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March 2009

Rush Hour Crunch

Manhattan_Bridge_2007 During my evening commute yesterday, my phone rang as my subway train was crossing the Manhattan Bridge. It was one of my sisters. I answered right away, and told her I only had a few minutes before we would be cut off when the train went underground again.

She wanted to know how to cook scallops. I love these kinds of calls. Every so often one of my siblings will ring me up for a recipe. I'm proud that I can give them useful advice. In this case, she had asked about the right kind of dish. Cooking scallops the way I like them doesn't even require a recipe. It requires good technique. Most seafood, in my opinion, doesn't need much of anything to make it taste good, so long as it is fresh. If it's not, that's another story.

The key to good tasting fresh fish is all in the cooking. Or rather, in the not over cooking. If you wait until it is done in the pan, it will be over done by the time it hits the plate and table. In my estimation, the length of time it takes to cook scallops is only slightly longer than the length of time it takes to learn how to do so. It's a short process, which is handy if you are conveying the method (for this is hardly a recipe) by cell phone on a moving subway while it crosses the East River.

Very quickly I told her to do the following:

Heat a cast-iron frying pan until it is almost smoking.
Add olive oil.
Place the scallops in the pan in one layer and do not disturb for a few minutes, until start to brown.
Turn the pan off and let the scallops sit momentarily.
Flip them forcibly with a sturdy spatula to be sure that you capture the deliciously sweet carmelized crust.
Heat the pan again until the scallops are finished, just a few minutes.

Enjoy.

Notes:
I assumed she was talking about sea scallops, but this method works equally well with the now rare and unbelievably good (and expensive) local bay scallop.

When I want to be fancy, I peel a clove of garlic, cut it in half, and leave it in the pan momentarily when the oil is heating. Be sure to take it out, or else it will burn.





Taking Stock

Chicken_Stock This weekend we took the train to my mother's house, in northern Westchester. She had been visiting my older brother and his family in Pennsylvania. About ten days into her journey, she slipped in his kitchen while moving chicken stock from the stove to the refrigerator and bruised her pelvis so badly that the doctors first thought that she had broken it. She had packed her bags for a two week trip and ended up staying about six weeks. She was finally coming home on Saturday and we wanted to be there to greet her.

I took the day off from work on Friday. It takes us about two hours to get from our house to hers. The kids were great on the train, and we got to the house just in time for their midday naps, which didn't quite work out.

After a quick run to Target for cars seats, we strapped them into my late father's Chevrolet and took them to Muscoot Farm, a wonderful little county park with lots of sheep, chickens, turkeys, cows, horses, and other animals. The following day, we visited the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, where they collected sticks and climbed on rocks.

The house has a dishwasher, a washer and dryer, and lots of space (Nina asked me why there were so many bedrooms) and my favorite feature, a verdant back yard (at one point, Santa Maria asked me if I was watching the kids, and I said "No, they're playing out back. This is why people move to the suburbs").

It was a great visit. My mother came home Saturday afternoon and we had dinner with her before heading back to the city early on Sunday. She was glad to be at home, and to see us. The food had been terrible at the rehabilitation center. No fresh fruit.

We brought some staples with us--a quart of frozen Bolognese, the left-over pork, and a vegetable soup that I had made for Santa Maria earlier in the week--so there wasn't much work to do when we were there. I got to prance around and tout my contributions to our quality of life, which caused Santa Maria to smile and roll her eyes.

We enjoyed ourselves until Sunday morning. The kids woke at 5 a.m., and the laundry that Santa Maria had put in the dryer the night before wasn't quite dry. I didn't have any clothes to wear. The kids needed to be dressed. The sun wasn't up yet. Santa Maria and I started to quarrel. I got angry and we really started to fight.

In the midst of it, Nina asked "What was wrong daddy?" What was wrong? I tried to figure out how to put into words what was going on for me. I would have told her, but I was distracted because I was running up and down the stairs from the kitchen to the laundry area in the basement, that I  was upset because I didn't have any clothes to wear. Upset because I didn't have any clothes to wear? What was I, a child? I was the one who decided to travel with one pair of pants and who gave them Santa Maria to wash late at night. Who was responsible for this situation other than me?

I backed down, but not before the whole trip was discolored by my bad behavior. My mother woke in the middle of it, tried to be nice, and ended up wisely retreating. I found her back in bed forty-minutes later. It wasn't exactly the way I had planned to welcome her home.

Santa Maria and I talked things out when we got home to Brooklyn, but that didn't diminish the amount of unpacking that needed to be done. Or the amount of cooking for the afternoon. Or the shopping for the week. Santa Maria was exhausted. Ashamed of my childish behavior earlier in the day, I started to slowly ascend the mountain of domestic labor that stood before us. At about four in the afternoon, I remembered that I was out of chicken stock.  I quickly put a pot of it on to simmer for a few hours before I had to go to bed.

