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November 2009

Santa Maria's Shrimp and Flounder Recipe From Memory

Corn
For the most part, cooking for kids means introducing them to new foods and flavors. Occasionally, it works the other way around. The introductions are not always pretty when they are being handled by a two-and-a-half-year old, but they happen nonetheless.

Sunday afternoon, Santa Maria was out at yoga and Nina was wrapped up in bed nursing an ear infection. Pinta was in great spirits, playful as could be. I wanted to leave Nina in peace and to get dinner started, so I asked Pinta to help me in the kitchen. She was eager to join me, and as she turned to head for the kitchen, she ran smack into a door jam. Bam, she had a shiner on her head and she was crying like crazy.

I dashed to the freezer for a cold pack. We don't actually have cold packs, so we use bags of frozen peas and the like. They're more tasty and they work just as well. This isn't the first time that Pinta has encountered the sharp edges of our apartment and had the resulting lump treated with a bag of organic garden peas. She knows the drill. She also knows that she likes to eat frozen peas, something I had forgotten.

I was holding her in my lap with the bag pressed to her head, and she said "pea, pea, pea." Usually when she says this word it would be spelled "Pee," as in "I have to pee." So I asked her if she needed to go to the bathroom. She said no."Pea," she repeated. Finally, I understood. She wanted to eat some of the frozen vegetables.

Her head was feeling better, so I gave her some of the peas. When I first went to the freezer, I had also grabbed a bag of frozen corn, so I had those in my lap, too. I gave her some of the icy golden kernels. She liked them as well, and feeling friendly, she wanted to share some with me. I think I like cooked corn better.

Later that night, when I was roasting chickens for dinner, Pinta helped me to dump some corn into a sauce pan and cook it. I coated the kernels in butter and salt and she gobbled them up. I'm always happy to introduce a new vegetable to one of my girls, and I'm looking forward to eating it off the cob with her come summertime.

Besides the chicken and corn dinner, I haven't been cooking much over the past few days.  It's impolitic to go into the reasons for this at present, but some of them have to do with our living situation, which has become much more stressful in recent weeks, and some of the other reasons have to do with the season. Thanksgiving means family, and that means a roiling of the psyche. Real estate stress plus family stress is very distracting, to say the least.

Family stress led to a filibuster of a fight with Santa Maria on Saturday afternoon. Filibuster in that I was talking and talking and talking and not making any progress. I'm not even sure progress was the goal. Real estate stress led to a sleepless night and an attendant falling-off of productivity in the kitchen on Sunday.

I've been cooking less over the past week, but we've been eating the same. Who's been doing the cooking? Santa Maria (see fight, above).  Her parents stayed with us for Thanksgiving, and went with us to my mother's house for the holiday. She cooked for them, the kids, me, and any other blood relation within ten yards of her. She was relentless. I was impressed, as she was also doing multiple loads of laundry and tending to the kids. Why I became resentful is good fodder for this week's therapy sessions.

But before things went south between Santa Maria and myself, I was on the receiving end of a delightful dinner. The first night her parents visited, I had to work late. She whipped up a flounder and shrimp dish as good as anything I'd ever tasted in New Orleans, a culinary capital of mixing shellfish, white fish, and heavy sauces. (She also make luscious homemade chocolate pudding, in the time it took me to put the kids in their pajamas).

The roots of her dish, which she improvised that evening and which combined shrimp, flounder, and a tarragon-cream sauce in a heavenly fashion, stretch back not to the Big Easy, but to Europe and a childhood memory of hers.

"When I was a little kid, about eight years old," Santa Maria later told me,"I went with my family on a canal boat down the Thames, and we docked in a little town once where there was a place called the Rose Revived Inn. They served a local founder called plaice prepared in this fashion, and it was the only fish dish that my mother ever liked, so I recreated it from my girlhood memory to welcome my parents to town for Thanksgiving."

Santa Maria enjoys eating well but also fitting into her pants so she created a rich-tasting sauce while minimizing the amount of butter and cream (though this is far from a calorie-conscious dish).  There is considerably less butter and cream than in similar dishes.

Santa Maria's mother, who usually doesn't like fish, loved it so much that when she was done with her plate, she scooped the leftover sauce out of the skillet with her baked potato skin. Little kids can really come through in the kitchen, once they get a little experience.

