Here is how it works in our house:
There is October, and the lead-up to Halloween, the pumpkin-carving and costume-scheming and whatnot. And then, there is BirthdayBirthday-ThanksgivingBirthdayBirthdayChristmasNewYearsBirthdayBirthdayValentine'sDay.
And then, there is now. Late February. Hello.
By now, I've stopped trying to unravel how exactly this four-month time tunnel happens. It's not like we go whole hog on any holiday. We don't. We really don't. Okay, the cookies. I'll give you half-hog on that one. But beyond that? Simple simple. And this year was simple-simpler than most.
But there's a swirly vortex to it all, just the same. A momentum. I can't explain it. Probably, it's just my monkey brain, jumping from one banana bunch to the next. In any case, I've come to expect it, the sudden shock of emerging, again, on the other side.
Invariably, a few days after Valentine's Day, I tend to look around with my mole eyes, all blinky and off and easily startled. I squint and scan the (glitter-coated) horizon and try to figure out which way's up. And where we store the laundry soap. And what were my plans for this year, anyway?
It's not unlike that other little vortex/life phase, commonly known as parenthood. The one where you go into it, counting contractions, and emerge, some five/ten/eighteen years later, squinty and disoriented and in deeply unfashionable jeans, suddenly aware you can cook for four whole minutes without a 27-pound "helper" on your hip; use the loo uninterrupted, very often even alone; and sometimes, extraordinarily, use two hands, at the same time.
The other side, it's a remarkable place. But it still takes a while to acclimatize.
Two minutes? Three, tops.
As soon as the doilies and hearts are archived, we all sort of sigh, shift gears, settle in. Rock tumblers, received way back in December, finally get a proper going-over, and a belly full of stones. Mornings are spent with birthday presents, from Barbies to hammers, and all points in between. Afternoons are, incredibly, given over to playing in The Great Slushie that was our yard, until tonight. (The snow that has covered the ground for a month has finally, finally given way to rain.) And me? I'm bulldozing through that list I set aside for when "I have a minute." Apparently, there have been no minutes since September 30. Hmn. Math might not be this monkey's strong suit.
It's like we all finally have our bandwidth back.
I love late February.
Even the food.
I don't love all of it. I don't love that the last twelve apples I bought were almost all rotten, on the inside. I don't love that all our produce is coming from far-flung places, for now.
But I so cherish the slow un-urgent pace of hardy greens, roots, crucifers. And I dig the way a limited palette leads to experimentation. And lunch.
Salad and soup and leftovers are my usual lunch go-to's, and I never tire of them. But sometimes, the soup pot is empty, and salad's too dang cold, and last night's dinner was polished off, well, last night. On those days, I realize I might actually need to, like, fix something.
Meet my something of late.
It begins, surprisingly, with a pound of broccoli, oiled, salted, and roasted to a crisp. I may be the only one surprised, here, because roasted broccoli was a Big Thing, a few years back. Melissa Clark's roasted broccoli and shrimp, in particular, made the rounds, and for good reason. Roasting writes a new chapter for broccoli, a dark, intense, moody, crisp-tender chapter. Whereas steamed or boiled broccoli is sweet and mild, roasting daylights broccoli's moody crucifer side. Roasting broccoli reminds a person that it's in the same family as mustard greens, brussels, and broccoli raab. I loved that about it.
My kids did not.
And since two of my three will willingly—nay, happily—eat steamed broccoli every week, I wasn't about to upset that boat.
But lunch? Lunch is a one-woman dingy. And it dawned on me, recently, that I could roast a pound of brocooli, just for me. Way, waaaaay more importantly, it dawned on me there was buffalo mozzarella to use up. Surplus buffalo mozzarella is a very good problem to have. A good problem that, as it turns out, becomes infinitely better when slumped astride roasted broc.
Can we just take a moment to talk buffallo mozzarella? Take it, Sam Anderson:
"It’s exactly like regular mozzarella except that it’s made with milk squeezed out of a buffalo — which is a little like saying that the Hope diamond is exactly like a plastic replica of the Hope diamond except that it’s made out of priceless crystallized carbon. Buffalo milk has roughly twice the fat of cow milk, which makes it decadently creamy and flavorful. The good stuff is almost unrealistically soft — it seems like the reason the word “mouthfeel” was invented — with a depth of flavor that makes even the freshest hand-pulled artisanal cow-milk mozzarella taste like glorified string cheese. Buffalo mozzarella is the apotheosis of dairy: the golden mean between yogurt and custard and cottage cheese and heavy cream and ricotta. It lives (along with clouds and mercury and lava and photons and quicksand) on the mystical border between solid and liquid."
