Readings

Easter with a small “e” follow-up: The saga of the Almond-Apple Crumble

I will get to a post about that delicious tarragon-and-pea soup shortly, I promise, but in the meantime I have to confess to being obsessed with something else from the day. A giant meal like the one I hosted for Easter is a kind of dizzying affair. There’s a lot of work, certainly, but there are also a lot of benefits. With a large group, bits and pieces of conversation fly by and hang in the air. You learn tidbits about family members and siblings. Heck, if you’re not running to and from the kitchen, you might even learn more, like what their favorite color is, or who’s their favorite band, or what they plan to do with their lives. I was busy mashing potatoes, so I missed that.

However, as the host on Sunday, I tried to steer the conversations, at least briefly, to a higher plain, by asking that everyone bring a quote about rebirth. One of my readers asked me to post some of the quotes, so the few I could find and reproduce are below.

The other nice thing about having a good-sized gathering is that each different person at the table brings something new to the meal. Sometimes it’s as ethereal as a line of poetry or some funny insight. Other times it’s as real and mouthwatering as my friend Zoe’s Almond Apple Crumble.

She prepared it at home and brought it to my house to cook as we ate the main course. As it baked, its rich scent rattled around in my brain and psyche, and I said to her, “It smells so good, I think we need to cancel the dinner and just go straight to the dessert.” The other nice thing about big meals is that there often are leftovers. I’ve been eating that apple crumble for three days now, and I just finished it last night.

My friend Zoe is from England, and the recipe she used is from a book by Delia Smith, who she describes as “a British institution.” The recipe, unfortunately, is written out in grams and other U.K. measurements, so it isn’t exactly useful to me at the moment. I’m linking to it here, though, because you might be able to make the conversions. Also, she found the recipe through a great website called One Recipe Daily, which is also well worth checking out.

If you make the crumble, let me know how it goes (and if you live NYC, invite me over for some of it!). In the meantime, here are some of the poems that were quoted from during my Easter with a small “e.”

 

i thank You God for most this amazing

by e. e. cummings

 

i thank You God for most this amazing

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any--lifted from the no

of all nothing--human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

 

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89).  Poems.  1918.

 

7. God’s Grandeur

 

 

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.           

  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;           

  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil           

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?           

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;                    5

  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;           

  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil           

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.           

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;           

  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;                    10

And though the last lights off the black West went           

  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—           

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent           

  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

My Heart Leaps Up

William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety. 


Easter with a small "e"

Asparagus_baking_dish
Sunday, I hosted an Easter gathering with about a dozen members of my extended family. It was a lot of work, and I’m too tired to write the post I was thinking about—the one about the chilled pea soup with tarragon that opened the meal—so that will have to wait until later in the week. Don’t worry, I’ll get to it, and you’ll be glad I did. The soup is a cool and creamy taste of spring. It’s a pea soup for folks who don’t like pea soups.

Organizing a meal for a dozen people is a bit like starting a small company, putting on a minor musical, and invading a tiny republic—all at the same time. It costs money, there’s always a bit of drama, someone will get wounded, but hopefully no one dies. In this case, the meal (which was this olive-stuffed lamb) was a joint effort, with my friend Zoe bringing the dessert (a luscious scented apple cobbler that perfumed the house as we ate), and Santa Maria prepping many of the vegetables.

One of them was asparagus. We had other things to do during the day, including attending a church service, so Santa Maria got it ready in the morning.  She came up with neat way to keep the vegetable from wilting during the day. She snapped off their stems and stuck them like daffodils in baking dish full of water. I just loved the way they looked, and I snapped a photo of them in the middle of cooking the meal.

Her system worked like a charm, and when the time for cooking them rolled around, they were ready to go. Pulling off a dinner party of this size without losing your mind takes a lot of planning. And improvising. Santa Maria pulled of both at the same time with the asparagus. At some point, I’ll write about how to best plan for a dinner party, but now. I’m too tired. There’s no amount of planning that can reduce the amount of work, short of planning to go to someone else’s house.

But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to gather my family together in my house for a few hours, and contemplate the arrival of spring. My siblings and their spouses represent most of the major religious traditions of the Western World, including agnosticism, and because I knew we would be such a diverse group, and because I wanted to find some meaning in the day, I asked everyone to bring a quote about rebirth and renewal to share at the table.

At the end of the meal, I put the kids and nephews on a Wallace & Gromit video, and we started to read and recite our quotes. One person quoted from Robin Williams, another from George Lucas. A brother-in-law read from Shakespeare, and Santa Maria read from Thomas Mann. My sister recited an E.E. Cummings poem, and I decided to call our gathering an easter meal with a small “e.”


