Welcome NPR Readers: A Few Thoughts on Parenting, Procrastintion, and Mortality


My dad died of prostate cancer eight years ago. I was thinking of this today, because I received very sad news this morning. Michael Crawford, someone I did not know well but who I was proud to call a friend, died yesterday of the disease. I had learned a week or so ago through Facebook, that he was terminally ill, and I wanted to see him before he was gone. But even a delay of a few days was too long. Crawford was a remarkably talented cartoonist and artist (Michael Maslin’s blog Ink Spill can fill you in), and his passing reminded me not to procrastinate.

My father was a complicated man who kept his complications to himself. I don’t think I’m any less complicated than he was (being a man, and above all, his son), but I am not going to harbor my complications. I’m going to air them out. It’s the only way I’m going to make sense of them. And I know that my chief complication has become universal: It is no longer clear what is expected of a father these days.

When my dad was raising a family, I think, it was clear to him what he was supposed to be doing—mostly making money and acting as a moral compass for the family. Those things are expected of me, too, but that is where the certainty ends. I’m also expected to a little more, such as make the lunches, make the dinners, balance the check book, pay the bills, tend to my daughters’ homework, take the kids to soccer, and, and, and; I’d go on, but not even the whole Internet itself has enough space to list all the responsibilities that are mine.

In my dad’s day, these were things handled by my mom, who banged out dinners every night, or skipped over the rest of it. Things like homework, sports, and college applications were if not entirely self-directed, pretty loosely supervised. These days, you practically have to pry the pen from the parent’s hand if you want to see a child’s college-application essay. What is expected of mothers has shifted radically, too.

There is no model for what parents do these days. We are all making it up as we go along. Which, I suppose, is what our parents did too, but it was easier back then. Think about the car. All they had to worry about were seat belts. I remember installing our cars seats when Nina and Pinta were young, and being told that the local fire department gave classes on how to do it correctly. And forget about having them sit in the front seat. Even they know that one has to be thirteen or something to sit there safely, because of the airbag. There is just so much more to keep track of now.

But I’ll stick to what I know best, which is my own experience, with art and the kitchen. My dad could not have modeled the right behavior for me had he even wanted to. The only thing he knew how to do in the kitchen was to make coffee. I on the other hand, have many ideas about how to feed one’s family. I was recently interviewed for a post on the NPR blog about cooking for busy families. If you’ve been reading along here, you know some of my strategies. If you want more ideas, check out their post, here.

A Halloween Fright: Thoughts on Learning to Cook and the Value of Blogging


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.

Making Mirepoix and Finding the Truth


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.

Always Hungry? Here's Why


I’m on my way back from my first trip to BlogHer Food, and I feel a bit like Alice after going down the rabbit hole. It was a mad-hatted tea-party of blogging tips, brand representatives, and cocktail parties. I connected with many fine and passionate folks and I’ll have more thoughts on food blogging in a later post. In the meantime, I want to call everyone’s attention to article in today's New York Times, “Always Hungry? Here’s Why.”

As someone who is often hungry, the title seized me immediately. I learned that caloric restriction may not be having the effect on our bodies that we thought (although the notion that dieting doesn’t work isn’t really news, of course). It may be, however, that the failure has less to do with portion control or willpower and more to do with what we are eating.

As it turns out, many biological factors affect the storage of calories in fat cells, including genetics, levels of physical activity, sleep and stress. But one has an indisputably dominant role: the hormone insulin. We know that excess insulin treatment for diabetes causes weight gain, and insulin deficiency causes weight loss. And of everything we eat, highly refined and rapidly digestible carbohydrates produce the most insulin.

