Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A lot

A lot has been going on around here, in the kingdom of Rue le Sel (and hereby referred to as such), and that’s besides the whole birth of Christ ordeal and the slurry of presents that come alongside.

So (belated) Merry Christmas to all of you, readers, I hope your stockings were stuffed to satisfaction - but really, (really), I’ve been meaning to introduce you to someone, a little man that has taken up the majority of my time and sleep for the past week and has been more than welcome to do so all along. This little man:

His name is Luke and he’s a mut just like the rest of us, loves to eat, and loves even more to sleep curled up in the nook of your lap while you sit on the couch. He will live up to being a cool hand one of these days, just as soon as he acquires some appropriate-sized legs and a bit more coordination. Just you wait.

Introductions over with, I wanted to give you a short list of some of my favorite things over the past few weeks. (Other than Luke. Sorry.) In no particular order, these things have made me very appreciative. Now you can be appreciative too:

1. High Oven Heat

I can’t recall ever having thanked an appliance for correctly doing what it is hardwired to do, but I’ve decided that all needs to change. Cranked up to four hundred, four twenty five, it turns out the most delicious vegetables, just this side of burnt, coddled into carmelization. It makes it look as though those carrots on the Christmas table were a morning-long labor, when really, the oven deserves all the credit.

2. Arizona Dreaming

The spice. It’s made by Penzeys, and if you don’t have one near you, order it online. Soon. Smoky from paprika, spicy from ancho chile, this blend is good on mostly everything, but especially good on those roasted carrots I was just talking about. Seriously, if there was one lesson learned this Christmas dinner, it’s that high heat plus Arizona dreaming plus carrots equals a recipe in itself.

3. Family Heirlooms

This may sound trite, but hear me out. I remember looking at my grandmother’s silver when I was a girl. After the Doxology was sung, I would glance at it from the kid’s table, rickety and near the hutch, at Thanksgiving. It was pretty at best, but I imagined it completely useless. Later, holding an eighteenth century sterling coffee pot - five generations old - in my hands, I realize that functionality is not the point. I imagine how it held coffee after dinner all those years ago, and how now, to have it is not to hold coffee or afternoon tea, but to hold a small piece of history on your shelf, to continue in a small, sterling silver way, some kind of family lineage.

The holidays and their meals always make this lineage clearer, a glaring, twelve-place-setting reminder to be appreciative. The carrots and the spices play their part, too, helping guide generations to the same table, if not in person, than in the song sung immediately before the meal.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mother Bear and brussels sprouts

So I got this email the other day, from Pete. It had an attached document, “motherbearmenu” - presumably a menu, presumably of a restaurant named Mother Bear. The body of the email was simple, concise:

Check it.

The menu read like a Southern gastropub, heavy on the pork. It sounded awesome. I was beginning to wonder why I had never heard of this place before, when I reached the end. *We apologize but our stereo is broken and cannot be turned down,* highlighted in bold, finished up the menu. It was a tip-off.

It’s not a real restaurant. It should be, but it’s not. Well, yet, if we’re all lucky (and hungry and in need of pork fat popcorn, which everyone, always, should be).

This is all to say that I completely forgot to tell you about something I made a few weeks ago, something that made it onto motherbearmenu: brussels sprouts, these amazing, amazing little brussels sprouts, transcendent in a way you never thought something with fish sauce could be.

They’re a Dave Chang original, altered a bit by my own lack of red Thai chiles and Indian puffed rice and shichimi togarashi. Make them now. If you wait, who knows, you could see them on a menu near you sometime in the distant future.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Adapted from Dave Chang

For brussels sprouts
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For dressing
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons finely chopped mint
1 garlic clove, minced
1 (1 1/2-inch) fresh green chile, thinly sliced crosswise, including seeds

Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in upper third. Toss Brussels sprouts with oil, then arrange, cut sides down, in a 17- by 12-inch shallow baking pan. Roast, without turning, until outer leaves are tender and very dark brown, 25-35 minutes. Add butter and toss to coat.

While the brussels sprouts are roasting, stir together all dressing ingredients until sugar has dissolved.

Put Brussels sprouts in a serving bowl, then toss with just enough dressing to coat. Serve remaining dressing on the side.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Every mother's recipe box

Somewhere within every mother’s recipe box, or within the mind’s memorized equivalent of such, there is a recipe for split pea soup. It’s there, in the familiar repertoire, the regular rotation of recipes: split peas, onions, carrots, stock, and the unmistakable, iconic ham hock. A few things made me wary of this creation as a child, but none more than that large, meaty, bone-in piece of ham, waiting to be boiled all together in a melting pot of pale, yellow green. The name wasn’t the easiest to swallow, either: ham hocks. My horse, a loving companion and very much alive in the back yard, had hocks. This association was unsettling.

Texturally, the soup was a nightmare. Entirely too viscous (as compared to my familiar Cambell’s chicken noodle), muddy, slightly grainy. To pour it into a bowl was to make a sound vaguely similar to mud squishing beneath your feet, or moving sludge, or on a bad day, both. The color on its own, a green paled and yellowed as if with age, was never encouraging. I could never understand the particular way this soup was able to endure generations, the culinary heirloom of (in my opinion) far too many families.

I made a lentil soup the other day that bared too close a resemblance to the split pea soup of years past. You almost feel bad for the legumes; cooked up into a fragrant soup, with warm spices and coconut milk, they yield what is perhaps one of the ugliest dinners of all time. It certainly does not give the best first impression.

This soup is actually quite good, especially in cold weather, with its warm spices and a bit of heat, tempered and made creamy by a good dose of coconut milk. It’s even better with an egg on top - as most things are. It fails miserably on the beauty contest front, but if I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that you can’t, in good conscience, judge a soup by it’s color.

Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk

A few notes: the amount of red pepper flakes listed here is what I used, but it can really be to taste – if you like a little more heat, adjust what I used. Also, the recipe that this is adapted from called for French green lentils. I used red lentils, because that is all I had, and it came out great (the color just suffered a bit).

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
6 cups vegetable stock
1 ½ cups lentils, picked over for stones and other debris
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
A pinch of nutmeg
A few grinds of black pepper
1 ¼ cups coconut milk
¼ tsp. fine sea salt, plus more to taste

In a soup pot, warm the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is translucent. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the garlic, thyme, and the rest of the spices. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is lightly browned and very soft.

Add the stock and the lentils, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20-25 minutes, or until the lentils are soft and tender.

Add the coconut milk, and salt and pepper, and stir well. Cook for about 10 minutes more. Taste, and adjust the salt as necessary. Serve warm and with a fried egg (awesome but not necessary).