Here's the flounder recipe. Tune in at a later date for her luscious chocolate pudding recipe.

 A la Recherche du Flounder Perdu
  • 4 fillets flounder
  • 1/4 c. flour for dredging (mixed with a few shakes of salt and fresh black pepper)
  • 2  tablespoons butter
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 8 ounces chopped shrimp, raw (can be frozen and thawed)
  • 2 shakes nutmeg (less than 1/8th teaspoon)
  • 2 shakes cayenne pepper (less than 1/8th teaspoon)
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 1/3 cup water  
  • 1/4 cube vegetable bouillon
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mix the shrimp with the nutmeg, cayenne, and salt.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a frying pan, and sauté the shrimp.

Set aside the shrimp and keep warm.

Add shallots and remaining butter to pan, and sauté until they are soft.

Dredge the flounder in the flour and sauté on both sides until cooked, about two minutes per side.  If you use a large skillet, you can probably fit all four fillets in at the same time.

Set aside and keep the cooked flounder fillets warm.

Deglaze the pan with the wine.

Add the water and partial bouillon cube.

Reduce by half.

Pour in the cream, and add the tarragon and cook for about three minutes.

Assemble the dish by putting the shrimp on top of the flounder and pouring the sauce over everything. Serve immediately.


The Turnip Chronicles, or What I Learned this Thanksgiving

We spent the afternoon getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner at my sister Mary's house. I had volunteered to bring a side dish. I picked turnip because I like it and it's easy to make.

Turnip may a cinch to prepare, but it turned out to be a bit confusing to buy. The turnip I grew up eating on Thanksgiving was pungent-tasting and orange in color. Raw, I remembered it being big lumpy balls with a mottled purple color. Earlier this week while shopping for turnip at our local food coop, I found out that what I thought of as turnip was actually rutabaga. The vegetables labeled "Turnip" were sleek purple-and-white roots.

I bought both. I prepared the rutabagas the way my mother told me to--peeled, sliced, and boiled until soft; then mashed with a bit of salt and pepper. I threw in some olive oil and two slices of cooked-and-crumbled bacon. It was delicious, and just what I expected.

The turnips, I prepared the same way, with one variation. Instead of bacon, I added some sautéed garlic and fresh ginger a the end. I wish I could tell you how it tasted, but it got lost in the shuffle.

When we arrived at Mary's house, I dropped the turnip and the rutabaga (along with a bottle of wine, a wonderful 2004 Tempranillo I promise to share the name of as soon as I return to my Brooklyn home--we love it so much we bought a case of it) in her kitchen, and I went into the livingroom to snack on cheese and crackers and catch up with my siblings. Later, the constant churn of dishes in and out of her kitchen didn't include the turnip. I didn't notice its absence, my eyes having been blinded by brussels sprouts, spicy creamed spinach, stuffing, turkey, and the rutabaga. Not until I was back in the kitchen after dessert (an astonishing array: pumpkin, homemade apple pie, courtesy of Santa Maria, homemade apple cake, spice cake, and cookies) did I realize that we had forgotten to eat the turnip. I'll have to get a report from my sister about how it tastes, as I'm sure she'll eat it over the next day or so.

The day was not turnip-free for me, though. When I was peeling the vegetables this morning, I was quite taken by the fresh, light, and clean scent of the turnip. I pressed the vegetable peeler into the side of the root and drew off a nearly translucent slice. I popped it in my mouth. It had a crisp and refreshing flavor, like a mild radish. I sliced off another one, and ate that too. Then yet another. I really liked it. I enjoyed it so much, that I reserved one turnip to experiment with at lunch time.

We had a light lunch today, logically, given the Thanksgiving meal that we were about to eat. I made a green salad with a bit of poached chicken on top. I shaved a slew of raw turnip slices into my salad and found them most agreeable.

If I had more time, I would consider baking those turnip slices in a bit of salt and oil to see if they might crisp up nicely. Or try stir-frying them to get a similar effect. Maybe next Thanksgiving I'll try something like that.