During a conference panel with Christy Denny, of The Girl Who Ate Everything, Julie Deily, of The Little Kitchen, and Amanda Rettke, of I Am Baker, the overhead screen displayed three of their most popular images on Pinterest: savory ham and cheese sliders, a spectacular cake, and an enticing sandwich. One of the panelists observed that all three dishes involved carbohydrates. “People might not like to eat carbs, but they sure like to look at them,” she said. The appeal of home baked goods is universal, but dishes like these aren't the problem. It’s something else:

One reason we consume so many refined carbohydrates today is because they have been added to processed foods in place of fats — which have been the main target of calorie reduction efforts since the 1970s. Fat has about twice the calories of carbohydrates, but low-fat diets are the least effective of comparable interventions, according to several analyses, including one presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association this year.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem with with weight, but I have had problems with always feeling hungry. I usually get plenty of protein and other healthy calories, but I’ve learned that to feel full I need to add fat to my diet. So I make sure I have avocado slices with my lunch, a few olives, or a small bag of potato chips. Otherwise I don’t feel satisfied, no matter how much I eat. I post this here to encourage all of us to think carefully about what we eat and how it makes us feel. And then study it some more: 

If this hypothesis turns out to be correct, it will have immediate implications for public health. It would mean that the decades-long focus on calorie restriction was destined to fail for most people. Information about calorie content would remain relevant, not as a strategy for weight loss, but rather to help people avoid eating too much highly processed food loaded with rapidly digesting carbohydrates.

What have you noticed about your diet and its effect on your hunger level? Have you ever thought of adding fat to your diet to stay a healthy weight?

What Are the Benefits of Generosity? A Reminder to Check Your Frequent-Flyer Program.


This post is a reminder to check your frequent-flyer program today. Consider it a public service announcement, amid all my posts about cooking. I recently lost 135,000 miles with American Airlines, and then was able to get them back, simply because of a small act of generosity four months ago. I’m using the miles to cross the country to spend time with an old friend who has fallen ill. I feel very fortunate that I will be able to take the trip, and because I got my miles back—after almost having lost all of them because of inactivity on the account—I want to help others avoid this situation. So check your program today—there may be a small thing you can do to keep it active.

I had accumulated the miles long before I became a parent, by using a credit card linked to American’s frequent-flyer program. I thought someday I might take a big trip somewhere, but all I really ended up doing was visiting the hospital for two births, and then making repeated trips to the grocery store. Paris, Rome, and Bangkok, it seems, would have to wait. Because I wasn’t traveling, I switched to a cash-back card, and put those miles on hold. All I needed to do to keep them from moldering into non-existence was have some kind of activity on the account each 18 months. That sounded easy enough (and once, I gave miles away to veterans, a great service, to keep the balance active) but over the past year and a half, I somehow was distracted (ha!), and lost the miles. They expired March 9.

It was only when my friend called, on March 16, to invite me to Los Angeles, that I made this discovery. Had he called just a few days earlier, I would have had access to them. I couldn’t believe it. The American-Airlines representative was sympathetic, and she pointed out that if I had purchased something from an affiliated partner in the months before the deadline, I might be able to get the miles back.

In December Santa Maria and I sent my mother flowers for her birthday. We used 1-800-Flowers, which, as it turned out, is a partner of American Airlines’s program. I called them up right away, and Diane, in their consumer-service department was extremely helpful. She riffled through her records, found the transaction, and posted the activity to my frequent-flyer account. Just this week, the miles re-appeared in my American account, and I secured tickets to Los Angeles and back.

What happened for me illustrates the untold power and benefits of being generous, in other words, it’s an example of the far-reaching effects of karma. The way I understand karma is this: we don’t know the full extent of our actions, so it’s best to be kind and generous in our actions and accepting of the results, no matter what. If a hurricane starts, as they say, with a butterfly flapping its wings over the Sahara, who knows what might become of what we do. Santa Maria’s generosity—she’s the one who actually ordered the flowers for my mother (full disclosure)—saved the day.

I’m very happy to be seeing my old friend. Spending time with those we care about is hard at times, because we get so very busy with domestic, professional, and other responsibilities, but it is paramount in its importance. You don’t have to cross the country to be generous, of course: just cook them a meal. I know a blog where you can get a few good recipes, ahem… And in the meantime, check your frequent-flyer program to make sure you’re not about to lose out on anything valuable.

