I'm pretty low-key about St. Patrick’s Day, though I'm Irish-American. My observation of the holiday doesn’t involve bagpipes, crowds, or parades. I just stop and watch the revelers (I work in Manhattan, so it’s not hard to see them) and take note of all their green hats and scarves and sweaters, and think to myself what a poignantly joyful recognition of the great Irish diaspora the moment has become: these disparate masses of pale-faced people who sought a new home in a country that took them in (and should continue to take in all who need a new beginning) gathering for a few hours like a lost tribe, before returning to their jobs, and the rest of their lives. I stop for a beat, say a prayer of thanks, and then I go on with my day.
March straddles winter and spring, and (with help from the fine folks at Kraft, who are sponsoring this post), I’m honoring the expansive month with a raw salad that combines a wintery vegetable (daikon radish) with a perennial one (carrot) and a seasonal one (asparagus). I also tossed in a bit of raw sunflower, which adds a layer of texture and a note of earthy flavor, along with a promise of summer.
The salad is a refreshing first course, with citrusy hints, courtesy of fresh lemon-thyme, and a sharp edge, provided by a touch of Grey Poupon mustard. It’s also a perfect dish for St. Patrick’s Day, as it has all the colors of the Irish flag: orange, green, and white. Enjoy it in good health!
The full recipe for the St. Patrick’s Day tricolor salad can be found here.
I can cook fish like it’s nobody’s business, thanks to spending much of my youth working in a fish market, but cooking steak at home, either on the stovetop or on a barbecue, has long bedeviled me. I never really knew what I was doing, and the results proved it. Sometimes my steak would come out raw. Other times, like shoe leather. It was guesswork, and I wasn’t guessing well.
But no more. After years of trial and error, I’ve finally found a method that I believe is foolproof. It has worked for me twice in the last couple of weeks. Of course, it can be foolhardy to come to strong conclusions after scant experimentation, but I am confident: the system is simple and it is data driven. All you need to do is get yourself an instant-read thermometer.
I can’t claim that I created this method on my own. I’m sure if I Googled it, I’d find others before me who have figured this out, and I probably read about it somewhere. But truly original ideas are few and far between, and it’s not so much the idea that matters, but rather its execution (ask a copyright lawyer about that). All you have to do is this (indoor method):
It helps to start with a good-quality steak (and that’s another reason this method is so good—you won’t risk ruining a pricey piece of meat). If your cut of meat has a thick edge of fat, salt your steaks and then sear that edge in the pan first (by moving it around on the hot metal like you are wiping the pan with it), which will properly grease the pan. If you like your meat more well done, just take it to a higher temperature. Be advised that this will make copious amounts of smoke, if you do it indoors. Outdoors, that's not a concern.
Finally, be sure to pick the right instant-read thermometer. Some of them are too small to read, and others don’t go as low as 125 degrees. Find one that works for you. Now if only they made instant-read thermometers for emotions. That could lead to all sorts of useful ways to get along with one’s spouse, one’s kids, and one's self.
In Eric Carlyle’s classic children’s book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” the insatiable insect devours pages and pages of food. (Check out an awesome video of Carlyle reading the book here.) I always thought of the caterpillar going “crunch, crunch, crunch” as it fed itself, but maybe I have “crunches” on my mind—time crunches. All working parents face them. There’s never enough time to get to work, to get the groceries, to get the meal on the table, to have dinner, to get to bed.
And speaking of appetites, what about romance? What time is there for romance? Valentine’s Day is here, and the fine folks at Kraft, who are sponsoring this post, asked me to “Twist that Dish,” and come up with a clever new way to make a recipe easier and better. I know a twist that would improve the lives of working parents: the time-shift twist.
This year, Valentine’s Day is on a weekend, so there isn’t as much time pressure (theoretically, that is, for kid activities on the weekends sometimes take up more time than work itself), and things like strawberry cake and chocolate fondue can be considered. This recipe, though will save you time any day of the week, so there’s no need to wait for Valentine’s Day to make loving dinner for two. With the time-shift twist, you can do it whenever you feel like it.
Here’s what you do: When you are making breakfast, of say, bacon and eggs, cook a two extra slices of bacon and set them aside. Take one or two large beets, and put them in a pot of water, and bring them to a boil. The beets will cook while you are eating breakfast and getting out the door. Later, when you come home from work, you can sprinkle the bacon on a beet, arugula, and goat-cheese salad, and you have an easy, almost instantaneous, romantic dinner. The full recipe is here.
When the temperature drops, there’s more than one way to turn up the heat. Never mind the oil burner, or more blankets. Forget jetting away to warmer climes. Head to the kitchen and make a batch of this chili. Not hot in the customary way (though it can be made quite spicy), it has a special ingredient that layers in a fireside flavor and warms the heart: Spanish smoked paprika.
