Monday, November 10, 2014

on cooking + lentils with sausage and kale

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It’s 6am Sunday morning and the house is blissfully quiet. Andrew is still sleeping; and Forrest is doing that thing where he sits on various window sills of the apartment for long stretches of time watching the birds and the squirrels with the kind of rapt attention usually reserved for very important things. We call it “morning cat office hours”, because he takes his job very seriously. When the squirrels make it dangerously close to the window, you can see Forrest pacing back and forth behind the curtains, clearly unnerved by what he clearly believes is them taunting him.

I’m finally writing in our new-ish office where we hung the Elfa shelving from the Container Store. We didn’t need that expense making a dent in our bank account, but we had no choice. The home office is a tiny room hardly the size of a closet, and the way our desks were set up, things were piling up everywhere. To let the Container Store guy do its job (aka hang shelves in the home of two home-improvement illiterate Jews), we had to move all the furniture and detritus out, which of course, meant that we could no longer find things like staples and tape, notebooks and printing paper, post-its and paperclips, and most importantly – bills.

Saturday morning buckwheat waffle things.

Yesterday, was the first day we had of no plans, no extended stay visiting family or friends, no obligations, no books to edit (me), no breaking stories to cover (Andrew) – and I, in my crazy nesting stage, demanded we put our home office in order. The chaos of it all, loose papers everywhere, was clouding up my mind and affecting everything else; it was even making it hard to breathe. And that’s what we did pretty much all day. Five loads of laundry, a trip to the post office, and the organization of our home office. I made sour milk waffles for breakfast, the ones I tend to make the most around here given my inability to plan such things, and swapped in a third of buckwheat flour for the all-purpose. Andrew declared them even better than the original, and I think a new family favorite is born. At the end of the evening, we rewarded ourselves with some excellent Indian take-out which we ate while watching SNL reruns.

Outside of organizing the home office, not much happened. I vowed that today I’d make pie crust for Thanksgiving and the secret soup which I’m surprising our families with. We’re hosting again, but this time, our holiday will be a bit more modest given that I’m operating with a larger belly and am not making a dozen sides to go with our turkey. A handful will be plenty and good enough. Plus cooking ahead, in stages, is making it easier for me.

It’s been a funny thing cooking at home since I started work in September. I love my job, love the work, and I love each new challenge. I don’t so much love having to edit two books in addition to the job despite my love of both books. It’s hard: weeknights and weekends spent poring over books line by line, and being pregnant is a bit draining especially at night.

Rainy day granola - a short break from editing. Also, the slow-cooker has commenced its 2014-2015 season. If I have to stay cooped up and working, I might as well make the house smell amazing and cook a few hands-off things.

And I’ve had a harder time, than I’d expected, adjusting to the demands of working full-time in an office, the daily commute, plus dinner prep. If you had talked to me last month, I’d tell you that I’m kind of failing on the home cooking front. There’s been a lot of takeout and not a whole lot of cooking. But in the last month or so, I’ve come to be gentler on myself – I’m doing the best I can.

Curiously enough, there must be something in the air about cooking at home, because there’s been a flurry of articles and blog posts about it, with some pieces charged and maybe a touch incendiary, and others calmer and more neutral.

Cooking at home, especially for an adult who commutes daily to a full-time job, but most certainly for all, is another logistical piece of the time management puzzle. How often is often enough; how does one feel about nightly weeknight cooking; is there guilt involved when it’s not frequent enough (whatever “enough” means)?

Whatever your thoughts are on home cooking, I think we need to remember to keep one thing in mind: shaming others for something that’s different from your routine doesn’t really accomplish anything outside of resentment and hurt feelings. In these articles/posts, some people boasted their deep dislike of cooking and even prided themselves on it – fine. But then they went to shame others for liking to cook weeknight dinners, linking it to a gender bias of sorts (not an invalid argument but one that we should probably explore on its own).

