Goat Cheese Puffs and Kir Royale

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We live in an age where convenience is king and attention spans have diminished to focus on a steady stream of 140-character sound bites and grab-and-go eats. Taking time to enjoy a meal or having a lengthy, real life conversation that extends beyond a thumbs up “like” on a Facebook post are going the way of the dinosaurs. A sit down meal, which used to mark a dinner with the family or close friends, is now a rare occasion involving copious amounts of preplanning and synchronization between the technologies and timeframes of various people all operating within distinctly individualized schedules. In an extreme backlash against all of this twenty-first century behavior, I am committed to make the moments that I eat actually mean something. And not something in the special way of birthdays or anniversary occasions, but special in the way that reminds me that life is in the ordinary hours. Life is right now.

The one time a week when I cook for the Cute Gardener and myself is a time when I can slow down for a moment and reflect on what I want to convey with my efforts. I am not merely making a meal or a dish but crafting an experience that bubbles up from someplace inside of me first, borne of a feeling, and then crafted outward. It is not about flipping through a list of recipes but rather culling from an internal well, something conjured that tantalizes all the senses, rather than just the tongue.

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Recently, I finished reading An Extravagant Hunger by my ex-Stanford writing class teacher Anne Zimmerman. The book was a biography of the famous food writer MFK Fisher and something that rang true throughout Fisher’s life was her absolute commitment to enjoying food and drink, even if eating solo or making a simple lunch at home. It also made me recall all the meals I had read Fisher describe in her books that were accompanied at the end by Crème de Cassis, the dark red liqueur made from black currants, which had always given me a tinge of romantic fantasy in the gut but which I had never yet tried. I researched and discovered an elegant drink, the Kir Royale, which is made from floating fine French Champagne atop a few tablespoons of the liqueur and decided to build an appetizer course around this drink; one that would equally fulfill my many deep hungers that had been percolating in my mind regarding the making and sharing of food.

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Dorie Greenspan’s goat cheese mini puffs were the perfect solution. Made from her exquisite choux dough recipe and accentuated with a whipped goat cheese filling, the resulting clouds of herb-spiked goodness added a light and airy bite between sips of the heavier, sweet cocktail. I served the drinks in fine stemless  flutes on our everyday, ordinary coffee table as we came together at the end of a regular old workday, shoving unread stacks of newspaper aside to partake in our ongoing obsession with Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition of classy bites with our regular scheduled television programming made our evening special, with nothing more to celebrate other than our lust for life and enjoying the present moment with each other—and that in this day and age is becoming ever so priceless.

Superhero Cereal

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Before we lived in this grand contemporary world where one can find a whole restaurant dedicated to the acai bowl, you had to have connections to people in the multilevel marketing world to access a taste of the superfood berry. I’ll always remember the nights in the early 2000s when I would head to my friend Stephen’s house before a night on the town or dinner plans out and we would share prized drinks out of his regal purple MonaVie container in the fridge. A couple we knew had become privileged distributors of the drink in America and they doled out cartons to Stephen and I to share as if we were co-owners of a child or a painting or some other highly valuable thing. We would pour the electrifying purple liquid into small shot glasses ice cold and feel something close to high with the buzz of its healthy goodness.

Now of course superfoods are everywhere, and in fact the word superfood may even already be a passé thing, kind of like probiotics and antioxidants. But acai is here to stay. No longer relegated to skeptical pyramid schemes, it can be easily found on the freezer shelf of every local grocer.

Until now, my acai lust has been centered on using the frozen, unsweetened packs of the berry slush as a smoothie additive. Not only does it provide the much needed slush element when I want to use fresh rather than frozen fruits and to my daily super shake, but the signature cool, mellow berry flavor provides a complementary and non-conflicting base to just about any ingredient. It also, unlike ice, doesn’t get watery.

But recently I have fallen for the acai bowl, which is like a smoothie cereal but more fun. The trick is to whirl the frozen acai with some kind of thickener like frozen banana, avocado or a favorite nut butter, which gives it some heft enough to sit in a bowl. Then the fun begins as you layer as many other ingredients as you want on the top. The combinations are endless and fun, promoting experimentation to find your favorite version. You also encounter some surprising taste delights. For example if you layer seeds, like sunflower or pepitas, atop your acai and then sprinkle honey over the seeds, they all stick together in a sort of sweet, chilled and chewy jerky that is ultra fun to eat.

