Boiled kale.

Winter in New Jersey seems to drag shiveringly on, boring me to tears.  There’s the occasional snowstorm, yes, and I love every minute I spend bundled up beside the windowsill, every glass of scotch. But those snowy nights are fleeting, and then we’re back to the monotonous cold, the rude wind, the car windshield that just won’t defrost. And the cabbage.

kale

Cabbage is certainly reliable, staving off mold, and rot, and drying up all through these months (and months) of cold, when everyone else—the carrots, the apples—have up and left, unable to stick it through.  But, egad, is he boring. Except, of course, with the proper treatment.

wash

Simmered in homemade chicken stock and a knob of butter, cabbage–specifically kale—turns into something silky, tender, willing to fall apart at the touch of your teeth. Boiled kale may not seem sexy, but trust me on this, it incredibly is. When kale comes in from plowing snow all day, and takes off his work boots and Levi jeans, I promise you there are silk boxers underneath. With little red hearts on them.

kale

So let’s talk proper treatment. First of all, you need good stock. Homemade. I’m sorry, but I just can’t budge on that one; homemade stock is not just better than store-bought, it’s a whole different thing altogether. And it’s incredibly easy. Just take a chicken, or a few carcasses from roast chicken dinners, or a few pounds of chicken parts. Put the chicken in a pot and add water to cover the chicken (or carcasses or parts) by an inch of two—it should be around 4 quarts. Bring to a boil, add an onion and a carrot, and a tablespoon of kosher salt. Bring the heat down to low, or whatever heat allows an occasional bubbling of the stock, but nothing like a simmer or a boil. Let it go on like that for about 4 hours, tasting occasionally, until it tastes like chicken and is a beautiful shade of yellow. At this point, I usually let the stock hang out until morning, or at least a few hours, then I strain through a sieve into plastic quart containers and use or freeze. See? Easy. And about a zillion times better than store-bought stock. (The quality of the stock is even more important than the quality of the kale; I’ve made this with kale that’s a week or two past its prime and it tasted delicious. With water? Not so much.)

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Butter, too, is key and, in my opinion, there’s no alternative for it. I mean, I guess you could go for grapeseed oil if you are vegan, or maybe try a high-heat nut oil, but, please, no olive oil. The taste of olive oil changes when it’s heated at a high heat, and in this recipe, that change is totally perceptible. It’s the difference between this kale being fanatic-making good and it’s being just good. Butter, on the other hand, helps the texture, coaxing every bit of luxuriousness out of the kale. And if you like the taste of olive oil with kale, just drizzle some on top after it’s cooked. Problem solved. That’s about it; with chicken stock, and butter, and enough cooking time that the kale becomes meltingly soft and silky and deeply kale flavored, there’s nothing better to beat the cold. I could (almost) have winter all year long.

boiled kale

Boiled Kale

serves 4

    I’ve met resistance when encouraging others to eat boiled kale. I have a hunch that it has something to do with the “raw” foods craze, and the fact that “boiled” anything reminds us of flavorless food with all its nutrients leached out. But that is not the case here. This recipe involves boiling the kale in chicken stock and then letting everything simmer until the liquid evaporates, vitamins intact, leaving the kale tender and coated in a silky slip. Maybe it’s the name, so call it whatever will help: “Melted” Kale, Braised Kale, “Shut up and Eat Your Vegetable Because You Will Like Them” Kale… whatever works.About salting: I salt my kale after it’s cooked down. This may be heresy, and may mean that the kale is not salted properly to its core, but considering every bunch of kale is not the same size, and the chicken stock may be evaporating at different speeds (however negligible) on any given day, it’s safest for me to salt after so I don’t overdo it.

1 pound kale leaves, from 2 very large kale bunches
4 cups homemade chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
salt

Wash kale thoroughly (using a salad spinner helps.)

To remove the kale’s leaves from stems, holding one piece at a time, run a sharp chef knife against each side of the stem, stripping the leaves off and leaving only the stem in your hand. Otherwise, lay a few pieces on top of each other and use your knife to cut the stems out. Or, strip them off with your hands, holding the stem with one hand and using your other hand to pull the leaf away from you until it comes off the stem.

