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June 2009

A Quesadilla Recipe for Good Memories

Two_roses We spent the weekend visiting the Abuelita, and enjoying the turn in the weather. The children got to swim at the local town pool and explore the house I grew up in.  I know its layout and furniture well, but to them, the house is a wonderful new world. On a previous visit, Nina asked “why are there so many bedrooms?” There are only four, but to her that is a lot.

It was built in the mid sixties, so the floors don’t creak all that much. But if you step on the right place, they creak in predicable ways. There is a spot, just inside my parent’s bedroom door, that cries out with every footfall. Over the weekend, I stepped on it, and when I heard the sing-song sound of the floorboards, I was suddenly reminded of a thousand evenings of my own childhood. I could picture my parents retiring for the night. Two steps and a creak. It echoed in my mind.

I then wondered, what will my children remember? We rent our apartment. I don’t expect to still be there after they are grown and return home with their own children.  Where will their hidden memories reside? Perhaps they will be in my cooking. The flavors I share with them can have a powerful effect.

At the pool on Sunday afternoon, Nina sunk into a blood-sugar funk and spent much of the time sitting in a folding chair with a towel wrapped around herself.  I knew that she was hungry, but we hadn’t brought enough food with us.

I went to the snack bar and saw that they sold quesadillas. Bingo. She loves them, and the protein in the cheese would soon have her back in good spirits. I asked her if she wanted some, and she nodded yes. Nina took one bite and put the gooey triangle back on the paper plate. She didn’t touch the rest of them. I asked her what was the matter. “I don’t like the cheese,” she said.

They were made with American cheese. It was the first time she’d had it. I always make the quesadillas at home with a sharp cheddar, perhaps not the most traditional method, but clearly one with a strong effect. The next day, back at the house, I cooked some up for her.


  • Corn tortillas
  • Slices of cheddar cheese

        Heat a cast-iron frying pan.
        Place a tortilla on it.
        Heat the tortilla for a few minutes, then flip.
        Layer with sliced cheese and fold in half.
        Continue to cook, flipping occasionally, until the cheese melts and the tortilla is as toasted as desired.

        Note: You can use olive oil in the pan if you prefer, but I've found that it is completely unnecessary.             Also, quesadillas lend themselves to a number of additional fillings, from chicken to avocado. Feel free         to experiment.

(The photo is of two roses that the Abuelita gave to Nina and Pinta. Maybe they'll remember the flower's sweet smell, too.)

Summer Saturday Limeade Recipe

Limeade After weeks and weeks of rain (one of my colleagues told me that she recently dreamed of being on an ark), the weather finally broke here today. The sun was shining when we got up. Inspired by the clear skies and seasonal temperatures, we headed to the Greenmarket for clams and mussels. We wanted to have our seafood extravaganza for lunch. Last week, Nina was sick and she couldn't have her "soupy pasta" as she called linguine alle vongole.

On the way to the Greenmarket, we passed a mobile beverage vendor. This being Park Slope, they weren't selling soda, they were selling handmade lemonade and limeade, at $5 a cup. Nina wanted some, but I had just bought her a Tootsie roll, at 15 cents, and pointed out to her that she'd already had a treat for the morning. She was not particularly happy with this reply, but she accepted it.

Santa Maria, being more inventive and loving by nature, volunteered to make fresh lemonade when we got home. Alas, we didn't have any lemons in the house, but we did have limes. She made limeade, and it was one of the most fantastic things I've ever tasted. Fresh and sweet and sharp, just like her.

Saturday Limeade

  • 2 limes
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 4 sprigs mint

        Boil the water, and stir it into the sugar to make a simple syrup.
        Juice the limes.
        Mix the lime juice with the simple syrup and 3 cups water.
        Garnish with mint leaves and slivers of lime peel.
        Serve with ice.

How to Make Red Lentil Dhal and Bolognese at the Same Time

Now that my two-year old, Pinta, is sleeping better (fingers crossed on that one), I find myself more well rested, but busier in the kitchen. When she was an infant and through her first year, she was in the habit of waking at 5:00 in the morning. That is, when she was feeling generous. Other times, she’d wake at 4:30. It was the roughest eighteen months of my life. Memory loss being a symptom of sleep deprivation, I’m still not sure how I managed with so little shut eye.