How to Cut Up a Chicken, Otherwise Known as Life is What Happens When You’re Busy Cooking Other Dishes

There’s a saying that I can’t help thinking these days: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Often attributed to John Lennon—it is in the lyrics to his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)—the phrase is actually much older. According to the site The Quote Investigator, it dates back to Allen Saunders, a cartoonist from the middle of the last century. As I’m partial to cartoonists and drawing, that makes me happy.

I mention this because as I look around me, and as I go from planning each week’s meals and shopping, and cooking, I realize that life is rushing by. I have things I want to get done—from going swimming and biking with my girls to updating the look and functionality of this blog to publishing another book—that I just can’t seem to get around to doing.

That said, there are a few accomplishments I’m proud of. The smallest of these came to me on Friday, when I came across a video on the web that solved a vexing problem—how to cut up a chicken.

I’m very good with a knife, because I grew up working in a retail fish market, and I know how to fillet and bone all kinds of fish. I struggle a bit when it comes to poultry and meat, but I’m always confident that I’ll know where to cut and how. But cutting up a whole chicken has stumped me. I can get about three-quarters of the way through the bird, but taking out the backbone was always a problem.

I couldn’t figure out where to cut the bird, no matter how many books I consulted. I love cutting up whole birds because it’s a way to save money. When it came to dealing with that backbone, all I did was rip and tear and pull until I had it off.

Then I saw this video from Ian Knauer and Gourmet, and on Saturday night I used what learned to cut up a whole bird to make my Chicken, Tomato, Lemon, Potato, and Olive dish. Basically, all you need to do is follow the lines of fat and that will tell you exactly where to cut. The video has all the details.

I found the video through Twitter, by following You Fed a Baby Chili? which led me to Cook Fearless, and as soon as I get the chance, I’m going to update my blog roll to include those sites. They are really great.

Here’s the how-to video on cutting up a chicken, via Cook Fearless. Enjoy!

 


How Many Burners Does a Man Need?

This weekend I realized why people have those fancy six-burner stoves—to impress their neighbors. But seriously, folks, this Sunday morning was the first time I can remember that I did so much cooking at the same time that I ran out of burners. Other people go to church--I go into the kitchen. My four-unit Jenn-Air just wasn’t enough. I had a tagine going, a Bolognese simmering, and a pot of black beans humming along, and I wanted to start my lentil-bulgur soup. That dish needs two burners to get going—one for the lentils proper and one for the base of the soup, and I was one burner short.

What did I do? I took the black beans off the heat and let them sit, and went on to make the soup. That was an easy decision, because most of the cooking that’s taking place with those black beans is really just driving water into the center of each bean (I never soak the beans first) and if the pot just sits there, the same thing keeps happening, only more slowly. Problem solved.

That little problem was nothing compared to what happened the day before. On Saturday—a day for me that involved getting up at 5:45 a.m. to take care of the weekly food shop, then doing some business in Manhattan in the morning before coming home to take the kids to swimming lessons in local high school, whose pool is in a heated basement that I swear must have been an inspiration for Dante.

No, my real problem started when I set out to make a simple dinner of coriander-and-cumin crusted pork chops, green beans, and my signature Thanksgiving (give thanks to Sam Sifton) corn bread. It was the cornbread that gave me conniptions.

Now, the thing about this cornbread is that is super easy, and super delicious—provided you get a few basic things right, such as the leavening. One time, in Pennsylvania with my inlaws, I completely forgot to put in the leavening, and the bread came out flat and heavy. It was like Southern matzo—yuch, as they might say.

Another time, Santa Maria made the cornbread, and she did it in a rush and she substituted baking soda for baking powder. It looked right that time, but tasted very strange—double yuck, as it were as baking soda is much stronger, and much more alkaline than baking powder. It had a bitter aftertaste that had us scratching our heads, until Santa Maria realized the error of her ways.

On Saturday, when I was trying to make the cornbread, I didn’t have enough baking powder. I was one tablespoon short, but Santa Maria came to the rescue. Somehow, she knew how to substitute one for the other. Here’s how she did it:

You’ll find various ratios on-line, but the one that worked best for us is mixing half baking soda and half cream of tartar.  For example, if you need to make one Tablespoon of baking powder, mix 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda with 1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar.