If you don’t like cooking; if you’re fine ordering takeout; if you view that cooking is a gender-biased activity (and it still very much is – but that’s a whole other can of worms) – then don’t cook. Whatever your time, resources, and other factors allow, feed yourself (and others) in a manner that works for you. I know of a family where finances are plentiful, and they order healthy home-cooked meals every night. No one in the family cooks, but they like to eat whole foods especially because they have a voracious toddler. They’re lucky to have the means, and I’m glad that my friend, a former colleague, feels no guilt over not cooking.

I, personally, oscillate between feeling guilty in not cooking enough, resenting the fact that I have to cook, and accepting it for what it is. Writing a food blog and having written cookbooks (and working as an editor of cookbooks), creates an illusion that I serve three course dinners every night. Or that I’m, somehow, more proficient as an efficient home cook. Ha! Far from it, friends! You want an elaborate meal that takes a day to prepare replete with obscure techniques? I’m your girl. But if you throw a challenge of a bona fide fast, weeknight home-cooked meal, you’ll find me scratching my head more. Home cooks everywhere, who plan ahead or are just resourceful enough not to plan and wing it, I bow down to you.

There's nothing terribly complicated about making bolognese. But to do it well requires practice and patience. This has three more hours to go. Stages and stages of slow cooking. But so worth it in the end. Marcella Hazan, thank you.

Because of this expectation, I have some, perhaps unfounded, that run through my head: the “why am I not this resourceful and look inside my fridge and just make something?” or the “why can’t I plan meals every weekend?” or the “other people put dinner on the table in half an hour-why can’t I?”

There are days when I make all that noise in my head stop: I’m doing the best I can. With a “Look, I made this bolognese, and we froze it and ate it over several weeks!” And a “How about some spicy cabbage with a fried egg, Andrew?”

There’s also the issue of feeling the pressure to cook and the resentment that builds up with it. On the other hand, I get it. I am the primary cook in the family. Correction: at this juncture I am the sole cook in the family, unless you count an occasional egg that Andrew will fry for me, all the meals in this house are made by yours truly. I’m not, however, the sole dishwasher in the house as Andrew has taken on this role–and does it with gusto. But in anticipation of the arrival of the baby, he’s trying to learn a few dishes—a few easy dishes—to get us through the first few weeks or months. He’s been introduced to the slow-cooker, and he is now beginning to realize its magical powers. We made the Santa Fe Chicken last week, thanks to Jenny of Dinner, a Love Story, and he was all, “You just dump everything in there and walk away for ten hours?!?”

I have a feeling, friends, that the slow-cooker will save us.

For me, reading Molly and Luisa’s posts on cooking at home, clarified one thing: what you do in your kitchen is something that you should never feel badly about. If you can make fresh dinner every night – great; and if you can’t – that’s okay too. If you hate cooking – you’re allowed to hate it and not feel guilty about it. I was getting a manicure the other day (I have the misfortune of inheriting of the sort of cuticles that need dire professional help–and if you saw them you’d agree!) and this lady who was sitting next to me–who looked 60 and turned out to be 85!–said to me, “I’ve never much liked cooking, but I made damn sure all the men I was ever with could cook.” She made it work for her in her own way.

Asian style chicken wings for dinner tonight with roasted broccoli and steamed rice.

I know that feeling obligated to cook—that there’s no one in the household who’d do it instead of me—makes me somewhat resentful. I dislike the feeling of obligation, and while I envision myself cooking a quick meal nightly, it’s the prep and the clean-up that always get me. By the time we’re done eating, it’s nine o’clock, and we have to clean the kitchen, and I start my pregnant lady bed prep. And then I think to myself, What happens to expectant commuting moms with one small child? There’s bath time and putting them to bed, and then, just then, it’s dinner and clean-up!

I knew a woman once who would pride herself on cooking a home-cooked dinner every night. She’d boast how easy it was and cast an eye of consternation on those who couldn’t keep up, deeming them as not trying hard enough. But she worked from home, and part time too, so it was not a fair comparison to moms who spent two-hours-plus-a-day going to and from work.

And what I loved so much about Molly’s post is that she said simply, I cook twice or three times a week or so, and that’s good enough for me. She didn’t make apologies; didn’t ask for permission. She simply found a place where she’s happy. Cooking any more, and it’s a chore; any less—and she misses it.