More Thoughts on Thanksgiving, include Cosmic Ones

Astronaut
I've arrived after much effort at my mother's house on Thanksgiving Eve, with my wife, two children, and two in-laws in tow. Leaving Manhattan this evening after attending a party there, we looked like an immigrant family en route to Orchard Beach--three adults on the front bench of my father's Chevy, two kids and a mother squeezed in the back. 

My twenty-year old nephew Sean is also visiting. Santa Maria and I spent the evening running around, bathing the kids, reading them books, and getting them into bed. Meanwhile, Sean, who is 6' -2" and 185 pounds, started to eat everything in sight. He saved me some leftover chicken from the night before, but then he polished off half a block of cheddar cheese.

I was watching him out of the corner of my eye, and it reminded me of growing up. As one of five, I often felt like I couldn't get enough to eat. There was plenty of food around the house, but there were plenty more mouths getting up earlier (or staying up later) and eating all the remaining Girl Scout Cookies, for example, or downing the last of the Cheerios in the cupboard.

Every time Sean made a move, it felt to me like the rustling of the dinosaurs in the movie "Jurassic Park." Thump. Thump. Thump. The water in the glass ripples. A shadow falls around a corner. The horror! It's the Consume-asaurus Sean coming. Run for the hills!

The family stress of Thanksgiving leave me feeling like I'm being pulled in eight different directions. It's what I imagine being in space is like. As for what astronauts actually eat, Space.com has all the details, including what's served to orbiting crew members on Thanksgiving.


Expectations about Thanksgiving (mine and others)

Over the past few years, I've spent a lot of money, if not a lot of time, in therapy, and I've had such a good experience that I'm thinking about renaming this blog Stay on the Couch Dad. I won't, though, because what's going on in my kitchen is more universally appealing than what's going on in my head.

Still, it's hard to divorce family memories from food, and one of the biggest food-and-family fests of the year is rapidly approaching. That is, of course, Thanksgiving. Today's Times has a good article on the troubling family dynamics that can develop around the dining room table. My favorite part of the article is at its end:

"Betsy [a high school teacher in Boston] said her cousin also complained of holiday meal tension with her own family, so the two devised a strategy to help each other cope. Each made bingo cards, but instead of numbers, the squares were filled in with some of the negative phrases they expected to hear during the meal, like “That outfit is interesting” or “Your children won’t sit still.” As comments were made at the separate family celebrations, each woman would mark her card.

“Whoever fills up a bingo row first,” Betsy said, “sneaks off to call the other and say, ‘Bingo!’

For my own part, I'm getting a break from cooking. My sister Mary, who is the current winner of the family real-estate lottery with a nice house (two floors! a yard!) in Connecticut, is hosting. I'm delighted to be joining her. She is being very generous--much of the extended family will be there. I'll be bringing my in-laws along with the wife and kids. My contribution is minimal. I'll be making turnip as a side dish.

Turnip was one of my favorite dishes on Thanksgiving. The other was a spicy creamed spinach that my grandmother introduced and that my own mother has taken to making. Other than those dishes, I never much liked what is served at Thanksgiving. Of course, I feel heretical saying this, but it is true. Turkey? I could take it or leave it. Gravy? Never cared for the stuff. Stuffing? I had a weird thing about it. I only liked what I guess is called Stove Top Stuffing--the stuff my mother would bake outside the turkey. It was crunchy, and I liked that. My most embarrassing favorite dish--canned cranberry relish. I liked the way the can itself left rings around the tasty red circles.

One of the things I'm dealing with in therapy are the expectations I inherited. I'm now dwelling on what unconscious expectations I'm handing down to my own children. They're not pretty. I have a tendency to look on the dark side of things, for example. My father was a trial lawyer who specialized in malpractice and personal injury suits. For every cup of coffee, there was the case of the exploding coffee maker that burned a child. For every country road, there was an intersection in which a drunken driver mowed down two young lovers in a Volkswagen van. For every new building I lived in during college with a beautiful view of the treetops, there was a lack of a fire exit. Or so I was told by my father.

I'm now curbing my tendency to do the same thing to my kids. Nina wants to bring a toy to school to show her friends? I have to stop myself from saying, "You're going to lose it in the classroom." I'm working on it.

