Over the last couple years — a dark time in which I’ve slowly had to accept that my once-tiny baby with fairly simple needs now required real square meals at very specific times of the day, such as dinner, far earlier than we ever do and that he’d likely be looking to me (me!) to provide them or face the hangry consequences — I’ve attempted to increase my repertoire of two things: 1. Dinners that can be made easily in under an hour that I actually want to eat, and 2. Casseroles. No, no, I don’t mean the canned cream of soupiness things. I mean, the idea of taking disparate meal parts and baking them in a big dish until they’re much more than the sum of their ingredients. Plus, they’re dinnertime magic: they reheat well; they make excellent leftovers for as long as you can stretch them; and they rarely require anything more on the side than a green salad (for grownups) or steamed broccoli (for people who haven’t yet come around to salad). Long Live The Casserole Rethought With Minimally Processed Ingredients! is hardly a sexy catchphrase, but there you have it: my new battle cry.
Within the great file of my favorite food category, Things I Can Put On Toast, I dare you to find anything easier to whirl up in the minutes before a party than artichoke-olive crostini, the terribly named but unmatched in Mediterranean deliciousness of feta salsa or walnut pesto. Lightly broil a thinly sliced baguette — and I vote for preparing a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, ready to bake off later, nobody minds — and voila: it’s suddenly a party.
I realize this might not look like much. It probably looks suspiciously like a salad, which means it’s probably going to be the last kid picked for your holiday cooking olympics. It doesn’t taste like ginger, linzer or crushed candy canes. It smacks of January Food, the stuff of resolutions and repentance, and there’s no time for that now. But I need to tell you about it anyway, urgently, because the preoccupation with this salad has hit me so intensely, so wholly, it’s basically the only thing I want to eat, and since I’m ostensibly the grownup here, this is exactly what I’m going to do.
As I do every year, I woke up the morning after Thanksgiving with dueling urges to consume pie for breakfast as well as to repent with an endless sequence of brothy vegetable soups until I no longer dreamed of pumpkin cheesecake, cranberry caramel almond tarts and chocolate silk. I vowed make the wholesome side triumph this year, however, yet somewhere along my righteous path to eating kale salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I remembered that kale salad tastes absolutely nothing like pie and that was basically the end of that. By dinner that night, we were digging into terrifying heaps of spaghetti and meatballs at Carmine’s, followed by overstuffed chocolate cannolis. There wasn’t a ribbon of kale in sight.
I have a complicated relationship with sweet potatoes. I think they’re one of these wonder vegetables — impossible to mess up cooking, pretty consistently delicious whether you buy them freshly-dug from the farmers market or from a grocery chain, aglow with vitamins A and C and chock full of fiber. [Which I mostly think about because I’m the mother of a sweet potato junkie.] I like them in cake, sweet biscuits and pie. I like them with goat cheese and a light vinaigrette, gratin-ed with a tangle of chard, with a strange-but-addictive mix of spices and roasted in wedges, and one-bowl-meal-ed with roasted broccoli, black rice and miso sauce. But I also have all sorts of quibbles with them. They’re never crispy enough. They’re rarely savory enough — basically, if you get within 10 feet of my savory sweet potato dish with cinnamon, I go into hiding. For me, the louder the contrast between their sweet, soft nature, the happier I am eating them.
I first discovered the peculiar subcategory of chopped raw vegetables called “health salads” some 14 years ago when a friend introduced me to the many wonders of the prepared foods aisle at Zabar’s. Even then, I found the idea of one type of salad being labeled “healthy” while my other favorite in the same refrigerator case, the Mediterranean Pepper Salad with Feta and Olives was, I don’t know, something akin to a heart attack on a cracker, somewhat eye-rolling but I now realize that it was the coleslaw-like salad’s mayo-free dressing that designated it such a lofty nutritional status.
Lest you operate under the idea that when I go in the kitchen to work on a new recipe, adorable forest creatures gather around, bringing me my whisks and measuring cups, tiny birds whisper in my ear all the right seasoning notes and then, when I snap my last photo, my team of minions file silently in to wash the dishes while I go out on the deck to ponder my next free-form food essay, the single, completely unexciting reason I am late to share a new recipe this week is because I was chasing an exasperating salted peanut butter caramel-flavored ghost. Five rounds in, I have concluded that while there are no bad salted peanut butter caramels, the one I want isn’t yet within my grasp and it was time to take a break. One cannot live on peanut butter, cream, butter and brown sugar alone, after all, fun as it was for a few days there.