And now that I’ve had a chance to calm down, and consult a few other resources, I’ve since learned that baking powder is basically baking soda (an alkali) combined with an acid (typically cream of tartar), with a stabilizer and a moisture-absorber, such as cornstarch.

I also learned that many people combine the baking soda with the cream of tartar at a 1-to-2 ratio, and not a 1-to-1 ratio. At this moment, I can’t find a reputable source online to tell you what is correct, but I promise to look. Just know this—the way we did it Saturday worked out just fine.

So, more on the baking powder/baking soda substitution shortly, along with details on where cream of tartar actually comes from. I was surprised to learn. Do you know?


What Does It Mean to Be a Man?

450px-St_Michel_de_Montaigne_Tour03
I’ve seen all kinds of definitions of what it means to be a man, from being tough (Robert Mitchum) to being sensitive (Check out this Nick Lowe video ) to being a canine.

Now, for the benefit of anyone who might be wondering (women, young men, small terriers) I’ll tell you the number one thing about what it means to be a man. And it’s only because my biology prevents me from being thrown out of the fraternity that I can reveal the following:

We haven’t a clue about what it means to be one. There, I said it. It’s true. Trust me. We don’t ask for directions because we don't get lost. We never know we’re lost. So we don’t ask directions. If anyone you know denies this truth, consider them lost.

A lot of writers, musicians, artists, and adolescents have wrestled with this question over the years, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“Confessions”) to Michel de Montaigne (he retired at 38!) to Philip Roth (my favorite: “My  Life as a Man”) and L. Rust Hills (check out “How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man”) and we can now add to that distinguished list the new magazine Kindling Quarterly.

More properly, Kindling Quarterly examines what it means to be a dad these days, something that’s no less confusing (trust me). The Kindling Quarterly is a handsome, perfect-bound, publication full of thoughtful essays. David Michael Perez and P. August Heffner, the founders, sent me a copy in the mail the other day, and I just started reading it last night.

I was drawn, quite naturally given my interest in food, cooking, and this blog, to the interview with Rohan Anderson, the man behind the blog Whole Larder Love. I might have had my head in a book for too long, because I somehow did not know about Anderson’s blog.

He’s the father of two young girls (sound familiar?) but he’s (how do I say this, ahem?) much more of a man than I am. He hunts, gathers, gardens, forages, and does everything pretty much damn well. He even published a book. Check it, and Kindling Quarterly out. Whether you are lost or not, they'll help you find your way. 


Family Dinner: How Do You Do It?

The Family Dinner  is suddenly more in the news than usual. It was the subject of a recent NPR story, and Bon Appétit has a big story this month devoted to how to pull it off.

Any reader of this blog will know that I’m a big supporter of the family dinner, with one important caveat—it all depends on the family. I spent countless family diners as a kid where all I did was stare at the clock on the wall, and all the alleged benefits that come from eating together—better grades, reduced drug abuse, a lower golf score (I made that last one up)—turned out to be as real as the tooth fairy. At least in the family I grew up in (some of us are terrible golfers, that’s all I’ll say).

I will say that food and cooking is the chief way I bring people together, and I’m proud to do that. It means the world to me when we do sit down together as a family and talk and laugh. We really have only one rule: No screens at the table (that goes for adults, too). And strive for a few other things: we try to wait until everyone is at the table to get started, and we clear our dishes at the end (the kids, too). These few little things can make a huge difference, at least to judge from the cacophony I heard on the NPR story. 

Check out the Bon Appétit feature, which has great tips from Jenny Rosenstrach and Andy Ward (be sure to visit their excellent site:  Dinner A Love Story), and let me know what you think. I can vouch for the Bon Appétit feature because it has a lot of ideas I use already—such as making the most of my freezer, starting dinner in the morning, and keeping a solid shop list. Any tips you want to add?


Beyond Bubbie Recap: Why We Need to Eat and Drink Together

I spent a lot of time this week getting ready for the presentation I did last night for the Beyond Bubbie performance, at the 92Y Tribeca. It was a great night of intense stories about grandmothers and food, and I was honored to have shared the stage with David Sax (Save the Deli),  Mo Rocca ("My Grandmother’s Ravioli"),Carla Hall ("The Chew"), Joan Nathan (a New York Times contributor and cookbook author), Jake Dell (of Katz’s Deli), Alan Richman (a GQ food correspondent), Judy Batalion, and Cantor Shira Ginsburg (of Bubby's Kitchen.)

