Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


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Caesar Slaw

At the risk of sounding like an absurdly superannuated Holden Caulfield: I hate phonies. My lifelong antipathy for people and things pretending to be something other than themselves, though it certainly peaked during my whiny youth, regularly reasserts itself. I’m not sure this is my best quality, but, in the interest of following the principle I’m just about to outline here, I may as well own it.

Laminate floors pretending to be wood, for instance, really rankle me, as do veneers of all kinds, cubic zirconium, silk greenery, pleather, and collagen injections. I want them all to be what they really are. Something in me respects, almost above all else, a lack of guile, an unabashedness. Give me colorful plastic beads over “faux pearls” any day.

That’s precisely why I feel at peace with my laminate countertops. While it’s true that I don’t love them and that their replacement with some type of butcher block lies about half way down the “long list” of home improvement projects for my hunky carpenter-husband, I don’t mind them too awful much precisely because they bear no resemblance to anything except laminate. They aren’t “faux” anything. When you see them, from well across the room, you don’t wonder what they are. They are, very simply, themselves. And I think there’s honor in that.

When it comes to foods pretending to be something other than themselves, my distaste verges on disdain. Meatless hotdogs, turkey bacon, nondairy whipped topping, chicken-free chicken tenders, fat-free half-and-half, soy cheese, sugar substitutes, nondairy frozen dessert, gluten-free flour, and salt-free salt. Heaven help us, if Michael Pollan can’t. I emphatically and self-righteously refuse to feed my family food forgeries.

So, when I tell you right now that this recipe is a lettuce-free Caesar salad or that it’s topped with something so smoky and crunchy you’ll almost think it’s bacon, just bear with me for a minute. It’s not coleslaw masquerading as a salad, or a salad designed to sneak in some extra cruciferous nutrition. And the nuts that go on top really aren’t trying to be bacon, but they have a little bit of baconness about them, just as a matter of serendipity. (It’s the smoked paprika–nothing more.)

This is a main-dish coleslaw, if you can imagine such a thing. A big, beautiful salad perfect for the dead of winter when the best tasting vegetables are those that grow in cooler weather in far-off places and then, hard as softballs, travel cross-country none the worse for wear.  Crunchy and wet, salty and sweet, and (I promise) utterly guileless. My whole family ate it (almost)…and the outlier has recently declared his intention to start eating vegetables “when I turn four.” We’ll see.

The nut recipe here is adapted from Ina Garten’s Chipotle and Rosemary Roasted Nuts, which, by chance, my friend (and most loyal reader) Elizabeth texted me about one day last month, as I happened to be preparing to throw together my third batch of the very same recipe.  (I had distributed the first two batches as part of teachers’ gifts.) What are the odds of that? It’s too good to reserve for Christmastime–am I right, Elizabeth?–especially given that I use candied nuts all year long on salads. Plus, the absolute unlikelihood of the two of us preparing the same nuts recipe seemed almost like a sign.

Main-Dish Coleslaw with Smoky Praline Pecans

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Phase 1: For the nuts…

4 cups of pecans (or a nut of your choice)

1/4 cup maple syrup

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

kosher salt, to taste

1. Combine all the ingredients in a big glass casserole dish.

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2. Roast at 375 degrees for 25-35 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are beautifully glazed. The liquid around them should turn thick, like caramel. Salt them generously when you remove them from the oven.

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Once it cools, it will be hard and amber colored. You’ll need a metal spatula to break them up.

Phase 2: Now, make your coleslaw. Alternatively, just eat all the nuts as snacks and forget about the greenery. Your call.

For the coleslaw…

A small head of cabbage

Your favorite bottled Caesar dressing

Crumbled feta cheese

A quarter to a half of a small red onion, thinly sliced

A small handful of dried fruit (like craisins, raisins, or dried cherries)

A handful of chopped smoky glazed nuts (from above)

One soft-boiled egg per serving (optional)

1. Chop your cabbage into confetti.

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2. Put it into a big bowl and add enough dressing to suit you, as well as all the other ingredients (except for the egg).

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3. Serve with a sliced soft-boiled egg on the side.

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Delay-day Blueberry Muffins

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Eight years ago, I was just about to become a mommy for the first time. While my husband went to work, I wandered around the house, waiting. I don’t know what I did while I waited. Time felt less precious then, and I didn’t mark it the way I do now; it simply evaporated, unnoticed. I’m sure I slept late. I took quite a few long baths. I folded and re-folded teeny tiny clothes. I worried. And I waited.

The winter of 2007, like this one, had been virtually snow-less, and I really wanted it to snow so that my teacher-husband could stay at home with me, waiting. Being expectant is a round-the-clock job, and it’s less cumbersome with company.  The transformation that awaited us would be so complete, it seemed impossible. Changing from no one’s parent to someone’s parent isn’t a gradual evolution. It isn’t like the way summer becomes winter. It isn’t like the way that toothless baby boy would turn into an almost-8-year-old, a jumble of unruly hair, over-sized teeth, and potty humor. No, becoming a parent is a sudden shift, like going to bed on a green world and waking up under a layer of thick, still snow. Only it lasts forever.

