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July 2009

School's Out For Summer

Off for a week a the beach. Certain to be cooking. No so certain about Internet access. If you don't hear from me, assume it's because of a technological failure, not that I'm stuck beneath a Herman Melville-sized side of blue fish. 

A Hard Way to a Great Squid and Potato Salad Recipe

I’ve long known that I’ve suffered from esprit d'escalier, or what is roughly translated from the French as “staircase mind.” The condition refers to failure to come up with a witty reply in a timely manner. Imagine you are at the top of a staircase. Your adversary is at the bottom. You both start walking and pass in the middle, where he insults you. Your mind goes blank and you each continue on your way. Only when you are at the bottom and he is at the top do you think of anything clever to say. Then, it is too late. He is too far away.

I’ve also known the emotional corollary, such as only realizing I loved someone after they left. And of course there must be a financial version of it, too: who amongst us these days doesn’t wish they had thought of selling their stock a year ago? To the list, I now add, a culinary version.

In the confusing chaos of Sunday night’s dinner, I overlooked what Santa Maria was up to at the table. She later told me that she combined the squid with a potato salad I had made. I should have paid closer attention— I just used some leftovers to do the same thing, and discovered that it is an amazingly delicious combination.

I make my potato salad with nothing more than salt, pepper, scallions, parsley, and olive oil. It is a light and fresh combination. I’ve already established just how light and fresh the squid is when it’s cooked without any dressing. Put the two together, and it’s brilliant. The scallions have a light crunch. The parsley is refreshing and clean. The squid is salty and slightly crispy on its edge. All the pieces work together. Now if only I had thought of making it the other night.

Squid and Potato Salad

  • four baking potatoes
  • three scallions
  • parsley to taste, washed and chopped
  • one pound squid, cleaned and cut into rings
  • sea salt
  • olive oil
  • two cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half

        In a pot of water, boil the potatoes until they a fork can be inserted in them with ease.
        Cool the potatoes and cut into cubes.
        Trim and finely chop the scallions into tiny circles.
        Combine the potatoes with scallions and enough olive oil and salt to taste.

        Heat a cast-iron frying pan until it is smoking.
        Add olive oil to the pans.
        Rub the garlic in the oil and remove once it starts to brown.
        Toss some sea salt into the pan.
        Add the squid in one layer; work in small batches.
        Leave it spread out until it starts to brown.
        Flip or otherwise stir the squid to cook the other side (the whole time is just a few minutes)

        Cool the squid and combine it with the potatoes.

        Note: I suspect this would also be good with some lemon juice, but I haven't tried that yet.

A Squid Recipe: How Simple Can it Be?

Squid+ink+drawing Santa Maria and I had a fight on Sunday evening. It involved squid. If I was a better writer, I could tell you how it happened. If I was a better human, I could tell you why.

We were very busy that day. We had been invited to a brunch in the park. We had plans to see our dear old friends Vasca Nunez and de Balboa, who were just back from vacation. And there was a birthday party for a friend of Nina and Pinta’s to go to.

The plan was to hit the brunch in the morning, run to the birthday party, and then see Vasca Nunez and de Balboa in the afternoon.  I thought we might eat dinner together, so I had Santa Maria buy an extra two pounds of squid at the Green Market.

I have mixed feelings about squid. There are things about it that I love. One, it is cheap. Two, it’s not endangered. Three, it’s cheap. Still I have high hopes for it. Recently, I was reading Marcella Hazan and she inspired me to heights of foolishness.

My plan was to cook the squid up per her instructions for Tuscan squid with peas, omit the peas, and use the sauce (again, per her instruction) as a base for risotto. De Balboa is gluten intolerant, so risotto is always a good choice for him. Plus, both of my children like rice and I figured I had a pretty good chance of getting them to eat it.

De Balboa called on Saturday night, though, and said they were extremely jet lagged. They had just arrived that afternoon from France. He wanted to see if we could get together in the morning. I told him to call when he got up. We turn our answering machine on at night, and when I woke, there was a message from de Balboa. They had risen at 5:30 a.m. By the time we called them back, at 7 a.m., they were done with breakfast and ready to come over.

We visited with them in the early morning, went to the brunch, and then collapsed in the afternoon and napped until four pm. We never made it to the birthday party. And I had two pounds of squid to cook.

