The See-Saw

Have you ever seen a cartoon where a big guy hops on a see-saw with a little guy, and the little guy flies up into space?

Or, maybe you’ve been on one, and the guy at the other end gets off abruptly and you slam down to Mother Earth in a manner that rattles your fillings and makes you walk funny for a few days.

Both of those hilarious calamities occurred because there was a lack of one crucial ingredient.

Balance.

The Kid and I were in Raleigh the other day to visit the NC Museum of Art; truly, one of our state’s greatest cultural gifts.  I bought tickets for an exhibit, and The Kid picked up the lunch tab.My child surprised me with Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (237 S Wilmington St, Downtown Raleigh).  Beasley’s is one of Ashley Christensen’s eateries.  Chef Christensen is Raleigh’s #1 culinary rock star.  Her standards are as high as the quality of her dishes.  Her menus are thoughtful, and the food is invariably fresh and delicious.First, we ordered a couple of their house cocktails.  The Kid got a Benton’s Old Fashioned, and I got the American Trilogy.  They were both tasty, but oh so strong.  Their bartender does not skimp.  After one, the world’s cheapest drunk (that would be me) was about four sips away from looking for a lamp shade with which to dance.

We stopped at one.We decided to order a few sides to share alongside our entrees.  We got the mac & pimento cheese custard, a terrific example of the egg-forward version of the Southern classic.

We also ordered the creamed collards and as an appetizer, the crispy cheese grit fries.

These two items were straight up perfect.

What made them perfect, you ask, Gentle Reader?One word—balance (now, hopefully, the see-saw palaver makes some sense).

The greens were creamy and rich, but with a hint of heat, and a bracing vinegar bite.  There was no cloying greasiness on the tongue because when the creamy hit, it was quickly followed by the acid.It was the grit fries though, which should be required eating for every human who strives to become a skilled cook.  It was a graduate degree on a plate.

The fries were planks of crispiness that hid a creamy, cheesy rich bite of perfectly cooked grits.  They were stacked up and served with a malt vinegar aioli, and chowchow; a puckery relish made from cabbage, green tomatoes, and peppers. This dish was a symphony of balance; crispy fries, creamy aioli, and crunchy chowchow.  It was sweet, salty, sour, and a little bitter.  Each element was delicious but eaten together it was one of the most delicious, complete bites I’ve ever been lucky enough to eat.

We will be thinking about and discussing that meal for a long time.I strongly urge you to go to Raleigh and visit Beasley’s for a plate of those fries, but in the meantime, I have an example of culinary balance that’s a bit easier to get your hands on.

Reubens are balance in sandwich form.  It’s an odd combo of items that only a mad man could have invented, but which works so very well. It’s crunchy and a touch bitter (toasted rye), crispy and sour (sauerkraut), creamy and rich (mayo and 1000 island), melty and nutty (Swiss cheese), salty and fatty (corned beef).  An associate’s degree between two pieces of bread.

Although I’d never had chowchow before, Chef Ashley’s was so good I’ve seen the error of my ways.  Next week I’ll share a recipe and a few ideas of what to do with it.Thanks for your time.

Fairly Balanced

My favorite ice cream treat is Dairy Queen’s peanut buster parfait.  It is a miracle of simplicity; vanilla soft serve draped in hot fudge sauce and studded with peanuts.

But who knew my affection was rooted in science?

While each component is plenty tasty on its own, it’s the contrasts that push it to icon status.  The hot/cold, salty/sweet, and creamy/crunchy excite us and satisfy the palate.  It’s called dynamic contrast.

The accepted definition for this term is: moment-to-moment sensory contrast from the ever-changing properties of foods manipulated in the mouth.All this fancy scientific palaver boils down to one thing: humans like contrast, and crave it.

The Kid recently found a dish on the website Smitten Kitchen, which was inspired by an Ina Garten recipe and features contrast.

Crusty Baked Cauliflower and Farro

Final amended recipe

I’m sorry guys, there are just a crap ton of ingredients in this dish.

2 cups cooked farro

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil

2 1/4 to 2 1/2 pound head of cauliflower, cut into small florets

2 tablespoons capers, drained

2 large or 3 regular cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons lemon zest

2 cups coarsely grated Manchego

½ cup Marcona almonds, given a brief, rough chop into halves or thirds

1/2 cup full-fat ricotta cheese

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs

1/3 cup finely grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese

2 teaspoons dry thyme

Directions:

Place farro into large bowl.

Par-cook cauliflower:

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Brush a large baking sheet with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread florets in one layer, drizzle with 1 more tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 20 minutes until lightly browned and crisp-tender (they will finish baking with the farro). Reduce heat to 400 degrees.  Place cauliflower into bowl with farro.

Assemble casserole: Add the capers, garlic, lemon zest, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper to cauliflower and farro and stir to combine. Stir in manchego and almonds. Transfer half of the mixture to an oiled 10-inch ovenproof frying pan or equivalent baking dish. Dollop rounded tablespoons of ricotta all over. Sprinkle remaining cauliflower and farro over the ricotta, leaving the pockets of it undisturbed.

In a small dish, combine panko with Parmesan, thyme and 1 tablespoon olive oil until evenly mixed. Sprinkle over cauliflower and farro.

Bake casserole: For 20 minutes, until browned and crusty on top. Dig in.Do ahead: Farro can be cooked up to 3 days in advance, kept in an airtight container in fridge. Cauliflower can be cooked 2 days in advance. Casserole can be assembled and baked a day later, easily, although the crumbs might lose their crisp from absorbing the moisture below if not added right before baking. Casserole keeps for several days in fridge and longer in freezer.

The Kid loved this dish so much it was a struggle to leave enough for me to try.  I liked it a lot, but had a couple of tweaks in mind.

The sample I tasted had a lot of lemon zest; like a whole lemon’s worth.  It was too much.  It became very floral, and the flavor overpowered the other components.  We reduced it.

It needed crunch, and we picked nuts because they don’t go soggy.

We both thought about pine nuts, but Chinese pine nuts from the Pinus armandii can give you something called “pine mouth” which deadens your taste buds for a while and leaves you with a metallic taste for two weeks or more.   And unfortunately, it’s not usually easy to discern the origin of your pine nuts.So we chose Marcona almonds because they’re addictively tasty.  They were the perfect foil for the other ingredients.  It was a true balance of both taste and texture.

And, here’s one more contrast for you.

When I eat something outrageously delicious, it makes me want to cry; with pleasure, gratitude, and the ephemeral nature of the food. But The Kid gets angry.

Yeah, angry.I only offered another contrast.  I didn’t promise it wouldn’t be bonkers.

Thanks for your time.