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October 2010

A Super Quick Seasonal Pumpkin Custard Recipe

As you know from reading this blog, I love to cook for my family. But man does not live on bread alone, and this morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum to tour the Starn Brothers' sculpture “Big Bambú” on the Museum’s roof garden.

We arrived at 9:20 a.m., only to discover that the morning tours had sold out an hour earlier. We took turns waiting on line until noon, for tickets at 2 and 3 pm. Children under ten aren’t allowed on the structure, so Santa Maria and I went one after another. We got home at about 5 this afternoon, just in time for the Halloween madness.

The sculpture’s subtitle is “You Can’t You Don’t and You Won’t Stop,” and that Beastie Boys lyric could easily be our kids’ motto. I was worn out by the day, and Santa Maria took over dinner, and graciously offered to weigh in here:

Pinta went to the museum in full mermaid regalia, Nina saved her Queen costume for trick or treating. Stay at Stove Dad drove, parked, spent his time waiting on line drawing in his sketchbook, then took the kids on a tour called “Start with Art” that he didn’t like: he texted me “this tour should be called Stop with Art, it’s so booooooring.”

The sculpture was a glorious chaos, and worth the wait. The wind whipped thorough the bamboo poles and the whole sculpture whistled. The views from high above the museum were stunning, and the craftsmanship was amazing. It was a real treat to see something at the Met that we were allowed not only to touch, but to walk all over.

When we got home, Stay at Stove Dad stopped off at the Park Slope Food Coop to do the weekly shop, and I sautéed flounder, roasted purple potatoes, and steamed some broccoli to provide a nice base for the candy deluge to follow.  I couldn’t get the flounder quite right – it stuck to the pan, then all the nice golden parts ripped off.  The next batch turned out worse; it was soggy. 

We had to run out of the house to take the kids trick or treating. If I had just five minutes more before making dinner (or if Stay at Stove Dad hadn’t passed out on the floor and had made the dinner as he usually does), I would have whipped up a pumpkin custard for dessert. The prep time is really only five minutes, and clean up is a snap: you mix the ingredients in the same dish it bakes in.

The truth is, the custard wasn’t missed at all. As Pinta pointed out earlier, “After we eat dinner, we won’t need dessert. We’ll have all our candy to eat!” How true. How true.

Superfast Pumpkin Custard

  • one 16 oz. can pumpkin
  • 1/2 c. whole milk (or 1% or skim)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t nutmeg
  • 1/4 t ginger
  • 1/4 t cloves
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 4 T sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a 9-inch pie or tart dish.

Bake approximately 30 minutes in oven at 350 degrees.  Let cool 10-15

minutes on your windowsill and the custard will set nicely.


Note: This is a very wholesome and delicious desert, but if you want to make it a bit more impressive (albiet less healthy), serve it with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

How to Open an Oyster

My post about oyster chowder prompted a friend of mine to say, “once I go to all the trouble (and usually, bloodshed) of shucking oysters, the last thing I want to do is cook them!” Every time I open oysters now, this rings in my ears.

And his words (especially “bloodshed”) got me to thinking that I treated the small but vital detail about how to open them a bit too lightly. So I made a 46-second video this afternoon. And I’d like to offer the following pointers.

First, start with small oysters. They’re much easier to open than large ones (when making the chowder with the six too-big-to-eat ones, I not only broke a sweat, but I seriously contemplated getting out a hammer and smashing one or two of them).

Second, wear gloves. Because I tend to get eczema on my hands, I do all my cooking while wearing heavy blue Nitrile gloves. (Also, if you’re not wearing gloves, you can stabilize the oyster while opening it by placing it on a dishcloth.)

Third, practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. I hope you like the video.



I bought a dozen and a half oysters today, and ate most of them for lunch with Santa Maria. I have six left over now, and I’m thinking about making a tomato-based oyster chowder. Anyone have any suggestions?


Leo Cullum and the Taste of Anchovies

The other day, a friend of mine, the film critic Richard Brody, was telling me about his children’s tastes in movies. Though his eldest daughter, who is just off to college, listens to musical acts that are popular with her peers, like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and her interest in fashion is most up-to-date, the movies she likes are, well, a bit more obscure.

