be helpful)
I couldn’t resist adding about a teaspoon of cinnamon.
First, I preheated my oven to 375F and put the butter into a small pan, which I set over low heat so it would melt but not brown.
I shlooped the pumpkin from the can to a bowl and whisked in the sugar and fruit. I suggest you use a fork for this, not a traditional whisk. The mixture clumps and sticks in the slender spokes and results, if you are at all like me, in cranky frustration.
When everything is well mixed, turn to the phyllo. If you’ve never worked with it before, don’t be afraid. The amazing way it changes from dry papery sheets to flaky, buttery pastry is worth the challenge. Here’s what I do:
Set up an assembly line on your counter. At one end, unroll the phyllo and set a just-damp kitchen towel (or couple of paper towels) over the top. This will help, if you are a slow worker, to prevent it from drying out and breaking. Next to that, you need a board big enough to accommodate one sheet of phyllo. Next to that, place your butter, followed by your filling, followed by the final resting place for your wrapped confections.
Carefully peel off one sheet of phyllo and place it on your board with the shorter end facing you. Recover the remaining stack with the damp towel. Using a pastry brush, brush the whole sheet with butter. Cut it in long thirds (you’ll begin your cuts on the short edge of the rectangle, so that you create three long, thin strips, as opposed to three short, squat strips). Then, place about two tablespoons of filling at the top of each strip, and begin to fold in triangles.
To make the first fold, bring one corner down to the opposite edge of the strip. Don’t press too hard, or the filling will ooze out everywhere. The second fold will be straight down: the remaining corner (now doubled because you’ve folded over your first triangle) folded down onto the same edge. Continue to fold, keeping your filling in the center of a triangle, until you reach the end of the strip of phyllo.
Place that on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet and brush the top with a little more melted butter. Repeat until you run out of filling. Since these won’t rise or spread, you can place them quite close to one another on the baking sheet. Don’t overlap them, though, because only the dough exposed to the air will brown.
This sounds complicated, but once you get into a rhythm it’s relatively easy and quite satisfying. You end up with two trays of sweet little parcels that you can stow in the oven for 20-30 minutes until they become magically golden and flaky.
When they were done, I dusted them liberally with powdered sugar and tented them with aluminum foil to take to the party. I brought home an empty, sugar dusted tray with a lone raisin abandoned in one corner.
They were so tasty. The pumpkin-raisin-ginger combo was insane: earthy and sweet and, with the addition of the cinnamon, warmly spiced. Inside the phyllo, it was a contest of texture too: unremittingly soft pumpkin with the occasional chewy juicy punch of raisin, against sharp flaky crunch of sugar-dusted pastry. We couldn’t resist tasting a few before dinner, and then we had to revisit them again for dessert. These will, I suspect, make repeat appearances in my kitchen. They could probably be made a few hours ahead as well, or transported and baked on location: wrap them up, dredge them with butter, and store them under a damp towel or some plastic wrap until ready to bake. If you don’t like pumpkin pie, or you’re tired of it (I know, heresy!), these might be a fun alternative Thanksgiving dessert option.
The organizer of the group I went to Senior Prom with booked us seats at Splashes, a restaurant in a Laguna Beach hotel. When we arrived, all dressed up and feeling ever so fancy, four of our party of six were surprised and distressed to discover that a restaurant called Splashes primarily served seafood. I was delighted. Lobster ravioli? Yes, please!
While the majority of our party waited for their chicken and steak dishes to be prepared, my date received the first course he’d ordered: a caprese salad with balsamic dressing. It arrived – beautifully arranged slices of bright tomato, quivering mozzarella, crisp basil leaves – and he squinted at it with confusion. “This is not a salad,” he said. “There’s no lettuce!” He ate it – we all did – and thought it was good, but maintained his stance. To be a salad, a collection of ingredients must include lettuce. No room for experimentation there.
We were in high school, and it was only the very beginning of the new millennium. What did we know about creative vegetable assemblages like caprese or tabbouleh or panzanella? We were babies. But I will say: though I recognize these popular, now fairly well known varieties of salad as such, in this project Bittman has taught me so much about what a salad can be and how widely the boundaries of its definition can be stretched. Not a single entry, in fact, on the Salads portion of the project list, includes lettuce. How pedestrian – how expected – that would be.
