The Observer Food Monthly recently ran a series of articles addressing the somewhat frivolous question of what do celebrity food writers or chefs eat when they are cooking only for themselves? What is special about solitary meals? It is, after all, the dead season of food writing: not many sexy vegetables are in season, they've finished telling us what wonderful dishes we can make for the holidays and what frugal healthy ones we can prepare to make up for the holidays. And it IS interesting in voyeuristic kind of way. You can get a holier-than-thou feeling when you realize that three-star Michelin chefs sometimes eat standing over the kitchen sink too. In the end, most of the confessions fell into two categories: simple snack food that wouldn't usually be considered a proper meal, and experimental dishes.
And so I thought of the article earlier this week when I was making my solitary meal. Like the others, my meals on my own tend to be snack-like (a big bowl of buttery salted popcorn, cheese and crackers, smoked oysters on Triscuits, heaven help me) or else they involve experimenting with some ingredient from my CSA vegetable box that I know the rest of the family won't eat. Like Brussels sprouts. (When I first met the Critic, he insisted that we make Brussels sprouts at Christmas, though he refused to eat more than one. Since then, he has dropped that senseless idealism and we get by with only four vegetables on the Christmas table.)
Usually, these solitary dinners made of unpopular vegetables are tasty enough, but nothing to write home about - nothing worth writing about here. And then, every once in a while, I stumble upon something rather good. As I did this week. If you like Brussels sprouts, I think you'll love it. If you don't, you might just change your mind. It's a meal in a bowl: healthy, hearty and just plain good. Looking back after I finished it, I toyed with the idea of adding a few herbs (thyme, for example) to improve it. But in the end, I am not sure it needs it. Really good bacon is essential - the slices I had were thick and had been cured a good long time to give a nice dry texture. And don't cook the sprouts too long or they will smell unappetizing, get soggy and put you off forever. As soon as they turn bright green you should test one for tenderness and think about removing them from the heat.
I would suggest you use this dish to convince sprout-haters that they can be delicious. But then it would no longer be the perfect solitary dinner. And it was so good that I'm hoping the sprouts will still be in season when my next box arrives!
Brussels sprouts braised in red wine with bacon and lentils (serves two)
I loved the way this dish came together in my head. Bacon and brassicas are a natural together, so that leapt to mind when I saw the bacon that was nearly out of date on the fridge shelf. Then I thought of Barrett's cabbage and lentil salad and reached for the lentils. And as the whole thing was just starting to get a bit dry and I was looking around in desperation for something to deglaze the pan, I noticed the dregs of red wine in a bottle on the counter. It brought a perfect rich and earthy tone to the dish. Don't be afraid to salt; despite the bacon it will most likely need a bit of salt and a generous helping of black pepper.
1 lb Brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed and finely sliced (I halved them first and the cut in thin slices)
1 Tbs butter
3 thick slices of English bacon (in the US, I would either use country style thick sliced bacon or even some nice country ham)
1/3 c (about 50 g) green or brown lentils
1/3-1/2 c red wine
salt, pepper, water
Cover the lentils with water in a small pan and bring to a boil. Lower to a slow boil and let them cook while you prepare the rest. Melt the butter in a deep frying pan. Slice the bacon in thin strips and add to the butter. While they are cooking, you can prepare the sprouts. When the bacon is brown and cooked, add the sprouts. If you are using US (streaky) bacon, before adding the sprouts, drain all but a tablespoon or so of the fat. Stir fry the sprouts until they are starting - just - to stick a bit to the pan. Add the wine and stir furiously, scraping the bottom of the pan to get up any bits of sprouts or bacon. Turn down the heat to a bare simmer and cover. When you can smell the sprouts, remove the lid and see if they are bright green and tender. If so, remove from the heat. Drain the lentils, which should be done by now, and add them to the pan. Stir it all together, taste for salt and pepper, stir again and tip onto the plates. If you have some nice crusty bread to soak up the juices, all the better. Consume happily in front of the TV with a nice glass of wine. Or at the dining table with a good book. Or, in a pinch, with a good friend.