A little more reading of Hazan convinced me that it would be easy to fry it, something I had never done before. I also thought that Nina and Pinta would like it that way. I asked Nina if she liked French fries, a food cooked a similar way. Like a good litigator, I knew the answer to my question before I asked it. Yes she said. Later when I told her I was about to cook the squid, she asked, “Where are the French Fries?” I’m not sure what a good litigator would have done there, but clearly she misunderstood.

Santa Maria and I had our own misunderstanding about the squid. She thought I was going to cook a la plancha. I wanted to make a classic fried squid. Somehow, her dismissal of this idea upset me. The truth is, I don’t want to cook just for myself. I want to cook for her and for the kids. I didn’t see anyway the kids would eat it without a deep-fried crust.

Santa Maria and I squabbled and I gave up on the idea of frying the squid. (A quick consult of Mark Bittman’s fish cook book and its mention of the effort involved and the risk of splattering also helped change my mind). 

I prepared the squid in a simple yet delicious fashion, without breading I have to admit, Santa Maria is right. The resulting flavor is pure squid. There’s no taste of oil at all.

Squid a la Santa Maria

  • One to two pounds squid, cleaned and cut into narrow rings
  • Two cloves garlic, split
  • Sea Salt
  • Canola Oil

        Heat a cast-iron frying pan on high heat until it is nearly smoking.
        Add oil and a half piece of garlic.
        Swirl the garlic in the pan and remove as soon as it starts to brown.
        Toss some sea salt in the pan.
        Toss a layer of squid in the pan.
        Keep the squid in one layer and let brown on one side.
        Flip the squid with a spatula (or simply stir it with a spatula).
        Continue to cook for a minute or so more.
        Remove from pan.
        Total cooking time will be just a few minutes.
        Repeat until all the squid is cooked.

Serve with a salad or on its own with a bit of lemon. The rings will  not get crispy and brown like a classic fried squid, but there will be bits of browned edges and a refreshing, straight-from-the-sea flavor.

For further ideas about how to cook squid, see here and here.

A note on the above image: it comes courtesy of the fascinating blog Suspect and Fugitive, which features images, typically of actors, musicians, and other celebrities, made out "of suspect (questionable) and fugitive (non archival) materials," such as swiss cheese, mayonnaise, s'mores, and, yes, squid ink.

A Hidden Summer Salad Recipe

Sea_salt On Wednesday I didn’t cook for my children. Danny Meyer did. Santa Maria took them to Madison Square Park to view Jessica Stockholder’s Flooded Chambers Maid,” a colorful geometric expanse, and they ate at the Shake Shack.

I didn’t join them, because I was busy at the office, but I did hear about it from Nina, who told me she had ice cream and fries and a bit of hamburger (oddly enough, hamburgers have never proven popular with either child).  They had lots and lots of ice cream, though.

I got home late that evening and needed to figure out what I was going to eat. Santa Maria was exhausted from her trip into Manhattan with the children, so she couldn’t make anything for me. I looked around the kitchen and the refrigerator made a great discovery. There were many things on hand that I could use to make a fine dinner.

I found arugula, boiled beets, and some poached chicken breasts, all remnants of a previous meal. Over the weekend, I had prepared the beets and arugula for Santa Maria. One of her favorite meals comes from a recipe in “Gourmet Everyday” for a goat cheese, arugula, scallion, and beet sandwich. Santa Maria’s inspiration was to leave out the bread and make a salad. She had that on Sunday. I had some, too, with the addition of poached chicken breasts, as the salad alone is not enough for me.

We were out of scallions, but we did have a ripe avocado. I threw it in with the beets, the chicken, and the arugula. Was this cooking? I don’t really know. I felt like one of those guys at a deli’s salad bar, pointing to cubes of meat and cheese to be tossed over lettuce. The difference, of course, was in what I was using at home. As Santa Maria pointed out, “all the ingredients were really good.” I guess that’s what matters, and I’m going to explore keeping prepared items like these on hand more often. I really enjoyed my salad and the ease of making it.

One of the finer ingredients I used was the salt. A while back, my brother and his wife returned from their honeymoon to the far east with a few gifts. They gave me hand-harvested sea-salt from Bali. It delivers a rapturous burst of flavor with every giant-sized crystal. I don't think the salad would have been the same without it.

