Sunday, January 27, 2013

Broccoli's Moment

It's nearly impossible to go to a restaurant these days without seeing kale or Brussels sprouts on the menu in some iteration -- braised kale, roasted Brussels sprouts, kale chips, or even both shaved raw into a salad. Coaxed out of their inherently disagreeable states with tart dressings or a blast of high heat and fat, they've become as ubiquitous as the requisite roast chicken or short rib entree.

While untreated kale can be bitter and as texturally appealing to the palate as sandpaper, and anyone who has had steamed Brussels sprouts can attest that they are not necessarily a picnic in the park either, both are experiencing a moment. Gone are the stigmas from childhood. Even devout burger-loving, pork-rib-eating carnivores have pledged allegiance to the great green vegetables -- particularly when they are cooked in, well, bacon fat.

But this is what we do.
We go crazy for an ingredient or preparation and suddenly it's fried pig's ears and 63-degree eggs and sunchokes everywhere until someone declares that 64-degree eggs are even better, and that salsify is the new sunchoke, and that frying pig's ears doesn't change the fact that they're still... pig's ears.

Yet even with the capriciousness with which we move from one food item to the next as if we're afraid that by liking romanesco for more than a month we'll lose our street cred, there's one ingredient that has yet to have its moment on the modern gastronom's plate.


As the directive "Eat your broccoli!" would suggest, the cruciferous vegetable does not enjoy a particularly favorable reputation. The victim of too many overzealous steam-treatments at the hands of too many parents trying to force-feed some form of nutrient upon their offspring, it seems destined to a fate as one of the most abhorred of health foods.

Sure it can be found fairly regularly on standard restaurant menus in more-or-less the same form that perpetuated its loathed status to begin with, but its appearance is rare on the farm-to-table, seasonal, gastro-fill-in-the-blank, small plates restaurants that are currently ruling the culinary roost. It isn't being massaged with oil and roasted beyond recognition or shaved into a "Caesar" salad, because, quite simply, people don't get excited about broccoli.

Yet if there was ever someone capable of turning the tide on broccoli it would be Nancy Silverton -- a woman who catapulted LA into the spotlight as a serious pizza town with her transfixing crusts and bewitching toppings at Pizzeria Mozza. Goat cheese, bacon, roasted garlic, and leeks. Squash blossoms oozing ricotta.

And yes, broccoli.

But not just any broccoli, of course. Painstakingly slow-cooked broccoli, braised for two hours in a slurry of translucent onions and garlic slivers until all traces of bitterness are relaxed away and the florets turn an alarming swampy green. In any other restaurant or kitchen the offensive color would be a visual cue to immediately head toward the nearest exit, yet here, the color means it's there. It's reached that transcendent stage where it ceases to be the ugly step-sister of the vegetable world and becomes "Broccoli!" exclamation point -- the thing that you find yourself eating out of the pan, lazy onions tethering themselves around your fingers as you try to reconcile how this could be... broccoli.

You'll toss it with pasta, top it with a fried egg, or pile it onto a piece of toast  with shards of pecorino and lemon zest until you can barely detect the bread underneath.

And you won't care that it's not trendy. You won't care that everyone else at the farmer's market is snatching up the kale and Brussels sprouts. You'll be making a bee-line for the broccoli, because this, this is broccoli's moment.

Slow-Cooked Broccoli
Adapted from Nancy Silverton

Notes: I'd heard rumors about this broccoli -- awed whispers around the blogosphere and LA dining circuit, but it wasn't until a recent trip to Short Cake at the Original Farmer's Market that I experienced it for myself. The slow-cooked broccoli was heaped upon a piece of toasted La Brea Bakery bread, and ensconced in bechamel and aged white cheddar cheese to form the kind of open-faced sandwich that puts all others to shame. Transfixed, I immediately set out to replicate the life-changing broccoli for myself at home.

This recipe takes patience, so don't endeavor to make it when you are already hungry or don't have a good two hours to kill before eating. That said, if time is an issue, the process can be significantly shortened by covering the pan. But part of what makes this recipe so special is the care that goes into it. Broccoli has never had it better.

