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May 2009

Pinning My Hopes on Half a Watermelon

Orange_watermelon Santa Maria’s folks, who are in their eighties and practically more hale than I am, were planning to visit this weekend. Years ago they used to sleep on our pull-out living room sofa. That came to an end when we had kids and the sleepless nights commenced. But, knock on wood, the kids have been sleeping okay and we were set to have them stay in the living room once more.

Santa Maria had to work today on a film shoot. I took the day off from the office to watch the Nina and Pinta. Knowing that my in-laws were due to arrive later in the day, I headed with the kids to the Food Coop, for a massive, early morning shop. I piled port-salut (a favorite of Santa Maria’s mom), a whole watermelon, four heads of broccoli, two roasting chickens, and more into the cart to get ready for their stay.

Back at home, Nina, who had been very lethargic and who had shown little appetite, developed a fever at about 10 a.m. As soon as I realized that she was coming down with something, I called my in-laws and told them to postpone their trip. Following a previous visit a few years ago during which one of our kids was a bit sick, Santa Maria’s mother ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. They might be fit, but you can't discount their chronological age too much.

I was left with poor suffering Nina and a refrigerator full of food. (I’d also placed a large order with Fresh Direct, but what I’m going to do with the stack of four-minute meals that arrived this evening is a yet-to-be-told story). The food won’t go to waste. We’ll eat it over the next week or so no problem.

Pinta, thus far, has been unaffected by whatever has sickened her sister. She was in high spirits all day. I’m hoping she’ll stay that way. Actually, I’m doing more than hoping. I’ve been plying her with fresh fruit. Perhaps a good dose of vitamin C will make a difference.

The fruit-a-thon began and ended with the watermelon I’d bought earlier in the day. After her nap, Pinta and I were sitting with the refrigerator door open looking for a snack. She saw the big, green ball of fruit sitting on the lower shelf.  “Wawamemon,” she cried out. “Wawamemon!” I promptly took it out, sliced it open, and started serving her pieces.

The watermelon turned out to be orange. It didn’t seem as sweet as other watermelons I’ve had. This might be the case because it is so early in the season. Or maybe that’s what makes an orange watermelon different than a regular one. I’m going to have to contact the producer, a small organic outfit called Lady Moon Farms, and see what they tell me.

Orange or not, Pinta loved the succulent fruit. Whether or not it will keep her from getting sick remains to be seen.

The Benefits of the Baobab Tree

800px-KayesBaobab One of my favorite musical groups of all time is Orchestra Baobab. Somehow, the Senegalese group, which was formed when I was two, speaks to me. I’ve always wanted to live in a sunny climate, put my feet up in a hammock, and contend with nothing more than staying dry during a passing thunderstorm. The sinewy guitar lines, loping tempos, and wandering saxophone lines of their songs put me in just that easy-going state of mind.

The band was created in 1970 at the behest of government officials in Senegal for the opening of the Baobab Club, a new nightclub in the European quarter of Dakar. Latin music was all the rage those days in the capital of the former French colony, and the Baobab’s house band stoked a musical revolution by mixing Cuban influences with native forms. The band churned out hit after hit in Senegal before being surpassed by the harder driving sounds of a younger generation that included Youssou N'Dour. The band broke up in the mid eighties, but the surviving members have since gotten back together. They released a pair of albums in recent years and they still tour.

I thought of the Orchestra Baobab this morning when I saw today’s New York Times. The band is named for a wild looking tree that is native to the Savannah (a trunk of which was a centerpiece of its namesake club). Apparently the baobab tree is also a wonder food. According to an op-ed piece by the anthropologist Dawn Starin, its fruit is “rich in antioxidants, potassium, and phosphorus, and has six times as much vitamin C as oranges and twice as much calcium as milk.”

This is wonderful news for health-conscious Western consumers. Europeans already have approval to import the fruit, and it is expected that the Food and Drug Administration will follow suit in this country shortly. Though, as Starin points out, the situation is a bit more complicated for Africans (who might not profit from the export of its fruit) and the tree itself, which has never been grown as a crop.