My Latest Favorite Acai Bowl

1 pack frozen acai, unsweetened
1/2 frozen banana
1 tbls. almond butter
½ gala apple
½ c. frozen boysenberries

Blend all of this together for the base.

Top with:
1/8 c. sunflower seeds
1/8 c. pepitas
1 tbls. shredded, nonsweetened organic coconut
1 tbls. hemp hearts
1 tbls. chia seeds
½ c. sliced fresh strawberries
1-2 tsp. drizzled honey

My New Favorite BBQ Joint

 

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Mention the word BBQ to any red-blooded male and you are likely to open a Pandora’s Box of fervent verbal oaths on how to make the absolute best version of America’s beloved meat dish. And those opinions vary so vast and widely that “perfect” BBQ has been debated as far and wide as the lowbrow college football tailgate to a recent in-depth essay in the supposedly higher brow New Yorker called In Defense of the True ‘Cue. When I met the Cute Gardener, he was a confessed BBQ-aholic and had his own set of mandates on what kind of rub, smoke and meat were best suited to earn that hallowed title of “superior” on the good old palate of the USA. He preferred his seasoning dry rather than saucy, didn’t fancy all kinds of adornments, and eschewed many a restaurants’ claim to offering real BBQ if there was an absence of the honorable smoke ring between the charred edge of a cut of meat and its fleshier insides.

Our first four years together weaved together a chain of BBQ enlightenment. We found excellent down home pulled pork sandwiches on simple slices of white bread at a picnic bench strewn chain called Rudy’s in New Mexico. But a string of ensuing places in Los Angeles turned up nothing but bite after bite of failure. Trendy spots that offered real BBQ tri-tip and chicken and brisket were merely offering braised meats with soupy, oversweet or tangy sauces. The CG resorted to fantasizing about his earlier days in Kansas City and we agreed to basically eschew any sort of BBQ unless we’d someday in the future get down to those parts. Why deal with disappointment over and over again, he’d say, especially when one has truly tasted the best? There was only one problem, I had never tasted the best yet but who wanted to waste money trying in Southern California; we both agreed.

But one recent early evening in our own backyard inspiration hit and the CG pulled a rack of pork ribs out of the fridge that he had been marinating in a dry rub of his own for over a day. The simple yet deep rub of salt, pepper, paprika, garlic salt, onion salt, cayenne and cumin was further emphasized by a trip outdoors to the domed Weber where the meat was smoked atop coals mingling with bits of oak barrel and peach tree woods. The result was incredible juicy and tender BBQ ribs that oozed with flavor while boasting an immaculately pink smoke ring. I finally found my perfect BBQ joint after all.

Not Your Poor Man’s Bread Pudding

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Bread gets a bad rap in modern day culture, and rightly so. The plastic wrapped, pre-sliced loaves of bleached and processed bread that were introduced to grocery stores in the 1950s for the sake of housewifery convenience have bastardized one of our most glorious foods. In her book “The Art of Cooking”, famous food writer MFK Fisher disowned American bread as a travesty of a society given over to gimmick in the kitchen in lieu of the transcendental rites of baking from pure grain. Her memories of life in Switzerland and France are dotted with great crusty rolls of artisanal sourdough relegated to the halls of nostalgia in her late California existence where hideous products like Wonder Bread reigned.

Bread in my household is for the most part unseen. A few times a year we will venture to Diamond Bakery on La Brea in Los Angeles where an old Jewish lady has run the shabby counter baking fragrant oblongs of seedless rye for over 30 years. Or on visits to Continental Sausage in Glendale we may purchase a special loaf of hearty, German multigrain to swath with pebbled, dark mustard for our Weisswurst. But other than that we retain a sense of bread snobbery waiting patiently for those five star meals out when, while anticipating an amuse bouche at a fancy restaurant, we will devour masterful rolls of olive, pumpernickel, pretzel or fluffy white. The noted Italian restaurant Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, which sadly is closing its doors this month, had the best breadbasket with its hot pile of rustic Italian, focaccia, baby ciabattini and calzone-like Stromboli. But it is probably good that our bread forays are few and far between, or at least my thighs like to think so.

