Kale to the Chief

Last fall, during the lay-off, we took in a roommate. A good friend of ours needed a place to live for a few months, and we had been thinking about renting the second bedroom for extra cash. His rent included dinner every night, which was a bit of an upgrade for him. (He’s a great guy, but the one cookbook he owns is A Man, a Can, a Plan.)

Whenever our friend talks about his time at our place, the nightly dinner always gets mentioned. I’ve asked him for his favorite and most distinctive food memory from his time with us, and his answer is always the same: kale. When he thinks of eating at our table, he thinks about kale.

This dish, a panade, literally, a “big bread thing,” is my absolute most favorite thing to do with kale. It takes a good long time to prepare and even longer to bake, so I typically make it on football Sundays in the late fall and wintertime, starting around 1:00 for a 4:30 meal. I say Sundays because I always use leftover challah, although it’s certainly not what the recipe calls for.

In fact, the recipe I use doesn’t even include kale. It calls for chard, which I am sure would be dandy, but as soon as I saw the ingredients — stewed onions, chard, and fontina, nestled in between cubes of bread and bathed in stock — I thought kale would be even better. This season, you can get a bunch of kale for under a dollar — mine was .79 at Russo’s.

You can certainly use fancy fontina, but if you want to keep costs down, Trader Joe’s cheeses work great. I had some leftover veggie stock in the fridge, so we used that, along with the frozen turkey stock Rich made the day after Thanksgiving. We’ve found that animal stock makes the dish unctuous and more layered with flavor and depth, but I promise you, it will be delicious veggie-only as well.

This is one of those dishes that requires the dirtying of a frustrating amount of dishes, and Rich and I make it together, each tackling a part of the preparation. But trust me, the time and dirty dishes are well worth it.

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Butternut Basics

Butternut squash risotto: seven minutes in a pressure cooker.

As I mentioned in a previous post, work and school have been really crazy lately, and with Rich doing campaign things, sharing a meal together has become a precious commodity. I know I must sound like a broken record by now, but with my trusty pressure cooker and my well-stocked pantry, we have continued to enjoy tasty, inexpensive and quick meals.

One of my go-to dishes when I’m in a time crunch is butternut squash risotto. What?!? Impossible! you’re thinking. But I swear to you, if you buy a pressure cooker, you too can make risotto in seven minutes. Yup, that’s all it takes. Just buy a pressure cooker; most likely it will come with a recipe for risotto. (Results, and recipes, may vary by make and model, so I am not posting a full recipe here.)

In terms of ingredients, all you need is some Arborio rice (which Ocean State Job Lot will sell you for $2.99 a box), a chopped-up onion (pantry staple), a hunk of parmesan (which should just kind of hang out in your fridge’s cheese drawer) and a few cups of stock.

Now, I must admit I am spoiled by Rich who enjoys taking a few hours on his weekends to make homemade stock with leftover chicken carcasses (we keep them frozen until he has the time) and some odds and ends from my veggie drawer. Once it’s cooled off, we pour the stock into ice cube trays, freeze them, and then store the stock cubes in Ziploc bags in the freezer. But, in all seriousness, just keep a box in the pantry. As Julia Child (or Rachael Ray) would say, who’s to know if you take short cuts?

Now that that’s squared away, the only thing standing between you and a nice autumnal dish is that pesky butternut squash. Sure, you can buy it pre-cut from Trader Joe’s, or even find it in your grocer’s freezer, but the cheapest way to enjoy butternut squash is to buy it whole and clean it yourself.

I know that might sound daunting. But I promise you can do it. Here’s how:

First, take your butternut squash and cut it in half, so that you have a distinct round bottom.

Then, peel it. Yup, it’s just that simple. I have very good Kyocera ceramic peeler that my awesome brother-in-law got me for a birthday present last year which does a great job. Now, I’m not trying to sell Kyocera products (or even a specific brand of pressure cookers, for that matter) but, if you don’t think your peeler can handle peeling squash, then I would suggest purchasing a new, sturdier peeler. It should cost less than $15.

After you’ve peeled both pieces of your squash, cut the round bottom one in half, and scrape out the seeds. Then cut your squash into thirds, and then start dicing.

Yup, it’s really that simple.

Once you’ve cleaned your squash, prepare your risotto according to the instructions that came with your pressure cooker, and right before you put the lid on, dump the squash into the pot.

The squash will soften into the rice mixture and, by the time you unlatch the lid, become one with your risotto. I happened to have a rind of parmesan in my fridge which I tossed in pre-pressure, too.  In general, if you find yourself with just the rind of a piece of cheese, keep it in the fridge, and the next time you are making soup, toss it right in. It will add layers of rich flavor to your soup — or in this case, your risotto.

Latch things up, pressurize, cook according to your machine’s instructions, then blow off the steam. Here’s where you add the good stuff: butter and grated cheese. This time, I also threw in some sage from the bush out front. You could also go with goat cheese and rosemary, a la Grendel’s, if you prefer. And there you have it: a fast, simple dish made with pantry staples and one fresh veggie.

How Two Buck Chuck Stays Two Bucks

Interesting read about Trader Joe’s in the latest issue of Fortune magazine. I knew from my work as a prospect researcher that TJ’s was owned by a massive, secretive German corporation, but the article goes into a lot more detail about how the company keeps its prices so low.

I remember I was once at a Christmas party and met a TJ’s crew member. He started talking about how to keep the prices so low, the shop had basically tossed out the book on sustainability. I decided to ignore him and concentrate on my egg nog. La la la, can’t hear you!