Comfort Food You Can Feel Comfortable With
When all the Holiday lights are turned off and the frantic hustle and bustle dies down, our chilly and dimly lit evenings could use something delicious to keep us satiated and satisfied. Believe it or not, during this health-crazed start to the year, pizza may be the answer. Cauliflower pizza, that is.
January, perhaps more than any other month of the year, calls for comfort food. While October through December seem to have the market cornered on all things rich and indulgent, given the onslaught of Holiday cheer, cold, gray and quiet January could use a little help. A month rich with resolutions, restrictions and post-Holiday-regret, needs a healthy dose of feel-good food.
While pizza certainly checks the 'comfort food box', I bet you didn't think it could make it onto the 'healthy' list, as well. But you see, when you substitute a traditional pizza crust for its cauliflower alternerative, you're ticking more boxes than you may have thought possible.
As opposed to a standard, white-flour pizza crust, which really offers very little nutritional value (albeit delicious), a cauliflower crust is low in carbohydrates and packed full of all the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants this cruciferous vegetable has to offer. In fact, one serving of cauliflower contains over 75% of your recommended daily dose of vitamin C, not to mention lots of good fiber to aid in digestion. Pizza's starting to sound like a really good idea, right?
While many cauliflower crusts claim to be a healthy alternative to 'the real deal', they also seem to be packed full of more cheese than most standard delivery pizzas wear on top. Sure, they're gluten free, but 'healthy' may be a bit of a stretch.
This simple rendition goes easy on the cheese, without sacrificing flavor, and makes for a meal you'll feel really good about.
Just because it's January, doesn't mean you need to sip every meal through a straw - you can have your pizza, and eat it, too.
For the pizza crust:
For the toppings:
Set your oven to 400*F.
In a food processor, process the cauliflower into an even crumb. Once it looks a bit like quinoa and has a fine, granular texture, turn the machine off. Alternatively, you can use a hand-grater, if you don't own a food processor.
In a large bowl, combine the processed cauliflower, almond meal and cheese, and mix well. At this point, season it to taste with salt and pepper - remember, there's a fair amount of salt in the cheese, so season gradually.
Once you're happy with the level of seasoning, add in your eggs and mix well to combine.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the cake ring in the center of it. Now, scoop the cauliflower mixture into the ring and pat it out evenly. Try to give yourself a bit of a raised edge around the outside, by gently pushing the mixture ever-so-slightly up the sides of the ring. This will ensure that the egg stays on the pizza when you add it later.
Using a paper towel, blot any excess moisture from the pizza crust by pressing into it gently. Cauliflower contains a lot of water, and you want to get rid of some of it, before you bake it.
Remove the ring and bake the crust until golden around the edges, about 30 minutes.
While the crust bakes, add the olive oil to a pan, over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and sauté for one minute, then add the tomatoes and sauté until blistered and soft, about 5 minutes longer. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper.
Top the baked crust with the cooked tomatoes and the remaining 2 tablspoons of cheese, then crack the egg into the center of the pizza.
Set the oven to broil and bake the pizza for a further 6 minutes or so, until the egg white is set, but the yolk is still runny.
Finally, top the pizza with the arugula, and drizzle it with a finishing touch of olive oil.
*Real Pecorino cheese is made from sheep's milk, which I find easier to digest than cow's milk. If lactose isn't a problem for you, you can by all means substitute Parmesan cheese here.
Because Sweet Potato pie isn't the only game in town
Have you ever arrived home, to find a big, beat-up box of sweet potatoes perched on your doorstep? No? Well I'm sorry, but you're missing out! That's exactly what I discovered the other day, and I've been reaping the sweet rewards ever since.
A dear friend from Atlanta, GA took it upon himself to send both me and my sister, some of the best sweet potatoes the southeast has to offer, and since the day I opened the box, they've appeared in almost every meal I've made, served and eaten. I'm convinced that, by this point, the blood in my veins must be running sweet and orange to the tune of Alabama's 'Song of the South.' Just bring me peaches and call me Scarlet, dammit - it's all 'y'alls' and big hair over here.
From curried sweet potato and peanut stew, to sweet potato and gruyere gratin, to rich and creamy pie that proved a welcome respite from its pumpkin-y relative, I've found myself sneaking this highly nutritious and stupidly delicious root tuber into as much as I possibly can.
But you know, there comes a certain point, when you look at the last four sweet potatoes lying in a basket on your kitchen floor, and your mind draws a total blank. With whiskers quietly but certainly beginning to sprout, and skin puckering ever-so-slightly at either end, it's only a matter of time before what once was a complex carbohydrate, turns into a compost carbohydrate, and the sweet indulgence of a box shipped with care, turns decidedly sour.
