Christmas dinner.

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It’s a magical time we’re in now, isn’t it?

Magical except for the constant traffic, frightening encounters with last-minute shoppers, and annual family conflict reenactments. It’s a bummer that life gets stressful during the times we hope to savor; but, hey, this is why we have sugar cookie highs and mulled wine! To keep Christmas sane and the candy canes and silver lanes aglow, my family’s planning a simple Christmas dinner.

We’ll have smoked ham glazed with Byrd & Duncan beer syrup, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, my grandmother’s famous cream of chicken soup dressing, deliciously southern sorghum green beans, and a couple homemade pies. There will be plenty of wine and a cocktail or two. There will be the conversation about civil war ethics, how much we love/hate Charles Dickens, and, of course, a ridiculous amount of laughter, even more than the amount of wine we will drink.

Happy Christmas! Here’s to peace, good food, and your crazy-wonderful family.

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Green Beans with Sorghum and Sesame

Makes enough for 8 as a side. Adapted from Bon Appétit.

  • 2 pounds green beans, trimmed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper & kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sorghum syrup or 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  1. Preheat oven to 450°. Cook beans in a large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Drain, transfer to a bowl of ice water, and let cool. Drain and pat dry.
  2. Toss beans and oil on a rimmed baking sheet; season with salt and pepper. Roast, tossing occasionally, until tender and lightly charred in spots, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, whisk soy sauce, sorghum, sesame seeds, and cumin in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper. Add warm beans and toss to coat.
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{(Oh}m)ega salad.

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When I was eleven, I was convinced that someday I would become an Olympic ice skater.

1-009Somehow the problem of actually learning how to ice skate never entered my mind.

All I needed was to step foot in an ice skating rink. There, I told myself, I would float across the ice, spinning and twirling in a sparkly leotard so gracefully that a famous skating coach would see me from her spot in the bleachers and say there, that girl, she will be my famous ice skater. The rest would be Olympic history.

That is until Mimi finally gave in to my pleading and took me ice skating one Saturday. I had been to hundreds of ice rinks– in my imaginative mind. For some reason the real ice rink was different. Too different. For the first hour, I clung to the side of the rink experiencing a mixture of confusion, fear, and loathing for all iced things; there would be no coach, no blue leotard bedecked in white glitter. I was crushed.

But for some reason I hung on. I wobbled my way around, clinging to the side wall. Towards the end of the second hour, I managed to push off and stand a couple feet from the rail. And by the start of hour three, I was free of the rail and glided in short bursts with my arms balancing to either side. It was magical. But then it was time to leave.

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I’m remembering ice skating dreams as I reflect over my past four exhausting, wonderful years at Davidson. At first it was rough to get my footing; I worked twelve hours a day, signed up for thirteen clubs, and stayed up late talking with good friends in the little time between closing my eyes and doing it all again.

But with a semester of balanced living and eight-hour slumber nights behind me, I can confidently say I’ve gotten the hang at all this; I’ve written more A plus papers, cooked for more dinner parties with friends, and had more time for myself than ever before. I have pushed off the rail and finally got the hang of college life.

Which is funny because it’s almost over. Why does life change just when we feel like we get it?

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I think it’s the universe’s way of keeping life surprising, humbling, and beautiful all at the same time. Life is about finding nourishment in whatever uncertain, ever-changing form of light appears to us.

This coarse pepper seared salmon with cranberries and leafy greens is definitely one form of nourishment and light. After savoring this salad’s omega-3s and antioxidants, you might even push away from the side rails in your world and achieve even the loftiest of Olympic ice skating dreams.

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Cranberry and Salmon Chard Salad

Serves two.

  • 1 salmon filet, cut in half, skin-on
  • coarse salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bunch of chard or other leafy green
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 2 Tbsp balsamic vinaigrette
  1. Lightly steam chard and let cool while you start a large non-stick pan on medium-high heat with 1 Tbsp olive oil.
  2. Add salmon to hot pan and coat, side facing up, with 1 pinch of coarse salt and 1 pinch of coarse pepper. After 5 minutes turn filets over and add minced garlic. Let the garlic and salmon caramelize for 4 minutes and then turn off heat.
  3. Toss chard, cranberries, and balsamic vinaigrette. Divide on to two plates and serve with salmon filet. Bon Om-ega!

Butter-roasted carrots.

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Remember these guys?

