Debbie Matthews: Kale, kale and more kale
When small, The Kid met most food challenges head on. An unfamiliar item would usually merit at least a couple of nibbles.
There was a question which always accompanied our forays into snacking incognita.
“Taste it. What if this is your new favorite food? What if this were ice cream?”
Sometimes it was ice cream, or close to it.
Sushi took two tries before it became a huge hit.
But color me impressed because the initial sample was requested the summer before kindergarten, and by first grade it was being gobbled up like The Kid was a 1980s Hollywood agent.
That stuff gives me the heeby jeebies. Where I come from, we call it bait.
This brings me back to ice cream. Of the kale variety.
What I mean is the very first taste of something that you absolutely adore, and will till your taste buds fall out of your head.
A while back I picked up a sweet potato at Carlie C’s. It was so big we could have painted it yellow and comfortably fit inside the fab four, their instruments and spouses.
I usually eat sweet taters a couple of nights a month when Petey is at work.
He doesn’t like baked sweets, and at Thanksgiving he ruthlessly rations everything that isn’t turkey and dressing.
On Turkey day, I like ‘em from a can, warm, and smothered with my special, extra-thick, guaranteed to block important internal avenues that once were clear, gravy.
Baked for solo dinners, they’re covered with an experimental performance art of toppings. Each one is different. But it has to have strong sweet/savory action. It’s just gotta.
Tonight, I decided to cut it up and roast it. It was huge, and leftovers would be easier.
I’ve been liking creamed spinach on my yam, but I had thrown our only bag into a pot of rice and beans the other night.
I had enough dino kale to feed an entire stable of stegosauruses. I pulled a bunch out of the fridge to sub in for spinach.
It was a gamble, as I told The Kid on the phone. There was clear-eyed certainty in Vermont. Bad idea. Gross. My child is still a hater.
So, I set about making roasted, glazed, sweet potatoes, smothered in steak house-style creamed kale.
The kale was showered down over the sea of yams. I dug in. There were no leftovers.
The for-sure elements of my dinner were kale and N.C. sweets. Otherwise it was a complete and utter improvisation.
Since I was winging it the entire time, I’m writing about the process, so you know my thinking during certain steps along the way.
For sweet potatoes, I was trying to recreate the sweet, soft, copper cubes from the can.
I cut up the freshly scrubbed spud into 1- to 2-inch cubes, and dropped them into a plastic bag. I also put in a splash (1-2 tablespoons) of olive oil, a big pinch of salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 2 teaspoons smoked paprika, and 8 or 10 grinds of nutmeg.
Then I needed something to play on the sweetness of the potato, and to get gooey and glazey in the oven.
I had an embarrassment of options.
Honey; at least five kinds. Syrup; both the artificially flavored, neon colored, and the organic of such an artisanal level the farmer knows the trees on a first name basis. Sugars and juices, marmalades and jams.
I settled on a really yummy sassafras jelly I picked up at the last Got To Be N.C. fest. It’s produced by a crazy culinary crew down in Elizabethtown, called D’Vine Foods.
It’s mildly sweet, but with the tiniest spicy twist that I thought would work well.
When everything was in the bag, I sealed it, manhandled it to mix well, and let it marinate for three hours.
About an hour and a half before eating, I dumped them and all juices into an oven safe dish, and baked for one hour, tossing every 10 minutes or so.
When there were 30 minutes left on the spuds, I started the kale. I threw ¼ of a chopped yellow onion into a skillet with a tablespoon of butter.
I stacked the washed, de-spined kale leaves to cut them up. Because I used dino kale, they were nice and straight, making the chiffonade a breeze.
I put the kale in the pan, and seasoned them. When they started to wilt, I added a little sherry. When the booze scent was gone, I poured in about ½ cup of chicken stock and another tablespoon of butter. I covered it, and turned it down until the veg was cooked to crisp-tender. Then I uncovered, turned up the heat and added a couple of tablespoons of manchego cheese, and ¼-1/3 cup of heavy cream.
It simmered until the thickness was correct, and I ladled it over the orange nuggets.
Golly Gee it was good.
But just as good as the dish was the fact that at this advanced age, I’m still capable of having ice cream for the first time.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is email@example.com.