Boiled kale.

Winter in New Jersey seems to drag shiveringly on, boring me to tears.  There’s the occasional snowstorm, yes, and I love every minute I spend bundled up beside the windowsill, every glass of scotch. But those snowy nights are fleeting, and then we’re back to the monotonous cold, the rude wind, the car windshield that just won’t defrost. And the cabbage.

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Cabbage is certainly reliable, staving off mold, and rot, and drying up all through these months (and months) of cold, when everyone else—the carrots, the apples—have up and left, unable to stick it through.  But, egad, is he boring. Except, of course, with the proper treatment.

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Simmered in homemade chicken stock and a knob of butter, cabbage–specifically kale—turns into something silky, tender, willing to fall apart at the touch of your teeth. Boiled kale may not seem sexy, but trust me on this, it incredibly is. When kale comes in from plowing snow all day, and takes off his work boots and Levi jeans, I promise you there are silk boxers underneath. With little red hearts on them.

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So let’s talk proper treatment. First of all, you need good stock. Homemade. I’m sorry, but I just can’t budge on that one; homemade stock is not just better than store-bought, it’s a whole different thing altogether. And it’s incredibly easy. Just take a chicken, or a few carcasses from roast chicken dinners, or a few pounds of chicken parts. Put the chicken in a pot and add water to cover the chicken (or carcasses or parts) by an inch of two—it should be around 4 quarts. Bring to a boil, add an onion and a carrot, and a tablespoon of kosher salt. Bring the heat down to low, or whatever heat allows an occasional bubbling of the stock, but nothing like a simmer or a boil. Let it go on like that for about 4 hours, tasting occasionally, until it tastes like chicken and is a beautiful shade of yellow. At this point, I usually let the stock hang out until morning, or at least a few hours, then I strain through a sieve into plastic quart containers and use or freeze. See? Easy. And about a zillion times better than store-bought stock. (The quality of the stock is even more important than the quality of the kale; I’ve made this with kale that’s a week or two past its prime and it tasted delicious. With water? Not so much.)

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Butter, too, is key and, in my opinion, there’s no alternative for it. I mean, I guess you could go for grapeseed oil if you are vegan, or maybe try a high-heat nut oil, but, please, no olive oil. The taste of olive oil changes when it’s heated at a high heat, and in this recipe, that change is totally perceptible. It’s the difference between this kale being fanatic-making good and it’s being just good. Butter, on the other hand, helps the texture, coaxing every bit of luxuriousness out of the kale. And if you like the taste of olive oil with kale, just drizzle some on top after it’s cooked. Problem solved. That’s about it; with chicken stock, and butter, and enough cooking time that the kale becomes meltingly soft and silky and deeply kale flavored, there’s nothing better to beat the cold. I could (almost) have winter all year long.

boiled kale

Boiled Kale

serves 4

    I’ve met resistance when encouraging others to eat boiled kale. I have a hunch that it has something to do with the “raw” foods craze, and the fact that “boiled” anything reminds us of flavorless food with all its nutrients leached out. But that is not the case here. This recipe involves boiling the kale in chicken stock and then letting everything simmer until the liquid evaporates, vitamins intact, leaving the kale tender and coated in a silky slip. Maybe it’s the name, so call it whatever will help: “Melted” Kale, Braised Kale, “Shut up and Eat Your Vegetable Because You Will Like Them” Kale… whatever works.About salting: I salt my kale after it’s cooked down. This may be heresy, and may mean that the kale is not salted properly to its core, but considering every bunch of kale is not the same size, and the chicken stock may be evaporating at different speeds (however negligible) on any given day, it’s safest for me to salt after so I don’t overdo it.

1 pound kale leaves, from 2 very large kale bunches
4 cups homemade chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
salt

Wash kale thoroughly (using a salad spinner helps.)

To remove the kale’s leaves from stems, holding one piece at a time, run a sharp chef knife against each side of the stem, stripping the leaves off and leaving only the stem in your hand. Otherwise, lay a few pieces on top of each other and use your knife to cut the stems out. Or, strip them off with your hands, holding the stem with one hand and using your other hand to pull the leaf away from you until it comes off the stem.

Coarsely chop kale leaves. Add them to a large dutch oven or pot and pour 4 cups of homemade chicken stock over. (If there are bits of chicken stock gelatin sticking to the inside of the container, scrap that in too.) Add butter. Turn the heat to medium high and bring stock to a boil. If the kale is particularly unwieldy, or your pot isn’t quite big enough, you can put the cover on for a few minutes until it wilts some. Once it is boiling, cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid all but evaporates and the kale is silky and tender, about 45 minutes. If the kale doesn’t taste tender enough, and the liquid is already gone, add a splash more and cook until the kale meets your liking.

Salt to taste. Serve.

Monkfish and purple potatoes.

