Once upon a time, I was six. And once, even, I was eight. But never before have I been a parent of a six-year old and an eight-year old, and I have to ask, does it have to be so full of yelling, screaming, crying, and other forms of conflict? And I’m just talking about Santa Maria and myself—just kidding. But seriously, did kids always fight this way, this often?
Now, I’m not blind, and I’m not an idiot, so I know I bear some responsibility. If the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” is to be believed, mothers and fathers are to blame when their children are brats, though I don’t happen to know any brats myself.
Around the dinner table, things often come to a head, especially when dessert is served. Santa Maria recently made a quick strawberry-and-rhubarb sort of compote with biscuits, and the children went to war over who was getting more biscuits, or who was getting bigger biscuits, or some other earth-shattering slight. Their yelling took all the sweetness out of the moment.
Later, Santa Maria was distressed, and she told me privately in the kitchen that she couldn't be happy when everyone in the family was fighting. She looked up at be dolefully, and asked if I could be happy in situations like this. I didn’t have the heart to tell her then that it was actually the only way I knew how to be happy. Growing up, my parents yelled at each other and my siblings routinely violated the Geneva Conventions when they were supposed to be babysitting me.
Despite (well, actually, because of) the intermittent conflagrations, we’re working hard around the table and house to defuse the fighting, to cease the yelling, and drain the swamp of anger. It’s a slow process. At our best moments, we work together to have a family meeting once a week (if you haven’t checked out Bruce Feiler’s “The Secrets of Happy Families,” which goes into detail about family meetings, I suggest you do so right away; it’s a very useful book).
Santa Maria decided to make this dessert because she was looking for something that was easier and a bit more healthy than pie. It’s basically a pie filling, without the crust. I dubbed it, with deepest affection, “Ugly Pie” (and that was before the fighting started).
If you wanted to fancy this up, you could top the biscuit with the compote and then cover it with whipped cream. You’d have a pretty decent dessert then and there. This recipe is a bit of a work-in-progress, and you might want to play around a bit with the biscuit part of it. The compote, on the other hand, is just perfect. Consider making that and putting it over vanilla ice cream. Just don’t fight over it.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Ugly Pie
Mix together ingredients, and let sit 15-20 min (or you'll have little hard nubbins of tapioca)
Place in 10" glass pie pan or casserole
Make biscuit batter:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Sift ingredients 3 times
Then cut in 4 Tablespoons butter
Quickly stir in
Until it sticks together
Drop/form into little 2-3 inch blobs on a cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes
Bake the fruit for 30-40 minutes.
Drop biscuits in the cooked compote, if Ugly Pie is desired. Serve with compote over the biscuit, if so desired. Whipped cream works in both cases.
Sometime between the present day and the birth of my first child, about eight years ago, I picked up the knowledge that I’m not young anymore. I’m certainly not old, but young? Fuhgeddaboudit, as they say in my home borough.
One of my biggest lessons this ongoing education came a few summers ago, when I paid a visit to Rockaway Beach, to check out their burgeoning food stands. I had read somewhere about the otherworldly fish tacos that were served just off the boardwalk. We drove out to the Rockaways to try them, but could not, for the life of us, find a parking space. While I circled in traffic, Santa Maria took the girls and sought out the tacos. Apparently, I was not the only person in the metropolitan area to have read about them. There was a long line, full of self-possessed, pale-skinned folks. These were mostly bearded men and tattooed women who liked the same kinds of clothing, but more than their fashion choices they had one thing in common: they were all twenty-something.
Santa Maria bravely managed our two very little girls, and finally ordered a few of the tacos. Eventually, I found a parking space, and we met on the boardwalk to eat them. They were good, but not great. They had slices of radish on them, and other neat toppings, but they just weren’t worth the hassle. Only someone young with a lot of time on his hands would make the effort to eat those tacos.