My own happy medium is evolving. I find that Sunday food prep and my slow-cooker are making a huge difference. That double batch of bolognese I made, I have two more meals worth’ sitting in the freezer. The tomato and pepper soup from our weekend in the North Fork – half is sitting frozen awaiting a rainy night when grilled cheese sandwiches are just the thing. That Santa Fe chicken was a revelation – and will be on regular rotation these fall and winter months. I’m trying Asian style slow-cooker ribs today and will let you know how it goes.

Bolognese in the making. It'll take all evening to cook so dinners for tomorrow and beyond. Cold weather cooking at its best.

As for weeknight meals from scratch, one of our favorites is this lentils, sausage, kale number we do once every couple of weeks. Here’s how it goes, though I’ll include a tight writeup below as well so you can print just that in case you need to: brown a pound of spicy Italian sausage in grapeseed oil (we’ve tried it with kielbasa, turkey sausage, and merguez – all excellent), add a splash of sherry vinegar to deglaze. Add cooked lentils (how much is up to you, but we cook about 1 1/2 cups and add all of that in), and about 4 cups of shredded kale. If your kale is prepackaged, add a splash of water to help it wilt. If you washed and cut the leaves, the residual water will help the kale do its wilty thing. Season to taste with salt, bearing in mind that sausage is salty — and serve. The whole thing takes about 15-20 minutes to make and dirties up one (1!) pot. If you need to cook your lentils, you can do that immediately upon getting home – and then spend the next 20-30 minutes organizing your home, and prepping the remaining ingredients. If you have a Trader Joe’s nearby, they sell pre-cooked, vacuum-sealed lentils AND pre-cut kale, so, really, your whole meal is minutes away. Anything you don’t finish that evening makes for stunning leftovers the morning after with a… you guessed it… fried egg on top. Or lunch at work if you’re anything like us and trying to save some money. Either way this might make its way into your regular weeknight rotation – it’s definitely a keeper here.

Lentils with Sausage and Kale
The guidelines and proportions I give below are just a loose structure. You may find you want a lot more kale and a lot less sausage or vice versa. There’s really no messing up this dish. And if you’re a Trader Joe’s regular, they sell precooked, vacuum-packed lentils which are fantastic and a huge time save – as well as cut up kale. Sometimes, weeknights can be a total bind and you have 15 minutes to make dinner. If you have these short-cuts in your pantry, this is possible – and I doubt any take-out can deliver that fast.

1 1/2 cups lentils de Puy
Stock or water to cover the lentils (see below)
¼ cup olive oil
2 fresh sage leaves
Kosher salt
1 pound spicy Italian sausage (turkey sausage, merguez, kielbasa, etc. also great here)
6 to 8 cups shredded lacinato or regular kale (see below for whole kale leaves)
Grapeseed oil
Sherry vinegar

1. If cooking lentils: Pick and wash the lentils and place in a medium sized pot. Add enough stock or water to cover the lentils by 2 inches. Add olive oil, sage, and a generous pinch of salt (if using stock, make sure it’s not salted), stir, and bring to a boil over high heat. When the lentils come to a boil, reduce heat enough so the liquid is at a moderate simmer, and cook lentils, stirring and tasting for doneness from time to time, until the lentils are soft and chewable but still have a pleasant bite/toothsomeness to them, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking liquid. [I like to add the liquid to the pan in later stages, or if there’s enough, it makes for a satisfying soup with a few spoons of lentils for lunch the following day.]

2. While your lentils cook, cut the sausage into 1-inch pieces and, if your kale comes whole, thinly slice the kale into ribbons. If you like to remove the spine of the kale, do so, but I always like a bit of crunch and heft, and on a weeknight, I’m too rushed and lazy to remove the spine. I do, however, trim quite a bit of the dry stems on the bottom.