Scrolling through my internal Scandinavian-meets-Southern girl index, I recalled a recipe I stumbled on not too long ago, and thought 'heck yes, y'all - that's it!'
Though the recipe I found for butternut squash muffins, was a great jumping-off point, I felt it could use a few tweaks - and given my current produce inventory, one such modification was staring me right in the face. With the addition of a crumbly nut topping, significantly less oil and the abandonment of butternut squash, these gluten-free, dairy-free muffins are light, airy and totally delicious.
(Recipe adapted from Paleo in PDX)
Yield: About 8 muffins
Set your oven to 350*F and line a muffin tin with cupcake/muffin liners.
Combine the mashed sweet potatoes, coconut flour, 1/3 cup coconut oil, honey, baking soda, salt, eggs and extract in a bowl and mix until a smooth batter has formed.
Using an ice cream scooper, for evenly-sized muffins, fill the liners almost all the way to the top. The muffins won't rise a great deal, so don't worry about them spilling over.
Mix together the brown sugar, chopped nuts and remaining tablespoon of coconut oil to create a crumbly topping, and divide it evenly over the muffins.
Bake the muffins for 20-25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean when inserted.
So, next time you find yourself with a big box of Mississippi reds (or any other sweet potato, for that matter), break out the mixing bowl, muffin tin and Southern drawl and get to it. You'll be glad you did.
Y'all come back now, y'hear!
In the final run up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, planning and practice make perfect
You can't step on stage opening night without having learned your lines, you can't show up to game one of the World Series without having trained during the off-season, and you certainly can't wake up Thanksgiving morning without having practiced (or at least planned) your culinary lineup. (Two baseball references in one sentence - that probably won't happen again.) While the old adage that says 'practice makes perfect' may be a tad on the optimistic side (I gave up on cooking white rice 'perfectly' years ago), there's certainly something to be said for stepping into the ring with the weight of some serious training in your gloves. (I'm not quite sure where this is coming from. but somewhere I hear my father sighing in relief.)
The meals prepared for Thanksgiving and Christmas (or any other major celebration, for that matter), are generally high-stress meals. Sure, in an ideal world and according to most of what comes out of Hollywood, we all stand around the stove, calmly and quietly stuffing turkeys, peeling potatoes and scratch-making pies worthy of some serious picture taking, while playfully pelting cranberries across the kitchen and sipping on cider stirred with cinnamon sticks and sobriety.
The last time I checked, however, the world wasn't ideal and mom and I stood sweaty-browed and hot-flashed in the kitchen, trying to time a turkey that cooked far faster than anticipated with six side dishes that all seemed to require the oven at the same time, while taking refuge in sips of cider so heavily laced with bourbon that if the tryptophan didn't get us, the brown stuff certainly would.
The idea that a meal with a year's worth of build up and anticipation behind it, should be anything less than nerve wracking, is overwhelmingly optimistic, to say the least.
That's why I'm a firm believer in rehearsal. I'm a firm believer in having your own back, and in giving yourself a leg up on the day. Game plans and strategies make you a much more agreeable host and much easier for your family to be around. (In my experience, turkeys, stuffings and gravies lend themselves to a whole host of expletives, otherwise absent from the average mealtime.)
While every year brings with it a series of standby's, without which the celebratory table would be incomplete, I try to introduce a few newcommers to the party, from time to time. Though you can't beat the classics, we'd still be eating canned pineapple ham, bathed in aspic, if people hadn't started sneaking in less gelatinous offerings, in acts of mild rebellion.
This year, I think I may add this squash and barley 'salad' to the mix, because aspic has no place on my table, and while it may be a Thursday, I'll only take #tbt so far.
Set your oven to 400*F.
On a lined baking sheet, toss together your squash and onion slices with the thyme spigs, garlic cloves, pepper flakes, olive oil, agave and salt to taste, and roast them for 20 minutes, tossing once, about half way through. Then allow them to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, cook your barley in salted water, according to the instructions on the packet. I used quick cooking pearl barley, which only took about 10 minutes. Spread the barley on a baking sheet or large plate, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Discard the garlic cloves and thyme sprigs, and combine the barley and squash/onion mixture in a large bowl.
Melt the butter in a small pan until it starts to bubble, but be careful not to let it burn. Add the sage leaves and fry them until crisp – about 30 seconds. Place the sage leaves on a paper towel to drain off the excess butter.
