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May 2012

A Visit to the Brooklyn Grange

Brooklyn_Grange_Farm_Mural
It’s a slightly slow time at work, and I took the opportunity to accompany Nina on a school trip this morning. Her class visited the Brooklyn Grange, the world’s largest commercial rooftop farm, which sits atop a 40,000 square-foot (that’s about an acre) roof, in Long Island City, Queens (why the Brooklyn Grange is in Queens is a long story, but the good news is that the farm, which is in its third year, is doing so well, that it is expanding to its namesake borough).

After a forty-five-minute ride to the farm with, let’s just say, highly energetic first graders, I was missing my desk job quite a bit (whatever it is they pay teachers, it can’t possibly be enough unless it’s a function of decibels registered in a school bus full of first graders on the BQE in heavy traffic).

I was even pining for my time in the kitchen that morning, which, let me tell you, was as rushed as ever. Between dropping Nina off and having to return to the school to accompany the trip, I had a half hour, which, I’m proud to say, I used to knock out two pork loins and a batch of Harried Dad’s Aloo Gobi (which is becoming more true to its name as both the kids and Santa Maria have started to spurn it. Oh, well.) Doing my cooking in the morning, meant that dinner would be ready when I came home.

Once the bus stopped, we were on a typical street corner in industrial Long Island City, home to a number of the city’s auto dealerships and big-box stores.

Brooklyn_Grange_Street

At the top of a wall of windows of an imposing building...

Brooklyn_Grange_Wall

 

We came out on a rooftop full of green leaves and growing plants that said to me, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” And sure enough we weren’t. In Kansas, that is.

Brooklyn_Grange_Fields

 

The kids were treated to a tour of the farm, and I learned quite a bit. Did you know that there are six parts of a plant, and that humans eat them all? 

  1. Roots (such as potatoes, beets, etc.)
  2. Stems (celery, for example)
  3. Leaves (lettuce, kale, and the like)
  4. Flowers (broccoli and cauliflower)
  5. Fruits (a.k.a. the vegetable; think eggplant, zucchini, squash)
  6. Seeds (sunflower seeds, green beans)

The plants are grown in special beds that are full of nutrient-rich lightweight rocks, and the farm composts its own soil. The docent described the towering piles soil in the making as “compost lasagna,” featuring layers of food scraps and newspaper and wood chips.

Brooklyn_Grange_Compost_Pile

The temperature reaches 180 degrees inside it, as worms chomp through garbage and turn it into a soil so rich that farmers call it “Black Gold.”

Brooklyn_Grange_Black_Gold

And they even let the kids play with the soil..

Brooklyn_Grange_Soil_Hand

The Brooklyn Grange is a commercial farm, and it sells to restaurants and to the public. You can learn more about it by reading this great article in Nona Brooklyn, or visiting the farm's site. I encourage you to go check it out in person, too. It is well worth the trip. 


Memorial Day Surprise: Limes in my Dhal

Old_ginger
Santa Maria's company, ParentEarth.com, makes videos about food and families, and this past weekend we traveled to her alma mater to give a talk during reunion weekend. It was called “7 Secrets to Transforming the Way We Eat -- in Our Kitchens and in Our Country,” and my half of the talk featured many of the cartoons I’ve posted here, along with many of the tips I’ve mentioned, including the following: "Secret Number 2: Keep a Fully Stocked Larder."

So, you can imagine my surprise and chagrin this morning when, back at home and halfway through my favorite dhal recipe, I had to stop cooking because I was short two key ingredients. The only ginger I could find in the fridge was a shriveled piece that looked more like a witch’s knuckle than anything I could cook with (the bit of green mold was a nice touch). And I was fresh out of lemons.

Santa Maria was out on a bike ride, so I frantically texted her. She picked up the ginger, but the coop didn’t have any lemons. There must have been a memorial-day run on lemonade. Or maybe it has been the warm winter and early spring that has caused a shortage. Apparently, the weather has caused massive troubles for Good Humor, which, the Wall Street Journal is reporting, has run out of its famous Toasted Almond Bar for the whole summer. Because of the high demand during the warm spring, their whole supply is gone. 

But I wasn’t going to let global warming stop me from making my dhal. Luckily, I had limes on hand that I could substitute, and they worked just fine. I used them same way as the lemons, but took them out a bit earlier to keep the soup from getting bitter. 