Thanksgiving presents an opportunity. The holiday is built around expectations. Turkey, gravy, stuffing, and a laundry list of sides. Family and friends and, what will it be? Arguments over politics? How to raise one's children? What to eat or not to eat? Those are just a few ideas I pulled from my own memory and from today's Times article. But I like to see my family, so I'm hoping that enjoying the company of family will be an expectation I'll be handing down to my children.

Speaking of expectations, I had a few of my own mangled last week when I saw a great article by Mark Bittman in the Times about what to make for the coming dinner. He offered 101 suggestions. The headline, though, is what threw me: "101 Head Starts on the Day." Missing its connection to the holiday entirely, I thought it was 101 ideas To Get Food Ready for a Given Workday. I was thrilled. Finally, an article I could really use. But, no, it was not about getting ready for the everyday, it was about getting ready for the big day. Alas.


Late Fall Salad with Peconic Bay Scallops Recipe

Peconic_Bay_Scallop_salad
Saturday morning I was grumpy about all the work I had do to. Domestic work. The pile of laundry was knee high. The weekly food shop loomed. These things would have to be taken care of, and the number of leisure hours available to me was rapidly dwindling.

The food shop could wait. Taking care of myself could not. I've learned the hard way (cf: therapy bills, etc) that if I don't tend to my own needs, there's a price to pay. So I went out for a run in the park, and on my way there, I threw the soiled clothes in the laundromat up the block.

After a cathartic workout, I stopped at the Green Market to buy fish. I don't often run, but it works wonders on my psyche when I do. Out of breath and sweaty, I was full of good spirits. In that mood I tend to start dreaming of buying loads and loads of fish and inviting everyone I know to dinner. My run had been good, but not that good (it was short for one thing--that laundry needed to be put in the dryer), so I checked that impulse and kept to my original plan. I had my eye on our usual weekend meal--white clam sauce and sautéd flounder. I buy my seafood from Blue Moon Fish. Years ago, I worked in a retail fish market, and I know how to spot quality fish; Blue Moon's is unusually good. Typically, there's a long, meandering line of stroller-toting dads, young couples with coffee cups, and other devoted seafood eaters snaking halfway across the asphalt of the Greenmarket like some kind of Great Wall of China. On Saturday, though, there wasn't any line. I felt lucky, and when I  spoke to a clerk and saw that they had real Peconic Bay Scallops, an extremely rare treat, I felt luckier still.

Small and sweet, Peconic Bay Scallops, from the namesake body of water on Eastern Long Island, were once relatively common. When I was working in that retail fish market in the eighties, the scallops were one of the things we carried in our gleaming display cases. During their season, a guy named Peter, the head of one of the store's wholesale accounts who was permitted to mingle among the staff, used to walk up behind the counter, where I stood as one of the clerks, and reach into the display of scallops and pop them into his mouth, raw. This was well before the vogue of sushi, and I was always shocked. He would swear that they were the best that way.

Peconic Bay scallops have nearly disappeared since I hung up my seafood smock. A mean brown tide, which is a toxic algae bloom, swept through Peconic  Bay in the late eighties, devastating the stock. The brown tide has since waned (no one really knows why) and efforts to restock the bay are bearing fruit. This year's harvest promises to be the best in years, according to a recent article in the New York Times. I was beside myself with delight walking home with half a pound for lunch. I picked up a fresh loaf of French bread and some arugula to go with them.

Santa Maria had to go to a meeting, so I ate alone with the kids. I took the scallops out of the refrigerator and told Nina and Pinta that if they were very lucky they might be able to have one. Nina grabbed the plastic bag of scallops out of my hand and pretended to keep it from me. I acted horrified. Terribly horrified. I don't think they've seem me react this way to a joke about food. I thought it might entice them to try one. It didn't, which was just fine with me.

I heated chicken soup that I had on hand for the children and started to consider my lunch. I wanted to leave the scallops in their sweet and simple glory, but I wanted a full meal. I wanted them over the fresh arugula, but that felt a bit too summery to me. Caramelized onions, I figured, would add a bit of warmth. All it needed, I thought, was one more note. Toasted pine nuts would give it a savory flavor and a bit of crunch.