2 fresh, meaty heads of broccoli
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, sliced into paper thin slivers
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Lemon juice, lemon zest

Cut the broccoli into neat florets, leaving about 1-inch of the stalk still intact. Slice heartier florets in half or into thirds so all the pieces are roughly the same size. Using a steamer or salted pot of water, lightly steam the broccoli for approximately 2 minutes, or until broccoli turns bright green. Drain broccoli and rinse with cold water, then pat dry.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat the tablespoon of olive oil over medium high heat. Once hot, add the onion, garlic, broccoli, and salt. Stir together, then reduce the heat to low, and cook broccoli, stirring occasionally for 1 1/2 to 2 or more hours, until it turns an offensive muddy green. Sprinkle with red chili flakes to taste, and cook for another 5 or so minutes. Before serving, finish with a touch of lemon juice and/or lemon zest to brighten the flavors.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Red Rice and Quinoa with Orange and Pistachios: Wiped clean

The urge is almost overwhelming.

I stare down at the text message that has been idling on my phone for the past seven and a half minutes, my brain cycling over the words I want so badly to scream in all capital letters.

"A headache? A HEADACHE?!?! Where did you come up with that one? The book of Worst Excuses to Cancel a Date Ever?!?! Who are you... Patricia Heaton on 'Everybody Loves Raymond'?!?!?!"

Instead, I find myself going along with the proposed scenario, pretending that he really did wake up that morning with a headache, and that it really had been getting worse all day, and that he was currently holed up in his apartment with a cold cloth over his eyes, screaming, "Why, Lord, why!" because he couldn't meet me for a burger.

Momentarily stifling my irritation, I begin typing "Bummer!", then pause and delete the word.

I stare at his message again. His casual, "Hi Diana!" signed off with a friendly exclamation point that makes me want to tear his head off, then eat fava beans and sip a nice Chianti.

"You aren't allowed to use cheery exclamation points when you are being an asshole!" I want to say in size 48 font. With LOTS of exclamation points. Big red angry ones that take up an entire screen on an iPhone.

But I can't, of course. Calling him out, letting him know that *I know* he's a liar with elfin-shaped ears to boot, would only further justify his (obviously irrational) reasoning for canceling on me in the first place.

"Oh no!  Sorry to hear!" I punch out finally, deciding it sounds slightly less like I'm disappointed that I won't see him than a simple "Bummer!", and more like I'm just concerned for his well-being as he is clearly sprawled out on his bed in a dark room completely devoid of all noise and stimuli.

I hit the send button, loathing myself for feigning sympathy almost as much as I loathe him for not coming up with something more creative than "I have a headache." At least a well-crafted lie about his dog Gobbles eating his neighbor's poinsettia plant and requiring immediate veterinary assistance, or a family emergency in Canada, or even a friend going through a really bad breakup who has threatened to eat an entire box of Sprinkles red velvet cupcakes if he doesn't come over immediately to watch The Notebook with her.

"Yeah, I'm sorry! It would have been fun! :/" He responds a few moments later, completely eradicating the slim, minuscule possibility that he might *actually* have a headache.

There's no mention of rescheduling, no mention of being DEVASTATED he didn't get to see me, no groveling for my forgiveness for leaving me sans Saturday night plans a mere two hours before our date.

I want to punch his uneasy emoticon right in the forward-slash. He could at least throw me an unhappy face. Preferably an unhappy face with a well-placed comma to indicate that he is crying -- nay sobbing -- over his transgression and really is sorry and really did think it would have been fun.



"S'ok...I hope you feel better!" I type, hoping that by not bothering to write out the full "It's ok," I'll come across laid back and cool, man, because clearly I could care less if we go out tonight or ever. I am definitely not thinking about how I want to gouge his eyeballs out with my hot pink Tweezermans. Nor how I'm going to write about it on my blog.

I would never do that.

"Thanks!" He replies, equally, infuriatingly, nonchalant.

Glaring at his final, definitive nail-in-the-coffin of our nascent courtship, I delete the text conversation, then his number from my phone.

Wiped clean.

A fresh slate.

Ready to move on to the next one.

Red Rice & Quinoa Salad with Orange and Pistachios
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi via Food & Wine
Serves 4

Notes: This is the type of cleansing salad that is appropriate after the holidays - a way to start the year off on the right, fresh note and undue some of the damage inflicted by excess consumption of cashew butterscotch bars. Think of it like wiping the slate clean... deleting the holiday carnage and moving forward into 2013 without being hindered by the past.

It's also just really good. The chew of the rice contrasted with the more delicate quinoa, the aggressive bite of the raw green onions, and sharp acidity from the orange  -- it's the type of thing that you eat and instantly feel better for doing so. A juice cleanse without having to actually drink the juice.

