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April 2009

Four Legs Bad, Two Stalks Good

Asparagus Santa Maria is a huge fan of the New York Times science section, published each Tuesday. I always bring her a copy of it home from the office, like I'm some kind of nineteen-fifties provider. In getting in the habit of bringing her the section, I've started to grow very fond of it myself. This week's edition had a chilling article by Jane Brody about the perils of eating meat, one of which are the carcinogens that develop as the meat is grilled or roasted.

I'm a natural omnivore with an unusually high need for protein, so I'm not sure how I'll be able to cut down on the amount of meat I eat. As it is, I don't often eat red meat, given how expensive it is (at least for the grass-fed kind).

I try to get in as many vegetables as I can, having been raised on a steady diet of meat/starch/vegetable servings. One of our favorite greens is asparagus, and there is no better time for it than in the spring. One of my favorite ways to cook it is to roast it. The method is quick and easy and most importantly, tasty. I have no idea if it puts me at risk for carcinogens the way roasting meat apparently does. It's just too delicious to consider.

Roast Asparagus

  • 1 head fresh asparagus
  • a little olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
        Snap the ends off the asparagus and wash the stalks well.
        Place the stalks on a baking sheet and drizzle with the oil.
        Roll the stalks around to coat them.
        Salt and pepper to taste.
        Place the baking sheet in the oven and roast for about fifteen minutes, or until the stalks are tender             and the tips are crispy.

        Note: Santa Maria likes to then dress the stalks with a balsamic vinaigrette. They are also tasty with slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Chicken Soup for the Soul

Sometimes I think I have O.C.D--Obsessive Cooking Disorder. Take Tuesday morning, for example. I didn't know what to do with myself. Santa Maria wasn't getting along with the kids. They were having a real Daddy moment. Santa Maria wasn't, and I was left feeling torn between being a father and being a husband.

So what did I do? I started cooking; I threw some pork loins under the broiler and put on a pot of rice for that night's dinner and then started peeling scallions for my lunch of tuna salad (I make mine with nothing but lemon, olive oil, scallions, and dill; it's delicious).

Then, like some desperate sinner I continued my culinary self flagellating. I decided to make chicken soup. I have never been much of a fan of the dish, but this recipe has grown on me. It's Santa Maria's, and I've taken to doing most of the labor whenever we make it. On Tuesday morning, I did all but throw in the spices.

The soup takes a little over an hour, not including picking the chicken. I'd been cooking for hours before getting to that labor-intensive step. Usually, I leave it to Santa Maria to pick (she's more careful than I am), but Tuesday was about purifying the soul. I picked the bird before running to the office. While working my fingers through the hot flesh, I wondered what the hell was wrong with me. Why did I need to make three meals before starting the day?

My answer came tonight: I might be an obsessive cooker, but that's because we, as a family, have obsessive appetites (praise the Lord that the girls seem to have inherited my genes for a fast metabolism).

I returned from work a little early because Santa Maria was going to get her hair cut. She's found a fancy Madison Avenue stylist who cuts hair at her home in the evening at a discount. The only downside is that she lives in Bushwick, a geographically close neighborhood but one that is practically a galaxy away when visited by subway. It takes Santa Maria an hour each way.

Santa Maria had fed the kids fish sticks for dinner. They ate them walking around the neighborhood, and I met them on their wanderings. When we came home, though, the kids were still hungry, and one can only give one's children so many Goldfish (even if they are whole wheat) before they revoke your license to parent. So after the third serving, I started offering them Gruyere, Mozzarella, and, yes, chicken soup. Nina ate two bowls before her bedtime. So did I. And so did Santa Maria after she got home.

Chicken Soup

  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups brown rice
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 chili pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • One three-to-four-pound chicken
  • 1 lemon, halved and juiced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • pepper to taste

        Put the rice on to cook. Add a bay leaf or two and salt if desired.