Getting this all together while feeding the kids was a bit like being in a Marx Brothers movie. Back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room I ran. Caramelizing onions is always a bit of hit or miss for me. I didn't have time to think about it, though, so I heated the cast-iron pan, added some oil, and threw in slices of onion. I bashed the onions with a spatula to break them up, covered the pan, and ignored it. Every so often I'd give it a shake or stir, until the pan was smoking and they were in danger of burning, at which point I turned off the heat, and really ignored it.

I served the children their soup, and started to put together my salad. The kids seemed content, and I poured myself a glass of white wine. I took my wine and my salad to the table, but tasting the scallops became another Marx Brothers comedy. Pinta was exhausted and she nearly fell asleep while eating her lunch (or more accurately, not eating her soup). I kept her from falling over, and was able to take one bite of the salad. The scallops were warm and they bounced in my mouth. The pine nuts crunched beneath my teeth. I took and other bite, and, hurriedly, another. But I knew that Pinta really needed to be put into bed. I got up and took care of that. I sat back down with Nina, who had finished her soup and was happily eating slices of French Bread. I had two more bites. Then Nina announced that she was ready for bed. I got up and got her dressed, and put her into bed.

Finally, I sat back down. I had three bites left. A perfectly equal amount of arugula, onion, pine nuts, and scallops. I had my wine. I had a slice of freshly buttered bread. I ate them all, and then wondered where the rest of my lunch had gone. Had I really eaten it? Was it as good as I hoped it would be? Was eating it quickly, in fits and starts, anything like the way Nina and Pinta's childhood is passing? Would I miss that as soon as it was over, and wonder what had happened to it?

Late Fall Peconic Bay Scallop Salad
  • 1 onion, sliced in half and then repeatedly, lengthwise.
  • t tablespoon or to taste pine nuts
  • fresh arugula
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 lb fresh Peconic Bay Scallops
  • Olive Oil
  • White wine vinegar

Heat some oil in a frying pan, preferably cast iron, and add the onion, stirring occasionally.

Cover the onions, stir every so often.

When the pan is so hot that the onions are at risk of burning, turn off the heat and let the onions sit, covered. There will be enough heat in the pan to sweat them sufficiently. If not, repeat the above steps a bit more rapidly.

Heat a second cast-iron frying pan and sprinkle the pin nuts on its surface. Shake and move the pan about until the nuts brown.

Remove the nuts from the pan, set aside

Wash the arugula and place in a bowl.

Heat the cast iron pan that was used to toast the pine nuts.

Put some oil in the pan.

Dry the scallops on paper towel and toss in pan.

Sear them about thirty seconds on one side, and thirty on another, keeping in mind that they don't really have to be cooked at all. (I only like them with a nice brown crust, though.)

When the scallops are reasonably browned, have swollen but not given up their liquid, remove them from the heat. 

Toss the arugula with olive oil and white-wine vinegar.

Add the pine nuts to the arugula, layer a bit of the caramelized onions on it, and top with the cooked scallops.


A Sweet Request From Nina

The moment between coming home from work and getting the kids into bed is an elastic one, stretched mostly by Nina and Pinta's desire to spend time with us and contracted by my need to eat before the nightly news comes on.

Usually, we are very good about getting them into bed by eight or eight thirty. Tonight it was on the later side, as my two darling daughters, having dined on my Bolognese and Halloween candy with their babysitter, talked me into feeding them more.

They wanted pasta with olive oil and Parmesan. I had some leftover spaghetti in the refrigerator. It wouldn't take long to get it ready for them. How could I deny them? I couldn't, of course, and I was rewarded.

I put their snack on the table and started to make Santa Maria some Quickly Spiced Spinach, or what Santa Maria calls Hot Robot Spinach*. I stopped for a minute to bring Nina a glass of water. Then I dashed back to the kitchen, to continue making our dinner.

From the kitchen, I heard Santa Maria, who like me is always trying to teach proper manners to our children, prompt Nina to thank me for bringing her water. She asked Nina, "what do you say now?" Nina replied without missing a beat, "Daddy, will you come join us please?"

