Towards the Light

coming home

December already. I can’t believe we’re closing out another year, though for many reasons, I’ll be happy to put this one behind us. I’ve been struggling with the weather already, crawling stiff-limbed out of bed, heading out to the bus stop each morning swaddled in layers, returning home in darkness, cheeks red and fingers numb, guided by twinkling holiday lights to the warmth of our kitchen.

I’ve been cooking a lot, not that you’d know it by coming here, mostly big pots of brothy things, soups and stews to force the chill from my bones, but very little of it has been noteworthy. Most dishes have been comprised of odds and ends foraged from the freezer and pantry, from leftovers repurposed, from trying to stretch a protein over a series of meals. We’ve been tightening our belts even more than before, in anticipation of the holidays but also of necessity. We’ll scrimp more now so we can splurge a bit at Christmas.

cabbage

And with the exception of one glorious night out with dear friends recently, we’ve been staying in. I don’t mind it so much – I’m a homebody at heart – but I do find that I have really been missing the spark of inspiration I get from a good meal out, the way a chef will work with an ingredient, pair it with something unexpected, or prepare it in a new (to me) way. I feel like I’m in a rut, my taste buds in hibernation, my creativity lacking.

Dinner: December 9, 2010

I did, however, have a minor breakthrough last night with a pasta dish that I’ve been trying to recreate forever (or at least since February of 2008), a simple mix of spaghetti with savoy cabbage, pancetta, and pecorino cheese that I first tasted at A Voce in NYC. I’ve played with this preparation over the years with varying levels of success, and while I’ve come close in the past, I think I finally nailed it. The key, I think, was to really hammer the cabbage, to wilt it down to silky strands, almost caramelizing it, rendering it soft and sweet and utterly delicious. I added a tiny knob of butter too, which rounded out all of the flavors, allowing the salty pecorino and flecks of freshly cracked pepper to really dance on your tongue. This may not have been the prettiest dish, but the flavors really sang, and it was so good we had seconds.

No-sweat Cooking, Day 5

Vietnamese Chicken Salad

31 dishes, 31 days – I’m cooking my way through Melissa Clark‘s “No-Sweat Cooking” from the August issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray. And to those of you who made your way over here via rachaelraymag.com, welcome!

I love remixing leftovers, so when planning out my first week of No-Sweat Recipes, I decided to schedule this Vietnamese Chicken Salad to take advantage of the leftover roast chicken from Tuesday night’s Chicken Tonnato.

local + exotic

This is exactly the kind of recipe I love – fairly free-form, easily adaptable to individual taste, and far, far more than the sum of its parts. This salad was a real celebration of the bounty of our farmers’ markets, as everything but the lime juice and fish sauce came from either the Hope Street market at Lippitt Park, or from the Boston Public Market in Dewey Square.

my own "coleslaw mix"

I opted to skip the coleslaw mix and shred some locally grown cabbage and carrots I had on hand instead, and I added scallions and slivers of fresh chile pepper to the mix as well. This was easily the most delicious thing we’ve eaten during this project so far, the sassy dressing playing off the crunchy vegetables and bits of moist chicken. I served our salad on a bed of soft butter lettuce leaves which I ended up using to scoop up bites of the salad, and I tossed the leftovers with softened cellophane noodles for a future lunch. Mike said he’d happily eat this once a week for as long as the ingredients are in season, and I’m right there with him. Great stuff, and it couldn’t be easier to put together.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad

Get the recipe: Vietnamese Chicken Salad

Buffalo Stance

Dinner: July 13, 2010

(To those of you who have found your way over here via thekitchn, welcome!)

The mercury has dropped a bit in the last week, but I’m still stuck on big, bright, crunchy salads for dinner. I’ve accumulated a ton of gorgeous vegetables between our regular Saturday farmers’ market in Providence and the two I spin through in Boston during the week, and I really can’t think of a better way to put them to use.

Buffalo-style chicken salad

I’ve made a variation of this salad for years, with planks of chicken either breaded and fried or simply grilled or roasted, tossed with my version of “wing sauce” and served with lots of crunchy vegetables and my homemade buttermilk blue cheese dressing (the sauce and dressing recipes can be found here). Last night’s version had its chicken fried crisp, served on a bed of butter lettuce from Kimball’s Fruit Farm, shredded red cabbage, sliced radishes and shredded carrot (also from Kimball’s), chunks of juicy, ripe Woodstock Farm tomato, and cutting celery from our garden (via City Farm). It’s the perfect thing for when I’m craving the flavor of that classic bar snack but want a slightly lighter take on it.

More Fun with Cabbage and Bacon

Cabbage is hardly the sexiest vegetable, but I’ve grown to love it over the last few years. The trick for me was to move beyond the somewhat boring cabbage soup and ever-polarizing cole slaw, and to focus on letting the cabbage be the star. Where I really fell hard was at lunch with my friend Claudia early last year. We met at A Voce in New York City, and spent a lovely afternoon lingering over a series of shared dishes. When we got to our pasta courses, I was surprised that the one that really wowed me was a simple spaghetti with cabbage, pancetta, and pecorino. The texture of the cabbage was killer, silky and meltingly tender, and I’ve tried many times to replicate that dish, but I never got it quite right until last night.