I knew we wouldn’t be back for them, but I did like the idea of a fish taco. Santa Maria is an expert in making guacamole and fresh salsa, so it wasn’t long before I was serving up fish tacos at home. The kids love assembling the tacos at the table, and the meal is now one of our top favorites, coming to rival that surest-of-sure things, the ever steady Bolognese and pasta.
I use porgy filets, a very cheap fish for the tacos. Porgies have a checkered reputation. According to SeaFoodSource.com, “The name “porgy” comes from an American Indian name meaning “fertilizer,” a common use for these abundant fish during Colonial times.” I can think of other words for fertilizer that I wouldn’t want to eat. That same source describes the meat as tender and white, but in my experience, I would say they are very oily fish—they certainly spoil even faster than a bluefish, and this has made them hard to find fresh. Any fish that can’t be found fresh is going to get a bad reputation, and I’m sure this is what has kept the price down on these fish. Fortunately, the folks at Blue Moon Fish have them, and they are fresh enough to hold for a day, if necessary. The meat is perfect for a dish like the tacos, where they are served with salsa and other sauces. I love them for this.
Porgy flesh is very firm, and I cut the bones out of the center of the fillet and then cut the fish into small strips. I roll them in flour and then fry them in a generous bit of oil. They brown up nicely, and I put them on a platter.
I warm corn tortillas and put those on the table, along with corn chips with melted cheese (just spread some on a cookie sheet, grate a bit of cheddar over them, and place in a 350 degree oven for about five to ten minutes, or until the cheese is melted). The fish, chips, guacamole, and fresh salsa make a delicious dinner. When I sit with my girls and they start laughing at the end of the meal, I certainly don’t feel old. I would even go so far as saying I feel young, though I know better.
Endless-Summer Fish Tacos
Start by making the salsa
Stir ingredients together, and enjoy
Next, make the Guacamole
Peel and mash the avocado and combine with the other ingredients
For the fish:
Cut the pin bones (that row of bones down the center) out of the porgy fillet and slice the fillets cross ways, on a diagonal, to make decent-sized strips.
Lay some flour on a plate and season heavily with salt and a bit of pepper.
Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a frying pan on a medium-high heat.
Dredge the fish pieces in the seasoned flour and lay them in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan. Cook a few minutes on one side until browned just a bit, and then flip them. Cook on the other side until done, a few minutes more.
Set the pieces of fish aside on a platter and keep warm until you’ve cooked all the fish.
Warm the soft corn tortillas in a pan one or two at a time (depending on how large your pan is) and keep warm wrapped in a dishcloth as you take them off the heat.
To make the cheesy corn chips.
Place the cheese on the chips and place in a hot oven for about ten minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbly.
Place the warmed tortillas, the fish, the cheesy chips, the salsa, and the guacamole on the table. Each diner can make his or her own, with the various ingredients.
I often get asked some variation on the following: “What’s a good fast meal for a quick dinner?” And the answer I’ve always given is to plan ahead. With the right ingredients around, there are many recipe options that can be done in about a half an hour.
Planning ahead, though, has its shortcomings. What if you plan ahead, and then the world doesn’t cooperate. Or what if when you’re planning ahead, you happen to be tired? Or worse, still, full of energy, ambition, and hope? In that case, you might plan on doing too much, which gets me around to how we ended up eating linguine alle vongole on a weeknight.
Now that spring is here, and the folks at Blue Moon Fish are back in business at the Grand Army Greenmarket, I’ve switched into my warm-weather routine of getting flounder, porgy, or clams on the weekends. I planned on having porgies last Saturday (they’re perfect for fish tacos—something I need to blog about here next chance I get because I’m sure you’ll love them, seriously) and linguine alle vongole on Sunday.
The thing I didn’t plan on was being out of the house on Saturday evening. Ironically, I was leading a panel on dads and cooking at the Food Book Fair, and I wasn’t able to be home cooking. I punted and had Santa Maria serve everybody Bolognese and pasta.