Crumble the sage leaves into the barley mixture, add the crumbled goat cheese and season with salt and pepper. If you like, you can drizzle over a little extra olive oil and agave, and then toss everything to combine. Serve at room temperature.
In a sea of predictably heavy sides and scene stealers, this is a nod to a newer, lighter tradition. I've made it twice now, and I'm confident that it won't stress me out when the air conditioner fails, while four burners are on high, the oven's set to 400 and the bourbon, which was thought to be plentiful, runs out. This one, is in the bag.
*A Delicata squash is a long, almost tubular yellow squash, with green ridged lines running along it. You can eat the skin, which gives it a really lovely, almost chewy texture, so don't worry about peeling it.
Because sometimes, nothing beats a potato
Before you go getting the wrong idea, I just want to clarify something. Yes, I'm the girl who knows how to slow roast a pork shoulder, who swirls coconut cream artfully across the top of a bowl of homemade soup, and who makes almost everything from scratch (ugh, I know, sometimes I wanna punch me, too), but I'm also the girl who never has anything in the fridge, can call a tin of tuna and can of Pinot Noir dinner, and forgets that tequila, chips and guac do not a three course meal make.
It's all about checks and balances. I've certainly lived years of making sure the fridge was stocked and preparing three square meals a day (somehow I managed to be a child of the 80's and a 1950's housewife all rolled into one), but these days, breakfast is the only guarantee – the rest of the day I make no promises to myself. Sometimes I'm a put-together 33 year old who eats like she lives in the pages of a glossy food magazine, and sometimes I'm a college student who calls coffee and seven almonds, lunch. (Ok, so in college I probably would have skipped the almonds and opted for a packet of wine gums instead, but you know, older, wiser, etc...)
I'm great at cooking for others, when company's coming and when inspiration strikes – I'm just not so great at the moments in between. I forget that treating myself to what I am capable of is as important as sharing it with others. (I feel, perhaps, that there is a greater life lesson to be learned here, but I'm running on two scoops of almond butter and black coffee, after having shed a probable 40% of my water weight in a hot yoga class, so I'm not thinking bigger than my pruned self can handle right now.)
In an effort to do my mind and body a solid, I will occasionally make a big batch of something to have in the fridge, so that in those moments of irresponsible, non-adulting, I have satisfying and healthy nourishment at arms-reach. And once that batch is made, I can spend a full week eating it. Fortunately, if something's good and I'm into it, I'm slow to bore.
Between Halloween, a couple of late nights that led to late mornings, and work, this past week was a bit of a struggle. And when I struggle, all I can think of, is soup. From butternutty, to brothy, to roasted and tomatoey, a big pot of something steaming, soulful and savory is just about the only thing I want or want to make. For me, comfort is bowl-shaped and served with a spoon, and my state of mind is, more often than not, evidenced by the contents of my dish rack.
Having already gone down the butternut squash route last week, I shifted my focus to another classic: Leek and potato.. I've always loved this combination - it's simple, hearty and totally satisfying. Unfortunately, it's often laced with heavy cream or half and half, and delicious as that may be, it just doesn't sit right with me.
So I decided to skip the dairy and amp up the flavor by adding sweet potatoes instead. The soup is not overwhelmingly sweet, as the russets balance it out, but if has a depth of flavor that is needed in the absence of white gold.
Coarsely chop your cleaned leeks. Make sure all the grit and sand is rinsed out - these guys are deceptively dirty!
Add your bacon to a large, non-stick pot, over low-medium heat and render the fat until the bacon is cooked but not crispy.
Add the butter or oil to the pot and then add the leeks and sauté, moving them around occasionally so they don't burn, for about 10 minutes until soft. Add the minced garlic and cook for a further minute.
Add both the russet and the sweet potatoes and move them around the pot, to coat them with oil.
Finally, add in your vegetable stock, increase the temperature to achieve a firm, steady simmer, and cook the potatoes until soft - about 20 minutes.
Remove and discard the bacon, and working in batches or with an immersion blender, blend the soup to your desired texture. I like to leave a few little bits and pieces whole, but if you like it smooth - make it smooth! Season the soup with a healthy dose of salt and pepper.
To top it off, you can add a little sour cream, crème fraîche, or (in my case) goat's milk yogurt, some crumbled bacon and chopped chives.
I can't say that it cured me of a stressful week or one (very mild) hangover (awful but effective blue Powerade and 3 Advil did that), but it certainly gave me great comfort and the feeling that I was taking care of myself properly. Well, ish.
Now where's a pack of wine gums when you need 'em?
