Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Whole Wheat Linguine with Kale and Sausage

Dating is a challenge.  Even if you’ve been married for 40 years, if you imagine the quest of seeking a suitable partner that will both help keep the house clean and give you butterflies in your stomach, I’m sure you will be able to flirt with the magnitude of this process.  Like most things in life, it’s usually best to enjoy the journey, instead of focusing on the end result; in dating, this means that sometimes you spend time with people that you know aren’t ultimately right for you, but you’re enjoying the ride and it’s nice to have some company from time to time.  This is exactly where I was with my last quasi-relationship, which is really a rare and beautiful place to be.  Heartbreak is not part of the equation because you’re not in love, but there also must be some sort of conclusion at some point.  Ideally, the conclusion will manifest itself in a natural and respectful manner.  I’m sure my readers are all very respectful people, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that text messages are not considered to be one of the respectful ways to end an affair, even if the premise was casual and low-commitment.  The problem was not that the involvement was concluded, but the means of message delivery was inappropriate.  I think it’s safe to say that anything beyond 3 or 4 dates requires an actual phone call, as opposed to some sort of electronically transmitted text. 
With a phone call, I would have seen said involvement as fun, and purposeful, but the text message breakup cheapened the experience.  It left a bitter taste in my mouth.  So I embarked on a three-step process to wash that man out of my hair.  The first step was to literally wash my hair; a hot shower can be a profoundly symbolic gesture in letting go of the old, and being prepared for a fresh start. Next, I got a pedicure; you can only take the missteps of others so seriously when your toenails have been freshly painted a color dubbed “Cajun Shrimp.”  Last, I indulged in a home cooked meal that was both satisfying and nourishing, and also one that I knew my former beau would not have enjoyed, but suits my taste perfectly. 
Enter whole-wheat linguine with kale and sausage.  I adapted this dish from my newest cookbook, cheekily titled “50 Shades of Kale” (completely ridiculous, I know, but I do attest that it was the most creative and compelling of the 5 kale-based cookbooks at Peppercorn, the local culinary retail Mecca of Boulder).  This dish is very simple, but it has all the best things in it: pasta, cream, white wine, garlic, crushed red pepper, sausage, and loads of kale. The recipe called for whole-wheat linguine, which is not my favorite.  In general, I feel like it’s not quite worth it; if you’re going to indulge in pasta, go for the real thing: tender, toothsome, silky strands, not their cardboard-esque, healthy cousin.  But I went against my usual stance because I felt that the hearty combination of the cream, sausage, and kale might be enough to balance out the rustic texture of the whole-wheat pasta.  This turned out to be an excellent judgment call.  This was definitely the right sauce for the job, but I also think I may have inadvertently chosen the best whole-wheat pasta on the market: Whole Foods Organic Whole Wheat Linguine.  It had the heartiness you expect from whole grains, which stands up nicely to the cream, without the woody or chalky quality that I so frequently encounter in whole-wheat pasta.  Delicious, satisfying, spicy, creamy, slightly acidic from white wine; this dish confounded the bitterness that text message left me with, and leftovers to boot.   

Whole Wheat Linguine with Kale and Sausage (adapted from 50 Shades of Kale)

1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, divided
10 ounce bunch of kale, stems removed and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup white wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 pound whole wheat linguine
Parmesan cheese for garnish

-       Cook the linguine in a large pot of salted, boiling water, al dente, per package instructions.  Reserve approximately 1 cup of pasta cooking water; drain pasta and set aside.
-       In a large skillet preheated over medium heat, sauté the sausage, breaking it apart, until cooked though.
-       Add the garlic and half of the hot pepper flakes, and sauté for 1 minute.
-       Add the kale and the white wine, scraping up any brown bits off the bottom of the pan.  Season with salt and pepper.  Sauté for about 5 minutes, until the kale is wilted, and starts to become tender.
-       Add the cream, and cook for about 5 minutes more.
-       Toss in the pasta and enough pasta cooking water to make the mixture slightly saucy.  Garnish with Parmesan cheese. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Grilled Chicken with Warm Chickpeas and Green Salad