In a poetically beautiful coincidence, my water broke and it began to snow at almost the same moment, on a Sunday morning in mid-January. By the next morning, I was holding a brown-eyed baby boy and looking out the hospital window at a whitewashed universe. Everything had changed.

Eight years and three kids later, I still wish it would snow, so that my teacher-husband could stay at home with me. It’s true that the shine has worn off of parenthood, and I don’t spend my days longing to hold those little people in my arms anymore. Nevertheless, when other moms complain that they dread snow days, I try not too look too smug: How clever I am, to have married a teacher! When the kids are home, he is home. Snow days are nothing but sweetness and light at our house, all hot cocoa and melting marshmallows, all button eyes and carrot noses. I’m a lucky momma.

So far, this year, the snow has skirted the northern borderlines of our county over and over again. We’ve watched the radar as green blobs broke into bits just to our west. The closest we’ve come to a real snow occurred the first night of Christmas vacation, when a light dust fell while we slept. The next morning, when the kids donned their snow apparel and requested a carrot for their snowman, I tried not to laugh. I said, “Once you build your snowman, I’ll give you a carrot.” Thirty minutes or so later, I heard the back door open and the little voice of my youngest said, “Mommy! We’re ready for the carrot nose!”

Every flake of snow in the backyard had been enlisted in this creation:

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Resourceful little boogers!

No true snow days, not yet, but last week, the first week of second semester, the intense cold resulted in a couple of two-hour delays, which offer just a glimpse of the glory of a full-blown snow day, but even two-hour delays deserve a tiny bit of celebration. These blueberry muffins–warm and sweet, a pastiche of summertime purple, an echo of golden yolks and butter–are just the thing for a special morning that will give way to a magically shortened day.  Whip some up for your babies next time the weather gods gift you two extra hours of morning before you bustle them out into the world:

Blueberry Muffins with Salted Butter

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1 stick unsalted butter, melted

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

1 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups blueberries (Wild blueberries work best. Check the frozen fruit section in your grocery store.)

1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and grease your muffin tins or line them with papers.

2. Beat together your melted butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Beat them really well so that they become fluffy and light in color. Then whisk in your buttermilk.

3. Add your dry ingredients all at once and stir just until combined. Then add your blueberries (thawed and well-drained) and mix briefly until they are well-distributed.

4. Distribute the batter evenly between twelve muffin cups. Bake them just until they rise and turn golden. In my oven, this takes about 15 minutes.

5. Let them cool for a few minutes or you will scald your tongue with the burst berry juices. (I’m not sure it’s not worth it, but that’s just me.) Serve them with some salted butter. I promise: salted butter really brings out the brightness in the berries.

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Eggnog Cheesecakes

This recipe is not for January. If you’re reading this in January, feel free to stop right now. Eggnog cheesecakes are the last thing you want, I know.

Eggnog cheesecakes and Christmas cookies and spiced cider and candy canes have about as much appeal right now as the snow that scuffs up along the edges of the snowplowed streets. At this point, I would no more bake an eggnog cheesecake than I would drag my shedding Christmas tree back up from the curb, through the frozen lawn and into the house.

(It was a lovely Christmas, though, and just look what a good mom I was):

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYes, folks, that’s the trifecta: multicolored glittery sugar, frosting, and little kids. And I didn’t curse once during the entire experience! In fact, I didn’t even feel like cursing.

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The Christmas cookies are long gone now, and the snow will melt away before we know it. It will be, I strongly suspect, in only eleven months’ time, Christmas 2015, and, with great pleasure, I’ll pour a glug of velvety eggnog into my coffee cup and wistfully say, “Do you remember those amazing eggnog cheesecakes I made last year? How did I do that?”

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And so, this recipe is for that me. Christmas-2015-Courtney, this is how you did it:

4 ounces of cream cheese

3 tablespoons Lyle’s Golden Syrup

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1/4 cup sour cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Whipped cream

1. Skip the crust. Who needs it? Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2. Whip together the cream cheese and Golden Syrup first. (No Golden Syrup? Maybe try a comparable amount of sweetened condensed milk!)

3. Add the egg, egg yolk, and sour cream and whip again.

5. When it’s smooth and beautiful, add the vanilla and the nutmeg.

6. Bake the batter in ramekins (however many you can fill) in a water bath for just ten minutes. Then turn off the oven. Let the ramekins hang out in there for about another hour. Remove them from the oven when they are still quite wobbly.

7. Chill for a couple of hours and then top them with whipped cream.

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I didn’t even have time to take a picture before I tucked into mine. By March, I’ll be looking forward to them!