Coarsely chop kale leaves. Add them to a large dutch oven or pot and pour 4 cups of homemade chicken stock over. (If there are bits of chicken stock gelatin sticking to the inside of the container, scrap that in too.) Add butter. Turn the heat to medium high and bring stock to a boil. If the kale is particularly unwieldy, or your pot isn’t quite big enough, you can put the cover on for a few minutes until it wilts some. Once it is boiling, cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid all but evaporates and the kale is silky and tender, about 45 minutes. If the kale doesn’t taste tender enough, and the liquid is already gone, add a splash more and cook until the kale meets your liking.

Salt to taste. Serve.

Rosemary and Brown Butter Applesauce

I can’t write much today. My migraines continue to take their toll, and this past weekend we took a trip to Southern California to see our nephew, getting back on Monday and not catching up on nearly enough sleep yet. I should probably be sleeping right now, really. But I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t tell you about this recipe in time for your Thanksgiving shopping list.

apple

The recipe is for rosemary brown butter applesauce.  If the name alone doesn’t make you want to drop everything and head to your nearest orchard, let me say it again: Rosemary. Brown butter. Applesauce.

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If you’re still reading this, and not running out to purchase your apples, or maybe even wondering why I’d be putting rosemary in my applesauce, let me explain.  Brown-butter applesauce tastes similar to something you’d find in a delicious apple pie: sweet and buttery, with a background warmth and nuttiness from the browning and the cinnamon.  It kind of tastes like a warm blanket, with a cup of hot chocolate, on Christmas morning, if you were five years old and staring at the biggest pile of presents you’d ever seen.  Or rather, dang delicious.

apples

The thing is, though, that cinnamony-sweet brown butter in your applesauce can taste a little too apple pie if you’re not careful.  It would be fine for breakfast or a midday snack, but placing a bowl of apple pie filling on the Thanksgiving table just doesn’t work so well. This is where the rosemary comes in, taking the dessert level down a few notches by adding a woodsy, Christmas-tree aroma and savory side notes.  The perfect, wintry foil.  If I don’t speak with you before then, Happy Thanksgiving!

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Rosemary and Brown Butter Applesauce

adapted from Bon Appétit, Dec 2008

3 cups unsweetened apple juice
3 4-inch fresh rosemary sprigs
1 1/2 cinnamon sticks
3 1/2 pounds (7 to 8 medium) Braeburn apples or other tart-sweet apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into chunks (or cut into eighths)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter

In a large pot, combine the apple juice, rosemary, and cinnamon.  Add in a big pinch of salt and put the heat on medium, to bring the juice to a boil.  Reduce the juice by half.  Mix in the apples.  Cover the pot, and cook for about 35 minutes, or until the apples are mushy.  Uncover and discard the rosemary and cinnamon.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat until it browns, stirring occasionally.  Mix butter into applesauce. (Can be made a few days ahead.)

Magical gardening elves and snap pea potato salad.

We have magical elves for neighbors, I’m sure of it.  Magical gardening elves.  Because every day, on my way out of town, I stop at their shed on the side of the road and find fresh snap peas, or potatoes, or whatever’s been picked the day before. And my neighbors are not just magical elves because they grow and offer this stuff (lots of people have front-yard farm stands around here), they are magical elves because their food tastes magical. Take a look at this pea, for example.

It’s plump, sweet, and fresh-tasting.  I couldn’t even take the picture without stealing a pea first.  My neighbors’ sugar snap peas are better than any I’ve tasted from farm markets, let alone supermarkets.  And once a few weeks go by, the elves will start to put out heirloom tomatoes meaty and bursting with sweetly acidic flavor.  These tomatoes were what made Jim and me wonder last year, when we just moved into town, if we could ever leave.

This potato salad, made with snap peas and potatoes from my magical neighbors, and fresh herbs from my own puny attempts at gardening (why try, when you have gardening elves?), is the kind of potato salad that you can fool people into thinking is healthy.  Very green, full of herbs and peas, it’s almost as if it doesn’t contain a healthy dollop of olive oil and a couple pats of butter. (Unless you are set on making a healthy potato salad, don’t leave out the butter; it melds all the flavors together and keeps it from becoming one of those ultra-vinegary potato salads—the type that make you long for some good mayonnaise.)

