Is it edible? Dinner on a bed of kale

When I was in high school, I waited tables at a local diner. By-the-Way family restaurant sat along a bare stretch of single-lane state highway, sharing its parking lot with an auto-body shop; a view of pre-fab log cabin homes, “priced affordably” “come in and check one out today”, ever-present from the front glass windows.

We served all-you-can eat spaghetti on Wednesdays and haddock crunch, battered in corn flakes, on Fridays. We served the food that grandparents and truck drivers wanted to eat, because those were the customers that filled our booths and the stools at the long counter, running the length of By-the-Way family restaurant.

Every plate we served, save for the belgian waffles towering with whipped cream and the slender slices of pie, was served with a garnish: one piece of curly green kale and one thin orange slice. The kale sat rinsed and chopped into aesthetically-appropriate hunks in a white gallon bucket next to the serving line. And every plate of food we served, save for the belgian waffles towering with whipped cream and the slender slices of pie, came back to the dishwasher with one appropriately-sized hunk of raw, green kale. This routine we repeated, on every plate, every day, for years, without ever giving it a second thought.

Until one day, a little boy inquired as I set his plate of chicken fingers and french fries in front of him: “Is this thing edible?”, holding the adornment aloft. “Ummmm, I don’t know. Let me find out.” Back to the kitchen, where I was met with a series of white-coated shoulder shrugs. “I guess you could but I don’t know why you’d want to.” I popped a piece in my mouth for good measure and shook my head in a grimace – not exactly what I’d call “edible”.

And this was everything I knew about kale. Until I got to college and discovered kale lightly sauteed with lemon, balsamic vinegar kale with slivered almonds, and raw massaged kale salad. Until I discovered that the favorite food of yogis and Vermonters was not just a plate garnish, after all. All of this is to say that I just made dinner and it was delicious. And it was cheap. And it had kale in it. So, I thought I’d share it with y’all.

Ravioli, tossed in vodka sauce, on a bed of prosciutto, kale, and pan-roasted cherry tomatoes.

Sounds fancy, right? And expensive. Fortunately, looks can be deceiving. In addition to being delicious, the second and third best parts of this meal were that it took less than 20 minutes and cost about $2. Make this dish when cherry tomatoes are on sale, and vodka sauce, and really – I promise – you only need the tiniest bit of proscuitto.

Recipe (for one, because I’m a single grad-school gal):
A handful of frozen cheese ravioli (6 or 7)
A little less than an ounce of prosciutto, minced
A few leafs of kale, ribs removed, sliced very thin
A small handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
About 1/4c of vodka sauce, enough to coat the ravioli
A dash of italian cheese, if you like

Put your water on to boil and heat a small amount of oil (olive, grapeseed, canola, whatever is on hand) in a skillet. Throw in your minced prosciutto and saute over medium heat for a minute or two. Add your kale, cooking until it starts to become tender and the bright green color comes out. Push to the side of your skillet and throw in your halved cherry tomatoes, sprinkling them with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and anything else your heart desires. Once the skin on the tomatoes starts to blister or brown, mix everything together and put it on your plate.

Meanwhile the water has come to boil, and you’ve thrown in the ravioli, which only takes three minutes to cook – because sometimes things are magic like that. The square pockets of pasta will start to rise to the top of the boil, to let you know they’re done. Strain ’em, throw ’em back in the still-hot pot, and toss to coat with vodka sauce. Pour over your kale mixture, top with a sprinkle of parm, and viola — delicious.

What makes this dish so good is its complementary flavors – the saltiness of the prosciutto, the richness of ricotta, the sweet flavor of roasted cherry tomatoes. In the right proportions the flavors complement each other, none overpowering the other.

Cheers, to a little Wednesday night indulgence and a plate full of edible kale. Happy eating!

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Strawberry Fields Forever

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Looking out over the 8×10′ plot of strawberry plants in my backyard, I can only imagine John Lennon was inspired by this very scene. Alright, alright — that’s how it feels, at least. For every square inch of space, there seem to be three ripe strawberries, begging to be plucked from the stem; the rows having long since blurred into one giant tangle of plants. It is my first day in Bloomington, IN, my new home for the next few years, and these berries have got to be a good omen. My house has no furniture, I have no job, and I know not a soul, but there is a bounty of strawberries commanding my attention.