        Heat some olive oil in a tall stock pot.
        Add the onions, carrots, and celery.
        Saute until the onions are translucent.
        Add the garlic and chili pepper.
        Saute until the garlic is soft.
        Rinse and add the whole chicken to the pot.
        Add enough water to the pot to cover the chicken.
        Add the bay leaves, lemon halves and juice, and other spices.
        Cover and bring to a boil.
        Reduce to a simmer.
        Cook for about an hour, or until the chicken is cooked through.
        Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon.
        Remove the lemon halves, chili pepper, and bay leaves.
        Pick the meat from the chicken and return to the soup.
        Stir in the rice.

        Notes: Remove the chili pepper earlier if you want the soup less spicy. The soup freezes well.

Here's how it looked late this evening as I heated some for Santa Maria after her hair-cutting expedition.

Cooking Fluke


I wrapped up our seafood extravaganza on Saturday with a simple dinner of fluke, bread, asparagus, and wine. When the kids eat all of those items (except the last one), which is common around our house, I feel like I’m dreaming.

Too often, out of convenience, we feed them frozen fish sticks (some kind of pseudo organic thing from our local food coop, they can’t be half bad—but they can’t be half good either), and I get concerned that they might lose their taste for the real thing.

I don’t bread the fillets much. In fact, for Santa Maria, I don’t bread them at all. She’s a purist. She insists the fish needs nothing on it. So I’ve developed the following technique:

Get the cast-iron frying pan as hot as I can manage, hit it with some oil, grab a thin fillet, and toss it in until it sizzles and sizzles and sizzles and I’m at least a tiny-bit confident that it is browned. Then I turn off the pan and let it cool so that when I try to flip it I don’t loose all that gorgeous browning. It works about 75% of the time, and if the fillet is thin enough there’s sufficient heat in the pan to cook it through on the other side. Remember, fresh fish doesn’t need nearly as much cooking as you think it might.

As for myself and the kids, I drag the fillets through a little salted-and-peppered flour and give the fish a few minutes a side in the cast iron pan. I like to warm the oven to keep them a nice temperature as I can only cook one or two at a time.

Getting the food to the table is the least favorite part of the meal for me. I’d rather wash dishes than plate up the food for my children. I leave that to Santa Maria. There’s just too much at stake. I know how to cook. How to get the kids to eat it is a whole other question. So much can go wrong as soon as they see the food. On Saturday night, everything went right.

Linguini alle Vongole recipe fit for a Saturday

White_Clam_Sauce I love fish. I grew up eating it every Friday, but that’s not why I like it. As I am one of five children and money was somewhat tight when I was young, the fish was often was bluefish. It was never salmon, sword, or anything fancy (this was before farming made salmon relatively cheap). Often, it was awful. The unfortunate truth about bluefish is that it spoils quickly.

During a summer vacation when I was about ten (or twelve, or fifteen; what’s memory but a skipping disk of old songs?) we stayed at the Engleside, a longstanding hotel on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.  During the trip, my mother cooked many of our meals in the hotel room, which had a little stove top and a small fridge.

On day she went down to the other side of the island, where the sport fishermen dock their boats, talked to some talented (or lucky) fishermen, and bought dinner. I’ll never forget eating what she served. It tasted unlike anything I’d ever eaten before. I thought the sea had landed on my plate. I had a hard time believing my mother when she told me we were eating blue fish.

We don’t have to go to such lengths to get fresh fish. Every Saturday, there’s a greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza just up the block from us. One of its purveyors, Blue Moon Fish, has some of the best seafood in the city. They catch it during the week off of Long Island and sell it just days later. During the summer, we make weekly pilgrimages to their stand.

Today, it felt like summer so Santa Maria suggested that we indulge in one of our seafood extravaganzas. She biked to the market this morning and came back with three dozen little-neck clams, a pound of cleaned squid, and a pound of fluke. We were set for the day (our other favorite, mussels, aren’t in season yet).