Use basil and chives if you can, because the basil plays up the sweetness in the peas, and chives work wonders for boiled potatoes.  You must pour the vinaigrette on before the potatoes cool and don’t be alarmed if it soaks into the potatoes before you can say mum, it’s supposed to happen that way.  Those potatoes will take on the sharp flavor of the wine vinegar, and be better for it.  It’s okay that it seems too dry, that’s why you add the butter. The end product — with the butter and everything mashed up a bit — is soft, creamy, and rich, with a background kick. Bring it to your next barbecue.  You can even tell everyone it’s healthy, I’ll keep the secret.

Snap Pea Potato Salad

The measurements here aren’t exact, I’m using volume because I didn’t weigh the peas and potatoes.  You can tinker with the measurements if you like.

1 quart snap peas, string removed
1 quart new potatoes, washed
2 shallots, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1-2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
pat or two of butter
basil, to taste
chives, to taste
salt and pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add potatoes and a few pinches of salt.  Boil until potatoes are firm-tender, adding the snap peas into the water during the last minute or two.  Drain and transfer potatoes and peas to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette:  In a small bowl or measuring cup, add shallots, garlic, a pinch of salt, a few grindings of fresh black pepper, and mustard.  Add vinegar and whisk with a fork.  Add a drop of olive oil and whisk, adding a few more drops as you whisk.  If the vinaigrette is starting to emulsify, you can add the rest of the olive oil and whisk until the mixture is creamy, otherwise keep adding olive oil in drops until it emulsifies.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour vinaigrette over hot potatoes. Immediately stir to combine.  Stir in basil and chives and, once the vinaigrette has absorbed, stir in butter.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (it can take a lot of both.)


Cowboy steaks, fried potatoes and artichokes, onions and green beans.

I consider myself lucky.  I live within ten-minutes of this steak.

The Highland Company Gourmet Market in Kingwood Township, New Jersey, sits on lush green where Highland cows (and a rather menacing bull) hang out all day, chomping on the grass or watching the family soccer games across the fence.  These cowboy steaks, however, don’t come from those Highland cows (the punk-rock of cow breeds), but considering the care and love that Dee gives her own, I’m sure the local farms that she chooses to distribute from are just as good.  (I’m sure, also, because we asked.)

Steak aside, I also consider myself unlucky, or at least lazy, because since our neighbor Bob moved away, Jim and I have been without a grill.  So far this season, I’ve been able to satisfy my grilling urges through dinners at my parents’, where my dad charcoal grills spare ribs, or porterhouse steaks, or hot dogs with deliciously crisp charred edges, but when we saw the cowboy steaks at the market this weekend, we knew we’d have to find a house with a grill.  This wasn’t hard; Jim’s parents have a grill and were away for a few days and we gleefully took on the job of feeding the cats (and playing house.)

Besides a grill, there was also a pretty little herb patch at my disposal and the perfectly purple sage leaves did not go untouched, (thanks, Lydia!) destined to be a garnish on our fried potatoes and artichokes.

Because our date with a grill had become something of a grand affair, I picked up a few artichokes and some colorful potatoes—purple, red, and white; dolling up Tesa Kiros’ recipe of fried russet potato and artichoke bottoms.

If you’ve never pared down an artichoke before, make sure you have two knives: a serrated knife and a sharp chef or paring knife.  You need a serrated to cut off the top half of the artichoke and the chef knife to slice off all the leaves.  You also need a spoon for gouging out the choke.  And maybe a y-shaped peeler to peel the very bottom.  And surely this guide to help you along.