Why I Only Eat in Fancy Restaurants


With one broad exception, I don’t eat out unless the meal is expensive. White tablecloths aren’t necessary, but there better be aged steak served by seasoned waiters. Wallet-crushing, geometrically confusing and gastronomically rewarding grid-like menus are welcome. An auteur-chef will always do the trick, so long as his tricks take a bank-loan to experience. And I once spent more than a month’s rent on dinner at Per Se, to celebrate my wife’s birthday, but that hardly puts me in high-spender territory. Consider Jim Harrison, who years ago departed Montana for lunch in Burgundy, France, where his thirty-seven course meal at Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance restaurant “likely cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon,” (as he told The New Yorker; subscription required).

I skip cheap restaurants because I know how to cook for myself. I’m not saying that I’m as good a cook as most chefs (hardly) but I have a secret ingredient that they all lack—I know my tastes and I therefore can cook things the way I like them. On my budget, if I’m eating at a restaurant I can afford, I’m really just paying for the washing of the dishes. And I have a dishwasher, so I prefer to save up for something that really blows my taste buds.

Knowing my own tastes makes all the difference in the world. I don’t like a lot of salt and fat, and most mid-priced restaurants need to ladle those on heavily to deliver on their promise of flavor. Imagine going out to eat and not having that salad dance on your tongue. It would be like going to a concert and not being able to here the band. So restaurants increase the salt and the fat and the sugar. Thing is, I don’t like loud music, and I don’t like sugar in my dressing.

I spent my college days flipping pizzas in the student center and I later worked as a short-order cook, which means I’ve been behind the counter and seen behind the curtain. There’s one thing about mid-priced establishments that gets on my nerves. Many, if not most, are supplied by the same company, Sysco. I came to realize this during my manual-labor days, opening boxes of their oil, and bags of their French fries. Whenever I eat out, I’m unable to stop thinking about that giant restaurant supply company.

Only recently, did I come to realize how big a grip Sysco has on the business. According to a 2007 Slate column by Urlich Boser, Sysco “serves nearly 400,000 American eating establishments, from fast-food joints like Wendy’s, to five-star eating establishments like Robert Redford’s Tree Room Restaurant, to mom-and-pop diners like the Chatterbox Drive-In, to ethnic restaurants like Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant.” I knew it was involved in the business, but I had no idea.

If Sysco is supplying high-end places, why don’t I mind? For a couple of reasons: First, some of the places I might prefer, such as Peter Luger, aren’t getting their signature dishes from the supplier. Secondly, at the kind of fancy places I like, I’m paying to see what a chef can do with a given ingredient; maybe Wylie Dufresne is freezing and then deconstructing an ingredient from Sysco, but whatever he’s doing with it, I doubt it’s what they intended for it. Finally, it often depends on how the Sysco offerings are deployed.  As Boser writes, “many quality restaurants, like Tree Room, use Sysco responsibly—shying away from pre-made items they can disguise as their own. Bardia Ferdowski of Bardia’s New Orleans Café in Washington, D.C., purchases only raw and unprocessed Sysco products such as flour, potatoes, and beef, and receives frequent deliveries so that ingredients are as fresh as possible.”

So unless I can’t afford it, I’m unlikely to eat out. The only exception I have to this rule, is for foods from abroad. I might know how to roast a leg of lamb, but Vindaloo? Fuggedaboutit.

(By the way, I was recently  invited to do a guest post for Food Riot, a great website whose motto is "Play With Your Food." This post originally appeared there. Furthermore, the above image is via this posting about saving money on your food bill, from Lifehacker. )

Post-Thanksgiving Recap: Stuffing, Turkey, Cookies and More!