*Hot Robot Spinach, per Santa Maria: "Remove the green core from the garlic clove (my Italian friend Ivana taught me to do this when we lived together in Madrid) then slice cross-wise and you will have little white disks that look like sprockets; add a sprinkle of chili pepper to 'power' the robot; olive oil to 'grease' the gears.  And spinach, of course, is the vegetable that gave Popeye such other-worldly strength.  Perfect for growing girls and boys and their inventors."


My First Time Baking: A Recipe for Pear Upside-Down Cake

Pear_upside_down_cake
I don’t have many memories of my mother baking, which is not to say she didn’t do it ever. Though as Santa Maria says, who could blame her if she didn’t—she had five kids to care for.  I recall her making Christmas cookies with my sisters, and she successfully passed the female baking baton off to them. I owe most of my memories of baked goods, including snickerdoodles, butterscotch brownies, and lemon-meringue pie, to my sisters.

 

My mother stuck to making Irish soda bread, and someday I’ll share the recipe (as soon as I get her permission). She makes a new world version with less butter, and no caraway seeds (she was the eldest daughter in a family with five daughters and one son, my delightful uncle John. As a boy, John didn’t like caraway seeds so no one else got to eat them either).

One thing I do remember my mother making is pineapple upside-down cake, which was a syrupy and sweet dentist’s nightmare. If I close my eyes, I can still see the caramelized yellow cubes of fruit and taste the brown gooey bits of sugar. I loved it.

On Wednesday last week, Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times about a variation on the pineapple upside-down cake, using maple syrup and pears instead of plain sugar and the Hawaiian fruit. I love pears and I was enticed to consider making it.

Santa Maria is correct in thinking that my mom was too busy to bake when I was young. Her mom, Jane, is a relentless baker even at eight-six years old—she has pies and cookies in the freezer every time we go to visit—but she only had two children. My mother was busy making school lunches, breakfasts, and dinners seven days a week. Seven days a week! We hardly ever ate out, and I’ve never once had a frozen dinner. She did an astonishing job.

I’m tired from cooking for just two kids, and I serve them frozen fish sticks three times a week. I basically want for my children what I had growing up—home-cooked meals and a balanced diet.

 

On his video about making the cake, Bittman talks about how little patience he has for the details of baking. Santa Maria is not known for her patience, but she is a seasoned baker with very particular tastes. She took one look at his recipe and made a few adjustments. I defer to her in all dessert-related matters, and, the truth is, I didn’t feel confident. I was happy to have her guidance. (She threw out the maple syrup, which she said she didn’t like the taste of in baked goods, and she twiddled with a few of the other proportions. She typically reduces the amount of sugar by at least a third.)

Cooking is easy for me because I’ve mastered a few basic techniques and I stick to them. I can take on new recipes fairly confident about how they’ll turn out because I’ll pick ones that build on these basic skills. Baking is another question. I’ve never been interested in doing it because I’ve been preoccupied with my needs and not my desires. I need to eat, and I need to eat well. Not too much sugar, and more daily calories than a high school football lineman would consume in a day. That takes a lot of work.

But as I’ve gotten better at managing the day-to-day cooking (and as my metabolism has slowed a bit), I’m starting to think about my desires. A slice of cake after dinner sounded mighty good.

 

I enlisted the help of Nina and Pinta, although once my eldest heard that there were pears in the cake, she said that she would only help make it if she didn’t have to eat it. She hates fruit that much. She is a fruitophobe.

I got the process underway by gathering all the ingredients. I put the kids in the kitchen with the laptop and let them watch Bittman’s video over and over. Pinta kept saying “upside-down cake.”

Soon, it was time to cream the butter and the sugar. I squatted on the floor of our kitchen with Nina at my side. I had the mixer going in my right hand.  A stick of butter stood rigid across the bottle of the steel mixing bowl. Sugar was sprinkled about. The blades of the mixer dug into the butter, and started throwing off curled clumps. The more I pushed into the butter, the more the hand mixer protested. Nina was crouched next to me. She thought it looked like popcorn. She liked the way the curled bits of butter were jumping all over. I was concerned they’d jump out of the bowl. It felt like a humbling process, but that’s just because I hadn’t done it before, and I wasn’t confident that I was doing it correctly. It certainly didn’t look like I was doing it right.

Santa Maria said that she would have let the butter soften up. I wish she had told me that earlier, I thought. Pinta had been playing with the stick of butter and I took it away from her because she was softening it up. I could have let her play to her heart’s content.