So I had the porgy tacos on Sunday and that left the clams for Monday. Linguine alle vongole doesn’t strike me as a weeknight dish, but I’ve learned a new trick that can transform almost any dish into a weeknight quickie. I might sound like an infomercial salesman, but I’m not kidding. Here’s the secret: do the time-shift shuffle and take care of the prep work before it’s time to cook. That way, putting the dish together doesn’t take much time at all.
I washed the clams and parsley and other herbs the night before. Had I peeled and sliced the garlic then, too, I would have saved even more time. When I came home Monday night after working all day and was then facing the GET-THE-DINNER-ON-THE-TABLE-BY-6:30 deadline, I was in good shape.
Linguine alle vongole is a quick dish, provided you do the pre work ahead of time. It was a real treat for a weeknight, and it’s nice to know that such delights can be put within reach of the working man.
Weeknight Linguini alle Vongole
Put a pot of water on to boil
Scrub the clams well (do in advance)
As soon as the water boils, salt it and start cooking the pasta, and then proceed to other steps.
Heat some olive oil in a stock pot.
Add the garlic and the pepper.
Cook just a few minutes.
Add the clams, the herbs, and the white wine and cover.
Cook until the clams open up, just a few minutes (give the pot a good shake every so often).
Guess what? Work and other things didn’t slow down at all last week. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a bit of a luxury to get paid to write, and I have two assignments due this week, which makes me feel doubly fortunate. And one of the other things I had to do last week was to tour a chocolate factory. I’m not joking. That’s my life at the moment, twisting up words and tasting chocolate.
I’ll have more on the chocolate-factory tour soon, I promise, along with some treats for you all. In the meantime, I’ll get back to my life’s work, which is not actually cooking for my family, but, rather, ever so slowly wiping away the emotional fog of my relationships in the hope of communicating better and seeing clearly what matters most. It’s not a linear progression. Recently, Santa Maria left me a little note with the names of dishes written on them. It started with script letters spelling out “Chicken Tikka Masala,” and then went onto list a slew of other dishes.
I first saw the list when I was trying to compile the weekly shop list and the menu for the following week. It was about 10 p.m. on Friday, which in parent time is the single-person’s equivalent of about 2 a.m., and I was tired. I glanced at it, and, in light of all the things I knew I had to do during the coming week, quickly discounted it. There was no way I’d have time to make Chicken Tikka Masala, as much as I might like to eat it myself.
I didn’t completely disregard all the suggestions Santa Maria had made. One of the things I did remembered from her list was “Beets.” I thought of it when I was doing my weekly food shop at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. There in the produce aisle were some massive, lovely beets. I bought a bunch and took them home.
This morning—while I was making pesto and quinoa salad for the week and pancakes and bacon for breakfast—I decided to boil the beets, to make a salad with mint later in the day. Beets and mint go together like sunshine and the beach. They are just made for each other.
I had fun cooking the beets. When I took them out of the water this morning, they looked quite odd. Pinta asked what those giant blobs were, and I told her “octopus testicles.” “Ewwww,” she said, and then we all laughed. I cooked the beets in the morning, and this evening I skinned one, diced it, and combined it with a bit of fresh mint and a Dijon vinaigrette. It was a perfect side dish. Every bite made me think of summer. Here's how it looked in the sunshine:
Beet and Mint Summer Salad
Submerge the beets in a large pot, and bring it to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer, and cook until a fork can slide easily into the beet.
Remove from the water and let cool.
Once cool, slide the skin off with you fingers and give the whole beet a rinse.
Cut the red flesh into small cubes.
Combine the beets, the mint, and the vinaigrette.
*For the Dressing:
Combine the following:
Note: these amounts are approximate, and this will probably give you more dressing than you need. Keep any extra in a glass jar in the fridge for as long as you might like.
Note: also, if you cook more beets than you need to use, they will keep for a few days in the refrigerator. Don’t peel them until you want to use them.