Paprika, which made from dried and ground peppers, is most closely associated with Hungry, where it is a key ingredient in that country’s national dish, goulash. But the peppers were native to Mexico, Central America, South America, and the West Indies, and they were brought to Europe by explorers from Spain. On the Iberian Peninsula, they do something magical while they make paprika, which they call Pimentón. In the river valleys of the rugged La Vera region, West of Madrid, they smoke the peppers over oak fires. The result is a rich smokiness that enhances every mouthful of the chili.
I make this chili when I want to warm my belly, and I’m tired of soup recipes, salmon, or even pizza. The fine folks at Kraft asked me to share it for their Tastemakers program. It’s perfect for the big game on Sunday. Cook it early in the day and sit back and enjoy the show. You can find the full recipe for Smoky Three Bean Chili here
Note: If you want to make your own beans from dried ones for this recipe, here’s how to do it. To make the 15 ounces each of cooked black beans, garbanzo beans, and kidney beans that are used in this recipe, start with half a cup of each, dried. Rinse and cook them separately in big pots of water, by bringing them to a boil and reducing to a simmer. Depending on the bean, it might take one to three hours or more to cook them. They are done when they are soft and no longer dry inside. They can be cooked a day ahead, and stored in a plastic container until needed.
Once or twice during my childhood, my mother made pizza at home, probably with one of my sisters, who were into cooking. Or, at least one of them was—my memory is better at recalling the elegant brown peaks of a long-ago lemon meringue pie, than who actually took it out of the oven. But I do recall hovering about the kitchen, with great anticipation, waiting for the dough to rise. It was all a great mystery to me, but it doesn’t have to be confusing to you.
Making your own pizza dough is easy. Nina and I made a batch this weekend, and we wanted to share the recipe with you. I’d like to say that this is my mother’s old family recipe, but it’s not. It’s Mark Bittman’s, and I thank him for bringing to the masses the basics of cooking that have been lost to a generation, through his books (chiefly “How to Cook Everything”) and his other writings. He likes to use a food processor to make this dough. To find those instructions, pick up a copy of “How to Cook Everything.” Otherwise, make it by hand. Here’s how I do it:
Combine half the flour with the yeast and salt, mix well.
Add the water and the two tablespoons of oil.
Mix with a wooden spoon.
Slowly add the remaining flour, mixing with the wooden spoon.
If necessary, add a touch more water—you want it moist but not sticky.
When it thickens to the point where it’s hard to mix with the spoon, kneed the dough until smooth, about ten minutes (or less), forming a roundish ball.
Grease a clean bowl with the remaining oil, and place the ball of dough in it to rise.
Cover with a cloth or plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm room for two hours, until it doubles in size, or in the refrigerator for six to eight hours.
Makes enough dough for two large pizzas or four modest ones; serves four.
A quick note on kneading: If you don’t know how to do it, there’s nothing to it. Even a child can do it. Here's Nina demonstrating (the punching is optional):
*And speaking of confusion, when I checked this post for an online link to Bittman’s recipe, I discovered that I might have been using the wrong kind of yeast all along. His recipe calls for “instant or rapid-rise” yeast. I’ve been using “active dry yeast” all along. What’s clear, though, is it works for my family. Nina wanted me to be sure to say that you should make more dough. She didn’t feel like there was enough pizza for her. If you want more clarity about the different yeasts, this post on The Kitchn is helpful.
My old man was a lawyer who worked for himself, and he used to talk about the “hills and valleys” of his office. We are radically different fathers. I don’t know anything about the ups and downs of the law business, but I do know the “hills and valleys” of cooking for a family. Lately, it has felt like we were eating the same things over and over. Roast chicken, black beans, puttanesca, pesto, pizza. Repeat. Repeat again.
But just this weekend, Santa Maria rocked the alla matriciana sauce and I stunned the kids with Bittman’s “oven-grilled” pork spareribs. And tonight I’m making a halibut recipe that I developed for some friends in Alaska (I’ll share it soon), and I’m feeling more optimistic about things around the kitchen.
Speaking of which, I promised to follow up on my Christmas dinner. As I mentioned in my last post, we were visiting Santa Maria’s folks for the holidays, and I wanted to cook something special. They are now at an age when they deserve a good meal in their own home, and I needed something to match my mother-in-law’s talents for setting a spectacular table. Meals in her house are taken in their dining room, and her table is alway carefully laid out, often with cutlery, glasses, or napkin rings from their long-ago trips around the world.