We’ll just have to see how all this plays out. In the meantime, there’s no disputing the benefits of the Orchestra Baobab’s music.

The Price of Things Today

I’ve been trying to save money around the house. I switched from an air-miles reward credit card to a simple cash back one, as I’m not going anywhere anyway. (The card is a good deal: Chase’s Freedom Visa pays up to 3% back on purchases). We do almost all of our food shopping at the Park Slope Food Coop, which has a very minor mark up, so we are saving money there.

Still there are things I want that I can’t get at the coop, such as Progresso lentil soup. It’s one of the concessions I make to convenience in feeding the kids. Nina loves it, even if it does break my heart just a little bit to hear her call out for the “canned lentil soup” instead of my outrageously delicious Turkish version (which I’ll write about later, I promise.)

The coop doesn’t sell the soup, but at least two grocery stores in my neighborhood do. The closest one to my house has it at $2.99 a can. A larger store a few blocks away sells it for $2.69.

I’ve yet to develop the skill (and patience) to compare prices and really shop around, but I hope to learn to do so soon. (A master of saving money is my friend Vespucci. He’s a shrewd shopper, and a home gardener. The New York Post just did a video feature on him.)

Still, I make an effort. On Sunday, I walked to the larger grocery store and bought four cans of the soup with my cash-back credit card, saving more than a dollar. On the trip back home, I felt both proud and foolish. Proud to have saved the dollar plus. Foolish for being proud.

But then I read a harrowing story in the New York Times magazine by an economics reporter who has tangled himself up in the financial crisis. He borrowed too much money to buy too big a house. He and his new wife couldn’t slow their spending, and now they are facing foreclosure. A cautionary tale, indeed. Made me feel much better about saving that dollar.

Why Everyone Should Know Their Way Around the Kitchen

Meat_thermometer I always considered the instant-read thermometer to be a useful but slightly obscure tool. I had no idea that it is now essential for everyone's health.

According to a disturbing article on the front page of today’s Times, major frozen-food corporations can no longer vouch for the safety of their offerings. After a spate of illnesses related to frozen chicken pot pies and the like, the companies are insisting that the consumer check the internal temperatures of their reheated meal to make sure they've heated it sufficiently to kill any pathogens.

Apparently, even if you prefer to throw a frozen dinner in the microwave, you’re going to have to learn basic skills. I guess we’re all cooks now.

No Worry Fennel Risotto

Indian_Feast Yesterday, one of Nina and Pinta's play dates turned into an excellent Indian feast. We're lucky to have old friends who have children around the same age. Some of our friends are also exceptional cooks. The friends we saw last night I'm going to call Ameriga and Vespucci. She's a dot-com winner turned graduate student. He's a writer. He does all of the cooking in their household. Together, like Santa Maria and myself, they are on a voyage of discovery through the uncharted regions of shifting gender roles.

The meal was delicious and the company was fun. Best of all, I didn’t labor in the kitchen. I waltzed into their apartment after work and was handed a glass of red wine. It was a soft on the mouth and softer on the wallet glass of Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joes. I'd never had it before, and I thought it was quite good. Much better than, in fact (and Vespucci volunteered), the bottle of Rosé he christened "Walmart Willie" that he served with dinner.

We sat down to Vespucci's captivating vegetable curry, complete with carrots, green peas, celery, and boiled potatoes. His rice was laced with cloves, cardamom pods, and cashews. His raita showcased cilantro plucked fresh from his terrace garden, where he grows a thriving crop of vegetables and herbs under the light of reflector boards made from recycled aluminum foil. These were all side dishes to his soul satisfying beef-kababs, studded with cumin and slivers of potatoes. I wasn't there to document it, but Santa Maria claims he prepared all of this in a half an hour before I arrived. I'm hoping to get details from him on how he does it. As soon as I do, I'll post them here.