Chicken stock is the bedrock of much of my cooking. I use it in everything from my black beans to my Bolognese. I make it from the chicken carcasses that are leftover after I roast a chicken. I put them in the freezer to use them when I need them for stock. This was one time I really needed them. I was hoping that the basic act of making stock would help make amends for the bruise I had put on the day. We'll see how it turns out. The stock, in any event, is always great. I just have to remember to be careful when transferring it to the refrigerator.

 

Chicken Stock

 

1 chicken carcass (left over from roasting)

 

1 onion, roughly chopped

 

1 carrot, roughly chopped

 

1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped

 

Soften the onion in some olive oil in a tall stock pot for the length of time it takes to chop the carrot and the celery. Combine. Cook a bit longer. Drop the chicken bones in. Add water to cover. Bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer for as long as you can manage.

 

I then strain everything through a mesh strainer and then again through cheese cloth. I put the stock in the refrigerator at least overnight so the fat can congeal on top. I skim the fat off and freeze the stock for later use.


How Much Pork Does a Man Need?

Roast_Pork_Loins I took Friday off from work to spend a long weekend at my mother's house, in upper Westchester. The night before we left, I still had that mountain of clean basil (not having been in the mood--perhaps because it's not yet summer--to preserve it as pesto) and a pair of pork loins that needed to be cooked. These are the perfect ingredients for a warm salad. Santa Maria came up with this recipe a few months ago, and I loved it so much that I was looking forward to making it that Thursday night.

I got home from work late, but not so late that I couldn't cook the dinner. Santa Maria was on our bed reading "Anna Karenina" when I started roasting two pork loins (far more than I needed, but I knew the leftovers make great sandwichs and we would want some of that meat on our trip north).

I use a variation on a recipe I got from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." I pour some olive oil in a small bowl, add a shake (about a teaspoon, or more) of Garam Masala, and some mustard, along with salt and pepper. I spread that on the lions, throw them on a baking sheet, and put under the broiler for about a total of about fifteen minutes, rotating them once or twice to make sure the get brown but not burned. I cook them to about 145 degrees, which leavs some pink meat but no risk of trichinosis.

At the same time, I roasted some asparagus that I had sprinkled with olive oil and salt and pepper. Usually I do these at 350 degrees, but I wanted to cook them at the same time as the pork, and I only have one oven. I couldn't leave the there when the broiler was running as they would burn before they would cook. So I put them in the oven for a few minutes, transfered them to a cast-iron frying pan, and kept them cooking at a very low heat until the pork was done and I could return them to a more hospitable oven.

The warm salad is easy to make (the only other major ingredient is rice, and I had cooked some that morning), but I was too tired to be bothered. I called to Santa Maria to tell her that the dinner was ready, but she was having a hard time taking a break from her book. I couldn't blame her. As good as my ingredients are and as much care as I take with my internal temperatures and spice mixtures, I would have to be a hell of a lot better to compete with Tolstoy's prose, even in translation.

I didn't want to make the salad myself, and I didn't want to wait for Santa Maria, so I placed the pork, asparagus, and rice on my plate and sat down to eat it. 

Santa Maria finally strolled into the kitchen and promptly set out to make her salad. She cut up the pork, the asparagus, and mixed it with the rice, added basil and dressed it with a vinagrette. I was jealous. She was so ravenous that she couldn't even take a break long enough to let me photograph it. Pork_Basil_Asparagus_Salad


Saving Green

Avocado Lately, I've been trying to economize by bringing my lunch to work. This has always seemed like a simple idea, but I've never been able to pull it off with any regularity. This is partially because cooking for everyone else in the house uses up all my energy. After spending hours making food for the girls and Santa Maria, it's hard enough for me to think of my own dinner, never mind my lunch. Plus, my office has a very good and, at least for midtown Manhattan, reasonable cafeteria. So I haven't been all that motivated to bring my lunch. But as I've watched the economy wither and thought a bit about what that might mean, I've started to reconsider. I'm making a renewed effort to save money.

Last Monday night I happened to have cooked one of our old favorites for dinner: shrimp and fennel risotto.  I make this recipe with a whole lot more shrimp (a pound), rice (about three-quarters of a cup), stock (four cups, or so), and fennel (two organic heads, which tend to be smaller, or one large conventionally grown one). Sometimes we eat all of it. Sometimes there's enough left over for one more meal, such as lunch. 

This morning, Santa Maria had bold plans for the children. She was taking them to the Liberty Science Center. She'd heard great things about it, and was determined to go, even though getting there involves three different modes of public transportation and the crossing of state lines. It's in New Jersey. We live in Brooklyn. We don't own a car. This led to a lot of mad scrambling to get out the door early.

