Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fresh Takes on Old Friends – Day 1 in a Marathon of Sides
What’s cooking? Watercress Purée

Start your engines! In my days as a New Jersey person, the opening notes of the Thanksgiving season were sounded by the obligatory gathering of the neighborhood cooks: my next-door neighbor, Anne; my backyard neighbor, Claudia; and I. We were the original Kitchen Goddesses.

It took a full morning for us to construct a Turkey Day menu, balancing the needs of each family for preferences in stuffings, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and desserts. Then, in the spirit of healthful eating, we’d each take on something green to prepare. And as we counted 7 teenage boys among the eaters, we included calculations of roast turkey, smoked turkey, and ham in our deliberations. Usually, by the time we had the list of dishes firmed up, we’d planned enough food for our own group and any wandering armies that might pass by.

I miss those years. But my younger son (a doctor) will be working that day, and the older one will be with in-laws in New Jersey. Life moves on. My husband and I will be driving to San Antonio to spend Thursday with my brother and cousins; so this morning, I called my cousin, Helen, who’s hosting that dinner, to make sure I knew what I’d promised to take. We went over the dishes each of us and a third woman will contribute, covering important points like who will make the whipped cream, and oblique issues like serving spoons and candles. It took a good half hour, at the end of which I felt as satisfied as if I’d actually had a meal.

“Well, that was nice,” I said.

“Yes,” said Helen. “There’s nothing like a good menu chat with someone who cares.”

So if you’re cooking this week, I hope you’ll take an opportunity to call a friend and have a menu chat. It helps to get your thoughts organized and to bring a semblance of order to what can often veer dangerously close to chaos. Thus begins the giving season.

* * *

Last year, on the theory that what looks good will taste even better, the Kitchen Goddess vowed to help you give a face-lift to four vegetables:

Haricots Verts garnished with Toasted Panko Crumbs

Gem-cut Carrots garnished with Quinoa Crispies

Spinach and Sautéed Mushrooms

Asparagus Coins

So if you’re looking for side dishes, those are still great choices. This year, my focus again is the sides, in which we’re going for a slightly different take on a traditional food. If it’s not Thanksgiving unless you can serve those marshmallow-blanketed sweet potatoes, I will apologize. But consider for a moment that variety may actually be the spice of life, and give one of these treatments a whirl.

I’ll be posting four different dishes over the next four days. So if today’s offering isn’t what you want, check back tomorrow or the next day or the next.

Today, I want to introduce you to a stand-in for the traditional puréed spinach. Watercress, according to Wikipedia, is one of the oldest known leaf vegetables eaten by humans. Smart choice – it’s high in iron, calcium, iodine, and folic acid, as well as vitamins A and C and all those antioxidants. So it’s great for you, and has two other attributes that push it way ahead in my book: (1) it’s lots easier to clean – none of that soaking and rinsing and soaking and rinsing some more that you have to do to get rid of the sand on spinach; and (2) it has none of the tannins that characterize the “funny” mouthfeel you often get with cooked spinach.

Watercress also has a peppery taste that gives it a bit more zing. And the cooking process for this recipe is almost negligible. So it’s fast, easy, and tasty – what more could you want? Unless you don’t like cooked spinach and didn’t want it or a substitute on your menu. In which case, you should check back tomorrow, when I’ll have another delicious option.

This is about half the amount of watercress you'll need, but the photo has needs as well, so...

Watercress Purée

Adapted from Garlic & Sapphires (2006), by Ruth Reichl

Serves 4.

1 medium potato (9-10 ounces), peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
1½ pounds watercress (3 large bunches), rinsed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
freshly ground pepper

Bring a large pot of water to boil with 2 tablespoons salt. Add the potato and cook 20 minutes.

While the water continues to boil, remove the potato and set aside. Add the watercress to the water, and when it returns to a boil, cook for 1 minute. Drain the watercress in a colander, pressing with the back of a large spoon to remove as much of the water as possible.

Put the watercress and the potato into the bowl of a food processor and run until it becomes a smooth purée. Add the butter and process again until the butter is completely incorporated. Add the lemon juice and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper, and pulse until incorporated. Adjust the seasoning to taste and serve.

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