Though I didn't have to do any work for dinner, I'm so neurotic about food that I did manage to find some work to do in the kitchen. Not my friend's kitchen, my own. Despite the plans to go out, I did a lot of prep work that morning for dinner. The truth is, I wasn't sure I'd be able to join everyone for dinner. I do have a job, after all. So thinking that I might go hungry if I had to work late (a distinct possibility), I roasted pork loins and chopped an onion and a head of fennel for some risotto.

I was happy to cook up the risotto this evening. I'm quite thrilled with how it came out. Santa Maria had to go out a book reading, so I was on my own with the kids. I started cooking it before they were ready for bed, and I had to turn everything off for about a half an hour in the middle of the process. The kids couldn't wait. The risotto would have to.

It's been drummed into my head that you have to keep stirring risotto. Well, I just learned that you don't. Despite sitting for all that time, it turned out just fine. Santa Maria sang its praises when she got home.

Fennel Risotto

  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 head of fennel, cored and diced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3/4 cup arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste

        Heat the stock
        In a heavy pot, saute the onion and fennel until soft, about five minutes
        Add the rice, stir to coat with oil
        Add the wine, cook til it's absorbed
        Start adding the stock one ladle, about a half a cup, at a time
        Stir so the rice doesn't stick
        As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more
        Repeat until the rice is cooked, about twenty minutes
        Salt and pepper to taste
        Add the cheese to taste

More Pancake Recipe Tricks

DonohuePancakeEDIT3 As this blog grows, I plan on including outside contributions. My recent post on pancakes drew this response from my friend Peter Feld.  He’s not, to the best of his knowledge, a father. But he once was a kid. 

In my house, Saturday mornings were for French Toast, and Sundays belonged to Dad's pancakes. French Toast was great but I loved Sundays better. Like John, my Dad never used mix. Nothing fancy - no separated eggs or whipped egg whites. The main secrets to success were good proportions and a tablespoon of vanilla. I've taken his tricks with me all over the world and they haven't let me down yet. Here goes:

2 1/2 cups flour.... white back then, but nowadays I would think about using whole wheat or at least unbleached.
3 tbsp sugar... this was back in the '60s, I'd cut that now by a bit, no loss of flavor
3/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp baking powder.

Mix together dry ingredients, then add:

2 eggs
2 cups milk (low-fat now)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 stick melted butter.... well, nowadays I cut back on the butter and just melt some in two pans for cooking and pour most of into the batter and stir. Beat it all together, then start ladling the batter and cooking the pancakes. Dad didn't go for adding fruit until after we were grown, but blueberries (frozen are fine), bananas, or both make it even better.

When the bubbles pop and harden, and the top is no longer moist, time to flip them. Hopefully the temperature is such that the pancakes don't burn on the bottom before the top is dried out. (Get the pan good and hot before you start, then turn down the heat. Somehow the first one is always a little off, but that gives you something to nibble while you cook the rest of them.) But of course, if that happens, just serve with the burnt side down!

Wine of the Month Club

One part of the Mothers Day celebration that I left out of yesterday’s post came to mind as I read today’s Science Times. We may have started the day with kid-friendly pancakes, but I was keen on ending the day on a more mature note—a dry, refreshing note.

Santa Maria was off with the kids at the playground. I was just back from a run in the park. I opened a bottle of wine, found a pair of disposable Styrofoam cups, poured two cups, and headed out to meet Santa Maria on the playground.

I’m a big fan of the four-packs put together each month by one of our local wine stores, Red White and Bubbly. When I was younger, I liked to listen to the radio because then I didn’t have to sort through my record collection (yes, I’m old enough to have had LPs). When I found a station I liked, I left it there and enjoyed the music (even if every few songs I might end up listening to something I didn’t like).

I feel the same way about the four packs. Each month they pick wines they like and sell them at a price that appeals to me. Each month I’m assured of finding something I’ll like. Occasionally, there’s something in it that I don’t think I’ll like. Such as this month. One of the bottles was a Rosé. I don’t generally like Rosés, but the afternoon was hot and the bottle was inviting. Plus I like the way I could rhyme in my head Mothers Day with the word Rosé.