But last week I was yearning for bread after finding a decidedly upscale version of bread pudding in my daily food-related email newsletter stream. Bread pudding gets an even lower rap than loaves. Its conception came about in the 11th and 12th centuries when frugal cooks needed creative ways to stretch stale bread. In the 13th century, the dish became the ideal “poor man’s pudding,” popular with large, poor families. For years, as my boyfriend and I have watched the popular Food Network show “Chopped,” we have always snickered wickedly when the contestants during the dessert round “cheap out” by making bread pudding rather than some other illustrious cake or pastry. When I announced that I would be cooking a savory version for dinner on my one night a week to make a meal, I got a similar snicker from the Cute Gardener. Still I carried on and visited my local market for some voluptuous circles of French that I let go stale on my counter for the next 24 hours.

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This was no poor man’s bread pudding. It required a chunk of good Parmesan, expensive rounds of pancetta, quality olive oil, baby spinach, six whole eggs, zesty red pepper flakes and a jar of roasted red peppers. Once the whole mix was combined and placed lovingly into a large cast iron skillet, I realized I had indeed made an entrée that could easily feed a whole family.

When the bread pudding emerged from the oven, the house was imbued with a smell I can only describe as comfort. There is something magical that happens when cheese and butter bubble alongside the edges of a puffed loaf, studded with crispy meat. I understood why the dish could fortify a family low in the pocketbook with not only a bevy of nutrients but also an ambiance of security and belly contentedness, even if only fleeting. We scooped large wedges of the creamy, milky pudding onto plates and headed to the couch with glasses of red wine.

While proceeding to eat we watched one part of the documentary “Cooked,” starring my favorite food writer Michael Pollan. It is a four part series on food through the lens of the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. We just so happened to choose “Air” which was all about the magic of real, home-cooked bread. It touted a return to the kitchen to reclaim our lost traditions, like the creation of real, vitamin-rich breads in order to reconnect with the idea that cooking, at its origin, is about nourishing our selves and our souls.

 

Inspired by Heavenly Hominy

 

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Neal Fraser’s Pork Posole

Last weekend at a party, a mutual friend of ours was talking to the Cute Gardener and I about having a hard time making reservations for a super trendy restaurant run by a trio of guys who have become emperors of fad food and venues in Los Angeles. At one point, she asked if we’d join her if she ever succeeded in securing a table. We politely declined and admitted we were particularly picky about where we spend our time and our dollars when it comes to eating out. We aren’t the types to pull over at any old place while on a road trip and we tend not to frequent a place more than once unless it completely blows us away. We rarely, if ever, eat breakfast out because it is always better at home. The CG makes dinner for us most nights and honestly, most of the time, even his most basic dishes taste ten times better than anything we might find in a local bistro or gastropub. We spend a lot of time researching restaurants before we step through their doors. For us eating out is not about casually finding sustenance, it is about the ever elusive potential to encounter nirvana and then to be so inspired that we want to steal the ideas and replicate them at home. We want to be shocked, cooked for, surprised and delighted and we budget heartily to be able to do so like some people budget for adrenaline adventures, fancy toys, vacation homes or expensive clothing.

This was the case recently after a dinner at Chef Neal Fraser’s Redbird where we discovered a smoky, rust colored posole thick with rich pork and topped with pork belly. It was more of a robust chili than a traditional stew fortified with chewy nuggets of hominy. The restaurant is located in the rectory building of what was L.A.’s first archdiocese Catholic cathedral so I even felt the blessings of angelic intervention with each bite of food. Fraser had evoked something heavenly in my mouth.

Could it be true that I hadn’t had hominy—the distinctly meaty dried corn that is soaked and plumped to perfection in a mineral lime bath—since I was pregnant with my now 24-year-old daughter? I used to crave hominy in that weird, idiosyncratic and random way of mothers-to-be, stuffed into quesadillas at midnight with scoops of grocery store potato salad smothered on top.

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My inspired posole tacos

My reunion with Fraser’s trumped up hominy was so harmonious; I chose to delve into some posole making myself the next week on my night to cook. I found a fat can of hominy in my local Mexican food aisle and made this version going halves on the chilies. It was delicious as a soup but even better two and three days later, after it had thickened into the perfect topping for quick, impromptu lunch tacos dressed with radish, cabbage and cotija cheese.

