Monday, September 30, 2013

Kale Macaroni and Cheese

An early summer dinner at Woodberry Kitchen included a delicious vegetable laced mac ' n cheese.  Not too creamy, yet not too dry.  Not too, too cheesy and not spoiled by too much kale.  Just enough crispy topping without overdoing the top layer of noodles.  In all ways, a perfect balance.

I wanted to recreate that dish at home for my family to enjoy.  This is not an everyday dinner, but a special comfort food treat, made just slightly lighter.  I made this when a college age son of friends, home alone for a week, came for dinner, and I made it again when Ted and Maddy were both here at the same time at the end of the summer.

As Woodberry Kitchen does, I went with a rustic presentation,  using either the No. 9 (11 inch?) Griswold cast iron rescued from my parents' house or my Le Creuset cafe pan which is a little lower and wider.

Kale Mac 'n Cheese in Homage to Woodberry Kitchen

(serves 4 - 6, depending on appetite, 8 as a side dish)

1 bunch Lacinato or Toscano kale
1 pound thin penne rigate
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
15 - 20 ounces shredded cheese (I use a mix of mild and sharp cheddar and asiago)
1/2 cup bread crumbs (I like a mix of whole wheat and panko)
1/2 cup grated or ground Pecorino Romano cheese

1.  Heat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Blanch, drain and chop the kale.  This requires a large pot of boiling water, into which you drop the kale, scoop it out into a strainer set over a bowl of ice water.  Let cool, squeeze out all the water and then chop.  You can also thaw about a half bag of frozen kale in a strainer and then squeeze out the water.  I like to use my pasta pot for this step and then use it for cooking the penne.

3.  Bring the water in the pot back to a boil and add the penne and cook to just under al dente. The pasta is going to be baked also, so you want it to be just under cooked at this stage.

4.  In a sauce pan, melt the butter and olive oil until butter starts to foam and then whisk in the flour and whisk mixture for a few minutes.  Add the milk slowly and whisk continuously to make sure there are no lumps.  Once you have a smooth texture, turn off the heat and add the cheese.  Mix well until the cheese is melted and then add the kale, making sure it doesn't stay in clumps.

5.  If the sauce pan is large enough, add the pasta into the cheese sauce, otherwise add the pasta and the cheesy kale mixture back into the pasta pot and mix well.

6.  Place into an 11 or 12 inch cast iron pan (though mine is well seasoned, I do hit it with a coating of cooking spray).  Sprinkle the bread crumbs and then the Pecorino cheese over the top.

7.  Bake for about 35 - 40 minutes until bubbling and the top starts to brown.  If after 40 minutes this has not happened, raise heat to 400 degrees and check again after 5 minutes. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.

Photo: Maddy Bazil

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Trying to Stay Healthy is Hard

Some years ago I lost some weight and improved my cholesterol numbers using basic healthier eating habits: substituting whole grains for white, eating more vegetables and fruit, eating less high fat animal protein, and watching my salt intake just for good measure.  These habits have become second nature, not just to me, but to my family as well.

While my cholesterol levels were never dangerous, they were higher than doctors wanted for me with my family history of heart disease.  Several months ago, although I hadn't gained weight and still follow my healthier eating methods, some of my numbers were surprisingly closer to the danger zone than I and my internist were comfortable with.  Attribute it to mid-life?  Approaching diabetes? Eating less meat so too many carbs?  Whatever the reason, I knew I had no choice but to take action.

The next most obvious step to take was to simply try to lose a little weight and see if that changed anything.  I stuck with my basic eating habits, but tried to cut back portion sizes a little and began keeping a food diary once again.  I also ramped up the exercise as much as my beleaguered feet could handle (this required new running shoes as well as new insoles within them).

After three months, I have lost about 9 pounds and had my blood rechecked and found that my numbers are back closer to the range where we want them to be.  No medication necessary yet!!

This is both empowering and completely terrifying at the same time.  The fact that I can objectively and measurably improve my health by tweaking my diet is comforting.  However, what happens if I can't exercise for a while or slip into larger portions over time?  I had healthy eating habits for years. This heightened vigilance is intense and relentless, and as I age, it looks like it will only get harder to maintain and is not something that I can afford to neglect without repercussions.

Jane Brody's column in today's New York Times has some relevant tidbits that mirror what I've been doing.  While the column overall is a distillation of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) "report card" on the state of the American diet, one line jumped out at me.  Brody quotes Bonnie Liebman, the nutritionist who collated the information for CSPI. "It would not be great to simply replace refined grains like white flour and white rice with whole grains.  We need to cut back on grains, period."

I'm not advocating or practicing a carb free diet by any means, but I am limiting my portions of brown rice and whole wheat pasta a little.  Vegetables still form the basis of our meals and I try to choose whole grains with more fiber and protein such as barley, bulgar and farro.  I'm also paying extra attention to portion sizes of healthy vegetable fats such as avocado, nuts and olive oil.  I continue to eat them all, but am more conscious of how small a serving of each actually is.

The hardest part of portion control remains restaurants.  I am, and have been for years, a big proponent of home cooking.  We don't eat too many meals outside the house, but with my renewed efforts at portion control I've been playing around with some more tricks while out.  Again, coinciding with what I've been doing, Ms. Liebman also says "if you eat what restaurants serve, you will end up like two-thirds of Americans, overweight or obese.  People should assume that restaurants serve double what you should be eating...."  Wow!

If you have any great tips on healthier restaurant eating, please consider sharing them in the comment section!  Sometimes it just comes down to eating less of everything, I guess.

How Beet!

Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's cookbooks are all the rage these days, and with good cause.  There is even a Facebook page devoted to "cooking the book" Jerusalem.  I've had Plenty and Jerusalem since each was published here and both are filled with wonderful recipes and photos that leap into your kitchen and make you want to eat everything in them.  Now, their first book, called simply, Ottolenghi, has just been released in this country with American style measurements. I received my copy yesterday!

This beet puree of Ottolenghi's is surprisingly wonderful and easy to make.  I found it in his cookbook, Jerusalem, but this version is his submission to Food & Wine magazine.  There are a few differences between the two versions.  The main one, though, is that in the book, Ottolenghi calls for date syrup while in the magazine he substitutes in the same amount of maple syrup.  Maple syrup is widely available and most people keep it handy so I suspect this is a change that he felt would make the recipe more accessible, but really, if you have sourced za'atar, it's possible that you've been in a store that also carries date syrup.  I've also read online that people have substituted pomegranate molasses.

A second difference is in the method of cooking the beets.  I'm really not sure why he's changed this out as either method works just fine.

I skipped the goat cheese and just garnished with the hazelnuts and scallions.  Pistachios would also be delicious.

And for any interested locals, Ottolenghi and Tamimi will be speaking with Joan Nathan as moderator, at the 6th and I Synagogue in October.  Just check the Politics and Prose schedule for details!