Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch much television, but I somehow managed to lose myself in “The A-Team,” the the eighties adventure series. It turned Mr. T in to a celebrity, putting his face on lunch boxes (a key metric of popularity when I was young), but my favorite character was the team leader Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith. The best moment of the show came for me when he muttered, “I love it when a plan comes together.” It was usually mayhem at that point in a given show, and he was having a great time with the chaos.
It was excellent training for parenting. Plans often go awry, but things still work out. The important thing, is to have a plan. Last Tuesday, I came home from work a bit late, and needed dinner. Santa Maria, who got out of work earlier than I did, had fed the kids black beans, but I had eaten those for lunch recently, and wasn’t in the mood for them.
I had an overripe tomato, a tired bag of spinach, and a pack of chicken thighs that all needed cooking. What could I do with those, I wondered. I needed something fast, so a pasta came to mind. It’s easy to make a sauce in a pan by reserving the past-cooking water, so I was confident I could come up with something. There was just one catch—the kids were not yet in bed.
Bedtime is nothing like it was when the kids were young. We have a routine, and it’s mostly easy. But it takes time. Toothbrushing, hair combing, face-washing, book reading, etc. I needed to make dinner, but I wanted to be with the kids.
So I broke down the recipe into stages that I could stop at will.
I sautéd the chicken thighs in a bit of oil until they were very brown.
I set them aside and checked on the kids.
While the onions were sweating, I made sure teeth were getting brushed.
I put on a big pot of water and made pasta.
I ran to get the kids washcloths for their faces, and ironed out a squabble over sharing the batthrom.
And when was done, I reserved its cooking liquid for later.
I made sure the kids were brushing their hair, and sorted out some squabbles over sharing the bedroom.
I diced a bit of garlic, and cut up that over-ripe tomato, and set them aside until I was ready for them.
I went and check on the kids again, to make sure they getting dressed for bed.
The spinach was pre-washed, so there was nothing to do with it. I chopped the tomato, cut up the cooked chicken, and then I turned everything off.
I went to tuck in the kids.
Everything was going to plan. It was perfection.
I returned to the kitchen to assemble the final dish, heating the onions. Tossing in the tomatoes. Then adding the garlic, spinach, pasta, pasta water, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Santa Maria was just kissing everyone goodnight. Dinner was moments away. It was all coming together wonderfully.
Then boom—something went awry. There were tears. There were howls. Someone was upset, and dare we say overtired (and I’m not just talking about myself). There were words between Santa Maria and myself. Dinner would have to wait. Appetites were fading. The dish sat on the stove. And sat.
After everyone settled down, we ate. And it was delicious. A quick, flavor-rich sauce. A one pot-wonder of spinach, tomato, and chicken. I have to say it was the Parmigiano-Reggiano that brought it all together. Roll Credits.
A-Team Chicken, Spinach, Tomato Pasta
Put a pot of water on for the pasta.
Cook the pasta, reserving the water
Sauté the chicken thighs in a bit of oil until fiercely brown.
Remove and set a side.
Sauté the onion in the chicken fat, slowly, until golden brown.
Add the tomatoes, cook until they collapse; a few minutes.
Add the garlic, cook a minute.
Add the spinach, cook until the spinach collapses.
Add the chopped chicken, cooked pasta, and a few spoonfuls of the reserved pasta water to create a bit of sauce.
Finish with copious amounts of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Serves two to four, depending.
At the risk of turning into a parody of a Brooklyn parent, I have to tell you about my latest kale salad. Oy, that sounded bad, but I’ll fall on my chef’s knife for the sake of the kids. This kale salad, for some inexplicable reason, was a huge hit with the under-seven crowd at my niece’s first birthday, on Friday.
Nephew after nephew of mine clamored for the greens. The salad was as popular as hot buttered corn. More popular, even, with my nine-year old, Nina. As the eldest of the group, I asked her why she liked it so much. “I don’t know, it’s just delicious,” she said. Okay, you can’t argue with that. And she’s right. It is delicious.