We had the clams for lunch, over pasta, in this case spaghetti. I make a very basic, but very savory white clam sauce.  I learned the recipe years ago when I worked as a clerk in a retail fish market, fine tuned it by reading Mark Bittman’s nifty paperback “Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking," and refined it by eating exceptional versions of it at restaurants like Al Di La, which I’m pretty sure is where I got the idea to add mint to it.

There are countless ways to make this dish (The website for “The Sopranos” even has a recipe). Bittman’s blog has an enticing and slightly more sophisticated variation. He suggests making it without wine. I would try it if I wasn’t so happy with what I’ve been making it for years (and if I hadn’t, about a decade ago, made such a dry version of this dish for a small dinner party that my sister and her husband were prompted to ask when I placed their dinners before them, “where’s the sauce?).

I love the way my sauce tastes, and so does Santa Maria and Nina (Pinta, who normally eats everything, refused to try the dish today—maybe she’s been reading Bittman).

Linguini alle Vongole
  • Three dozen of the smallest little neck, or other hard-shell clam
  • One chili pepper or a good shake of crushed red pepper
  • Three or four cloves garlic, sliced in half lengthwise and then sliced thinly
  • One cup or so of white wine
  • A handful of fresh parsley, washed and minced
  • A few leaves of basil, washed and chopped
  • A few sprigs of mint, washed and chopped
        Scrub the clams well.
        Heat some olive oil in a stock pot.
        Add the garlic and the pepper.
        Cook just a few minutes.
        Add the clams, the herbs, and the white wine and cover.
        Cook until the clams open up, just a few minutes (give the pot a good shake every so often).

        Serve over linguini or spaghetti.
        Serves two to four.

What to do with frozen spaghetti? A koan.

Spaghetti Life in chez Stay at Stove Dad isn’t always glamorous. I spend much of my time pulling half-finished servings of various dishes from the refrigerator and trying to decide what to do with them. It’s not an easy question. Financial and moral reasoning (save money; don’t waste food) clash with health and convenience concerns (risk food poisoning? Be finished with the thing and move on?).

My short-term solution has long been the freezer. I’ll boil that tiny serving of sauce and throw it back in the freezer. The bread that’s sitting on the counter a day after purchase? It goes straight into the ice box, too. I’m fond of tossing all sorts of things into the freezer, but I’ve drawn a line with things like pasta.

I know, I know, I know, there are legions of people (including my father-in-law) who can argue for hours about the virtues of freezing pasta. I just never know what I’m going to do with it.

The other day I gave in to the urge to save pasta and decided to freeze the bit of leftover spaghetti that was lingering on the top shelf of the refrigerator. I don’t really know what I’ll do with it, but that’s the benefit of the freezer: I have months to meditate on the question.

Run Chicken Run

Chicken_Pox My fears of the evening before were misplaced. I came home to a hero's welcome. Despite the fever, Nina was in good spirits, as was Pinta and Santa Maria. They had all, coincidentally, just dined on my Bolognese, so I wasn't all that surprised that everyone was so happy.

This morning we got a little more insight into Nina's illness. She had red, bite-like marks all over—a classic indicator of chicken pox. On the whole vaccination question, we've tried to take a middle path—spacing out all the legally required ones and passing on the optional ones—and only time will tell if our middle path is a hard road. We hadn't vaccinated her or her sister against the virus, and now she has come down with it. And shortly, presumably, her sister will also.

Last night the kids slept well and didn’t know about the chicken pox and thus weren't too concerned. But we’re just getting started with the illness, and whenever the kids are sick, it’s impossible for me to concentrate. I feel what I imagine a credit card must feel when it comes in too close proximity to a magnetic field, all my data gets erased. My mind becomes fogged and I can’t think straight.

So it wasn’t surprising this evening when I heard strange sounds coming from the kitchen. We had just put the kids to bed and were getting started on our dinner of black beans, rice, and chicken.

