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August 2009

Easy Guilt-Free Basil Pesto Recipe

Basil_pesto Nina starts pre-K in a few weeks, and this morning, the parents at her school had a picnic. We were very excited about this event and have scheduled our remaining summer plans around it. One of those plans included visiting the Abuelita this afternoon, which meant a harried morning getting ready not just for the picnic, but also preparing for an overnight stay, upstate. The idea was to hop into my late father’s Chevrolet right after the picnic and let the kids nap while cruising up the Major Deegan.

We weren’t that busy this morning, though. Santa Maria went out to yoga. I took care of the kids and got things ready for the trip, although not necessarily in that order. I had to make pesto.

I happened to mention this to Santa Maria before she left for her class. She shuddered and  heaved a sigh. The flag was up: a great, blaring non-verbal sign that I was out of my mind for thinking this way. She went further. Her eyebrows lowered, she said, “You might want to spend some time with your children. They really need you.” I replied that I would be spending all weekend with them, and thought to myself, “What am I missing here?” She left for yoga, and I was left with the feeling of having to choose between playing with the kids and cooking. I felt awful, because I knew which one would win out—the cooking, of course. I had a head of basil in the refrigerator that wasn’t going to last much longer.

Nina and Pinta I had fun getting packed. We stacked the beach towels, swimsuits, stuffed animals, and all the other things a young child might want for an overnight trip to the Abuelita’s (we were planning on visiting the town pool where she resides). Two-year-old Pinta earned my eternal gratitude when she reminded me to pack their swim shirts.

I read them books—“Wacky Wednesday” and a Clifford lift-the-flap book about Christmas. That last one was a little out of season, but in keeping with Nina’s choice of music this morning: Bing Crosby’s “The Voice of Christmas” collection. She loves “Jingle Bells.”

Then I started to make the pesto. Nina ran into the kitchen and asked if she could help me. “Of course,” I said, and felt relief spreading through my veins. I wouldn’t feel guilty about standing in the kitchen while they were left to their own devices. It would be a clean-conscious batch of pesto. No childhood neglect lurking in the shadows. Instead, a future-happy memory of standing counterside and tossing salt and pine nuts into a blender. Oh, what a happy day.

Pinta wanted to join in. Together, we measured pine nuts and toasted them in a cast-iron pan. Together, tossed the sea salt atop the washed basil. They took turns pushing the button on the base of the blender and sending the food-processor attachment blades whirring. Pinta kept repeating “not putting hands in there,” which is what she gleaned from my running narration about how dangerous the machine is.

We made it to the picnic, but we never reached the Abuelita’s. Nina got sick in the car a block from our house and we turned around, unpacked, and took it easy this afternoon.

Santa Maria went to a friend's house for dinner and Pinta and I ate pesto pasta with her before she left (Nina downed two bowls of plain pasta, so maybe she's getting better). Actually I was the only one to eat it: Pinta showed a distressing lack of appetite that made us wonder if she was getting sick, too. Santa Maria loved the pesto. She had a small bowl, and I caught her eating more in the kitchen, later. 



Basil Pesto


  • 1 head fresh basil
  • 2 cloves garlic, or to taste
  • just under 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste (I like even a bit less)
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • olive oil


Pick the basil leaves and wash them thoroughly. I soak and rinse them three times in a salad spinner, which I use to dry them.

Peel and crush or chop the garlic

Toast the pine nuts in a cast iron pan with no oil. Heat until they are brown.

Combine the basil, the pine nuts, the salt, and the garlic in a food processor or blender.

Add olive oil, and run through the machine until you have a sauce. This will require stopping every so often, opening the top, and scraping down the sides with a rubber spatula.


Notes: Pesto at this stage in the game freezes well. When you serve it, combine it with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Also, pesto is an open-source sort of recipe. Some call for walnuts. Others, like my brother-in-laws, incorporate a stick of butter. Feel free to experiment (advice that applies to all recipes, by the way)


Pesto Pasta with Chicken and Mozzarella


There’s no right or wrong recipe for this dish. Poach some chicken breasts, or fry up some boneless thighs, and chop. Or pick a roasted chicken. I happened to have some left over breasts and thighs on hand, and I liked the combined taste of those two meats. Chop the chicken and toss it with chopped Mozzarella and dress with the pesto over the pasta of your choice. My latest discovery is that whole-wheat fusilli is better than the regular pasta. Who knew?

A Screamingly Good Chicken and Arugula Salad Recipe


On Monday, the New York Times ran a fascinating article about an obscure new record. The work of LeRoy Stevens, a twenty-five-year old artist who recently moved to the city, “Favorite Recorded Scream,” slams snippets of shocking sound onto twelve inches of limited-edition vinyl. The vocals were picked by clerks at local record stores and the record features everyone from James Brown to Buddy Holly to the Who.

I mentioned the article to Santa Maria this morning, and her eyes lit up. She said screaming is often how she feels after spending any time in the kitchen.

