Friday, January 23, 2009

Introducing Kale

Kale Soup with Pork and Mushrooms

I love kale. When other greens look wimpy and unappetizing, the kale in the supermarket still appears fresh and healthy, its deep green leaves doubling over themselves with earthy goodness, crisply crenellated with their own vitality. Kale has a distinct flavor, sometimes even a sweetness, and a texture that holds up in soups and stews. Kale is not merely rabbit food, and it's a damn shame it's fed to more rabbits than humans these days. It is, I daresay, a manly green. A very virile vegetable. And it's full of nutrients like calcium and iron. It will do your body good.

I often cook kale with garlic, white wine, and cannellini beans in my own version of the Italian peasant standby, escarole and beans. Since I nearly froze to death on my way home the other night, I was more in the mood for soup.

Kale goes together with pork in a magical way. The Portuguese have a variant of kale soup that uses chorizo. I did not have any chorizo, but I do keep a small reserve of cured pork fat in my freezer, which I use mainly as a flavoring. It's also true that many of the nutrients in dark, leafy greens are fat soluble, and you actually increase their benefit by cooking with a small amount of animal fat. The meat used here is a standard pork cutlet, an extremely lean cut that won't add much fat, but will make for a more satisfying and protein-filled result. Mushrooms and sherry are also a magical combination, and so I've incorporated both ingredient pairings here to wonderful effect. What you get is a very hearty soup with plenty in each spoonful. If you prefer your soup to be soupier, just add stock as desired.

Kale and Pork Soup with Mushrooms

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small piece cured pork fat
1 onion, diced
1 shallot, diced
2 small pork cutlets, sliced thin
8-10 button mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup sherry
5 cups kale, shredded
5 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup tiny pasta (i.e. stars, orzo)
Black pepper (to taste)
Salt (to taste)
Grated Romano cheese (if desired)

In a deep pot, sautee pork fat in oil until it begins to brown, then remove it. Add the onion and shallot and cook until browned, then add the pork. When the pork begins to brown, add the mushrooms and cook together until they acquire some of the flavors and begin to brown, too. Add the sherry and stir everything together until the alcohol is cooked off. Begin stirring in your kale- it will cook down, and you'll soon be able to get it all in the pot. Add the chicken stock and bring the pot to a boil. Add the pasta and lower heat to simmering. Once the kale is tender, taste the soup and adjust salt and pepper to taste. You can leave it a little less salty and sprinkle some grated cheese on top instead, if you like.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Japanese Dream

A Japanese Dinner Party for Six

Last night, my boyfriend and I hosted a Japanese-themed dinner party, which featured a number of delicacies we discovered in Japan, and even a few items we acquired there. Some friends joined us for what was a remarkably simple meal to prepare; the majority of items are individual ingredients, albeit grated, sliced, chopped or marinated. If you would like to know how any of this was prepared, feel free to post a comment. The look of the table as a whole was really my favorite part. Except for the guests. They were a blast, too.

Now and then it's nice to do something that makes you say "Yes, sometimes, I rock." I'm pretty proud of this:

Each place setting:

Here's what you're seeing, clockwise from left
-Miso soup
-Cup for green tea
In small red dish:
-Pickled plum
-Sliced ginger
-Fish cake
-Sweet black soybeans
In small bowl at right:
-Daikon in bonito broth w/seaweed
On square plate, clockwise from upper left:
-Fresh grated ginger
-Marinated daikon and carrot
-Chopped pickled vegetables (from Japan)
-Green peas and marinated burdock
-Tamago (sweet Japanese egg)
-Tuna sashimi
-Pickled ginger
-Fresh grated daikon
-Tofu w/black sesame and scallions
Not pictured:
-Roasted enoki mushrooms
-Green salad w/shiso dressing (from Japan)
-Ginger soy sauce (for tofu)
-Brown rice
-Plum wine
-Meyer lemon and hibiscus sorbets

Tom and I throw one hell of a party.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Big In Japan

The Travelers Return

Hello again- I'm back from a New Year's jaunt to the Land of the Rising Sun, and my resolutions include eating more like a Japanese person. This was my second trip to Japan (something I never dreamed I would be able to say), and I was lucky enough to explore it with a Japanese friend who knew the terrain, and my boyfriend who was seeing it for the first time. We really packed it in during our ten day trip, and saw Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Kamakura and Inari. And the photo on the right? I didn't take it, but I ate damn near everything pictured.

Japan is a culinary wonderland from my perspective. It helps that I'm the least picky eater imaginable, and knowing specifically what I'm eating isn't terribly important to me. I love seafood and sea vegetables, and things with tentacles make me say "mmm!", which is perhaps not usual for Americans (I credit my Italian ancestry; long, skinny countries surrounded by water tend to eat squid). But in reality there is very little that is terribly strange about real Japanese food. Dishes that are delightfully fresh, light and healthy are the norm rather than the exception, and the Japanese insist that even their cheapest fast food tastes good. Nobody has higher standards for food quality than Japan.

With the help of my Japanese college buddy, Ranko, I raided the housewares section of a Japanese supermarket, and picked up some stable ingredients at a Japanese supermarket. I now own a daikon grater, a sesame seed grinder, and a little square pan for making tamago (the egg thingy that comes in most sushi entrees). I'm planning a Japanese dinner party this weekend, so stay tuned to see what I come up with. Ranko recommends roasting enoki mushrooms with soy sauce and sake...I'm psyched...