The Grandparents Wonder: What's in My Quinoa Salad Recipe

Afcm-cover My in-laws visited over the weekend, and in keeping with the tradition of this blog, I will rename the remarkable couple from central Pennsylvania. They are now the GP and the GM, short for grand-père and grand-mère, because of the GM’s interest in giving scatological subjects a Continental veneer (she prefers that her grandchildren say “petard” for fart, and “caca” for poop.)

Recent studies have shown how a low-calorie diet increases life expectancy, at least in monkeys. They might be on to something. The GM and the GP happen to eat very little, are very hale, and are in their eighties. They only go for one big meal a day; when they visit, there isn’t really much more work for me to do. And the GM is devoted to doing dishes, so I get a bit of a break.

Over the weekend they went absolutely wild for my quinoa salad. The GP, who kept calling it "quizonos salad," wanted to know all about the nutritional qualities of the grain. According to third edition of “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” by Sharon Tyler Herbst, a pint-sized paperback reference work that’s a lot of fun, quinoa was “a staple of the ancient Incas, who called it ‘the mother grain.’” Quinoa contains more protein than any other grain, and it is considered a complete protein, containing all eight essential amino acids. It is also higher in unsaturated fats and lower in carbohydrates than most grains.

But the GP really wanted to know its fiber content. According to the “Alternative Field Crops Manual,” it shines in that department, too. Details are here.

An Old Friend Shares His Best, Healthiest Pancake Recipe and Other Advice

GreatMartiniSky10 Lately I’ve been in touch with a former colleague, the writer and editor Charles Michener. I used to work with him in New York, and he’s now based in Cleveland, researching a book on the lakeside city. Charles is a bit older than I am, and his children are grown. He’s still interested in cooking, certainly, and offered the following advice. It is timeless.

I've cooked for my family (ies) since I got fascinated as a kid by how to make an omelet. I was about ten when I successfully flipped a mushroom omelet without using a spatula. (Now I prefer to turn off the heat while the top is still runny, put a lid on the pan, let it sit for thirty seconds and then gently roll up the omelet.) In my view, making an omelet is the best way to begin learning proficiency at the stove. It teaches you how to handle and crack eggs; blend whites and yolks; make judgments about seasoning (don’t salt the eggs until after they’re in the pan); understand different ingredients (cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, herbs); observe the effects of heat; and execute split-second finishing so that the result looks good on the plate. And you learn how great such a complicated little mixture tastes when it’s right off the stove. From there, it’s a short step to frittatas, which I also find deeply satisfying to make. Another wonderful learning dish for kids is risotto, which I taught my daughter when she was three. The slow transformation and expansion of rice kernels into the pillowy final product is magical. Making a risotto also teaches diligence and patience.

In high school, I belonged to a group of boys who started a Gourmet Club as a way to get girls. It worked. Don’t forget to put Edith Piaf on the hi-fi when you’ve brought out your Coq au Vin in a copper pot and placed it next to the pre-dripped candles.

I've cooked in a restaurant in Venice, Italy. And I really enjoy cooking for myself, fortified by an ice-cold vodka martini without vermouth. Lately, I've tried cutting back on oils—using cooking spray (the best I've found is Smart Balance Omega)—and substituting light chicken stock for oil in salad dressing. I've also cut back on eggs—or at least whole eggs (whites alone do almost the same job); pork and beef (the occasional Nieman Ranch bacon is like Beluga caviar; a great cheeseburger is now like Beef Wellington); cheese (except for goat cheese); and milk (except for almond, soy or rice milk). I've actually grown to like whole-wheat pasta and brown rice.

I did a simple dinner the other night for eight people: a salad of baby spinach and watercress, roast beets marinated in Balsamic vinegar, toasted walnuts, crumbled feta cheese and marinated white anchovies; brown rice (I like Lundberg Countrywild) with lots of bay leaf, tossed with scallions, parsley and lemon zest; and a shrimp sauté - garlic, chopped tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, capers slowly simmered in chicken stock before adding the shrimp, brightened at the end with lots of chopped fresh tarragon, basil and a splash of lemon juice. Dessert: berries and sorbet.

Essentials in my pantry: capers; Maldon sea salt; Pepper Supreme peppercorns; bay leaves; cayenne; tumeric; cardamom pods; coriander seeds; cinnamon; whole nutmeg; pure vanilla extract; Worcestershire sauce; Sriracha hot chili sauce (better than Tabasco); small jars (better than tins) of Italian tuna packed in oil; ditto with anchovies; Goya canned beans; canned whole tomatoes (I love Redpack); varieties of brown and wild rice; Carnaroli rice for risotto; rice crackers; varieties of whole wheat pasta, especially penne rigate (most versatile); good quality red wine vinegar (for salad dressing) and extra virgin olive oil (get the best and use sparingly as finisher on pasta); extra light olive oil (for salad dressing and cooking); white vinegar ("secret ingredient" in chili and complex stews).

