Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

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Back in May, I talked about our decision to adjust our diets and try being mostly vegetarian for a while. It had been a rough winter, especially in the kitchen, and we were really craving fresh, crisp, flavorful fruits and vegetables. I wouldn’t say we’ve become vegetarian, because if the craving for something hearty and meaty hits, we go for it, but we’re definitely vegetable enthusiasts. I’ve really been creatively invigorated by the challenge of re-thinking what a dinner plate looks like without meat as a regular anchor. I’ve grabbed as many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits and I can find at the farmers markets and figured out what to do with them. Some experiments have worked out better than others, but even with failures, I’ve learned something new every time.

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I’ve been using a wide variety of whole grains. I have always loved brown rice with beans and whole grain grits with sautéed mushrooms and barley in vegetable soups, and it was love at first bite when we were introduced to faro in Italy. Whole grains are just so satisfying and hearty. You aren’t left feeling hollow an hour after you eat like you might after eating a salad. I’ve posted several of our favorite (and somewhat unusual) whole grain dishes hoping to encourage you to give some of these great grains a try. This wild rice with brussel sprouts is another, perfect for Fall and it would rock as a side for Thanksgiving dinner. Bear in mind that once you are comfortable with preparing the grains, they are very adaptable and great to experiment with. I love the smoky richness that the hint of bacon adds, but if you are vegetarian, leave it out and add a little smoked paprika to the pecans and sage.

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Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

serves 4 as main course, 6-8 as a side

 1 pound brussels sprouts

¾ cup wild rice

4 cups salted water plus more to cook

1 piece natural smoked bacon

1 shallot or 1 small red onion

3 teaspoons dry crumbled sage leaves (about 8-10 leaves)

¼ cup pecan pieces (or ¼ cup cooked chestnuts if you prefer)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil (approximately)

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

 the wild rice method:

Option 1: soak the rice in about 4 cups of water overnight before cooking.

 Option 2: In a large pot, bring the rice and about 4 cups water to a boil, turn the heat off and let the rice soak for about an hour.

 After an hour add a couple more cups of water to the soaking water and rice. A generous amount of water, similar to what you would use to cook pasta, will help the grains cook evenly and more quickly and evenly. Add about a teaspoon of salt bring to a rapid simmer and cook for 30-45 minutes until the kernels have begun to blossom and pop open and the rice is chewy but not hard or crunchy. Drain in a sieve and set aside.

 The sprouts:

Wash the sprouts, and with a sharp knife trim the tough ends off the stems. Cut each sprout in half and then each half into 4-5 slices. You can shred them in the shedder of a food processor or use a mandolin if you have the equipment but I like to use a knife. Slice the shallot or onion into thin half moons. Mince the strip of bacon into very small pieces.

Heat a large skillet, sauté pan or wok over medium high heat. Add the bacon pieces and a splash of olive oil. When the bacon has begun to crisp, add the onion or shallot slices and stir. When they have wilted, add the nuts and crumbled sage and stir to toast both. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Boost the heat to high and stir in the shredded sprouts a handful at a time. Stir occasionally, but give the sprouts time to have contact with the hot pan so that they will caramelize. The sprouts will turn bright green, soften and start to get a little brown on some of the edges.

 Test the tenderness of the sprouts after about 5 minutes. When they have a little browning and are still a little chewy, turn down the heat to low and stir in the drained cooked wild rice. Add a generous pinch of salt.

 While the sprouts cook, mix the mustard, apple cider vinegar and a generous amount of black pepper (½ teaspoon or more depending on how much spice you like). Once the rice and sprouts are combined, pour the mustard mixture into the sprouts and toss everything together. Let the vinaigrette warm through. Remove from the heat.

 Taste for salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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The 3 Pillars of Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of those basic all-American dishes that everyone ought to have in their recipe repertoire. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of potato salad over the years, some versions better than others, but it goes so well with so many occasions that I’ve made an effort to refine a few techniques that bring out the best in it. Seasonings (and seasons)  change, but these techniques form the three pillars of all my  potato salad:

1.  Cook the potatoes whole. I’ve cooked a lot of potatoes in my day and will say that this is the most flavor and texture preserving technique for potato salad. Good potatoes actually have a lot of flavor, and the dense waxy potatoes I use for salad have a firm, creamy texture. Peeling, cutting them up and cooking them in boiling water dilutes the flavor and the texture that I want to be a significant component in the salad. Imagine that – potatoes as a feature, rather than a vehicle for dressing in potato salad!