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(Lest you know me, and love me, and are worried that my only friends are strawberries — rest assured, I now know at least 12 souls in Bloomington.)

Over several days, I harvest what I can, maybe 4 or 5 quarts, stashing them in the fridge for grazing, and browse recipes to transform their already perfect flavor. Fruit leather, I think. But, do you know how expensive parchment paper seems when you’re un-gainfully unemployed? $4 for something from the grocery store I can’t eat or imbibe? Maybe next year. Strawberry pie, I think, but the thought of trying to craft the perfect homemade crust right now makes it just unappealing enough. Finally, I settle on strawberry cobbler — berries tossed in sweetened cream with drops of biscuit dough baked on top. And? It is so good, like all the pieces of a strawberry shortcake baked into one delicious dish. Somehow totally worth the kitchen catastrophes it precipitated…

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It’s the day after making this fantastic cobbler and I am writing from the midst of its aftermath. There’s the blister burn on my right arm, the fan pointed conspicuously toward the fire alarm, and the bubbles of black sugar carbon dotting the bottom of the stove. Let’s just say I was not prepared to make a cobbler, I didn’t know. I just wandered in, tempted by the promise of deliciousness So, in case you are want to do the same, STOP, right now.

Before you chop a single berry, cut a single cube of butter, before you turn the dial on the oven, get yourself some tinfoil, or a baking sheet, or best yet, a baking sheet lined with tinfoil and place it on a rack below the place where you plan to nestle your cobbler for baking. Because, there is a very good chance that the carefully crafted filling in this dish will boil over during baking, like sugary lava in a home chemistry experiment. Turns out this is a common cobbler phenomenon. But, somehow, it’s totally worth it.

Strawberry Cobbler
Recipe from: Drick’s Rambling Cafe

For the crust
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons cold butter
3/4 cup milk (I used a little less, add slowly until you have the right consistency)

For the filling
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cream (I used half-n-half, which may have made a thinner filling but was still great)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 quarts fresh strawberries, stemmed and cut in half

For the topping
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter

Make the crust by combining the dry ingredients in a 2-quart mixing bowl. Using a pastry blender (or your fingers if short on kitchen utensils!), cut the cold butter into the mixture until it has the consistency of coarse meal. Add milk and gently knead just until a ball forms. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a 2-quart mixing bowl, combine sugar, flour, and salt for filling. Slowly whisk in cream, lemon juice and stir in the strawberries.

Place fruit in 9 x 13 inch glass baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes, or until fruit is bubbly. Stir mixture in the dish. (Mixture will look very soupy. Dont panic, don’t lose faith. It’ll all come together).

Pinch dough into quarter inch disks about the size of half dollars and place on top of berry mixture covering almost the entire surface. Dot with butter. Sprinkle with brown sugar.

Return to oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Khao Soi: Thai Curry Noodle Soup

I’m going to go out on a limb and say there is little else as comforting as curry: its warmth, its spice: sometimes subtle and sometimes a four-star alarm for your taste buds, and its offering of creamy, coconut milk-induced bliss. There are a few other foods that rival curry for comfort and one of them is surely soup, so indelibly ingrained in the memories of people accustomed to long, cold winters.

I discovered Khao Soi, a curry noodle soup endemic to northern Thailand, and it made an imprint on my palate that wasn’t quick to fade. When people inevitably ask me about the best food I tried in South East Asia, I don’t even hesitate before recalling the harmonious combination of flavors in this Burmese-inspired dish. Sometimes, I tell them about it before they even ask. ‘Hey. Do you know what’s delicious?’

Khao Soi, completed

Last week, my dad celebrated his 51st birthday and I recognized an opportunity to try my hand at making my new favorite food. After gifts, before cake, we could celebrate with bowls of Khao Soi. As I browsed the aisles of the Vien Dong neighborhood market for fresh ginger and chinese egg noodles, as I blended chili peppers and shallots to a smooth paste, as I shredded chicken that had simmered in coconut milk broth, it crossed my mind that maybe my people would hate it. After all, it isn’t exactly in their culinary wheelhouse, which would usually include the requisite birthday steak dinner. But I didn’t have a plan B, so it was Khao Soi or nothing…

People tentatively ladled polite no thank you portions into their bowls, before sitting down around a communal plate piled high with fresh cilantro, thin slices of red onion, and lime wedges. I sipped by broth, held my breath, and waited. And then, the exclamations started, the squeezes of lime, drizzles of hot sauce, and the trips to the kitchen for seconds and thirds.