I didn’t get a chance to post anything here last week because I was very busy with work. I have a couple of freelance articles that have been taking up my time, and I have a few additional professional concerns that haven’t taken up much of my time, but have sapped my mental energy. Then, of course, I have my family, which manages to do both at once—eat up my time and energy. So as I promised, I’m doing a short post on how to feed a family in time of extreme work stress. I will start with the most important point: Have faith that you can do it.
I was recently reading Mark Nepo’s “The Book of Awakening,” and it explained faith to me in a way that suddenly made sense. He talked about a man being thrown into water. If he doesn’t have faith that the water will hold him up (i.e., if he doesn’t believe—and know—that he can swim) he will panic and the water—which by no stretch of the imagination is supposed to be able to support anyone—will engulf him, and he will certainly drown. Of course, there was that gentleman way back when who had so much faith he could walk on water, but I’m just talking about getting dinner on the table, so it’s that much easier.
So if you’ve been cooking for a while, just have faith that you can do it. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a few years, you’ll have a load of ideas at your fingertips: use your freezer, plan ahead, stock your larder.
Here’s a new one: Coriander and Cumin Cornmeal Crusted Pork Chops that I threw together the other night. (In all fairness, if you want a thoroughly vetted, tested, and food-approved recipe, try one of the Cook’s Illustrated ones; they get paid for creating recipes that work—I just do it to survive.)
I always have cornmeal on hand, for my cornbread recipe, and I decided to dress up my standard (read: boring) weeknight pork chops with a bit of flavoring. Maybe it was the alliteration, or maybe it was the aroma, but either way I decided to combine coriander and cumin and dress up my pork chops. I didn’t measure, and I don’t think you should, either. If you’re under pressure at work, with your family, in life, or for whatever reason, don’t sweat the details. Just have faith, and feed your self and your family well.
Coriander and Cumin Cornmeal Crusted Pork Chops
Spread the cornmeal on a plate, and add the spices, along with some salt and pepper.
Mix them well with a fork.
Take each pork chop and place it in the cornmeal mixture until coated well. This is not a perfect coat, and much will fall off, and that’s okay. It’s a weeknight, and you are busy, remember?
Heat a cast-iron or other thick-bottomed frying pan on a medium high heat, and add a bit of olive oil.
Place the pork chops in the pan and keep the heat on medium low. Cover the pan, and depending on the thickness, cook for about three to four to five minutes. Don’t worry about browning them at this point. With thick chops, my concern is more about cooking the interior before browning the exterior.
Flip the chops and cook another four or five minutes on the other side.
If necessary, flip them back and brown them on a higher heat.
They are done when the interior temperature reaches 145.
Let them rest a few minutes while you get the rest of your meal—or your life—in order. Here's how it will look:
I’ve been very busy lately, and, as I mentioned in my last post, this has kept me out of the kitchen and away from blogging. I’ve been eating just fine, though, because I long ago learned how to put good food on the table with a minimum of effort. When I have a second later in the coming week (assuming I can catch a breather) I’ll detail how I pull that off.
In the meantime, I had a chance to play around in the kitchen on Friday night, by doing a bit of “ghost cooking,” which is how I think of preparing a meal when I won’t be there to finish the cooking or enjoy the food. I enjoyed the time in the kitchen. I miss trying new things and cooking for fun. On Friday, I took the opportunity to continue my experiments with cooking salmon. My interest in a decent salmon recipe has a bit of a “Search for the Holy Grail” aspect to it (I’ve experimented before, most recently with this Honey Glazed Soy And Lime Salmon), and I dream of the day when I find a good and easy salmon recipe that will please everyone.
