a leg of lamb, a pound of shrimp & a bunch of kale…

…not in that order and definitely not together.

Over the last couple of weeks I made three meals that really stood out, each one for particular but elusive reasons. That disconnect has kept me from synthesizing a coherent, clever theme for this post, which has been sitting in drafts since last Friday. All three were unexpectedly share-worthy and deliciously surprising – I encourage you to try making at least one, but your mood, timing and audience will have to determine which. I’m simply going to present them as independent creations and hope that wit and reflection prevail by the end. (Note: each gets its own cooking tune because they really are deserving.)

At the risk of repeating/overstating some of my go-to messaging, I’ll warn you up front that two of the recipes harken back to 1. my dedication to Jewish holiday food and 2. my obsession with dead chefs and their masterpiece cookbooks. The third recipe is the outlier. It’s based on kale, a leafy green that isn’t a kosher staple (and thus not often found on Rosh Hashana tables) and the author is very much alive. Plus kale is a problematic punchline and maybe just little bit yucky. But I went for it anyway, so here we go.

couldn’t help but put some basil on the side, just in case

I remember watching Lidia Bastianich’s PBS Italian cooking shows when the boys were little, but I had neither the time nor energy to cook along. Now she has emerged on my social media feeds to finally grab my undivided attention. This might have originated as a Facebook video I almost zipped past during a doom-scroll, but the sheer vibrancy of the pesto made me stop and watch. I always thought of kale as having a icky drab color with a curly dragon-scale texture. But lately I’ve expanded my palate and warmed to bitter arugula and dandelion greens so why not? In my apparently limited experience pesto demands basil, but this version is radiant with fresh Italian parsley, garlic, olive oil, grana pandano and even that damn raw kale.

This is really billed as a vegetarian plate, and I agree it would pass muster any night of the week. However I had some leftover grilled chicken which needed a soft and supple landing pad. And remember my commitment to eliminate carbs? Yeah, that didn’t happen. But I have greatly reduced their presence on my menus…except this night when I cooked enough to feed an army. I actually invited Louise of the East over to dine with us and still had three meals remaining. She won the invitation because she is an excellent cook, speaks Italian and wouldn’t say a word about the ridiculous amount of garlic breath we exhaled. I say that “I actually invited” because I almost never cook for anyone. I’m real nice that way.

pomegranate- and red wine-braised leg of lamb

According to the lamb recipe article above, for American Jews, brisket is often the star of Rosh Hashanah dinner. Of course, the author was likely referring to a revered family recipe, passed down from generation to generation. At the risk of intrusion and/or misinterpretation, a two-day dramatic brisket ceremony became one of my annual traditions. Well I am American with Southern Jewish ancestry so yes, I appropriated a brisket recipe to honor and celebrate the Jewish New Year (thank you, New York Times Cooking). While I do not use my (very Protestant) great-great-grandmother’s handwritten Yiddish brisket recipe, my dish is still most worthy and commands oohs and aahs every year from a table of grateful, open-minded men. If nothing else, my annual Rosh Hashanah overproduction enhances my inherent and thinly veiled shiksappeal.

I love my brisket, I really do, but growth requires change…plus I found a giant boneless leg in August at 30% off which I froze with a big label reading “for Rosh Hashana.” I chuckled with satisfaction and anticipation every time I opened the freezer. This recipe, based on Ina Garten’s Four Hour Lamb, is quite similar to my brisket – a yummy sweet and sour sauce infusing tender, flavorful meat. The lamb was rich and succulent to begin with, so braising in red wine, herbs and pomegranate juice took it into the decadence category. There are other versions of this lamb that call for pomegranate molasses, a syrupy reduction much like a balsamic glaze. I made that too (duh) but judiciously swirled it around just the rim – talk about gilding the lily.

I always make an orange-olive oil challah, but my miscalculation on the timing of the final rise delayed dinner an hour. So I smoothly announced we had “courses” this year and started the evening with potato latkes loaded with plenty of Vidalia onions. Except for the crunching and occasional groan of delight, there was dead silence in the house as a dozen latkes disappeared one by one. The lamb course was next, which I served with roasted, sliced fennel bulbs. Fennel seeds are part of the lamb braise so that was the perfect complimentary side dish. When the challah was finally ready we completed the meal with warm bread, apples and honey. Perhaps an odd interpretation, but that’s what it always was from the start. Shana Tova, all.

shrimp with tomato and chile pepper by any other name is still perfection

My years living in NYC are dotted with memories of amazing restaurants and sullen, angry people…unless they were at one of those amazing restaurants and then they became jovial characters, alive and kicking in the most exciting city in the U.S. But as for the daily grind, Manhattan seemed to me like a magnificent, bustling, filthy landscape of generally hard people in the early 1990s. But I treasure those moments and it remains perhaps the most paradoxical urban setting I’ve ever experienced. Tokyo was a piece of cake by comparison. But the Italian food was divine.

Shrimp Fra Diavolo is a simple, spicy Italian-American creation based on some very basic and simple native techniques and ingredients. I figured this out when the newly-released edition of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking arrived. Her recipes are accessible, forthright and clearly detailed but there are no Italian names anywhere to be found. My very first recipe was inspired by some fresh shrimp I procured and was much like the fabled Shrimp Fra Diavolo, but known simply as Marcella’s “Shrimp with Tomato and Chile Pepper.” Nomenclature aside, it is friggin spectacular and just couldn’t be easier.

I almost made it exactly the way she wrote it. It seems I have acquired a pet peeve when it comes to seafood in pasta dishes: if I wanted boiled scallops or squid or shrimp, and I cannot imagine why I would for pasta, I’d actually boil them. But too many of my shellfish dinners have looked pale, rubbery and flavorless because the little critters were simply steamed in the sauce. Butter and olive oil added to a small pan on high heat fixes that in less than two minutes. Fearlessness is a prerequisite for this method – you must be brave enough to toss your precious shrimps into searing hot oil and disciplined enough to get them out in time. And turn the vent on.

However straightforward, here is the thing about this recipe – order and patience count. I used to think I could simply dump in all the ingredients for a fresh marinara and magically create a complex and layered sauce. Might as well have opened a jar. And to be clear, I’m not against a good jar, it’s just that this recipe is so easy and the ingredients so common that you may never go back. Marcella’s methods are more like a dance than a race – it’s still competitive, but rhythm and timing are everything, and I suspect I will understand her flow more and more as I read through the cookbook. Yes, I actually read them like novels at bedtime.

a very orchestrated dance

So there they are, my three crowning achievements of the last two weeks and I still have no pithy commentary to offer about their collective meaning. Maybe that’s the point – whether a feast or a dud, every meal has intrinsic value and character on several levels. Alone they might be the best or worst part of my day, but they are rarely perfunctory. As part of a greater ensemble, they add to the variety of flavors, textures and smells with which I’ve chosen to decorate my world. In the most simple terms, the act of cooking brings me joy. How lucky am I?

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