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June 2009

Insane Black Bean Recipe

800px-Black_Turtle_Bean Over the weekend, I almost fell off the wagon. I didn’t start drinking (I’ve never really stopped), but I nearly gave up cooking. We were just back from the playground. The kids were hungry for dinner. Santa Maria and I were tired.

The plan was to have a salad that Santa Maria has grown fond of: romaine, avocado, scallion, and chicken. The afternoon had been hot, and this would have been a perfect dinner. Except for two things: the lettuce had to be washed and sitting on the middle shelf of my refrigerator was a most unusual treat. Our part-time babysitter, whose husband does most of her cooking, had left us a seafood salad.

The salads could wait, but the kids could not. I started to feed them rice and black beans, which I keep in the freezer for occasions like this. Nina wasn’t interested in the beans, but I didn’t give her an option (and ended up having to feed her most of it as if she was a baby). Pinta, on the other hand, just adores them.

While I was I was preparing the food for the children, Santa Maria threw herself into making chips and salsa and guacamole.

Once the Nina and Pinta had been fed, I cracked open a beer and sat down with Santa Maria to enjoy the chips and guacamole. Slowly, the prospect of washing lettuce and making the salad seemed more and more distant. I was sinking in a sea of laziness as the gentle waves of beer washed over me. Soon, only the seafood salad, looming on the horizon like the promised land, offered salvation.

I scurried over to the refrigerator and opened the container. I was full of mussels, squid, scallops, clams, and other shellfish. They were mixed with onion, pepper, and a variety of herbs. It was almost like ceviche, though I’m certain the seafood was cooked before being dressed. I ate it rapidly and enjoyed every bite. I’ll get the recipe and make it for myself soon. Santa Maria vouched for it as well. “I could eat this every night,” she said.

She left most of the seafood salad for me, and was still hoping for her salad of romaine. I didn’t want any more food, but after getting a boost from the fish, I had the energy to wash that head of lettuce for her. No falling off the wagon for me.

This morning I wanted to take the leftover beans to work, but Pinta saw the container of them on the counter. She starting pointing at them and saying “Want that, want that.” I didn’t have the heart to take them from her, so I left them for her lunch. She was very pleased.

Insanely Delicious Black Beans

  • 3 cups dried black beans.
  • 1 three-inch or so strip of Kombu seaweed.
  • 1 medium sized onion, diced.
  • 2 strips bacon, chopped finely.
  • 2 carrots, diced.
  • 1 stalk of celery, diced.
  • 4 cloves of garlic, diced.
  • ½ cup of dry white wine.
  • 1 quart chicken stock.
  • 1 six-ounce can of tomato paste.
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Soak the beans at least overnight.
Rinse and cook in a stock pot with the Kombu for at least two hours, or until the beans are soft. The Kombu will more or less dissolve.
Rinse and reserve the liquid.
Sauté the onion until it is translucent, about five minutes.
Add the bacon, carrots, and celery.
Continue to sauté until the bacon fat is rendered and the vegetables are soft.
Add the garlic and cook another two minutes.
Turn up the heat and add the beans.
Add the wine, and cook for three or four minutes.
Add the chicken stock, tomato paste, cumin, and thyme, and enough of the left-over bean liquid to make the mixture soupy.
Cook for a half hour to an hour longer to reduce to desired consistency.


            Note: After I cook them I puree them with an immersion blender. This combines all the flavors and             makes it more palatable for the kids. Also note, that these freeze very well.


Food, Inc.

Last night, the Museum of the Moving Image organized a screening of the new documentary “Food, Inc.” I went, and an old joke came to mind: There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.

“Food, Inc,” delivers a gut-wrenching (pardon the pun) look at our nation’s food supply, and there are some who are going to say (or who are already saying) that the film doesn’t tell the truth. That’s a bunch of malarkey.

It is true that the film doesn’t present the views of Monsanto, Perdue, Tyson, and the other major companies that dominate the market. But that’s only because they refused to cooperate with the director, Robert Kenner. After the screening, Kenner told the audience that when he started the project, “I wanted to make a film about where our food comes from, but more than fifty companies wouldn’t talk to me.”

Those companies do talk, but only about to distract us. They advertise like mad, filling our minds with cheery slogans and our eyes with pretty pictures. They don’t want the truth about what they are doing to be known. It’s not just that they don’t want the public to see what happens in a slaughterhouses or how chickens are actually raised. They don’t want the public to learn how government policy makes corn chips, soda, and the like cheaper than fresh vegetables. They don’t want you to think about what you are eating.