“76. Grate apples (red are nice; leave skin on), radish and celery. Roast pistachios and chop. Dress all with olive oil, shallots, grainy mustard, red wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar.”
This sounded like an interesting and delicious combination, but like the tomatillo and jicama combination a few weeks ago, it didn’t sound like something you could dig into a big bowl of. I decided, therefore, to make it more like a condiment, which gave me an excellent excuse to roast a chicken. Imagine: a steaming, crisp skinned chicken thigh topped with cool, crisp shreds of apple and peppery radish. Like the lobster ravioli of yore, yes please!
Here’s what I used:
1 large apple (I had a honeycrisp – one of my favorite kinds)
2 stalks celery
4 small radishes
½ cup pistachios, roasted and chopped
2 TB olive oil
1 TB red wine vinegar
1-2 tsp sugar (depends on your taste, the sweetness of your apple, and the sharpness of your radishes)
½ TB whole grain mustard
I eliminated the shallots because, despite their lauded mildness, neither N. nor I find the flavor of raw onions particularly appealing.
During the last twenty minutes or so of the chicken’s stay in the oven, I clattered the pistachios into a small cake pan and put them on the bottom rack so they could toast. They needed about ten minutes at 350F, and emerged browned and nutty smelling (isn’t that a silly way of describing the aroma of a nut? Of course it was nutty smelling! What else could it be?). I set them aside so they could cool before being chopped and deposited into the salad mixture.
While things were roasting and toasting, I grated up the stars of the salad. The apple became little ribbons, the radishes paper-thin shreds, and the celery turned into a pile of almost-mush. But I decided that was okay – celery is such an assertive texture that less of its fibrous aggressiveness would actually be a benefit.
Were I making this again, at this point I would deposit the grated vegetation into a sieve for a few minutes to let the juice drip away, giving the dressing a better opportunity to cling and permeate. My decision to plop everything right into the serving bowl resulted in slight soupiness – the apple and celery in particular gave off copious amounts of juice.
At this point, you should also chop and add your pistachios to the salad. After all, you paid money for them and babysat them carefully to prevent burning them in the oven. But I didn’t. I forgot about them completely as I whisked up the dressing, tossed it with the salad, then stowed the serving dish on the table so I could have room on my kitchen counter to carve the chicken.
Piled atop carefully carved and portioned pieces of chicken, the little condiment salad warmed and released a delicious sweet-tart aroma that completely belied the bland appearance of our plates. Though up close you could see flecks of red and green and pink in the salad from the skins of the various ingredients, from any distance it looked like pale meat with pale apple shreds on top, next to a pale pile of barley, which I’d cooked pilaf style as a starchy accompaniment.
The flavor was more like the smell than the appearance. It was sharp and bracing – just sweet enough, but assertively vinegary. This worked very well with our chicken because the sweet-sour crunch cut through the fatty moistness of the meat. Halfway through dinner I sprinkled mine with a palm-full of the forgotten pistachios, and I must admit I liked it better nut free. N., not a pistachio fan, agreed.
Despite how good a sport he has been during the years (years!) I’ve been working to accomplish this project, N. doesn’t like all foods. I recognize that there is a time for experimentation and excited guesswork, but there is also a time to exclude him from the proceedings. This understanding led to my original decision to make only the items from Bittman’s list that seemed reasonable. I haven’t set out to cook all 101 sides; there were a few that just didn’t fit our palates. However, out of my curiosity and tastes, a few items remained on the list that are just not N.’s cup of tea. The second salad I made this week was one such dish.
“79. Cook chopped pears in a covered saucepan with a tiny bit of water until soft. Puree, but not too fine. In your smallest pan, boil a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with a little brown sugar; lower heat and reduce by half. Spoon the pear sauce over endive leaves and finish with toasted sliced almonds and the balsamic reduction.”
To me, this sounded delightful. To N., it sounded weird. So on Thursday, when he had to go back to school for an evening engagement, it became my dinner. It consisted of:
2 TB sliced almonds
2 ripe pears, peeled and chopped into small chunks
1 TB water
3 spears endive
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 TB brown sugar
I must admit: I cheated on the balsamic reduction. The quantities I listed above are falsified. But they are estimates you might use. I happened to have a small container of already reduced, already sweetened balsamic vinegar in my refrigerator from a previous night, and this was the perfect excuse to use it up. I just microwaved it for a few seconds and it loosened right up from a tar to a pourable, molasses-like syrup.