On Friday, I had plans to see an out-of-town brother for dinner. I went with him and my other brother to The Good Fork, an inventive and welcoming little restaurant in Red Hook Brooklyn. I savored a blood-orange margarita, enjoyed salt-cod fritters, and feasted on their “Korean Steak and Eggs.” It was a great night out, and not just for the food—we realized that the last time the three of us got together for a dinner like this was some twenty years ago. That’s kind of hard for me to believe, but it’s true.
While I was going to be out, Santa Maria invited some friends to join her for dinner. She had been planning on making them something—it was a bit of a last minute thing—and I had just the perfect main course for them. The folks at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute had recently sent me a few sides of keta salmon to enjoy, and I defrosted one for Santa Maria and her friends.
I wanted to set Santa Maria up with a good dinner for her and her friends. She has been working very hard around the house lately and with her own projects, and she was tired on Friday night (and Nina was sick with a fever). Before I left for the restaurant, I cleaned up the kitchen, threw a couple of potatoes in the oven to bake, washed a head of lettuce, and dressed the side of salmon so Santa Maria could bake it when her friends arrived. It was my little gift to her, to “ghost cook” the meal.
Wild Keta salmon is healthy, but it’s not very fatty. It can dry out easily when it is cooked. The solution I came up with on Friday night was to compensate with butter. Butter, like a good hug, can fix a lot of things. I softened up a few tablespoons, added a bit of diced shallot, diced garlic, lemon zest, salt, and fresh thyme (all things I just happened to have on hand).
I spread the herb butter over the fillet and rested it on a rack in a baking dish. I poured about a cup of white wine (and some water) into the baking dish to try and make a sauce as the fish cooked. If had had been home to cook it, I would have broiled it, to give it a bit of a crust. And then I would have reduced the pan drippings to make that sauce. As it was, I didn’t want Santa Maria to have to fuss over it, so I told her to bake it. It took about 12 minutes at 350 to cook the fish, and by all accounts everyone enjoyed it. If you try this at home, watch it carefully--depending on how thick your cut of fish is, it may take a few minutes less (or more).
I’ve been busy with a few freelance assignments and other projects, and have been away from blogging and cooking, just a bit. I tried stepping into the kitchen this weekend, but I was a bit out of cooking shaped. Back in the day, I could knock out the trifecta of Bolognese sauce, black beans, and quinoa salad in a matter of hours. Today, I was out of the running shortly after getting the beans simmering. I cooked the quinoa, but the chopping of the vegetables and the roasting of the potato will have to wait.
And it’s not just the cooking that’s starting to break down around the Stay at Stove Dad household, it’s the shopping and stocking of necessary ingredients. This morning, we were out of butter, a catastrophe in my mind akin to taking off on a trans-Atlantic flight with half a tank of fuel.
I didn’t crash, though, when it came time to make breakfast. I knew I had some eggs and a tiny bit of chorizo, so I chopped and crisped the sausage and mixed it into scrambled eggs. I topped it with salsa and placed it on a corn tortilla. Voila, a breakfast burrito. I swear it was as good as any I might have had out at brunch, if going out to brunch was part of my life right now.
Soccer, birthday parties, swimming lessons, seeing family and friends, and working, working, working—that’s what’s taken over my life. It’s a regular horn of plenty. I like this rich life, but it makes it hard to eat well. It takes a lot of planning, work and a bit of luck to pull it all together. Thank goodness I had that chorizo lingering around. If you live a busy life, keep at it—keep shopping, stocking your larder, reading cookbooks, and if you have to, improvise your breakfast. It will all work out.
Scrambled-Life Breakfast Burrito
Chop the chorizo into small pieces, and sauté in a little oil in a frying pan until crisp.
Drain the sausage on a paper towel, as if you are making bacon.
Scramble two eggs, mixing the sausage in as you go.
Top with cheddar cheese and cover with a bowl, to let the cheese melt*
Warm two corn tortillas in a pan.
Spread the egg mixture over the tortillas.
Fold the tortillas with the eggs to eat.