The bottle the wine store selected was a Mellot Sincerite Rose by Jean Baptiste Thibault, and true to the store’s description, it was dry and delicious.

At the playground, Santa Maria was touched that I had thought of bringing her a glass (or cup, such as it was). But she didn’t actually want to drink anything. I did though, and was happy to have my cup and hers. And I admit that it didn't hurt any to have consumed them by the time Pinta had a temper tantrum in the lobby of our building because I wouldn't let her climb the stairs barefoot. I just waited with her while she protested, and protested, and protested. After a while, she put her sandals back on and we went upstairs where I thought about having another glass, but didn't.

This brings me around to today’s Science Times. It has a great article by Jane Brody on the dangers of drinking. Not the dangers of being an alcoholic, but the kind of behavior that might lead to alcoholism. My father was an alcoholic and my brother is too. Am I at risk? I read the piece to find out. Apparently, I’m allowed up to four drinks a day (but no more than fourteen a week). Not bad. I think I can live with that.  

How to Make Pancakes

Pancake I am a slow learner: one of five children, I didn’t grasp the concept of sibling rivalry until I came across the term in a college textbook. But I do have some brains, and it didn’t take a doctorate, a master’s, or a bachelor’s degree for me to figure out that families have competing interests. This past Sunday was mother’s day, and my brother was throwing a party for my mother. This left little time for Santa Maria, so we celebrated early, on Saturday.

I started the day off with fresh-fruit pancakes. Before Santa Maria and I became parents, would spend Saturday mornings lazing about in bed. There was little else we wanted to do. Pancakes became the only reason to get out from under the covers.

I knew a few things about pancakes that made eating them as good as any other activity we might engage in during those laid-back mornings. I found it was as easy to stir up a batch of batter from scratch as it was to open a box of mix. My old roommate Kevin Conley taught me how to caramelize bananas on them. He also showed me the trick of beating the egg whites to make them light as air.

I became so obsessed with beating the egg whites that I once served inch-high pancakes to my extended family one post-Christmas morning and they started calling me “Fluff Daddy.” Santa Maria isn’t as enthusiastic about the super fully cakes so I’ve eased off on beating the eggs. I still do it, just not as rigorously.

In cooking the pancakes for Santa Maria back in the days before children, I made an amazing discovery. Pancakes, those steamy, floppy, sad-sack diner mainstays, can come light and fresh with an otherwise unheard of crispy edge. The trick is to eat them right off the frying pan—no stacking a bunch in the oven. And making them small, silver dollar sized, helps. The crispy and buttery edge only lasts about as long as it takes to get the plate from the kitchen to the table. Enjoy it if you can. It’s a rare pleasure.

My batter is adapted from a recipe in “The Joy of Cooking.” I separate and beat the egg whites. I fold them into the wet batter and I’ve learned that you do not need to mix the batter completely. Too much stirring will make the pancakes tough. Mix the wet and the dry ingredients just long enough to combine them. Leave a few lumps, and let the batter sit for a few minutes. By the time you come back to it, they will have dissolved.

I cook the pancakes in the traditional manner, but I also spice them with cinnamon or nutmeg. I put slices of bananas, pears, apples, and other fruits on the half-cooked pancake before turning it. When I flip them, the fruit caramelizes and the result is delicious.

One note: Nina isn’t fond of fruit and she won’t eat the pancakes the way I make them. Santa Maria figured out that we could grate some apple and put in the batter. She eats them this way, and I’ve learned that they are pretty good, too.

Fresh-fruit Pancakes

        For the batter:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups of milk
  • 2 eggs, whites separated
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons butter

        Combine the dry ingredients and mix well with a fork (many cookbooks will tell you to sift the flour;             I've never bothered to do so)
        Melt the butter.
        Mix the yolks in with the milk.
        Beat the egg whites until they can barely hold a peak.
        Combine the dry ingredients with the wet.
        Don't mix too much.
        Fold in the whites.

        For the toppings:
        Slice a banana, pear, apple, or other fruit thinly.