I toasted the almonds in a dry pan over medium heat, tossing them frequently. You can’t take your eyes off of these slices for very long. In the space of twenty seconds, they go from perfectly golden to burnt. How do I know? How do you think?
I set aside my overly tanned almonds and added the pear chunks and water to my pan. Bittman didn’t specify whether the pears should be peeled or not, but pears already have that dubious, potentially grainy texture, and I decided the rough and sometimes gritty skin shouldn’t have a part in this salad. As the pears – naked, cored, and chopped – simmered and softened, I considered the pureeing instruction and rejected it. If indeed they were still supposed to be chunky, there were other methods than dirtying my food processor or immersion blender. I had at them with the potato masher. This broke them into a chunky puree – some texture remained but they were definitely on the road to sauce-hood. I turned off the heat and set them aside to cool.
All that remained was to cut and arrange the endive and drape these various accoutrements across it. I spooned, I drizzled, I scattered, and I served.
This was good, and a nice homage to fall, but it almost read like a dessert salad. Endive has – to my palate at least – little to no discernible taste. It is crisp and fun to eat because it has such a capable, interesting shape, but it crunches into water in your mouth and tastes like whatever you pair it with. In this case, it tasted of earthy mild pears and glossy sweet balsamic reduction. The crunch of the almonds and the crunch of the endive were pleasantly different: one dry, one juicy. I ended up scooping dressing, pear puree, and almonds into each leaf and eating them out of hand rather than messing around with all that utensil business. After all, I was seated at a table for one, and Ted Allen on the TV wasn’t going to judge me. Besides, I was pairing this salad with shrimp (so delicious: toast mustard seeds and red pepper flakes, sear shrimp, deglaze with dry white wine, sprinkle with parsley, serve), and it’s so much easier to just pick them up by the tails. No fuss. Only a little mess. Easily remedied. Followed up, just to make it extra indulgent, with a little cup of coconut whipped cream, dried blueberries, and the rest of the toasted almonds.
N. wouldn’t have liked this dinner. But that’s okay. Our coupledom doesn’t require identical food preferences as I once thought it might, and I’m happy to take on all the shrimp and coconut in the world on his behalf, paired with pears and endive or not. Call it a gift. And in return, he lets me play with my food: not just eating with my fingers, but trusting me in my experimentation because I know what he likes. That means when I present him with one of my Frankensteinian creations, he might raise his eyebrows, but he’s willing – and usually happy – to give it a try. A salad doesn’t need lettuce. What it needs, I think, are the flavors you like and the contrasting textures that make it an adventure to eat.
Summer into fall into summer. Salads and grilled vegetables into casseroles dabbled with cream into fresh raw dips. Luxurious stretches into curled legs under blankets into stressed grading sessions into sampling new half-fizzed white wine.
Sometimes this is called Indian Summer. I like to think of it as Swing Season.
Two Bittmans for you this week.
77. Trim and dice fresh tomatillos; peel and julienne jicama (or daikon or kohlrabi). For dressing, combine lemon and lime juices, olive oil and chopped cilantro. Pour over salad, top with toasted sesame seeds.
This sounded like a good late summer/early fall salad. I found tomatillos at the grocery store, but no jicama, no daikon, and no kohlrabi. And then we went to our Farmers’ Market, and I found all three! Huge daikons, alien baseball sized kohlrabis and, hidden between stacks of beets and the tiniest fingerling potatoes I’ve ever seen, a pile of grubby little tubers with vine-y stems still attached. Eureka, jicama! Back at home, I assembled the troops:
1 TB toasted sesame seeds
2 small jicama
6 medium tomatillos
(really, the number of jicama and tomatillos isn’t super important as long as the quantities are roughly equal once you’ve cut them up. Start with maybe 1 cup of each, see what you think, and then add more if that’s what makes you happy)
2 TB chopped cilantro
I’ve tasted jicama, but it has been a long time. And I’ve certainly had tomatillos, but mostly only after they were roasted and processed into salsa. I wasn’t sure how they would be raw. This – a lovely fresh slaw/salsa/salad hybrid – sounded so bright and tart and lovely that I wasn’t too nervous.