Red Lentil Dhal

  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise 
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • One 2 inch or so cinnamon stick 
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) of minced fresh ginger 
  • 3 cloves of garlic 
  • 1 dash of cayenne pepper 
  • 2 cups small red lentils, about a pound, rinsed
  • 1 lemon, halved and juiced (seeds removed) or a lime!
  • 3 or 4 cups of chicken stock 
  • 3 or 4 cups of hot water  
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
Heat the oil in a heavy sauce pan
Add the onion, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick
Saute until the onions are translucent
Add the garlic and the ginger and the cayenne
Continue cooking another few minutes
Add the lentils and stir to coat them with oil
Add the chicken stock and the water
Add the lemon juice and the squeezed halves of the fruit
Add the salt
Bring to a boil
Reduce to a simmer
Cook for about a half hour, until the onions mostly break up and the lentils more or less dissolve. If it looks like it needs more water, add some. 
Notes:
This freezes remarkably well. It is best served with rice. To make it more fancy, caramelize some onions to go on top, along with some plain yogurt, and some chopped cilantro. 

 


Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Wraps—Inspired by Sargento

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For the most part, I keep this blog clean and free of advertising. My focus is on feeding my family and helping, I hope, you feed yours. I don’t want that message getting shouted down by flashing banners, pop-up ads, and other assorted visuals. There’s enough cacophony in life as it is.

Expenses do pile up, but don’t blame the lovingly convenient and savory things I favor—such as those D’Artagnan chicken truffle sausages—blame me! I take full responsibility for my food bill (and, no, this is not a plug for D'Artagnan). Therefore, when a company I respect approaches me with a good offer, I’m inclined to take them up on it, especially if it includes something that can benefit my readers (there’s a reward at the end of this post).

Hence, I found myself making a slightly more elaborate than usual breakfast this morning, wrapping eggs, bacon, and diced pepper in corn tortillas. I was following up on the Sargento “Thin to Win” challenge that I started two weeks ago. The key thing here, from the perspective of Sargento (and my bank-account), was the “Ultra Thin Sliced Swiss Cheese.”

My task was to pick one of their recipes, make it, and report back on it. I chose their Bacon, Egg, and Swiss Wraps because theny looked good, and I had most of the ingredients on hand. To manage something this (slightly) complicated on a weekday morning (I think it would work better on a Saturday or Sunday, and would be good for a brunch with friends), I did some of the prep ahead of time. I crisped the bacon and cooked the bell pepper and onion the night before, and left them in the pan (covered) in the fridge. That way, this morning, all I had to do was gently heat it before moving on to the next step of the recipe.

This morning, I added the eggs, heated the tortillas, and added the cheese. I knew going into this recipe that once the onions, bacon, and pepper were ready, the rest of it would be as easy as making scrambled eggs and quesadillas, two things I have ample experience with.

As for the taste, I liked it well enough. The thin slices of cheese were easy to work with and they saved me a bit of time, but, the bacon and the onion and the pepper announced themselves in the dish with bold voices, and the cheese acted shy. If I was making this again, I’d go for a sharper cheddar, and I don’t mind slicing things myself. As I’ve learned as a father in a household full of girls, it can take some effort to get heard.

And now, I want to hear from you. Tell me in a comment below about your favorite family breakfast, and the tricks you do to get things on the table in time. The one I find most informative and entertaining will win three coupons from Sargento to try their “Ultra Thin Sliced Cheese.”

Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Wraps, inspired by Sargento

 

  • 2 slices bacon, cooked crisp, crumbled 
  • 1 Tbsp. canola oil or butter
  • ½ small onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 (8-inch) whole wheat or high fiber flour tortillas
  • 4 slices Sargento® Ultra Thin Sliced Swiss Cheese, or cheese of your choice

 

Cook and crumble the bacon.

Sauté the onion in the oil until it is translucent, and starting to brown.

Add the bell pepper, and sauté for a moment more.

Stir in the eggs and salt and pepper, and stir while cooking, until the eggs are just about set.

Add the bacon.

In a separate frying pan, warm the tortillas on one side and then flip them.

Add a layer of cheese, top with the egg mixture, and roll up and serve.

 Enjoy!

Note: the photo above is from Sargento; this morning was a touch to hectic to break out the digital camera. I don’t know what happened.


Pumpkin Custard Recipe Good for a Weeknight or a Dinner Party

Pumpkin_custard_mixing
As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been on a lucky, dinner-party streak. For a recent gathering of friends at my house, I had the good fortune of being solicited by McCormick Gourmet. They’re doing something called the McCormick's Dinner Party Chain, which involves encouraging people to dine together. Now, that’s just the kind of thing I’m all for. If you want a chance to win your “dream dinner party,” you can click on their Facebook page, for a chance to, er, spice up your life (sorry, but I couldn’t help it). The company was also kind enough to send me a few gift cards, salad spoons, other kitchen implements, along with a massive, rotating spice rack, to get my own dinner party going.

