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October 2008

September 2008

Swimming Upstream


When I was about to get get married, I sought advice from friends who had exchanged vows before me. It's one of the things I do compulsively: solicit information about a given subject. I canvassed a just about everyone I met with a wedding ring. Mostly I was given suggestions from the "don't go to bed angry" school of thought. One friend surprised me with his advice, though. He considered my question for a second and than shot back a shocking idea. The best thing I could do for my marriage,  he said, was to be nice to my spouse.

I thought being nice was a given, but that was before I was married and had children. It's not always so easy. One of the ways I try to do so is to make lunch for my Santa Maria, who's been known to be too crazed during the day to cook anything for herself. This morning I was planning on making her lunch, (sauteed a salmon fillet to go over a bed of freshly washed Romaine lettuce), when we got into a fight.

We'd been away for the weekend at my brother's wedding, and the house was in a minor state of disarray. The suitcases had been returned to the closet, but the bags of out-of-season clothes, piles of miscellaneous old toys, and boxes of nice books that we want to read (someday, just today), that I had taken out of the closet along with the suitcases in a misguided attempt to get organized, were still on the floor. Santa Maria said something had to be done about them.

My reply was not mean, but it was not nice. As was Santa Maria's reply to my reply. Accusations flew, mostly, and justifiably, in my direction about "not doing anything on Friday." It was true. The day we had to leave for the wedding, the day I could have put back the piles of stuff at our feet, I was too distracted by the upcoming trip to be of any use. My brother was counting on me to officiate his ceremony and I was extremely preoccupied with that responsibility. It was as if I was trying to swim with my clothes on. It took me hours to pack for a weekend trip. I was stung by being told that I had done nothing, when in fact I had loaded the car, packed it, and driven us the two-hundred plus miles we had to go to get to the wedding. But I've been married seven years now and I've learned to not to overreact (having gotten us lost in Queens on the trip, I thought better of mentioning the drive). Instead of saying anything in response, I thought of the times I might have said something not quite so nice myself. I thought I might think twice about throwing a barb next time.

I put the salmon on to saute, and I wondered how it might taste, cooked with so much emotion in the air. I'd like to say I wasn't mad, but I'd be lying. As the fillet cooked, I tasted it to see if it was done. It tasted fresh and salty.

Recipe for sauteed salmon:

  • Start with fresh or fresh frozen fish. With the right fish, you don't need any seasonings.
  • My current favorite is Henry & Lisa's wild Alaskan salmon. I prefer about an eight ounce serving: Santa Maria is satisfied with four ounces. You can decide how much to cook for yourself.
  • Heat a cast iron frying pan and add olive oil
  • Put fillet in skin-side up saute for three or four minutes, until brown (doesn't hurt to slide a spatula under the fillet early on, so it doesn't stick)
  • Flip fillet and cover continue to cook until done (flesh is moist but opaque; sections of fish separate easily. Don't over cook)
  • Serve over bed of lettuce or with a side of rice and a steamed vegetable.

Another Day, Another Bolognese

Handblender_3 I don't sleep well if I don't have a freezer full of Bolognese sauce. Yesterday I ate the last frozen container of it, so this morning I got up and made a new batch. I'm going to my brother's wedding over the weekend and I know I won't have time to cook. When we return on Sunday night, we might very well want to have Bolognese for dinner. Certainly we will sometime later that week. With the wedding approaching, we have a lot to do. This morning was no exception. I can't really telll you what we have to do, but it feels like a lot. Shine our shoes? Pick out the right tie? Oh, get all the clothes ready for the kids. I forgot about that. In any event, I didn't have long to make the Bolognese this morning. Fortunately, it doesn't take long to make (that is, if you don't count the three hours or so it takes to cook down). One of the things that makes it easy, is the hand-held immersion blender we have. It was a gift of my father-in-law a few years ago. I can puree three cans of peeled plum tomatoes in seconds. The sauce only took about a half hour of active labor. The quinoa salad my wife wanted was another story. I didn't manage to finish that before I had to run out the door for work. And I can't manage to give the recipe for the quinoa salad right now as I have to run out the door to get home. I hope I sleep well tonight.