Before anything else, I toasted the sesame seeds and set them aside. They give off such a lovely roasty scent when they are just browned and starting to release some oils.
I peeled, then sliced the jicama into rounds. Then I stacked up the rounds and made thin slices across until my two little aliens were a pile of matchsticks across my board. Into the bowl with you.
Next I quartered and diced the tomatillo. Because they are still underripe when green (apparently they can turn purple and get very sweet when they ripen, but I’ve never seen them in that state), their skins were quite resilient – it took some pressure to get my knife through them. Carefully chunked into miniscule cubes, they joined the white confetti in my bowl.
A quick squeeze of lemon and lime, a whisking pour of olive oil, and a handful of chopped cilantro feathers later, and the dressing was done. And then a sprinkle of salt, and it was perfect. It was a little more than needed to moisten the salad, but it’s hard to know how much juice citrus will have secreted away inside it, so it’s always going to be a guessing game.
I mounded the white and green on my plate, then added a generous scoop of Mexican rice and a quartered cheddar cheese quesadilla. Simple simple. At this point, you should ideally sprinkle the sesame seeds you so carefully toasted atop the salad, but I forgot until after I’d already subjected it to a photo shoot.
I was surprised and pleased by the flavor of this dish. I can’t imagine eating it as a Thanksgiving side dish, but it was a bright burst of summer on a day that began in drizzly autumnal terms. Jicama is crisp and juicy with the barest hint of starchiness, and its flavor reminds me most closely of an Asian pear. The tomatillos were very tart, but the pairing tamed them. Imagine a granny smith apple crossed with an underripe tomato and you’re approaching the brightness we experienced.
This was good as a salad, though its tartness necessitates a small portion. It was also good heaped atop our quesadillas, like a raw salsa. It contrasted nicely against the melted cheddar and the just crisped corn tortillas. But where it would really shine, N. and I agreed, would be as a kind of mirepoix for guacamole. Dicing the jicama instead of leaving it in strips and folding the whole salad gently into chunks of ripe, buttery avocado would make for the perfect chip dip. Tart, creamy, crunchy, with the right kind of salty sourness from the dressing, and all you’d need was a frosted Corona and a pool to dip your toes into. Summer.
But things never end there. At least we hope not! Days of sweating and hiding inside and waiting till after sunset to go out always, inevitably (even if it’s taking FOREVER, Los Angeles…) relax and cool and crystallize into Autumn.
35. Pumpkin-Noodle Kugel: Cook a half-pound of egg noodles in salted water until not quite done; drain and put them into a buttered baking dish. Whisk together 4 cups milk, 4 eggs, 1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin (canned is fine), ¼ cup melted butter and a pinch each of cinnamon and salt. Pour over the noodles and sprinkle with bread crumbs (or, for added kitsch, corn flake crumbs). Bake 45 minutes to an hour, or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.
I had no idea how to serve this dish. I’ve heard of kugels, but I’ve never even eaten one, let alone made one. I wasn’t sure, as usual, what to serve it with, so I asked a few friends and did some research on the good ol’ internet. At the point that I read Smitten Kitchen’s version (okay, so this one is written by her mom, but seriously, that woman has cooked everything, and all of it sounds and looks outrageously delicious), this sounded more like a dessert than a dinner side dish. It would be, I decided, dessert and weekend breakfast. Sweet, autumnal, nicely spiced, and custardy. “It’s going to be like a rice pudding but with noodles. And pumpkin,” I told N. He still wasn’t sure.
4 cups milk
1 cup pumpkin puree (I used Libby’s)
¼ cup melted butter (I put this in, but I’m not sure it was really necessary)
¾ cups sugar
¾ cups golden raisins
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
2 cups corn flakes, well crunched (who am I to pass up added kitsch?!)
It wasn’t until I had collected ingredients that I realized Bittman’s recipe doesn’t call for sugar. But I was already on the dessert/breakfast kick, and I couldn’t quite envision this as a savory dish, so I dumped in my sugar estimation anyway, along with the golden raisins that aren’t part of the original.
I cooked my noodles for 5 minutes and then let them cool for 10. They probably needed to be cooked for only 4 minutes, because they keep on cooking not only while they are in the oven, but on the counter as they cool as well.
