Cheesy Kale and Orzo

May 22, 2012

At nearly the age of four, our daughter sat in disbelief  in front of a bowl of mac and cheese served by a friend of ours.  “But it’s not green?”  She couldn’t fit the bowl of creamy goodness into her limited epicurean understanding of the world, mostly because her mother had apparently spent her ultra-formative years fooling her into thinking that all mac and cheese had pureed spinach or kale as an integral part.  But before you jump to conclusions and label me a crazy mom who withholds hard-earned icons of American childhood (probably no hot dogs or Oreos either!), consider that the addition of these rich greens actually makes the dish taste better (and triples the nutritional value of course)!  And not just to adults either, our kids prefer this as well.  Just look at the happy girl then and now! (But you are right about the Oreos, we have held back on those.  Perhaps you know of a fantastic recipe to make them at home and would like to share a link below!)

Cheesy Kale and Orzo is the next generation of mac and cheese at our dinner table.  It satisfies our kids’ desire for cheesy pasta, yet holds its own as a more sophisticated side for grilled salmon (our protein of choice these days).  The orzo cooks in the fashion of a risotto, so it has a chance to soak up the white wine and rich chicken broth.  Kale, steamed and blended fine, mixes in and colors the dish a deep green. Fresh cut chives and Parmesan add a bit more flavor and creaminess at the end.

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LIfe is busy, no matter what, but this week everything seemed to be in turbo-drive.  It was the kind of week that left me yearning for more quick meals.  Meals that take only minutes to prepare, but still contain enough substance and flavor intensity to make an impact.  More meals like this one.

Penne with Kale, Feta and Olives is no ho-hum vegetarian pasta dish.  Kale itself is a flavorful green, but combining it with the briny olives and pungent feta make this dish a powerhouse.  Parsley, garlic, and lemon zest scatter over the top adding even more dimension to this simple dish. The recipe entered our rotation a few years ago when it was featured in Bon Appetit.  Any kind of kale works here, but I prefer Dinosaur or Lacinto Kale.  I reduced the oil recommended in the original recipe.  Feel free to drizzle olive oil over the top if you so desire.

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There is something magical about a recipe that can turn the simplest ingredients into something remarkable.  A recipe that causes one to dig through the dish looking for the secret ingredient, the one that turns an otherwise plain looking pile of beans and greens into something worth looking forward to.  This is such a recipe.  A deceptively simple list of parts come together into a whole that is bursting with flavor, texture, and depth.  If you pay any heed to the opinions of my son (and you should because eating is his favorite pastime- lucky for me), you should know that he likes this dish “to infinity!”

My husband brought this recipe home.  It was a rare valuable fruit from his long hours spent on the road, commuting and listening to the radio.  All Things Considered on NPR ran a series on how to feed a family for under $10.   This dish may look like college potluck fare (at least if you went to school in Oregon like I did), but the tastes are elevated well beyond.  Playing a lead role are the garlic cloves which are browned in ample olive oil, then mashed with bread fried in the same garlicky oil.  The toasted bread, sweet rich garlic, along with notes of saffron and cumin turn this simple dish into one worth planning a meal around.  The recipe below is modified from the original in a couple of ways.  Most notably, I subbed in kale for the recommended spinach.  Kale holds up well if you choose to make this a bit in advance, it is also more available this time of year. I have made it with spinach as well though and it is delicious.  The bean cooking method is simplified a bit and salt measurements are added.  This dish is a one-pot wonder that necessitates no sides, but do not forget a nice glass of wine to wash it down.

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The other night at bedtime, my 4 year old son announced to me that he is a vegetarian.  Never mind the fact that he had just put away three helpings of chicken at dinner.  I nodded and told him he never had to eat anything that he did not want.  He asserted once more that he was a vegetarian, but then went on to tell me that he only eats bacon, hamburgers, and sausage.  Oh, I said, that kind of vegetarian.  I was amused, but also relieved.  Though I am sympathetic to vegetarians, since I refrained from meat and dairy myself for many years, it is so much easier to cook for a household that agrees to eat the same kinds of foods.  Not to mention that my husband and I just filled the freezer with many pounds of homemade sausage.  Now is not the best time to opt out of sausage in our house.

Oh, the Sausage and Kale Dinner Tart.  This is the single most soul satisfying tart I have ever made. Sausage and kale both are iconic winter fare. They dominate this tart with only minor distractions from sauteed onion, garlic, and the slightest addition of ricotta cheese. Served atop the flaky butter crust, this is a winter meal to celebrate.  Both pork and chicken sausage work equally well, as do kale and chard.  You can trade out the egg for egg white, but it really will not put much of a dent in the fat of this dish given the buttery crust.  This is not diet food.  This is late winter though, and our last chance to enjoy the decadence of the cool months before the threats of swimsuit season are upon us.  Enjoy!

Update: My Sausage and Kale Dinner Tart won for Best Dirt Cheap Dinner on food52!

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As the winter wears on, it is easy to think fondly of the bounty of summer…  sweet juicy tomatoes, crisp peppers, non-stop zucchini.  You have to work hard not to  eat “seasonally” in the summertime.  But what about in January?  I try feed my family on as many home-grown veggies as possible.  This lofty goal is fairly easy to attain in the warm months and significantly more challenging in the winter.  I am very grateful that our life does not depend upon nourishment from our backyard.  This month, we would be subsisting on satsumas, garlic, the last stray raspberry, and an occasional egg.  Well not quite, there is always the kale.

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