Santa Maria taught me about combining the dry ingredients with the wet ones, and soon enough we had a cake. She adores a pear tart dessert at our favorite local restaurant, Al di La. It has chocolate in it, so, at the last minute, she stuck some pieces of dark chocolate in one corner of the batter.

Nina asked if the work was done, and then said she was going to lie down (she’d been running a fever all day). I started to make dinner—our seafood feast.

After the cake was in the oven, the kitchen started to smell very nice. It smelled like a cake was baking. Is there a kinder, more nurturing scent out there? 

 

We all loved the caramelized pears on top, but Santa Maria thought the chocolate was too bitter. Next time she would make it with semi-sweet chocolate. Nina didn’t eat any because she was too sick. Pinta had so much that her stomach ached. I downed two pieces and enjoyed every bite. Then I got a headache from the sugar.

Later that night I had to barricade Santa Maria from the kitchen because she was sneaking leftovers. She’s powerless over sweets and I knew drastic action needed to be taken. I quickly called up a dear friend who lives nearby to offer her some (she said that we were laughing so much on the phone that she thought there was alcohol in the cake) and then I left some more on the doorstep of our downstairs neighbors. They texted me the next day to say they found it upon coming home after a few drinks and that it was a pleasant surprise. They said they loved the Guinea Pig role.  

Not a bad outcome for my first cake, though to give credit where credit is due, it was a success because of Santa Maria, who helped to make it, like all the good and sweet things in my life, possible.

 

Adapted from Mark Bittman, whose original recipe is here.

 

 

Santa Maria’s Pear Upside-Down Cake

 

  • 11 Tablespoons butter
  • ¼ Cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 pears, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
  • 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup milk
  • optional: 1/3 cup (2 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate pieces (broken from a bar into whatever size you prefer)

 

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

 

Melt three tablespoons butter in a small pan over medium heat.

Add brown sugar and cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves.

Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes.

Remove from heat and pour the mixture into a 9 ½ -inch baking pan.

Arrange the pear slices in the sugar mixture as you see fit.

In a mixing bowl, beat the remaining butter (one stick) and the sugar with a mixer until it is light and fluffy.

Add the vanilla and eggs and mix until smooth.

 

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Combine the wet (butter) and dry (flour) mixtures in three batches with the milk. And mix until barely combined. Do not over mix. Lumps are okay.

Carefully spread the cake batter on top of the pears using a spatula.

Bake in oven about 45 minutes, until top is golden. A thin sharp knife stuck in the cake should come out clean.

Let the cake sit for five minutes.

Run a knife around the edge of the cake pan.

Put a plate on top of the cake and carefully flip it so the plate is on the bottom and the pan is on top.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

 

Note: Fold chocolate pieces into the batter before baking for a slightly richer cake.


Pinta is Getting Smart

My youngest girl, Pinta, is getting smarter and smarter. She's two-and-a-half, but there's no fooling her. She likes to come into the kitchen, look up at the stove, and ask "What you making daddy?"

I point out to her whatever I'm cooking, unless I decide it is in my best interest not do do so. This evening, for example, I had two big pots going on the stove. One of chicken-rice soup and another of Bolognese, which happens to be one of her favorite things to eat lately.

I wasn't planning to serve the Bolognese for dinner. In the refrigerator there was a pound of fluke that needed to be eaten. The fish was for dinner, not pasta. I didn't want anyone else getting any other ideas.

So when she asked me, "What you making daddy," I said that I had some chicken soup going. She looked at me and said "I smell Bolognese." Indeed, she did.


What I Learned from "Julie and Julia": How to Make Better Scallops

Last night I watched "Julie and Julia," and I learned something. After seeing scene after scene of Julie Powell drying the meat for boeuf bourguinon, it occurred to me that I should be drying my scallops when I sauté them. 

I tried it this afternoon when making lunch. I patted down the scallops with paper towel before throwing them in the pan.  It really makes a difference. The scallops browned better, and stuck less. Who knew?