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Well, they’re back with a recipe (and more pictures.)

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These roasted carrots are so easy. Inexpensive. Quick. They add a lot of color to a plate, making them great for dinner parties. And when roasted in butter, (just a little bit, I swear!) they become guiltlessly addictive.

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Butter-Roasted Carrots

Serves 6 as a side. Adapted from Cooking Light.

1 lb carrots, sliced longways and finger-length (wash well but leave the skin on– it’s where most of the nutrients are and it’s easy)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil (it’s important to use both butter and olive oil; the oil will raise the flash point of butter and prevent it from burning)
2 generous pinches of kosher salt
1 smaller pinch of coarse black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Toss carrots with melted butter and olive oil, salt and pepper.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes, or until tips of carrots are crisp and the skin begins to wrinkle.

Massaged kale and chocolate vinaigrette.

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“Just massage it with your hands.”

“What?”

“The kale,” my grandmother insists over the phone. Her name is Sandi but I call her Mammy. I think the line is getting fuzzy or she is delusional. Mammy explains her  experience with kale massage, “rub chopped, raw kale with oil and make sure to do it with your hands; you won’t regret it.”

I knew I had to try it.

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Mammy was right; she always is. Now Massaged Kale is one of my collegiate potluck go-to dishes. Massaged Kale takes two minutes to make, is healthy, and tastes great. Plus, there’s a special place in heaven where we can watch Massaged Kale consumers’ faces when they hear about its sensual preparation.

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It’s fun to discuss out of context, but massaged kale is serious business. Kale is a cancer-fighting wonder food packed with vitamins A, K, and C and minerals like calcium and iron. The hearty, green leaf also contains bile acid sequestrates that lower cholesterol and decrease absorption of dietary fat. So why don’t most people call kale a favorite food?  Because it’s extremely fibrous, kale is difficult to digest and requires steaming, baking, or frying, processes that leach many of kale’s beneficial nutrients.

This is where the massage comes in.

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With Massaged Kale, you get raw nutrients and kale that tastes good too.

For a Valentine’s day dinner twist, I’ve included a recipe for chocolate vinaigrette to drizzle over your Massaged Kale. It’s so good, I promise you’ll earn your own cook’s massage.

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Massaged Kale

serves 2 as a side.

1/2 bunch of kale (around 1/2 lb), sliced in thin ribbons
1 Tablespoon oil (use olive oil for less flavor, truffle oil for more flavor)
pinch of salt and pepper

  1. Mix kale, oil, salt, and pepper in a large serving bowl. Massage kale with finger tips until kale is tender, darker green in color, and reduced in bulk.

Chocolate Vinaigrette

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of pepper

  1. In a saucepan on medium-high heat, reduce balsamic vinegar until slightly thick and half its original volume. Stir often to prevent burning.
  2. Turn off heat and whisk in mustard, cocoa powder, salt and pepper until well incorporated.
  3. When completely cool, toss with kale and serve.

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بسملة Sacred Moroccan spice.

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There are few sacred things. Food is one of them.

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Good friends are sacred too. Last night I made dinner with a friend who recently returned from studying in the middle east. He spent most of his time abroad in Morocco and, from the look of his fringed, woven scarf, he’s still there.

I’m glad he came back to North Carolina for a bit and brought ginger, cumin, cinnamon, and saffron with him. I’m also glad he hasn’t rejected alcohol like most of Morocco and took up bartending instead.

Before eating, we blessed the food with بسملة (basmala): “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.” After you try Morocco’s combination of saffron, cumin, and cinnamon, you’ll be saying the same thing too.

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Moroccan Lemon Tagine

Serves 6.

2 medium onions
1 green pepper
2 potatoes
3 roma tomatoes
2 lemons
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 pinches salt1 tsp each of ginger, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, red pepper flakes, ground red pepper
cilantro, for garnish

Fish Marinade

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon, juiced
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 tsp each of saffron, ginger, turmeric, red pepper flakes, and cinnamon
2 tsp cumin 4 large fish filets (Tilapia or Ling Cod works well)

  1. Combine marinade and spread on fish. Cover and let sit in the fridge for 1 hour.
  2. Slice all vegetables, including lemons 1/2 inch thick. Fill the bottom of a large tagine or cast-iron pot (I used a Le Crueset) with 2 Tbsp olive oil. Mix spices and salt, and dredge potatoes in mix. Layer onions, then peppers, then potatoes, then tomatoes, then lemons, then fish. Spoon remaining marinade over fish and vegetables.
  3. Cover the tagine or pot and let cook on medium-low heat, about 1 – 1 1/2 hours. Test potatoes; when soft, tagine is done.
  4. Garnish with cilantro and serve warm with salad and plain yogurt.

