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August 2012

Labor Day Special: Tequila Ginger-Ale Cocktail Recipe

I don’t usually traffic in cocktail recipes, but as summer winds down, I have to share one that I fell head over heels for back in July. I wish I could take credit for it, but like all the sweet things in my life, it was initiated by Santa Maria.

In recent years, she’s made a tradition of whipping up homemade ginger ale for our nieces and nephews during our annual treks to the Jersey shore. This year, I brought a nice bottle of tequila on that trip, to make margaritas, and I did  but they were pretty terrible. Perhaps it was because all I could find was cut-rate Triple Sec at the local supermarket, or perhaps it was because I had never made them before. Either way, there was no way I was going to try and make them more than once. 

So the night Santa Maria poured the homemade ginger ale for the little kids, I dressed mine up with a nice shot of tequila. Instantly, I had a cocktail worthy of the swankiest, hippest, newest, club around. As you roll into Labor Day, think about making one for yourself. Leave out the tequila, and you have a great drink for the kids. My nine-year old nephew from Western PA called the ginger ale, “stinkin' good.” I think you’ll agree, especially if you goose yours up with a good tequila.

Tequila Ginger-Ale Surprise

You'll need:

  • Sugar
  • Limes
  • Fresh ginger
  • Seltzer
  • Tequila (optional)

Start with a simple syrup. Take 1 cup raw organic sugar and dissolve it one cup of water. Do this by heating the water (and boiling if necessary) until the sugar is suspended in the liquid. You'll have more simple syrup than you need, and the extra can be stored in the refrigerator.

To make a big batch, for say eight people, juice 5 limes and chop (don't grate; this is important) about 3 tablespoons of fresh ginger. 

In a glasses with ice, mix each drink as follows:

2-3 tablespoons of simple syrup

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 tablespoon chopped ginger

Top with seltzer to taste. Add a shot of tequila, and you have a proper cocktail. The chopped ginger is fun to chew on, too. Kid love it (without the alcohol, of course). Making the drinks this way allows you to customize the flavor for each glass. Some may like it little sweeter, so add more simple syrup. Others may liken it a little stronger, so add more tequila. You get the idea. Have fun. 

 


Frozen Grapes

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Though summer is about to come to a close, you still might be looking for a healthy frozen treat. Here's one to consider: frozen grapes. Something wonderful happens to grapes when you freeze them. They become crunchy and captivating on the tongue. The sugars inside the fruit must become concentrated because they become as appealing as ice cream.

Santa Maria brought home some grapes the other day, and Pinta thought she should freeze them. “Make a big batch,” she said to her mother. I asked her why, and Pinta replied, “Because I like them.”

I’m not the first to discover frozen grapes (the idea came into our house from Santa Maria, and I’m sure she got it somewhere else), and I know I won’t be the last to recommend them. (My friend Debbie Koenig wrote about them a few years ago, and compared them to something that can’t be mentioned in a family blog).  

They are so easy to make, it its almost unbelievable. Just rinse and dry a bunch. Take them off the stems if you’d like. Put them on a baking sheet.  Or not. And just put them in the freezer until they are hard.

Santa Maria put some in our freezer’s ice bucket the other day, and a few ended up in some glasses of drinking water by accident. Just watch out for that. 


Not Bread Alone Dept: A Pound Cake Recipe!

Pound_Cake_finish
When Santa Maria and the kids were away, I have to say, life around the kitchen was very easy. I had forgotten what it was like just to cook for myself. It was so easy that I almost (and just almost) didn’t know what to do with myself.

I don’t know what it might be like for you (if you are a parent), but for me, my mind is never fully my own. It is split right down the middle, with one part belonging to me, and the other belonging to my family. I’m always thinking about my kids no matter where they might be or what they might be doing. I didn’t have any responsibilities last week, other than to myself, and yet I still didn’t have a unified consciousness. In the back of my mind, a constant script was running, along these lines: “Is there enough milk in the house? Do we need bread? What will the kids eat for dinner any given night?”