364 days a year, I’m an abstemious cook. I have a friend who will use more olive oil in one dish than I’ll use in a day of cooking. I routinely cut the amount of sugar in my pancake recipe by a third. Salt is something my wife is always reaching for, but I’ll just use to throw over my shoulder. Thanksgiving, however, I go all in, all out, and, ocassionally, out of my mind (but that's a tale for another time, perhaps a fifty-minute hour).

My brother hosted this year, and each of the guests brought a dish or two. I made Melissa Clark’s stuffing with mushrooms and bacon, and I let the bacon fat ride in the pan, per her instructions. I threw the full teaspoon of salt into the pan, and boom—it tasted like restaurant food! And if you are gluten-intolerant, know that I substituted in gluten-free bread and the stuffing was fantastic; that’s the magic of bacon fat. (I also made Sam Sifton’s Three-Pepper Cornbread stuffing, from his excellent book, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well.”)

The gathering was twenty-three-people large, and my brother prepared two turkeys for the group. They were both moist and delicious. One of them, he said, was dry-brined per Russ Parson’s recipe in the Los Angeles Times (though I would have been tempted by Frank Stitt’s method, in Food & Wine). The other, he told me, he cooked on the BBQ, after rubbing it with an ad-hoc mix of rendered bacon fat and various spices. On my second serving I reached for a turkey wing, and I will never forget its crispy skin for as long as I live.

At twenty-three people, this was the largest assembly of my family in its history. Sometimes, a party this large can be stressful for the hosts, and with good reason. How does one feed all those people (and wash up afterwards, for that matter), without going out of one’s mind? The Thanksgiving meal means added pressure, as most people don’t usually roast a fourteen-pound turkey everyday. The thing about the food, though, is for all of the hype and attention it gets, it is second to people. Getting everyone together to share time at the table is what matters. Corey Mintz, a Canadian food writer, made this point in an essay in the New York Times last week. If you haven’t seen it, and you are ever thinking about having people over for dinner, I suggest you print it out and post it in your kitchen.

And if you want to get people together, it doesn’t always take a giant turkey. Sometimes, it just takes cookies. I may be an abstemious cook, but I know how to have fun. I married Santa Maria, after all. She’s the baker in the house, and the day after Thanksgiving I had a smaller contingent of the extended Stay-at-Stove-Dad family over for an impromptu dinner of hot dogs and dhal. Santa Maria livened it up with a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

 A long time ago, Heirloom Cookie Sheets, a neat little family-run company in Wisconsin, sent me one of its signature stainless-steel cookie sheets. I haven’t used it much, but I broke it out for Santa Maria over the weekend. She was skeptical at first, but she reports that it cooks much better than any other cookie sheet she’s used. So if you're reading this on Cyber Monday, and you're looking to buy something, I suggest getting some for yourself or as a hostess gift for an upcoming holiday party. You’ll be much loved, too, if you bring a batch of cookies. Here’s the recipe:

Chocolate Chip Cookies (Tollhouse cookies)

  •  2 ¼ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks butter (1 cup), at room temperature
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ¾ cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 package semisweet chocolate chips (12 ounces) (Ghirardelli are my favorite)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together dry ingredients.

In a separate bowl, cream sugars with butter; add eggs and vanilla.  Mix with dry ingredients. 

Drop by spoonful onto ungreased cookie sheet; bake 7-10 minutes.  

Leave Food Fights Off the Menu: Don't Waste Your Time Together

My online friend Debbie Koenig (author of “Parents Need to Eat Too”) recently blogged for The New York Times about her picky eater, and it got me to thinking. I’m fortunate in that my kids probably fall in the middle of the pickiness range. One willingly eats odd things like mussels and clams, but steadfastly refuses fruit; the other will eat every fruit under the sun but she won’t touch shellfish. Their tastes don’t concern me all that much, with two important exceptions. One, I want to make sure they’re getting a balanced diet (I was recently relieved to learn that potatoes are a good source of Vitamin C).  Two, their reluctance to try things curtails my enthusiasm for making new dishes. They’re just kids, and I get it, but if I make a fancy new dinner and they don’t go for it, I feel like I’ve wasted my time. I don’t just cook to feed myself—I cook to feed everybody. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting stuck in a rut, but that’s another story.