My grandmother was someone who became a widow at a somewhat young age, in her late forties  (the age, as I put it last night, that women these days are just first starting to think about becoming mothers). She died when I was just out of high school, and I didn’t remember much about her, other than that she found it hard to cook for one person. I didn’t know what that meant when she told me that—I was just a kid back then, after all—but I came to realize, in talking to my brothers and sisters and mother about what they remembered about her, that she was lonely, and she could have used a good meal, some good company, and a good conversation, along with, perhaps, a good cry, and certainly a good laugh.

I wish I could have given that to her. The best I can do is do that for my wife, my girls, my family, and my friends. Cooking is about so much more than just the food. It’s about the meal, the company, and the good times and bad times. Food is not just the fuel of love, it’s the fuel of conversation, communication, and intimacy. Give yourself the luxury of sitting around the table for a while. You don’t have to make anything fancy. You just have to be there, and listen.

Of course, it helps if you make something like a pot of gumbo and a loaf of fresh cornbread, which is what I did the other night for a little dinner party. And I served a bottle of Bodegas Franco Espanolas Rioja Bordon Reserva, from 2006. The bottle was sent to me by a publicist, and I’m happy to say that it was quite tasty. It had a rich feel and a balanced depth that belied its low, circa $15 price. But don’t take my word for it, take the Wine Guys word. Here’s their little video about the bottle

 


Beyond Bubbie: A Night of Stories about Food and Family

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I’ve been busy with a few freelance projects this week, and instead of a post about what I’ve been cooking around the house, I want to mention a cool event that I’ve been invited to join. It’s called Beyond Bubbie, and it’s a night of stories about food and family (and, of course, grandmothers, as "Bubbie" is that word rendered in Yiddish). It is on January 16 at 7 p.m., at the 92Y Tribecca.

The MC is David Sax (Save the Deli), and the storytellers include Mo Rocca ("My Grandmother’s Ravioli"), Carla Hall ("The Chew"), Joan Nathan (a New York Times contributor and cookbook author), Jake Dell (of Katz’s Deli), Alan Richman (a GQ food correspondent), Judy Batalion, and Cantor Shira Ginsburg (of Bubby's Kitchen.)

If you have a good story about your grandmother, you might be able to join everyone onstage. They’re taking submissions for one-minute stories, and if they like yours, you get to tell it live. Email them at writetobubbie@gmail.com for more info. In the meantime, I need to get back to working on my freelance projects, as well as the story I’m going to tell that evening. And if you want to come, tickets and details can be found here.


Allowances, Chores, and the Dinner Table

Fish
Good parenting is all about good thinking, and at this time of year, it is common for people to look forward and make resolutions about how they will change their lives. Right now, though, I prefer to look back at what we’ve accomplished. On the cooking front, I’ve added dozens and dozens of recipes to my repertoire. Some were born of inspiration—I returned to entertaining and threw a number of memorable dinner parties—and some were born of desperation—my Jenn-Air oven is still on the fritz, and just the other day I made my Broken-Oven Chicken Curry again, and I’m happy to report that it was just as good this time as it was the first time around (Really--make it, you'll like it!). And this time, the girls ate the chicken, which might not sound like much, but it is. Pinta, my youngest, has an odd aversion to chicken, which to my mind is a bit ridiculous, but never mind that. Yet when she had this chicken curry, she declared that the chicken was “delicious.” Yes, Victory.

On the parenting front, we introduced weekly family meetings and allowances for the children. I didn’t grow up with an allowance, and I’m determined to give my children one, and for one reason only. Money is a tool, like a pencil or a pen, and the only way to learn how to use it, save it, make it, invest it, and spend it wisely, is to have some of your own. So they now get two dollars a week, half of which they have to set aside for savings.

We also introduced more tasks for the children to do around the house. Some might call these chores, but I avoid that noun (and these tasks are not directly linked to the allowance because of Reason No. 1 for the allowance itself). I frame the tasks as things the children need to do to make life around the house better. I’m trying the “we’re all in it together,” kind of approach, because, Lord knows, we are all in it together.

So far, this has proven to be remarkably beneficial. The simple act of having a meeting every weekend in which the children can give voice to what they want to do—from getting water for the table to setting the table to putting away toys to folding laundry—makes a huge difference. Children—like adults, too—like to be heard.

The system is somewhat new, so I might experience different results shortly, but for now, it’s working almost too well. This evening, Nina and Pinta were fighting over who could set the table (it was the younger one’s job, but the older one wanted in on it, too.). Talk about being embarrassed by riches. My kids were quarrelling over who could do a chore!