French Black Pepper Omelet Hits the Egg Spot

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On the British comedy series Gavin & Stacey, Stacey’s mum likes to cook omelets for visitors. Her version of the universal egg dish comes flat and bright yellow with a slice of processed cheese and is a comfort food calling card she uses to woo her daughter’s friends while creating hysterical community around her tiny kitchen table. Being a lover of the omelet myself, I have ended many an evening watching that show with my own journey into the kitchen hankering for some combination of eggs, milk and cheese.

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Although it is one of the simplest dishes to create, an omelet can actually go south really easy. If the pan is too hot you will get browned, scabby edges. If the cheese isn’t chopped right the big pieces may not melt in concert with the cooking of the eggs. If you don’t whip your eggs for at least a minute before pouring them into the pan you risk a fluff-less outcome. If you eat an omelet regularly, you can fall into basic egg boredom. Because of this I am constantly practicing my omelet making techniques from a variety of trusted sources while always on the lookout for a spectacular new recipe.

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Recently, I discovered a new favorite, borrowed from the French and altered to my taste buds. Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s omelet caught my eye because of its inclusion of Boursin pepper cheese, which happens to be my preferred spreading cheese for crisp, white water crackers during the holidays. Not only does the cheese boast a peppery blast to the tongue, it melts better than anything I have encountered. Something about the simplicity of good cracked pepper firing up a mellow, unctuous cheese added to a beaten egg and sprinkled with fresh tangy chives sounded specifically good to me in the same way a basic cacao e pepe (pasta with black pepper) becomes an unpretentious, bowl of noodles while being elevated to supreme comfort food status.

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I watched a video of Chef Lefebvre making the omelet first. I splurged and used real French butter. I cut the amount of butter used in half and didn’t brush the eggs with it at the end of cooking. I sprinkled a very high-class flake salt on top alongside the chives, which I discovered should be done very sparingly. The heat of the pepper and the texture of the cheese came out perfect underneath the brightness from the chives. This will be my new go-to omelet … if I may only continue to find the elusive pepper Boursin in my local grocery stores.

A Smoothie a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

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The smoothie has come a long way since it first hit the trendiness scale in the late 1980s. I remember the day when my stepfather brought home a fancy schmancy blender and started making us the newfangled and so-called “healthy milkshakes” involving frozen bananas, real vanilla ice cream and high caloric protein powders for dessert or before we would hit the treadmill post-homework in our equally trendy home gym. The fad lasted for about a month before the blender ended up gathering dust in the cabinet above the fridge like many other good intentions in our household.

Nowadays, the smoothie has morphed into its new incarnation as a truly healthy way to disguise and suck down super foods daily, super foods having become the craze of my generation. We want to eat our kale and chia seeds, we just don’t want to taste them. Therefore we have created yet another way to hide the vitamins in something that tastes good in order to ingest them in the amounts we are told we need them.

A day does not go by in my household where I don’t fire up the Nutribullet early morn with its cup stuffed to the brim with ingredients designed to keep me well, glowing and vibrant. Because it can get a little boring to have the same old smoothie, or variations thereof 365 days a year, I am always on the lookout for new recipes. My neighbor recently went to New Zealand and found a little gem of a shake from a street corner vendor that we both swear actually does taste like an oatmeal cookie. I spiffed it up with some organic maca and pumpkin puree for the holidays to make it my own.

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NEW ZEALAND NUTTY

1/2 frozen banana
1/2 frozen pear
1/4 cup pumpkin puree
1 tsp. organic maca powder
1-1/2 cup almond milk
1 tbs. soaked chia seeds
Handful raw walnuts
Cinnamon to sprinkle on top

Put everything except for the cinnamon in a blender and blend. Pour into a glass and sprinkle cinnamon on top.