Santa Maria had worked all day. As a treat for Nina, she stopped on her way home to buy some pink tulips, and, as a treat for herself, a ripe avocado. She quickly turned it into a deliciously fresh batch of guacamole and we postponed our dinner to enjoy its creamy, transporting richness.

Santa Maria can make guacamole in the time it takes me to get dressed. A long time ago, I worked in a retail fish market with a somewhat fallen Culinary Institute of America chef. When he made a linguini alle vongole, he would claim it was so good that it would make your socks go up and down. Santa Maria’s guacamole is in the same league.

We were sitting in the dining room eating our chips and guacamole when I thought I heard the nice rustling and crackling sounds of an open fire. I was so caught up in my guacamole-induced reverie that it took me a few minutes of listening to remember that we do not have a fireplace in our apartment. That sound, then, could only mean that something was burning in the kitchen.

I dashed from my chair to find the black beans I had put on the stove were getting singed. I had turned the flame up too high. We managed to salvage the top half of the beans. The rest we had to throw away.  The guacamole, however, was worth it, and I’ll leave you with Santa Maria’s recipe.

Note: The above image is an electron micrograph of a Varicella (Chickenpox) Virus, courtesy of the CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer; B.G. Partin.


  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • 4 shakes Tabasco
  • 1 sprinkle salt
  • 3 tablespoons diced tomato
  • 1 tablespoon diced onion
  • 1 tablespoon diced cilantro, optional

        Peel and mash the avocado and combine with the other ingredients.

What’s cooking really about?

For me, cooking concerns more than just eating. It presents an existential dilemma. What’s it about? Often it’s about flavor. Other times, about nutrition. But almost always, for me at least, it’s about fear. Fear of going hungry. Fear of my kids being hungry. Fear of a hungry wife (oh, what fuel for the temper low blood sugar is—and I speak from my personal experience).

Why is this the case for me? Why isn’t it about desire and potential? Those are two equal valid views of what cooking promotes and contains.

Perhaps my point of view is rooted in my genes. I’m first generation Irish-American, and one of my favorite quotes is from Brian Tolle’s Irish Hunger Memorial, in lower Manhattan. A fascinating little piece of the old sod (literally), the site, is designed to raise public awareness of the events that led to the famine of 1845-52, is lined with quotes about hunger. The one that has stuck in my head is a Chinese proverb that goes, more or less, like this: “The well-fed man has many problems. The hungry man only one.”

What am I doing about my hunger right now? I’m about to head home at the end of the day, and Santa Maria has told me that Nina has come down with a 101-degree fever. I know that a nice serving of Bolognese is waiting for me (I put it out to defrost this morning), but I’m not sure when I’ll get to eat it. It could be hours from now.

So I’ve turned to one of my favorite new discoveries: Siggi's yogurt. Made in the Icelandic style of skyr (in a carbon-footprint diminishing upstate New York location), it is thick and delicious—not too sweet—and protein rich. It might not be cooking to open a little tub of it, but it is a satiating salvation, and just enough to keep me in good spirits until I can settle down over that bowl of pasta later tonight.

The Scientific Method

I've eaten many things in my day, but nothing like what Richard Wrangham has downed. The Harvard-based anthropologist who has made a career of studying chimpanzees, has, in his time gone to remarkable lengths for science. Today's New York Times has a brief interview with him in which he reveals some of his research methods:

I won't eat an animal I'm not prepared to kill myself. I haven't eaten a mammal in about 30 years, except a couple of times during the 1990s, when I ate some raw monkey the chimps had killed and left behind.
I wanted to see what it tasted like. The black and white Colobus monkey is very tough and unpleasant. The red Colobus is sweeter. The chimps prefer it for good reason.

Wranham is in the paper today because he's promoting a forthcoming book, "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human," in which he argues that our evolution from ape into a more developed animal was sped along by preparing meat and the like over fire. 

Cooking has always just made me hungry, so I'm looking forward to reading about how it made humanity what it is today.