My first course was an action-packed spring salad (I’ll get to that later in the week) and the entrée was my favorite sage-and-apple pork roast with a white-wine sauce. The dessert was the masterful work of Santa Maria, and that’s where the spice rack came in handy.

She’s perfected a spicy pumpkin-custard recipe that has four distinct advantages. First, it’s amazingly delicious, a smooth and scrumptious mix of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Second, it’s very convenient—she makes it with regular milk, and not the condensed stuff (which may or may not be in the back of one’s cupboard; fresh milk, on the other hand should always be in the fridge). Third, it’s healthy, as desserts go—think of it as a pie without the piecrust. And it can be made with kids (that's Pinta, above, helping her make it).

Of course, the trick when having a dinner party is to smother it with whipped cream. This, of course, may negate that third advantage, but it’ll make everyone happy. 

Crowd-Pleasing Pumpkin Custard Dessert

  • one 15 oz. can pumpkin
  • 2/3 cup 1% milk (or whole or skim)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t nutmeg
  • 1/4 t ginger
  • 1/4 t cloves
  • 1/4 t salt
  • ¼ cup sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a 9-inch pie or tart dish. Or use individual ramekins. This will probably make about twelve, three-inch ramekins.

Bake approximately 30 minutes in oven at 350 degrees.  Let cool 10-15 minutes. Garnish with whipped cream.


A Sauce for the Apple and Sage Pork Roast!

Pork_roast3
As much as I feel like I never get to see my friends lately, it seems like I’ve fallen into a lucky groove of dinner parties. Two weeks ago, I an old friend invited Santa Maria and me to a one, and we enjoyed great company and even better food. The hostess made dish with boiled potatoes, chicken breast, prunes, and an out-of-this-world, super delicious sauce, which got me to thinking.

I’m very happy with the cooking I do, but I generally forego a fancy sauce and instead rely on a basic technique and exceptional ingredients to make the meal as tasty as possible. Still, there are times—such as when hosting a dinner party—that a good sauce can elevate a dish from the ordinary to the extraordinary. My friend said she made the dish straight out of the “Silver Palate Cookbook,” and she was surprised that I didn’t own a copy.

The way that dish tasted, I think I should pick up a copy. But in the meantime, I have managed to improvise. Recently, I hosted a dinner party of my own, and I was making my old standby, pork shoulder with apple and sage. It’s a failsafe, delicious dish, but I’ve never been able to perfect the sauce, until now.

As I put the pork roast together, I increased the amount of apple, mixing two different types together for a nice visual effect, and when I put the roast in the oven, I poured a bit of white wine and water into the base of the small roasting pan. This way, as the roast cooked, and the fat from the pork dripped down into the pan, it would make its own sauce.

As the roast cooked, I was careful not to allow the bottom of the pan to dry out. Once or twice I added a bit more wine, and, sure enough, when I took the roast out of the oven, I had my sauce.

At serving time, I took the meat off the apples and put it on a cutting board. I poured the liquid and all the apples into a frying pan, and I reduced it a bit before spooning it over the slices of meat on each diner’s plate. Without any effort, I had that elusive, dinner-party-worthy, sauce. 

Sage-and-Apple Pork Roast Recipe with White Wine Sauce

 

  • 2 applew, washed, cored, and sliced
  • 1 bunch sage, washed
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, to taste
  • One 2-3 lb boneless pork roast
  • Salt, to taste
  • White wine

 

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Slice the garlic into thick pieces, and with a pointy knife, stab a bunch of holes in the top and sides of the pork roast. Put the garlic slices along with bits of sage into the holes.

Salt the meat.

Lay the apple slices on the bottom of a roasting pan (for a piece of meat this size, I use a small ceramic pan) in roughly the same area as the size of the pork roast.

Lay a few sage leaves over and under the slices.

Perch the pork roast on top of the apples. 

Pour a mix of white wine and water into the pan so the bottom of it isn't dry.

Put the meat into the oven and roast for about 30-45 mintues. Make sure the pan doesn't dry out. You don't want anything to burn in the pan. Add more wine as you go along, if necessary.

After about 30 to 45 minutes, turn the heat down to 350, and continue to roast until the meat is 150 degrees internal, about an hour to an hour-and-a-half total.

Let the meat sit for ten minutes before slicing and serving.

Pour the apples, sage, and liquid into a frying pan, and reduce slighly on a high heat.

Pour a bit of the sauce over the meat, along with a few apples.

Enjoy!