I went on my own journey, to my local butcher, for a beef tenderloin. I had never made one, but I had heard they were good. Based on the price, I knew it would be impressive. Little did I know it would be so easy, and so delicious. I could see in my mother-in-law’s eye the pleasure she took with each bite. I was relaxed because the meal came together with next-to-no effort, and we all had a wonderful holiday meal.
Easy Holiday Beef Tenderloin
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a small bowl, combine the 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, garlic, rosemary, and pepper and rub all over the tenderloin.
Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the tenderloin on all sides until browned, about 3 minutes per side.
Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast for 30 to 35 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat reads 125°F, for medium rare.
Remove from the oven and transfer the meat to a cutting board. Cover the roast loosely with foil and let it rest for 20 minutes.
Note: Recipe is adapted from this one by Giada De Laurentiis.
I’m just back from spending Christmas with Santa Maria’s parents, in central Pennsylvania. I’ve always felt fortunate to have met Santa Maria, and when I married her my world expanded in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Life with her has been like stepping into a kaleidoscope, and among the many moving and dizzying points of light are her parents. They are remarkable people whose eccentricity is outdone only by their generosity. Whenever I visit, I try to pay them back in what little way I can, mostly by cooking for them.
It was a bit of a lightning fast trip, given school and work schedules, and I had only three meals to prepare. The first was for Christmas Eve, and I wanted to do something easy, tasty, and festive. The pork roast that I usually make, with apples, sage, and white wine, would have been perfect, but I couldn’t get that piece of meat at the coop. I was set on doing something with pork because I planned on serving beef for Christmas Day (I’ll get to that in a subsequent post), and I didn’t want to do turkey or another bird. Fish was out of the question because I was going to be on the road. Running short of time in the coop, I grabbed two pork tenderloins and started thinking about how I might need to alter my recipe to accommodate the different cut of meat.
I love my roast-pork recipe because it creates its own sauce as it cooks. I stack the meat atop apples and sage and add a bit of wine. As the meat roasts, the fat atop the pork dribbles down into the pan, the apples soften, and the wine reduces. It’s as delicious as it is easy.
Pork tenderloin, however, is very lean, and the ones I get at my coop tend to be small, too (though I saw some purported pork tenderloins at a super market in PA that were the size of Norse yule logs, and probably just as savory, so watch where you get your meat). Given their small size and lack of fat, I knew they would need a little help to be proper holiday fare. So I topped them with slices of bacon, which didn’t exactly crisp up like the skin on a fresh ham, but did lend the sauce a smoky essence. Everybody loved it.
Holiday Pork Tenderloin
Heat oven to 350 degrees
Slice the apples and lay them in the bottom of a roasting pan.
Layer a few leaves of sage over the apples.
Sprinkle the garlic slices amid the sage and apples.
Place the meat atop the apples, sage, and garlic.
Top with more slices of sage, and tuck some of the garlic in the folds of the meat.
Drape the three slices of bacon over the top of it all.
Pour the wine around the apples and meat.
Roast in the oven for 30-45 minutes, until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the pork is 145 degrees.
Remove meat to cutting board and tent with foil to keep warm.
Reduce sauce on stovetop slightly, mashing the apples into large pieces.*
Serve by slicing the meat and arranging it on a platter, with a bowl of sauce on the side. Diners can dress their meat to their liking.
*Note: in retrospect at this point in the recipe I would consider adding a few tablespoons of butter to th wine and apple mixture and reducing further to create a more traditional French-style sauce, but that’s your call.
If our lives were the movie “Frozen,” come the holiday season we wouldn’t be living in the Kingdom of Arendelle, but rather the Kingdom of Cookies. And, instead of being able to turn everything into ice, the reigning power, Santa Maria, would have different abilities. As it is, she’s the Sovereign of Sweets, the Monarch of Meringues, the Queen of Quick Breads. This year, with assistance from my fine friends at Kraft, who are sponsoring this post (and you thought it was Disney!), we decided to mix things up. Christmas recipes are never in short supply, and the Christmas cookie shouldn’t be trifled with, but I couldn’t help myself. I just had to try something new.
With Santa Maria’s help, I built on a gingerbread cookie recipe to make marshmallow fluff sandwich men. The cookies are fun to make with kids. Not only do you get to cut out the shapes, but you get to poke holes in the figures, and squish them together. The layer of Jet-puffed marshmallow flows up through the holes and makes decorating easy. Eating them is even more fun. The kids tend to pry them apart and the white topping of the gingerbread men is very festive. The full recipe is here.
Pinta made this drawing last night. I don't know where she got the idea for Squawkgiving, but it sounds about right to me. And on another note, here's one of Billy Collins's favorite poems for the holiday: