The recipe exceeded my expectations

I’ve become increasingly aware of something over the past year: Despite the fact that I talk a lot about food, I don’t actually do a lot of cooking. Some might consider that this is because I’m married to a chef, but there’s more to it than that. Jamie gets most of his cooking out while at our Food Bar, and once we pass into the threshold of our home, I become the Primary Chef.

It’s not that I don’t cook, per say. It’s more that I’m not overly adventurous with my everyday cooking — that is to say, I don’t create a glamorous collection of weekday meals. When I come home at night, I’ve already put forth a lot of energy around food and am content to eat simple, understated meals, like roasted vegetables and scrambled eggs, or creamy beans with hot sauce. Oh! Or cold roasted chicken dipped in mustard, with more roasted vegetables and a couple of squares of dark chocolate for dessert. I have no hangups with eating honest, earthy meals that don’t require a lot of time in the kitchen day in and day out, but that, none the less, signify home and good eating to me.

But then, November rolls around and something starts to change. It starts off as a slow nudge to linger a little more in my kitchen. Then, by the middle of December, that nudge becomes a straight up shove. I want to linger over cookbooks, and carefully consider the perfect assortment of dishes for my family’s holiday meal. Dishes that offer a quietly thoughtful balance of flavor and texture, nourishment and pleasure.

I made such a dish last Christmas. Jamie and I had recently moved into our new home, and my mom and brothers (and their respective dogs) were sleeping over for Christmas Eve. The holiday season is a delicate time for me and my family. It’s filled with especially fond memories of my dad, who delighted in Christmas — memories followed by the heavy, enduring grief of his absence. I liken it to getting punched in the gut a few times a day throughout the month of December. (Or more accurately, what I imagine that would feel like, because I’ve never actually been punched in the gut.)

Last year, I wanted to break tradition a little and prepare a meal that comforted. We were ending our first full year in the food bar and coming down from the whirlwind of our wedding, so we were all in need of a low-key, restorative dinner. I wanted to eat simply, but well. The recipe exceeded my expectations.

Regretfully, it’s been too long since I’ve eaten the dish to provide an ample description for you. But I will say that it was one I wanted to eat straight from the refrigerator; never mind a plate and utensils, or a quick reheat. It was good either which way. I think you’ll agree.

Roasted-Squash Salad
From the Dec. 20, 2015 New York Times Magazine

  • 5 tablespoons dried currants
  • 1/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp white-wine vinegar
  • 1 kabocha squash (about 3 to 4 pounds)
  • 1/3 cup olive oil*
  • 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp plus 3/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed
  • 1 tbsp plus 3/4 tsp ground sumac
  • 1 tbsp plus 3/4 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley, packed
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, packed
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice (about 3 to 4 limes)
  • 1/2 cup pistachios, toasted and chopped
  • 1/2 cup firm feta cheese, diced

You’ll want to start the currants several hours or the day before you want to serve this dish. Put the currants in a small bowl, and pour the white-wine vinegar over them. Let them soften for several hours or overnight.

Heat the oven to 450. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. If you want, you can peel both halves of the squash, but, you can skip this part, too. The skin is edible, but also easily removable after the squash has cooked. Slice the squash into 1/4-inch half moons. Brush the slices with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season them with the salt.

Place the squash on parchment-lined baking sheet and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, flipping the half-moons once or twice throughout the roasting process, until soft and caramelized.

While the squash is cooling, combine the fennel seed, sumac and coriander in a medium-sized bowl. Add the parsley and cilantro and stir to combine. Add 1/3 cup olive oil and stir to coat the spices and herbs. You want a wet mixture, so add a tablespoon or two more, if you need to, to get it there.

Drain the vinegar from the currants, reserving the vinegar for the green sauce, and add the currants to the green sauce. Add the lime juice, pistachios, cheese, and 5 teaspoons of the reserved vinegar to the green sauce. Taste for flavor and add more olive oil, vinegar or lime juice, if you like. Season for salt after tasting as well.

Place the squash on a platter and spoon the dressing over the top.

Yields 4-6 servings.

*A note about the olive oil: The original recipe calls for about 3/4 cup of olive oil, which felt a little heavy for my taste. I started with adding 1/3 cup of oil to the green sauce, then added more in small amounts, after all of the ingredients were added to the sauce, to get a balanced flavor that suited my tastes. I trust you’ll find the amount that pleases your palette, too.

I had plans

I had plans to come here today to talk about chocolate cake. Nigel Slater’s chocolate cake, to be exact, made with good butter and sweet, steamed beets. I was also going to tell you about how I’ve grown suspicious of desserts that include things like beets or avocados or sweet potatoes, because the descriptions of said recipes usually include words like “guilt-free” and “safe,” and these are words and ways of thinking that I don’t like hearing or using when it comes to food. However, when David Leibovitz does it because Nigel Slater did it, my suspicions soften and turn trusting, and I make a plan to make a cake.