Child's Play

Dhal The other day I was reading to Nina "The Amazing Bone" by William Steig. Like all great children's books, it leavens the sweet and magical with the savory and dastardly, in this case, a hungry fox (a popular Steig creation). During one passage, the fox is preparing to eat for dinner the main character, a lovely little pig named Pearl. The fox stands in his kitchen, sharpening his knife on a steel, while Pearl looks on (she's soon saved by the title character, that amazing bone).

Recently, I was in our kitchen making one of our favorite staples, an uncompromising red lentil dhal. The first step is slicing up some onions, so I reached for my sharpening steel and started to drag the blade of my knife up and down its rough spine. Nina was looking on, and she said "You're just like the fox." Indeed.

I make this dhal almost every week. Santa Maria is crazy for it (as are the kids). She's spent a lot of time in India, and I love when she tells me there are no dhals like this in that whole country. I can't really take credit for its delicious mix of ginger and lemon—my recipe is adapted from "Food & Wine Magazine's 2001 Cookbook."

I cooked up a double batch of it on Saturday for Pinta's second birthday. At least two people at her party asked me how to make it. Here's how:

Red Lentil Dhal

  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise 
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • One 2 inch or so cinnamon stick 
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) of minced fresh ginger 
  • 3 cloves of garlic 
  • 1 dash of cayenne pepper 
  • 2 cups small red lentils, about a pound, rinsed
  • 1 lemon, halved and juiced (seeds removed) 
  • 3 or 4 cups of chicken stock 
  • 3 or 4 cups of hot water  
  • 1 teaspoon salt 

Heat the oil in a heavy sauce pan
Add the onion, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick
Saute until the onions are translucent
Add the garlic and the ginger and the cayenne
Continue cooking another few minutes
Add the lentils and stir to coat them with oil
Add the chicken stock and the water
Add the lemon juice and the squeezed halves of the fruit
Add the salt
Bring to a boil
Reduce to a simmer
Cook for about a half hour, until the onions mostly break up and the lentils more or less dissolve. If it looks like it needs more water, add some. 

This freezes remarkably well. It is best served with rice. To make it more fancy, caramelize some onions to go on top, along with some plain yogurt, and some chopped cilantro. 

Gut Check

As a life-long journalist, the troubled state of the newspaper business has given me serious concern recently. I love reading the paper and I've written for it from time to time. The paper I'm talking about, of course, is the New York Times

I didn't know how important the paper was to me until just the other day. Wednesday, in particular, I realized that it might just save my life.
Let me explain. One of the dastardly microbes that caused the kids trouble this winter is a bacteria called Clostridium difficile. Nina tested positive for it, which sent us scrambling in multiple directions one night a few months ago. First to try and find the antibiotic that the on-call doctor wanted to prescribe, and then to the Internet to find out just what this thing was. Nina's diagnosis didn't make sense. C. difficile, as it's called, is one of the more-or-less regularly occurring bacteria in the gut. It only becomes a problem if an antibiotic taken for some other infection disrupts the balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract. Nina had not been taking an antibiotic, so it didn't make sense that she had it. The cure the doctor prescribed was so hard to find that we waited until the morning to talk to Nina's regular pediatrician. By that time, her symptoms had abated and the doctor agreed to a wait-and-see approach, combined with a probiotic called Florastor. I had thought of things like probiotics as expensive placebos until this experience. She hasn't been troubled since. 

On Tuesday, the science section of the times ran a detailed article on the increased prevalence of C. dif. It seems to be striking all kinds of normal people who take antibiotics for legitimate reasons. I'm pretty sure I will need to take some kind of antibiotic at sometime over the rest of my life, and I'd like to avoid this unpleasant and potentially deadly side effect. So I've been thinking I should start taking a probiotic. 

The following day, the food section ran a fascinating piece by Harold McGee about making your own yogurt, which is, of course, full of probiotics. I love this idea, and can't wait to try it out. Who knows, maybe it will be my salvation. I hope something or someone can figure out a way to save the newspaper business.