I made a few adaptations to the original -- using red onion instead of white, adding a touch of white balsamic vinegar, halving the amount of rice/quinoa while using the same amount of dressing (made with less olive oil, natch), and increasing the proportion of arugula. It works as a side, but for a more filling entree, I've taken to throwing in a can of chickpeas. I suspect that some cubes of leftover roast chicken would also do quite nicely.

1/2 cup red rice, rinsed well
1/2 cup quinoa*, rinsed well
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Zest of one orange
1 small garlic clove, grated
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt, freshly ground pepper
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon white balsamic vineagar
12 dried apricots, diced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup pistachios, toasted
2 cups arugula

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the rice and a pinch of salt, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until rice is tender. Drain and set aside.

While the rice is cooking, bring a little less than one cup of water to a boil in a separate saucepan. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes or until the water has been absorbed. Fluff with a fork and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, combine the orange juice, orange zest, grated garlic, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Whisk to combine, then whisk in the olive oil. Set aside to let the flavors blend.

Heat the teaspoon of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat. Once hot, add the onion, reduce the heat slightly, and saute for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so or until lightly caramelized. Stir in the vinegar and turn off the heat.

In a large bowl, combine the cooled rice, quinoa, red onions, green onions, apricots, and arugula. Toss with the dressing then serve, sprinkled with pistachios.

[*Yes, I've read The Guardian article about quinoa.]

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Kale and Brussels Sprouts Salad: Pucker up

It's probably not a good idea to bring a salad coated in a dressing made with raw shallots and garlic to a New Year's Eve party.

Unless, of course, you're going to an orphans' New Year's Eve party where the only lip smacking conducted will involve slurping raw oysters.

Not that I even eat raw oysters.

Or at least I didn't in 2012. 

I spent my last moments of the year with one of my best friends, her boyfriend and two of their friends at a home in Hollywood. Huddled around a picnic bench-style table weighted down with wine, we were a motley crew drinking Grand Cru.

There was cheese demanding to be swaddled in the accompanying slivers of French bread that disappeared far more quickly than would seem plausible for merely five people. There was toro sashimi strewn over a pink Himalayan salt block, quivering for the decisive grasp of a pair of chopsticks. There were roasted Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, glistening with fish sauce vinaigrette. And there was this raw shredded kale and Brussels sprouts salad, aggressively punctuated with grated pecorino, shards of chopped almonds and a dressing pungent enough to keep both Edward and Jacob at bay.

It was all so random
, like a mixed tape blending Justin Bieber with AC/DC, yet somehow completely fitting to cap off a year that transitioned from high highs to low lows without so much as a transitionary chorus. Or high-pitched squeak from the Biebs.

We barely noticed when the clock started to inch closer to midnight. And we certainly couldn't be bothered to think about what we'd resolve to do in the year idling just minutes before us.

We ate more cheese. We drank more wine. We apathetically counted down the last ten seconds of 2012 with our glasses hovering in the air at half-mast.

And then we  collapsed on the couch, a motley crew exhausted from a New Year's Eve perfectly spent. 

Kale and Brussels Sprouts Salad
Lightly adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 8-10

Notes: I didn't do much to disturb the peace of this near-perfect-as-is recipe that the Bon App editors have rightly declared a sleeper hit. My only amendments were with the proportions -- using a few more sprouts and less kale than is called for, and also increasing the amount of almonds, while reducing the amount of total olive oil. It's horrifically addicting for a raw kale salad, and I advise you to ensure there are plenty of people at the table to share it with so you won't be inclined to devour half the thing yourself. 

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 small garlic clove, finely grated (I used a zester)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt + more for seasoning
Freshly ground pepper
1 large bunch (or 1 1/2 bunches) Tuscan kale, thoroughly washed and dried
1-lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed with outer leaves removed
1/3 cup almonds with skins, coarsely chopped
1 cup finely grated Pecorino

Combine lemon juice, Dijon mustard, shallot, garlic, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk together until well combined, and then gradually whisk in the olive oil. Set aside to let the flavors blend.

Remove the ribs from the kale. Stack the leaves, and use a sharp chef's knife to slice the kale into thin ribbons. Remove the stems from the Brussels sprouts and slice in half. Use the same knife to cut the sprouts into equally thin ribbons.

Place kale, Brussels sprouts and 2/3rds of the cheese into a large salad bowl. Toss with the vinaigrette until evenly coated. Serve on a large platter topped with the almonds and extra pecorino.