Defrost Day

SognodicasanovaI didn't do any cooking today. I did a bunch of defrosting. Santa Maria was working all day (she had a documentary shoot) and I had responsibility for the kids. I took them to the daycare in my building. On my own. On the subway. There was no time for me to cook anything. I wasn't concerned, though. In the freezer I had chicken soup and bolognese. The soup became their lunch. The bolognese their dinner (mostly because I knew that I could eat it too, and I like it more than chicken soup).

The day went well. We had good subway karma. The elevators worked where they were supposed to and the trains weren't all that slow or crowded. No one melted down until we were almost home, when we got out of the train at Pacific Street for the twenty minute walk (it's the the only station near our house with an elevator). Nina wanted pizza. The last three times I took the kids to the daycare we capped the day with pizza out. Those nights Santa Maria was with us, though. Tonight I was on my own, and I felt like they'd eat better and it would be easier on me to give them bolognese at home.

Nina did not agree, and she let me know. She howled and cried and squirmed the whole way home from the subway, even though we stopped at a local toy store, LuLu's, for helium balloons. Oh, I forgot to mention that Nina didn't really eat much chicken soup and she refused a snack on the way home. She was very upset that we weren't having pizza.

As temper tantrums go, I would only give it a three (the perfect ten in my mind goes to my nephew Michael, who when he was about Nina's age was in the habit of throwing himself down on the ground and banging his head on it. Watching him do that on a Brooklyn sidewalk during a holiday visit was almost too much to bear. How many IQ points did each slam cost him?). But because Nina is not usually in the habit of throwing temper tantrums, I found it tough to bear. It was late and I realized that it would be easier to give them pizza, but there was no way that I could with her tossing such a fit.

We headed home. She screamed and cried up the four flights to our apartment. Pinta, her younger sister, got into the act. We had a symphony of tears. The pasta cooked quickly and the sauce was as delicious as usual. Santa Maria made it home in time to eat with us. I opened a new bottle of wine, one of my recent birthday gifts from her. We ended up having what I think of as a Sunday supper in the middle of the week. And the wine, a sublimely tasty Paravizzini Sogno di Casanova Nero  D'Avola, from 2005, certainly helped me defrost.

Where's the Beef?

Compass_2 We buy most, if not all, of our groceries at the Park Slope Food Coop, one of the nation's largest and oldest food coops. A few years ago, after much discussion (which, at the coop, is the norm), the coop started selling meat. Chicken, lamb, beef, rabbit, and other meats are now featured items. They come from as close as upstate New York, and as far away as New Zealand. Most of the products they sell are clearly labeled. Where they come from is never as much a question as what to do with them (I have yet to try the buffalo). Finding out where your meat and produce comes from at other stores, though, can be a challenge. This should change on September 30th. That's the date supermarkets and other large retailers will have to start telling you where much of what they sell comes from. Today's Wall Street Journal has the details.

Notes from the Field

Yesterday’s Parade magazine had an insightful article by Leslie Bennetts on the state of marriage in the U. S. The magazine surveyed more than a thousand married Americans, and among the holy trinity of common disagreements—money, sex, and housework—I noticed an interesting result.

Many other surveys have shown money and sex to be the most common issues that couples fight about, and finances topped the list for our respondents as well, with 43% reporting that they squabble about money. Household chores and sex ranked second and third, respectively, as causes of contention.

More people argue about housework than sex. The full survey describes household chores as “dishes and garbage.” But what about cooking? I wondered what the results would be for families in which the dads prepared the food. So I did my own survey, of one couple. The results were very positive: arguments about chores diminished and disagreements about sex vanished. Now if only there was a way to get the same agreement on financial matters.

It's 10 P.M. Do You Know Where Your Squid Is?

Cookingsquid On Sunday, I went with my family to see my ailing father, who has late-stage prostate cancer. Very late stage. He lives in northern Westchester, and though his home is not all that far away, it always takes a long time to get there. This time, the trip involved multiple forms of transportation—a car service, a MetroNorth train, and a borrowed automobile. The kids never nap well at my parents’ house and they were exhausted by the time we left to return home, after dinner. I was exhausted too, from traveling with the kids and from the draining nature of my father’s last days. I never know when I go to see him lately if it will be the last time I see him.

