The Mathematics of Dinner
While my 3rd grader sits at the kitchen island plowing through his math homework with alternating bursts of grievance and resignation, I make dinner, my own math problem. Specifically, it is algebra. Most of the time I’m up to the task of cooking creatively, but the truth is, not every night do we eat at the “cookbook lady’s house.” Some nights feeding this family feels like a quadratic equation. And I know I’m not alone here. Given the gluten-free revolution and the increase of food allergies and the popularity of high-protein diets, many modern families have similar dinner problems to solve. Ours looks something like this:
gf2 + s (starch) + v (veg) = 0
Let me translate our needs: Aaron, gluten-free + high-protein; Hank, bowl of kid-friendly starch, preferably made of wheaten pasta, nothing that looks like an obvious vegetable; me, anything heavy on flavor and vegetable matter; this problem equals zero. If you were to add another requirement–say, no dairy–it would be mathematically impossible.
The meals that fit this formula are fairly numerous, but I have run through most of them. Risotto with meat, vegetables on the side. Spaghetti and meatballs with gluten-free pasta.. (although I am getting sick of gluten-free pasta and really semolina pasta). Two pans of lasagna: one with wheaten noodles for Hank, one with fried eggplant for Aaron and me, the bolognese and ricotta custard shared between them. Fried rice with bacon and eggs. Potato soup with bacon, poured over a clump of blanched cabbage for the adults.
But none of these solve the most difficult equation of all, which is how do I get my kid to ingest some vegetables.
Enter, the Green Chicken Sliders: ground chicken mixed with an entire bunch of pureed kale, thickened with finely ground almonds, and topped with a vivid cap of bright-tasting marinara, to be slipped into a buttery toasted bun or not, depending on your dietary requirements. They are gf and kid-friendly and most importantly, full of hidden v. Not for nothing, they are also delicious. And when Hank christened them with an inappropriate (but age-appropriate) name–Booger Burgers–they also become f. Fun!
(Not to go too far down this road, but let me explain the history of this name. One day last summer I handed off some slices of experimental zucchini bread–made with sugared zucchini confit, bright green clumps of zucchini gems laced through the pale bread like polka dots–to my friend Sara, who was picking up both of our kids from daycare. She came back to my place, opened the back doors–the kids flew out like buckshot–walked crookedly down our path under the weight of three backpacks and said, “Congratulations, they hated it but gave it a name: Booger Bread. Chunks of it are now all over my backseat.” When I looked at the bread, I had to laugh: the resemblance was kind of remarkable. The blobs of green zucchini were like the work of a movie prop stylist. Maybe I missed my true calling.
My apologies, I live under the dome-influence of 8-year-old humor.)
Here’s how to make these puppies, whatever you want to call them. Preferably, you want to use high-quality ground chicken–dark meat ground organic chicken if you can find it. And a nice bunch of kale. And a good can of whole peeled tomatoes. I’ve been playing around with Red Gold tomatoes as of late and it’s not my Midwestern bias talking when I say that they are the best. Some might say “canned tomatoes are canned tomatoes,” but that was not the kind of blind acceptance my mother taught me. She taught me to be picky. She taught me to be a cook. And you can easily tell the difference between a good canned tomato and a bad one by putting it through what I call a “crush-test.” Pour the tomatoes into a bowl and smush them with your hands. Good, sweet, ripe tomatoes will crush to an instant pulp. (Bad, hard, unripe tomatoes will leave hard tops bobbing in the red slush.) Post-crush, you are one degree away from a perfect marinara sauce, made in the Italian-American fashion: with sliced garlic, butter, a pinch of sugar, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a whole sprig of basil, fished out at the end. Good tomatoes, even more tellingly, will stay bright red after being cooked.
Big colors equal big flavors, that’s what I have learned. And the dinner problem is solved.
Green Chicken Sliders
Makes 8 sliders
Green Chicken Mixture:
1 bunch kale, 6 ounces, stripped from stems
1/2 cup fresh gluten-free bread crumbs (tip: I pulverize the ends of gf bread in my food processor and store them in the freezer, to be used at times such as this.)
1/3 cup slivered (or sliced) almonds
green parts of one bunch scallions
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 pound ground chicken
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 hamburger buns, buttered and toasted in a heavy pan
Butter for buns and for cooking the burgers
3 cloves garlic, sliced
3 tablespoons butter
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably Red Gold
3/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
freshly ground black pepper
1 sprig basil on the stem (optional/seasonal)
First, make the chicken burger mixture. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and season it generously with salt. Strip the kale from its stems and plunge it into the boiling water. Cook, stirring, uncovered, until the kale feels tender at the rib, about 3 minutes. Drain the kale into a colander and let steam until cool enough to handle. Squeeze most–but not all–of the moisture from the kale and set aside.
In a the bowl of a food processor, process the gluten-free bread to bits if you haven’t already done so and pour into a wide bowl. Add the almonds, process finely, and pour over the bread crumbs. Add the garlic, green scallion tops and blanched kale to the food processor and process until finely, finely ground, stopping to scrape down the sides a couple of times. Add the grated parmesan and heavy cream and process until combined. Dump the green puree over the bread-almond mixture, scraping the bowl of the processor thoroughly.
Add the ground chicken, egg, and rosemary and mix with your hands until well combined. Pop into the refrigerator to hydrate and firm up, for about 20 minutes, before forming into pucks.
For the marinara, pour the canned tomatoes into a large bowl and crush to a pulp with your hands. Heat a large pan over medium heat, add the butter and garlic, and cook until it sizzles and turns ivory. Add the tomatoes, water (swished in the can), red pepper flakes, sugar, salt, black pepper and basil. Cook at a rapid simmer–the bubbles should be steady but not violent–until the sauce is thick and rich and sweet, about 15 minutes.
To serve, butter some buns and toast them face-down in a hot skillet. Heat a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Form the green chicken mixture into equal pucks, about an inch thick. Add a couple of tablespoons butter to the pan and saute the burgers, browning thoroughly on each side, until they feel bouncy and are cooked through to the center, about 10 minutes.
Slip the burgers into the buns, top with a healthy dollop of marinara, and serve.
Thanks, Red Gold–made in Indiana, all–for the playbox of tomatoes!