Acorn Squash Salad with Green Dressing


Yesterday I took my parent’s dog Lola for a walk. It was a stubborn thing to do. Sleet was pounding the ground outside, and Mitch had already given the report on the accidents he’d seen. Abby’s flight back to San Francisco was cancelled. The weather was truly frightful, and inside we had all the trappings of delightful, including a fire.

But I was getting cabin fever, and Lola was flopping dramatically whenever someone moved. So we went for a walk, me clad in the jacket and boots I borrowed from my mom. We had gone the length of three houses before my jeans were drenched. My mom’s water repellent jacket wasn’t repelling much water, and water was soaking into my wool socks. And so Lola and I did the only sensible thing at that time. We ran.

We were a sight, a girl in jeans and snowboots and a sopping dog half jogging, half trudging through the sleet. Lola’s interest in running came in fits and starts. One moment she was running, the next she had to smell, then shake. We took the shortest walk we could. It took forever.

And when Lola stopped to smell at one point, I realized how broadly I was smiling. I had decided not to turn back, and so the only way out was through. It was wet and cold and in many ways uncomfortable. It was also brisk and bright and joyous. It was an unconscious decision on how I wanted our walk to go.

A few hours later our flight to Minneapolis was cancelled due to this same sleet. We’re trying again tonight. Today I’m deciding to be happy about this- deciding to enjoy this extra day of vacation with my family, an extra day to watch reruns with my parents and walk Lola and wear nail polish. I’m deciding not to worry about our mail piling up and yogurt probably growing mold in the fridge and our car that needs to be moved by tomorrow or it will be towed. It’s a small decision, one that only changes my perspective, but sometimes perspective is everything.

We’re approaching the new years, when many people, myself included, make a myriad of resolutions to improve their life. One of the most popular is some variation of eating better and/or losing weight. That usually means some restriction- no sugar in any form, or no gluten regardless of medical necessity, or only juice for breakfast, or no eating after 6pm, or no snacking ever. It’s a joyless regiment that can only be gotten through on sheer willpower. It’s not how I want to start my year.

Instead we should be eating food because it tastes and makes us feel good. I can’t be convinced to drink kale juice, but I will gobble up kale sautéed with garlic, chilis, and lemon in a matter of minutes. In the vein of good food (verses the more dictatorial Food That Is Good), I offer this roasted acorn squash salad.

It’s a simple, elegant dish that made a fantastic dinner for Aaron and I the day before we set out to Illinois. It made a great dinner for the two of us, and it would make a wonderful side for a dinner for more people. It’s easy- it needs some chopping, some roasting, and some whisking. The toughest task is peeling the squash, and after that it’s smooth sailing. The squash itself is has a wholesome, vegetal sweetness, but blanketed in the green dressing (parsley, cilantro, currents, white wine vinegar, lime, pistachios, feta, and a heady mix of spices) it becomes intriguing and multi-faceted, here sweet, here tart, here astringent, here a hint of piquancy. It’s naturally gluten-free, vegetarian, and could easily be made vegan. It’s good food at it’s purest- so tasty you don’t worry about the nutrients, and so healthy you don’t need to worry.

Acorn Squash Salad with Green Dressing

adapted from The New York Times

Serves 2 for a meal, 4 for a side

The original recipe called for kabocha squash, but my local grocery store doesn’t carry kabocha squash this time of year. Because of my choice of squash the dressing was about double what was necessary, but the dressing was so good that I started dipping bread straight into it. I would make the whole amount, and then save the rest for another use.

5 tablespoons dried currants
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 acorn squash, peeled, deseeded, and cut into quarter inch half moons
1/2 to 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
salt
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon ground sumac
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
½ cup chopped parsley, packed
½ cup chopped cilantro, packed
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, approximately 3 to 4 limes
½ cup chopped pistachios
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

In a small bowl combine the dried currants with the white wine vinegar and let soak for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 450. Toss the squash slices with two tablespoons of the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread out onto a cookie sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, tossing once, until tender.

In a large bowl whisk together the spices, the herbs, and four tablespoons of oil. Once that’s all emulsified add in the currents with their vinegar, the lime juice, the pistachios, and the feta. Whisk together, then add as much olive oil as necessary to get the viscosity you desire- I only added two tablespoons. Taste, and add as much salt as the dressing needs- mine only needed a pinch.

Arrange the squash on a platter to serve, and spread with the herb dressing. Eat warm or at room temperature.