Now that Santa Maria and kids are back, I’ve ramped up the cooking. This morning, I made a few weeks worth of Bolognese, Black Beans, and Dhal. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know that’s how I do it: Cook, cook, cook. Cook to freeze. Cook and have dinner ready by lunch. Cook to breathe.

But life around my kitchen is not all daily grind. Man does not live by soups and stews alone. A few weeks ago, in July, after our trip to High Hampton, I was feeling so well rested and relaxed that I did something very special (at least for me): I did a bit of baking.

At dinner one night down at High Hampton they served pound cake for dessert. Nina was very taken by it, and when we came home I came across an old newspaper clipping from the Dining section of the New York Times. It had a recipe for a Lemon Pound Cake from an esteemed chef. It looked rich. It looked delicious. (Full disclosure: one of my potentially habitual weakness is buying and eating slices of those NYC deli pound cakes that are so moist and yummy). It looked irresistible. I waved the clipping around and told Nina that could make it for her.

Then I read the recipe. It was so complicated that there was no way I could make it. It involved a lemon-syrup bath. A Lemon-syrup bath? What was I thinking? I don’t have much experience baking, so I checked with Santa Maria. She rolled her eyes, and confirmed my suspicions.

But I still wanted to make a pound cake. I figured the “Joy of Cooking” would be a good place to look, and sure enough it had a recipe that passed two important tests: I thought I could do it, and Santa Maria agreed. 

Whenever working with a new recipe, it’s important to a couple of things before starting.  The first is to read the recipe through all the way, at least a couple of times. The second is to make sure you all your ingredients ready before beginning. So I lined everything up.

Pound_Cake_Set_Up
Until I made a pound cake, I didn’t understand what was in it, or were its name came from. It has a pound of butter. (The first recipes had a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and a pound of eggs, according to “The New Food Lover’s Companion.). A pound of butter is a lot of butter. A whole lot. I was glad I knew there would be other people around to eat the cakes. That weekend we were visiting friend and also going to a dinner party. I could share one loaf with my friends, and bring the other the dinner party, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

  Pound_Cake_More_Butter

The head note in the “Joy of Cooking” included a little line about creaming the batter “An electric mixer is a true aid for creaming this batter,” but I think it misses the point. Being new to baking, I was shocked by the first step. “Cream 2 cups butter, no substitutes. Add slowly and cream well: 2 cups sugar.” The thing that shocked me was how good butter and sugar taste together. I almost stopped completely at after this step. What was the point in going on?

  Pount_Cake_Creaming_Butter

But then I filled the cake pans, and put them in the oven.

  Pound_Cake_Batter

One pan had a little bit more batter than the other, and it took a few extra minutes to make sure the larger loaf was cooked through. The old knife in the dough trick worked well. When it came out dry, it was done. We took them to our friends, and we took them to the dinner party. Everywhere we went, folks enjoyed the cakes. I wish I had the time and energy to make them again soon, but on the other hand, it’s good that I’ve been busy cooking other things for my family. All that butter can’t be good for anyone. At least not all the time.

Pound_Cake_test_done

The girls and I made the pound cakes together. Working with them might not have made things easier for me, but they sure made things better. I don't think I would have been inspired to make the cake without Nina's initial enthusiasm. Easy is overrated. 

 

Lemon Pound Cake (adapted from “Joy of Cooking”)

 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Have all ingredients at room temperature before starting, about 70 degrees.

  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 9 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon organic lemon extract
  • 4 cups cake flour
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Cream the butter and the sugar.

Beat in the eggs one at a time.

Beat the batter well after the addition of each egg.

Beat in the vanilla and the lemon extract.

 

Sift the flour, and resift with the cream of tartar and salt.

Add the sifted ingredients slowly, at the lowest speed, mixing only until thoroughly blended.

 

Pour the batter into a creased tube pan or into two greased loaf pans lined with parchment paper or into a greased and floured hinged loaf pan.

 

Bake the cake for about 1 hour for pans; 15 minutes longer for tube pan.

