Last night, as I curled up on the couch with a full belly and a sleepy, satiated grin, I ruminated on this cooking business I've been getting into over the past three or four years—I never had any interest in cooking as a child, and my college culinary expertise consisted mainly of cooking a bag of frozen lima beans, pouring them into a bowl, and melting a pasteurized cheese slice on top in the microwave. (Don't knock it till you try it.) But then I got my very own kitchen, doll-sized though it was, and my very own paycheck, doll-sized though it was, and my very own license to stroll the grocery store and pick up whatever my little heart desired.
I'd never really listened to my little heart before that.
And today the whole exploit just makes me happy. I love to create something, either by walking in someone else's footsteps or charging wildly down my own path, and I don't know much that's better than having it turn out just as you'd secretly hoped—with every finger crossed and more fervently than you'd ever admit. (I'm a tremendously poor sport when it doesn't. That's the nature of high hopes; their counterpart is nauseating disappointment. Or maybe that's the nature of perfectionism. Ahem.)
I knew last night's dinner needed to be something more wholesome than a gooey mess of cheese and creamy, chickeny goodness. (Praise be to creamy goodness, amen.) There were collard greens in the refrigerator, so that's where this meal began, but the rest just fell together unusually organically. It was one of those rare moments when I knew just what flavors I wanted to taste together. In a way I blame the collards—that greens taste isn't for everyone, and there are a lot of people who swear by cooking them for days to get rid of the bitterness, but me? I know a thing or two about being bitter, and sometimes it just needs a little balance (garlic, spicy red pepper, vinegar, and sweet shallots) and the right partners.
In this case, that meant crispy roasted potatoes and meaty salmon burgers, a throwback to a childhood spent watching the toaster oven, counting down the seconds until my mother's salmon patties were ready. She made them with canned salmon and, because I was a spectacularly odd child, I loved the bones. She always told us that they were full of calcium and other healthy goodness. That way I could convince myself I wasn't just a kid who liked to eat fish bones.
No really, I was very, very weird.
But last night, as I whirred and mixed and assembled, I did marvel at how easy the whole endeavor is becoming with practice. Yes, there are also stunning failures, and I'm not reinventing haute cuisine, and I can't bake my way out of a cardboard box, but it's become something of a healthy addiction. I wondered, after I'd plated my dinner and set up my shots and devoured my plate, how people with lives do it.
Sure, I have my job and my pooper and my family and friends, but workdays end and dogs are kept occupied with backyards and food bowls. Particularly when they are easily distracted. It can't be easy when there are babies and lovers and in-laws in the mix.
So this is my hat tip to you, busy, life-having people. Guess what? You can make this one on a weeknight without breaking a sweat. I promise.
The salmon burger recipe is adapted from a Mark Bittman one, the potatoes are an old Cook's Illustrated masterpiece, and the collard greens are from the back of my brain in a place so dusty I don't remember their origin. But they are delicious. The only improvement I might have made? A dollop of sour cream on the salmon sounds about perfect to me. I just didn't think of it until J wanted to go to the bathroom at 1:43 this morning.
1½ pounds salmon fillets, skinned and cut into large pieces, divided
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon drained capers
½ cup breadcrumbs
Hot sauce, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1. Process about ⅓ pound salmon with mustard in a food processor until it becomes a paste. Add shallots, capers, and remaining salmon, and pulse until mixture is combined with paste and chopped into small pieces (roughly ¼ inch).
2. In a medium bowl, stir together salmon mixture, breadcrumbs, hot sauce, salt, and pepper. Form mixture into 4 large patties.
3. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook patties 3 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. Squeeze lemon wedges over patties just before serving. Makes 4 servings.
Crispy Roasted Potatoes
2½ pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced (about ½ inch thick)
4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
5 tablespoons olive oil
1. Place a rimmed baking sheet on oven rack in the lowest position, and preheat oven to 450.
2. Place potatoes and 1 tablespoon kosher salt in stockpot with cold water to cover by 1 inch; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes or until edges are soft but centers are still undercooked. Drain.
3. Transfer potatoes to a large bowl, and add 2 tablespoons oil and ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Mix well with a rubber spatula. Add 2 more tablespoons oil and remaining ½ teaspoon kosher salt, and toss until potatoes are coated with a starchy paste.
4. Remove the heated baking sheet from the oven, and drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Place potato slices on baking sheet in a single layer, and bake 10 minutes. Rotate pan, and bake 15 more minutes.
5. Remove baking sheet from oven, and, using tongs or a metal spatula, flip each potato slice. Bake 20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through cooking time. Makes 4 servings.
Easy, Don't-Take-All-Day Collard Greens
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper, or more to taste
1 bunch fresh collard greens, stems removed
Kosher salt, to taste
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat; add shallot, and sauté until soft. Add garlic and crushed red pepper, and cook 1 minute or until fragrant. Add collard greens, sprinkle with kosher salt, and pour over ¼ cup water. Cover and cook 15 minutes, or until leaves are wilted but still green. Stir in red wine vinegar, and serve. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
On a personal note? I'm grateful for many things this Groundhog Day. I hope you all know who you are. Today, I didn't see the shadow.