With the custard whisked together and the noodles evenly spread in a buttered 9×13” glass baking dish, I preheated my oven to 375F and assessed the corn flakes situation. Whenever an ingredient needs to be crushed, crunched, or pulverized on Chopped, I yell at the chefs for using their hands, knives, or a rolling pin instead of just bringing over the food processor. But they don’t have to wash all the dishes they make, and I do, so my pretty little scarlet processor stayed on its shelf. I crushed up the cereal with my hands, feeling a kind of satisfaction as the flakes became bits and then powder. I topped the noodly custard with a generous layer of crumbs and carefully slid it into the oven.
An hour later, the custard had set and the smell flashed me forward to Thanksgiving. I’m convinced we as a society don’t really know what pumpkin tastes like, because what we experience is texture and spices. If this kugel didn’t have a sprinkle of cinnamon in it, I’m not sure I would know it had pumpkin either.
Dinner came and went, the kugel cooled a bit, and I dug out a too-big portion for myself, and neglected to feel any kind of remorse about it. It was too good for that. The noodles had melded together as the pumpkin infused liquid cooked, making a solid, scoopable, sliceable custard. The corn flakes on top were perfect: aggressively crunchy against the soft interior. I wouldn’t omit the golden raisins either; they were a really nice textural contrast to both the softness of the noodles and the crunchy crumbs, and their complex sweetness added some depth to my dessert casserole. It was warm, and sweet, and perfectly comforting as I tucked my feet under me on the couch and waiting for the approach of Project Runway (don’t judge, every girl needs a little reality TV now and then).
The leftovers are delicious too, though the dish does lose something in relinquishing its crunch to the microwave. In another universe where I’m a Southern cook, I could see doing crazy things like frying squares of this in butter and then drizzling hot maple syrup over the top. But I’ll refrain. Because from my window, I can see my basil wilting beneath the curiously, cruelly hot-for-mid-October sun: back to summer, so it seems! And here I was considering making soup…
Swing season indeed.
This September has been a big one for me. New home (okay, so we technically moved in July), new job (okay, so school started in August), and new decade! I’ve finally hit my 30s, and I like what I see so far (though admittedly I’ve only been stationed in this new world for two weeks).
Given my fanciful proclivities for putting food in my mouth, then, N. knows that my birthday must involve a restaurant in some form. Since we are only just beginning to explore our new culinary surroundings, this was a perfect opportunity to embark on our adventures. I started with Culver City which, delightfully, has a whole webpage devoted to its downtown restaurants, including (in most cases) links to each restaurant’s website. This was almost too much. I spent the better part of an evening cruising through online menus, imagining what kind of mood I might be in on the big day and what I might want to order and what, if the restaurant I ultimately chose should happen to be out of my top choice, I would order instead.
Based on menus and Yelp reviews, I decided on Fords Filling Station (FFS), whose upscale comfort food and wide range of offerings sounded promising. I tend to like mid-range restaurants: not too fancy, where a prix fixe menu or outstandingly high prices make me feel like a grubby graduate student out of place (I know, I’m not anymore. But it’s a hard habit to break in this new world of adulthood and employment), but not too casual either, where the food is sub-par or inconsistent and the wait staff makes no pretense of caring about our presence. A gastropub – a self-proclaimed innovative collection of food, decor, and atmosphere – seemed like the right fit.
FFS is a fun spot. It’s centrally located downtown, and the dining room is a big open space with a bar to one side, traditional tables, and long narrow two-tops where the couple sits on a bench next to one another looking out at the other diners, rather than across from each other. N. and I were seated at one of these bench seats, and it was fun to sit side by side for a change in a restaurant setting. Brick walls, big barrels, and warm colors make it inviting and, I thought, pretty unpretentious.
Our server, who was the perfect balance of informative and attentive, sold me on one of the night’s cocktail specials: citrus vodka, house made lemonade, and a little float of chambord. It was nice – punchy and bright and sweet-tart, but oddly similar to a Rennie’s Lemonade from our erstwhile happy hour hangout in Eugene, and therefore it felt drastically overpriced at $12.
We opted to share entrees so we could order a few things, and got a Cuban flatbread with smoked pork pieces, cilantro, mozzarella, and some kicky little red chilis; grilled asparagus blanketed in shaved parmesan,; and a flattened half chicken with amazing garlic mashed potatoes and succotash.