During those long and dark mornings I retreated to the stove. I own much of my culinary development to Pinta, who I used to supervise by handing dull kitchen implements, stacking containers, spoons, and just about anything that wasn’t dangerous. She would sit and play with them as I cooked, and cooked, and cooked.

These days, she doesn’t typically wake until 6:30, or so. (We owe our sanity to an excellent counselor, Jean, at the Soho Parenting center. I suggest that anyone with a similar situation seek them out immediately.)

With less time awake in the morning, I have to cook faster. I’m getting better at it. It took me an hour this morning to knock off two of my signature dishes, the red-lentil dhal and a huge pot of Bolognese sauce.

Still, I’m considering getting a food processor in the hopes of increasing my speed. I’ve never worked with one before. Anyone have any suggestions about what to look for when buying one?

An Ode to an Avocado

AvoTrio The more I learn about the avocado, the more I like it. According to Connie Barlow’s 2001 book, “The Ghosts of Evolution,” the oily fruit co-evolved with ground sloths during the Pleistocene epoch. Sloth? That’s practically my middle name.

The theory looks at the world from the plant’s perspective. The plant needed to spread its seed, so it encased it in a delicious layer of fat, the wonderful green fruit we all are familiar with. The sloth was just the right sort of animal for the job. It had a mouth big enough to eat the fruit whole, right off the tree. In wandering around, the animal spread the seed far and wide in its excrement.

I don’t often see things the way a plant might. Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” has an eye-opening explanation on how corn has become a dominant starch by manipulating humans, rather than it being the other way around. 

I’ve been eating a lot of avocados these days. I started buying them for Santa Maria, who likes them in a salad with scallions and Romaine. We’d have them around the house and the tricky thing about avocados is managing their ripeness. Often, they’re not ripe when they come from the store, so you can’t really buy one and expect to use it. It’s better to buy one and let it sit around. Of course if you buy two, so much the better, but then you might end up like me, with a bunch of ripe avocados staring you in the eye. There’s little else to do than to eat them. Once they’re ripe, they go bad quickly.

They’re also full of good things: vitamins, minerals, monounsaturated fats, and other healthy compounds like carotenoid lutein, carotenoids and tocopherols, which, reportedly, do everything from help with one’s eyesight to prevent cancer.

I had an avocado today. I’ve started to take whole ones to work with me. This afternoon, I sliced it and made a sandwich on fresh bread with some chicken breasts that I had sautéed with lemon before leaving for work. There’s another benefit of avocados—they’re mighty filling. I didn’t need to eat again until dinner, which is a rarity for me.

Photo copyright and courtesy of California Avocado Commission

A Quinoa Salad Recipe to Cure Loneliness

Fresh_vegetables Put three people in my kitchen and it starts to look like one of those pictures of a fraternity prank from the nineteen-fifties in which college students would pile into a telephone booth for amusement. My kitchen is typical of New York City. It is, in a word, small.

Often, I’m the only one working in it. Most of the time I’m quite content to be alone. It is my little universe and I have ultimate authority there, at least as far as the cutting board and the dishes go. (I think that having the opportunity to be in control is one reason some men gravitate towards the kitchen, but that’s something I’ll explore later).

Sometimes, however, I get lonely. Most mornings, Santa Maria typically takes charge of breakfast. She’ll make the girls cocoa and pour their cereal. Our dining room is set off from the kitchen by a wall. I’ll stay on one side of it, preparing the food for the day like some kind of Italian grandmother in a mountain village, and they’ll sit on the other side of the wall sipping their cocoa and laughing. Santa Maria will call for me to join her, but I’m too intent on completing my work to take her up on it.

Yesterday, I came up with a partial solution. I took my cutting to the dining room table. After washing the fresh vegetables that comprise one of my staple dishes, a fresh quinoa salad, I sat down with Nina and Pinta and proceeded to chop away.

Nina turns her nose up at most fruits and vegetables, aside from broccoli, which she somehow does not know that she’s not supposed to like, and asparagus, which is fine in the spring, and environmentally and economically problematic the rest of the year. She likes bright colors, though, and she sat next to me as I sliced through the bright red pepper, shiny cucumber, and lustrous scallions.

She remarked upon how the tiny cubes of cucumber stick to the side knife and how the collapsing bits of red pepper do not. It’s not as easy for me to cut vegetables sitting at a table as it is for me to do so standing up, but I get the added benefit of sharing the meditative and ultimately rewarding experience with my children.