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Eggnog French Toast


There was a ritual around the Christmas tree. We would drive the hour a Saturday morning shortly after Thanksgiving to the same tree farm every year. As we drove the towns became smaller and further from each other. There was more farms and more tackle shops and far fewer strip malls. The bars looked friendlier than the adult-only ones my parents visited and advertised Coors on tap.

Once we got to the farm a worker in a bright orange vest would greet us, and offer a saw to borrow. Dad always brought his own, so instead the worker would tell us where we could and could not cut. Then we would drive our minivan, since we always seemed to have a minivan no matter if the memory is from age 5 or age 15, deep into the trees.

There was a wonderful variety of trees available. There were three foot trees for the couple just starting out. There were twenty foot trees for the family who had everything. Evergreens, as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of the historical novels I loved to read, about girls a hundred years ago walking in winter forests.

Dad was the one who chopped the tree but Mom was the one who decided. She had specific criteria. She didn’t want it to be too tall, because she didn’t want to pay for a height we’d have to cut off at home. Round needles, because they shed less than flat needles. It had to be full, although she also had a deep love for the Charlie Brown trees. And it had to have a true point, so we could top it with the angel. It took forever.

And then after we found one, we had to pose for a Christmas picture.

When Dad finally cut the tree he would remove one glove, and hold the tree in his ungloved hand while furiously sawing with the other. Mom’s job was to tilt the tree in the ever-changing direction Dad indicated. Our job as kids was to stay out of the way. We were not very good at this job.

After we had loaded the tree onto our car, and then had it bailed and paid for and trussed on top, we stopped for lunch at The Polka Dot Diner, which was filled with 1950s kitsch. The women’s bathroom was filled with pictures of Elvis smoldering at the inhabitants. It made me feel uncomfortable. I tried to avoid using the bathroom when I could. But I still loved it there, with the grilled cheese and hot chocolate I always ordered that tasted so much better than at home.

Back at home Dad always had to cut down the tree, and Mom followed the progression of the tree into the house with the vacuum cleaner. Then The Music of a Victorian Christmas CD was put on, and Mom pulled out the ornaments from storage, and I helped Dad tighten the Christmas tree into the base. The handmade ornaments always went up first- Abby’s angel made from a spoon, my triangular 1st grade picture frame, Mitch’s handprint Rudolph. Then the gift ornaments, then the baubles, then the 1970s Christmas light. The angel was always last. By now the music had switched to Nat King Cole and Dad was building a fire. We had popcorn and hot chocolate as we put up the nativity and the nutcrackers and stockings.

There were other Christmas rituals. Moving the wise men closer to the manger every day and lighting Advent candles. Chinese food and a Christmas Story on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight Mass. Cinnamon rolls, always from Cinnabon, for breakfast on Christmas morning while Mom and Dad took their coffee with Bailey’s. We’d open gifts in the morning and linger in our pajamas until it came time to shower and visit family.

The sad and beautiful thing about rituals is that they evolve. My parents no longer go out and hunt for a tree every year, having switched to plastic three years ago. There’s no more scent of pine perfuming the house and no more quite-possibly-toxic 1970s Christmas lights. The Cinnabon closest to my parents closed and they serve strata for breakfast instead. And the Polka Dot Diner closed, replaced with a space themed restaurant serving the exact same menu.

But when I go back to my parents I know there will still be fires, and Nat King Cole, and ornaments made from our elementary school pictures. I’ll likely make these cinnamon rolls for Christmas breakfast and my parents and Aaron will drink their coffee with Bailey’s.

But for the next week we’re making our own traditions. And this year that involves Hipster Holidays on Pandora, collecting ornaments for our non-existent tree, and eggnog french toast.

Eggnog french toast is the perfect breakfast when you want something celebratory but not too decadent or sweet. It feels special- thick slices of bread are soaked in eggnog and eggs, then fried so they’re crispy on the outside and custardy on the inside. I added vanilla to my batter, but if you want to move into the truly decadent category you could add whisky, brandy, or rum. It’s sweet, but not tooth-aching. It suggest holidays and celebration, but doesn’t demand it. It would be perfect for a lazy, weekend brunch, or a breakfast with friends. And it’s simple, although you’d ever know it- perfect for slowing down during a whirlwind Christmas season.

Eggnog French Toast

inspired by Burg’s French Toast from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenburg

In order to get the crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, make sure to use a loaf of bread that’s got a bit of crust, but isn’t too dense. I used a batard that I got from my local grocery store, but you could even use one of those thick breads labeled as “Italian bread” that hangs out near the produce department. Additionally, make sure you fry the bread in enough oil. If there’s too little oil, you won’t get the nice sear on your bread.

