Holiday Sidedish Baked Amaranth

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Can we put Halloween behind us now?  Are we done with all the spider cookies, bloody fingers, mummy candies and you-don’t-even-wanna-know-what-I-thought-about-making Halloween treats?  And re-situate our minds on the even-bigger holiday that is still yet to come?  I  mean is it too early to be talking about the annual let’s-be-thankful-or-get-fat-trying day.  It isn’t a coincidence that every culture has at least one of those in a year when they excuse themselves to be stuffed senseless.  We all adore gluttony.  They don’t call it a sin for nothing.  But the irony for America is, this is also the day when people convince themselves to salute a bird that frankly, just isn’t that delicious to eat on any other days.

I mean am I right or am I right?  Do you not cringe at the thought of turkey’s flavorless, saliva-sucking and throat-choking meat?  I feel like downing a bottle of water just thinking about it.  People who have a thing for turkey probably would adore cardboards, too.  So for me, this holiday has to be about other things, other more gooey-ooey and cheesy things to wash down those turkey with.  Things that they unjustly call “the sides”.  If you think that any side-dish could be done for a Thanksgiving dinner, clearly you’ve never been in the kitchen-front-line yourself.  While you hold a glass of cocktail, leisurely chatting away with a cousin you could care less about in the green zone, just on the other side of the fence is a chaotic and nerve-wrecking battle ground.

Those of us who are more familiar with the “combat zone” of the holiday dinner know that cooking for such occasion is no less exhausting than a whole day in the gym which will leave you sore the next morning.  So it’s smart to choose sides that would cut some slack for you.  For example, at least some components of the dish could be done a couple of days ahead.  It’s preferable that most of the cooking process wouldn’t need much attending to and EVEN IF you missed the mark by a few minutes, it would still taste delicious nonetheless.  Plus, it has to reheat well for the next day because let’s be honest, this day is all about excess.  Cooking just as much as would-be-enough is not how Thanksgiving rolls.

All in all that leaves us with something that bakes low-and-slow in the oven until bubbly and melty.  Dishes like this are not the prettiest but certainly the yummiest, and my favorite in such domain is blanched amaranth baked with a little bit of bechamel sauce topped with eggs with yolks still runny.  This of course could be an everyday dish, but especially suitable for Thanksgiving party because almost everything up to the baking can be done the day before, and it tastes even better the next day.  Just toss together with some pasta and shaved cheese, or slather on a piece of bread and moisten the otherwise-too-dry turkey sandwich.  If you have a compulsive and obsessive mind like mine that’s already meticulously calculating the biggest performance of the year, this simple and humble dish is a good place to start.

Servings:  this was made for 2 people but the portion can be easily doubled or tripled.

Ingredients:

  • 2  cups of blanched, shocked and squeezed dry amaranth or spinach (approx 500 g before cooked)
  • 1 tbsp of cubed pancetta
  • 2 tbsp of unsalted butter
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 4 minced garlic
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 tbsp of flour
  • 3/4 cup of whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 1/8 tsp of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large eggs

Wash and remove the tough ends of amaranth.  Place in a big pot, add 1 cup of water and put the lid on.  Turn the heat up on high and steam the amaranth until wilted and soft.  Transfer the amaranth to a big bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, and squeeze them as dry as you can in a few batches.  This can be done a couple of days ahead, wrapped in plastic wrap and kept in the fridge.

In an oven-proof skillet, brown the cubed pancetta then remove it with a slotted spoon leaving the fat in the skillet.  Add the unsalted butter, onion, garlic and thyme with a pinch of salt.  Saute until the onions are soft and translucent.  Add 1 tbsp of flour and cook for 20 second, then add the milk.  Whisk the mixture to make sure that there’s no lump and cook until the mixture thickens.  Add the salt, freshly grated nutmeg, parmesan cheese and black pepper.  Cook until the cheese melts.

Chop the amaranth finely and make sure all excess water is squeezed out.  Add the amaranth to the sauce and stir to combine (you can now keep this in the fridge until it’s ready to be baked).

Heat the oven on 375ºF/190ºC.  Top the amaranth with more grated parmesan cheese and the browned pancetta.  Bake in the oven for 35~40 min until browned and bubbly.

To add the eggs, take the skillet out and make a few wells in amaranth.  Crack the eggs in the wells and sprinkle with some salt and pepper on top.  Turn the oven up to 430ºF/220ºC, and bake until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny.

A simple and hassle-free side.

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