*If you want to stay vegetarian, simply skip this, and add about a tablespoon more of butter or coconut oil.
**It took six cups for me - but depending on the size of your potatoes it may take a little more. You want them completely covered with stock when boiling. And you want there to be enough liquid in the pot to achieve soup and not potato purée. Any time I make soup, I like to have an extra carton or batch of stock on hand, just in case.
Because there's something comforting in the predictable
Today I made butternut squash soup, because last year I made butternut squash soup. And you know what? I take great comfort in that.
It never ceases to amaze me how culinarily ritualistic we are in this country. Every year, like clockwork, when the last day of September rolls into the first day of October, the stone fruits and tomatoes of summer give way to the weightier squashes and sprouts of winter, and an entire nation switches its focus from the frivolity of warm weather fare, to the serious business of food with the intent to sustain.
Of course it makes sense - eating seasonally is not only environmentally sound, it's also a hell of a lot tastier. Sure, you can probably find a pear at the grocery store in the middle of April, but where exactly that pear comes from, and whether or not it tastes anything remotely like it should, is a separate issue. Just because it's available, doesn't mean you should be eating it.
But eating seasonally is more than just a smarter and more responsible choice - it has become an anchor that roots us in ritual, helps us understand the passing of time and gives us something to look forward to with every year that passes.
I think it's fair to say that we come to grips with where we stand through what we eat, and at no time of the year is that more apparent than during its final months.
October, for example, gives way to our annual obsession with all things pumpkin. (And I truly mean obsession - I'm pretty sure our economy would collapse entirely, if pumpkin farmers woke up one morning and decided to diversify.) The tenth month of the year isn't official without the introduction of cinnamon and nutmeg, and an almost abrasive shift from a varied color palette to food that takes on an overwhelmingly orange hue.
November may be the penultimate month of year, but more significantly, it is a time for butternuts and delicatas, and cranberries baked into everything - only to be followed by December, which culminates in a symphony of root vegetables roasted to the point of sweet caramelization and dessert-like satisfaction.
We are creatures of habit, tradition and the comfort they provide, and in a country of culinary innovators, we find ourselves churning out the exact same dishes year after year, because of it. Summer is for innovation, and winter reminds us of where we come from. We round out the year with grandma's pies, mom's stews, dad's cocktails and 'so-and-so's world famous something-or-others,' that have been passed down for generations.
So this year, like last year, and the year before it, I give you butternut squash soup with ginger - because if it ain't broke...
Set your oven to 400*F.
Slice you squashes in half, scoop out the seeds, oil the cut sides, season them with salt and pepper and place them, cut side down on a lined baking sheet. Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour, until soft
Meanwhile, add the coconut oil to a large pot over low-medium heat. Cook the onions until soft and slightly caramelized about 15-20 minutes, then add the ginger, garlic, brown sugar and cinnamon. Cook for a further minute.
Scoop the squash out of the skin and add it to the pot along with four cups of broth. Cook the soup for 15 minutes, until the squash has virtually 'melted' into the broth. At this point, you blend it. I use an immersion blender, but if you don't have one, carefully blend it in a standing blender in batches, then return the soup to the pot. If you feel the soup is too thick, and resembles baby food more than soup, add more stock.
Cook for a further 5-10 minutes and then season it with salt and pepper. Finally, stir in the butter, for a shiny, smooth and rich finish.
I like to top mine with some pumpkin and pomegranate seeds, and a swirl of coconut cream, because the combination of squash, brown sugar and coconut is absolutely divine! (And because everything's better with a little texture and a good garnish!)
As I sit here, eating my familiar and delicious squash soup, with Thanksgiving and Christmas fast approaching, I can already taste the meals that lie ahead. I can taste them, because I've been having them for the past 33 years. And I can tell you right now, if the brussel sprouts with walnuts and maple syrup don't make it onto the table, there will be uproar.
Tradition, in our very modern little family, is not to be messed with.
because the laziest day of the week should be the tastiest day of the week
There's just something about a Sunday that makes you want to spend a little extra time in the kitchen. An alarm-free day that starts with a slow ease into consciousness and the best cup of coffee you've had all week, often rolls into sweats-clad comfort in the kitchen, lazily laboring over something that takes significantly more time than throwing boiling water over a cup of dehydrated noodles and a flavor packet. Sundays are for lingering over breakfast, brunching with friends and preparing meals that don't subscribe to the 'one pot dinner' format.
(As a woman without a dishwasher, I must admit that this final day of the week fills me with equal parts longing and dread, as I have a tendency to make my way through nearly every pot, pan and utensil housed within the walls of my dated-but-functional kitchen.)