Essentials in my fridge: lemons and leeks (the two best culinary catalysts); non-dairy milk; variety of Italian, Spanish and Greek olives (never pitted); sun-dried tomatoes; tomato paste; Trader Joe’s ginger spread (good with cheese or to spark up a salad dressing); Dijon mustard; Hellman’s mayonnaise; Durkee’s Famous Sauce (still the best sandwich spread ever); parmigiano reggiano; homemade tarragon pickles; multigrain tortillas; varieties of good spicy salsa; wild forest honey; pure maple syrup.

Top tip: the best cooking is cooking with things at hand–and by hand.

Here's my recipe for the best, healthiest breakfast I know of. The kids will love it.

Oatmeal Pancakes

               The proportions are for four, 4"  pancakes.

  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant);
  • 1/4 cup low-fat cottage cheese (or yogurt);
  • 2 egg whites (one beaten and folded in for fluffier pancake);
  • 1 whole egg (optional);
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract;
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (or more for flavor);
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder;
  • pinch of salt.

Combine ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth.
Let batter settle while heating griddle to very hot.
Lightly grease griddle with a stick of butter or Smart Balance Omega spray.
Pour batter onto griddle in four, same-sized pancakes.
Flip when bubbles appear and pancakes darken and begin to smoke.
Serve with heated pure maple syrup or wild forest honey.
You can add blueberries, thinly sliced bananas or crumbled toasted walnuts to the batter.

Learning from Marcella Hazan

This morning, Santa Maria needed to leave for her job early so I was left on my own with the kids for a few hours. After being away for the holiday, I was a little behind in the cooking. I had a pot full of black beans that needed to be finished off, along with two pounds of ground beef that would shortly go bad. The conditions, in other words, were perfectly ripe for my near hat-trick—whipping up black beans and Bolognese sauce at the same time.

Both dishes start with the same ingredients and in the same way: onion, carrot, celery, and bacon sautéed in a pan. They each have chicken stock, wine, and tomatoes. Preparing the two simultaneously is just a matter of doing more chopping, stirring, and sweating. Instead of one onion—two. Instead of two carrots—four. And so on.

Recently, I started to read Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”  Just about every guy I’ve ever met who likes to cook swears by the book. One friend nearly broke out in tears when he told me about meeting Hazan herself.

According to Hazan, what I’m doing with the Bolognese and the black beans is based on an old tradition. She starts her book with a chapter on fundamentals. Under its first heading “Where Flavor Starts,” she lists the three building blocks of taste: battuto, soffritto, and insaporire.

Battuto “comes from the verb battere, which means ‘to strike,’” she says, referring to the chopping of lard, parsley, and onion. More modern interpretations substitute olive oil for the lard, and the mix of vegetables can include garlic, celery, and carrot.

A soffritto develops when the battuto is sautéed “until the onion becomes translucent.” Hazan points out that quicker cooking ingredients like garlic should be added after the onion has softened, lest they burn or brown too much. This is what I do when making the black beans. I add the garlic last.

Insaporire is the step that follows a soffritto, and it refers to “bestowing taste.” This is what happens when I combine the beans with the sautéed vegetables. Or in the case of the Bolognese, the meat with the same. Hazan says “One can often trace the unsatisfying taste, the lameness of dishes purporting to be Italian in style, to the reluctance of some cooks to execute this step thoroughly, to their failure to give it enough time over sufficient heat, or even to their skipping it altogether.”

Hazan doesn’t offer any advice on cooking with children. With Santa Maria out of the house, I needed to tend to Nina and Pinta. For a while, Pinta was content to bounce around in her crib, but Nina wanted my company.  She was flipping through the latest issue of The New Yorker, looking at the cartoons. She wanted to know what the captions said. “Daddy, can you cook and read at the same time?” she asked. I said sure, and she sat with me while I turned the battuto into a soffritto and developed the insaporire. It took some time to get through all the cartoons. I suspect Hazan would approve.