She likes old ones: Joseph Mankiewicz’s “Dragonwyck,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the Busby Berkeley’s musicals “The Gang’s All Here” and “42nd Street.” The same is true for his youngest child, who plays soccer and does other normal teenage things but will leave little notes about “The Heiress” or “Mister Roberts” around the house. They were routinely exposed to the films of Charlie Chaplin, classic musicals and comedies, and even Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” at a young age, and they developed exotic preferences that have remained.

Personally, I grew up with strange tastes in pizza. The only time we ever really had it was at home, after a vacation. A long drive would end with two or three large cheese pies, eaten, out of their open delivery boxes, at the kitchen table. At least one of the pies would be topped with anchovies. I don’t know why. No one ever asked me what I wanted on the pizza, but I do know that I’m the only one in a group these days who even thinks to order an anchovy pizza. My brothers and sisters often feel the same way.

I think of anchovies as one of life’s greatest pleasures (keep them on hand for a Puttanesca sauce, a reliably quick and tasty weeknight dinner), but not everyone agrees. The longtime New Yorker cartoonist Leo Cullum captured that dynamic perfectly in the above image. I was saddened to learn on Monday that Cullum had died of cancer. Cullum came to cartooning late in life, and he became one of the magazine's most popular contributors. William Grimes’ obituary in the New York Times tells his fascinating story.

(Image © Leo Cullum/ The New Yorker Magazine 1989.)

The Truth about Candy

One evening last year while I was helping Nina brush her teeth before bed, she announced that one of her classmates in Pre-K had come back from the dentist with cavities. I told her that I had never had a cavity, which is true.

I said to her, “We never had candy when I was growing up,” which wasn’t completely true, but it was close. Aside from post-Sunday Mass peppermint Lifesavers, which I didn’t really like, and the occasional summer-vacation piece of Bubble Yum, which I loved, there wasn’t much else.

Then I thought for a second, “Never had candy when I was growing up?” What kind of childhood was that?

So by the standards of my upbringing, candy flows freely in our house. But I’m well aware of the dangers of overcompensation, and I've taken the only responsible approach I could think of—I’ve stepped aside. Candy is the domain of Santa Maria. She’s the one with the sweet tooth, anyway. Not surprisingly, I don’t really have one, and candy just confuses me.

Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article about a blog called The Candy Professor, that I’m sure will help. It’s run by a former academic, Samira Kawash, who says “America’s love/hate relation with candy has been puzzling me for many years. With CandyProfessor, I’m hoping to figure out why.” I know what she means.

All American Oyster Chowder Recipe

I miss the kind of meals I made before I had children, when I cooked for sport. It was always fun to try something new, and if a dish didn’t work out, there was still a very good chance that everyone would enjoy themselves all the same. Temper tantrums were confined to the kitchen, and dinners never ended in tears (shouts, maybe, but not tears).

Once, for New Years, I tried my hand at the Moroccan pigeon pie called pastilla. I had fallen in love with the sweet-and-savory dish on a trip to Fez a long time ago, and I wanted to make it at home. I hunted around for a source for pigeon, gave up, and settled on chicken. I had no trouble finding phyllo dough for the crust. Working with the dough was a different story, and I did something very wrong—the pastilla turned out as dry as the Sahara.

No one complained, though, and we just moved on to the next course. I can’t risk such things these days. It’s just no fun for me if my girls don’t eat. I tend to stick to the tried and true, and, after making breakfasts, lunches, and dinner, I don’t have the energy to try anything new.

At times, though, it can’t be avoided. On Saturday, I stopped my favorite fishmongers, Blue Moon Fish, at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. I asked the clerk for a dozen small oysters. After I got home, I discovered that he’d given me six small ones (which Santa Maria and I slurped down that day), and six very large ones that were just far to big for me to eat on the half shell. I needed to find something to do with the oysters.

Chowder was the first thing to come to mind, but when I consulted a few cookbooks, I realized that I was in a slightly strange position. All the recipes for chowder called for a couple of dozen of them. I had but six.

I decided to improvise. When I did my weekly shop on Monday, I made sure to get things I might like to put in the soup. I bought blue potatoes, because I thought they’d look cool. Heavy cream, because that seemed vital. Bacon and celery, because you can’t loose with those.