 


Make Ahead Guide: How to Make French Fries

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When my sister came over for dinner the two weeks ago, she said she felt like she had fallen into a rut, and that she wasn’t cooking as many things as she used to cook.

She said an old favorite of hers was a mushroom risotto, and that she was recently shocked to realize that she’d never made it for her son, who is eleven. “That means I haven’t made it in more than a decade,” she said. “How did that happen?”

“You had a son,” I said. “That’s how it happened.”

It’s no surprise, of course, that having kids changes your life. Just as one can never enter the same river twice, becoming a parent can wash away some of the things that came before. Just make sure, though, that cooking is not one of them. And one of the best ways to keep cooking as a part of your life is to learn to plan ahead.

It takes work, but it is worth it. On the same visit she said she was impressed that I had cooked black beans, Bolognese, and chicken stock one afternoon. What I didn’t tell her is that I gave up time in the park with my girls that day. That was a price I was willing to pay.

Sometimes, the cost of a good meal isn’t so high. The evening that my sister came over, we had French fries, hot dogs, and blue-cheese hamburgers. Santa Maria put the dinner together before I came home from work. She was able to do that because I had done most of the prep work in the morning. A good working couple can unite to get good food on the table almost every night, so long as one person takes the lead and does the planning. Here’s my do-it-ahead planning tip of the day for making French fries:

  • Cut up the potatoes ahead of time (as in before you go to work)
  • Then store them for the day submersed in water, covered, in the refrigerator. This will keep them from turning brown.
  • They'll be ready to cook when you get home.

I’ve also heard that doing this helps keep them moist, though I don’t know if it’s true. All I know is that the night my sister came over, we had the potatoes ready in no time. For the complete story on making oven-baked French Fries, click here.


Make Ahead: Spicy Shrimp and Mint Pasta

Roman_shrimp2012
Not to get off topic, but I was very moved recently by two events: the death of Adam (MCA) Yauch, of the Beastie Boys, and the news that Warren Buffet, the famed investor, has prostate cancer. It suddenly seemed to me that nothing can protect me, not fame nor talent nor wealth. Time is limited, and it’s up to us to make the most of it.

Good food is one way to enjoy each moment, but making that good food takes time, and time is always at a premium for a working parent. I’ve long been trying to figure out how to deal with this—how to have good food and still hold down a job, get the kids to school, help with their homework, etc, etc, etc.

My latest solution, and I’m sure it’s not original but I’m happy to have hit on it, is to do as much of the work as possible ahead of time. On Friday, for example, I wanted to make an old favorite, Roman Shrimp. It’s a wonderful dish, a bit spicy and unexpectedly refreshing because it’s made with mint. The sauce has a deep richness because it’s made by browning the garlic. Typically, this is a big no-no, but in this case it is a move that gives the sauce a distinct flavor.

Before I went to work on Friday morning, I sliced the garlic, and browned it with two chili peppers. I chopped the tomatoes and added them to the pan and cooked it for few minutes. Then I turned everything off and let it sit on the stovetop all day (I took out the chili peppers). When I came home from work, it was ready for me to finish. I spent fifteen minutes on it in the morning.

Later that night (I had to work late, so it was even better than I had anticipated that I had started the sauce), all I had to was cook it down a bit (which I did while I boiled water and made pasta) and add the shrimp and fresh mint. A particularly delightful dinner was ready in a matter of minutes.

Spicy Tomato Sauce with Shrimp with Garlic and Fresh Mint a.k.a. Roman Shrimp 

  •     1-2 chili pepper(s)
  •     6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half and then sliced
  •     1 28-oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, diced
  •     1/2 to 1 lb. peeled medium shrimp, sliced lengthwise into two pieces
  •     1/2 cup or more of fresh mint, chopped
  •     Spaghetti or other pasta of choice.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

In a large saucepot, heat olive oil and then add the garlic and the chili pepper. Cook the garlic until it is brown. This gives the sauce an intense, dark note.

Add the tomatoes and reduce.

Start to cook the pasta.

When the pasta is cooked, stir the shrimp into the tomato sauce.

Cook the sauce until the shrimp curl into spirals and are cooked through.

Add the mint to the sauce and serve.

Note: It is important to slice the shrimp lengthwise into two pieces before cooking. This accomplishes two things: it cause them to twist up into neat shapes while they cook, and it allows them to cook even faster than if they were whole, and we all know how important that is!