The Stockton Indoor Farmer’s Market started up only three weeks ago — right across the street from my apartment! — but thanks to Dawn McBeth, the local baker who runs the market (which also sells baked good from her bakery, Ambrosia), filling it with one amazing vendor after the next, it’s already become my favorite in the county. Bobolink Dairy and Bakeyard is there every Sunday; Purely Pastured Farm, with their lamb, beef, and chickens, recently joined up; Highland Market is there with their astonishing beef; and the Red Rooster Spice Company sets up shop every weekend. Throw in Milk House Farm’s sourced vegetables, eggs, and freshly ground grains — and Metropolitan Seafood’s selections — and I haven’t had to leave my tiny town to go grocery shopping in weeks.

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The only tricky thing is, you can’t always follow recipes when you are at the mercy of the market’s offerings. Now I know I was touting the importance of recipe-following lately, and declaring that it’s taken precedence in my cooking, so I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that this recipe is my own creation, but it’s not my fault! I had thought I was shopping for a recipe of cod in a parmesan-sage broth; then I came upon the most gorgeous, day-boat monkfish I’d ever seen. Things needed to be rethought on the spot.

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Monkfish screams rustic, earthy, substantial. I love to use it in place of meaty proteins – beef, pork – because it stands up so well to strong flavors and textures. Even before I’d finished the buying the fish, I was thinking mushrooms, potatoes…red wine. We got some shitake mushrooms from Highland Gourmet (at a price so ridiculously low I won’t even mention it because I don’t want you to feel bad), then found some turnips, before going home to some green beans and purple potatoes (from Nonesuch Farm).

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Wanting something rustic, but not willing to totally abandon my plan for a fancy-pants dinner (this was not a one-pot of night), I came up with something rustic but refined: the purple potatoes were cut into medallions the width and height of the monkfish; the shitakes were sauteed and browned alongside the green beans and turnips; and the red wine butter sauce really satisfied my fancy urges, half of its butter being truffle-butter (which did wonderfully woodsy, earthy things to the whole affair).

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A few things should be mentioned before you cook this: first, when you saute mushrooms, you should put them in a hot-hot-hot pan with some butter — not overcrowding — then turn down the heat a little and DO NOT TOUCH THEM FOR THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES OF COOKING. Otherwise, they won’t brown properly, and if there’s anything I don’t like, it’s a mushroom that isn’t browned properly. (Which, in hindsight, makes me sound pretty weird.) After you let them go untouched for the first five minutes or so, and they are golden and browning on the first side, you can stir them as much as you want and also add other ingredients to the pan (but, again, not before those crucial five minutes are up!). The turnips should go in next, and you should be careful to make sure they brown as well, not messing with them too much either or they’ll go starchy and mush up. Then you add the green beans and cook, covering for a few minutes, until they’re tender and beginning to brown as well. More butter gets added along the way to help even more with the browning.

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One last note: trying to keep this recipe as simple as possible, we did a little test of cooking the first piece of monkfish in a pan with butter and nothing else, and cooking the second piece with rosemary sprigs and garlic cloves. Unfortunately for simplicity, the second was the clear winner, so I included that version in the recipe. The first piece was nothing to sneer at, though, so don’t worry if you’re pressed for time or out of rosemary and garlic. Otherwise, I’d follow all the steps, because they led to something great. Rustic, but refined enough for a dinner party; fancy-pants comfort food: a delicious little collaboration between my home-cook style and the things I’ve picked up from all that recipe-following lately.

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Monkfish with Purple Potatoes and Truffled Red Wine Sauce

serves 2 (or maybe 3 light eaters)

For the Truffled Red Wine Sauce
1 slice smoked bacon, chopped
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 celery stalk, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup dry red wine
4 tablespoons white truffle butter
2-4 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the Mushrooms

2 teaspoons canola oil
1 tablespoon or more white truffle butter
1/2 pound shitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced
a few handfuls of good-looking green beans, slim as you can find them, cut into 1 inch pieces

1-2 turnips, peeled and cut into a small dice

For the Potatoes
2-3 oblong purple potatoes, about 1 pound total
a few sprigs of thyme

For the Monkfish
¾ to 1 pound monkfish fillet, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 cloves of garlic
a sprig of thyme

In a medium saucepan, add bacon over medium high heat and render for 5 minutes. Add shallot, celery, and carrot and cook until softened but not browned, 5-10 minutes. Add chicken stock and wine and reduce by a little more than half, about 30 minutes or so.

Meanwhile make the mushrooms: add canola oil and truffle butter to a pan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add mushrooms and leave untouched in the pan for at least 5 minutes, until the mushrooms have begun to properly brown. Turn mushrooms and add green beans and turnips and cook until turnips are browned on all sides, adding more butter or oil if the pan gets too dry.

