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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Superfood Salad

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The best thing about the holidays? Eggnog. Snow suits. Cinnamon brooms. Advent calendars. Grandparental visits. Eating dinner as night falls behind the window glass. In short, I can’t choose.

The worst thing about the holidays, though, is pretty straightforward: the diabolical metabolic/psychological phenomenon that occurs the day after an indulgent meal, insuring that despite the excess consumption of the day before, you will be absolutely famished when you wake up. Even if your brain is resigned to returning to your ordinary state of low-grade caloric deprivation–characterized by not eating more at meals than can fit on your plate, not eating pie for breakfast, not treating eggnog as a thirst-quencher, and not eating handfuls of sugar coated nuts or party mix or caramel corn every time you pass through the kitchen–your body will politely decline to make it easy for you. If you spend most of your days fighting the good (food) fight, then you’ll know that it takes a long time for bodies to acclimate to eating less than they really want…so why, oh why, should it take a single meal for them to embrace the practice of eating more than a day’s worth in a single sitting?

I suppose it is winter, and famine might be just around the corner for all our bellies know.

Stupid evolutionary biology.

I know of no way to get around it except to spend the few days after a holiday eating lots and lots of foods that do not include anything whipped with cream, topped with gravy, or soaked with butter.  (If that sounds bleak to you, then you are one of my people. And yet, needs must: those skinny jeans aren’t going to zip themselves.)

This salad, modeled on the superfood salad kits my grocery store sells for $3.99 per little bitty bag, looks gorgeous and tastes like a delicious variety of dietary prudence. (You know that pleasantly sore feeling your muscles have the day after a rigorous workout. That’s how this salad tastes…sort of.) It’s a little bit creamy, a little bit tart, a tiny bit sweet, and crunchy in a couple of different ways. Plus, I’m pretty sure that I’ve made approximately 12 servings of it for less than $5.00. (A little financial prudence this time of year isn’t a bad idea, either, right?)

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Homemade Superfood Salad (Serves 4 as a lunch main dish)

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons champagne vinegar (or whatever you have on hand)

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons milk

pinch of salt and a sprinkle of pepper

2 cups kale (baby kale or regular kale with the tough stems removed), thinly sliced

1/2 head of red cabbage, thinly sliced

1/2 head regular cabbage, thinly sliced

3 thinly sliced green onions

handful of nuts, chopped (whatever you have around…I used my candied nuts)

handful of raisins

2 ounces (or more) of feta cheese, crumbled

  1. In a BIG bowl, whisk together your mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, milk, salt, and pepper.  You are shooting for a tart-sweet dressing. (This, incidentally, is my grandmother’s coleslaw dressing recipe, when doubled and doused generously on chopped cabbage.)

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2. Add the sliced kale, cabbage, and green onions to the bowl and stir to toss.

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3. Divide between plates–you should have 4 generous servings–and top with nuts, raisins, and cheese.

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You might even enjoy it so much that you forget that it’s 100% gravy-free.  Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Balsamic-Marinated Onions

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I bought a pomegranate the other day, as I always do this time each year, just about the same time that the clementines appear in their little mesh sacks.  I dutifully ripped it open under water, the way the Pom-brand-produced grocery-store pamphlets advise us to do, so that the surrounding water absorbs the inevitable explosions of crimson juice when paring knives pierce the kernels in an effort to peel away the pith. Having carefully produced a small bowlful of brightly-colored arils, I placed the bowl on the kitchen island when the kids returned home from school. (I had already eaten a few of them, lodging one seed so firmly in my lower-left molar that I swore I’d never, ever eat another… Prufrock, do you dare to eat a pomegranate?)

My older son, our little fruit bat, came in, popped a handful of arils into his mouth, nummed in approval and declared, “These look like little gems.” He crunched a few more as I marveled at him. “You know,” he said, “like jewels or something. Like you could put them on some earrings.”

He’s a wordsmith at 8, his sidelong glances at the world so penetrating and perfect that he often manages to articulate just what I’d been thinking but not yet bothered to speak aloud. Pomegranate arils as garnets.