What he said.
It is, as you might expect, fairly dear, in both dollars and calories. Never mind. A little goes a long way. And when the bulk of your lunch is two bucks worth of broccoli, and when the overall effect is royal feast, and when, for heavens' sakes, it is February, half a $7 ball of buffalo mozarella (half that, if you hit Costco*), is, in my book, a worthwhile throw. And still less than an Arby's Beef 'n Cheddar combo. (Oh yes, that is so an option.)
And jeepers, what a feast. The broccoli is all over the map, tender and stormy and crunchy and mild, every piece its own story. I think I love the frizzled bits best, the whisper of char, the fleeting crunch. And then, I spear a wedge of stem, all juicy-tender, and I switch sides. But both sides are unanimous on this: dairy apotheosis is totally up their alley. Each spear gets a small wobble of white, the faintly twangy Platonic cream a perfect foil to the bitter-strong-sweet. Honestly, for weeks, I couldn't imagine anything better.
And then, I boiled down some balsamic.
And suddenly, when the prick and sweet sting of balsamic pinged off the veg and lush dairy, I felt like I'd tripped over the holy grail, or at least my own itty-bitty grail: a caprese custom-made for winter. Indeed, as I knife-and-forked my way through yet another riotous, muscular, many-layered plate-full, I found myself weighing whether I might prefer this to the August standard. But I'm pretty sure that's tomato blasphemy. Let's call it one awfully fine under-study, then. And since it's a three-ingredient, five-active-minute affair, let's also call it my kind of food for when I'm in full bulldozer mode.
Winter Caprese (Roasted Broccoli + Buffalo Mozzarella + Balsamic Syrup)
*Costco sells glorious Italian mozzarella di bufala in 1 pound (4 knob) tubs. Grab it if you see it. Alternatively, many well-stocked cheese counters carry individual, 1-ball tubs, just right for two lunches (or lunch for two). Burrata has a similiar unctuousness, but lacks the sweet tang; you might try it. When my cupboards are bare of buffalo mozzarella (often), my favorite swap is a thick sheaf of manchego parings, hold the balsamic. Manchego's salty, gamey strength is an excellent match for the roasted broccoli's oomph.
Scale up, as needed. If roasting more than 1 1/2 pounds of broccoli, use two trays, and rotate top to bottom, halfway through. Excellent with good crusty bread alongside, or served over a pool of polenta.
1 pound broccoli, give or take
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup good balsamic vinegar
2 oz. mozzarella di bufalo (1/2 ball)
salt + pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450°, and place rack on the lowest level. Line a sheet pan with parchment.
Separate broccoli stalks from floret heads, then trim stalks, paring away tough ends and outer layer. (I simply stand the stalk on end and run a paring knife down the contours of the stalk, rotating as I go, not unlike paring the peel from an orange.) Slice stems on the diagonal 3/4" thick, and separate head into florets, roughly 1" at thickest bit. Drop onto baking sheet, drizzle with oil and season with salt, then toss well to combine. Roast for 10-15 minutes, or until undersides are caramelizing and charring in spots, then flip everything with a spatula, and return to oven for another 5-10 minutes, or until broccoli is sweet and tender at the thickest bits, caramelized in others, and charred just a bit, here and there. Taste a few to test for doneness and seasoning, and adjust time and salt, to taste.
Meanwhile, measure balsamic into a small saucepan, and simmer briskly for 10 minutes, or until reduced by half, and syrupy. This makes more than you'll need, but is difficult to reduce in smaller quantities. Anoint your broccoli with it all week, or drizzle it over soups, ice cream, or strawberries. (Later.) Sealed, balsamic syrup can be refrigerated for months.
When broccoli is finished to your liking, topple onto a plate with half a ball of buffalo mozzarella. Sprinkle with a good pinch of salt over the mozzarella, drizzle all with a tablespoon of balsamic (or more, to taste), and dig in.