The other nice thing about this salad is that it is very easy to make—there’s no cooking involved. None. There is a bit of chopping, though, and that’s the trick. The kale must be cut in a chiffonade, which is a fancy term for thin, long strips. Here’s how you do it.
After that, simply toss the kale with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt, and let it sit for a few minutes while you gather the rest of your dinner and get your friends, family, and other guests to the table. That’s all there is to it.
Kid Friendly Purple Kale Salad
Wash and then cut the kale in a chiffonade.
Toss well with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt.
Let rest about ten or more minutes.
Note: As much as I enjoy making, eating, and blogging about this recipe, it is entirly Santa Maria's.
The New York Times recently ran an article on how to make the perfect hamburger indoors, and I was stunned to learn that I’ve been doing it correctly all along. Here’s the rub, though—my burgers have been far from perfect. I could never get them cooked properly inside (they were either too raw or completely overdone), until I came up with a trick of my own.
First, though, let me go over what I’ve been doing right. According to the Times’ Sam Sifton, whose authoritative voice on food matters is never to be doubted (except once, maybe), the right way to do it is to cook the burgers on “heavy, cast-iron pans.” It has something to do with the way the fat pools and cooks the meat. My trusty cast-iron frying pan is never far from my side, so that was the easy part. I’ve always used it to cook my burgers.
The article goes on about getting your butcher to grind the beef for your burger, and I haven’t gotten that part right, yet. Still, I always use grass-fed beef from the Park Slope Food Coop, and it’s pretty good. The article talks at length about the proper ration of meat to fat—80/20—and from the looks of it, I’m doing okay on that account.
Sifton seems to be a purist about the beef patty. No flavorings or fillings for him. I differ on this, and the nice thing about cooking for one’s self is there’s no one to say otherwise. I use two things to flavor my burgers:
Onion, but not too much (and scallions are even better).
Diced, as small as possible. And again, not too much (I used about half of what’s shown here, in a pound of ground beef).
And, drum-roll please, anchovies. Yes, just one or two, chopped very finely and mixed into the meat. no one will know they are there, but they will say you make a mighty savory burger. Anchovies are salt and umami bombs.
And the way I get them cooked properly is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. I char them nicely on one side, flip them, and then cook until they are 125 degrees in the center. It takes the guess work out of it for me.
My Perfect Burgers (with apologies to The New York Times)
Combine the beef and the onions and the anchovies in a bowl, and mix with well with your hands.
Fashion the pound of beef into four or five patties.
Heat a cast-iron frying pan on a medium to high flame.
Place the burgers in the pan and flatten a bit with the back of a spoon.
Cook undisturbed for about four minutes, until the char starts to creep up the side of the burger.
Flip and cook on the other side until 125 degrees internal as measured by an instant-read thermometer.
Note: I served the burgers tonight with the Fly Sky High Kale Salad, an oldie but a goodie. The kids even like it now. That's the green in the background on the photo at top. Enjoy.
I recently came across the word “heuristic,” which, according to Merriam-Webster, can mean “an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods” or “relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques to improve performance.”
Bingo! To me, that sounds a lot like the process of learning to cook, but more importantly I see see it as a way to approach parenting, and life. We did it as kids—learning to walk by tripping, learning to ride a bike by falling off it, learning to spell by making mistakes. Somewhere between then and now, however, I forgot that way. I became timid with knowledge. I had to know the right way right away. Or else I would give up.
But it’s easy to get that sense of discovery back. I was at a Chipolte Mexican Grill the other day for lunch with my brother, and I employed a heuristic approach. It was only my second time there, and I ordered with care. The first time I ate there—by myself a few week’s previously—I had asked for a burrito saddled with all the sides. I was so stuffed by the end of it that I could barely move.
