Rice Gone Wild, Salmon Adventures & The Night I Served A Pork Chop To A Vegetarian

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Necessity is the mother of invention (its Baby Mama, if you will) and so it was that a few weeks ago I had carrots, onions, celery, and some Arborio rice on hand and because I didn’t feel like food shopping that evening, I set out to make a risotto with just water. I’ve told you about this before; it’s something I saw Lidia do on TV, so you know it’s legit. You just bring a big pot of water to a boil, add salt, and then make risotto like you’d normally make risotto, only using the salted water instead of chicken broth. The key is to finish it with some butter and lots of cheese. It’s good stuff.

But I’m not here to tell you about making risotto with water. I’m here to tell you about what you can do with the leftover risotto the next day.

First of all, here’s that finished vegetable risotto:

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We ate a good amount of it, but there was still plenty leftover. I wouldn’t be that excited about leftover risotto if I hadn’t just read my favorite cookbook of the year (or was it last year?) Cal Peternell’s 12 Recipes. He rhapsodizes over leftover risotto like it’s a gift from heaven; and mainly that’s because you can use it to make arancini, fried rice balls stuffed with cheese (if you’ve ever been to Little Dom’s, you know what I’m talking about). He also talks about these leftover risotto pancakes you can make–they have a name, but I’m not at home so can’t look it up–where you essentially heat up a cast iron skillet, add olive oil, then shape the cold leftover risotto into balls, flatten them into pancakes, and fry in the oil. That’s really it: just the rice hitting the hot oil.

The key is letting them develop a crust before attempting to flip. If you flip too soon, it’ll all fall apart. Look, I did such a good job here:

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Serve with a vinegary salad, and you’re all set:

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Crispy and crunchy on the outside, moist and buttery on the inside–these are absolutely divine. (Did I pull off the word “divine”? I feel very Isaac Mizrahi right now.)

A few weeks later–last week, in fact–I made dinner for our upstairs neighbors, one of whom is gluten-free, so instead of serving my spicy spatchcocked chicken with couscous and salsa verde (a signature dish), I swapped out the couscous for wild rice. It worked really well–especially since I spiced up the rice with crushed cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds, and added dried currants and raisins and lots of herbs–and the next day, with the leftover rice, I made the rice cakes you see at the top of this post. The fun part is that I had pineapple and strawberries in my fridge, so I diced them up and made a salsa, stirring them together with olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and some chopped cilantro. A lovely breakfast brought about by laziness and leftovers. The mother of invention indeed.

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Time for some salmon adventures! Adventure #1: Melissa Clark’s s Salmon in Anchovy-Garlic Butter:

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The concept: you make a garlic-anchovy butter by mashing together butter, chopped garlic, and chopped anchovies. Then you cook salmon in that butter, adding capers towards the end.

My experience: I loved, loved, loved the way this tasted, though I had a major hurdle with the recipe: essentially, you heat the garlic anchovy butter in the pan and then add the salmon, skin-side down. The goal is to get the skin crisp and the fish cooked all the way through (it starts on the stovetop and finishes in the oven). The hurdle, and it’s a major hurdle as far as I’m concerned, is: how do you do this without burning the garlic? As I started making the salmon, laying it into the pan, the butter began to brown–which was fine–but so did the garlic and it was just about to turn black (or so I thought) when I decide to think fast, adding the capers and some of the caper liquid. That stopped the frying, but also made the skin mushy. So if I had to do this again, here’s what I’d do: I’d make an anchovy butter, cook the salmon in that, and just before the salmon finished, I’d add chopped garlic and the capers. Still: the flavor of the original recipe is so hauntingly wonderful, maybe I just need to watch this Melissa Clark video over and over just to get the hang of it.

Adventure #2: Last Night’s Salmon Dinner

On Monday night, I made Ottolenghi’s hummus for dinner and served it with toasted pita (toasted right over an open flame) and a salad made from cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper.