12 slices (total weighing about a pound) of thick cut white bread
1 1/2 cups eggnog
1/2 cup milk
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

enough canola oil to cover the pan

In a shallow pan, such as a cake pan, whisk together the eggnog, milk, eggs, and vanilla until well combined. Place the bread slices in the egg mixture. The longer the bread soaks, the more custard-y the texture and eggnog-y the taste will be. I recommend soaking for 5-10 minutes and turning the bread once.

Place a large pan over medium heat and cover the bottom with canola oil.

Add the bread to the pan and let sit until golden brown, about three minutes. Turn the bread and let the other side cook, another two minutes or so. Repeat with remaining bread.

Serve with butter and maple syrup.

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Lentil Bolognese

 

“You eat too healthy,” my chef says. “If you never eat junk food you’ll ruin your immune system and get cancer.”

I try to eat healthy at home. I throw kale into everything and stock cases full of canned beans. My fridge is full of root vegetables, fermented condiments, and organic dairy products. And while I’d never go so far as to ban white flour, sugar, and pasta in my kitchen, there’s a quota.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. We’re drinking beer after our shift, engaging in the mockery that builds a kitchen. “I eat here, after all.”

I have to eat healthy at home, because our work meals are not healthy. Mayo fried rice. Philly cheese steak poutine. Mac and cheese that’s one part cream cheese to two parts velveeta. They’re quick, efficient meals that are meant to replenish the calories burned from eight hours on your feet. I’ve devoured them all.

It often feels that I’m inhabiting two worlds, especially in regards to food. It’s a strength, certainly. I can look at dishes from multiple perspectives. I know how good vegetarian food can be- a fragrant curry, a comforting pot pie, a really good pot of beans. I also know how good an oozing, melty burger can be. Because of this I’m less inclined to be impressed by a dish solely because it’s vegetarian, or because there’s bacon in it. There’s more tricks in my wheelhouse because of this duo identity, and I can apply them in all the places I cook. And I love picking dishes apart and figuring out how they work and then rejiggering them at home.

Like this lentil bolognese. This bolognese is everything that’s right with vegetarian food. That’s a big claim, I understand. But it’s true. It’s earthy and rich and savory, thanks to the long cooking time and the savory ingredients used. It’s hearty enough for a meal at home, and would take a stunning turn at a dinner party. It’s filling, but doesn’t leave you with that burst gut feeling that can happen after a plate of meat sauce. It’s pretty hands off, so you can start it and leave it be. There’s no funky ingredients to hunt down across town and pay twenty dollars for. And it’s fantastic. Aaron put it at mac and cheese level for how good it is. To put that into perspective, there’s nothing that ranks higher than mac and cheese for Aaron.

This is a dish I would feel confident enough to serve to my health-conscious vegetarian friends and burger eating, dorito loving coworkers. It’s that good.

Lentil Bolognese

Serves 4-6

There are two tricks to this sauce. The first is to make sure that all the vegetables are cut quite small- around the size of a lentil. That allows more surface area for flavor to develop, and makes sure the vegetables are integrated in the sauce. The second is to make sure it cooks low and slow, to get tender lentils and a deeply flavored sauce. I used crimini mushrooms because they were cheap at my local grocery store. Button mushrooms would work as well, I would just cook them a little longer.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 medium celery stalk, finely diced
salt
pepper
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, finely diced (you can use the stems as well)
1 cup earthy red wine (I used an Argentinian malbec)
3 cups water
1 twenty-eight ounce can whole tomatoes, juices retained and tomatoes crushed
1 cup beluga lentils
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk
1 pound fettuccini, for serving
Pecorino romano, for serving

In a medium saucepan, warm together the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery, toss in the oil and butter, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and the onions translucent, about 10 minutes.

Add in the mushrooms and season again with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are soft and have started to give off some juice. Add in the red wine and stir well to bring any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. These are very flavorful, so get all you can. Add in the water, tomatoes and juice, lentil, bay leaf, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Let the sauce simmer away, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are almost tender and the water is mostly cooked away. This will take at least an hour, possibly two.

Once the water is cooked away add the milk and stir well. Let the milk reduce in the sauce until it is almost gone. Taste to make sure the lentils are tender, and that the seasoning is correct. If the lentils are not at the desired state of tenderness, add more water, a little at a time, and cook out. If the seasoning is not correct, adjust the salt, pepper, or nutmeg to desired state. Remove the bay leaf.

Cook the fettuccini according to package directions.

To serve, top the fettuccini with the lentil sauce. Sprinkle with grated pecornio romano.

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