 

Note: To make the cake fluffier, separate the egg yolks from the whites. Add the yolks only per the instructions for the eggs above. Whip the whites until stiff but not dry and fold them in as the very last step before pouring the batter into the pans. I have not tried it this way, but it sounds good. I did it the original, dense way, and it was delicious. 

 


Spice Set and Spice Rack Giveaway

I was interviewed recently for an article that ran in the New York Times on Wednesday. It was by Matt Richtel and it was all about the difficulties dads can have eating healthy meals around the house. If you are new to my blog because of the article, I welcome you. I hope you find useful tips about how to feed your family and bring more joy to your life. (And if you're looking for the recipe for the dish I cooked that is discussed in the article—the chicken, red pepper, and arugula salad—it is here.)

I was delighted to be in the paper of record and among such good company (check out Mike Vobrel Dad Cooks Dinner, for some real cooking; he has three kids and he kills it in the kitchen), though this is a slightly odd time for me: With Santa Maria and my girls out of town, I haven’t been cooking for anyone but myself. One thing I have been doing is going through boxes. We moved last year, but with the launch of “Man with a Pan” and various other things (know collectively as “life”), I never really unpacked.

I put boxes and boxes of stuff in our basement storage space, and others I stacked around the house. I won’t bore you with the details of going through all of them, other than to tell you I had a kind of loaves and fishes experience. The more boxes I opened and sorted through, the more I seemed to have. I wish I could say I put everything in its place, and had a place for everything, but I still have a lot more to do.

Santa Maria and the kids are returning soon, though, so I had to call it quits and put the house back together. In the spirit of organizing things and improving my living space, though, I want to give something away.

One of the things I found was a completely intact, unopened set of spices, and a nifty metal rack. There must be at least a dozen bottles of every dried herb you might ever want in the kitchen. It was given the set a few months ago in exchange for some web writing, but I don't need it. I have all those spices, and I don’t have room for the rack in my kitchen. So I want you to have it.

I'll ship the whole glorious set—at my expense—to any reader who really needs it. Tell me why, in a comment below or by email, and I’ll look for the one that makes the most sense and give that person the set. I’m looking for someone who is new to cooking, someone—can be young or old—who is trying to get started in the kitchen. This collection of herbs and spices will really help. Tell me your story, and I’ll share it with others. 


The Higgs Boson and How to Make a Sauce

Higgs
A few weeks ago, the same day it was announced that evidence had been found to support the existence of the Higgs boson, that wee particle that explains everything about the universe, I made a wee discovery of my own.

I happened to have been making a commonplace dinner that involved sautéed chicken thighs. Shortly after the meat was brown, I decided to experiment. I poured a good amount of red wine into the frying pan and started to cook it down. I got busy with something else, and ended up cooking it quite a bit. Lo and behold, I had discovered evidence of a red wine reduction. It was rich and thick and delicious, and I figured I was on to something.

Tonight I had the chance to experiment some more. Much like those folks at CERN who keep the collider running all the time, I’m always cooking. Santa Maria and the kids were out of town, and I was on my own. I had to work later than I expected, and I didn’t have the time after I got home to make what I had planned on cooking: my roast chicken arugula salad with red peppers and onions. The chicken parts were defrosting, but I didn’t want to wait to cook that dish.

Instead, I hunted around the fridge, and found some leftover black beans and a bit of rice. I took two of the chicken thighs, which were bone-in and still a bit frozen, and put them in a cast-iron frying pan with a bit of oil, and started to sauté them. That chicken had been a bit tired when I froze it a few weeks ago, and as such was a bit, er, rich, smelling, so I needed a way to freshen it up as it cooked.

I shook some salt on the thights and tossed on a bit of dried thyme, but I knew it would take more than just that to make them taste good. I made sure to cook them well, which helped: I like the thighs because they brown up nicely, even if, as was the case here, the skin had been removed (I take most chicken skin off before cooking as a rule).

After I had the thighs good and brown, I poured a good inch or so of wine in the pan. I only had some white wine on hand, but I recently read some article somewhere with the cheeky headline along the lines of  “Anything a Red Wine Can Do, A White Can Do Too,” so I didn’t hesitate to use what I had.