My Roundabout Poached Chicken Breast Recipe

Whenever I travel, I bring food with me. During the long-ago days that I owned a car, I used to keep a loaf of sandwich bread on the passenger’s seat. It was for trips longer than a half mile. I’d eat a slice with one hand, keep my other hand on the wheel, and never take my eyes off the road.

I was always hungry. Afraid that I would not get enough to eat, I planned ahead. And if the planning failed me, I knew how to scheme.

Once, at a wedding in the Berkshires, the bride and groom tried to pass off passed hors d'oeuvres as the main course. I was looking around for dinner but the cake was being cut. We were miles from anywhere and I was starving. I went into the caterer’s kitchen and begged for something to eat. The only things on hand were a few eggs and some cheese. A kind chef gave me a midnight tutorial in how to make an omelet.

Over the weekend, we visited the Abuelita and went to a few parties. I didn’t do much cooking. The Abuelita decided not to buy mussels. But she did get cockles, and I used them to make a sublime variation on my linguine alle vongole.

As I’ve aged, my metabolism has slowed and I no longer worry about traveling with something to eat. This trip, however, I ended up carting food around the tri-state region for a different reason. I had a few things—basil, spinach, and chicken breasts—that were going to spoil if I left them in the refrigerator at home. So I took them to the Abuelita’s. 

My plan was to make a pesto with the basil. I even brought pine nuts with me. I didn’t have a plan for the spinach, but it didn’t matter. I never got around to making the pesto and the spinach sat unused. I poached the chicken breasts, though, before their expiration date. The pine nuts I brought back home.

Poaching chicken breasts is one of my new favorite things to do. It is very easy, healthy, and results in a tender, tasty, and extremely versatile piece of meat. It can be shredded for salads, and sliced for sandwiches. I used mine to make sandwiches at work today, pairing the white meat with ripe avocado and multigrain bread. 

Poached Chicken Breasts

  • one package boneless chicken breasts
  • water
  • white wine, to taste
  • dried thyme, to taste
  • salt, to taste

        Place the chicken breasts in a low pan and cover with water and wine.
        Add the salt and turn the burner to high.
        Allow the water to come to a boil.
        Reduce to a simmer and cook until the breasts are done, from two to ten minutes, depending on thickness.

A Simple Recipe for Mussels That will Amaze You

Cast_iron_pan We are returning to the Abluelita's for the upcoming holiday, and I've been talking with her about what we'll eat over the weekend. The Abluelita would like to have mussels. This is great. Nina, Santa Maria, and I love the bivalves (though Pinta has yet to develop a taste for them.)

When I make mussels at home, I follow a magnificently simple recipe. I use no other ingredients. None. It's hard to convey just how delicious they turn out when cooked in this fashion. Most people associate mussels with white wine and a soupy sauce. They're good that way, too. They're even better this way.

I've been cooking mussels in this fashion for years. I learned about the method from one of Mark Bittman's columns. He developed an interest in preparing the mollusk this way after a visit to Barcelona, where they toss them on a hot grill, "a la plancha." Bittman later saw a chef in San Francisco, Reed Hearon of the Black Cat, replicate this method using a cast-iron frying pan, and Bittman adapted the recipe for home chefs.

I've been Barcelona and San Francisco, but I haven't eaten mussels there. It makes perfect sense to me, though, that residents of those seaside cities would favor cooking them this way. The method is extravagant and down-to-earth at the same time. They come out smoky and salty.

My only concern about making mussels at the Abuelita's is that she doesn't have a cast-iron frying pan. That's the most important part of the recipe, besides the mussels themselves. There's a chance that there's an old one that belonged to my grandmother buried in the garage, but there's no guarantee. I might have to make mussels the more traditional way, with wine and garlic and herbs. It's what the Abuelita wants anyway. Anyone have any recipe suggestions?

Mussels a la Plancha

  • 1 pound mussels
  • 1 cast-iron frying pan

        Rinse the mussels well and pull any beards off them. Use only the intact ones that are completely closed.
        Heat the cast-iron pan until hot.
        Place the mussels on the pan in one layer.
        Cook over high heat until the mussels open, release their juices, and the juices boil off. When the    liquid is gone, the mussels are ready.

        Notes: I typically make this with about three pounds of mussels and use two cast-iron pans at the same time. Serve the mussels in the frying pan. Just put it on a pad on the table and enjoy. The pans will develope a salty and smoky residue. Rub the mussels in it before eating. And if you want, you can melt some butter and serve it with them, but it's really not necessary.