“Food, Inc.” does an excellent job of condensing the ideas of such authorities in the field as Eric Schlosser (of “Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), both of whom appear in the film, as well as showing how seemingly rational decisions can have unexpected, and un-healthy, effects. We have some of the most productive farmers in the world and cheap food is a worthy goal. But that food needs to be good for us, and for the planet, or else we might just not be able to afford it.

The film opens on Friday, June 12, and there’s a screening in Brooklyn next Wednesday, the 10th, at The Bell House. Annaliese Griffin, the editor of the lifestyle and events-listing site Brooklyn Based, will interview the director and Schlosser after the screening.





Ernesto Neto: The Spice of Life

2269_2_Neto_8 My kids love to smell herbs and spices. They stand on a table in my kitchen and point to the colorful glass jars resting in a rack on the wall. I take the jars down one by one, unscrew the top, and let them take a whiff. I’m very happy when they spend their time this way, and I wonder what they are thinking as they inhale the deep aromas of ground cloves or whole cardamon pods. This must open up a whole new world to them, I figure, a world of vibrant experience. 

This isn’t exactly easy work for me. Our kitchen is about as narrow as a hallway and the stove (which is often hot) and the counter top (which is always hard) is just opposite the spice rack. They are so young that I have to keep a hand on them as they teeter on the little table along the wall. Were they to fall, it would be a disaster (and putting them on the floor with a jar of a spice entails another set of risks, as I learned the day I had to sweep up a pile of cumin).

Exposing Nina and Pinta to fresh herbs and spices is part of what I consider my job as a parent. It goes along with cooking them good food and having them taste real cheeses, wild fish, and homemade pasta sauces. It’s the same as reading them books and taking them to museums and galleries.

Yesterday, on the suggestion of a number of friends and publications, we took them to the Park Avenue Armory to see an installation by the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. “Anthropodino,” which is up through June 14 and should not be missed, is a sprawling wonderland of friendly forms (Pinta said they looked “melty”).

The accompanying brochure describes it as “kind of interior park,” and that’s apt. You walk under the forms, through the forms, and on the forms. It’s more than just a visual experience; the piece provokes almost all the senses.

You can roll around in a giant beanbag and dive into a pool of plastic balls, but for me, the most impressive part of the installation involves the nose.

The moment you enter Armory’s giant space you are enveloped in a faint and new scent. What is it? Something fresh and pungent, it put me on alert. The effect dissipated after a few minutes inside the hall, but it was replaced by something greater.

Many of the hanging forms are filled with spices like turmeric and ginger and herbs like lavender and chamomile. Much time was spent running from one to the other, holding it up to one’s nose and trying to figure out what was inside. It made me feel like a kid again.


News about Ham, Grape Nuts, and Michelle Obama

Today’s New York Times food section has a nice echo of my previous post about culatello. The science-and-food writer Harold McGee covers the renewal of American-made dry-cured hams. Producers in Virginia and elsewhere are now making hams to rival those of Italy and Spain.

“Have you ever placed a vanishingly thin morsel of rosy meat on your tongue and had it fill your mouth with deepest porkiness, or the aroma of tropical fruits, or caramel, or chocolate? Or all of the above?” he asks.

Monday’s Wall Street Journal had a fascinating piece on the history of Grape Nuts. The breakfast cereal was a staple around the house when I was a kid. I enjoyed its crunchy taste, especially with a few spoonfuls of sugar on top, but my favorite memory of it concerns my father. He loved the stuff, but would sometimes get him very agitated. It was the vitamins or the minerals or the fiber that irked him. His problem with it was that it took too long to chew. He was always in a hurry in the morning.

On Sunday, also in the Times, Amanda Hesser wrote a brilliant op-ed about Michelle Obama’s relationship to the kitchen. According to the Times, the First Lady said, “I don’t miss cooking. I’m just fine with other people cooking.”

Hesser clarifies her message. “Though delivered lightheartedly, and by someone with a very busy schedule, the message was unmistakable: everyday cooking is a chore.”

That’s the truth. But Hesser doesn’t stop there. The best part of her column points out what we lose when we don’t cook at home: A connection to food and each other.


Roast Chicken: We'll Have to Stop Here

Two_roast_chickens I’ve spent a fair amount of time in therapy since becoming a father and a fair amount of those fifty-minute hours have been devoted to discussing how I’m handling (or mishandling) my family responsibilities. Cooking is one of my chief jobs around the house, and it tends to come up frequently.