Frustration is an inherent part of any domestic labor, any good marriage, and aging in general, so I know how she feels. At least for me, though, cooking also prompts screams of joy. Especially when I come home from work to find the basic elements of an easy salad already prepared, as I did last night.

It takes some work in the morning to get to this stage, but if you take a deep breath and exhale slowly, you’ll get there. And may the screams you emit be ones of pure pleasure.

Arugula, Chicken, and Roasted Red Pepper Salad

  • Four Chicken drumsticks and thighs, bone in
  • One Onion, sliced
  • One Red Pepper, sliced
  • Olive Oil, a drizzle
  • Thyme, to taste
  • Salt and Pepper
  • White wine
  • Arugula

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees

Combine the chicken, the onion, the pepper, the thyme, and the olive oil in a roasting pan.
Arrange the chicken so it is skin side up.
Salt and Pepper to taste.
Roast the chicken and the vegetables until the onion and pepper are soft and the chicken is crispy and cooked through, about a half hour.
Remove the chicken and vegetables and deglaze the pan with white wine.
Put the chicken and vegetables over the arugula and dress with the sauce from the roasting pan.


All of this can be made in advance. In that case, skip the deglazing step and dress the salad with white wine vinegar. You won’t need oil because of the chicken fat on the vegetables. Serve with fresh bread.

This recipe is adapted, yet again, from the “Gourmet Everyday” book that I’m so fond of. The adaptation in this instance consists of forgetting to buy red potatoes, which when chopped and added to the dish make it nearly a one pot meal.

The Freshest Broccoli Ever

One of the biggest secrets to cooking well has nothing to do with the stove. It has nothing to do with cookbooks. Nothing to do with cookware. It has to do with shopping.

Cooking with fresh ingredients is easy. Cooking with old one or poor quality ones takes real skill. Look at French cuisine—all those wonderful sauces were created to improve the flavor of things. Why would you need to improve the flavor of something that tasted good in the first place? I like easy things. When I cook, I try to get the freshest ingredients possible.

This weekend, we had the good fortune of being invited to the country. Our friends Jim and Muriel have a house in upstate New York, and they’ve been generously asking us to visit for the past few years. We finally took them up on their offer, and we had a blast.

Humming birds (or as Pinta called them, “Humus birds”) danced at their feeder off their kitchen window. Crickets chirped in the woods beyond the meadow. We swam in their naturally-chlorinated pool, making a sport out of dodging horseflies. Jim and Muriel like to drink and Muriel expertly whipped up cocktails each evening. There’s nothing like the taste of a cold margarita made by someone else. Fresh ingredients are good. Fresh ingredients handled by others are even better. Fresh ingredients handled by someone else involving alcohol are the best.

We brought food on our trip, and I cooked dinner Friday and Saturday nights. The first night, the Greek Tuna Salad increased its list of positive attributes by proving that it travels well (at least the ingredients for it do). The second night, I pan-fried wild salmon fillets (frozen, they travel well too) and experimented with a topping of oil, salt, pepper, and fresh fennel fronds from their garden. I served the fish with a simple mayonnaise-less potato salad  (olive oil, salt and pepper, scallions, and parsley), and steamed, fresh-picked broccoli.

The broccoli came from Jim and Muriel’s deer-proof garden, a fenced in spit of soil at a neighbor’s house. Nina and Pinta picked the broccoli themselves. It was a treat to see them walking into the house holding the green heads up like a bouquet of flowers. Now that’s a fresh ingredient.

Super Fast Summer Greek Tuna Salad Recipe

Last week, for the first time in more than a year, we had friends over for dinner after the kids went to bed. Pinta’s poor sleeping has kept us from entertaining all these past months.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Once, at the start of her period of nocturnal howling, we had another couple over. When it came to sleep training, we thought we knew what we were doing. I’d read Weissbluth’s and Ferber’s books. They’re sort of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of sleep training. Though they don’t work together, they are the leading voices on the subject. Alas, Pinta never made sweet music until we discovered Soho Parenting, a center in downtown New York with wonderful counselors.

Back before the blissful peace brought on by the Soho Parenting center, we tried to teach Pinta to sleep on our own. The process involved a lot of tears, and they were not just hers. We were cavalier when we started. She cried, we entertained. Our apartment is about a thousand square feet. Sound travels well through it. The other couple was sweet. They were friends of a friend. They brought us a meal. We didn’t even have to cook. I can’t remember what we ate, but I can remember Pinta crying through it.

Fortunately, those days seem to be over. The only sounds to be heard the night of our recent friends visit were that of music playing, us talking, and glasses clinking (they’re getting married shortly).

After all that time off from entertaining, it was a bit time consuming to get the house ready (I had to wash the Champagne flutes, which had gotten dusty from lack of use), but the menu I prepared didn’t take any time at all. Its centerpiece was a Greek salad with tuna, which I adapted from a recipe in one of my favorite books, “Gourmet Everyday.” I more or less doubled it, playing fast and loose with the proportions, and was rewarded with a new week-night staple, at least during the summer. This is the quickest and most delicious dish I’ve come across in a long time.

