comscore Bright, bold flavors give a lineup of lighter dishes an aura of indulgence | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Bright, bold flavors give a lineup of lighter dishes an aura of indulgence

                                Creamy leek and parsnip soup.


    Creamy leek and parsnip soup.

                                Herbed chicken and spinach meatballs.


    Herbed chicken and spinach meatballs.

                                Citrus and persimmon salad.


    Citrus and persimmon salad.

January menus, with or without resolutions, ought to be gentler and milder, given December’s inevitable excesses.

For post-holiday cooking (since your kitchen has no doubt seen a lot of action lately), you want comfort, ease and lightness, and these three dishes cover all counts. They can be served together as a menu for a quiet dinner or on their own.

We’re all craving comfort, especially this winter, and nothing soothes like a warm bowl of soup, whether as a starter or as a meal. Pureed vegetable soups are both easy to make and quick to cook. It’s simply a matter of simmering the vegetables until tender and blitzing the contents of the pot.

There are, of course, details that need minding. Make sure to season the soup as it cooks — it should taste good even before it goes into the blender. And there’s the matter of thickness. I prefer a pureed soup that pours easily, with a creamy consistency, rather than one that’s as stiff as porridge. But that’s easy to achieve: It just means adding a bit more liquid, as necessary.

Classic leek and potato soup is well known and well loved. Replacing the potatoes with parsnips may seem arbitrary, but the result is sweeter, earthier and more fragrant. I have kept it quite plain, seasoning with only salt and pepper and a touch of turmeric for color, but it is satisfying and tastes of what it is. Sauteing the vegetables very slowly before adding liquid is the key to success. I like it best made with water rather than broth — it makes a lighter soup. For a little richness, a dab of creme fraiche or yogurt or a drizzle of olive oil can be nice.

As a main course, generally speaking, you can’t go wrong with meatballs. Though, traditionally, a meatball may swim in red sauce, in the spirit of lighter, leaner fare, these are made with ground chicken and go sauceless.

There is no stinting on flavor, however; the chicken mixture is laced with aromatic spices. A blend of black pepper, lemon zest, cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon and crushed fennel seeds supplies the necessary zing. Cooked chopped spinach, a shower of cilantro and a little serrano chile lend the required green, herbaceous back notes and a bit of a kick.

To keep kitchen time to a minimum — and flavor at a maximum — make the meatball base a day in advance of cooking. Frying the meatballs gently in olive oil over medium heat keeps them juicy. (High-heat cooking would make them tough.) For a pleasantly light meal, forgo any kind of sauce, and serve the spiced meatballs with steamed rice and lemon wedges or alongside a salad of leafy greens.

A stellar fruit salad makes a perfect dessert. Packed with vitamins and anti­oxidants, it’s delicious, and stunning to boot. Winter is the season for citrus, so choose among colorful oranges and grapefruit, including blood orange, if possible. Fuyu persimmons, also in season now, can be eaten unripe. (Pointy- bottomed Hachiya persimmons cannot.) They have the slippery texture of mango and a lovely flavor somewhere between melon and papaya.

Bright, ruby-red pomegranate seeds, like sweet-sour jewels, top everything off. I think this salad, well chilled, needs no garnish at all, or any additional flavors. But, if you want something more, add a splash of orange liqueur or limoncello.

After a deliberately restorative meal like this, you will leave the table glowing, and with no regrets.

Citrus and Persimmon Salad

  • 4 navel oranges
  • 6 blood oranges
  • 2 small grapefruit
  • 4 firm, medium Fuyu persimmons
  • 1 cup pomegranate seeds

Using a small serrated knife, peel oranges and grapefruit. They should be perfect globes with no pith. Slice fruit crosswise about 3/8-inch thick and place in bowl.

Peel and core persimmons. Slice about 1/4-inch thick and add to bowl, arranging fruit in random pattern. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds over top. Cover well and chill 1 hour. Serve in small bowls, making sure each serving gets some of every type of fruit and a good spoonful of the juices that will have gathered at the bottom of the bowl. Serves 4 to 6.

Creamy Leek and Parsnip Soup

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 large leeks, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • 6 medium parsnips (see note), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 6 cups water, chicken broth or vegetable broth
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, creme fraiche or yogurt, for garnish (optional)

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high. Add leeks and parsnips; stir to coat. Add salt and pepper.

Let vegetables sizzle and cook, stirring frequently until nearly caramelized, but without browning, until softened, 10 to 15 minutes.

Add bay leaf, turmeric and garlic; stir to coat. Increase heat to high; add water or broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 10 minutes more. Taste broth and adjust seasoning.

With a blender, puree soup to a creamy consistency. (Small batches work best.) Thin with water or broth, if necessary — it should be like a thin milkshake, not thick and porridge-like.

Reheat soup before serving. Serve plain, or give each bowl a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil or a dollop of creme fraiche or yogurt, if desired. Serves 4 to 6.

NOTE: Parsnips may be found locally in supermarket produce aisles. Or substitute with turnips, celery root, carrots or potatoes.

Herbed Chicken and Spinach Meatballs

  • 1 pound spinach, washed
  • 1-1/2 pounds ground chicken
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • Pinch ground cayenne
  • Pinch ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
  • Pinch ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
  • 1 serrano chile, with seeds, finely chopped
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup soft fresh breadcrumbs, from about 4 slices crustless sandwich bread
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream, half-and-half or milk
  • All-purpose flour, for dusting
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for frying
  • Lime or lemon wedges, for serving

Blanch spinach: Plunge leaves a handful at a time into a pot of boiling water. Leave just long enough to wilt, about 30 seconds, then drain in a colander and cool under running water. Remove and squeeze wilted leaves into a ball. Using a large knife, roughly chop spinach — you should have about 2 cups. Squeeze into a ball again to remove excess water. (Spinach may be prepared several hours or up to a day in advance and refrigerated.)

In a large bowl, combine chicken, salt, pepper, lemon zest, cayenne, nutmeg, fennel seeds, cinnamon, spinach, cilantro, chile, egg, breadcrumbs and cream. Using clean hands, knead everything together, mixing well. Leave to absorb seasoning for 15 minutes or overnight.

Test for seasoning: Take a small amount and flatten into a thin patty. Quickly cook in a small skillet, about 1 minute per side. Taste, then adjust seasoning if necessary.

Using an ice cream scoop or spoon, form 24 rough balls and place on a baking sheet. (Mixture will be soft.) Lightly sprinkle balls with a very small amount of flour.

Set a large, wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil to a depth of 1/4 inch. When oil is wavy, use a spoon to slip balls into skillet. Gently fry balls without crowding. Adjust heat as necessary (high heat will make them tough). Cook about 4 minutes per side; they should be golden brown, not too dark. Serve with lime or lemon wedges. Serves 4 to 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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