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Later in the day, as I prepared our freshly harvested salad–these cool, clear days still ferry just enough daylight to our drowsy garden patch to keep the almost-fluorescent leaves regenerating–he stood peering at the bowl. “Huh,” he said, as I plied a few marinated onion pieces from the jar in which they had been soaking.  “Those look like earthworms.” And then, oddly, “Can I taste one?” (Because, for an 8-year-old boy, there is nothing incongruous about the idea of eating something that looks like an earthworm.)

[Quick, utterly gratuitous aside: Moseying along a walking trail with me this week, my 4-year-old spotted a flattened earthworm, with “his guts squishing out.” After we doubled back some minutes later, he scoured the pavement for a second look at the carnage. “Hmmm,” he said. “I know it’s around here somewhere. It was right next to a squashed smoke-rette.” I just love that. It has nothing to do with the rest of this story, but I would hate to forget it.]

I dropped a deeply marinated onion into the mouth of my first baby bird, now 8 years old and nearly 9, for heaven’s sake. He puckered and nodded enthusiastically before saying: “Looks gross, tastes great.”

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Mixed salad greens + feta cheese + chopped candied nuts + dried cranberries + marinated red onions

Personally, I don’t think they look gross at all. They are a jewel-tone, like pomegranate arils or the burnished edges of sweetgum leaves in autumn.  Lovely and rich and earthy (without being earthwormy!), they transform a salad of delicate autumn greens–delicious all on their own but ethereal, collapsible, almost vanishing before your eyes–into something with strength and depth. To be sure, we are onion people, so maybe we are biased in their favor. I think my husband would eat thick slices of untreated, raw red onions on his salad without a grumble (although he does complain about being overwhelmed by their sharpness on his Panera Mediterranean Veggie sandwiches), but about these, there is no debate. You will turn your dinner side dish into a salad for which you would not begrudge paying $12.99 at a restaurant (the sort to which you sometimes add grilled chicken or salmon for an additional $4.99).

Yep, all it takes is a little bit of vinegar and the magic of time.

I realize this is so simple it hardly counts as a recipe, but it’s like the most delicious non-recipe I know. I also make these, sometimes, with red wine vinegar, but November feels balsamic to me…at least this year. I probably should say that these taste better when prepared with a decent quality of vinegar. I’m devoted to Aldi’s balsamic vinegar, which I buy by the flat when they have it in stock. In any case, don’t buy the cheapo plastic bottle and dump it in here. It just won’t have the molassesy quality that these onions really deserve.

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To marinate your own red onions:

  • Slice 1 red onion, as thin or as thick as you like.
  • Cram it into a jar. (I think jars work better than bowls because they are deep, so you can use less vinegar and still cover the onion.) Also, they have lids that seal tight.
  • Fill the jar with vinegar (balsamic or red wine, preferably…If you use regular white vinegar, the vibrant color will bleed out of your onion and they’ll wind up a pallid pink).
  • Add a little bit of sugar (somewhere between 1 tsp. and 1 tablespoon) and just a pinch of salt.
  • Screw the lid onto your jar, shake it all up, and refrigerate for at least an hour.
  • You can keep these as long as you want. I don’t know whether they would EVER spoil, with all that acid in them, but they’ve certainly never lasted long enough at my house for me to find out!


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Individual Pumpkin Cheesecakes

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Yesterday, after dropping the big kids at school, my youngest child and I were walking home beneath a churning gray sky through sidewalks and lawns thick with leaves. Over and over again, he pulled lovely little leaf bodies from beneath our feet and said, “Can I save dis one to take to school on Monday?”

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Me: If you want to take a school to leaf on Monday, you should choose it on Monday morning because the one you’re holding will have shriveled up and turned to dust by then.

Him: What about dis one?

Me: That one, too.

Him: What about dis one?

Me: That one, too.

And then, fat red lip thrust forward, he said: But that makes me sad!

So, being the wise, worldly woman I am, I began a rambling discourse about how we need the leaves to disintegrate quickly because otherwise we’d be overwhelmed by them and furthermore, their deteriorating selves feed the earth with the lifestuff it needs to regenerate in the spring and, well, you can imagine the rest. He may or may not have had any clue what I was talking about, but I went on, just to be sure I had sagely laid to rest the annual crisis of autumn.