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Here’s the brilliant part: with the leftover salad? I made a sauce and served that sauce on salmon last night, that I seared in grapeseed oil and finished in the oven.

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Let me walk you through it: I got a cast iron skillet very hot and preheated the oven to 400 degrees. I added grapeseed oil to the skillet, patted the salmon dry, seasoned it with sea salt, and laid it down carefully–skin-side down–and let it sizzle on the stove top for a bit. When the top part looked a little dry, I added a glug of olive oil and placed the pan in the oven.

Meanwhile, I took the leftover tomato salad–which looked a little sad, the tomatoes broken down a bit–and pepped it up with tons of chopped parsley and more olive oil. Oh, and I made wild rice.

After a few minutes in the oven, I cut into the salmon to see if it was done. Then I used a fish spatula to lift it (at this point, the skin has been cooking in the hot oil for so long, it should lift right up) on to a pile of wild rice and topped with the sauce. It was wonderful: crispy skin, zesty sauce. You should’ve been there.

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And now the story of the night that I served a pork chop to a vegetarian. I swear, these pork chops must’ve been cursed. The first time I tried to serve them, my 14 year-old female cat went to the bathroom and came out a man. After that, I put the pork chops in the freezer, and the following week I defrosted them (some time on the counter, some time in the fridge) and decided to serve them to some very talented friends.

Friend #1, who you see on the left of the picture, was our visiting pal Ben Rimalower whose shows “Patti Issues” and “Bad With Money” are absolutely wonderful; we saw the first in New York (and as a fellow LuPoneophile, I found it absolutely delightful and relatable) and the 2nd we just saw here in L.A., and being as bad with money as we are, we also found it a hoot. Friend #2, at the head of the table, is Jonathan Parks-Ramage, who’s also a hilarious/emotionally forthcoming writer—his essay about getting cancer is a must-read. No really, stop what you’re doing and read it now. And finally, Friend #3, the incomparable Ryan O’Connell whose new book I’m Special is coming out soon and I absolutely can’t wait to read it. BUY IT NOW.

So there I was in the kitchen, very proud of myself because I was cooking FIVE PORK CHOPS at once. I’d never cooked à la minute like this at a dinner party; normally I make a braise or a stew or something where I can make it ahead and then just serve it up. But here, I had two cast iron skillets going and I was on fire! Not literally, metaphorically:

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I’d also roasted cauliflower florets and tossed them with chopped up Peppadews and lots of parsley. Things were beautiful. When I plated everything, things were even more beautiful. I brought the plates to the table and invited everyone to sit.

Then, I noticed something funny. Jonathan seemed a little nervous. I heard him whisper something to Ryan. “What?” I asked. “Is everything OK?” And before he could speak, I remembered: “Oh my God, you’re a vegetarian!”

I’d cooked for Jonathan before–twice before, I think–and somehow, I totally forgot that part of his diet. Normally I memorize people’s restrictions (upstairs neighbor Ashley: gluten-free; my friend Jimmy: can’t have dairy). “Oh my God,” I said, “I’m so sorry.”

“No really,” he said sweetly, “I can try to eat it….”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” I said, whisking the plate away. “This is a great challenge… it’s like I’m on Top Chef.”

I ran into the kitchen, crying hysterically (just kidding; this was actually fun), and I grabbed a can of chickpeas. I got out a metal skillet and I started heating olive oil. I quickly chopped up a few cloves of garlic. I added the garlic to the oil and when it was fragrant, I added the drained chickpeas and added a pinch of salt. I tossed those around, until the chickpeas started to brown, and then added a squeeze of lemon juice. Finally, I added all of the cauliflower from Jonathan’s plate and tossed everything together with lots of chopped parsley. Behold!

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A vegetarian solution in just 8 minutes! It’s one of my proudest kitchen moments. And look how happy Jonathan is:

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The moral of the story is: if you accidentally serve a pork chop to a vegetarian, don’t worry–you can recover. Only, it’s better just to remember that they’re a vegetarian in the first place.

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