I had half a red onion in the refrigerator. Red onion. White cream. Blue potato.  All American chowder! Why not? At this point I should issue a disclaimer. There are those who quite correctly challenge the quality of online recipes. The one I’m about to offer was tested just once, tonight. In its defense, I have to say it was delicious. Santa Maria concurs (in fact, her enthusiasm for it validated all my efforts, though she insisted on more salt).

I made the soup while getting the kids ready for bed. I started by softening the onion and rendering the bacon in a small pot. Then I ran down the hall to check on the kids. They were setting up a game in their bedroom. I dashed back to the kitchen and cut up the celery. I returned to their room. Everything was okay, but they wanted me to play with them. I said I would, in a second. “I’m making oyster chowder,” I told them as I ran off, suddenly realizing my folly.

I could make the chowder anytime, but I could only play with them at that very moment. I said I’d be right back. I quickly diced the blue potato and tossed it in the pot. I wasn’t sure about how to cook the potato (which would take a long time) and the oysters (which would take a short time), so I brought it to a boil with a little water. Then I turned it off and joined the children in their room.

We played for a while, then I did the whole bedtime routine in record time. Brushed their teeth, sat down to read their books. Santa Maria was on her way home, and I had to text her to tell her that I was a bit ahead of schedule. I think the chowder was calling me.

After the kids were in bed, I opened the oysters (with a lot of effort), chopped them up, and added them, along with a bit of cream and milk and thyme to the pot and simmered if for a few minutes.

It was creamy and delicious, and easy enought that I'll consider making it more often. Unlike the pastilla, it was a complete success. So much so that it made it hard for me to move on to the rest of my dinner, a more mundane plate of rice and beans, chicken, and spinach. 

All American Oyster Chowder

  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1/2 slice bacon, diced
  • 1/2 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 small blue potato, diced
  • 6 large oysters, opened, juice reserved, and chopped
  • 2 oz heavy cream
  • 2 oz whole milk
  • thyme and salt and pepper, to taste

In a small pot, sauté the onion, bacon, and celery until the onion is soft and the bacon fat is rendered.

Add the potato and just enough water to cover them.

Bring to a boil and simmer until the potatoes are soft.

Add the oysters, cream, milk, and thyme.

Bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.

Friends: A Cause for Celebration and Edward Giobbi's Lasagna Recipe

BiggPotStoveSmall The same day I read David Brook’s column, which prompted yesterday’s post about friendship and entertaining, I happened to have coffee for the first time with a professional acquaintance, Alice Fixx, a woman whom I’ve had on-and-off contact with for a number of years, and who has always treated me kindly. We share a certain kinship (she’s a fan of this blog), and I wanted to meet her because I had thought I would never get the chance.

In January of this year, she told me she had been diagnosed with cancer. I assumed (quite erroneously thank God), that I wouldn’t be hearing from her for a long time. She surprised me a week ago with an email, and I ask her if she’d like to get together.

We did, and it was an extremely rewarding experience. I really enjoyed learning more about her, and she told me that everything, even the darkest thing has its benefit. She said that were it not for getting cancer, she would not have realized how loved she was. When she learned about yesterday’s post, she wrote to elaborate.

"I've spent the last four days cooking for a dinner party (one of several) that I'm having tomorrow night to show my appreciation to people who were so kind and generous to me during my treatment. Tomorrow night's guests include a neighbor who drove me to radiation everyday for six weeks, another neighbor who frequently called to have me join her family for home cooked meals, and one of the nurses from Sloan Kettering.

I didn't have to buy a gram of food for seven months. Friends from out of town (from as far away as Paris and London) sent packages from Zabar's and Zingerman's. Local folks sent deliveries from Agatha and Valentina and Dean and DeLuca. Almost every time I left my apartment for medical treatment I'd return to find little treats hanging on my doorknob. At Easter time I found six anonymous Easter baskets full of goodies....and I'm Jewish!

So how could I possibly return all this love? By cooking, of course! There will be dinners for eight until the last of these angels has been feted at least once. After all, these are the people who made it possible for me to, once again, do what I love: feed my friends.

We'll start with Marcella Hazan's minestrone from her first book, then move on to Ed Giobbi’s lasagna, and spinach salad. The grand finale dessert is an elaborate recipe I found in a magazine called "Intermezzo" several years ago, and always gets raves: banana cake with caramel filling, mascarpone frosting, and decorated with caramelized banana slices, If you were into baking, I'd send you the recipe."