Food is Love – Saffron Risotto

IMG_8852In my early thirties I had a girlfriend whom my friends and family used to call Fill. Many people upon first meeting her would ask if her name was really Phil and we would let them in on the acronym her moniker revealed which was “Food Is Lotsa Love”. For four years all of my friends would scramble for invitations to dinner at my house on the weekends in which they could be regaled with dishes from Fill’s repertoire of recipes handed down by the women in her Grecian family. These were things like fried chicken and lemon squares with dilled rice, zucchini stuffed with lamb, lamb spaghetti, potato and egg scrambles and tangy dolmadas. She also had her personal Southern California surfer girl’s roster of specialties that included pulled pork tacos on homemade half chewy and half crisp taco shells, enchiladas in deep green verde sauce and broiled jerk chicken sandwiches that put tropical islands to shame.

At the time, I was more of a professional work-a-holic with a high powered career who hardly set foot in the kitchen myself so I was hard pressed to understand an iota of how fueling the body for the day could equate to an emotional experience the likes of what I would see in Fill when she would spend hours prepping delicacies for my entourage and me that would be gulped down in mere minutes. I certainly didn’t want to waste any of my precious hours in the pantry when there were deals to me made and contracts to pursue.

When I was a kid I used to wonder why my mom would get so giddy on Thanksgiving and Christmas eves with the idea of waking up each holiday morn at five a.m. to start cooking a meal that would proceed to take the entire day as she slaved over a hot stove. Greyhound cocktails to ease the ride aside, she would steadfastly remain in her apron from the moment the stuffing fumes woke my siblings and I from sleep until the last slice of pumpkin pie mingled with our tryptophan comas near midnight.

Although I definitely enjoyed making meals for my daughter while she grew up, I prided myself on the quick and easy no nonsense choices. All of this was par for the course until five years ago when I really turned up my foodie radar a notch.

It started with a Christmas dinner I made from scratch in my small Venice Beach bungalow for some visiting Austrian artist friends, my brother and the Cute Gardener when our relationship was nary a month new. 48 hours of cooking started with turkey brining and sourdough bread frying for a sausage sage stuffing and ended with hand-whipped cream for special sweet potato casserole cup desserts. As my friends laughed and imbibed in my tiny living room for two days, I wiled away the hours with John Coltrane Pandora in my miniscule kitchen. The smiles on my guest’s faces were the cherry on top of the cake of satisfaction I felt after whipping up that meal. I realized while doing so that food really is love and there is an extreme squirt of ecstasy that is released in the brain when you know you are putting effort into making those you are fondest of feel content in the belly—delivering umami to their most primal necessities.

Of late, my love has turned up in various pots of saffron risotto. Risotto is truly one of those foods made with affection. No person in their right mind would stand over a hot pot for up to an hour, stirring constantly, unless they were doing it from the heart. But there is something magical that happens when I start the first burner going for the chicken stock up until the moment I swirl in the accentuating Parmesan cheese at the last minute before serving that can only be described as love—my pain in my right wrist goes away, time disappears, and moments pass swiftly just like they do when I am in the zone painting or writing a short story. My chest swells with delight and I am given the privilege to see the smile alight the lips of the first person who takes a steaming bite. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

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Food Is Love – Saffron Risotto
Serves 4

Ingredients

5 cups chicken stock
1 pinch saffron
6 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups uncooked Arborio rice
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste

  1. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer.
  2. Ladle a little stock into a small bowl.
  3. Add the saffron threads or powder and leave to infuse.
  4. Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan until foaming.
  5. Add the onion and cook gently for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened.
  6. Add the rice.
  7. Stir until grains start to swell and burst, then add a few ladlefuls of the stock, with the saffron liquid, and salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Stir over low heat until the stock is absorbed.
  9. Add the remaining stock, a few ladlefuls at a time, allowing the rice to absorb all of the liquid before adding more, and stirring constantly.
  10. After 20-25 minutes, the rice should be al dente and the risotto golden yellow, moist and creamy.
  11. Gently stir in about two-thirds of the Parmesan and the rest of the butter.
  12. Heat through until the butter has melted, then taste for seasoning.
  13. Transfer the risotto to a warmed serving bowl or platter and serve immediately, with the remaining Parmesan sprinkled on top.
  14. Enjoy!