2. Soak the potato pieces in apple cider vinegar. To counter the creaminess of the dressing, the dense starchiness of the potatoes and the juicy crunch of vegetables, I infuse the potatoes with a flavorful acidic vinegar steam bath. It lifts and brightens the salad from a typical blandness to a subtly tangy well-balanced bite.

3. I use dashi soup powder in the dressing. This is the point at which I will tiptoe into a very hotly debated health topic: glutamate and MSG. This very interesting article in the Guardian explains the history and controversy far better and in more depth than I possibly can, but my takeaway on the topic is that glutamate is a naturally occurring flavor enhancer, found in concentrated forms in aged cheeses, kelp, fish, mushrooms and mother’s milk (yep). My preference is to use ingredients that are in their most natural usable form rather than those that are industrial by-products or manufactured compounds imitating a natural product. Sugar and salt are examples of this, rawer versions having more mineral content and flavor that more refined versions. I first heard about these dashi soup mixes from this post on No Recipes as a more natural version of the flavor enhancing properties of  MSG. So, while I know this might be a controversial topic (what food isn’t these days anyway), it is something that I happily use and feed to the people who I love.

This is my favorite basic recipe:


Bacon Dill Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

2 pieces of smoked bacon

Dressing:

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

1 small clove garlic

¼ red onion

2 ribs celery with tops

1 tablespoon dill weed

½ packet smoked bonito dashi mix

salt

fresh black pepper

Chop the bacon up and fry it. Once it is crisp and browned, remove the pieces from the fat they have rendered and set the bacon on paper to drain.

Wash the whole potatoes and cover them with an inch or two of salted water in a pot. Bring them to a low boil and cook until a sharp knife slides in and out of the center of the potato easily (given that the potatoes are cooked whole, it makes sense to try to get all of the same potatoes as close to the same size as you can). Time will vary, but start checking after 15-20 minutes.

Drain the water and let the potatoes cool just enough to be able to gingerly handle them. Cut the hot potatoes into bite sized pieces (I did eighths). Return them to their cooking pot and pour the apple cider vinegar over the potato pieces. Cover the pot with a lid and let the potatoes cool and soak up the vinegar.

While the potatoes are cooling, make the dressing. Mix the mayo and sour cream in a big bowl. Grate the small clove of garlic on a microplane grater, or use a garlic press or heavy knife to mash it into a paste. There should be about ½ teaspoon of garlic, just a hint in the dressing. Mince the onion and celery and stir the garlic, onion, and celery into the mayo and sour cream. If you have fresh dill weed, take the bigger stems out and roughly chop the fronds; dried can go into the mix whole. Add half of the packet of smoky bonito soup mix. Taste the dressing for salt, and add some if needed, keeping in mind that the potatoes have been cooked in salted water. Stir everything together well.

Once the potatoes have cooled to about room temperature, put them into a big enough bowl to stir the dressing into them with out them falling out all over the place. Pour the dressing over and grind about 10 grinds worth of black pepper over everything. At this point the bacon can be mixed into the potato salad too, or it can be sprinkled over the top of each serving. Mixed in, it loses a little of its crispness, but incorporates its flavor throughout the salad. Allow the potato salad to sit, refrigerated, for 30 minutes or so before serving (it’s even better the next day).

We had it last night with thin slices of peppery hangar steak and a cool tomato cucumber salad –

Oatmeal bacon scones

Scott got home late Thursday night from a flight that tipped him over the “100k miles flown in a year” mark. He has also spent more than 60 days away for business travel this year. So last night, to celebrate his return home from what should be his last trip of the year, I cooked a steak, a baked potato, and a salad per his request. I went to Ottomanelli & Sons on Bleeker Street in the West Village to get a dry aged porterhouse and a genial hard time by the old school butchers behind the counter. I love old school butcher shops; butchers usually seem to like their jobs, enjoy giving advice, and take pride in the meat that they sell, and with good reason in this case. The steak was exceptional.

I don’t generally do a lot for breakfast; I’m not usually great at measuring ingredients first thing in the morning, but since I was on a roll with the “Welcome home Scott/ holiday baking spirit” I made an exception today and baked. Combining three of Scott’s favorites- scones, bacon, and the healthfully virtuous feeling one gets from eating oatmeal- I combined bits of lots of scone recipes and the memory of eating “pannenkoeken met spek” (pancake with bacon)  years ago in the Netherlands (and persuaded a Waffle House cook to semi-replicate by putting an order of bacon into the waffle iron with my waffle batter) into a slightly sweet, hearty, flaky, just a little salty/bacony scone.

