Saturday, November 04, 2006

Some sage advice on sprouts, plus sherried crab with raclette

OK, sorry. As soon as you realize this entry is literally about sage, I know you’ll be groaning at that there title. You have to excuse my temptation to use all the facile puns I am routinely denied when writing advertising copy. I can’t really help it, but right here and now, I’ll promise this: no forthcoming entries on beans titled “waxing poetic.”

But really, what nicer autumnal herb than sage? Sure, I can get down with rosemary this time of year, but nothing compares to the heavenly smell and velvety texture of fresh sage. When it’s around, I feel compelled to tear a leaf from the stem and rub it along my cheek so I can feel its lovely softness and simultaneously enjoy its aromatherapeutic effects. I think I’d like a luxe pillow and duvet set made wholly of sage leaves. Note to self.

In any case, my latest herby adventure paired sage with Brussels sprouts. And while you’d think the ungraceful bulk and bitter flavor of the sprouts would overwhelm the delicate nuance of the sage, its nothing a little butter and patience can’t overcome. The butter sweetens everything up. The patience comes into play with a peeling technique that transforms the sprout entirely. If you’ve never peeled the individual leaves from your sprouts, I’m about to change the way you experience this less-than-popular vegetable. Once you pull all the soft leaves from your sprouts, you turn the tough, chewy bulbs mom used to boil into a light pile of flavorful greens you can gently sauté. It’s a somewhat painstaking process to be sure, which is where the patience comes in. Especially if you’re preparing enough to feed more than 2 people. But if you can approach the task with your meditative, Zen mind, and a generous glass of wine, it’s a relaxing, gratifying process. I chose to quaff a 2003 Cuvée Saint Christopher rhone from Domaine de Cassan. It’s dry and smoky and gorgeous, and sadly, the case I bought is already down to 3 bottles. Note to self.

So, the recipe. I came up with this combo after modifying an older version of peeled sprouts with pistachios and thyme. That one’s good. This one is, dare I say it, divine.

Brussels sprouts with sage and pine nuts

A big mess o’ sprouts
½ cup pine nuts
Few sprigs of sage
Butter
Sea salt
Olive oil

Sorry I can’t be more specific about the measure of sprouts. It really depends how many you’re feeding. And as you know by now, I’m not very precise in the kitchen. I guess as a general rule, a handful and a half of sprouts is enough for one person.

So to peel the little guys, wash and cut off the tough base of the sprouts. Then start folding the individual leaves off and collecting them in a colander. If the peeling gets tough, cut a little more base off, working your way down ‘til you can’t peel any further. You’ll be able to peel them down to a nut-like little core, which you’ll then discard. I think that’s where the real bitterness resides, which is why this preparation is so much sweeter and more subtle than the expected sewage-y mouthful of sprout.

So you’re peeling. And peeling. For a while. Until you have an impressive heap of leaves. The one nice thing here is that they won’t shrink and wilt in the pan like spinach. Whatever you see in your bowl is more or less the amount you’ll end up with, post-cooking. Now that you’ve completed that bit, the hard part’s over.

Set aside your bounty and toast up your pine nuts. You can do this under the broiler or in a large frying pan, just take care to see that they’re only golden brown and not burned. It’s preferable to do them in a dry pan on a burner so you can keep an eye on them. Give them a shake here and there to ensure they’re evenly toasted. Once done, remove them and set aside.

In the same pan, melt a 1 - 2” pat of butter and then keep the flame low so it doesn’t burn. Add your sage leaves and let them crisp up without browning more than a little. I use about 6 sage leaves if I’m preparing this dish for 2-3 people. If you’re making more, up the herb content. Same goes for pine nuts. You want them to be sprinkled through the dish in the same ratio as, say, blueberries in pancakes. Enough to flavor everything, but not overtake it. Another example of my exacting culinary precision, that. Anyway, at this point, the butter should be gently bubbling around the leaves, filling your kitchen with a savory scent that’ll live in your olfactory memory for weeks to come.
Once the sage is just gently crisped, remove the leaves from pan (leaving the infused butter), transfer them onto a cutting board and cut into rough slivers. Set aside.

Now, heat the same pan, adding a pour of olive oil to the butter. Again, make it hot enough to sauté your greens without burning anything. Add your sprout leaves and gently toss them in the warm oil until they start to soften up and turn a brilliant, bright green. Cook just long enough for all of them to be softened up and warmed through, but not overly worked. Toss them with the pine nuts, sage and a few sprinkles of sea salt and serve immediately.

(Note: this pic shows pecans, though I prefer pine nuts.)

Now that all of that took so many words to convey, the thought of detailing the crab raclette melt is pretty daunting. So, I’ll give it to you as a DIY homework assignment. You’re going to have to be resourceful and read these instrux to ascertain the ingredients, but don’t worry—it’s easy to make and hard to mess up. You won’t regret it.
In loose terms, you’re going to

1. Make a simple roux (butter and flour) from any of the countless instrux online.
2. Add some heavy cream to thicken and create a more substantial base.
3. Grate in some parmagiano reggiano and season with salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg
4. Stir in fresh crab.
5. Add a healthy pour of decent quality dry sherry (be sure it’s nutty and golden, not thick and syrupy like port)
6. Cook down 'til there’s no liquid, just thick, soupy crab goodness.
7. Spoon into individual tart ramekins and shred some mild raclette on top
8. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and some finely chopped Italian parsley
9. Bake until cheese is golden and bubbly on top
10. Serve with champagne for a simple but decadent winter meal

An aside: I just noticed it's been nearly a month since my last entry. Sorry, if anyone's noticed. I see I still get regular hits on the site, so thanks to those who continually return, despite my truant ways. I smell a New Years resolution...

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