Roast Striped Bass Recipe, the Cobble Hill Way

HopeULikeFish4
I recently introduced this blog to a friend of mine, Joe McCarthy, who’s a little further along the winding road of life in bucolic Brooklyn and whose children are mostly grown. He’s been cooking for his family for years, and he wrote me to tell me what he’s been up to lately. The following is his guest post.


These days, around my house, it is husband cooking for wife. My daughter is in the Middle East, and my son’s down south, so I’m not cooking for them anymore. I cook because I really enjoy the process, and generally the result. One of the nicest things about my relationship with my wife, if not the best one, is that I don’t have to do the dishes. It’s been that way since we got together. I’d say to her, “I can cook better that we can afford to eat out,” and she’d clean up.  Sometimes, I’d use a lot of pots and pans, and there’d be some complaints, but mostly now I clean up as I cook, so it’s not so bad. It’s only at big dinner parties that I make a major mess.

For the past thirty-one years, we’ve been keeping a Dinner Book listing all the meals we’ve cooked for guests. I thought about writing about that, but I haven’t gotten around to looking back on all those meals and contemplating what was going on as we made those choices. Lately, the decision about what to eat is based on our diets. One of us has genetically high cholesterol, and the other is working to take some weight off, so we’ve had lots of fish lately.

Monday afternoon I stopped by Fish Tails, our local Brooklyn fishmonger, expecting to pick up a fillet of some sort.  I’m trying to work down the food chain into fish that do not eat other fish.  Lately, we’ve been enjoying Branzino, a mild but very tasty product of the Mediterranean (not that far down the food chain, it seems). The price is right. I worry, though, that Branzino is the new Chilean Sea Bass, and the price is going to go through the ceiling, and it will hit a watch list before the health bills pass. Turns out, according to Wikipedia, that it is under pressure, and is heavily farmed in Spain. The store didn’t have any Branzino, only Sea Bream and Striped Bass. A picture flashed into my mind of an up-right fish with crackly skin splayed open and roasted, and I settled on the bass. 

Our vegetable guy, Carmine at Jim and Andy’s on Court Street, in Cobble Hill, has caved and no longer sells huge, dirty clumps of basil. Now he cleans them and nips off the roots. “The clients want it like at Trader Joe’s, all packaged and clean,” he says. (Don’t get me started on Trader Joe’s.) I picked up some basil to make pesto and some broccoli. There’s that diet again. It would be a green dinner.

Usually I’m a stove-top kind of guy.  I broil occasionally, but rarely do I put something in the oven and go read a book. Thirty to forty minutes of work, splash in some wine or vermouth at the end, and dinner’s ready; that my MO.  Sure, boeuf bourguignon might simmer in the oven for hours, and I’ve been known to roast a chicken, but I’ve never baked a cake, or made a chicken potpie.

I was in the mood for roast fish, though. I scanned a couple of cookbooks for cooking temperature and ideas, and settled on Marcella Hazan’s:  400° for 20 to 30 minutes.  Her recipe was for bass with artichokes, but I didn’t have any artichokes.  So I spread the gutted fish belly wide out to each side, so it sat up like a trophy, on a bed of thin lemon slices, having slathered it with olive oil and, as per Hazan’s recipe, sprinkled the pan and the fish with rosemary.

My wife was at yet another publishing party in Manhattan (‘tis the season, it seems), so I held off starting the fish until she called to say she was heading for the subway home. The fish was just out of the oven when she arrived a half-hour later. All I had to do was carefully separate the fillets from the body, spoon pesto sauce onto the pasta, and remember my favorite delicacy, the fish cheeks. I put a few of the lemon slices under it for looks. A modest Macon-Villages from Heights Chateau, our favorite local wine merchant, added a tart backdrop to the dinner.  The bass was terrific, delicate and flavorful, with strong hints of both the lemon and the rosemary.


Roast Striped Bass

  • 1 whole striped bass, about 1 to 1 1/2 lbs, cleaned but with the head and tail.
  • 2 lemons, sliced thinly sliced in rounds
  • Olive oil
  • Pepper
  • 1 tbs Rosemary

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cover the bottom of a roasting pan with the lemon slices.
Coat the fish with the olive oil and sit it on the lemons with the flaps of the belly spread out in both directions.
Sprinkle the pan and fish with the rosemary and the pepper.
Roast for twenty to thirty minutes.