When growing up, I remember Sundays as the days when mom would experiment and try new recipes. They were the days when the cookbooks would come off the shelves and be leafed through, over milky cups of tea and something sweet brought home from a bakery. The kitchen table would be covered with worn copies of The River Cafe and Silver Palate cookbooks, that to this day still contain some of my all-time-favorite simple and delicious meals. Dishes like slow-cooked lamb shanks and roasted tomato pastas would rise from the pages and find their way onto our plates, just early enough to be followed by a movie on the couch and a reasonable bedtime before the week began anew.
These days, the bedtimes aren't quite as reasonable, and the milky cups of tea have been replaced by slightly tannic, bold glasses of red wine and cocktails made rich by bourbon and bitters, but the inherent feeling of comfort through cooking and convening over food, remains.
As I sit here in the early morning light, with a cup of coffee and the sound of a thunderstorm scoring the start to my day (albeit from the noise machine app on my iPhone), I set my oven to 400*F, knowing that I have a boozy-brunch-out, fast approaching. Unwilling to forsake ritual, I decide to preemptively roast vegetables for the evening of blissful relaxation that lies on the horizon, making sure to satisfy my Sunday kitchen cravings, regardless of a social life.
And because every kitchen is made infinitely more inviting by the smell of crisping bacon, I conclude that extra virgin olive oil is for the other six days of the week, and roast my vegetables in the rendered fat of cured and smoked pork.
Set your oven to 400*F.
Cook your bacon in a pan over medium heat, until rendered and crispy. Set the bacon aside and reserve the bacon fat.
Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or aluminum foil and spread the veggies out over it. Drizzle them with the reserved drippings and vinegar and season them with salt and pepper and thyme leaves.
Roast the vegetables from 20 minutes, then give them a shuffle on the pan. Roast them for a further 15-20 minutes until cooked through.
Crumble the reserved bacon over the veg and enjoy them as a side to any main dish, topped with a poached egg or just as they are with a glass of wine and little attention paid to the week that looms ahead.
Of course, the members of my family aren't sat together around the kitchen table on Sunday mornings, scouring the pages of yellowing classics for food projects with which to occupy our afternoons and early evenings, anymore. We do, however, find ourselves on the phone, in three separate kitchens, sipping tea and wine, a country apart, planning experiments and bouncing ideas off each other. May that never change.
Because when the ingredients speak for themselves, you shut up and listen
Have you ever eaten a vegetable and thought 'wow, this is exactly what this vegetable should taste like'? I mean, like, bitten into a carrot and thought 'this is the most carrot-y carrot I've ever had - I didn't know a carrot could be so, well, carrot-like!' Instead of something more along the lines of 'babe, where's the dip?'
You may be one of the lucky ones who answers in the affirmative, but for most, vegetables simply taste like a vague semblance of what their corresponding Magic Marker shade may have smelled like, and act, primarily, as a vehicle for hummus and the like.
Unless you're fortunate enough to do your produce shopping at a local farmer's market (and even that can be hit or miss - just because it's farm fresh and organic, doesn't mean it'll get you anywhere near as excited as a chargrilled ribeye steak with a side of, umm, chargrilled ribeye steak) you're probably living a life of underwhelming veg, with the odd standout making its way into your crisper drawer from time to time.
The reality is, the reason vegetable dishes are so often doctored up with lots of cheese, garlic, butter and bacon, is that the produce being served can't stand on its own two feet. Let's be honest, you're not ordering the brussel sprouts, you're ordering the bacon and browned butter they're basking in - and, most of the time, so am I!
Though I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some truly outstanding examples of fruits and vegetables through work and by living in a state that always seems to have something in season, the true potential of a vegetable wasn't made clear to me until one rainy evening on the opposite coast, in the Hudson Valley.
If you haven't been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, find a way to make it happen. Not only are you in for an amazing dining experience, you get treated to a deeper understanding of what food, at its most naked, should taste like. (They also serve foie gras, sandwiched between shards of paper-thin, salted dark chocolate - I almost cried. No, seriously, if I were someone who OMG'd, I would have OMG'd...all over the place. So, if the 'deeper understanding' bit isn't enough to get you there, this borderline inappropriate, dip into almost pornographic indulgence, should be.)
Dan Barber, the genius behind Blue Hill, is the epitome of the 'farm to table' dining movement, and I would say 90% of what you consume at his restaurants was grown, raised and harvested at the Stone Barns farm. And after a (very) late night, post-work, hunger inducing Netflix screening of his Chef's Table episode, I knew I had to taste the fruits of his labor for myself.