I left the heat on medium high, and the wine started to boil. There was a fair amount of chicken fat in the pan, and I added a bit more thyme. If I were a French chef, perhaps I would have augmented the sauce with butter, but I didn’t go that far.

I was pairing the chicken, rice, and beans with what Santa Maria calls my Hot Robot Spinach, and at this point in the meal prep, I was just sautéing the garlic for that. I took some the sliced garlic and flicked it into the pan with the wine reduction. This turned out to be a genius move. It gave the sauce a deep note that made a big difference. Apparently, as the scientists in CERN would certainly attest, it’s the small things that matter. 

Note: The above image of the Higgs boson comes courtesy of The Browser, which also has a link to this nifty animated video explaining what a Higgs boson is. Or at least it tries to explain it. Here it is:

 


Ready, Set, Eat!

Set_Table_Nicely
Santa Maria wants to spend time with her folks, so I drove her and the kids to her parents' house, in central Pennsylvania, on Saturday. I have work I need to do in New York City, so I returned this evening by bus. As a consequence, I spent more time on Route 80 this weekend than I did in the kitchen. Trust me, the kitchen is a much better place to be.

Being with family got me to thinking. Lately, I’ve been trying to get everyone—all the kids, her, and myself—to sit and wait for everyone else to get to the table before eating. It’s something that’s important to me. A lot of work (cough, cough, ahem) goes into many of our meals, and I want to create a moment in which everyone enjoys them. Too often, the kids are hungry and they start eating, then Santa Maria will get up to check her phone, or I’ll go get my iPod for a Twitter update, and suddenly, the meal is over.

Before I left to come home this afternoon, Santa Maria said something to me that warmed my heart. “I like how you get the table set and how you get everyone to wait for everyone else before eating,” she said while we were taking a brief walk. I’m glad she gets it. Time is passing very quickly, and it’s good to make the most of every second. How do you get the meal started in your house? And any tips for keeping it going?


How to Cook for a Big Group

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There are many different ways to cook for a big group (and I’ll get to my favorite way in a moment) but I want to warn you off the most obvious way.  Don’t fall into the trap of just trying to double or triple a recipe. It won’t work well. Ingredients, like people, behave differently when they are in crowds. Pieces of meat or vegetables that that were supposed to be sautéed end up becoming steamed if the pan gets to crowded. Things don’t brown the way they were supposed to. Three times the amount of one spice may not taste right compared to three times the amount of another.

There’s an easy way to avoid this predicament, and the nice thing about the solution is that it will make you look better as a chef, and it will make your guests much more satisfied with their meal—just make a large number of small dishes. And by small, I must mean normal sized. If a given recipe serves four to six people, pair it with one or two other main courses that do the same, and all of a sudden the cooking becomes more manageable, and the meal becomes more elaborate. You suddenly have a six course meal. It’s a kind of culinary alchemy.

I had this in the back of my mind the other weekend that I cooked for my sister and her brood, after coming back from the shore. I was so excited to see everybody that I accidentally invited them all to my mother’s house before consulting my mother. She had been planning on getting a bit of fish for five, and all of a sudden it was dinner for nine.

I was in the grocery store with my mother when I sprung this on her. She was a bit nonplussed, and I couldn’t blame her. So I started tossing about ideas for side dishes, to stretch the fish. I was already planning on making the Feta, Tomato, and Parsley Salad, so I picked up some tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, to make a couple of plates of Caprese Salad. My sister had agreed to bring a green salad, so we just needed one more dish. I thought about my Fly Sky High Kale Salad, but decided the Kale in Westchester in the summer is not worth the effort.

At that point, my mother mentioned that she had some green-market zucchini that she’d sautéed up and stuck in the freezer before going on vacation. She wondered if I could use it (I think she finally came around to the idea of a big gathering when she realized she could clean out part of her freezer). She mentioned ratatouille, but the eggplant looked worse than the kale. She was determined to get rid of that zucchini, though, so I offered to make a faux-ratatouille. I bought a link of spicy Italian sausage, to substitute for the eggplant. It worked well, and everyone was happy and well fed. I don’t really have a recipe for you, but I can tell you want I did.