Slice potatoes into thick medallions (you want them to be similar to the size of the monkfish medallions you’ll slice later) and put them into another pan over medium-high heat, so that they are all touching the bottom of the pan in one layer. Add chicken stock or water, enough to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes, and cover. Cook for about 10 minutes, then remove the cover and cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the potatoes are browned, turning potatoes half-way through. Turn off heat and set aside.

To finish the sauce: whisk butter into the reduced wine, a little at a time, until it is a bit thicker and tastes good—not too tart, but not too oily—then season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

To cook monkfish: Add canola oil to a pan over medium-high heat. Just before the oil starts to smoke, place the monkfish in the pan, rounded (presentation) side down. Cook for five minutes, until the fish is golden-brown, adding a tablespoon of butter about halfway through and basting the fish once the butter browns. (The butter should seem burnt, but the whole pan should not be smoking.) Flip the fish, add another tablespoon of butter, and cook for another six minutes, basting the entire time (and adding the garlic and thyme about halfway through, so that it flavors the butter and oil without burning). Remove the fish from pan and set on a cutting board to rest.

To finish: Cut monkfish into medallions. Spoon mushroom and turnip mixture onto a platter and place a medallion of monkfish, then a slice of potato, over the mushrooms, and repeat until you use up all the monkfish. Any leftover mushrooms or potatoes can be placed around the edge of the platter. Spoon some sauce over everything (you’ll have sauce leftover — bring it to the table to pass around) and serve.

Chicken, mushroom, and potato hot pot.

Do you like Jamie Oliver?  He came into my frame of reference about a year ago; before that he sat in the black hole in my mind reserved for TV-celebrity chefs: I knew of him, would sometimes catch a show (absentmindedly while doing laundry) but I didn’t cook from his recipes.  After a while, though, I found myself waking up at 7:30 on Saturday mornings to watch the reruns of his show Jamie at Home, looking forward to it for days really, to wake up before anyone else and make a cup of coffee and sit and watch his show, deciding what to cook for dinner.

Thankfully we’ve gotten Tivo since then, because waking up at 7:30 on a weekend never feels as nice when the afternoon rolls around and you want to nap, and I can record, and save, all of Jamie’s shows.  Jim’s convinced that I just like to watch Jamie and his cute British slang, but really it’s (well mostly it’s) the food.  It’s home-cooking, the way home-cooking should be.  There’s an attention to detail without being fussy; an attention to the right details, really, the ones that will help to make the food taste better.  A lot of his dishes are rather ugly, plebeian-looking things.  But the flavors are there, present and beautiful.

This chicken and mushroom dish became my favorite Jamie Oliver dish.  It’s unabashedly simple.  You fry up some vegetables in chicken fat, then add mushrooms and cook until they are dry.  Then you add some chicken pieces, nutmeg, herbs, wine, and sliced par-boiled potatoes.  The dish ends up akin to a shepherd’s pie, with browned, roast potatoes subbing for mashed (a substitution that suits me well) and a warm, earthy flavor that’s perfect for a cool May night, just when you thought summer was about to come and all of a sudden it’s 50 degrees out there.

Jamie Oliver’s cooking no longer sits in the black-hole and I’m a bit sad for how long it took me to come around.  If you’re a home cook who hasn’t been introduced to the man yet, I urge you to try this dish.  (If you can find lovage, which is the herb used in Jamie’s recipe, try it with that too.)  I also urge you to Tivo some of his shows.  His British slang is pretty adorable.

Chicken, Mushroom, and Potato Hot Pot

adapted from Jamie Oliver’s website

serves 4

6 medium potatoes, skins on
2 big handfuls mixed wild mushrooms, or 3 portobello mushrooms
6 chicken thighs, 3 chicken drumsticks
1 red onions, peeled
1 celery sticks
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tbsp plain flour
a few sprigs parsley and thyme, leaves picked
freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
salt, pepper
chicken stock, homemade (made with the bones in this recipe if you don’t have any on hand)
splash of dry vermouth
a little melted butter

Cook potatoes in salted boiling water until just tender. Drain and cool.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Take skin off chicken thighs and drumsticks and cut meat from the bones, saving a few pieces of skin and the bones for stock (made now if you don’t have homemade stock on hand or saved for later.)

In a large oven-proof skillet or braiser, add some of the chicken skin and render the fat. Once rendered, remove the skin and add onion, celery, and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Add mushrooms and cook over medium heat until all the moisture has evaporated. Add chicken and then vermouth and cook it down. Add flour and stir to combine, then add a tablespoon or two of stock to make a thick gravy. Add herbs, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Arrange potato slices on top of skillet, as pretty as you can manage. Brush some melted butter over potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Place skillet in the oven and cook for 20-30 minutes, until potatoes are golden browned and chicken is cooked through and tender.