Traffic was light on the drive home and I managed to keep my eyes open long enough to steer us safely through the Bronx, across the Triborough Bridge, and into our home borough. I am borrowing my father’s car for the week, so after dropping the wife and kids off and helping get them settled, I had to find a parking space. It took me more than a half an hour. All of which is to say that it was approaching 10 p.m. when I got home to confront the fresh squid that was lingering on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator.

I had bought the squid the day before at the Greenmarket. We had been walking in the park and trying to decide what to eat for lunch when my three-year old, Nina, started clamoring for mussels. Mussels are easy to cook, so I headed over to buy some. As sometimes happens to me when I stand before the fishmonger’s offerings, I lost my head. I bought mussels, flounder, and squid. For no real reason other than it seemed like a good idea at the time. The flounder I ate for lunch. The kids had the mussels for dinner, and I planned on cooking the squid for an easy lunch on our trip to visit my father. But I never got around to it. The fishmonger told me that the squid could go one day, and that was it.

I wasn’t really hungry, having eaten some pea soup before leaving my fathers’ (as well as a pile of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies on the way home courtesy of my wife, Santa Maria, who poached them from my mother’s freezer). Still I needed to cook up the squid.

I sliced it into rings and heated two cast-iron frying pans on the stove until they were smoking. I poured olive oil in and wondered about the flash point of olive oil (what would I do if it burst into flames?) and then tossed in the squid. I scorched it and salted it. It was great. Done in a matter of minutes. I nibbled some before going to bed and then put the leftovers in the refrigerator, not certain what to do with the rest. I’ll address that tonight, hopefully before ten.

Simple is Best

BroccoliOccasionally, I get confused about what to eat. Take today, for example. I took the children to the daycare center in my office building so Santa Maria could have time to work. We've started doing this about once a week, and when we do we promise the kids pizza when we get home. They love it. We love not having to clean up and not having to cook.

But pizza is not what I call dinner, at least not for myself. Not often, anyway (the infrequent trip to Patsy's or some similar thin-crust specialist aside). I knew I would not get enough to eat for dinner so I had a big afternoon snack—three glasses of milk, a yogurt, a banana, and a piece of pound cake (it's shouldn't be a suprise that I have the emotional maturity of a teenager; I still have the gastronomical capacity of one). Then I had a slice of pizza with the kids.

When I got home I was somewhat full, but not at all satisfied. Did I need to cook dinner for myself or not? I was confused. Hungry or not? I had a craving for vegetables though, green vegetables. This much I knew. I took some broccoli out of the refrigerator and steamed up a head for Santa Maria and myself. The kids were in bed and we were lazily eating what we could find. Santa Maria supplemented her broccoli with leftover Indian food. I popped some frozen empanadas in the oven (I had determined that I was hungry). Once the broccoli was done, we started to eat it out of the pot (we were hungry, after all).

Santa Maria left her broccoli plain. I looked at mine and recalled an article I'd seen in the New York Times on Monday, which had a special section on children and health. It was called the six mistakes parents make when feeding their children. One of them, apparently, is to serve plain, boring vegetables. (We don't do that with our kids. They love broccoli dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette). The article said it was a mistake not to add a sauce to vegetables, and not just for taste. It said that some fat in the sauce could unlock the fat soluble vitamins in the vegetable. Who knew?

In any event, I decided to put some olive oil and sea salt on the broccoli. This might sound boring, but it was anything but. The olive oil was fruity and the sea salt crunchy. The combination was so good, I would do it again as a side dish for a dinner party. The recipe couldn't be simpler:

1 head of broccoli, washed, chopped, and steamed.

Olive oil and salt to taste.