Monday was the most glorious spring day in Boulder: mid seventies; sunny with a few clouds, alleviating the direct heat of the sun; foliage greening out before your eyes.  It seemed like the perfect day to lavish my grill with a little love, and I found the perfect recipe in the recent issue of Bon Appétit for the occasion. 
It was a simple dish of grilled chicken thighs, accompanied by a salad of baby greens and lightly sautéed chickpeas.  Straight out of the can, chickpeas can be a bit tinny, but when dressed up a bit, they can prove themselves to be a very worthwhile bean.  In this understated dish, the drained chickpeas are sautéed in olive oil with fresh thyme and red chile flakes.  The chicken thighs are seasoned simply, and grilled until just done. 
The chickpeas are supposed to be tossed with arugula, but silly Whole Foods was out of arugula.  In its place, I chose a baby greens mix, called “Super Greens,” which included arugula, and other bold, young greens.  The mix is made by Organic Girl, and the name is coined from the fact that it is composed of superfoods: red and green chard; tatsoi; arugula; spinach.  If you’ve never seen baby chard or tatsoi (a tender green with mild mustard quality), that experience in and of itself is certainly worth the cost of admission, as they are just about the cutest things I ever saw (see photo below for evidence).  The salad is finished with fresh lemon and olive oil, and I added a little bit of feta for a nice salty finish.  A perfectly satisfying warm weather meal.
Grilled Chicken with Warm Chickpea and Green Salad (adapted from Bon Appétit, May 2014)

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1-15 oz. can of chick peas, drained and rinsed
4 sprigs of thyme
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
8 small bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups arugula (or super greens)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 oz. crumbled feta cheese

-       Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat in a skillet.  Add chickpeas, thyme, hot pepper flakes, pepper, and kosher salt.
-       Stir occasionally until just warmed though, about 5 minutes.  Transfer to a large bowl.
-       Preheat a grill over medium heat (oil your grill if necessary), and season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. 
-       Grill chicken, skin side down for about 8-10 minutes, until skin starts to become golden brown.  Turn and grill until cooked through, about 8-10 more minutes. 
-       Toss greens, lemon zest, lemon juice, and chicken peas with olive oil as needed.  Sprinkle salad with feta and serve with chicken.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Spicy Chicken Soup with Greens and Shiitake Mushrooms

This soup has all of the best things in it:  shiitake mushrooms, leafy greens, and enough fresh ginger to kill a small horse.  Allergies and springtime colds seem to be plaguing a lot of people these days, and this soup is quite the sinus clearer, with a multi-faceted heat from copious amounts of fresh ginger and cayenne pepper.  This is a simple and quick-cooking Asian chicken soup that is both light and satisfying.  It is largely flavored with cayenne, fresh ginger, and shiitake mushrooms, which are some of the all time greatest in the history of mushrooms.  My soup is a slight variation off a recipe from Bon Appetit.  One important distinction that I made was to roast boneless skinless chicken instead of picking a rotisserie chicken.  This is more economical, allows for greater quality control, and ultimately, less work.  Picking an entire chicken from the bones is a greasy and time-consuming task, and you don’t really know what the story is behind that chicken.  See here for my easy method for roasting the chicken; then allow it to cool, and shred it.  Unless you are opposed to turning on your oven, this is much less work.  The other change I made, which is more important and came by recommendation of a friend, is to use chard instead of spinach.  It has more backbone that spinach, yet it is milder than kale, and it ultimately results in a tender, mild green that doesn’t disintegrate or destroy your mouth with tannic weaponry, like spinach.  This opposition to spinach may be mine alone, but I still urge you to try the chard. 
Another note about my interpretation versus the written recipe: I accidently used approximately 10 times the amount of ginger the recipe called for, and it turned out to be a happy accident.  Looking at the recipe, I was so confused to see it call for an 11” piece of ginger, peeled and chopped.  It seemed sort of excessive, but I’m an excessive person.  So, I went for it; I wasn’t exactly sure how to pick out an 11” piece of ginger, but I chose a decent sized hand, and it ended up being about a third of a cup of peeled, chopped ginger.  Writing this up, I realized that it was actually 1-1” inch piece of ginger (i.e. a single one inch piece, not an eleven inch piece).  I didn’t exactly measure out eleven inches of ginger, but I definitely used A LOT, and I liked it, especially on day two after it had a minute to infuse and marinate.  If you choose to make this recipe, your ginger quotient is entirely up to you, but know that one third of a cup will not harm you.
This soup is also spiced up with cayenne pepper, which can be such a fickle spice.  Well, it is really not fickle at all; in fact it a pretty consistent pattern on my palette, but I’m curious to see if other people have the same experience.  I find cayenne to be entirely heat-activated, as opposed to red chile flakes, which render spice regardless of temperature.  For example, with this soup, until the cayenne steeped in the hot soup, I couldn’t feel the heat.  Even with the leftovers, if I had a bite cold (no, cold, broth-based soup is not beneath me), it was barely spicy, simply perfumed by ginger.  When I reheated it, it had quite the resounding warmth.  While I think it is completely plausible for thermal heat to augment spicy heat, I find it peculiar that the chilled version tastes mild.  Is it me?  Is there something wrong with me?  Well, yes, there’s absolutely something wrong with me, but I’m unsure of whether this is operative example. 
 On the first night, I made the egregious mistake of not finishing my bowl with a squeeze of fresh time.  It was sheer laziness; apparently it can be quite challenging for me to cut a lime into quarters.  On the second night I ate this, and those following it, it was more than worth the 2 knife strokes to brighten up my dinner with a splash of green sunshine.  In the life of this soup, that is the precise function of fresh lime juice.  I would also recommend a drizzle of Bragg’s liquid aminos, as it rounded out the flavors nicely.