3. In a large skillet set over medium-high heat, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan and heat until the oil shimmers. Add the sausage, and cook, stirring from time to time, until the sausage is well-browned and there’s no pink inside, about 7 to 9 minutes. Add the cooked lentils, reduce heat to medium, and stir to combine; cook until the lentils are warmed through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add a splash of vinegar and deglaze the pan, scraping the brown bits off the bottom. Add the kale and toss to combine. Cook, stirring, until the kale is wilted approximately 3 to 4 minutes. While the kale cooks, to help it wilt and if the pan seems dry, add a generous splash of the lentils cooking liquid or water. Remove from heat and serves immediately.

Serves 4.

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20 Comments

  • 1
    Sarah said:

    *high five* Obviously you know I’m on board. The saddest part (and I’m writing something about this but I’m not sure it’ll ever be finished) is the woman-to-woman shaming that’s happening specifically, rather than blaming the system that makes us eat crap when we can’t spend a bunch of time making a home cooked meal. Blegh.

    Mostly I’m commenting to say congrats on the home office organization! It’s weird how invested I feel in this after meeting you outside the Container Store :) Pictures?

    Cheers from Jakarta,
    S

    November 10, 2014 9:20 am
  • 2

    I’ve read a number of those articles about cooking at home… and I do agree that no one should feel bad about how much (or little) they’re preparing meals. However, some of my fondest memories are of helping my mom (and, from time to time, my dad) in the kitchen. I think my worldview changed because of those experiences… I became more open to trying new things, especially because I had helped create it. Point being that I see it as an important part of a child’s upbringing… but that still doesn’t mean a parent has to cook EVERY night. I know how hard it is cooking for two… I can only imagine the challenges with feeding a family. Those are my brief thoughts on that. :-)

    I recently realized that I have only cooked lentils once or twice in my life. So, I decided to change that and pick some up from Whole Foods. Now I’m totally cooked. This sausage and kale dish looks like perfect winter fare. What I love is that it’d not only make for a great entree, but I bet it’d be great on a Thanksgiving table.

    November 10, 2014 9:27 am
  • 3
    Molly said:

    Here’s how I handle a lot of the things you were mulling over: First thing, Lilli is up before 6. With both parents up, Rich can hang out with her, and I can put together that night’s meal in the morning. If I’m feeling ambitious, I can have a few burners going at the same time. You can also cook for the tomorrow’s dinner after 8pm the night before, once the toddler is bathed and in bed. With fall vegetables, roasting is the easiest and tastiest way to go and it requires very little standing at the stove. Whole grains can be cooked ahead of time and frozen. We don’t do a ton of crockpot meals, but it’s wonderful to throw stuff in a pot at 7:45 in the morning and get home after commute and daycare pick up and have a warm pot of food ready for eating. Now that she’s a little older I pull up a dining room chair to the counter and hand her a rolling pin, measuring cups and spoons and she has a blast working alongside me in the kitchen. I promise you it’s all doable — you’ll just need a little work on time management.

    November 10, 2014 9:34 am
  • 4
    Kasey said:

    Wonderful post, Olga. I totally hear you on the commuting full-time + a side job (and my kid is starting to get picky, too!). I think the key to it all is always doing out best. If more people felt that way about cooking, I actually think more would be up for occasionally throwing together a meal, even when they’re used to takeout. This facade of beautiful spreads and being perfect homemakers while working or trying to raise a family really needs to go. x

    November 10, 2014 11:15 am
  • 5
    Brian said:

    Olga,
    A very powerful piece! As the person who does most of the cooking here, I understand the frustrations of cooking after a more than a full day’s work. One important tip that I can share with you, deals with the slow cooker. Sometimes the slow cooker is just too small for what I am cooking, so in that case I use a covered roasting pan sitting on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven at 220 degrees all day. I find that this is also easier to clean than the slow cooker.

    November 10, 2014 11:32 am
  • 6
    Sharmila said:

    First of all, congratulations and hugs Olga! I missed your announcement. With my pregnancy earlier this year and now finding my way around being mom to a 4-month old, I miss news like this that I wish I hadn’t. So thrilled for you.
    Your post resonates with me so much. I approach cooking for events or dinners with much more excitement than the daily meal. I give fervent thanks every day that I married a man who will cook the everyday meal because otherwise my pregnancy would have been hell for me. (Pregnancy brought me, a person who rarely has digestive issues, lots of flaming ones like heartburn so take-out often didn’t work.) And I’m with you, I wish for people to have access to healthy food options, whether they cooked it or bought it. If they choose to exercise or ignore that access again comes down to the individual. The only thing that makes me sad is when children aren’t given to understand what is healthy and what is not, and that while they can eat the second category, they should eat more of the first. I hope I’m successful at least in educating my child.
    Congrats again. It’s such an amazing time of your life.

