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February 2009

Questionable Habits

An article from yesterday's New York Times has stuck in my mind. It's about the adverse effects of "healthy" eating habits. Apparently, there are a slew of kids whose anxiety is being stoked by their parents insistence on organic, low-sugar, and high-fiber foods. As someone who is very interested in serving healthy and savory foods to his children, I read the piece with alacrity (and a bit of my own anxiety). I don't want my kids to grow up worried about what's in someone's birthday cake. We tend to serve a balance of foods here and stress moderation more than anything. That seems to be the key, along with listening to what the kids want.

Elemental Tricks

One of my favorite writers is Harold McGee, the author of the endlessly fascinating tome "On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen." He has the ability to take the most basic elements of cooking and throw new light on them. He contributes to the food section of the New York Times, and he has a piece in today's paper about cooking pasta. He wants to see how little water he can get away with using, and he calls on some great experts to test his theories: Lidia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan. I have to say, though, that I found the piece lacking. A year or so ago he wrote an article for the Times about how we use, and waste, heat in the kitchen. In that piece he revealed an intriguing detail:

    In fact it’s easy to save loads of time and energy and potential discomfort with grains, dry beans and lentils, and even pasta. But it requires a little thinking ahead. It turns out that the most time-consuming part of the process is not the movement of boiling heat to the center of each small bean or noodle, which takes only a few minutes, but the movement of moisture, which can take hours. Grains and dry legumes therefore cook much faster if they have been soaked. However heretical it may sound to soak dried pasta, doing so can cut its cooking time by two-thirds — and eliminates the problem of dry noodles getting stuck to each other as they slide into the pot.

I would like to hear Bastianich's and Hazan's opinions about soaking pasta before cooking it, as well as McGee's method for doing so. Anything that speeds the process in the kitchen interests me.

Sweating it Out

Chicken_Parmigiana While doing our weekly grocery shopping on Sunday, Santa Maria was struck by a last-minute desire. We were standing at the checkout station, about to tally up the final bill, when she realized that she wanted Chicken Parmigiana. Her eyes were wild and her smile was broad and she ran off to gather fresh basil, mozzarella, and chicken breasts. We had new dinner plans.

I'm not big on fried foods, so my recipe doesn't really look like Chicken Parmigiana. In stead of breading and frying the chicken, I brown it intensely in a frying pan. I like the flavor I get and it's a lot less work (and there's a lot less fat and calories to worry about). 

It's also a very fast recipe, assuming you've done some prep work. I was in the habit of making this dish every couple of weeks last summer, but it had been a few months since I last prepared it. I forgot about the necessary prep work. Such as washing the head of basil. Or sweating the onions for a sweat marinara sauce.

The key to making this successfully is to pay close attention to the details.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
one onion, chopped
one 28 ounce can of peeled plum tomatoes, diced or hit with an immersion blender

Melt the butter in a sauce pan and add the onions. Sauté them until they are translucent. Do not brown them. This takes time and cannot be rushed. The best way to cut the onions is to chop them. I diced them on Sunday night because I was afraid that the kids would object to them in the sauce. The tiny diced pieces of onion were hard to soften up without browning them at the edges. The onions were not the only things sweating in the kitchen.

Once the sauce is made, the rest of the dish is easy:

1 pound of boneless chicken breasts, sliced in half lengthwise so they are thin.
enough pieces of fresh basil to cover the chicken breasts with one layer
a similar amount of sliced fresh mozzarella cheese
a few slices of fresh parmesean

Turn on your oven's broiler.
Heat a cast-iron frying pan until it is smoking.
Add some olive oil and layer in the chicken. Brown them intensely.
Once they are brown on one side, turn the pan off, flip them over, and put a dollop of sauce, a leaf of basil, a slice of cheese, a touch more sauce, and a bit of parmesean.
Place the frying pan under the broiler until the cheese melts and becomes bubbly.

Serve the chicken with fresh pasta and the sauce.

It took a little longer to prepare than I remembered, but it was worth it. Now if only I could get the kids to agree. They didn't like it much at all. I got Nina to eat some of it by calling it Chicken Pizza (as it has many of the same ingredients). Pinta wasn't interested in any of it, even after I poured off the chicken juices and made it into a soup for her. She liked that for a few bites, then pushed the bowl away.

The thing is, I knew this was going to be the case. Last summer, when I was making the dish on a regular basis, I never served it to the kids. I knew they weren't going to go for it. That's why I was sweating so much while making the sauce.

What the Critics are Saying

When I first started cooking in earnest for my family, a few years ago, I did the work in the very early morning. Pinta had a habit back then of waking before 5 a.m. I didn't know what to do with myself, so I headed to the stove (Santa Maria often slept in). I would cook with Pinta scurrying about at my feet. 

These days she sleeps, mostly, until a little after 6, which is still early, but at least the sun is up at that point. I still do most of my cooking before going off to work, and the other day I made my favorite bolognese sauce. Pinta helped me by shouting excitedly, "wolonase, wolonase," and pointing to the pot on the stove as it simmered, filling the house with a delicious aroma. When her older sister, Nina, who often sleeps until eight or nine, woke, she came into the kitchen smiling and said, "I smell lunch." 

What's Going On

Close readers of this site might have noticed a recent change. Casual observers, I bet, could point it out, too—a marked lack of posts. 

I was away for a week over the holidays, and then (and repeatedly) we've been beset by stomach bugs. The first bout was in December (which, for the youngest of the family lasted two weeks). We went another fifteen-rounds with some other infectious agent in January, and then again this month we've been back in the ring. Or should I say, back through the wringer. We've consulted with our doctors and have a clear understanding of what's going on and are hoping that the children's G. I. tracts return to normalcy shortly.

I've also had a few work commitments that have kept me from writing. They have not, however, kept me from cooking (aside from the few brief periods when I was forced to join the children in intestinal hell). 

I will write shortly about what I've been up to in the kitchen. In the meantime, there's little better medicine for the soul than Marvin Gaye...