I started with bacon from Simmons Farm, slicing a few strips into batons and crisping them in a little bit of olive oil while my pasta water got boiling in a separate pot. I removed the bacon and set it aside to drain, then added some sliced red onion and about 5 cups of thinly sliced red cabbage to the hot fat. I gave it a sprinkle of salt, tossed everything until it was coated with oil, then covered the pan and let it cook down. After 10 minutes or so, I added about half a cup of chicken stock and a few splashes of Sherry vinegar, then let it continue cooking, uncovered, until most of the liquid was reduced. I pulled my spaghetti from its cooking water when it was tender but still had a little bite, and added it to the cabbage to finish cooking. I added about two-thirds of the crispy bacon bits off the heat, along with plenty of freshly grated pecorino and cracked black pepper, and tossed it until everything was incorporated. To add a little textural contrast, I combined the remaining bacon with some fresh thyme and chopped hazelnuts, which I sprinkled on top of each serving.

In short, this was a hit. I loved getting ribbons of soft cabbage with every twirl of pasta, and that the bacon was present but subtle, and I was delighted at how beautifully the hazelnuts worked with the other flavors in the dish. I can’t wait to tuck into my leftovers for lunch.

On an unrelated note, can you help us find a home for this beautiful little cat? A local business which shall remain nameless and which used to occupy the space next door to my friend’s office relocated recently, and cruelly left her behind. It has been weeks now, and we assume they are not coming back for her. My friend has cared for her at his office since she was abandoned and reports that she is sweet and affectionate, a non-stop purring machine. He can’t keep her due to severe allergy issues, but he wants to find her the good home she deserves. If we didn’t have three already I’d grab her in a heartbeat, but perhaps you or someone you know has room in your home and heart for her. Thank you.

More Eating than Cooking

I have this really bad habit of, when I’m feeling particularly good, overextending myself to the point of exhaustion. I mean, what’s a little walk in several inches of snow, up steep hills, carrying heavy bags of food around, anyway? I’ll tell you what it is: ill-advised. It caught up with me midweek, so Mike has been on dinner duty since then. Here’s what he fed us:

Dinner:  January 7, 2009

On Wednesday night, he seasoned these baby back ribs from Pat with a dry rub overnight, then braised them with cabbage and apples in local hard cider until they were falling-apart tender. Delicious.

assembly

Dinner:  January 8, 2009

There’s this cast iron skillet pizza thing going around the internets lately. We had some on Thursday, and it was good as ever. (In fact, I think we’ll have leftovers for lunch.)

Finally, on Friday he put together one of our standards – a steakhouse supper at home. Ice cold martinis, beautifully seared grass-fed ribeye served on a bed of spinach, which it wilted with its juices, and salt-crusted baked potatoes. We topped our steaks with a little crumbly Great Hill Blue and horseradish creme fraiche. Yum.

I’m hoping to keep things low-key this weekend, rest up and get to feeling better. See you all next week!

Rolling Along

I’ve tried and tried over the years to duplicate my mom’s cabbage rolls, but despite the relative simplicity of the dish, I just haven’t been able to pull it off. If I didn’t end up with crunchy rice, the seasoning would be off, or the cabbage would be unpleasantly tough. Since our produce haul from last weekend’s farmers’ market was a bit on the paltry side, I’ve had to plan meals around what we have on hand, and last night, that head of cabbage that had been hanging out in the crisper for almost too long was calling my name.

After a quick phone call with Mom to check in with respect to the weather we were expecting and to get a bit of guidance about dinner, I got things rolling. To address the rice issue, I decided to partially cook some before adding it to my ground meat mixture. I boiled about a half cup of uncooked rice in double the amount of water, just until it was translucent at the edges, then I drained off the excess water and spread the rice out to cool. I crumbled about a pound of Bobolink’s suckled veal in a big mixing bowl (Mom uses ground beef, but we were out), and added kosher salt, plenty of freshly ground pepper, and a minced shallot to the mix. I added a good amount of dried marjoram next along with the cooled rice, and combined everything well with my hands.

bundles

Next I trimmed the cabbage and separated out some leaves. Since I had a smallish head of cabbage, it was relatively easy to scale down the dish; I think I pulled off a dozen or so leaves to blanch, which would be plenty to feed the two of us with a reasonable amount of leftovers. I dipped the leaves a few at a time into a pot of boiling salted water, then set them aside on towels until they were cool enough to handle. I mounded spoonfuls of my meat mixture in the middle of each leaf, wrapped up the sides and rolled them into little bundles, securing them with bamboo picks (our box of toothpicks has gone missing).

I placed my bundles into a lightly oiled Dutch oven, then covered them with some thawed roasted tomato sauce from the freezer, seasoning that with salt, garlic, a splash of white vermouth and more marjoram. I lidded up the pot, brought it to a boil, then reduced the heat to a simmer and let the cabbage rolls cook until the filling was fully cooked and the cabbage wrappers meltingly soft and translucent. At that point I pulled them out and placed them on a plate, covered them with foil, and reduced the sauce down a bit until it was thick and rich.

Dinner:  January 6, 2009

Mom always served cabbage rolls with buttery mashed potatoes, and I did the same, ladling plenty of sauce all around. These were not my mama’s cabbage rolls, but they were pretty darned tasty – at any rate, they’ll have to do until I can indulge in the real deal again.