    November 10, 2014 1:35 pm
  • 7

    I second what you said about the slow cooker – since going back to working full time, we have been struggling with much the same experiences (I barely cook if it’s not for the blog anymore, and while a pumpkin walnut loaf or cranberry cake are delicious, they’re not exactly dinner). But then came the slow cooker! We now make at least one slow-cooked meal a week, and it’s been such a great help. The only beef I have with it is that so many of the recipes are targeted at meat eaters (no pun intended). Vegetables (and not just beans) also love a good, slow cook!

    November 10, 2014 2:40 pm
  • 8
    Christine said:

    Yes!

    1. Thank you for your insightful take on the cooking brouhaha. There isn’t much to say beyond, I don’t care if you cook or don’t, but if you’re judging someone for it coming from either side, then I don’t have much to say to you. I work about a half hour from my house, but by the time I pick up my 11 month old and my husband it takes about an hour. I work full time. Sometimes the kid gets yogurt and fruit for dinner. Sometimes, I heat up a can of cooked beans with chopped up vegetables from the fridge to make a pasta soup. Sometimes I order take out. We eat together, it’s all good. I could do without the guilt from all sides, and I could do without some male authors, ahem, calling a woman who dislikes cooking a shrew.

    2. Thank you for this recipe! I may steal a kielbasa from my mother’s freezer while picking up the baby and make it for dinner tonight, since I have everything else at home.

    3. PLEASE do throw in a slow cooker recipe that takes a long time to make (usually we’re out of the house about 10 hours) that won’t just end up tasting like over cooked slow cooker. (Also, maybe it’s time to admit that my slow cooker just isn’t great/is too big/something else, because seriously, unless it’s an 8lb pork shoulder, everything it makes tastes…like slow cooker.)

    November 10, 2014 4:10 pm
  • 9
    Christine said:

    OH a fourth thing – are those poppy seeds in your waffle batter? I’m so intrigued! We just bought a waffle maker so we’re big on it.

    November 10, 2014 4:16 pm
  • 10
    Elizabeth said:

    Thank you for writing this! Just like parenting choices in past years, it seems as though cooking is the new place for our culture to battle over choices and values. We all need a break from the rigors of life, and, bank account permitting, I feel great about getting take-out once or twice a week. If it’s pizza, maybe not so much, but feeding ourselves and our families is tough. We should all be in this together and I just don’t get the need to use various choices as a means of judging others. Thanks for adding some sanity to the mix! (And sausage is always my go-to simple dinner –– your take is so perfect for these newly chilly days.)

    November 11, 2014 11:08 am
  • 11
    Cristina said:

    Great post! Very measured and rational.

    The biggest change I made after my girl came along was to buy easier ingredients. Pre-chopped, even pre-cooked if necessary! A baby is a constant (lovely, charming) interruption to whatever else you need to get done. What I mean is, I need to be able to stop what I’m doing pretty much at any time to tend to my baby without having to worry too much about detoxing/de-germing raw chicken surfaces. I didn’t want raw chicken around at all for this reason. I buy pre-cooked chicken, and cook the veggies and make a sauce or season accordingly. This may go against all of your cooking instincts, but if you’re like me, everything you thought was important before will change so much after you have your baby, you won’t even care about the flavor/moisture loss in pre-chopped, etc.

    Also: Curry pastes are my new best friend. A can of coconut milk and some great Thai green curry paste (plus a squeeze of lime and coconut sugar) and I have a real, hot dinner.Also: Sandwiches for dinner.

    And one more thing. If you are going to breastfeed, stock up on snacks and a water bottle you can operate with one hand.