 

Sanam-Spiced Coconut Rice Veggie Medley

IMG_8834I have been on a mission for the past year to make macrobiotics my main style of eating. Aside from the times the Cute Gardener and I eat out, I have been successful in transitioning over to this lifestyle, which in simple terms looks like this daily:

Whole Grains 20-30% of diet
Protein, including animal protein, tempeh and beans 20-30% of diet
Fresh seasonal vegetables (mostly lightly cooked) 30% of diet
Dairy, eggs and fruits 5-10%
Fats and oils including olive, sesame and ghee 2 %

Sticking with these ratios tends to be very easy when one cooks for one’s self and doesn’t rely on grocery store packages to fulfill one’s food goals. Sticking to the periphery of markets where the fresh stuff resides keep temptation to a minimum.

IMG_8833With macrobiotics, meals tend to center around a base of lentils, beans or rice mixed with vegetables, greens and spices. This foundation is then accented by sauces, dips and fermented condiments like kimchee and sauerkraut.

Although at first the possibilities seem endless, it can be intimidating to procure, prep and make fresh meals every time I am hungry. So I take some time on the weekends or the beginning of the week to prepare certain things for seven days ahead including:

  • sprouting beans like mung in jars for snacking and salad toppings
  • making large pots of rice, lentils or beans to keep in the refrigerator that can be used to make a variety of fun, hot lunch bowls or cold breakfast porridges
  • soaking peppers in vinegars for spicy sauces or vegetables in pickling liquids
  • cleaning and chopping hearty greens like kale and collards and then massaging with sea salt and olive oil to soften in the fridge for use in salads, sautés and side dishes

Then during the week I stick to a simple recipe that works for any meal I am attempting whether breakfast or lunch:

  1. Pick a cup’s worth of a bean or grain.
  2. Pick some fresh, seasonal greens and vegetables to chop up.
  3. Saute that all together with olive, sesame or coconut oil, spices and/or herbs of your choice.
  4. Throw in a sweet, savory or spicy vinegar, dressing or sauce.
  5. Sprinkle in some creative and nutritional additives like dried fruits, nuts or seeds.
  6. Voila, you have a meal.

IMG_8831I am currently at work on a collection of recipes that encompass the most successful results of my experimentation in this vein. The first one marries my love of exotic spice with my addiction to coconut. It also incorporates vegetables gathered from my very own garden, which the Cute Gardener cultivates with an amazingly green thumb. The surprising marriage of raisin and eggplant turns into a warm, buttery texture in the mouth similar to creamy Thanksgiving stuffing.

IMG_8835Sanam-Spiced Coconut Rice Veggie Medley
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 Japanese eggplant cut into small cubes
6 green beans chopped up into quarter inch pieces
1 small Anaheim pepper, minced
One cup cooked organic brown rice
1 tablespoon dark raisins
1-1/2 tablespoon of sanam chili vinegar (recipe below)
Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium high heat, melt the coconut oil. Saute the eggplant, green beans and red pepper until fork tender about five minutes. Add the brown rice untill warm. Toss in the raisins and sprinkle in the Sanam vinegar. Pour into a bowl and enjoy!

Sanam Vinegar

Take 1 ounce of dried East Indian Sanam peppers and chop up. Place chopped up peppers and seeds into 8 ounces of your choice of vinegar in a jar with a lid. I used red wine vinegar for this recipe. Let the jar sit in on your kitchen counter for one week. Then strain and put the liquid into a container in your fridge to use at will.

A Perfect Pink Pig Raises My Curve

IMG_8376 The Cute Gardener and I tend to spend our entertainment budget money on food. While other people are spending dollars on clothes and toys and second homes and playthings, we tend to live low on the consumerist radar in lieu of once a week forays into the culinary landscape. Whether it be low brow Sonoran hot dogs on a trip to Arizona or the latest farm to table $200 gastropub to crop up in downtown L.A. our indulgences lie weekly in the adventures of tasting.

This both inspires and drives the way we cook at home. Sometimes we keep it simple, like when the Cute Gardener whips up something from his never boring oeuvre of Italian pasta or Asian stir fry dishes based on whatever vegetables are currently sprouting in the garden. And once a week, I make a meal that is like me: messy, complicated and typically soaked in French undertones. Because we eat out so much we have a high bar to gauge our cooking. The CG who’s been cooking for himself the past 25 years typically meets that bar or surpasses it, making me a spoiled girl. When it comes to me, who’s only seriously endeavored into the world of home chef-dom for the past five or six years, though, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes a dish turns out remarkably well as with a recent olive tapenade-stuffed game hen and other times it flops miserably like the time I halved the beef called for in a beef wellington recipe but didn’t adjust the cooking temp and time accordingly producing an overly dry bastardization of a high caliber filet.