Summer Quinoa Salad

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeds scooped out, and diced
  • 3 scallions, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • fresh cilantro to taste
  • 1 lemon juiced

        Rinse the quinoa well, at least three times.
        Cook in two cups of water as if you were cooking rice.
        When the quinoa is cooked, put it in a large bowl to cool.
        Combine it with the chopped vegetables.
        Dress with lemon juice (or white-wine vinegar) and olive oil.
        Salt and pepper to taste.

Forgotten Summer Bulgur Shrimp Salad Recipe

Last year, in a faltering attempt to better categorize and organize my recipes, I took a bunch of my handwritten ones to my office. I think the plan was to photocopy them and put them in a binder. I never got around to it. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about the Dutch Baby, I was convinced that Santa Maria’s recipe for the breakfast treat was among them. Alas, I’ve looked at the file and it’s not there. I’ll get her to write down her best-remembered version of the dish, and as soon as I do so, I’ll post it.

When I was looking through the wrinkled pages of collected recipes today, I came across one I had forgotten about. It was in Santa Maria’s handwriting, but it wasn’t for something that she had made. Rather, it was for something that she had enjoyed so much that she was inspired to write it down.

One summer a year or two ago, I was playing around with bulgur, the ancient cereal grain that traces its origins to the Middle East. Bulgur is made by cooking, drying, and crushing wheat kernels, and it is high in protein and folic acid, low in fat, and quick cooking. It has a nutty and earthy flavor that can be a bit addictive. We had some in the house because I use it for a Turkish Lentil Soup recipe that’s in one of the Moosewood Cookbooks. Summer isn’t really the time for lentil soup, so I was looking for another use for it.

I paired it with some tomatoes, fresh herbs, scallions, and shrimp and came up with the following summer salad. It was easy and delicious. I’m not sure why I haven’t made it more often. (For more tantalizing bulgur recipes, check out this article in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

Summer Bulgur Shrimp Salad

  • 1 cup bulgur
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 to 3/4 shrimp, cleaned
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 1 cup mint leaves, chopped
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

        Cook the bulgur in the water the way you would cook rice. It will be done in about twenty minutes.
        Cook the shrimp in a little oil in a frying pan until curled and pink.
        Combine the bulgur, the shrimp, and the chopped ingredients.
        Dress with the lime juice and olive oil.
        Salt and pepper to taste


Father's Day Breakfast Surprise

Dutch_baby1 Santa Maria is a woman of remarkable fortitude. She once ran the New York City marathon without training (she had volunteered to escort a blind runner through half the course, but the person who was supposed to relieve her didn't show up, so she ran the whole way). Also, when she was younger, she climbed Kilimanjaro. Oh, and she married me.

Her strengths were on display this morning. Last night we went out to a friend's wedding, and we didn't get home until well past midnight. Nina, who is just getting over yet another bout with a mystery virus was up at 5:50 a.m., and she was hungry. At least she wasn't throwing up, like she was the day before. Santa Maria got out of bed and took care of the kids and let me sleep in. It was a generous Father's Day gift.

Once I got up, Santa Maria made an old-favorite breakfast, something she's christened a Dutch Baby. Her mother used to make the sweet and savory egg dish for her. It has flour, lemon, and powdered sugar in it. The Dutch Baby is essentially a variation on a popover or Yorkshire pudding. Santa Maria makes it in a cast-iron frying pan. We once went through a phase of eating it every week. That was shortly after Pinta was born, a period that also coincided with Santa Maria carrying around a since-lost, post-delivery, thirty-extra pounds: watch out, it's a rich dish.

It's a delight to cook. It fluffs up in the oven, and then has to be rushed to the plate before it completely collapses. The kids love to get involved. They can sprinkle the powdered sugar on top. We eat with cherry jam and smiles.

Alas, Santa Maria had to make the Dutch Baby this morning from a modified recipe. I had taken to my office the recipe that she perfected during that pos-partum period. She didn't have the right one at her disposal. I thought that this version turned out well. The kids agreed. Pinta saw the little triangluar piece on her plate and said "Pizza!" I was excited to see her devour the Dutch Baby. Up until now, she has refused to eat eggs. We might have to start making it more often again. Tomorrow, I'll post the proper recipe for the Dutch Baby.

Looking at Father's Day

I have had the good fortune to discover a website called Once A Month Mom. 