Just Desserts: Ricotta and Honey

Ricotta_Honey
The picture, above, was inspired by one of the most delicious desserts I’ve ever had. Someday—perhaps on a day when I haven’t risen at 6:00 a.m., run, showered, made lunches, made breakfast, eaten breakfast, taken the kids to school, stood on my commute to work, worked, commuted home, and put the kids to bed—I will elaborate on the trip to Italy when I first tasted fresh ricotta and honey together in one luscious spoonful, but it won’t be right now.

At the moment, I’m trying to get this post done in the time it takes to sweat the onions (in tonight’s case, shallots; always use whatever you have on hand) for my go-to, super-quick, weeknight dinner of D’Artagnan truffle sausages, pasta, and spinach, so I don’t have the time to go into detail.

Trust me, though: one of the sweetest, creamiest, and most delicious combinations in the whole world is ricotta cheese and honey—especially if you have the right cheese and the right honey. More on that, someday, perhaps at which point I'll even make my own ricotta. In the meantime, go with what you have—I put the strawberries on for the photo, and they were delicous, too.


The Joys of Time-Saving Pesto

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I started this blog as a way to write about food in a liberating forum (on the web, a mistake can be fixed very easily, whereas a mistake made while at my print job is a bit more problematic).  I continued it while putting together my book, “Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook For their Families,” because it gave me an instantaneous outlet for recipes and stories during that two-plus-year period. And then in my excitement about “Man with a Pan” I started blogging every day, and that eventually took a toll. I had to dial things back, and a while ago I reduced my postings to three times a week.

By reducing my workload, I was able to continue the blog, which I love to do because it helps me keep track of what I’ve cooked (seriously, I go to that oatcake recipe at least once a week). I also hope it encourages others—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, any and all—to cook more. The more we can cook at home, the better our lives will be.

Cutting down on my blogging fits nicely with a new promotion* that Sargento Cheese is doing called “Thin to Win,” in which folks are challenged to address “meals, overflowing closets or bad habits,” and all the "things we want to ‘thin out’ of our lives.” I’m happy to get behind this for two reasons: I always love my deli cheeses sliced razor thin—the more surface area, the greater the flavor (and if you’re interested in the flavor/calorie ratio, check out Peter Kaminsky’s new book, “Culinary Intelligence") and I’m desperately in need of thinning my life out (see above).

My challenge involves counter-top appliances that can help cut down on mealtime prep. I’m supposed to use one and reveal how much time I’ve saved. You, too, can participate by posting stories to Sargento’s Facebook page, where you’ll have a chance to win prizes. If you go there and tell a story about how you saved time with a countertop appliance, you may win a prize.

I’m a man of modest means and even more modest counter-top space. I have one go-to appliance: the blender, and it’s a real time machine. In a matter of minutes, it can turn a fragrant head of fresh basil into a tasty pesto that will last for days (and weeks, if kept in the freezer).  I'm hardly the first one to think of this. The pesto sauce was developed as a way of preserving herbs. It is an ancient technique.

And the name of the sauce has an interesting background. According to Itchefs-GVCI, an online network of Italian chefs working around the globe, "in 1876, ‘pesto’ was entered by Giovanni Casaccia in his Genoese Italian dictionary as a word autochthonous of Genoa. The word comes from ‘pestare,’ to crush something with a pestle to reduce it to powder, a mash or to the thinnest of layers.” 

I don't use a mortar and pestle, though there's nothing stopping you from doing so (unless you don't own one). I assume you have a blender or food processor, in which case, here’s how to make the elegant time-saving sauce that everyone loves.

  1. Break out the blender the day you bring the fresh basil into the house. It tends to spoil very rapidly.
  2. Wash the basil well and spin dry.
  3. Toast 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  4. Roughly chop three or four heads of garlic and a bit of salt (1/4 teaspoon or less)
  5. Blend the ingredients with enough olive oil to make a nice pesto.
  6. Keep in refrigerator for nights when you don’t feel like cooking.
  7. If so inclined, grate in fresh Parmesan when serving.

When I've done this, I’m ready, anytime I come home, to make a quick meal in the time it takes to boil the water for the pasta. If the pesto has been frozen, some can be shaved off with a knife just prior to serving, and it will melt as soon as it hits the freshly cooked pasta. It’s always nice to have pesto around the house for other reasons, too. Santa Maria likes to put it on crackers with Mozzarella and have as a snack or serve as a party appetizer. Having homemade pesto on hand is like having time in a bottle. 

*About the promotion, here’s the full disclosure: I received products and compensation from Sargento Foods Inc. and The Motherhood as a part of my participation in this campaign. All thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are my own. I’ll have some coupons to share with you all in a follow-up post shortly, so this is a bit of a win-win all around, just like pesto (unless you are happen to be a head of basil—don’t be the basil).