Spicy Chicken Soup with Ginger, Shiitakes, and Chard

1-1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken (I used a combination of white and dark meat)
2-3 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 pound sliced shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1" piece ginger, peeled, chopped (or in my world, 11 inches of ginger)
2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 bunch green chard, coarsely chopped
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
Lime wedges and Bragg’s liquid aminos or soy sauce (for serving)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Drizzle the chicken with a little oil, and season with salt and pepper on a sheet pan.  Roast for 20 minutes, or just cooked through.

Heat the remaining oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, season with a little salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, 8– 10 minutes.

Add mushrooms, and sauté for about 3 minutes.

Then garlic and ginger and cook, stirring often, 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper.

Add shredded chicken, broth, and cayenne and bring to a boil.

Add chard and cook for about 5-10 more minutes.

Garnish soup in bowls with Bragg’s and a squeeze of fresh lime.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Psycho on the Road: Mex (Bloomfield Hills, MI)

I have just returned to Colorado after a brief sojourn home to my native Detroit.  Well, I suppose referring to home as “Detroit” is a bit of a stretch, as I grew up about 20 minutes outside of the city, but even Metro Detroiters have a distinctive edge that is a result of existing near the blighted, battered (yet still magnificent) Motor City.  The concept of home always comes with distinct tastes, no matter who you are or where you’re from, but I think I can almost objectively say that Detroit has some seriously delicious eats.  It’s always a delight to go home and indulge in old favorites, peppered with some new restaurants under the guidance of my parents and brother. 

On this particular trip, one of the new additions that I was told I absolutely must try was not a restaurant, but a particular dish that is cropping up on multiple menus of the same young restaurateur.  Zack Sklar, owner of Social Kitchen and Bar in Birmingham, Mex in Bloomfield Hills, and a prominent catering company, has a certain dish that graces both of his menus: a not so humble egg sandwich.  My mom, my brother, and his girlfriend all independently provided me with delightful accounts of this flavorful egg sandwich, raving about the way the egg was cooked, the grilled whole grain bread, and the carefully selected accoutrements adorning the dish.   Initially, I thought they might be overselling this item.  Egg sandwiches are delicious, but I like to choose my meals in Detroit very carefully, and I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the investment.  Nonetheless, they wore me down, and I’m so glad they did.

My mom and I went to Mex for lunch the day that I flew out.  We initially toyed with the idea of ordering two egg sandwiches, but decided against that, as my mom reported that it was both large and rich.  So, we split an egg sandwich and a delightful kale salad, which resulted in the most perfect going-away lunch.   The egg sandwich was simple, nothing too esoteric or original, but perfectly executed.  Buttery, grilled whole grain bread; perfectly cooked over easy eggs (one on each half), whites firm and cooked through, and a runny, marigold yolk; smoky bacon; melted, rich, yellow cheddar; acidity from freshly made guacamole and sliced tomatoes, which through the other rich ingredients.  It was absolutely lovely, and worth the hype.

The kale salad balanced the egg sandwich out flawlessly.  It was a symphony of textures, colors, and sweet, smoky flavors.  The salad was both tender and hearty, and not the least bit horsey, which is my least favorite trait in a salad.  Composed of kale, arugula, and bibb lettuce, all three greens were torn into perfect bite-size pieces, with different textures, although not competing.  The salad had some heft from brown rice; creaminess from avocado; chewiness from pepitas; mild, earthy sweetness from golden beets; and richness from creamy, white goat cheese.  The salad was beautiful to look at, with a wide palate of greens, punctuated by mellow yellows from the avocado and bibb lettuce, and white clumps of goat cheese.  My mom and I agreed that the rice was a touch undercooked, but still delicious.  The whole thing was balanced by a mild cumin-honey vinaigrette, that was both smoky and sweet, and only mildly acidic.  The salad was tossed lightly in the dressing; it didn’t get in the way, but tied everything together.  My only complaint about the experience is that the post-modern mess of décor was a little over the top, but it was a small price to pay for such delicious food.