Ahhh, but then my plan to make the cake three(!) Mondays ago, turned into another plan to make the cake three Tuesdays ago, and, well, seeing how three-plus weeks have passed since making said plan, you know how that turned out. It’s not that I don’t want to make Nigel’s cake. I want to make most things Nigel writes about, and have not been disappointed in my endeavors. No, it’s more true that I haven’t found the right opportunity to bake, and putting unnecessary pressure on myself is bad for me. So instead I resort to splitting one or two of the French chocolates our sweet customer, Myelene, brought back for us from Paris, and, well, that’s not terrible. So the chocolate cake gets put on hold until the next day (and then the next week), and I spend the evening doing whatever pleases me, which is usually reading or watching Six Feet Under or lingering around the dinner table with Jamie or watching movies with my brothers, like the old days.

Right now, I want to eat and make foods that require as little fuss as possible. And considering the story I just told you about the cake, you’d be right in assuming that I don’t really want to do a whole lot of making. But, there are only so many times we can eat from our food establishment’s menu before things become a little uninspiring and boring.

So a few dinners ago, while taking stock of available ingredients on hand for what would be our dinner, I set out to eat something not boring. Thirty minutes later, I had what I needed for a sort-of(?) Niçoise salad. I don’t remember when I first learned of a Niçoise salad. But seeing that, as it currently stands, my cooking ideas come from only a small handful of cooks who write, I didn’t have to look far to find a direction for what I had to work with, which was: sardines, capers, eggs, mixed farm greens, red onion, and black olives.

In my search for wisdom from some of my tried-and-trues, I came across a recipe of Molly’s for deviled eggs, which called for frying capers, and oh yes, that sounds great, I’ll do that, but, ohhh shoot!, I don’t have any tomatoes or green beans, Nigel, but, eh, I’ll use them next time. While the eggs were hardening, I pan-fried the sardines until the skin was brown and crispy, and the fat was aggressively popping out of the pan at me. Once those were out of the pan, I threw in the capers — they were much less dramatic I should add — and let them sizzle around until they popped open.

Next, I peeled the eggs, which might have been less frustrating if they were cooler, and after that I whisked together a quick vinaigrette that came from Nigel’s nicoise recipe, only I used apple cider vinegar instead of red-wine vinegar because it’s all I had. And when we sat down to eat this salad, we were very pleased with it’s simplicity and it’s elegance. It was a very good salad that required very little of me, which means it was a very, very good salad by this home’s definition.

I was going to take a picture of our plates, but they weren’t much to look at, and I highly doubt they would’ve motivated you to run to the kitchen to make your own. But, then again, I’ve grown a little suspicious of recipes that come with perfectly staged images — if I actually make the recipe, I usually end up disappointed in the outcome. It’s usually the plain, understated images that get my attention and favor. Oh look! I shared a suspicion with you after all. We’ve come full circle.

A Sort-of Niçosie Salad

  • 2 cans sardines
  • 3-4 hard-boiled eggs
  • 2 tablespoon capers
  • a few handfuls of leafy greens
  • black olives
  • red onion
  • tomatoes, if you have them

For the dressing:

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar (apple-cider vinegar works fine, too)
  • 1/2-1 tbsp Dijon mustard (if you like the kick of mustard, add 1 tbsp)
  • 2 small cloves of garlic — crushed and finely chopped
  • sea salt

Start by hard-boiling the eggs. Put them in a single layer in a large pot. Cover the eggs with cold water by an inch or so, then place the pot over medium-high heat. Let it come to a boil, then immediately cover the pot and remove it from the heat. Let the eggs sit for 12 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Next, pan-fry your sardines. I usually use one of two brands of sardines: Wild Planet Wild Sardines in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; or Crown Prince Natural Wild Caught Brisling Sardines, also in Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Split the fish and remove any bones. Put about half of the olive oil from one can of sardines into a skillet and warm it over medium heat. When it’s warm and glides easily around the pan, add the sardines. If you have a lid or screen to put over the skillet, you might have it near by — the sardines pop aggressively with heat. Sear each side of the sardines for 2-3 minutes. Remove to a paper towel.

Wipe out your skillet and add a splash of olive oil. (I used fresh olive oil to fry the capers, but don’t see why you couldn’t use the oil from the sardines?) Let it warm over medium-high heat. When it slides easily around the pan, add the capers — you want them to sizzle. Fry, shaking the capers around a few times, until they split open. This will only take a couple of minutes, and you’ll want to watch them so that they don’t brown. Once they’re ready, drain them on to a paper towel.

Make the dressing by whisking the vinegar and mustard together with the garlic and a three-finger pinch of sea salt. Then, whisk in the oil. Taste and adjust to your tastes.

By this point, the eggs should be sufficiently cool enough to peel. So peel them then cut them in half, whichever direction you please — horizontally or vertically.

Fill a couple of bowls with a heaping handful of greens, then add your toppings — sardines, eggs, olives, etc. Toss gently with the vinaigrette and serve.