I tried to resolve this highly absurd tempest by suggesting that Nina make a centerpiece for the table. It would be nice to have one, I thought, and it would give her some way of contributing. Unfortunately, I didn’t think fast enough, and my suggestion didn’t fly. It wasn’t specific enough. I would have done better to remember the night before, when Nina actually made some underwater origami that we used to decorate the table. That would have been smart thinking.

What cooking or parenting accomplishment are you most happy with from 2012? I’m interested to hear about your experience at and around the dinner table. Drop me a line or make a comment, and let me know!


Can Happiness Be a Habit? Does the 30-minute Meal Exist? Am I Joking Or Am I Serious?

I’m getting a great deal out of reading Dr. Christine Carter’s book “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” I’m just over halfway through the book, and I’ve come to a chapter on forming “Happiness Habits.” Having recently read Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” and having advocated here for making cooking a habit, I am very interested in the chapter. Habits are powerful things.

The happiness book itself, though, presents a problem for me. It takes an incredible mental effort for me to accept the idea that happiness can be a habit, that happiness can be learned. I really have to work at it to buy into it.

This is because have a congenital weakness, one born of the hard fire of a large Irish Catholic family, that is as real as my myopia and my high metabolism. Ever since I was young enough to hide my tears, I’ve flipped language upside down, pretended not to care, and covered it all up with a perfect patina of humor. I am, for better or worse, steeped in irony. It is such a part of my genetic makeup that I don’t think I have DNA. Rather, I have “AND,“ if that makes any sense. And it probably does not. Stupid jokes like that made junior high a living hell for me. And as you can see, I haven’t grown that much.

I’ve grown some, though. Christy Wampole’s recent New York Times article about the prevalence of irony among young people irked me, for example. Who is she thinking that her generation owns irony? Ever hear of Generation X? We were doomed from the start (I’m being ironic, ahem). And besides, didn’t irony die with 9/11? What ever happened to that?  If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, R. Jay Magill Jr., has a good history of irony (and sincerity) in The Atlantic, but I’m going to end this digression.

I want to get back to my life as it is now, and not as it was. I mention “Raising Happiness” because it is good and I believe people can change. Much of the chapter on forming happiness habits concerns how to improve the family dinner, and I’ll have more on that soon. For now, though I want to highlight one observation that Dr. Carter makes in it about how people change. “Change,” she writes, “rarely happens all at once. It happens in stages.”

She goes suggests various stages to effect change, and one of them she calls “Preparation.” In it, she talks about leaving enough time to get dinner ready. She knows that if she doesn’t leave enough time, she will start yelling at her kids, which is no way to accomplish anything.

Having enough time to make dinner was on my mind this evening as I lingered in the lobby of my office building chatting with colleagues. I had promised Santa Maria that I would have dinner on the table by 6:30, and I was cutting it very close. That’s the latest we can feed the girls without them breaking down and without completely screwing up the bedtime routine. I needed to commute home and then make dinner.

The commute went fine, and I got home by 6:00. However, I have to report that there is really no such thing as a 30-minute family dinner. A thirty-minute dish, yes? But a thirty-minute family meal? No.

I was making a 20-minute dish (and that’s no exaggeration—Puttanesca originated as a quick dish), along with a ten-minute dish (you don’t want to overcook wild salmon) and a five-minute dish (greenbeans for the kids) as well as a two-minute dish (steamed spinach for myself and Santa Maria), and when you add all that up, you come to 48-minutes.

Fortunately, it all worked out because I turned to something that has always worked for me—humor. Positive emotions are contagious, and as soon as I saw that I was falling behind schedule, I started calling out for help from Nina. “I’m in the weeds,” I said to her, using an old restaurant expression for getting overwhelmed. I had to explain to her what it meant, and when I did, she said that if I was in the weeds, she was “in the flowers.”

She set the table, filled the water glasses for everyone, and asked if she could help me cook. I set her to work cutting up the olives for the sauce. She did a great job, and had fun doing it. Humor, it works every time. Try making that a habit!

Puttanesca Sauce

  • 4 or more cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 3 anchovy fillets
  • 1 chili pepper
  • One 28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, crushed (or hit with an immersion blender, which is very fast)
  • 1T capers
  • 12 or so black olives, sliced
  • herbs such as basil or oregano to taste (completely optional) 

Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the garlic and anchovies and chili pepper. Saute until garlic is soft, add tomatoes and reduce. (Remove the chili pepper early, right when you add the tomatoes, if you’re worried about making it too spicy for children)

When the sauce thickens (in about fifteen minutes), add capers and olives and any herbs.

Serve over the pasta of your choice.