During a session the other day, after rambling on about the varying states of satisfaction I experience behind the stove, my doctor made a comment. I have a great deal of faith in him. It’s not just that he’s highly educated and that his track record with me has been sterling. He seems to be something of an epicure, to judge from the fancy chocolate bars on his desk and the case of wine that appears periodically just inside his office door. I think I’d find it hard to take advice from someone who doesn’t like to eat.

He said, “You’re making your life too complicated. Just roast two chickens at once and eat the second bird later in the week.” I was shocked. Sometimes, the most obvious truths are the hardest ones to see.

But realizing the truth of one’s experience is never easy. Memory can obscure as much as it can guide. I was more than little skeptical about cooking two birds at once. In fact, I was a bit scarred by history.

Years ago, I helped a close friend throw a dinner party for his birthday. His enthusiasm for food is remarkable and often contagious. For this celebration, he wanted to share one of his favorite new discoveries, culatello, an exotic ham that he had secretly acquired from a producer in a small town in Italy’s Po River valley.

Bill Buford’s powerhouse book "Heat" has a description of what my friend was serving:

Culo means “ass.” Culatello translates loosely as “buttness” and is made from the hindquarters of a pig—boned, stuffed into a bladder, cured, and hung for two years in the damp local cellars. The method is deemed unmodern by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and culatello is forbidden in America. ... I had a plate of it, served with shavings of butter on top. It was a deep red brown, with a light, soft fluffiness—no obvious fat, although obviously fatty—and a piggy intensity I’d never tasted before.

I volunteered to roast some chickens to complete the meal. The guest list was fairly long and we needed a number of birds to feed everybody. I put them in the oven just as the ham was being served, figuring that an hour would be ample time for the three-pound birds.

The butter was shaved and the thin slices of cured pork were passed around. People felt their mouths fill with the divine meat. Wine was poured. Jokes were told. Everyone was enjoying their time around the table.

I went to check on the birds and stuck a thermometer into the first thigh I saw. The needle barely budged: the chickens weren’t cooking. More wine was poured. More jokes told. More butter and ham consumed. I went back to the birds: Still no progress. I did this again and again until it was late.

I was chagrined—all I was supposed to do was cook some chickens and I wasn’t doing it very well at all. I didn’t realize that the aggregate weight of what’s in the oven would have more of an influence on how long something cooks than the individual weight of each bird.

No one really minded, though. Wine and culatello can compensate for any number of cooking failures. Still, the memory lingers, and when my doctor told me that I should just cook two birds instead of one, I expected it to be complicated.

I was wrong. Cooking two birds is no harder than cooking one. I timed them perfectly last night—about an hour-and-a-half for the two pictured above.

So, my therapist gave me a suggestion to make my life easier. Still, I couldn’t just leave well enough alone—I invited Vespucci and his family over for dinner. We had a great time, talking about books and travel and drinking a sprightly bottle of Recession Red that they brought with them. Now most of the chicken is gone, and I’m back where I started. I guess I can discuss that in my next therapy session.

Roast Chicken

  • 1 three-to-four pound chicken, preferably organic
  • one lemon
  • about 1/2 inch of fresh ginger, washed but not peeled
  • two teaspoons dried thyme
  • one chili pepper
  • salt and pepper to taste

        Turn oven on to 450 degrees.
        Remove any of the chicken's innards that might be packaged with the bird. Rinse and place it in a roasting pan on a rack, breast side up.
        Wash and cut the lemon in half. Squeeze on half into the chicken's cavity and toss that half inside.
        Roughly chop the ginger and place inside the cavity with the thyme and the chili pepper.
        Squeeze the rest of the lemon into the cavity and place the second half of the fruit in the cavity also.
        Salt and pepper the cavity and skin.

        When the oven is hot, pour about about a cup of water in the roasting pan and place in the oven.
        From time to time, check to make sure the water hasn't evaporated.
        Roast for about an hour, until the temperature in the thigh is at least 165 degrees.

        Notes: If you have a bottle of white wine, I've found it extremely tasty to pour some on the bird every fifteen minutes or so. Also, as stated above, you can         roast two almost as easily as one. Plus, chopped onions, mushrooms, and carrots can be placed in the pan with the bird. They cook up nicely. If doing             this, do not add water to the pan. Douse the bird and the vegetables with wine instead.