A Pretty OK Recipe: Winter's Phantom
Most recipe blogs have a tendency to ramble on for hundreds of words before you even sniff an actual recipe. Occasionally, there’s interesting stuff there, but most of the time, it’s an excuse to jam in an explanation of why you just have to make your own yellow curry paste or to discuss your obsession with Williams-Sonoma Collection: French. Don’t get us wrong; we’re still using way too many words here. But since this isn’t actually a recipe blog, we’re going to do something different: recipe first. If you want to stick around and read our ramblings after that, more power to you. If not, you’re free to go enjoy your food. We promise.
Winter’s Phantom — the short version
1 bunch kale, chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 can cannellini beans, drained
A splash of red wine vinegar
Good olive oil and microplaned parmesan, for serving
A big skillet or Dutch oven (normally, a cast iron skillet is almost always a great choice, but it doesn’t handle acidic foods like tomatoes well, so go for a stainless steel one, or an enameled cast iron Dutch oven)
Over medium, heat olive oil in a skillet and then add garlic, browning, for about 2 minutes.
Add in halved tomatoes, tossing intermittently for 5 minutes until somewhat jammy and shriveled. Season with salt at the end.
Add beans and cook another 5 minutes until tender and starting to fall apart, gently shaking the pan throughout.
Add kale one big handful at a time. Toss with tongs until it starts to cook down and change color before adding the next handful. (Note: This will go quicker than you expect it to.)
Add a splash of red wine vinegar and season with salt to taste. Toss to combine, then remove from heat.
Serve warm, topped with microplaned Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.
Winter’s Phantom — the entirely-too-long version
Did you ever read the book The Phantom Tollbooth? If not, you should read it now, no matter your age. It’s a timeless adventure story that uses puns and wordplay in an uncannily educational manner. Early in the book, the protagonist, Milo, finds himself in the Doldrums—a colorless place devoid of creative thought—with its inhabitants, the Lethargarians. The place is devoid of activity and the citizens are in the business of wasting time. Eventually, Milo escapes with the help of Tock the watchdog, but only once he starts thinking.
Naturally, when I think of the Doldrums, I think of a wintertime kitchen.
You see, making food in the winter is comparatively glum. Spring brings a sense of optimism and weird things like ramps that make for great kitchen exploration. Summer comes with a bounty of more tomatoes than one could ever know what to do with. And autumn—oh, autumn—is a wonderful time when all kinds of magical fruits and vegetables are in season together for longer than seems possible. But then winter comes, and all you’re left with is dark leafy greens and a host of shit that you have to wash a bunch of dirt off of. It’s truly a culinary cave of despair.
I faced this awfulness, these Doldrums, just the other night. I came home with a bunch of kale and what came readily to mind was I guess I’ll give these a sauté with some acid and serve with a side of sorrow.
But then, dear reader, I decided to get up out of the Doldrums just like Milo—by thinking.
One of the issues with winter’s seasonal vegetables is that they make for digestive extremes. (As a season, it’s kind of a tough time for fruit if you’re not huge on citrus. I love clementines, but they don’t make for a good substantial meal.) On one hand, the fibrous punch that the dark, leafy greens pack seemingly makes everything run right through you. On the other, eating a ton of potatoes—sweet or otherwise—makes you feel so heavy you’ll swear your kitchen tools are orbiting your belly. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not a very nuanced time of year. There are no subtly sweet peppers or pleasantly acidic tomatillos. Hell, I could even go for the variety of summer squashes, despite their occasionally off-putting squeakiness.
I had to find a way to recapture these tastes and textures, even in the dead of winter. Lo and behold, it turns out I already had everything I needed, right in my kitchen!
There I was standing over one chopped bunch of kale (mine happened to be lacinato kale, but you can use regular or red or whatever) and a skillet with two tablespoons of oil at medium heat. (Note: I was using a stainless steel skillet because regular cast iron doesn’t respond well to acid; if you have the praiseworthy ability to lift an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, go for it). I had to figure out how to make this less sad; I knew garlic was the least I could do, so I minced two cloves and fried for a minute.
The restorative scent of frying garlic spurred some creativity. On the counter, I had a half a pint of grape tomatoes leftover from cooking something else, so I halved them and threw them into the skillet. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going with this, so I let the tomatoes bubble along and mix with the garlic until they were shriveled and kinda jammy (probably about five minutes of cooking with a couple shakes of the skillet thrown in). At the end, I also tossed in an arbitrary measure of salt. Now I had an aromatic allium and an acid, and I knew a fibrous vegetable was on the way, but I needed some balance.
What could do the trick? To the pantry!
Okay, so maybe I don’t actually have a pantry, but I always keep a shelf full of canned beans and tomato variants. You never know when you’ll need diced, peeled, or crushed tomatoes, or pintos, garbanzos—or, in this case, a can of cannellini beans. I’m no Rancho Gordo [Editor’s note for the other normals: Apparently Rancho Gordo is an heirloom bean producer that sends beans to crazy people through the mail] [Author’s note: Yes, it’s absurd] evangelist-level bean connoisseur, but cannellinis must have something going for them, because they popped up all over the place when I was in Tuscany. They have a lot of flavor, and unlike a lot of bean varieties, that flavor is not dirt (no disrespect to black eyed peas, pintos, or a lot of you other beans—I adore all beans). Additionally, they have an inherent creaminess that makes this amalgam of acid and fiber a little more appealing.
I let the beans get tender and slightly mushy for five more minutes, which was enough for me to decide that this was enough to make the kale more palatable. Once the beans and tomatoes and garlic had gotten to know each other pretty well, I added in the kale a big handful at a time. (Technique tip: Add more once the current handful, after some turning and shaking, turns a bright green and starts to shrivel.) Once all the kale is in the pan and is starting to cook down, add a good splash of red wine vinegar and another arbitrary measure of salt, then turn off the heat. Incorporating a little more acid at the end of making a batch of greens is something I’ve been doing for a while—it imparts some lovely flavor that doesn’t cook out. I’m sure you could use white wine vinegar or maybe even balsamic, but red wine vinegar is best in my experience.
At this point, the dish is ready to be served with a drizzle of your finest olive oil and a dusting of microplaned parmesan cheese. Yes, you should buy a microplane. I was skeptical, but now I use it all the time. It grates ginger and garlic so finely that the flavors basically liquefy and are absorbed into what you cook. It’s a great investment.
Another good investment is having this recipe in your winter arsenal. It made me much less glum and made for a heartier item to bring into lunch that week. I would have liked to use the full pint of tomatoes (you’ll need a larger skillet if you do). I really like tomatoes, and I think a little more heft and a little more sweet acid would have knocked this even further out of the park. Hell, at that point, I could have served it over pasta and made quite a meal out of it. I look forward to doing that soon and really killing off the Winter’s Doldrums.