N. was most attracted to the chicken (as is often the case when we dine out), and here he was clearly right to be. Flattened, the bones were gone, the meat was compressed, flavorful, and intensely juicy, and the skin was crunchy and buttery and tender and perfectly unctuous. Because he is fonder of white meat, it was also a perfect dish for us to share, because N. left me the thigh, with its dark, meatiness pleasantly encased in a crisp layer of fatty crunch. Beside the chicken, the mashed potatoes swam in a sauce of garlic confit, which was rich and intense: the best gravy I’ve had in a long time.
The flatbread, which would have been just delightful on its own, paled a bit in comparison to this chicken. The crust was cracker-like in texture, and the pork pieces paired nicely with the pepper and cilantro, but together the dish was a little bit dry. It needed – perhaps – some herb oil drizzled over the top, or maybe 45 seconds less in the oven. Tasty, but not the star of the show by any means.
The asparagus was excellent: nicely flavorful and light, well cooked and, aside from the piece I dropped on myself (grace embodied, truly), a nice vegetal accompaniment to our meal.
Since I didn’t get any dessert that night (I was full but not overstuffed, and didn’t want to tempt myself by even glancing at a dessert menu), I was still longing for birthday cake a few days later. Fortunately for me A., who blogs from the other side of the world at Over and Under, had told me about Porto’s – a Cuban bakery in Burbank that turns out to be right on my route to and from work. I had to drive up to the school for a Friday meeting, and as I headed toward the freeway to come home, I decided to stop in and treat myself.
Inspired by the flatbread we’d shared at FFS, and because I thought it would be a good benchmark for a Cuban bakery, I got the Cubano. Then, because it was still my birthweek (I’m big on extending the celebration as long as seems rationally possible), I picked out two tiny cakes to share with N.: flourless chocolate, and tres leches.
The sandwich was good. Ham and pork packed tightly onto a fresh bakery roll with cheese, sharp mustard, and a pickle. A simple sandwich, but a delicious one.
My dessert selections, though, were fantastic. The tres leches was rich and light at once, not overly sweet but dripping with cream, like a well soaked angelfood cake topped with toasted marshmallow cream. The flourless chocolate selection was less cake than a giant chocolate truffle: impossibly rich solidified ganache inside a thin shell of cake-like crumb. N. was only able to eat two or three bites before declaring it too rich for his tummy. I had no such trouble, but did talk myself into enjoying only half at that sitting, and saving the other half for another night when chocolate felt mandatory.
Indulgent? Certainly. But (at least in the case of the desserts) at $2-3 each, a reasonable indulgence. Still, when one is a responsible adult (as I suppose some might now imagine me), one must temper such indulgences. In this case, that means salad.
80. Trim and coarsely chop chard (rainbow makes for a gorgeous salad) and combine with white beans and chopped scallions. Dressing is minced ginger, a suspicion of garlic, olive oil and cider vinegar.
½ huge bunch red chard, thick stems removed
1 15 oz. can white kidney beans
5 green onions, finely sliced
1/2 inch knob of ginger
2 garlic cloves
1/4 tsp coarse salt
1/4 cup each cider vinegar and olive oil
1 TB honey
I tossed together the chard, beans, and green onions and set them aside in a big salad bowl. To make sure the ginger and garlic were fine enough, I minced them by hand, then sprinkled them with coarse salt and dragged the flat of my knife across them until they turned into a thick, aromatic paste. I scraped the paste into a glass measuring cup and whisked it up with cider vinegar and olive oil. A taste of this was a cheek puckering revelation, so I added a healthy squeeze of honey to make it less astringent.
Aside from spinach, raw bitter greens are not always N.’s cup of tea. Because I feared this might be the case with this combination, I decided to treat this more like a slaw than a salad. I combined the main ingredients early and doused them in dressing a good fifteen minutes before dinnertime. This would, I hoped, give the acidic dressing time to wilt the chard a bit, much like the vinegar in coleslaw dressing does for the cabbage.
It worked well. By the time we ate (grilled chicken breasts sauced with equal parts whole grain mustard and apricot jam), the chard had lost just a bit of its aggressive bite but its freshness was not compromised. The beans, sometimes bland customers, had soaked up a bit of flavor from the tangy bright dressing, and so while they were a steady, creamy counterpoint to the earthy-fresh chard, they weren’t at all boring. We were both surprised by how well we liked this simple little salad.
