Happy Father’s Day to all. It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Let me explain. Lately, I’ve been cooking up more than food in the kitchen. I’ve been making drawings, and making peace with myself. The drawings are of my dish rack, which I’ve been illustrating just about every night since March. I wrote an essay about why this is important, and how it benefits my children. The essay is now on The New Yorker’s website, which also has a couple of dozen of my early efforts. For the complete dish-rack experience, I’ve also created A Dish Rack a Day, on Tumblr, but that’s another story for another time.
I’m working from home these days, concentrating on making art. Because of the delicate interplay between domestic bliss and domestic solvency, this also means I've taken on more of the tasks around the house. It's my job now to clean it.
The thing is, cooking comes much more naturally to me. Maybe it's my Irish genes, but I have a yearning to be hospitable. I can't help it. I want to feed and entertain and take care of others. I'm working on finding the joy in scrubbing the counters. It's a slow process, all of it. The making of art, the cleaning of the house, and the exploration of one's talents. I'm starting with Steven Pressfield's shrewd book "The War of Art," and I'm learning as I go along.
The lesson for today is that it’s not only difficult to clean a kitchen while cooking dinner, it’s downright impossible. Here's the recipe for my beloved Beef Tagine.
Green-Olive Beef Tagine
- 1½ lbs braising beef
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cayenne (or much less; to taste)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons tomato puree
- 4 shallots (or more), quartered
- 1 large potato cut into small cubes
- 2 large carrots, cut into small cubes
- 1 28oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
- A pinch of salt
- ½ cup pitted green olives, sliced in half (or more; to taste)
Trim the beef and cut into 1-inch pieces.
Mix together the five spices with the garlic, two tablespoons of olive oil and the tomato puree.
Turn the beef in this mixture and leave, covered, in the refrigerator overnight (or longer or shorter—it works either way, trust me).
Heat the remaining oil in the tagine base.
Fry the shallots, potatoes and carrots until they begin to color, lift out.
Fry the marinated beef until sealed on all sides.
Salt the beef as it cooks.
Return the vegetables with the chopped tomatoes any remaining marinade and the parsley.
Cover and cook over a low heat for 3-4 hours, or until the beef is tender (I’ve done this over two days, and about five hours).
Stir the olives into the dish and allow 15 minutes to heat through.
Serve with couscous.
Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. I just finished “How Did I Get Here?” by Jesse Browner, and if you’ve ever asked yourself the question its title poses, you’ll be well rewarded by reading it. Browner, a talented novelist and translator, as well as family man and home cook, writes with humor and insight about the tension between responsibilities and aspirations. Speaking of the latter, I have mentioned before that I’m going to include more of my own illustrations on this blog, and I’m starting a new project, where I draw kitchen tools and implements. I had the great good fortune of making Browner’s recent acquaintance, and he offered to write about a favorite of his. Enjoy!
The Wooden Oxo Lemon Reamer, by Jesse Browner:
I estimate that I have had to replace my wooden Oxo lemon reamer at least four or five times in the past few years. I find this trend disturbing, as I am not otherwise given to carelessness. What happens to the lost reamers? I don’t know. Is there something about them that makes them especially easy to mistake for objects that need to be thrown in the garbage? I don’t know. Is it me, or my wife, or my children, or guests helping to clean up after dinner, or the cleaning lady who throws them away? I don’t know. Is it possible that they have not actually been thrown away at all, but that they have the ability to wink in and out of existence, like quarks? I don’t know, but I am beginning to suspect that very thing.
The wooden Oxo lemon reamer is not an exotic accessory. When one goes missing, I am able to walk three blocks from my home and find its replacement, which is indistinguishable from the original, which itself was once a replacement. They all look exactly the same, down to the tiny, laser-cut alien logo on the handle. Once it is nestled in its niche of the utensil drawer, it is impossible to know whether this is the new reamer or the one that had gone missing, now re-embodied. Searching the drawer for the other won’t help, because the new one may just as easily have disembodied simultaneously. If you do find two, it is just as likely that they are one and the same reamer existing in two places at the same time, like a tachyon. It is this quantum personality of the lemon reamer that encourages me to believe that it is endowed with certain mystical capacities not possessed by any of my other utensils.
But its probabilistic behavior is not the only quality that lends my reamer its metaphysical ambiguity. You may have noticed that you do not have many kitchen utensils in your arsenal that are made of wood. Spoons, salad tongs, chopping boards – most likely very little else. If you are me, you also have a wooden lemon reamer, which – unless you are an accomplished woodworker – is almost certainly the only object in your kitchen that you could even remotely imagine having made yourself, with a whittling knife and a little chunk of beechwood.