Being full is something new for me. Up until just recently, I could eat a burrito and still be hungry ten minutes later. Clearly, a change is upon me. So when I was with my brother, I ordered a taco, and instead of topping it with guacamole, I asked for corn salsa. Their corn salsa was delicious, and thought “I could make that at home.”
It took some experimentation. I wanted a smoky, charred corn flavor, but I don’t have a grill. I considered using the gas broiler in my oven, but Santa Maria was concerned that I’d start a fire. So I did what any sensible man would do—I Googled it. Turns out, it’s plenty easy to broil corn in one’s kitchen. Not only do you get a sweet and smoky flavor, you get an added benefit—Even not-so-ideal supermarket corn can be redeemed.
To test my idea, I did it with one ear, which wasn’t winning any awards. It started like this:
And after about doing it under the broiler for about four minutes a side and rotating it three or four times (about fifteen minutes total), it looked like this:
After it cooled a few minutes, I stripped the kernels off. I diced a bit of red pepper, onion, and cilantro and combined it with the corn. After I dressed it with lime juice, salt, and olive oil, I served it with my fish tacos. An easy lesson in how to live.
Indoor Grilled Corn Salsa
Shuck the corn and coat it with a bit of olive oil and salt. Just run it through your hands and spread a drop or two of oil around. Then salt it. Then arrange the ears on a hotel pan or other tray that can go in the oven.
Put it under the broiler, about six or so inches away, and roast it, about four minutes a side, until the kernels start to char. Rotate the ears with tongs until chared on all sides, about fifteen to twenty minutes, total.
Let the ears cool while chopping the other ingredients, then strip the kernels off and combine everything.
I’m too young to have heard Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the radio when it became a hit, in 1972, and I’m not much of a heavy-metal fan, but know its refrain well, hailing the end of work and the start of something leisurely. My tastes lean more towards Mungo Jerry and their 1970 chart topper, “In the Summertime,” and George Gershwin’s classic “Summertime,” with its line about the living being easy.
If only things were really that way. June is as busy as any other month (maybe I don’t have to dig out the car from under a pile of snow, but I still have to move it for alternate-side-of-the-street parking), and I’m often packing lunches in the morning (for camp, instead of school), and schlepping the kids to swimming classes and other activities, along with doing the food shop and cooking. And did I mention working? There’s always that, too (and thankfully so). Yes, life’s a rich pageant (and I sometimes feel it makes as much sense as R.E.M.’s “Begin the Begin”).
In many ways, June and July is even more busy than the rest of the year, with graduation parties, beach trips, Father’s Day (okay, I’m goofing about that one—I usually get the day off), and the Fourth of July. All I’m saying is that having a good time takes time. I love entertaining and cooking for people, and with everything that’s typically going on, I have to use my time well. Whether I’m hosting a gathering or taking food to a pot luck, I want a recipe that’s quick, easy, flavorful, and filling. I make a quinoa salad, and I spice it up with a bit of ham to turn it into a dish that can work as a side dish for very large parties—replacing something like a pasta salad, to go with kabobs, say—and yet is tasty and filling enough to be a main course for a smaller gathering.
Ouinoa is a grain from South America that’s been hailed as a super food (maybe you’ve heard of it? 2013 was officially the International Year of Quinoa, according to the United Nations). The Incas reportedly considered it sacred, and it’s full of protein and other nutrients. It’s gluten-free, too. I make my salad with cucumber, tomato, red pepper, scallions, and cilantro, but the dish lends itself to experimentation. Feel free to use whatever vegetables you prefer. I have an outsized appetite, so I like mine with meat. If you’re a vegetarian, you can skip that ingredient, and still have a complete meal. June is national fruit and vegetable month, too, so if you bring this dish to a party, I’m sure people will be singing its praises (and yours).
Recently, I was invited to join the Kraft Tastemakers program, which encourages home cooking, and I’m very excited to be a part of their initiative. I write this blog to help others see how a little time in the kitchen can pay large dividends in their lives. And speaking of dividends, it’s nice to be compensated for my time here sharing recipes. This is the first of a dozen paid posts that I’ll be doing over the coming year. Thanks for coming along for the ride. The recipe for the Summer Smoked Ham and Quinoa Salad can be found over at their site, here.
