A January menu that comforts and restores – The Denver Post
By David Tanis, The New York Times
January menus, with or without resolutions, ought to be gentler and milder, given December’s inevitable excesses.
For post-holiday cooking (since your kitchen has no doubt seen a lot of action lately), you want comfort, ease and lightness, and these three dishes cover all counts. They can be served sequentially, as a menu for a quiet dinner or on their own.
We’re all craving comfort, especially this winter, and nothing soothes like a warm bowl of soup, whether as a starter or as a meal. Puréed vegetable soups are both easy to make and quick to cook. It’s simply a matter of simmering the vegetables until tender and blitzing the contents of the pot.
There are, of course, details that need minding. Make sure to season the soup as it cooks — it should taste good even before it goes into the blender. And there’s the matter of thickness. I prefer a puréed soup that pours easily, with a creamy consistency, rather than one that’s as stiff as porridge. But that’s easy to achieve: It just means adding a bit more liquid, as necessary.
Classic leek and potato soup is well known and well loved. Replacing the potatoes with parsnips may seem arbitrary, but the result is sweeter, earthier and more fragrant. I have kept it quite plain, seasoning with only salt and pepper and a touch of turmeric for color, but it is satisfying and tastes of what it is. Sautéing the vegetables very slowly before adding liquid is the key to success. I like it best made with water rather than broth — it makes a lighter soup. For a little richness, a dab of crème fraîche or yogurt or a drizzle of olive oil can be nice.
As a main course, generally speaking, you can’t go wrong with meatballs. Though, traditionally, a meatball may swim in red sauce, in the spirit of lighter, leaner fare, these are made with ground chicken and go sauceless.
There is no stinting on flavor, however; the chicken mixture is laced with aromatic spices. A blend of black pepper, lemon zest, cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon and crushed fennel seeds supplies the necessary zing. Cooked chopped spinach, a shower of cilantro and a little serrano chile lend the required green, herbaceous back notes and a bit of a kick.
To keep kitchen time to a minimum — and flavor at a maximum — make the meatball base a day in advance of cooking. Frying the meatballs gently in olive oil over medium heat keeps them juicy. (High-heat cooking would make them tough.) For a pleasantly light meal, forgo any kind of sauce, and serve the spiced meatballs with steamed rice and lemon wedges or alongside a salad of leafy greens.
A stellar fruit salad makes a perfect dessert. Packed with vitamins and antioxidants, it’s delicious, and stunning to boot. Winter is the season for citrus, so choose among colorful oranges and grapefruit, including blood orange, if possible. Fuyu persimmons, also in season now, can be eaten raw and unripe. (Pointy-bottomed Hachiya persimmons cannot.) They have the slippery texture of mango and a lovely flavor somewhere between melon and papaya.
Bright, ruby-red pomegranate seeds, like sweet-sour jewels, top everything off. I think this salad, well chilled, needs no garnish at all, or any additional flavors. But, if you want something more, add a splash of orange liqueur or limoncello.
After a deliberately restorative meal like this, one will leave the table glowing, and with no regrets.
Creamy Leek and Parsnip Soup
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 25 minutes
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 large leeks, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
- 6 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 6 cups water, chicken broth or vegetable broth
- Extra-virgin olive oil, crème fraîche or yogurt, for garnish (optional)
1. Put olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add leeks and parsnips, and stir to coat. Add the 2 teaspoons salt and pepper to taste.
2. Let vegetables sizzle and cook, stirring frequently until nearly caramelized, but without browning, until softened, 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Add bay leaf, turmeric and garlic, and stir to coat. Increase heat to high, add water or broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes more. Taste broth and adjust seasoning.
4. With a blender, purée soup to a creamy consistency. (Small batches work best.) Thin with water or broth, if necessary — it should be like a thin milkshake, not thick and porridge-like.
5. Reheat the soup before serving. Serve plain, or give each bowl a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil or a dollop of crème fraîche or yogurt, if desired.
Herbed Chicken and Spinach Meatballs
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
- 1 pound spinach, washed
- 1 1/2 pounds ground chicken
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
- Pinch of ground cayenne
- Pinch of ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
- Pinch of ground cinnamon
- 1 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 serrano chile, with seeds, finely chopped
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup soft fresh breadcrumbs, from about 4 slices of crustless sandwich bread
- 1/2 cup heavy cream, half-and-half or milk
- All-purpose flour, for dusting
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for frying
- Lime or lemon wedges, for serving
1. Blanch the spinach: Plunge leaves a handful at a time into a pot of boiling water. Leave just long enough to wilt, about 30 seconds, then drain in a colander and cool under running water. Remove and squeeze wilted leaves into a ball. Using a large knife, roughly chop spinach on a cutting board — you should have about 2 cups. Squeeze into a ball again to remove excess water. (This may be done several hours or up to a day in advance and refrigerated.)
2. In a large bowl, put chicken, salt, pepper, lemon zest, cayenne, nutmeg, fennel seeds, cinnamon, spinach, cilantro, chile, egg, breadcrumbs and cream. Using your clean hands, knead everything together, mixing well. Leave to absorb seasoning for 15 minutes or overnight.
3. Test for seasoning: Take a small amount and flatten into a thin patty. Quickly cook in a small skillet, about 1 minute per side. Taste, then adjust the mixture’s seasoning if necessary.
4. Using an ice cream scoop or spoon, form 24 rough balls and place on a baking sheet. (The mixture will be soft.) Lightly sprinkle the balls with a very small amount of flour.
5. Set a large, wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil to a depth of 1/4 inch. When oil is wavy, use a spoon to help slip in balls into skillet. Gently fry the balls without crowding. Adjust heat as necessary (high heat will make them tough.) Cook for about 4 minutes per side; they should be golden brown, not too dark. Serve with lime or lemon wedges.
Citrus and Persimmon Salad
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 15 minutes, plus chilling
- 4 navel oranges
- 6 blood oranges
- 2 small grapefruit
- 4 firm, medium Fuyu persimmons (not Hachiya)
- 1 cup pomegranate seeds
1. Using a small serrated knife, peel the navel oranges, blood oranges and grapefruit. They should be perfect globes with no pith. Slice the fruit crosswise about 3/8-inch thick and place in a salad bowl.
2. Peel and core the persimmons. Slice them about 1/4-inch thick and add to the salad bowl. Arrange the fruit in a random pattern. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds over the top. Cover well and chill for 1 hour. Serve in small bowls, making sure each serving gets some of every type of fruit and a good spoonful of the juices that will have gathered at the bottom of the bowl.
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