The Forty Dollar Bolognese

Bolognesetable My wife, Santa Maria, and I had made plans to go out last night. Faulty plans, I should add. Faulty plans that were mostly my fault. We'd been invited, through my job, to the fifth anniversary of a very fancy restaurant in Manhattan that shall remain nameless. We were excited to go.  Santa Maria went to great length to find a babysitter who could work for the evening.  Our regular babysitter couldn't work, but her cousin Evie could. Then, the night before, our eldest, Nina, kept us up with requests for water and trips to the bathroom. We didn't get any sleep, and we were exhausted, and I decided that we shouldn't go out. Santa Maria tried to cancel Evie, but she couldn't reach her because her cell phone was broken. She was coming in from her home in New Jersey to work the night for us and she is our regular babysitter's family; we couldn't send her away when she arrived. So we decided to go to a local restaurant that we adore, and that we don't often get to visit, Al Di La. Unfortunately, half of Brooklyn also adores Al Di La, and it was full when we got there. We were too tired to wait for a table so we decided to go home and pay the Evie for more than the hour we had been away from the kids. Evie protested, but in the end we paid her forty dollars. We were still hungry, so we ate the Bolognese I'd made that morning. I felt lucky to get the table.

In My Sleep

Bolognesepot_2 I've gotten so quick at making some of my favorite dishes that I could make them in my sleep. Which is a good thing, because I'm often half asleep these days. Having two young children is the most taxing thing I've ever experienced. Only recently did I come to fully understand the Army's old advertising slogan, "We do more before six A.M. than most people do in a day." I heard that as a young man and thought, "wow, they are productive, early risers." But now, after a year of waking before dawn, I know that to do something before six A.M. means you don't just get up early, you don't get much sleep.

Last night was one of those nights, although I didn't do much more before six A.M   than get my three-year old sippy cups of water. I know I didn't sleep. And that I probably wouldn't have cut it in the army, unless I was a cook. For in my bleary eyed, heavy limbed, and foggy-mind state, I did make a mighty tasty Bolognese sauce this morning. I'll consider the arguments about the best ways to make Bolognese when I'm less sleep deprived. In the meantime, I'll leave you with my recipe.

Stay at Stove Dad's Basic Bolognese 

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2-3 carrots, chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery, chopped
  • 2 slices of bacon, chopped
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
  • 3 cans of peeled plum tomatoes, diced to bits with an immersion blender
  • Cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
  • Saute the onion, carrot, celery, and bacon until the vegetables are soft and the bacon fat rendered.

Add the beef and cook it until it is brown (crushing it with a potato masher to make bits of meat small).

Ad the wine and cook it off.

Add the stock and the tomatoes and the spices and simmer until thick (about three hours).

Note:  It freezes very well.

Growing Seafood Extravaganza

Mussels_3Last night we ate our big seafood feast: Mussels cooked in a cast iron frying pan with nothing but their smoky juices. I got this recipe from a column by Mark Bittman years ago. It couldn't be easier: clean the mussels, put them in a cast-iron frying pan in a single layer, and cook until they release their juices and those juices bubble off. I never really liked mussels until I had them this way. My wife Santa Maria loves them. And so does Nina, my three year old. They've been a bit of a hard sell for my toddler, Pinta, though she has shown a great interest in chewing on the salty shells and shattering them in her mouth. Last night things changed. She started gobbling up mussels themselves.

The second half of the meal was spaghetti with clams in a white wine sauce. The first time I had this dish was when I was a teenager and I was working at a retail fish market. ClamOne of my coworkers was a down-on-his luck chef who was working off a debt to the store owner from his failed restaurant by putting in hours behind the counter slinging fish. Johnny, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was a big bearded fellow who drove a massive tan Cadillac and enjoyed a life of excess. One afternoon he decided to make lunch. He gathered some little neck clams, chopped some garlic and parsley, and threw it in a pot with some parsley and white wine. He said it was going to be so good that it "will make your socks go up and down." And it did.

I've been serving the same dish to my family for a while now. Nina is usually full from eating mussels by the time it reaches the table and she's not so keen on the clams (in all fairness to her, they usually get overcooked, which is how it goes while getting all this food to the table). Last night, she needed some persuasion to eat the clams with her pasta. I said they're just like the mussels and you'll like them. Saying that she'll like something is usually a way of insuring that she won't eat it. Yet last night, she quietly did. And then she exclaimed, "You are right, they are really good."