Koenig sought expert help from a registered dietician Ellyn Satter, who had a few suggestions, including, “stop talking about food at the table.” Koenig, who is a food writer, said that that would be hard, but she’s trying it. The idea makes a lot of sense to me. When I think back about how I grew up, we never discussed food around the table, and just about all my siblings have sophisticated palates. I never had sushi until I was in my twenties, and I don’t think I tasted arugula until I was well out of college. Parents of our generation tend to make too big a deal about who is eating what, and when.

It will do everyone a heap of good to back off on the subject, and turn to other things that are happening with your kids.  We all live atomized lives, with work and fill-in-the-blank afterschool activities keeping us apart. Don’t waste the moments around the table together fighting over that last (or that first!) green bean.

A Visit to the Dove Chocolate Factory


I knew that sweet and wonderful things would start happening as soon as I became a parent and started blogging about cooking, but I never expected to get a tour of a chocolate factory. This is true—the other day, I was on a junket with mom and food bloggers, thanks to the folks who make Dove Chocolate. They wanted to show us how they do it, and tell us a bit about their latest product, which mixes mint and dark chocolate into an enticing treat (I’ll have more about it soon).

Our train tickets said “Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania,” but when we disembarked at the station, which was surrounded by rolling green hills and air that smelled like chocolate, a chauffeur asked us if we were going to Mars. I blinked and then realized that she wasn’t referring to the planet, but rather to the parent company of Dove. This is because when she said “Mars,” all I could think of was “Venus.” At that moment I was surrounded by a gaggle of witty and talkative mom bloggers. I was the only man in the group. Paging Dr. John Gray…

The mom bloggers included Michelle (The Adventures of Supermom), Amy (Selfishmom), and Coleen (Classymommy)—clearly I was out of my league here. I did my best to follow along. My largest handicap, so to speak, was my lack of a sweet tooth, which has helped to keep me healthy for years, but in this case created a challenge. While all the bloggers, among them Alissa, of Clever Compass, Jennifer, of Savory Simple, Rachel, of Coconut & Lime, were “oohing” and “ahhing” over the chocolate, I was ogling the machinery.

The factory was a marvel of cleanliness and efficiency. It was a spotless place of whirring metal, tireless robots, and serious-faced technicians, outfitted, like us, in lab coats, hairnets, helmets, goggles, and industrial-strength earplugs. Safety and hygiene were paramount there. The giant machines had German names like “Bosch” and seemed to represent the pinnacle of engineering. We learned that there are little markings inside a box that are read by sensors on the machines, which whip and flip and spin the packaging material into boxes and wrappers with lightening speed.

The best way to imagine the machines is to picture the world’s largest photocopier, but instead of paper going in and coming out, there is chocolate. And the few times the machines broke down, the technicians looked exactly like office workers trying to get a jammed photocopier to work. They slid out big parts of it, and re-aligned bits of wrapper and metal, closed up the doors, and pushed the buttons again to see if it would work.

Ed Seguine, Dove’s resident chocolate expert, led us through a tasting of the three lines of Dove Promises, the little chocolate treat that’s wrapped in foil and comes with an inspirational quote inside. He taught us to savor each bite, and also went on to discuss the mapping of the chocolate genome (which was accomplished a few years ago) and how that information is kept in the public sphere (no one can patent it) so the industry and farmers can find better ways to grow cacao trees, the seeds of which give us chocolate. It was a fascinating trip, and I can still smell that enticing chocolate scent in the air, and taste the creamy flavor of the Dove bars. I'll be return shortly with more on the new product, which I plan on giving away. Come back soon.

One final note: I was paid to take this trip and cover it here, and that has to be the sweetest most wonderful thing of all.