Father’s Day is next Sunday, and for years the go-to dish around the Stay at Stove Dad household has been what we call a “Dutch Baby.” It’s a creation of Santa Maria, who got the recipe from her mother. We have it for breakfast, though Santa Maria grew up eating it for dessert, when her mother presented it as a “Hawaiian Pancake.” No matter its name, there’s no question about its appeal. A sort of sweet and savory giant popover that rises radically in the oven and then falls before you can serve it, the dish is as delicious as it is dramatic. Its origins, however, have always been obscure to us. Where did this recipe really come from? Now the mystery has been solved.
Or, more accurately, the mystery was solved in 2007. Amanda Hesser explained the origins of the dish in the New York Times Magazine that year. How did I miss it? 2007 was the year a black-hole of exhaustion swallowed my existence, following the birth of my second child, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That it took me until now to come across Hesser's article online shows how powerful that black hole was. Maybe now that I've found it, this is a sign that I'm escaping its pull!
For as I discovered, the correct name of the dish is “David Eyres Pancake,” as Craig Claiborne christened it in the Times when he first wrote about it, in 1966, describing it thusly, “It was discovered some weeks ago at an informal Sunday brunch in the handsome, Japanese-style home of the David Eyres in Honolulu. With Diamond Head in the distance, a brilliant, palm-ringed sea below and this delicately flavored pancake before us, we seemed to have achieved paradise.”
The Dutch Baby is paradise, but now that I’m sliding into middle age with the speed of a runner stealing home on a squeeze play, I’m eating lighter. This year Santa Maria and company might need to look further afield for a Father’s Day gift for me.
One place she might want to check out is Uncommon Goods, which is sponsoring this post. I’m delighted to partner with them for ideas for Father’s Day. Uncommon Goods is a retailer that specializes in handmade and recycled goods. They are a B Corp, which means they meet strict standards for fair wages, environmental impact, and other issues. And they have really cool things, such as framed blueprints of famous baseball stadiums, molecular-gastronomy kits, and clever “Puzzle Pizza Stones,” that comes apart for storing and cleaning. These and many more gifts can be found in their guide for Father’s Day giving. They sell things for inside the house and out, for women and for men. More of their selections for men can be found here. And they can personalize gifts in many categories.
Never mind my slowing metabolism, the Dutch Baby has a powerful allure. My kids go crazy for it. Pinta wanted it for her birthday a few weeks ago. I think it was then that I realized that I might need a break from it. Once a year is plenty for me. But you should see for yourself. It really is uncommonly good.
Santa Maria's Dutch Baby
Put a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on middle rack of oven and preheat oven to 450°F.
Beat eggs with a whisk until pale and frothy, then beat in milk, flour, nutmeg, and salt and continue to beat until smooth, about 1 minute more (batter will be thin).
Add butter to hot skillet and melt, swirling to coat. Add batter and immediately return skillet to oven. Bake until puffed and golden-brown, 18 to 25 minutes.
Serve immediately, topped with powdered sugar and lemon juice.
Serve with cherry jam. Mmmmmmmmm.
Image credit: The black-hole image at the top is via By User:Alain r (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
When I was cooking this morning, I started to think about Nietzsche, who, in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” said:
What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonyms, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.
His approach has been commonly explained by using the metaphor of an onion: peel long enough at the layers of language and nothing remains. I was making mirepoix, and though I had no trouble with my onions, when I started to read about mirepoix, I became lost. Before I get to that, however, let me explain the basics of a mirepoix.
Mirepoix is a flavor base made with onions, carrots, and celery. I use it in countless recipes. This morning, I had added bacon to it, for my Bolognese sauce. It’s the base for my chili, my chicken soup, and any number of stews, including my experiments with wild boar and lentils.
