Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Kale Dish Delicious Enough For A Birthday

Today is my mom's birthday, and in honor of the beautiful woman who always let me fiddle around in the kitchen with her from the time I was very little, I wanted to include a recipe that would really appeal to her. It's difficult living in opposite parts of the country as I hate not being able celebrate my family member's birthdays with them. If Mom could have been in New York with me today, I would have baked her favorite birthday cake for her, a simple dark chocolate cake adorned with lightly sweetened fresh whipped cream. But before we got around to the cake, I would have also made her my favorite kale&rice bowl topped with a perfectly poached egg. That may not sound like the typical meal one would choose for one's birthday lunch, but I know it's one that Mom would appreciate in spades. This is a dish so satisfying and nourishing, yet it's one that you can feel totally justified in following it with that dark chocolate cake for dessert.

Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around being in the kitchen with my mom. When we lived in San Diego, Mom hosted monthly piano recitals at our house for all of her many students, and she always baked up a storm so that the kids could have a little party after their concerts. When I was six years old, I remember marching into the kitchen during one of her pre-recital baking flurries, announcing that it was time for me to learn how to cook and that I was going to help her get ready for her party the next day. Endlessly patient with me, she always pulled up a chair for me next to her at the counter, letting me measure ingredients and stir endless bowls of cookie batter with her as we prepared for these post-concert parties. Whenever I bake with my nephew Mac (a.k.a. the Little Chef), I am always reminded of how it felt to be the little helper in the kitchen with Mom years ago and how I absolutely LOVED it.

However, as much as she may have baked any number of sweet treats for her piano students, Mom always cooked quite healthily for our family, much to my childish frustration. My parents moved from Minnesota to California in the early 70s, and they jumped on the major health food bandwagon, reducing their meat consumption and taking serious advantage of all of the great fresh produce that was suddenly available to them in the land of sunshine. I have memories of this avocado green Champion juice extractor that lived on our kitchen counter, a hulking machine so formidable that it scared the living daylights out of me every time it was turned on. The juicer practically vacuumed in the vegetables, making a noise like a garbage truck as it inhaled whole carrots, beets and celery stalks, transforming these large vegetable pieces into a single glass of vivid juice.

And yet I was more fascinated by the strange things that appeared in my friends' school lunches, such as sandwiches made of bologna with bright yellow cheese on snowy white bread, instead of natural freshly ground peanut butter on the hearty whole grain breads that my mom baked from scratch. I certainly had never seen the likes of a Twinkie anywhere in our kitchen, nor was I likely to at any time in the near or distant future. Mom used to bring me grocery shopping with her at Frazier Farms, a natural foods co-op that was probably a forerunner of Whole Foods, a place to which I now would give anything to have access. Unfortunately I was a totally unappreciative 7-year-old who would wander right past the beautiful displays of fresh California produce, unsuccessfully scouring the aisles for anything that resembled Doritos, something I only tasted whenever I went to my friends' houses. My distinct lack of enthusiasm must have made it all the worse for Mom who was so excited about all the beautiful vegetables and unusual whole grains she found, eager to transform them into delicious dishes for her family.

(Mom and me: a while ago before I even made it into the kitchen....and more recently, a few summers ago!)

However, my vegetable-indifferent young palate has been cultivated quite happily over the years, and it is now something that my mom can be proud of. I definitely have a more pronounced decadent streak than Mom does when it comes to food, especially in the dessert department. (Please refer to any of my dessert recipes or CocoaRoar posts on this blog if you need further proof of that!) But in the same way that she still gets great pleasure out of a small amount of high quality dark chocolate, I have to admit that I love making meals out of vegetables and whole grains, trying to make them as flavorful and fulfilling as possible. Once upon a time I could not have imagined that I would ever be satisfied, much less EXCITED about a bowl full of kale and rice. But now that is something that I crave regularly and make frequently, and I would love to share it with you today.

I always think of Mom when I'm cooking this kale&rice dish, knowing how much she enjoys food like this. As I mentioned in an earlier post this year, I'm trying to stave off my winter comfort food cravings by seeking out as many intensely colored vegetables as I can. It is a slippery slope into carb coma hell if I allow myself to continue my quest for the perfect macaroni&cheese recipe, so I am trying my hardest to fill up on hearty winter greens, pungent chicories, ruby-red beets and brilliant orange sweet potatoes. I actually do really enjoy all of those foods, and fortunately for my arteries, I truly love the taste of kale.

The inspiration for this dish originally came from Heidi Swanson's wonderful website, 101 Cookbooks. She creates innovative healthy recipes and photographs them beautifully, and her site has been a big inspiration to me over these last months. I took her recipe for her Chard&Rice Bowl as a springboard for my own flavor profiles. The beauty of this recipe is that it lends itself to endless variations.