    Oh, and here is the one thing I tell all my pregnant friends. In your hospital bag, pack juice boxes and granola bars. The doctors probably won’t let you eat or drink, but you might be able to get Andrew to sneak you something when they’re not looking.

    November 11, 2014 5:10 pm
  • 12
    olga said:

    Sarah – thank you, friend, and hope Jakarta is treating you well! That post you’ve been working on… keep at it because I would love to read it one day!

    Brian S – if you do serve it for Thanksgiving, let me know how it goes with everyone!

    Molly – love the breakdown and looking forward to becoming more efficient!

    Kasey – agreed, and that illusion of perfection is poison in disguise!

    Brian – love your idea, but can’t do it during weekdays as we’re gone for over 10+ hour stretches. I would never feel comfortable leaving the oven on and just leaving for the day. Slowcooker it is – and I don’t mind cleaning :)

    Sharmila – thank you, and i hear you on heartburn, though I understand it may have less to do with what you eat than that a baby may be growing a healthy mane and the hormones give you more heartburn. I had leek and potato soup last night and the heartburn was just out of control! If we have a bald baby, I want my money back ;)

    Christine – will share a few slow-cooker recipes in the next few weeks – I have 1 really good one so working on finding a few others. And re: waffle batter – no not poppy seeds, flecks of buckwheat flour (as I wrote above) that I swapped in for APF. See what I wrote above and I link to the recipe too. It’s a great last-minute waffle batter and keeps overnight in the fridge should you have leftover batter and want to have waffles the following AM as well!

    Elizabeth – agreed, take-out is heavier on the wallet, and we do it because we factor in energy to prep and clean up. The clean up after is the thing that gets me because by then I am so tired, you could tip me over with a feather.

    Christina – first of all hi! Secondly congrats on your baby, and third, these are all very good tips! Will keep them all in mind, though I worry about juice/granola as I tend to eat less sugar and those are usually loaded with. Maybe pb snacks of sorts?

    November 12, 2014 7:00 am
  • 13
    Christine said:

    I saw that you used buckwheat – which shows how much I know about cooking with buckwheat – I had no idea it would look like that in an uncooked batter. Now I’ll have to pick some up! Thank you!

    November 12, 2014 10:27 am
  • 14

    […] and feeling obligated to do it, continues with excellent pieces from Luisa (Wednesday Chef) and Olga (Sassy Radish). I also thought this post from Jenny at Dinner: A Love Story about lacking confidence in the […]

    November 14, 2014 5:06 pm
  • 15

    […] braised beef that was supposed to be Sunday dinner, and ended up being eaten on Monday; following Sassy Radish to combine previously frozen lentils, previously washed and shredded kale with a couple of sausages […]

    November 21, 2014 3:26 am
  • 16

    Absolutely gorgeous and recipe looks delish!

    November 21, 2014 5:29 pm
  • 17

    […] and clean-up. Even a bold essay about not cooking at all. I’ve wanted to comment on each of these blog posts, but my response is long and conflicted. I’ve had spurts of enthusiasm with cooking too. I still […]

    November 24, 2014 8:07 am
  • 18

    Olga, I so appreciate this post! Cooking at home is important for many reasons, it encourages moments with loved ones where we can stop and connect and nourish ourselves. As your friend with the healthy meal delivery exhibits, this can be done without cooking, too. We need to find what makes us happy without external “shoulds” or judgements. For those who like to cook and for those who don’t like to cook, that’s fine. Just do what feels right and without judgement towards others or misconceptions…there is a big misconception that cooking at home takes time, and you’ve shown here that it doesn’t have to. Though I agree that sometimes these are the trickiest meals to come up with! Bulk cooking helps,like these lentils or grains. Pestos are life savers. I believe people just need to do what feels good and right without voices in their head or self-inflicted guilt. Food should be nourishing and sometimes simple meals nourish us best. Case in point, eggs on toast x

    December 2, 2014 9:56 pm
  • 19
    Michelle said:

    I enjoyed reading this post and can relate. Thank you.

    December 6, 2014 10:05 pm
  • 20

    […] Lentils with Sausage and Kale from Sassy Radish […]

    February 24, 2015 12:23 pm

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