Santa Maria grabbed the lingering plastic container of risotto on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. I scratched my head and tried to figure out what I would eat for lunch. I reached deep into the fridge and came up with a container of chicken, which Santa Maria had picked off the bone after our Sunday night dinner, and some rice from the day before. And then there was all of that glorious basil I had washed the other morning.

I paired the chicken with the rice and basil to make a salad, something I learned from Santa Maria, who learned about them years ago when she lived in Spain. I put the three ingredients together. They looked sad and boring. I went back to the refrigerator and found green olives, and my saving grace--a ripe avocado. I cut it up and carried it to work in a separate container, and mixed it in right before eating. Not a half bad way to save money, at all.


No Smoking

Clean_RoastingPan I love to feed the children roast chicken, especially when Santa Maria is present, because she is so adept at getting the food cut up, and in front of the children. And they always eat everything more readily when she there. It's magical, or so I think after serving the same meal one night when she was working—and watching Pinta reject every bite.

Roast chicken presents one difficulty. It takes time. Not work, but time: at least an hour in the oven. This is not a problem during the cold winter months when we are hanging around the house, But now that it is getting lighter in the afternoon, if not warmer, we want to run around and enjoy the fresh air before dinner.

So, the question becomes, how to speed up the process. It helps a little if I leave the bird out in the roasting pan for an hour or more to get it up to room temperature. And it helps a lot if I run the oven wicked hot, say 450 to 500 degrees. I haven't found this to cause any dryness problems with the meat, although the tips of the wings tend to singe. The only issue has been that such high temperatures cause the oven to smoke like mad. And that tends to make the kitchen and the apartment mildly uncomfortable.

I discovered a little trick that is probably obvious to anyone who likes to make gravy. The smoke, as it turns out, wasn't coming from the oven per se, but from the burning drippings in the pan. This evening, I poured some water in the base of the roasting pan while cooking the chicken hot and fast. The result: no smoke.

Plus the pan was unexpectedly easy to clean up. That might be the best benefit.


The Sweet Smell of Success

I do much of my cooking in the early morning. I often head right from the bed to the stove so quickly that it doesn't even occur to me to change my clothes. I'll chop onions and celery and carrots and what have you while still wearing my pajamas. Right up to the moment I have to dress and run out the door to work, I continue on my daily culinary journey while dressed in my night clothes. The end result, other than whatever fine and tasty dish I've competed, is that my pajamas often take on a cooking odor. I only notice this eighteen hours later, when I'm on my way to bed, and I don't usually like it. Tonight, though, my pajamas smelled like the bacon I cooked this morning for breakfast. That's not such a bad smell at all. Makes me kind of hungry, in fact.


Just Another Day at the Office

Washing_Basil
I'm not always making something new. Sometimes I'm just making work. Or rather, making do. This morning, I had to get the kids ready for daycare, which meant cooking some pasta to go with the Bolognese sauce I made the day before.

As I looked through the refrigerator, I noticed a couple of half empty containers of black beans and dhal. I didn't want them to go to waste, so I boiled each and froze them. I also noticed/remembered that I had bought a huge bunch of fresh basil with some vague intention of using it this week. I know the basil keeps longer if I wash and dry it, so I took it out of the fridge and got to work.

I didn't have much to show for all my effort this morning. But I did get a nice reward. Santa Maria wandered into the kitchen after getting the kids dressed and said about the basil "that smells amazing." I'll take that.


Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?

An article in today's New York Times caught my attention. Tara Parker-Pope writes about how who does your home cooking determines how healthy it is. The article has a handy online quiz to determine your cooking personality: "Giving," "Methodical," "Competitive," "Healthy," or "Innovative." I took the quiz, somewhat unsuccessfully. I couldn't answer its questions straight. I could pick four out of five answers to the following question from the quiz:

Some of my favorite ingredients are:

a) Lots of bread, starches and red meat.
b) Beef and chicken.
c) Fish and vegetables.
d) A trendy ingredient I saw on the Food Network.
e) Vegetables, spices and unusual ingredients.

I'll let you guess which answer is not me. All I can conclude is that I have multiple personalities, at least in the kitchen.



Family Ties

I just came across a charming article from the New York Times about one man's quest to learn how his mother makes Irish soda bread. The author visits his mother in the suburbs for a tutorial. I did the same thing years ago, and in one of my notebooks somewhere I have my mother's recipe for her Irish soda bread. She makes it just about every day, and the only time she changed the recipe was when Santa Maria entered my life. She doesn't like raisins, so my mother started making loaves with red currants in them for her. My mother's soda bread isn't typical. It  doesn't have caraway seeds, for example, and it isn't at all cake-like. There's no butter in her bread. It's very healthy, although it has the drawback of going stale remarkably quick. Maybe that's why my mother's in the habit of making it so often. Someday, I'll muster the courage to try to make a loaf myself.