        Heat a frying pan over medium heat, add some butter. Pour in the batter. When bubbles form, layer             on the fruit. Flip the pancake. Cook until finished. Serve with Maple Syrup.

Quickly Spicing Up Steamed Spinach

Spinach Pre-washed baby spinach makes for one of my favorite side dishes. It requires next to no work to prepare, but I have discovered that a little bit of effort goes a long way. My friend Emily Nunn recently remarked upon the easy and rewarding aspects of cooking on her tasty blog, Cook the Wolf:

One thing I wish more people knew, especially people who have lived their lives on fast/takeout/restaurant food: cooking doesn't always have to mean making a giant involved recipe. Many people are unaware of the incredible amount of culinary satisfaction that can come with very little effort. Putting out freshly boiled corn, sliced tomatoes, and cucumbers in oil and vinegar is cooking. I consider a really good ham sandwich cooking (put pickles on it!).

The rest of her post, about a breakfast dish called a Bird in a Nest (something, I confess, I’ve never heard of) is here.

My experiment with the steamed spinach was laughably easy. I add sliced garlic. And a bit of crushed red pepper. That’s nothing in the faintest way original. I made it this way on Wednesday, to go with my Bolognese and pasta, and I tried it again last night with my standard meal of black beans, chicken, and rice.

My new method didn’t add much to the pasta night, but it somewhat revolutionized my little Mexican meal, which I usually eat with salsa. But we were out of the sauce, so I threw in a couple of extra shakes of crushed red pepper when making the spinach. Bringing the heat made a real difference. I didn’t miss the salsa at all.

Quick Spiced Steamed Spinach

  • half a bag (or as much as you would like) of pre-washed baby spinach
  • three or four cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half lengthwise, then sliced
  • olive oil
  • crushed red pepper, to taste

        Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan.
        Add the garlic and the pepper.
        Cook until the garlic is soft, about two or three minutes.
        Add the spinach, and a bit of water.
        Stir until the spinach wilts.

Voices Carry: Arriving at a Search for Chicken Stock

Frozen_chicken_stock I’m not always the parent I hope to be. I don’t yell too much (though I have been known to lose my temper), drink too much (albeit I do tipple), or gamble excessively (unless you consider working in publishing these days to be long shot). No, sometimes I contemplate cutting corners in the kitchen.

Just this morning, I was making my more-or-less weekly Bolognese sauce. I was feeling lazy and considered leaving out the chicken stock. I had plenty of it in the freezer, or so I thought. But my freezer is often just too forbidding to enter, even though I keep it pretty well organized. On the left are the store-bought frozen items, like fish sticks and empanadas. Frozen fish fillets are stacked in the center. My homemade, prepared foods are stacked on the right-hand side in re-used quart-sized plastic take-out and yogurt containers. The problem is I haven’t figured out a way to keep a label on those containers, and I need to peer into each one to find the thing I’m looking for (Mark Bittman, in today’s Times, has stern words for this kind of behavior, in an excellent piece on the many and surprising uses of the freezer).

So, finding chicken stock involves stacking the frozen items on the floor (in a weird New York City quirk, my refrigerator is not in the kitchen—it’s in the middle of my apartment’s main hallway). And this morning, I just didn’t feel like being bothered with the bending and stooping and moving.

I started to rationalize my decision. Who would notice if I left out the stock? Anyone? I doubt it. Would it make my recipe a false rendition of the sauce? God no. There are a thousand ways to make Bolognese and mine barely qualifies as authentic. I only stand by mine because my family and I like it, which seems as good a reason as any to make anything around the home.

“What would be the difference,” a little voice said to me, “if I skipped the effort to find the stock and just moved on to adding the tomatoes.” Another voice said to me, “Don’t do it. Think of the kids. Think of yourself.” A third voice said, “You’re starting to act crazy.”

Finally, the voice of reasons spoke: “How do you even know that there is chicken stock in the freezer? And if you don’t have any, what are you going to do about it?” So I had to look, and I found one nice quart of it. And I noted to myself that I’ll need to make more soon.