Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Grown-up comfort food.

I grew up loving kraft Mac and Cheese and hot dogs. I know I should be ashamed, but I'm not, really. But at 36, I should eat a little bit better than that.

I figured this recipe out by accident, just screwing around. I forget sometimes that cabbage has a buttery mellowness to it when it's cooked. Add in the savory flavor of the onions, the meaty flavor of the kielbasa, and the better nutritional value of the rice, and it turned out to be a real winner. And there's plenty after feeding 2 people to eat for leftovers.


Ingredient list:
-2 red onions (or one red and one yellow, in this case)
-Half of a small head of red cabbage
-Half of a kielbasa
-1 cup brown rice
-1 cup milk
-1.5-1.75 cups water
-Sea salt, with a bit of oregano.
-Olive oil.

First things first. Brown rice takes 45 minutes on a good day. Add the water, milk, a bit of the sea salt, and a little olive oil. Bring to a boil, cover and turn down to a simmer. Set the timer for 45 minutes. Once that's going, the rest of what follows is basically the other half of the meal.

Start by breaking down the kielbasa. Cut in half lengthwise, then cut each half lengthwise again, so that as you start slicing it, you'll get small, thin triangles. Slice them thin... they'll cook to an almost crispness, if you do it right, that will really work well with this recipe.  Because of the toughness of the skin, kielbasa does NOT respond well to the food processor. If you really want to do use the slicing disc, I recommend that you freeze the kielbasa, and thaw it halfway, so that it's soft enough to cut, but hard enough that it won't squirm in the chute. If you don't, the blade will basically scrape the meat off of the inside of the skin, and leave a long strip of sausage skin on top of the disc. Realistically, this is a minor aesthetic point, but many people eat with their eyes first, and cleanly sliced sausage just looks nicer.

The kielbasa then goes into a frying pan, without oil, at a medium-high heat. There's enough fat in the sausage that it won't stick too much to the pan. I've done this before where I achieved a crispness that was almost like well done bacon, and it was amazing. Trust me on this: Not only will it not stick, the process of cooking the onions and cabbage will clean up the brown residue that the melting fat leaves behind. This is not one of those recipes that results in half an hour of scouring out the frying pan. I don't have a dishwasher, and I have little tolerance for strenuous cleanups.

Break down the onions by cutting in half lengthwise, trimming the ends, and peeling off the undesirable outer skin. Cut these into chunks that will fit into the food processor, and feed them down the chute to be sliced. Throw the result into the frying pan on top of the kielbasa and stir everything up a little bit. Note the small plastic flower pot to the right of the cutting board: this is the scrap bin, and I throw all the vegetable scraps in here as I cook. Ultimately they will go into the compost bin outside. They can also go into the trash if you don't have a compost bin. But I find it's easier to have something right there to throw scraps into, rather than have them clutter up what little bit of space I have to work in, and rather than taking the time to go to the trash can if it's not close at hand. 

Slice just under half of the head of cabbage off, remove the outer leaves, and feed this into the food processor. Throw this into the frying pan, too, and stir around. Generally by this point the contents of the pan will be well above the edges of the pan. No worries, it will all cook down. But do try to be neat about stirring everything up.

As the onions and cabbage cook down, the water in their cells will come out, and fill the bottom of the pan. This will clean the brown sausage mess out of the bottom of the pan. It will also proceed to boil, and fill the mound of vegetables with steam, and help all of it to cook.

Once the timer for the rice is down to around ten minutes, I add in some chopped bell pepper. I add this towards the end so it will still have a little bit of texture. Let it sit on top of the steaming mound of cabbage and onions and kielbasa for a while... it just has to be warmed up a bit.

The frying pan should still be at medium-high heat. At this point, if the rice is still hard, it might be worth it to turn the frying pan down a bit. But there should also be just enough water in the bottom of the pan that nothing will burn. Keep stirring the pan periodically while you wait for the rice to be done.

When the rice is ready to go, add the contents of the frying pan into the pan with the rice, and stir everything up.

That's as far as I got with the pictures. By this point, the smell of kielbasa and onions and cabbage was filling the apartment, and I was good and ready to chow down.

While I think this is a great comfort food, tonight was not a night where I was feeling the need to be comforted. I just felt like eating this again. (The sign of a good recipe.) And even as comfort food, it has a lot of advantages over processed childhood regression.

There's not a whole lot of fat in here... just whatever's in the sausage. I used half of a full sausage, which is about 4 servings of kielbasa, 32 g of fat. If you sat down and binged, devouring all of the food that gets cooked in this recipe, that would still be less than half of your recommended daily intake for fat. Cut that down with a low glycemic load, and low calorie veggie goodness, and things get even better.

Number crunching shows some of the advantages in the meal. I hate to use a box of Mac and Cheese as the standard for comparison, but it is what it is.

One entire box of Kraft Mac and Cheese, cooked, is around 840 calories. That's without the hot dogs. 2 hot dogs thrown in there adds around 300 calories, bringing the total to around 1140 calories. That's for the whole batch, if you're in the middle of a comfort food binge.

The 4 servings of kielbasa (half of a full, looped sausage) come to 440 calories. This is way more than hot dogs, but if you stuck with 2 servings, as with the hot dogs, it would only be 220 calories. 1 cup of uncooked brown rice is around 700 calories, which brings us, again, to 1140. Adding the onions and the cabbage, we're adding around 400 calories, so the running total comes to, ballpark, 1600 calories of food in the pot.

But here's the kicker: the yield by volume is roughly 2-3 times what you get versus mac and cheese and hot dogs. So by volume, the calorie count is probably half as high. Add to that the fact that brown rice, red cabbage, and red onion have a much lower glycemic load than regular pasta, and a lot more nutrients, and you're looking at a much healthier dish. While the veggies are cooked in a frying pan, they're basically getting steamed, so we're not adding a lot of fat into the equation, outside of the kielbasa. And they add so much bulk that even if you wanted to devour the entire pot, it would be very, very difficult.

And there's another factor to consider: Time. It's so easy to binge on a box of mac and cheese, since it takes, tops, 10 minutes to prepare. This takes longer, and unlike staring at a pot of boiling pasta, the process for this dish is an active one. That gives you, the cook, a lot longer to pull out of whatever it is that's driving you to look for comfort food.

The mellow, savory flavors that roll through this dish are very comforting. But one more advantage of using this dish as comfort food is that, unlike the highly processed stuff I grew up with as a kid, it doesn't sit like a lump in the stomach, and the glycemic load is very light. The absence of either a food coma or the processed food crash that would normally come later, and the accompanying return to funk-ville, is not there.

Finally, I've found a comfort food that I don't have to feel guilty about eating, and that will actually leave me feeling... comfortable.

1 comment:

  1. With the cabbage & onion combo, this is similar to the German dish haluski--cabbage, onion, garlic, & butter with egg noodles. SO good! Surprise! Your comfort food has cultural roots as comfort food!

    It is THE closest dairy free comfort food I have found since mac & cheese (also an old comfort food of mine, but we ate ours with sausage instead of hot dogs growing up). Plus haluski is easy enough to throw together to make a delish & quick dinner on a week night. I substitute whole wheat noodles for egg noodles & typically do a butter & olive oil combination. Yum.