Success, then, and balance: excitement and indulgence followed and tempered by stability. If this is what the 30s are like, I’m ready. Bring it on. I’ll just be 30 forever.
It’s a classic children’s game. Climb a ladder: advance! Land on a snake: tumble backwards. And so it goes with most ventures. Last week newness delighted me. This week I’m plodding a bit, experiencing not setbacks, exactly, but settling for lackluster(ness?)(ocity?). I’m discovering things I don’t love about my syllabus. I’m wading through class prep. Students are still (still! The third week is about to start! Papers will be due soon!) adding my classes, which means I am overenrolled and there are new faces every day. And though I’m mostly inspired in my kitchen, not every dish is a triumph. Some slip a little. Some slither into lackluster. But it’s our job, as cooks, as experimenters, as eaters, as humans – and pardon me while I get a bit metaphorical – it’s our job to take this as a challenge. Make it work, as Tim Gunn continually reminds us. So we squirm ourselves around and push back toward the ladders. And sometimes, even after a devastating slide, we climb a few steps.
70. Blanch, shock in cold water, then julienne green beans, daikon and carrots, chill. Whisk soy sauce with honey and lemon to taste; pour over vegetables.”
The most important thing to note about this particular Bittman combo is to leave yourself enough time, particularly if your knife skills are not perfect. It is not possible to concoct this dish in anything but a zone of utter frustration and simmering disappointment if you only have twenty minutes until dinnertime. Here’s what I did:
3 carrots, peeled and cut into thick sticks
1 6-inch chunk daikon, peeled and cut into thick sticks
½ lb. green beans, rinsed and stemmed
3 TB soy sauce
2 TB lemon juice
1-2 TB honey
I dropped the carrot and daikon sticks into a big pot of boiling, salted water and let them cook for 2-3 minutes, until they had give between my teeth but still put up a bit of resistance. I plunged them into ice water and put the tailed green beans into the boil. This was the point at which I ran into trouble. Performing a nice julienne on a pile of veg takes some time and some patience, and on this particular day I lacked both.
Nevertheless, cut each thick stick of carrot and daikon into thin slices (Food Network calls them panels), then turn those slices to cut long, thin vertical strips. You want uniformity but also thinness, since these are only partially cooked, and you want even quantities of carrot slivers and daikon slivers.
At this point the green beans were overboiled and the sausages – the other component of our meal – were almost done on the grill, so I shifted into I-don’t-care-how-it-comes-out-just-get-it-done overdrive. It happens. You should julienne the green beans. I just sliced them into strange vertical halves. You should chill the whole salad until nice and crisp – probably at least half an hour – after lovingly tossing the thin sticks of orange, white and green together. I shoved the bowl in the freezer for five minutes while I made the dressing.
I whisked the soy, honey, and lemon together and was satisfied with the flavor. Were I making this again, I would definitely increase the quantity of lemon juice and maybe even add some zest, but I say it’s up to you. Play with the combination until you like the ratios.
Dressed, the vegetables had a pleasant texture and tasted well seasoned, but the salad as a dish was missing something. N. and I agreed that the dressing was a little one-note, and that note was soy sauce. Flavorwise, things were also a bit on the dull side. Red pepper flakes or raw garlic, we decided, or more or different acid, would have helped things along. Maybe some chives or lemongrass or ginger or cilantro, and certainly pairing this Asian-flavored dressing with something other than Italian sausages, would have been the right move.
And so, in my attempts to slither back into success, I considered the leftovers. They weren’t stars, but they could perhaps be supporting players. In fact, though they were not the traditional combination, they seemed not so different from the vegetables that go into a bahn mi sandwich. Setting off to work a morning or two later, therefore, I slathered a crisp roll with mayonnaise, piled up a good portion of drained veggie slivers and, lacking lunchmeat, topped the whole thing with slices of pepperjack cheese. I know. Cheese is not part of bahn mi either. But jalapeño slices usually are, and the vegetables were crying for spice anyway. It wasn’t the best sandwich I’ve ever had. But it wasn’t a disaster either. It was a few steps forward. Keep moving forward. On to the next ladder!