I fried the potatoes in corn oil (a lot of corn oil), putting them in the oil about 10 minutes before throwing in the artichokes.  The whole mess fried for about a half hour; long enough to make me get very worried that the potatoes would never brown, long enough so that they finally did brown, got crisp on the outside and mashed-up creamy inside, with a best freakin’ fried potato in the world taste.  The artichokes were a definite plus, elevating it from french fries to elegant, and the sage must be used, it’s non-negotiable; it added a serious pop of flavor whenever you came across it, and was paper-thin and crunchy like a chip.  I scattered fleur de sel over everything as soon as it came out of the oil.  The mineral-tasting salt was just the thing.

Jim marinated the steak in garlic, thyme, rosemary, and sage, then cooked the steak mostly on the grill, finishing in the oven.  In hindsight, he says he would have done the whole thing on the grill (something I thought from the beginning, but you can’t question a man with a plan) and that’s what you should do, too.

Oven, grill, whatever; the steak turned out fantastic (I don’t imagine it could turn out any other way.)  Rare in the middle with some char all around, garlicky and well-seasoned, we happily ate it up, saving some for a midnight snack, and lunch the next day, before handing off the bone to a very eager dog.

We also made some green beans and cippolini onions, which were fresh, buttery, and sweet.  A rather good steakhouse dinner date, if we do say so ourselves.  It’d go over fabulously for father’s day, without a doubt, if you can find a good cowboy steak (and if you live anywhere near Kingwood, New Jersey, it’s worth a drive.)  I’d be making it for my dad, but we’re away for the weekend attending another engagement party in our honor, this one out in East Hampton.  Luckily for me, the Highland Market is going to have these every weekend.

Cowboy Steak

serves 2

1 cowboy steak
salt
olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
handful or herbs (we use thyme, rosemary, and sage)
pepper

A day or two before you plan on eating the steak, salt it generously on all sides and return to the fridge.  The day of, take the steak out and transfer to a plate.  Combine some olive oil, the garlic cloves, and herbs.  Massage into steak and let sit for a few hours.  Grill according to how you like you steaks (we don’t own a grill, so don’t want to act like authorities.)

Fried Potatoes and Artichokes

serves 6

2 1/2 lbs potatoes, preferably mixed varieties (we used purple fingerling, red bliss, and new), cut in halves or quarters
6-8 medium artichokes, trimmed and cut into halves or quarters (you can peel and halve the stems, too)
small handful sage leaves
corn oil for deep frying
fleur de sel

Prepare your potatoes and artichokes.  Fill a large saucepan or pot halfway full with corn oil and turn heat on the stove top to medium high.  When the oil reaches frying temp (350F-375F), add your potatoes.  Let them settle for about five minutes then give them a good stirring with a wooden spoon.  Let fry for about 8 minutes, then add artichokes and give a good stir.  Continue to fry for another 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are golden brown and crunchy.  Add sage leaves and fry 1 minute more.  Remove everything to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with fleur de sel and serve with lemon wedges.

Cippolini Onions and Green Beans

serves 4-6

1 1/2 lb green beans, trimmed
5-6 cippolini onions, halved and peeled
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 teaspoon olive oil
fresh thyme
salt, pepper

Add 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat.  Carefully place the onions cut-side down.  Season with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves to taste.  Saute for about 5-10 minutes, until the onions are darkly caramelized.  Turn onions on their sides with tongs.  Add green beans and stir to combine.  Add about 1/4 cup water and cover.  Cook for 5-10 more minutes, or until the green beans are tender to your liking.  Serve hot or warm.

With olives.

There’s something on my mind: I’ve found (in real-life and through comments) that a lot of people are self-prescribed haters of certain foods—and I just don’t get it. Putting foods on a “hate to eat” list is so limiting.  Think of all the deliciousness that you may be keeping from yourself! I’ve had many experiences when I tried a food that I disliked, one that was prepared by a fabulous cook or chef, and promptly threw it into the category of favorite foods.  Beets, poached eggs, pate, fennel—they were all on my dislike list at one point or another and, even though I still rarely eat beets (by choice) and pate (by crying myself to sleep some nights because I can’t afford to eat pate), they don’t sit on a list anymore.  I don’t have the list anymore; set fire to it a while ago.  It’s very freeing.