In a large frying pan, I sautéed some slices of red onion and some sweet onion that had been hanging around the house. After they were soft and brown, I took them out of the pan. I broke up the sausage and browned it in the pan. Then I added a bit of chopped garlic, and tossed in the mostly defrosted zucchini (which my mother had sautéed before freezing; if I was starting with fresh zucchini, I would have cubed them and browned them right after doing the onions, taking care not to crowd the pan). Once the zucchini were hot and sizzling, I tossed the onions back in. I chopped some extra tomatoes, and tossed those in, too. After they broke down and the water from the zucchini had simmered off, I was done.  


Feta, Parsley, and Tomato Salad

A few weeks ago, on my way back from the New Jersey shore, I was at my mother’s house, upstate. Given that I had just spent the week cooking for a crew of thirteen or so, there was only one thing for me to do: have an impromptu dinner party. 

It was a hot and sunny day, and I happened to have texted a sister of mine who lives in Manhattan to let her know that we were back. She recently got a new car, so she volunteered to drive up to the house for the afternoon. She brought her family, and a cousin who was staying with them. We were nine total.

As I was on my way back from the beach, I had a few things with me that needed to be used up. I always travel with a cooler, and I had a nice chunk of feta cheese, some freshly washed parsley, and a ripe Jersey tomato that I had been hoarding while on the beach with my marauding teenager nieces.

Not that those young women didn’t provide me with something in return for feeding them—I learned, for example about the film “Project X,” about a high-school party gone wrong. It came out in March, cost 12 million dollars to make, and grossed more than a hundred million. How did I miss that? (All I saw in my neighborhood at the time were posters for “The Lorax”; perhaps those advertising/movie folks know what they are doing.)

I digress, but I guess the point here is that I love having people and family around. I once read a New Yorker profile of Al Gore that told me more about myself then it did about the former Vice President. Apparently, an extrovert is someone (such as President Clinton) who after going into a crowd and meeting people comes out energized. An introvert (such as Al Gore) is one who goes into the crowd and comes out exhausted. The more people at my table, the better I feel.

For a few days prior to the meal I had been trying to figure out how to use up the feta, parsely, and tomato. A simple salad came to mind. I tossed in some red onion and black olives, and a summery side dish was born. I was happy to feed it to the gang. 

Feta Parsley Tomato Salad

  • Nice hunk of feta cheese, cut into cubes
  • Half a head or so of parsley, washed, dried, and chopped
  • A tomato or two, chopped
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • A handful of pitted black olives, to taste

Combine the ingredients in a bowl and dress with olive oil and white-wine or plain white vinegar.


Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder for the Whole Gang

Slow_roasted_pork_shoulder
On our recent trip to the New Jersey shore with my extended family, I took responsibility for cooking for the gang a number of nights. In cooking for a big group, there’s always the issue of balancing cost and flavor. Sure, I’d love to serve rib eye steak to everyone, but I’d also like to be able to send my kids to college. The more mouths, the bigger the bill.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a slow-roasted pork shoulder comes in handy at times like this. It is a delicious and cheap cut of meat that’s easy to cook and is perfect for a big group. The only thing you need is some time. It can take about five hours to cook, but most of that time is unattended, leaving plenty of opportunities for swimming and hanging on the beach.

This recipe uses a simple spice rub and mesquite chips to give the meat a killer flavor. I first made it in July of 2004, when we were in a rambling home in Cape May. Mark Bittman wrote it up in the New York Times Dining section that week, and I was inspired to fire up that home’s superb gas grill. I cooked that shoulder all day, and I’ll never forget its salty, spicy, and sweet flavor. My mother’s comment sealed the deal for me. “It’s so fatty,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “It is.”

This time, at the run-down home on Long Beach Island, I was working with a gas grill that looked like it had survived a few hurricanes. Or maybe it had been blown in by a Nor’easter. It had three burners, but the controls were a bit shaky and its thermometer looked about as reliable as certain famly members of mine. I couldn’t get the temperature down to the low 300 degrees the meat is supposed to roast at. The grill’s thermometer kept creeping up past 400 degrees.