And boy, did I taste. Every course was, quite honestly, magical. The execution was, of course, perfect, but the courses that stood out the most, were the simplest - the ones that required no execution apart from simply growing the ingredients with care, in soil so tended to, he probably could have served it to me as an amuse.
The dish that really gave me an education in the potential of a vegetable, was served on a humble wooden plank. Small spikes stood at attention down its center, with perfect pieces of raw vegetables skewered atop. After a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, said plank was dispatched from the kitchen and placed in front of me. Beautiful, yes, but raw vegetables as an appetizer? And no dip? Oh, yes...yes, yes, yes!
I've never had a tomato that tasted more like a tomato, or a piece of squash that tasted more like a piece of squash. I seem to remember it actually stopping me in my tracks - speechless and astounded, eating a glorified crudité platter reminiscent of no catered office party ever.
Though everything we had that night was more than memorable, that one little mid-course was a welcome reminder that immaculate ingredients prepared simply, can actually change your understanding of food, quite deeply. And that a vegetable has the potential to be perfection, when given the opportunity to grow into everything it was intended to be.
So, when I heard of a squash developed by the Vegetable Breeding Institute at Cornell University, in collaboration with none other than Dan Barber himself, I thought 'that squash is going to taste like what every squash dreams of growing up to be' and I knew I had to try it - by no means was I disappointed.
The Honey Nut Squash is something special indeed. Think of a mini butternut squash, then amplify the flavor and the sweetness tenfold - a mighty punch, packed into a teeny, tiny gourd, so enchanting you feel barbaric slicing it in half and roasting the hell out of it. But barbarian that I am, slice it and roast it, I did.
For the squash:
Set your oven to 400*F.
Slice the squash halves into 1" thick wedges, toss them with the olive oil, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste, and spread them out on a foiled baking sheet. Bake them at 15 minutes, until tender. Then allow them to cool.
Meanwhile, slice your apples into thin wedges and sauté them in butter over medium heat, until browned and soft, but not mushy, about 5-7 minutes. Allow them to cool.
Finally, toss the cooled squash and apples with the arugula, chopped nuts, pomegranate seeds, a splash of olive oil and flakey sea salt and pepper to taste.
That's all she wrote. No heavy dressing required - I'm telling you, the honey nut doesn't need it.
It took an evening of driving through the rain with a friend and the combined nighttime eyesight of an earthworm, an hour outside the city, to Pocantico Hills, NY, to truly realize that such simplicity was possible.
That being said, I'm not turning my nose up at dip - dip's delicious. Oh, and chargrilled ribeye. Chargrilled ribeye's good too.
because Nothing Puts hair on your chest, like hot pink soup.
You may or may not have had Aquavit. This depends entirely on how many crazy Danes, Swedes and Norwegians you have in your life. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, I think it's time to rectify that situation.
The Russians have vodka, the Mexicans have tequila and the Scandinavians have Aquavit, or as we Danes call it, snaps. This stuff will warm you up on a cold winter's day, keep you singing long into the night on a warm summer evening and take you by surprise when you realize that it's only a tiny shot-ful, until you've had 12.
This Nordic tipple comes in many different varieties, ranging from clean and pure, to spiced and infused, and at 37 - 40% proof, it packs a hell of a punch. Think of it like gasoline, but, you know, herbaceous.
Usually enjoyed with food, snaps is brought to the table at celebrations and casual Sunday lunches alike, and is a staple in Scandinavian dining. For my family, it is most notably enjoyed at Christmas time, as we stand, freezing our 'numser' off in the middle of a sub-zero forest on the 26th of December, enjoying a picnic of leftovers, while the youngest members of the family complain about how damned cold it is.
They're right, of course. It's stupidly cold. To any who pass us by, we look like a band of lunatics, dressed in every article of clothing we own, with fingers on the verge of frostbite, eating open-faced sandwiches, singing songs, and drinking snaps.
Photo: My sis (on the right) and I, wrapped in fur, boiler suits, and about four additional layers.
Lunatics? Yes. But the snaps makes us forget how cold it is. All children in our family eventually understand that once you graduate from warm cider (which they mostly use to dunk their frozen hands in, only to realize that it's even colder once they pull them out! Been there, done that) to this medicinal liquor, the picnic becomes a lot more fun.
The problem is, of course, when you get back from the picnic, the fireplace is roaring, and your internal temperature normalizes. I believe the saying is something like 'one snaps, two snaps, three snaps, floor.' Or is that tequila? Six of one, half a dozen of the other, I say.