Later, I reported to my husband that we’d had a Gerald-Manley-Hopkins moment. (Quite possibly, I am the first person ever to compose that exact sentence.) Do you know the poem “Spring and Fall“? It’s sweetly sad in that 19th-century way, a meditation on the seasons and on death and on grief. I once doubted that its subtitle “To a Young Child” was realistic: After all, what young child mourns the loss of the leaves in the fall? Our young child, of course.

I ought to have known that we would produce a child inclined to such contemplation and melancholy. We are autumn people. Married eleven years (as of yesterday), we have wallowed in the falls of every one. That is one reason we love pumpkin so much: Cinnamon and clove proffer nostalgia, coating the tongue with the tenderest kind of sadness, the kind that looks always backward and forward all at once.

Before I drift any further into a self-indulgent exploration of time’s passage, I’ll cut to the chase. I have another pumpkin recipe to share here. My last post was a twofer, the heart of it dedicated to Powerfully Pumpkin Bread and a post-it note addendum for Pumpkin Creme Brulee at the bottom. This one will (eventually) be about individual pumpkin cheesecakes, ideal for feeding your own hunky husband, if you happen to have an autumnal anniversary… or a little bit of canned pumpkin left over from your batch of pumpkin bread…or just a craving for something yummy on a Saturday night. But, before I show you how to do that, let me show you all the pumpkin shenanigans from our house this morning. If these photos don’t demonstrate why the passage of each autumn is something worth grieving, then I don’t know what would. (Yes, we somehow managed not to carve our pumpkins until the day of Halloween!)

I heard a rumor that not everyone carves pumpkins shirtless, but my crew all goes into the guts up to their elbows. Plus, there’s a certain amount of shrapnel that’s inevitable in the carving process. Thus, they shed their shirts:

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He’s saying, “Are you seriously using a drywall saw on the pumpkin?”

But it turned out alright. Here they all are, trying to look like the jack-o-lanterns they designed:

G's pumpkinOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd, pumpkins successfully carved and lit up, here they are preparing to trick-or-treat. (In fact, as I write this, they are still prowling the neighborhood!) They are dressed as the characters from How To Train Your Dragon.

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Left to right: Astrid, Stoick the Vast, and Hiccup

The fact that by next year they will be not quite the same selves–that’s the stuff of Gerald Manley Hopkins right there.

Now, the recipe. If it sounds familiar, that means you’ve been paying attention. It’s just the latest iteration of my date-night individual cheesecakes. This one is like a crustless, creamier pumpkin pie. You could certainly give it a crust (the one from this post–my original individual cheesecakes–would work great), but I didn’t want the fuss this week.

Individual Pumpkin Cheesecakes

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4 ounces of room temperature cream cheese

3 1/2  tablespoons white sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1/4 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons canned pumpkin

1/2 teaspoon good-quality pumpkin pie spice

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Beat the holy heck out of your cream cheese and sugar, in a stand mixer if you have one handy. I just let mine rip for a while and scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically. Ideally, your sugar will almost dissolve in the cream cheese and the combo will form a fluffy, smooth paste.
  3. Add the egg and egg yolk. And let it rip again.

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4. When the eggs are all perfectly incorporated, add the pumpkin, sour cream (use the super-thick stuff), and the pumpkin pie spice.

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Beat it again until it’s totally smooth.

5. Put a kettle of water on to boil. Then pour your batter into two ramekins. (Because I’m not using a crust for this cheesecake, all of my batter will fit into two 7-oz. ramekins.)

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6. When your water boils, pour a couple of inches of it into the bottom of a loaf pan and then, gently, ease your ramekins down into the water.

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7. Carefully transfer your pan to the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Then turn off the oven and leave the pan in the hot-but-cooling oven for another 30 minutes or so. When you remove the pan, the cheesecakes should still have some jiggle in them.

8. Cool on the countertop and then cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or even a couple of days (as though you can stand it that long).

We ate ours last night, which means they are now, sadly, just as vanished as all of the autumns that preceded this one and as all of Friday morning’s lost leaves, now crumbled beneath trick-or-treating feet. And all of those little losses are worth a little bit of grief.

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