I tried turning the burners off. I thought about opening the top, but that would let the smoke out. I was getting close to being a disaster, but then I realized that the grill’s thermometer couldn’t be trusted. Maybe its 400 was really 300. When I was roasting those sublime chickens a few nights before, it told me that the temperature in the grill was 500 degrees. Thinking back on the way the chicken cooked up, I realized that the it probably hadn't been that hot in the grill. And, “What the hell,” I thought. “I’m on vacation.”

I let that meat cook for about five hours at what the grill was calling 400 degrees. I didn’t trust it, and the meat confirmed my judgement; it turned out fine. The truth is the pork shoulder is a forgiving and durable cut of meat, which, by the way, are the same qualities that make a good spouse, in case you're out there looking.

Other than the amazing flavor, the best thing about the dish is its cost. I fed about fifteen people for less than $27 dollars. The meat was about $17; and the rice and beans and salad I paired it with couldn’t have cost more than $10. Down in that part of Long Beach Island, one entrée at just about any restaurant runs more than $30, so I knew I was coming out ahead. 

Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder for the Whole Gang

  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons mild chili powder, like ancho or New Mexico
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 pork shoulder, about 5 or 6 pounds
  • Mesquite chips for grilling.

 

Soak the chips in water for about a half hour before cooking.

Mix together the dry ingredients and rub the mix all over the pork shoulder, working it into all the nooks and crannies.

Using a gas grill, heat all burners for about fifteen minutes to clean grill (this is a rental-house tip).

Turn off two of the three burners, or do what is necessary to get the heat inside the covered grill down to under 300 degrees.

Put the chips in a tinfoil pan and set it over the burner that is on.

Place the meat on the cooler side of the grill and cover. Keep an eye on the grill to make sure the chips are smoking (and if they’re not, don’t sweat it), and that the heat in the grill is under (or around) 300 degrees.

The pork is finished when the internal temperature reaches 190 degrees. This will take four to six hours. I could only get portions of the meat I cooked at the shore up to about 180, and it was fine. I think the longer it cooks, though, the more tender it will get.

I let the meat sit for about ten minutes after I took it off the grill, then I hacked it into small bits. I served it with rice and beans and a salad, but it would work well in tacos or in a sandwich. This, I believe, is the kind of meat made into pulled pork, for example. You really can’t go wrong with this cut.

For an online version Bittman’s recipe, click here


Here's a Tip: Try Sirloin Tip Steak

Sirloin_tip_steaks_cooking
In an effort to get more red meat into our diets and to keep costs down, I have begun a romance with the Sirloin Tip cut of steak. Like many good romances, it started with a bit of mystery. “What on earth is a Sirloin Tip cut of steak?,” I wondered when I first saw it.

All I knew when I picked it up, was that it was much cheaper than the other cuts available. I recognized the word “Sirloin,” and I associated that with some decent steaks. I made my purchase, but I might have been a bit misled by the name. According to something called TheMeatSource.com, it is different:

Don't be fooled by the sirloin part in the name, beef sirloin tip is not the same as top sirloin. The sirloin tip steak lies at the top of the round or hip, and above the sirloin tip lies the top sirloin which is joined to the shortloin, which means the top sirloin will be somewhat more tender than the tip.

The sirloin tip is a lean horseshoe shaped cut that is economical, can be used to make cutlets(fast fry), stir-fry, kabobs, stew, cube steak and many cookbooks will have sirloin tip steak recipes because of its many uses. Because it is very lean, it can be dry and chewy, it should be a marinating steak unless cut very thin. It is best to marinate 6-24 hours in a tenderizing marinade before grilling, broiling or pan-searing.

No matter what it was called, the meat was delicious, and fast. I cooked it just three minutes on the first side and two minutes on the second. I put it over another version of the same salad I had earlier in the week, the super amazing combo of spinach, avocado, tomato, and Parmesan. I think I'll be seeing it again.