It's at this point that we enjoy a big bowl of warming soup to comfort, fill and satisfy. Mom usually whips up a big pot of hearty sausage and bean soup, but I like the idea of pairing another Scandinavian staple, beets, with just a touch of Aquavit. The beets are earthy and sweet, the liquor adds a pop of herby depth, and the (very non-Nordic) coconut milk, mellows everything out. Plus, it's hot pink soup - reason enough I do believe.
To a large pot, over medium heat, add two tablespoons of coconut oil, the diced onion and all three spices, and sauté until the onions are translucent, stirring often so the spices don’t burn, about 15 minutes.
At this point, deglaze your pot with a 1/4 cup of Aquavit. This is absolutely my favorite part. When the spirit hits the heat, the smell is just incredible. It’s herby and piney, and brings back memories of long lunches and never-ending evenings. Cook, allowing the alcohol to burn off slightly, while retaining some of the liquid, about 2 minutes.
To the pot, add your whole, cleaned beets, coconut milk and vegetable broth. You want the beets completely covered. They obviously vary in size, so if you’re having a hard time getting the liquid to cover them, you can certainly slice the beets in half.
Cover the pot, and cook, at a steady simmer, for 45 minutes to an hour, until the beets are completely cooked through.
Remove the beets from the liquid, allow them to cool to the point where you can handle them, and, using a couple of paper towels, slide the skins off the beets.
Return the beets to the liquid, add the remaining two tablespoons of Aquavit, salt and pepper to taste, and cook for 5 minutes longer.
Finally, using an immersion blender, blender or Vitamix, carefully blend the soup until completely smooth. Serve the soup topped with some thinly sliced radishes, for crunch and bite.
So, here's some free advice: Make friends with a Scandinavian. Soon enough, you'll be sat long into the night, singing songs, telling tales and laughing wildly. And with any luck, you'll find yourself frostbitten in the middle of a dark forest, surrounded by 22 crazy loons, delightfully numb and happy.
Ok, so they're not really noodles, but damn they're delicious.
Living in Los Angeles can be a magical thing. The weather is always beautiful, you’re a stone’s throw from the beach and when the urge to slalom down snow-kissed mountains strikes, you’re never really more than two hours away from après ski. I mean, skiing. You’re never more than two hours away from skiing.
But living in Los Angeles can be exhausting, too. It is the birth place of so many trends, fads and philosophies that range from the rational to the downright ridiculous, that, in a place where it’s already hard to keep your head on your shoulders, it’s even harder to keep it on straight.
This is particularly true when it comes to food and diet. It’s a zoo out here and I swear, the rules change every week.
If you thought, for example, that the act of separating peas and carrots on a plate was simply the neurotic behavior of the under-10s, and that it eventually just gives way to the realization that everything ends up in the same place anyway, you’re quite mistaken.
Here we separate, substitute and eliminate according to the latest ‘it’ doctor, hot celebrity or current moon phase. Yup, we take our cues from Bieber and how the moon pulls the tides, in equal measure, because life’s about balance.
We will happily tell you that a gluten-free noodle ‘tastes so much like the real thing, you’ll never know the difference,’ and that ‘most things actually taste better steamed and unseasoned.’ But believe me, we’ve rehearsed that. We’ve spent many meals forcing down chewy, spongey noodles with flavor akin to cardboard, and a fair few fillets o’ fish you wouldn’t serve to your cat, in the name of health.
Don’t get me wrong - I subscribe to a fair amount of it. Search my cupboard, and you’ll find a lot of acronyms. GF, DF and Non-GMO feature prevalently as elements on the periodic table that is my diet. It’s hard not to join in. It’s hard to be the only person ordering a steak in a vast sea of herbivores, staring at you, wishing they’d had a chance to adopt the cow you’re eating, before it made its fateful journey to your plate.
I won’t go totally 'celebrity' on you and pretend my go-to snack is an In ’n Out burger with a cupcake chaser (they’re lying, by the way), but, dammit, if I'm going to go all California-clean, it has to taste good.
Food and flavor mean a lot to me, and sacrificing them is not an option. No, I won't do a big bowl of noodles on the reg (because, well, my out-of-whack immune system can't handle it), but I will do a big bowl of zucchini noodles mixed with every other green vegetable I can get my hands on, top it with salmon, and tell myself 'it tastes just like the real thing.'
But it's so damn good anyway.
Using a spiralizer, turn your zucchini into noodles and combine them with the tomato, cucumber, avocado and mustard greens in a large bowl.