Olives were on that list right up until the burning of it.  I never liked olives; no, I hated olives.  Olives aren’t an odd thing to dislike, Harold McGee calls the olive fruit “highly unpalatable” and notes that we really only like to eat them when cured.  But I didn’t want to eat them at all.  Didn’t want them near my vodka.  Didn’t want to smell them as I passed by the olive bar at the market.  I also, however, hadn’t tried one in years.  Not a smart move for a supposed “foodie.”

Well, I’m happy to say that I tried olives and liked them.  I did it out of desperation.  I was in a slump this winter and needed a new and exciting recipe.  I found one in Saveur magazine, a recipe for sea bass baked in parchment with keilbasa, olives, and fennel.  It wasn’t my favorite recipe, but the best part about it was the olives.  Baked in the oven until soft and oozing their brine, olives are meltingly, disarmingly delicious.  I’m still not a fan of eating olives out of hand, except maybe for nicoise, but I love to cook with olives.

This in particular is my newest favorite olive recipe.  You roast a cut-up chicken with lots of rosemary, thyme, and pancetta, until golden brown, then throw in some black olives and roast until the olives are tender, the chicken browned, and the pancetta crispy.  Because you are using olives, which have such an intense, briny taste, you can go crazy with the herbs.  Don’t hold back on the rosemary or thyme—and use fresh.  The sweetly woody aroma of the herbs are a perfect match for olives; and the roasted garlic is a perfect match for anything.  We had this on top of pureed cauliflower with a clove of the roasted garlic mashed up into the puree, and it was just heaven. With olives.

Chicken with Pancetta and Olives

serves 2-3

adapted from Gourmet, January 2009

  • 1 chicken (about 3 pounds), backbones cut out and each chicken cut into 8 pieces
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoons chopped thyme
  • 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
  • scant 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • pinch hot red-pepper flakes
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved if large
  • 4 (1/4-inch-thick) slices pancetta, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 12 oil-cured black olives
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • more water, to thin, if needed

Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in middle.  Toss chicken with oil, thyme, rosemary, sea salt, red-pepper flakes, and 1 teaspoon pepper, rubbing mixture into chicken.

Arrange chicken, skin side up, in 1 layer in a 17-by 11-inch 4-sided sheet pan. Scatter garlic and pancetta on top and roast until chicken begins to brown, about 20 minutes. Drizzle wine over chicken and roast 8 minutes more. Scatter olives over chicken and roast until skin is golden brown and chicken is cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes more. Let stand 10 minutes.

In a medium saucepan, add 1/4 cup water and cauliflower.  Cover and cook over medium heat until cauliflower is very tender.  Add butter and one small (or one half large) clove of the roasted garlic and puree with a stick blender or in a stand blender until very smooth.

Serve chicken on top of a mound of cauliflower.

Candied kumquats with vanilla and cinnamon

I’ve been anxiously awaiting canning season this year. Last summer I didn’t preserve nearly enough as we needed for the upcoming year.  We’ve been out of jam for months now and this year I plan on making enough cherry, strawberry, blueberry, and peach preserves to last a year of ravenous monkeys.

But until I’m able to find the best fruits of the season—and it’s about time for cherries!—I’ve been playing with some of the fruits that, in New Jersey, I never get to buy locally. These kumquats aren’t local, and I’m not sure when their season is (I’m guessing winter) but, cooked slowly in syrup, they were delicious nonetheless.

Anyway you candy kumquats will yield sweet-tart, marmalade-like preserves, but this recipe is really special.  I spotted it in a recipe for a gingerbread cake topped with candied kumquats, and the thought of cinnamon and vanilla bean must have flipped on a switch in my brain, because I couldn’t think another thought until I had the kumquats I’d bought earlier that week swimming in a sweet pool of honey and spices.

Orange honey is a perfect match here, the background floral and citrus is a real no-brainer to pair with kumquats, but any honey would do.  I used a vanilla bean and I don’t think vanilla extract would work here (vanilla sugar would be fine); you could leave it out if you don’t have (or want to buy) a vanilla bean.  You can’t totally see it in the pictures, since the syrup was still hot, but the magical black specks of vanilla bean came out to sparkle by the next day.  The jar didn’t last much longer than that, though.

