There is something really special about taking time out of your day to shop for ingredients, roll up your sleeves, get into the kitchen (however small or large it may be) and come up with a meal that is both healthy and good for your soul. If you are lucky enough to be able to share this experience with loved ones you are participating in a ritual that has sustained the human race and its relationships for thousands upon thousands of years. Cooking and eating with others is one of my most favorite rituals I partake in – whether it be whipping up eggs for a quick weekend brunch or trying out new flavors and techniques like those tried in this post, there is nothing better than gathering friends and family in the kitchen to make old favorites and experiment with new ones.
Cooking in the kitchen with others has always been a priority to me – my mother and father were very adamant about me and my brother participating in the family ritual of sitting down to a home-cooked meal. They gave us tasks like peeling carrots or folding napkins and engaged us by demonstrating how to detect if meat was cooked or if a baked potato needed longer in the oven. I remember being inspired at a young age by scenes from Alfonso Arau’s mystical film Like Water for Chocolate as well. When Tita, the youngest daughter in an upper-class Mexican family, prepares a feast for the engagement dinner of her sister (who is of course engaged to the man Tita loves, Pedro) Tita is paralyzed with sadness at the union. She pours her sadness and her tears (literally) into a dish of quail with rose petals, the latter coming from a bouquet that Pedro had given her. When the guests at the family’s table eat Tita’s dish they are unwillingly overcome by her sadness and longing for Pedro and everyone begins to sob hysterically at the table, all the while forking up every last sumptuous bite.If this culinary scene charged with sex and longing does not get you into the kitchen for heaven’s sake there is something wrong with you and you deserve to eat Chicken McNuggets day in and day out for eternity. Even as a child I understood from this scene the great power that food can wield over emotions and visa versa, the influence of our emotions on the food that we prepare and eat. I remember thinking, “I wonder if I can make something like that, that will have that affect on others?”.
These early experiences lead to an interest to push the boundaries of cooking from a very young age. I have very clear memories of baking “cakes” in my dear childhood friend IPL’s kitchen, sans recipe, with her mother Paula’s watchful but amused eye as we threw in a little baking soda here, and little cinnamon there. We would whip up all manner of confections and anxiously watch them bake by the dull glow of the oven light, standing on kitchen chairs until we were tall enough to see on our own two feet. I don’t recall whether any of these culinary experiments were successful or not, but I honestly do not think it matter if it went one way or the other. It did not add to the enjoyment of the experience of measuring flour or cracking eggs and that is really what food is about.
Now that I am an “adult” (let’s please not take this term too seriously) I still find ways to make it into the kitchen, share stories and skills and create a culinary experiences at home that I challenge any 3-star Michelin to rival. There’s something very satisfying about making a meal with your own two hands, as if exerting effort is its own separate ingredient which the dish as a whole depends upon. It was with this in mind that my roommate Megan and I set out to make Chard Dumplings with Chive Broth from Eating Well. We had made this dish once before a few weeks earlier and were both surprised by how a little extra effort in the prep phase could yield such (dare I say transcendent) results. We decided that once was not enough for this recipe and used house-sitting for a friend as an excuse to chill out, watch some TV (a definite luxury for us), play with kitties (see our friends below, Fancy Feast and – I am not kidding – Bacon) and make these little pockets of sweet greens, creamy ricotta, and rich broth with the garlicky hint of scallions. Aside from wrapping the dumplings, this dish is extremely quick and simple enough for a novice in the kitchen to handle with a little prep help. Two people make quick work of the dumplings, especially when Ellen and Glee and beer are involved. And simply put – this could be the best soup I have ever made in my kitchen (or anyone else’s for that matter). The broth is bright with hints of onion and traces of chicken infused into it. The dumplings are fresh, plump, both creamy and nutty, releasing any extra ricotta into the broth to add extra flavor and texture. Lemon zest adds a fresh pop that makes the corners of your mouth turn up in happy bliss at the gift inside. Add a splash of Tabasco or a sprinkle of crushed red pepper and you are in serious business. Trust me when I say that you will want more of this soup, immediately, if not every day for a long time to come. Enjoy!
Kale Dumplings with Scallion Broth
Adapted from Eating Well Magazine article by Carolyn Malcoun and Hilary Meyer. I like the texture and taste of kale slightly better than I like chard so I used lacinto kale in place of white chard. I substituted scallions for the chives because I couldn’t find chives in my supermarket. Now I have some chives re-sprouting in a pot on my fire escape after a long winter so I will have to try again, but the scallions worked well. Makes 8 appetizer servings (about 9 dumplings & 1 cup broth each) or 4 entrée servings, Active time: 1 hour, Total time: 1 hour.
1 bunch lacinto kale, leaves and stems separated
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup water
1 2-ounce slice capicola or pancetta, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1/8 teaspoon salt
36 wonton wrappers
6 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
1 cup thinly sliced fresh scallion greens
8 teaspoons finely shredded Parmesan cheese