The traditional ratio for a mirepoix is two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery. I make mine a bit heavier on the carrot and lighter on the celery, but that’s just my preference. Learn to cook for yourself, and you can change things according to your tastes.
A mirepoix makes use of aromatics, which are various herbs, plants, and spices that impart flavors. Once you start looking at mirepoix on this level, things start to get complex. Michael Ruhlman explains aromatics in this post of his.
According to “Larousse Gastronomique” (by way of the Internet), the term “Mirepoix” dates to the 18th century, and comes from “the cook of the Duc de Levis-Mirepoix, a French field marshal and ambassador of Louis XV.” However old the term “Mirepoix” may be, it’s most likely, though that the cooking technique is even older. The combination shows up all over the world.
The Italians, the Spanish, and countless other cuisines have a similar combination. According to Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” the Italians call it “soffrito, the Spanish “sofregit,” and the Cajuns (with a slight variation of substituting carrots by green capsicums) call it the Trinity. However, “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” has the Spanish making “sofrito” and Marcella Hazan has the Italians making “soffritto.” It’s enough to make one go as mad as Nietzsche.
But all is not lost. In “The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook, Niki Segnit sums up the appeal of the mirepoix perfectly: “Dice carrot, celery, and onion and you have the aromatic base for many stocks, soups and stews known by chefs as mirepoix. Add some salty bacon or cured fat for a mirepoix au gras and it’s a bit like being dealt three of the same-numbered cards in a hand of poker. You’d be unlucky not to end up with something winning.” If you are looking for the truth, there it is.
The good news for my family is that I'm better at barbecuing than I am at fixing cars. Once, when I was a boy, I tried to check the oil on my mother’s Chevrolet Chevette, the sorriest excuse for a subcompact every invented. I managed to get the dipstick out, but I couldn’t get it back in. My parents had to call a mechanic friend to come over and fix it, and I felt ridiculous.
The Chevette is long gone but yesterday, I was back where it was once parked, standing in my mother’s driveway, grilling flank steak for her, my family, and my brother’s extended family. It was an afternoon of bike riding, baseball, and conversation. My brother and his wife have a four year old and an almost one year old. I remember those days of exhaustion well (the time of "Fly Sky High Kale Salad), and it was a treat to see them.
Cara Nicoletti's recent post on Food52 inspired my choice of flank steak. Despite the article's suggestions, my butcher had never heard of a Jaccard knife, but it didn’t seem to need any more tenderizing. I even skipped the marinate after reading this Serious Eats article, and just salted it heavily before cooking.
I let it sit out about a half hour before cooking, to bring it up to room temperature. Note the grain on this photo. It is easy to see on a flank steak, and when you cut to serve it, you want to be certain to cut across the grain. “On the bias,” as my mother said, to which the women at the table replied “That’s a flattering cut.” I had no idea what they were talking about, but I’m used to feeling that way around women.
I lit the charcoals with a chimney starter. If you don’t know how to use one, this YouTube video explains it well. If your dining partners start giving you advice on how to proceed, you can refer them to it.
Once the starter has done its job, I dumped the hot coals out onto the grate and then added more coals to get a super-hot fire. After they ashes over, I grilled the meat.
I did it three minutes on the first side, and then two on the second. Flank steak cooks quickly, and it has to be watched carefully. An overcooked flank steak will taste about as good as a radial tire off an old Chevette.
Your best friend when cooking meat is an instant-read meat thermometer, and I used one yesterday. I wanted the meat to get to 125 degrees for rare. I did that and then let the meat sit for about five minutes before cutting it up, across the grain. A few of the thicker pieces were too rare, and I had to throw them back on the grill to get them cooked properly, but no professionals had to be called in and the evening was a huge success.
I served it with chimichurri sauce, and there wasn’t much left at the end of the meal. Here's the recipe for the chimichurri sauce:
Chop the parsley as fine as possible.
Dice the garlic.
Combine with the other ingredients, and let sit while you cook the steaks.