The site, which is run by a pair of dedicated stay-at-home-moms, cleverly addresses the task of feeding one's family. Their central idea is to do all of a month's cooking in one day. Each month, they propose, and deliver, a slate of recipes to cover thirty days worth of meals (which, for a variety of reasons, turns out to be fifteen dishes--they've really worked this thing out).

Recently, one of the moms behind Once A Month Mom invited me to write about Father's Day. My post, which includes a great summer pork recipe, is here.

A Thai Chicken Salad Recipe to Try

With all the chopping of vegetables and washing of dishes, cooking gives me a lot of time to think. Lately, I’ve been considering why I have the tendency (to be kind to myself) to turn a given situation into a problem.

I do this more often than not. Last year, we had trouble sleeping because our youngest would wake at the creak of a floorboard. The logical solution (other than moving to a sturdier, roomier residence than our floor-through apartment) was to get a white-noise machine. It took me weeks to actually buy one as I muddled over the possible drawbacks. I needed a new computer for a project I wanted to start. Again, it took me months to make the purchase. Why? Because all I could see was what might go wrong, not what might go right. (For the record, the noise machine turned our apartment into a virtual duplex, and the computer helped me complete the project in a timely fashion—in other words, I was wrong on all accounts).

I don’t have a good answer yet for why I engage in this kind of thinking. But I am attempting to change my behavior. Instead of looking at things as problems, I’m trying to see them as opportunities.

Out of limes for the Vietnamese Chicken Salad you wanted to make this morning? Not a problem, but an opportunity (in this case, to send the spouse to the store to pick them up, along with half-a-dozen other things the house needed).

The salad turned out just as delicious as the week before, and a funny thing happened while I was eating it for lunch. I was reading the dining section of the New York Times. Right there in front of me there was an article about a Thai restaurant in upstate New York, accompanied by a recipe for a chicken dish that was similar to what I was eating. Making this comparison is like saying Miles Davis and I both once played the trumpet (which is true, in one sense and completely misleading in another). Like mine, the Times’s recipe had chicken and lime juice but it was much more complicated. It involves things like roasted rice paste and Laoatian chili power, all of which are things I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to explore.

Friendly Recipe for Vietnamese Chicken Salad

Poaching_chicken A lot of the work I do in the kitchen is utilitarian. I cook because the family (by which I really mean me) needs to eat. With so many mouths to feed (and mine counts for about three—if you knew me personally you might even say four), a full-time job, and a (teetering) social life, there isn’t much time to experiment.

Still, we can’t eat the same thing week in and week out, so I was excited to try a recipe a friend had given me for Vietnamese chicken salad.

I don’t have any idea how authentic this dish is. My friend didn’t give me a source for the recipe. All she said is that she visited Vietnam and Cambodia in '95 or '96 and came back in love “a cuisine (Vietnam's) and some temples (Cambodia's)." And in my bleary-eyed, sleep deprived state I misread her instructions and substituted ginger for garlic in the dressing. No matter; it was fantastic.

I can tell you who’s also in love with this salad: Santa Maria. I made it this morning before breakfast while she was out biking. She came home hungry and instead of pouring herself a bowl of cereal or cooking some eggs, she dove straight into this salad. She couldn’t stop eating it, and raving about it.

For me, this was an experiment in technique as well as in foreign flavors. It was the first time I poached a chicken breast. It's much easier than I imagined. And I liked the way the breasts plumped up as they cooked. I put them in a large frying pan, with just enough water to cover them. I tossed in some salt, mint, and ginger; brought the water to a boil; and simmered for just a few minutes. The meat came out moist and delicious.

One utilitarian note: I took the salad to work today for lunch, and noticed that the mint didn't age well. In the future I would travel with that separately and add it to the salad just before eating.

Friendly Vietnamese Chicken Salad

  • 2 or 3 boneless chicken breasts
  • 1 small cabbage, shredded for slaw
  • 1 bunch carrots, julienned into matchsticks
  • 2-3 handfuls of chopped peanuts (I substituted cashews because I didn’t have any peanuts in the house)
  • 1 bunch of mint, torn or cut into chiffonade

        For the dressing:

  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce

        Poach the chicken breasts with some ginger and mint (you can use salted water or chicken stock).
        Shred the cooked breasts.
        Combine the cabbage, carrots, mint, and chicken.
        Dress and serve.

        Note: I doubled the amount of dressing. And used half a head of cabbage. And added white wine to             the poaching liquid.