*I melt the cheese over the eggs using the heat that’s left from the cooking of them. I simply drape the slices atop the hot eggs and cover right away with a bowl. I help this process along, by then putting the plate in a warm oven, while I prepare the rest of the breakfast for the rest of my family, which usually takes about another ten minutes or so. You might not have this luxury, and should adjust how you melt your cheese accordingly.
Last week, I was at Greenlight Bookstore, in Brooklyn, interviewing the artist Lucy Knisley about her new book, “Relish.” Knisley is an amazing artist, who draws vibrant and elegant comics, and her book is a graphic-novel memoir about growing up with foodie parents. I was very, very interested in her perspective.
Talking with Knisley and reading her book gave me a chance to see how cooking for the family looks from the child’s point of view. What happens when a child is raised on braised foie gras and home-grown arugula?
In Knisely’s case, she loved it, though she did go through a period in her teens when she rebelled by eating junk food. She had a wildly unique experience (as I mentioned in my interview with her, it is as if the rest of America has only now just caught up with the food of her youth), and I couldn’t really use her book to figure out what effect my food might be having on my girls, who find arugula too bitter and would surely turn their noses up at foie gras.
Still, food and cooking for Knisley seems to be what is for me, and what I hope it will be for my girls—a wonderful way to enjoy life, bring people together, and make sense of our time here.
If the beautiful art and the poignant story of “Relish,” isn’t enough, each chapter in “Relish” ends with a recipe. It’s a really fun and moving book, and I suggest you pick up a copy. Her publisher, First Second Books, has put up a preview on its site. You can view it online.
For those of you who have been following this blog over the years, you know how devoted I am to cooking, and how I often spend much of my free time being a Stay at Stove Dad. Well, I hate to admit it, but something has come between me and the kitchen, and I don’t see the kitchen having a fair chance of winning. That thing is called AYSO.
Other parents may know it. I’ve tried to avoid it. But there’s no resisting the power of soccer. My girls started playing it this weekend, and I don’t think things will ever be the same. Much has been written about the power of team sports to build character (though in my experience, I would have to say I’m the exception to the rule), and so I found myself on a soccer field at 7:40 a.m. on Saturday. And 10 a.m. on Sunday. And 1 p.m. that same day. Do you know how much cooking I could have gotten done in that time? Sheesh!
As it was, I was limited to a couple of quick meals of sage-and-cornmeal crusted pork chops, fresh cornbread, and fish tacos. I think I’ll survive, but it won’t be easy. As I said to me eldest at 6:30 in the morning when I got her up for her first game, “We can surprise ourselves by what we are capable of.” Little did she know that I was talking about myself.
So the modest amount of cooking I did this weekend, was weirdly harder than the massive amount I did last weekend, for my Easter with a small “e.” As I promised back then, here is the pea-soup-for-those-who-hate-pea-soup recipe.
Chilled Pea Soup with Tarragon
Sauté the shallots in the olive oil in a large saucepan until soft, but not browned.
Add the chicken broth and peas and simmer less than five minutes.
Puree in a blender with the remaining ingredients and salt to taste. (Be careful with hot liquids in the blender; hold that top down with an oven mitt.)
Pour through a fine sieve into a metal bowl (I have never done this step, ever, and I’ve enjoyed the soup nonetheless. However, if your lifestyle demands such elegance, I encourage you to do it.)
Set in a bowl in a lager bowl of ice and cold water and stir soup until chilled. (Or, as I often do, make it ahead of time and chill it in the fridge. That or just serve it room temperature. Seriously, you can’t lose with this recipe.)
Note: As you might imagine, I’ve taken considerable liberties with this recipe, which is adapted from “Gourmet Every Day,” but I’ve been very happy with the results. I encourage you to experiment, too. I’ve doubled this recipe and it’s been more than enough to serve a large group. You want to go with a small bowl, in case your guests turn their noses up at “pea soup,” which—trust me—they won’t after they taste this.