Candied Kumquats with Vanilla and Cinnamon

makes one 8-oz jar with a bit leftover

1/2 cup water
3/4 cup orange honey
scant 1/4 cup natural sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 pint kumquats, halved and seeded (about 14-18 ounces)

Add first five ingredients to a saucepan over medium-high heat, scraping the seeds from the vanilla bean and adding both seeds and pod.  Stir to dissolve sugar.  Add kumquats and bring back to boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or so, until kumquats are tender and the syrup has reduced some.  Cool and store in a jar in the fridge.

Craving kumquats without the bean? Try Elise’s Candied Kumquats or get fancy with some of Cannelle et Vanille’s Candied Kumquat and Pistachio Financiers.

Thank you, with dill.

Hi.  I want to thank you guys for all the lovely comments and emails last post.  You guys are great for putting up with my complaining.  I’d like to thank you with a fresh, springy, picklely side dish: marinated yellow squash and green beans with dill.  It may not sound like the best thank you gift, but it’s made with my very best olive oil and a fabulous sherry vinegar and with lots of love from me. (Yes, Mr. Colicchio, love is an ingredient, here.)

It’s a really nice spring dish but an even nicer spring is being a fickle lover over here on the east coast dish; the vinegar adds a nip and a kick but the oil smooths everything over and warms you up.  And dill is such a happy, spring herb, isn’t it?  I made this with all the unused fresh vegetables we had from the weekend (Jim got sick and when that happens in this house we like to order take-out sushi and crawl up together on the couch until it passes.).

I julienned the squash mainly because I have a cool little one-purpose tool (I otherwise loathe one-purpose tools but this one is small and handy) that I don’t get to use often enough.  I don’t know how you julienne but this is how I do it: with my little orange julienner; his name is Howard and he makes quick work of a squash.

There’s a bit of prep-work involved in this thank-you dish (it’s sounding less and less like a thank you…), and though a tool like Howard would help, you could do this all with a trusty knife.  Julienne the squash, trim the green beans, and slice the mushrooms.  After that’s done, you’re practically there.  Blanch the vegetables quickly in boiling water, drain, and add to a vinagairette of sherry vinegar, your best olive oil, dill, and scallions.  Let it cool for an hour or so—I put mine out on the porch in the cold spring air—then season again with more salt, pepper, and dill.  And there you have it; thank you, with dill.

Marinated Squash and Green Beans

serves 4 – adapted from Saveur

We had this with some codfish lightly battered in flour and Urban Accents Pride of Prague spice blend, which has notes of paprika, fenugreek, dill, caraway, nutmeg, and pepper.  Very delicious.

  • 3 or so yellow squash
  • 1.5 pounds green beans
  • a few handfuls of button mushrooms
  • 4-5 scallions, chopped
  • fresh dill, to taste
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 good olive oil
  • salt, pepper

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Julienne squash and set aside.  Trim green beans and cut in half crosswise (or lengthwise if you don’t mind the extra work).  Slice mushrooms.  Once the water is boiling, add vegetables and blanch for a minute or two.  Drain well, trying to rid of any extra water—shaking the colander around helps.

In a medium bowl, add all the vegetables while they are still warm, then add the vinegar, oil, dill and scallions.  Salt and pepper.  Let cool for an hour or longer.  Season with more dill, salt, or pepper to taste.  Serve with a drizzle of that good olive oil.

Braised asparagus.

I have no idea how to plan my wedding.  I don’t even know where to start. I don’t know when I’d like to have it, even, and Jim foresees a wedding a bit farther in our futures than I do; though I’m not, honestly, even sure of that—I’m not sure that I don’t want to have a long engagement, except for the nervous but-does-that-leave-enough-wiggle room-in-my-engaged, married for a handful of years before having kids-life plan? and I’m not a life planner. I don’t even know that I want kids.

Getting engaged makes me feel ridiculously ill-prepared for adult life and I’m honestly running on the knowledge of things I’ve seen on TV and the ability to stick fingers in my ears, clamp my eyes shut, and hum until it all goes away.