Go now, since you are at your computer, and type “lemon reamer” into the Amazon.com search bar. The results will show you reamers made of stainless steel, aluminum, glass, plastic transparent and colored, and wood. Now look just at the wooden ones -- among the Norpros, the Naturally Meds and the Holy Land Markets, the Oxo seems pared down to the most basic, essential quiddity of the lemon reamer. No ornament, no design flourishes, no excess of any kind. Less than simply modern and functional, it looks positively primitive. And that is precisely how it feels in the hand, for reasons I can’t entirely explain. When you hold a wooden Oxo lemon reamer, it feels as it might have felt to hold a neolithic tool – say a knife or a scraper that you yourself had fashioned out of a flake of flint 10,000 years ago at the mouth of your family cave. It fits just so into the palm of your hand, you angle it just so to attack the target flesh, you thrust it upwards and twist with a similarly brutish, venereal force, then withdraw it just so, dripping and pendant with glistening, shredded fiber.
This is why I suspect my wooden Oxo lemon reamer to be something a little more than a utilitarian hand tool. In addition to being an anomaly of quantum continuum mechanics, it is also a time machine capable of transporting the user to the very dawn of culinary history, not to mention to a distant, inchoate future when perhaps all food will be prepped and cooked by the power of focused imagination. Just as you cannot confidently locate the reamer in mechanical space, you cannot pin it with any certainty to one fixed moment on the temporal spectrum. Just as it exists everywhere and nowhere, it exists at all times and outside of time. Some might call such ambition in a utensil a design flaw, but as for me, the reamer is the one artefact I turn to when I wish to resurrect the Dream Time, when all cooking was an act of transcendent faith in the benevolence of the universe.
- 1 cup of mint simple syrup
- 1 cup of fresh lemon juice (from approx. eight lemons)
- 1 quart of water
- a handful of spearmint or peppermint leaves
Make the simple syrup by combining 1 cup each of water, sugar and tightly packed spearmint or peppermint leaves. Heat to boiling until all the sugar has dissolved, allow to cool, strain and discard mint.
Combine all the remaining ingredients in a jug with ½ to ¾ cup of simple syrup, to taste. Reserve leftover syrup for the next batch of lemonade.
Like a sailor cast adrift at sea, I'm on my own this week. Santa Maria and the kids have headed south to visit the extended family. I'm just feeding myself, and yet I created a dish rack full of plates, bowls, and pots and pans. How did that happen? What's it like for you when you cook for yourself and yourself alone?
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:
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
Back when my book “Man with a Pan” came out, I was often asked about how hard it is to learn to cook. I had a good answer, I thought. I used to say that learning to cook is like learning to ride a bicycle: Tricky at first, but once you get it, you can go anywhere.
Only recently did I fully realize how apt a metaphor that is for the home cook. A bicycle might take you anywhere, but it won’t take you very far, very quickly. For a home cook, that’s just fine. You learn a dozen or so techniques, the recipes follow, and soon enough (meaning a couple of years, but when you are raising kids, that goes by in a blink), and, well, you’re cooking every day, and everyone is happy.
That pretty much describes my life, which is fine except for, perhaps, this blog. I’ve hit a limit with what I can offer. I’m riding a bike, not a motorcycle (which might be the metaphor for someone who goes to culinary school—watch out, don’t open a restaurant and crash!), so I find it harder and hard to find useful things to post about. I might want to eat my roast chicken, black beans, and Bolognese once a week, but does anybody want to read about it over and over? (John Lanchester, in the current New Yorker, talks about this much more eloquently.)
Also, as much as I love cooking and writing, my true love is drawing. I’m figuring out how to motivate myself to draw more (it’s complicated, just ask my therapist), and I took note of a recent piece in the New York Times about a Japanese organizer named Marie Kondo. Her new book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” advocates discarding “everything that does not ‘spark joy’,” according to the article. She give instructions to carefully fold (and consider) everything in one’s possession, imbibing them with the utmost care.
Believe me, my kitchen (to say nothing of my house and life) could use a bit of tidying up, so I was interested. I’m not convinced I should follow her advice completely, but I realized that I could draw my possessions instead of folding them, and in that get better organized (in every sense of the word).
Drawing sparks joy in me every time I do it. I’m going to start with things in the kitchen, because that’s where I spend the most time. I’ll draw my staples. I’ll draw my storage containers. I’ll draw my drying dishes. I’ll draw anything. And I hope to learn how to run my kitchen better by taking such care. As I do, I’ll share my insights with you.
In honor of Halloween, I present a drawing of one of my key staples, garlic. It is something that everyone should have around the house at all times. It keeps well, and is beyond useful, and not just in repelling vampires. Tell me how you use garlic, in a comment or by email, and I’ll send the person with the most creative response (and best recipe) a print of the drawing.
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.
It's after 9 p.m., the dishes are still in the sink, the wife is out, and one of my girls is sick. Ever have a day like that?