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Glutton hangover: បាញ់ឆែវ.

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‘Tis the season to imbibe. Yet after wonderfully endless bits of toffee, plates of Christmas cookies, and glasses of spiked eggnog, I’m ready to call it a day. An I-need-to-consume-only-that-which-is-steamed-and-green sort of day. Even food lovers and gluttons have to pace themselves; we’ve still got New Years.

The perfect compliment to this green day comes from a culturally colorful part of town: Atlana’s Buford Highway. I recover my malnourished stomach with an Asian take on savory crêpes, the “pancake,” from Vietnamese dive Nuom Phong. The pancake is stuffed with fresh bean sprouts and served with a vegetal heap of dandelion greens, lettuce, basil, and mint. Green scallions dot the pancake’s coconut oil crisped egg yolk crust. And I drizzle it all with spicy sriracha and a garlic hoisin sauce. Yeah recovery.1-DSC01400

Vinaigrette d’Elizabeth.

I have a French-Portuguese friend named Elizabeth. Well, she’s not actually French. Or Portuguese. But she lives as if she were both. With her two cats, Milo and Luther, and a dog named Lucy, she lives in Santa Fe atop a hill worthy of the French Alps. She sleeps in a nook big enough only for her bed. Her cottage has two doors; one for the bathroom and one for the front entrance, which she often keeps open. She wears black linen and entertains everyone from her mechanic to artist friends with five-course, four-hour meals. In her kitchen, Elizabeth displays fresh tomatoes and colorful potatoes bought at the farmers market in hand carved wooden bowls. Beside the sink resides her French cooking bibles, including a loved copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Louise Bertholle’s French Cuisine for All.

She starts dinner soirées with the apéritif. At Elizabeth’s, I fell in love with Lillet, a sweet French orange liqueur and Bordeaux blend, that she poured in to little glasses furnished with a curling lemon rind.

Lillet

Elizabeth balances Lillet’s honeyed citrus flavor with the bloomy rind of a Triple Crème cheese, salty grape-like capers, red peppers, and olives. For the main course, she serves light Château de Flaugergues with a stunningly complex mélange of beef bourginon, smashed baby gold potatoes, and haricots verts. Elizabeth finishes her evenings with a sliver of decadent, flourless chocolate cake dusted with Vietnamese cinnamon and drizzled in crème fraîche. She constantly tops off wine glasses so they never seem to become empty. Conversations around her table are as full as her wine glasses; hours at Elizabeth’s house melt away like fleur de sel truffles.

Flourless Chocolate Cake dusted in Vietnamese cinnamon and drizzled with creme fraiche.

As any good French-Portugese woman, Elizabeth makes a mean vinaigrette. Through her salad creations, she reveals to me the powers of caramelized vinegar vinaigrette and its deep, sweet, aromatic flavor. Instead of olive oil, she uses drippings from a special smoked bacon she can only find in the small town where she grew up in New Hampshire. After a recent trip, she brought five pounds back to Santa Fa in her carry-on bag. Airport security was skeptical at first. But once they heard that her ball of  questionable, frozen meat wrapped in paper bags was bacon, the TSA enthusiastically waived their misgivings.

Elizabeth’s Vinaigrette

2 or 3 shallots, finely chopped
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup Balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
————– Optional, but delicious additions:
1 tsp anchovy paste
Handful of chopped, fresh herbs like thyme, basil, or rosemary
————–
Heat olive oil in heavy saucepan. When the oil is so hot that it will make a bit of shallot sizzle, add the rest of your shallots and let them caramelize pink. Turn to low heat and add garlic and vinegar. Let the mixture simmer for 3 minutes (add more vinegar if vinegar evaporates too quickly.) When caramelized, turn off heat and add mustard, salt, pepper and optional items if desired. Let cool and serve over something like Elizabeth’s Salade Lyonnaise or with raw vegetables (I love fresh zucchini rounds.) Vinaigrette stores well in fridge for up to 5 days.

Salade Lyonnaise at Elizabeth’s