Though I only feel that way when I start wedding planning; when my heart starts beating a little bit too hard, and I begin to sweat.  Because I can go all day thinking about the food and the fun we’ll have but the logistics, I’m not ready for them yet.  So for now, I’ll stick to braised asparagus and that warm, comforting feeling that I’m a fiancée who will be able to make a damn-good dinner for her husband, even if she needs to stick fingers in her ears, clamp her eyes shut, and hum over everything else.

Braised asparagus can surely comfort and it’s especially good for these cold spring days we’ve been having, when braised asparagus with slices of gruyère is much more appropriate than quickly blanched stalks with lemon.  By braising, you get all of that deliciously woodsy asparagus flavor, it’s just a little quieter, sleepy maybe.  The dark green color is a good indication of the taste—darker than quickly cooked asparagus, less biting but deeper too.  And really, really good.  Good enough to make me feel a little weepy and happy that I have some braised asparagus around to give me a warm, green hug.  (Though nothing beats a hug from my fiancé.)

Braised Asparagus with Gruyère Cheese

serves 2-4

  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 1 big shallot
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup water
  • salt, pepper
  • gruyère cheese
  • parsley, tarragon, basil, or mint, optional

Trim asparagus, peeling the ends if they are large stalks.  Mince shallot and garlic together.

Heat butter in a pan with a lid over medium-high heat, add shallot mixture and cook for a minute, until they are softened.  Add asparagus, water, and season with salt and pepper then cover pan with lid.  Cook until asparagus are very tender, 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice gruyère very thinly, using a cheese slicer or y-shaped vegetable peeler if you have one.  Chop herb or your choice, if using.

When asparagus is tender, transfer to a plate, pour remaining shallots and sauce over, and arrange cheese slices on top.  Season with herbs, salt, and pepper to taste.

Celery Root and Okra Dal.

I’ve been hiding a recipe from you.  This is my second year of making it too, and I’ve made it more times than I can remember.  Dal.  Or I suppose that’s what it is, though I’m a real amateur at Indian cooking and I’ve never had an aficionado give me the thumbs up on whether this constitutes a real dal.

I’m not sure it’s authentic. I’m slowly turning away from the pursuit of authenticity, anyway.  I know I love this celery root and okra dal and that’s enough for me.  And I know that celery root is the star here, whether it belongs or not; it’s the reason why everyone I serve this to loves it so much.  It’s less bracing than celery stalks, brighter and fresher tasting—which is a lot to say, since it’s stewed for quite a while.  Sitting in a bowl with earthy, dense lentils, sticky okra, and cooked-down tomatoes, a fresh, bright component like celery root really does a lot.

Which is not to say the other players don’t matter.  If celery root is Michael Jordan, then okra is Scottie Pippen (Jim just gave me that metaphor, and I’m trusting him on it.)  If okra is Scottie Pippen, then the tomatoes are a player that none of us remember but who was actually quite a lot of help to the team.  Red lentils also made a few baskets.  Even the mire-poix of onions, peppers, and carrots can play a good defense.  I’ve taken this metaphor too far.

But you know what I’m saying.  My dal is the perfect balance, at least in my eyes.  Spicy, filling, a touch sweet, bright, with a lovely scent of garam masala.  Perfect on its own atop basmati rice.  Perfecter with a fried egg on top.  Great for vegetarians, but you’d be downright dumb not to serve this to anyone who likes food.

I like to slice up my okra—which is a bit of a slimy mess—and combine them in a bowl with diced tomatoes, some spices and white vinegar, and after it sits for 15-20 minutes, add it to the dal.  Pressed for time or energy, though, you could just add the okra and tomatoes straight to the dal with a splash of vinegar.

Celery Root and Okra Dal

Season to your tastes at the end.  Add more spices, more jalapeno, some hot sauce, whatever suits you.  The good part of throwing authenticity to the wind is you never need to sacrifice your tastes.