Pour over your lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil and toss the ingredients, so that everything is well coated. Season the salad with salt and pepper.
Season your salmon fillet with salt and pepper and heat your pan to medium-high heat, adding the remaining olive oil. Cook the fish 3-4 minutes per side. I like mine a little under, so I keep it to 3, but if you like your fish cooked through, do the full 4 minutes.
As it's a cold salad, I let the fish come to room temp before placing it on top, but you can certainly eat it warm over the 'noodles' if you prefer.
Once you've added your salmon, sprinkle on a few pumpkin seeds and voila! You're basically eating a big bowl of pasta with meat sauce.
No, you're not.
But I'm pretty sure you'll love it anyway.
*If it's just me, I'll usually ask the fishmonger to cut me a fillet of salmon that weighs in at just over a 1/4 lb, from the thickest part of the fish. Often you'll find precut fillets in the fish department that weigh in at about 5-6oz.
Does it still count as a vegetable when it's covered in béchamel and bacon?
Growing up with a mom who, consistently, night after night, created delicious meals for her family, meant my sister and I truly looked forward to coming to the table at the end of every day. (Dad, I don't want you to feel left out here! #popsbologneseforlife!! - but I'm gonna give this one to mom.)
One meal we not only looked forward to, but repeatedly requested, was cauliflower gratin.
Yes, that's right, two gap-toothed girls putting in orders for a cruciferous vegetable you probably couldn't serve up to most wary wee ones, even if you dipped it in chocolate, rolled it in Pop Rocks and told them it was 'trending.' But as far as I can remember, cauliflower gratin was an almost weekly occurrence in our home, and it never, ever got old.
Mom's a clever lady though and she knew a thing or two about passing off what may have been deemed a vaguely smelly, questionably-textured and decidedly albino vegetable, as food worthy of request, to her children. Two words: Béchamel and bacon. Oh. Yes.
When mom pulled the piping hot Pyrex dish from the oven, I could smell the creamy, dreamy sauce and the crisp, browned bacon from my room upstairs. That's pretty much all it took for me to put down the landline, log out of AOL instant messenger and turn off Ace of Base - dinner was on the table.
These days, I can't do béchamel and bacon on a regular basis, because, well, I'm not 10 and somewhere along the line, dairy and my insides got into an argument they couldn't resolve. I can still, however, do cauliflower, and on a regular basis, at that.
Set oven to 425* F.
Trim the cauliflower heads, separate them into small florets, and divide the florets into two piles.
Spread half the florets onto a lined baking sheet and drizzle them with coconut oil. It's consistently been about 90 degrees in my apartment, so my coconut oil has been in liquid form since Memorial Day, but if yours is solid, just give it a quick melt. Season the florets with Ras el Hanout, chili flakes, salt and pepper and toss everything to combine. Roast for about 25 minutes, until nicely browned, giving everything a toss about halfway through.
While you're roasting, work on the purée. Using a steamer basket, steam the reserved cauliflower for about 8 minutes, until tender but not mushy.
On very low heat, melt the butter in a sauce pot and then allow it to brown. Watch the butter carefully. Once you start to see brown flecks and your kitchen smells wonderfully nutty, you're good. The butter will burn very quickly, so this is not a time to abandon your post.
In a food processor, blender or your Vitamix, combine the steamed cauliflower and browned butter, along with salt and pepper to taste. Blend until you achieve a fine purée. You can always add just a touch of the hot water from the pot, to aid in this.
Finally sauté your shallots in a pan with coconut oil on low-medium heat, until caramelized and slightly crisp.
To assemble the dish, start with some purée on the plate, then top with some of the roasted florets and crispy shallots, Sprinkle over a few toasted pine nuts and some fresh cilantro. Then, using your vegetable peeler, shave the rainbow chard stems on top.** Squeeze the lime over the dish.
Though I may have ditched the cream and pork (along with the outdated technology and musical stylings of my youth), the fundamental love for a dish that highlights cauliflower is still there.
But mom, if you're reading this, I won't be mad if dinner gets a little nostalgic next time I come home! You handle the cauliflower, I'll handle the playlist.
Consider this a request.
*Note: Ras el Hanout is not a fictional supervillain, but instead a North African spice blend featuring cinnamon, nutmeg and cumin among other warming spices. You can find it at any purveyor of fine spices or Whole Foods.
**Note: I love rainbow chard raw - it has a mildly bitter but altogether refreshing quality. If you want to eliminate some of that bitterness, you can certainly sauté it first.