Starting with a base of chopped onion, freshly minced ginger and garlic, these aromatics are sauteed in a bit of olive oil before the chopped kale is added. The kale definitely reduces in volume as it cooks, so I usually cook up the whole bunch of it because this dish works well as leftovers. Throw in the greens as well as some vegetable stock, stir to coat and cover. Let the heat do the rest, steaming the kale.

You can use any kind of hearty short-grain rice for this recipe, preferably something with a toothsome bite that can stand up to the kale. Short-grain brown rice is probably your most widely available option, but feel free to experiment with whatever rice looks most interesting to you. Lately I've been using a Mahogany Rice Blend from Lundberg Farms, and I'm enchanted by its deep burgundy color and pronounced nutty flavor.

When the greens are cooked, I combine them with the cooked rice and season them with an assortment of sesame oil, soy sauce, hot chili oil and rice wine. This would be delicious enough on its own, but my enjoyment of this dish is enhanced exponentially when it is topped with a perfectly poached egg. EVERYTHING feels much more celebratory when topped with a perfectly poached egg. The egg is poised on top, trembling with excitement and ready to spill liquid gold into the kale&rice, adding another dimension to the dish.

My mom always had a way with a poached egg ever since I was a kid, and that is still my favorite way to eat eggs. She had a special egg poacher, a stainless steel insert containing four individual cups into which you could break the eggs before setting it in a deep skillet of hot water. I don't have such a contraption but am very pleased that I have learned how to successfully poach eggs just by breaking them into a cup and slipping them into a saucepan of simmering water.

Here's to the one who has always been loving and patient with me, inside the kitchen and out, and who gave me such a wonderful start as HER "little chef" once upon a time. Happy birthday Mom!

inspired by a recipe by Heidi Swanson from 101 Cookbooks

I usually prepare this with kale, but I have had delicious results when I've substituted red or green Swiss chard for the kale. I'm also partial to mustard greens, and dandelion or beet greens could also work. I suppose you could even use spinach if you felt so inclined, but I tend to favor the heartier greens which don't lose their texture completely when they're cooked down. I've written this recipe to serve 4, but even if I'm just cooking for myself, I will cook up the whole batch of kale&rice, saving the leftovers for future meals and poaching eggs to order. However, I usually poach two eggs for myself when I make this. I usually find that if I just prepare one egg, it disappears too quickly and then I'm sad that I don't have another one to enjoy! Prepare this accordingly in order to satisfy your poached eggs needs.

1 cup short-grain brown rice, rinsed

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced (roughly about 1 tablespoon of minced ginger) OR substitute 1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large bunch kale, washed, tough stems and ribs removed, and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup vegetable broth or water
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar or mirin (rice wine)
A few dashes of hot chili oil OR a few pinches of crushed hot chili flakes
Salt and pepper

4 eggs
A splash of white wine vinegar

Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)

Cook the rice according to package directions. When the rice has almost finished cooking, begin preparing the kale mixture.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large saute pan. When it begins to shimmer, cook the onions until the begin to soften, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute; do not let the garlic brown. If the mixture seems a little dry, add a splash of vegetable broth to the pan. Add the kale and vegetable broth, stirring well to coat with the onion mixture, and cover. (Depending on how large your bunch of kale is and the size of your saute pan, you may need to do this in batches: add as much kale that will comfortably fit into the pan, stir well, and cover for about 30 seconds until it wilts a bit and begins to cook down. Keep adding the remaining kale in this way until all of it is incorporated into the pan, then stir well and cover.) Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the kale has softened a bit but still has a little texture to it. Remove from heat.

When the rice has finished cooking, add it to the kale mixture and stir well to combine. Season with the soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and hot chili oil, plus salt and pepper to taste. Taste the mixture for seasoning and balance and adjust accordingly. You may find you want to add a splash more sesame oil for depth, a bit more rice wine for brightness, or more hot chili oil for heat. I'm usually rather loose with my measurements here, letting my palate be the guide for how I adjust the seasonings.

To poach the eggs, fill a medium-sized saucepan halfway with water and bring to a gentle simmer. Add a splash or two of vinegar to the simmering water, as this will help the eggs hold their shape when they're placed in the water. Crack each egg individually into a small cup or ramekin and carefully slip it into the simmering water. Let the eggs cook for 3 to 4 minutes and remove from the water with a slotted spoon. (3 minutes will give you an egg with a runny yolk , while 4 minutes produces a firmer yolk that holds its shape when cut into.)

Divide the warm kale&rice mixture between 4 shallow bowls and top each serving with a poached egg. Sprinkle the egg with a dash of salt and an optional scattering of sesame seeds.

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