  • 3 tablespoons ghee, butter, or olive oil (or a combination)
  • 1 celery root, diced
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 1/2 cups red lentils, washed and picked over
  • 6 cups water or vegetable stock (1 cube vegetable boullion if using water)
  • 1/2 pound okra, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 3-4 small hothouse tomatoes, diced
  • cilantro

Heat ghee, butter, or oil in 6 quart dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat.  Once melted, add celery root, onions, green pepper, carrots, jalapeno, and garlic.  Cook for 10-15 minutes, or until softening and beginning to brown.  Add garam masala, salt, and cumin and cook a few minutes more, stirring.  Add red lentils, stirring to mix, and then the water or stock.  Lower heat and cook, halfway covered, for about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, add okra and tomatoes.  Mix in garam masala, paprika, vinegar, and sugar.  Let marinate in the fridge until the lentils are cooked.

When lentils are done to your liking, add okra mixture and heat through.  Serve on basmati rice with lots of cilantro, a drizzle of olive oil, and maybe a fried egg on top.  Since it gets better with age, try to leave some leftovers for lunch.

Happy, warm, and hungry. Baby potatoes with tarragon.

This is a hardly a recipe; it’s more of a warning:  If you do not make these potatoes, your life will have a teeny-tiny potato void in it, halfway between your heart and your stomach.  It might not seem like much, being so teeny-tiny and all, but I assure you, it will sting.

I didn’t even know I had this void before last night; it was, I’ll admit, easily filled with all the other potatoes that I had braised for countless dinners before.  Those potatoes, with their crispy, browned skins and mashed-potato-y white interiors, are enough to please.  It’s easy not to go looking for more when you already have such a good thing.

Thankfully, more found me yesterday afternoon, in one of my favorite places (second only to my screened-in third-floor porch on the first warm day, when winter seems behind me), my butcher’s.  Just thinking about my butcher’s, which has been written up twice by the New York Times, makes me feel happy, warm, and hungry.  The two butchers, Emil and Joe, may seem stand-offish at first, but ask them about their meat, or tell them the recipe that you’re planning, and let them lead the way for you, and they soften right up.  Become a loyal customer, and you get smiles and jokes and that happy, warm feeling I’m talking about. (You also get a bit of a panicky, distressed feeling because they are pretty old and may be retiring and you don’t know what you would do without them.)  They always know the best cut to use, and their meat is the best.  They’ve got eggs from their farm and hand-picked grocery items.  And yesterday, they had teeny-tiny baby potatoes with yellow flesh that proved beyond creamy, with soft, thin skins.

We bought almost all of them—leaving only about half a pound, because I felt guilty and another customer was leaning menacingly over my shoulder as I pillaged the goods.  I had already decided to braise them on the stove-top, in a little olive oil and tarragon, before we left the shop.  I didn’t yet know how good they’d be.

The braising method, it turned out, was fantastic.  I’m sure it’s the best method to cook these young, creamy potatoes; they brown a little but are left mostly unadulterated.  I’ll never be certain if it’s the best method, however, because I’m sure I’ll never try them another way.  They were perfect.  The tarragon braises down and imparts a nutty—not anise-y as it does raw—flavor.  The result is not quite crispy but brown on the outside, a little nutty, and oh so, ohso solidly creamy and buttery and golden on the inside.  We ate them with our fingers, alongside seared scallops and arugula, and it was one of the best meals we had ever had.  Just thinking about it, I feel happy, and warm, and hungry.

Braised Potatoes with Tarragon

serves 2 to be honest, 4 if there’s a lot of will-power involved

If you can find teeny-tiny baby potatoes, which look a lot like fingerlings, use those.

  • 2 pounds of the teeny-tiniest potatoes you can get your hands on
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • about 10-15 leaves of tarragon, chopped or torn up
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • water

In a (preferably nonstick) pan, warm your olive oil over medium heat.  Scatter your potatoes, the pan should be big enough that you don’t need to overcrowd, with the potatoes hardly overlapping (a little is ok).  Throw your tarragon, salt and pepper in.  Add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes.  Cover the pan and cook for about 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, checking at about 15 minutes in case they’ve cooked quickly.  Take the lid off the pan and cook until the water evaporates, stirring very gently with a spoon or silicone spatula so that the potatoes brown on all sides.  Serve hot, with a drizzle of olive oil.