Wednesday, 27 January 2010

People talk too frequently about the displeasure they find in eating alone. So many people, famous or otherwise, have been quoted that the satisfaction of a meal is found in the company we eat with. Which can be absolutely true. But does this mean that we can not find pleasure in ourselves, and pleasure in paying attention to exactly what we want, whether it be a meal or otherwise?

Cooking alone, and eating alone, can be a wonderful experience. Chopping curly fronds of winter greens, flipping onions with a wide wooden spatula, stirring a thick chocolate batter - these are all quieting steps for me. They provide moments, albeit too few and far between, where my mind can settle and even disappear a little. It's not even about focus, really, because that implies a trying effort. No, it's something that comes much more naturally, much more fluidly, and happens without worrying or thinking.

So, when my family disappeared for a few nights this week to celebrate a certain someone's birthday, I had the house to myself. It wasn't until they had left, and it was just Dylan (our german shepard/golden lab mix) and myself lounging on the couch, that I realized it had been a very long time since I had an evening to myself.

You see, roommates disappear. Parties, boyfriends or girlfriends, side trips - there are innumerable reasons why, in the past, I would end up quietly cooking a meal for myself in an empty house. But the thing about family is, they never leave.

No offense family, but really, why don't you go on vacation more often?

Because family vacation means I can get nice and cozy with a sprout. Or several, really.

Brussel sprouts. Just like a solo dining experience, they make many cringe at first thought. But, if you treat then gently and with the slightest bit more attention than a brute slice in half and a disheartened toss into boiling water, those small, green leafed crucifers unfurl with a sweetness few would associate with a miniature cabbage.

The key is in the cut: it must be thin, and it must be through the stem. Thin so the leaves turn to feathers, stemmed so the feathers cluster together in the pan.

Once sliced, a good, quick fry is all that's needed. Hot pan, hot olive oil, and the sprouts searing quickly into golden crusted fronds. Off the heat quickly to maintain a nice, toothsome crunch, then with sprinkle of sea salt, and finished.

Sometimes, I like my sprouts with a bit of a kick though. Especially because when I'm dining alone I don't feel bad that I am only eating sprouts. No starch, no meat - just a mess of greens. (I have been know to use this trick of "just greens" for dinner to justify eating three cherry turnovers in a row). So as the sprouts are cooking, I toast some hazelnuts, brown some garlic, and sprinkle in some brown sugar. The nuts caramelize, and the garlic takes on an almost haunting molasses flavor that, once tossed with the sprouts, sticks to each leaf and rounds out the dish into something more complete. Something that would look quite nice on top of a bed of rice, or alongside a piece of perfectly roasted chicken.

Or, something that looks equally lovely alone on a plate, held in the hand of the only person in a large house in the middle of the woods, the frogs croaking after the last rain. Exactly what I wanted.

Brussel Sprouts with Caramelized Hazelnuts
inspired by 101 Cookbooks

1 pound brussel sprouts
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup whole hazelnuts
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tbsp brown sugar

1) Start with the sprouts. Cut off any protruding stems, and gently peel off outer leaves that look bruised or discolored; discard them. Slice the sprouts very thinly, about 1/8 inch thick, through the stem. You could also use a mandoline if this step started to drive you crazy.

2) Meanwhile, toast the hazelnuts in a small pan on medium heat until golden, and set aside.

3) Warm oil in pan over medium high heat. Add sprouts, toss to coat in oil, then let them sit in the pan for a minute or two. Toss, then let them sit again. You want them to brown, but not burn. And you don't want to cook them too long - 5 minutes should be your target here, with plenty of golden patches on the leaves.

4) Meanwhile, chop the hazelnuts, set aside again. Melt butter in same (empty) pan that the hazelnuts were toasted in. Add the garlic, and brown for 1 minute. Add the hazelnuts, then sprinkle in the brown sugar, tossing quickly to coat the nuts and garlic. Cook another 30 seconds - 1 minute. Again, you want browning and caramelization, but not burning.

5) Add nuts and garlic to the sprouts, toss. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve to yourself with a flourish.

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