"Don't look, DiDi," She warned, her expression affixed into the very reaction she was trying to prevent me from having.
I laughed at my former college roommate's cringing face, flashing her my best attempt at an easy breezy smile. Ali had been sending me emails for the past two weeks leading up to my visit to her home in Chicago. Cryptic emails that read, "I'm nervous to cook for you. I'm worried you're going to think I'm gross."
Unsure what she meant by "gross," I pooh-poohed her concerns as completely unwarranted.
"I eat quinoa, tofu and vegetables most nights," I insisted, "I have simple tastes! I'm happy with just a big bowl of braised kale!"
I didn't realize what Ali really meant by "gross" until that moment in her kitchen when she dangled an entire cube of butter over a frying pan of melting leeks.
I tried to conceal my horror. “Well, there are 14 of us, so that’s really only like 2 teaspoons of butter a person!” I said brightly, while secretly thinking about the cup of heavy cream, generous pour of olive oil and the very unfibrous white bread that was also going into the chestnut, leek and apple stuffing.
I forced my lips into a smile. She forced hers into one too, then plopped the butter into the pan. It immediately began to bleed into the mass of gooey leeks, saturating every pleat and corner. I gulped and walked out of the kitchen, desperately fighting the urge to run over to the stove with a roll of paper towels to sop up the excess fat.
"Thank God I'm making a quinoa salad," I thought as I cemented myself to the couch, completely unaware that six hours later I'd be helping myself to my second helping of the "gross" stuffing during the dinner party -- butter, cream, oil, unfibrous bread and all.
As much as I enjoy my healthy dinners and bowls of simple braised kale, I'm not inclined to pass up a decadent dish that, like the stuffing, is worth every luscious calorie. I just usually prefer that decadence to be added sight unseen, which is why most of my indulgent dining goes on when I'm out at a restaurant. What happens in that kitchen, stays in the kitchen, and I'm quite content to dig into my meal blissfully unaware of just how many tablespoons of oil, butter and cream were used to sauce that oversized bowl of pasta.
But there are instances when I'm cooking at home that I do let my guard down and welcome the fat with an open mouth. Usually it involves a runny fried egg, Parmesan cheese or bacon.
Sometimes, like in the case of this farro with caramelized winter vegetables and ginger -- adapted from an orzo recipe on the Kitchn -- it involves all three.
I use the bacon fat to pan-roast my veggies, I reserve that same bacon fat to fry up my egg, and then I serve the whole thing topped with Parmesan and those crunchy nubs of rendered bacon bits. It gets even better when I break open the center of the egg, letting the yellow interior ooze into the cheese and bacon-studded farro. The caramelized vegetables and hearty whole grains don't stand a chance.
It's grossly good. Grossly decadent for a girl who is accustomed to bowls of kale. And totally worth looking at every glorious gram of fat that goes into it.
Farro with Caramelized Winter Vegetables, Bacon and Fried Egg
Adapted from The Kitchn
1/2 cup farro
1-2 ounces thick-cut bacon (about 2 thick slices)
1 medium sweet potato (about 1/2 pound), peeled and chopped into 1/4 - 1/2 inch cubes
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps cut into cubes
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 cups chopped kale
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
Red pepper flakes
Rinse farro well. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the farro, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer until water is absorbed -- approximately 25 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside.
Heat large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add the strips of bacon and cook until it releases its fat, flipping from side to side to ensure an equal rendering. Using a fork, remove bacon from pan and set on a paper towel to cool. Pour excess bacon fat into a small dish, leaving just enough to cover the base of the pan.
Add the cubed sweet potatoes to the pan, arranging in a single layer. Cook them over medium-high heat until they are beginning to caramelize and turn brown -- about 4 minutes. Stir about a bit and let continue to cook a few more minutes or until browned on all sides.
Turn down the heat a bit, and shove the sweet potatoes into a pile up against the side of the pan. Add the diced onions and sprinkle lightly with the sea salt (use a restrained hand as the bacon will already add a component of saltiness to the dish). Let the onions cook, stirring occasionally, until they are starting to caramelize and turn brown -- approximately 10 minutes. Stir in the minced garlic, ginger and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and let cook for a couple minutes together before shoving to the other side of the pan.
Finally, add the diced shiitake mushrooms and cook, stirring once, until they just start to release their liquid and turn brown. Add the farro and mix everything together. Then, while still over medium heat, add the vinegar and soy sauce, scraping up all the bits at the bottom of the pan. Stir together until well combined, then toss the kale over the top so the heat from the bottom lightly steams the greens while you are preparing the eggs.
Heat a large nonstick pan over medium high heat. Add enough of the reserved bacon fat so that the base of the pan is lightly greased. Carefully crack the two eggs into the pan. Sprinkle with pepper and let sit for a a couple minutes. The whites will likely run together -- that's ok. Once they have begun to set, use a rubber spatula to separate the eggs, then flip each over with a spatula to cook for another minute to two minutes.
While eggs are finishing in the pan, toss the kale into the farro mixture, then divide between two plates. Top with Parmesan and the rendered bits of bacon.
Happy Birthday to my dear friend Ali, who, for the record, is not gross at all.