Oatmeal Bacon Scones

yield:8-10

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup rolled oats
1 very heaped tablespoon baking powder
2 very heaped tablespoons superfine or granulated sugar (I had some vanilla caster sugar which I used)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, cut into small dice, kept very cold

1/3 cup very crisp crumbled bacon (about 3 strips depending on size and thickness)
1/2 cup buttermilk (start with 1/3 cup and then add by the tablespoon until the dough is soft but not sticky)
1 egg, beaten

Turbinado or raw sugar

Preheat your oven to 400°F

 Cook your bacon until very crisp, to the point that it shatters into little bits when chopped with a knife. Drain on paper and allow it to completely cool before chopping it.

 In a large bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients from flour to bacon and stir to get them thoroughly combined.  Add the cold butter cubes and using either a pastry blender or your fingers, work the butter into the dry ingredients until everything looks like breadcrumbs; the butter should still be a little chunky, but nothing larger than a pea.

 Whisk the buttermilk and beaten egg together and pour about ¾ of the mixture into the dry ingredients. Stir everything together, gently, just to get everything moist; try not to over-stir. If the mixture isn’t coming together into a soft dough, add the rest of the liquid in tablespoons so the dough doesn’t get too sticky.

 Turn the dough out onto a work surface. I like to use a flexible plastic cutting board for pastry because I don’t have to use extra flour to dust the surface, it allows me to move the dough onto the baking sheet easily, and it’s easy to clean up. Gently knead the dough a few times into a ball, then flatten it into a disc. Using a long bladed knife or a bench scraper, cut the dough into wedges (I did 8).

Transfer the disc onto the baking sheet.  It should still look like a disc with the wedges cut into it. Sprinkle the top generously with raw sugar crystals for a little sweet crunch on the top.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until the scones look like the epitome of Golden Brown and Delicious. Serve hot (or cold, either way they are delicious!)

Collard Greens- Southern Food Challenge 2

 

Driving through the Southern country side in the winter:  black trees, bare and sharp against a pearly sky like Japanese ink paintings, maybe the lucky surprise flash of a scarlet cardinal; tawny fields with folds and furrows like the creased hide of a sleeping lion. It’s beautiful and restful in its monotony of winter-softened color, nothing to jar the eye but the occasional murder of black crows, or the pounce of a rusty hawk on some unwary rodent-until late Winter when the forsythia and quince suddenly explode like firecrackers and take your breath away for a second.

Even the winter gardens sitting lonely beside older homes have a subtlety, an unkempt bed-head look to them; mostly left to their own devices while their gardeners stay in the warm indoors, they are patches of root vegetables and earthy greens that burnish and sweeten with a little frost. Collards, with their dusty chalkboard-green leaves like well-worn old leather are the beauties of the bunch. They are Brassica like cabbages and broccoli; the leaves are braised, traditionally with smoked meat seasoning, until they are meltingly tender. Scott likes them with apple cider vinegar mixed into the pot liquor in his bowl; I like them with sriracha sauce (yes, green top, rooster- that one).

 

 

Since most of the work of cooking collard greens is in the preparation, I always make a big potful and freeze the leftovers for a busy day. I fill the kitchen sink with enough water to float all of the leaves so that any dirt or grit can sink to the bottom and then swish and wash the leaves really well, checking for ugly leaves and little creatures that may have tucked themselves into the bunches (this is probably more critical if you are growing them yourself- we found plenty of little caterpillars on the greens we brought in from our garden last year). I usually slice out the fibrous stems, cut the leaves in half long ways and stack them up like bundle of  dollar bills to cut them across into wide ribbons.

Meanwhile, in a big stock pot, I bring about a quart of water to a simmer. I don’t always use the same meat, but something with a little fat and some deep smoky flavor – diced bacon, smoked ham hock, a ham bone, or smoked turkey legs. While I’m cleaning and cutting up the leaves, I let the meat simmer in the water, covered with a lid, to start infusing the broth. Because I love their smoky heat, I usually throw in a dried chipotle or two. I add the greens and a little salt, clap the lid on again and let them collapse in the heat, with an occasional stir, checking they don’t steam out of liquid, slowly braising them to tenderness.