So I bring humor and hope into my ambitious weekly cooking evenings and a dash of the low expectations that come when you know you are an amateur dabbling in the big leagues. When we first met the CG told me that, as much as he appreciated the loving intention that went along with a woman wanting to cook for him, I should be warned that he has eaten out way too much for anything to impress him on the home front so I shouldn’t take anything personally. In our three-year relationship, I have heard him take a bite of two distinct dinners of mine and immediately say “This is good.” I thought that was a remarkable accomplishment. Last week I finally heard the holy grail of compliments escape his lips while biting into a slab of pork loin roast I made. He said, “See, meals like this make me wonder why we go out to eat.” Of course, he wasn’t serious about us not going out to eat –in the ensuing days after that comment we enjoyed Scratch Bar’s lovely cured pig’s heads and pink and purple pickled foods followed by a dash into Barney’s Beanery for a dessert of chili cheese fries. But I have been waiting to hear those words come out of his lips for three years.

So back to my learning curve-raising roast. Dorie Greenspan has been my silent mentor as I chip my way through her “Around My French Table.” So far, she has not served me wrong as I use her book as my personal classroom. Despite the fact that I have a tough judge and coach at home, I continue to try difficult things because over time, like with anything that requires practice, I perfect subtleties that benefit my cuisine overall. I learn when my oven times should be tweaked because I know the elevation of my home is different than the recipe originator’s. I know when I can leave an ingredient out and when I can’t. I know when I can substitute a vegetable for another and when I shouldn’t because of things like water content or fiber. I learn personal golden rules like always massage olive oil into kale before using it for a salad or never cook fresh peas for more than a minute in a hot pan lest they shrivel. And I raise my own cooking curve to challenging new heights. This is why I was pleased as punch to see my chard stuffed pork loin emerge from the oven last week with sublime “just pink” flesh and a dense and juicy tenderness.

Here’s Dorie’s original recipe with my own notes added at the end.

Chard Stuffed Pork Loin Roast

1 bunch Swiss chard, about 6 stalks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, fine dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup golden raisins
red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 1/2 pounds pork loin roast, at room temperature

Wash the chard well.  Trim the ends of the stalks, about 1/2 inch or so.  Then, cut or tear the leaves away from the center ribs.  Finely chop the ribs and tear or roughly chop the chard leaves.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven, over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and starts to color, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. Add the chard ribs and cook for another 3 minutes.  Add the chard leaves in two batches, adding the second when the first wilts enough to make room for it.  Cook until the chard is tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Stir in the raisins and transfer the mixture to a medium bowl.  Add a pinch or so of the chili flakes, plus salt and pepper, to taste.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Wipe clean the pan used for the chard mixture and place the pan in the hot oven.

Crack the peppercorns and coriander using a mortar and pestle or place between two sheets of waxed paper and pound with a mallet or skillet.  Set aside.

If your butcher has not already done so, use a long, sharp knife to make a lengthwise slit in the pork roast, taking care not to cut the meat in two, about 1/2 inch from the outer edge.  Open the roast and spoon the stuffing onto the meat.  Close the meat around the stuffing and tie with kitchen twine, at intervals, replacing any stuffing that escapes as you go.

Rub the pork with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, season with salt and rub the crushed peppercorns and coriander into the meat.  Carefully remove the hot roasting pan from the oven.  Place the pork loin, fat side up, in the hot pan.  Roast uncovered and undisturbed until the thickest part of the loin, not the stuffing, reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Check at 25 minutes but expect that it will take about 40 minutes.

Once the roast is done, remove from the oven and tent lightly with foil on a plate or cutting board.  The pork should rest for 15 minutes.

NOTES:

I did not have kitchen twine so I used two skewers through either end of the open side of the meat and they worked just fine.

My chard leaves in the garden were massive so I only used three.

I used dark raisins instead of golden and they substituted well.

I served this with a kale, dried cranberry, and crushed almond salad lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and a Parmesan polenta with parsley.