Greek Salad with Tuna

  • 1 or 2 English Cucumbers
  • 1 or 2 cans Tuna packed in oil
  • 1 or 2 fistfuls Kalamata olives
  • 4 to 6 ounces Feta
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes

Wash the cucumbers. Slice them lengthwise once, and then into quarter-inch half moons.
Quarter the tomatoes lengthwise.
Do the same for the olives.
Dice the feta into quarter-inch cubes.
Add the cheese to the vegetables.
Toss the tuna with its oil over the  vegetables, being careful not to break up the tuna too much.
Add the olives.


The Summertime Blues, or How Not to Cook Mussels on the Grill

CrabRawBarSASD While on vacation, I managed my cooking responsibilities quite comfortably, which means I spent less time at the stove than I did on the beach.  One night we ate crabs (see below), another night one of my brother-in-laws grilled chicken on the barbecue, and yet another night we threw together some salads in the afternoon and relaxed with cocktails come evening time, salads being dishes that don’t get cold and don’t suffer from sitting around while you watch the sun set.

Last week’s dining section of the New York Times had a couple of articles addressing the challenges facing home cooks when they go on vacation. Julia Moskin wrote about the pitfalls of a sharing a kitchen, and she offers up a handy list of items not to forget. Jhumpa Lahiri contributed a cover essay on the essentials she needs to throw in the car. Chief among them, the cast-iron frying pan.

I thought of her essay this weekend while visiting the Abuelita. Usually, when we see her, we travel by train and try to limit the amount of things we carry. These days, though, we happen to be in possession of my late father’s Chevrolet, and our attitude towards luggage is quite a bit more liberal. “Want it? See it? Take it,” is more the thinking. Among the things we carted up there: my cast iron frying pan (Santa Maria discouraged me from taking both of the ones I own).

I took the frying pan to make Mussels a la Plancha. You can’t make them without it. Unlike Lahiri, though, I encountered another hitch. I didn’t bank on the Abuelita’s concern for the cleanliness of her new sealed-top electric stove, the surface of which happens to be white. She wanted to protect its pristine surface from my charred black frying pan.

So I did want any man would do when faced with female resistance in the kitchen: I started a fire. I figured the old Weber grill would be as good as anything to heat the frying pan. I had dreams that it might make the mussels even better. Grilling usually improves everything.

Alas, my experiment was a failure. The frying pan got hot enough to open the mussels, but the fire didn’t generate enough heat to cook off the liquid and give them that concentrated, explosive fresh-out-of-the-sea flavor. I had to plead with the Abuelita to give me access to her stove, which she did. Fortunately, the pan did not mar the surface and everyone was happy.

I think the effort failed because the pan was too far from the fire. I had placed it on the wire grilling surface. Maybe next time I’ll stick it in the coals. Anyone have any experience using a cast iron pan with an open fire?

How to Eat a Blue Claw Crab, and Other Things I Learned at the Beach

I’m back from vacation, much more rejuvenated, a bit more well-rested, and slightly wiser. Here are a few things I discovered.

If you put trimmed asparagus stalks in water (as if they are flowers) and let them stand there for a few hours, they freshen up and become almost as rigid as the day they were picked.  (A few weeks ago, in the New York Times, Harold McGee explained more of the vegetable’s amazing tricks).

If you soak black beans for more than one night, which I’ve done many times at home without causing a problem, do not leave them out on the counter, put them in the refrigerator. Otherwise, they will mold, become fetid, and when it comes time to dispose of them you will regret the moment you let them linger.

If you want to tease your sister, don’t do it while she’s hosting the extended family for a crazed night of blue claw crab eating. Her retort will be as sharp and fast as the crustacean’s claw.

We had a grand time trying to eat the crabs. My brother-in-law John grew up in Texas, catching them as a kid and cooking them up at will. He volunteered to pick up a bunch of pre-cooked crabs and teach us how to get at the meat inside. The bright red crabs came covered in salty seasoning and packed in old cardboard boxes marked for crackers and the like. Newspaper was spread down on multiple tables. Last minute runs to the supermarket were made to get the proper equipment.

Nearly the entire clan gathered to join in the spectacle: brother, sisters, brothers-in-laws, the grandmother, and just about as many children—cousins all—as there were crabs. It was a bit chaotic. John demonstrated how to break of the shell and get at the sweet meat, but much of the information was lost in the crowded din. Many of us did only a bit better than the guy in this video.

With a little practice, though, we finally got the hang of things. Plastic garbage bags were passed around to collect the shells as we ate. Two groups of eaters coalesced—those who couldn’t get enough of the crabs and those who couldn’t wait for dessert. I ended up at the table with the first group, John, my sister Eileen, and my brother Jim. John reviewed the finer points of cracking the crab and our collective piles of broken shells grew and grew. Slowly our ranks thinned. In the end, Jim was the only one eating. He must have had a dozen himself.

Here’s a more detailed tutorial on how to get the most out of a blue-claw crab.