 

 

I usually like my vegetables on the crisp side- not the stereotypical “boiled to death” green beans and carrots and peas and spinach that give vegetables a bad name. But collards are an exception: like a tough, lean veal shank reaches its apotheosis as osso bucco after a long gentle braise, so the relatively fibrous collard leaves become rich and tender and flavorful. I don’t mean boiled though, a low simmer really, and I use a minimal amount of water so the flavor of the greens isn’t diluted too much. If I’m using anything but bacon, I’ll get tongs and pluck the bone out of the pot toward the end and shred the meat off to add back into the greens.

We’re still sort of in that “mud season” between winter and spring up north;  the Union Square Greenmarket stalls carry parsnips and turnips and cold storage apples (and I got sleet burn on my face last time I was there). I’m beginning to crave something sharp and fresh and green but for now I’m taking advantage of the last of the gifts of the winter and making a pot of collard greens. It’s especially good with beans and cornbread.

Collard Greens

what I put in the pot

2 bunches of collard greens (or more, if they are stingy bunches)

about a quart of water

3 slices of bacon, diced, or

2 small smoked ham hocks, or

1 meaty ham bone, or

1 nice big smoked turkey leg

salt, to taste (start with 1 1/2 teaspoons of flaky Kosher or sea salt)

1 or 2 dried chipotles

 

Braise over gentle heat for at least 45 minutes for a big pot, until the leaves are tender, but are not so cooked as to disintegrate when stirred.

 

Cauliflower mac and cheese

The more perceptive reader may have concluded rightly that I am a fan of cheese. In fact, while we were in the Netherlands and Belgium, it wasn’t the chocolate shops that I wandered blissfully through, eyes alight, heartbeat elevated! The scope and variety of cheese was a revelation- aged Gouda, epoisse, geitenkass both young and old- and I happily tasted my way through.

While a simple homemade macaroni and cheese is bliss, this is a recipe that makes it into a little more of a rounded one-dish meal. I recommend a snowy night, a fire in the fireplace, and a bottle of dry white wine to go with.

1 head cauliflower

2-3 slices of bacon cut into ¼ inch strips

2 tablespoons flour

¼ cup Marsala wine

½ teaspoon salt, plus salt to cooking water

1 ½ to 2 cups milk

4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese and Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

6 ounces of macaroni, penne, or whatever tube pasta you like.

Preheat the oven to 350°

Fill a big pot with salted water and get it boiling over high heat.

Break the cauliflower into florets. Add it all at once to the fiercely boiling water and then bring the water back up to temperature. Cook the cauliflower for about 1 minute, just until it is still a bit crisp. Drain it into a colander very thoroughly. Remember, water has no flavor, so you don’t want the cauliflower to water down the sauce. Leave it in the colander to finish draining while you busy yourself with the rest of the dish.

Alternatively, the cauliflower can be broken up and roasted in the oven for about 20 minutes. This takes longer, but has the benefit of concentrating, intensifying, and sweetening the cauliflower’s flavor.

In a heavy saucepan or large skillet, cook the bacon until it is crisp and browned. Then remove it from the pan and drain it on a paper towel.  Leave about 1-½ tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and sprinkle the flour into the pan, stirring to form a roux. Cook, steadily stirring, over medium heat until the flour becomes fragrant and golden brown. Pour in the Marsala wine and stir it into the roux. It should foam up and hiss and sizzle; reduce until almost all the liquid is evaporated and the flavor is concentrated.  Slowly whisk in the milk, stirring to remove any lumps. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.  By this, I mean that your spoon should have a coating of sauce that does not immediately fill in the track left when you run your finger across it.  Taste for salt. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated cheese.

Cook the pasta to slightly underdone in salted water. Drain it thoroughly. Add the cauliflower and bacon to the pasta and stir them together. Pour the cheese sauce over and mix gently, until all of the pasta and cauliflower is enveloped in the creamy, cheesy sauce.   Bake in a buttered ovenproof dish at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbly throughout. I use a dish with low sides to up the crusty golden brown top to creamy luscious interior ratio. Grate a little bit of cheese over the top and return to the oven until the top is melted and golden.

Please don’t feel bound by my cheese recommendations- I recommended a couple of readily available favorites. Fontina, or Gruyère melt beautifully and are full of flavor. My only caution is that milder cheeses such as Monterey jack, Colby, or mild cheddar may not offer enough to give the sauce the flavor desired.