Now all week, no joke, I’ve been fielding calls and text messages asking for more. I’ve ferried containers laden with leftover Khao Soi across town and now it’s gone, but its imprint remains.

Try Khao Soi. You will not regret it, guaranteed.

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KHAO SOI
Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

CURRY PASTE:

  • 4 large dried chiles, try a variety with medium heat
  • 2 medium shallots
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 1 2-inch piece of ginger
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro stems
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon tumeric (I reduced this from 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder

Place chiles in a small heatproof bowl, add boiling water to cover, and let soak until softened, 25-30 minutes. Drain chiles, reserving soaking liquid. Puree chiles and all other curry paste ingredients, with 2 tablespoons soaking liquid in a food processor, adding more soaking liquid by tablespoonfuls, if needed, until smooth.

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SOUP:

  • Hefty splash of vegetable oil
  • 2 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk
  • 3 cups chicken broth (upped from 2 cups, still a very rich broth)
  • 1.5 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, halved lengthwise
    (Great because they’re less expensive, especially when buying organic)
  • 1 pound Chinese egg noodles
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, preferably palm or light brown
  • Salt, to taste, of course
  • Sliced red onion, bean sprouts, cilantro sprigs, crispy fried onions or shallots, chili oil, and lime wedges (for serving)

PREPARATION

  • Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add khao soi paste; cook, stirring constantly, until slightly darkened, 4-6 minutes. Add coconut milk and broth. Bring to a boil; add chicken. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is fork-tender, 20-25 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate. Let cool slightly; shred meat.
  • Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions.
  • Add chicken, 3 tablespoons fish sauce, and sugar to soup. Season with salt or more fish sauce, if needed. Divide soup and noodles among bowls and serve with toppings.

The Foods of Christmas Past

Plenty is the start of a new journey for me, and when starting out what better place to begin than the beginning? We all have almost infinite beginnings, layer upon layer of starts and re-starts. For Plenty, it might be the beginning – of living history, when simple organisms began consuming for sustenance. Or it could be a mere 10,000 years ago, with the advent of the agricultural systems which so shape our world today. And for me? I trace my food roots back at least two centuries.

For more than two hundred years, my family has made their home in northern NY and French Canada, coaxing a living from the thin soils of its’ temperate forest. At the turn of the twentieth century, my great-grandparents raised 12 children while homesteading outside a tiny Adirondack town. For them, an integral part of life was maple sugaring – distilling sweet sap into valuable syrup. Every year, before the first signs of spring became evident in the snowdrops and leaf buds peeking out from freshly thawed earth, the sap would start to flow just below the bark of Acer saccharum. Tapping into the xylem of these trees would yield up to 50 gallons of sap for every gallon of syrup produced.

Today, my family make their homes in the suburbs of Central NY, seeking sustenance in the aisles and freezer sections of Wegmans. The foods of modern abundance, and convenience, stock their kitchens. Twice a year however, the women in my family return north to procure several gallons of liquid gold– Grade A maple syrup; our one tie to our centuries-old food culture.

Except at Christmas. At Christmas, we track down all the foods of Christmas past – pulling out Aunt Marie’s cookie recipes, stocking the fridge with Croghan bologna and cheese curds, and whipping up batches of maple frosting. These are the Foods of Christmas Past.They provide us with an emotional nourishment which extends far beyond the reaches of taste or convenience.  They connect us to those before us who have passed and to ways of life that seem so long forgotten. They are what we are – and it is a beautiful thing.

Recipe: Aunt Marie’s Buckeyes

Written on the recipe card: This is Aunt Marie’s version, written by her at the age of 80-something, while sitting at Mom & Dad’s kitchen table during one of her fall visits.

1 lb confectioners sugar

2 c. crunchy peanut butter

1 stick butter

3 c. rice krispies

Combine and roll into balls. Combine [and melt] 12 oz. chocolate chips and 1/3 c paraffin wax. Dip and place on paper.

See here if you (like I) wonder why we would ever add wax to an otherwise perfect food: http://www.thekitchn.com/-good-questions-43-104835.

Eat well. Cook well. Share abundantly.