I’ll have to try and get it from her. In the meantime, here’s the lasagna recipe, which first appeared in the New York Times, in 1973.

The World's Most Incredible Lasagna from Ed Giobbi, via Alice Fixx

  • 1 lb. sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 lb. ground chuck
  • salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 tsp. chopped garlic
  • 6 cups fresh marinara sauce (see following recipe)
  • 3 Tbsp. butter
  • 3 Tbsp. flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 lb. lasagne
  • 1 lb. mozzarella, cut into cubes
  • 1/2 cup (or more) fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 6 Tbsp. melted butter (I omit this)


In a large skillet, cook the sausages till done. Remove the sausages and set aside.

Pour off almost all the fat from the skillet and add the chuck. Add salt and pepper to taste and cook, breaking up the lumps in the meat. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring, till the meat  loses its red color. Continue cooking till the meat starts to brown.

Skin the sausages and slice them thin. (I process them, with skin, till crumbly, in the food processor.) Add them to the meat. Add the marinara sauce and partly cover. Simmer about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the sauce cooks, melt 3 Tbsp. butter in a saucepan. Stir in the flour, using a wire whisk. When blended, add the milk, stirring rapidly with the whisk. When thickened, stir in the cream and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir this sauce into the meat sauce.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook the lasagne till al dente. Drain and rinse in cold water.

Assemble the dish. Spoon a layer of sauce over the bottom of a baking dish. Add one layer of lasagne. Spoon another layer of sauce over this and add a layer of mozzarella. Sprinkle with Parmigiano. Spoon 2 Tbsp. melted butter over this (I omit this.) Continue making layers, ending with mozzarella, Parmigiano and melted butter. Bake 45 minutes at 375 degrees or until piping hot and bubbling.

Yield: 8 or more servings


Marinara Sauce

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 4 cups coarsely chopped onions
  • 2 small carrots, cut into rounds (1 cup)
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 8 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes
  • salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 1/4 lb. butter
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil or 2 tsp. dried basil


Heat the oil in a large skillet and add the onion, carrot and garlic. Cook, stirring, till the vegetables are golden brown.

Put the tomatoes through a sieve, pushing pulp through with a wooden spoon. Discard seeds. (I just puree them, with seeds, in a food processor.) Add pureed tomatoes to vegetables and add salt and pepper to taste. Partly cover and simmer 15 minutes. Put sauce through a sieve and push solids through with a wooden spoon (or use food processor.) Return sauce to the skillet and add remaining ingredients. Partly cover and simmer 30 minutes more.
Yield: 6 - 8 cups or more

How to Win Friends and Influence a Bolognese Recipe

Late last week, David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times pointing out that network-television comedies have changed during the past two decades from being centered on families (“All in the Family,” “The Cosby Show,” “Different Strokes”) to revolving around loose sets of friends (“Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “30 Rock”).

Brooks picked up this observation from an essay by Neal Gabler in the Los Angeles Times that goes into much greater detail, but basically TV is different now because the middle-aged television audience is different.

In most households, both parents work and yet, they spend more time with their children than parents did a generation ago. What falls to the wayside is friendship. There are more television shows about friends not because we all have more friends in our lives, but because we have fewer.

As it turned out, we had plans to have a friend and her three-year-old over for dinner (she’s been on her own with him for a few days, while his father is out of town on a business trip) on Saturaday night, and for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to make a big pot of Bolognese sauce. It’s something I just need to have in the house, and I can’t really relax unless I know there’s some on hand. It freezes well, and can always be relied upon to fill a hole in a weekly menu on short notice. I had all the ingredients on hand to make it, and having people over for dinner provided just the impetus I needed to make a batch. A very big batch. I thought, “why not invite a few other people over?”

So I started to make some calls. First to friends who live so close that they can peer into our apartment, from across the antiquated clothes line towers, but who we don’t often get to see. Then to another friend with a kid whose husband was away. Then I had to stop. Santa Maria was starting to lose her patience (she objects when I plan big parties, then always enjoys them). Besides, we only have seven chairs.

I’m so practiced at making Bolognese that I can make it in my sleep. Saturday, however, I was presented with a small challenge. I like to make the sauce with chicken stock, but I was out of it. Intent on making big batch of the sauce, to have extra for the freezer, I needed to find another liquid to replace the stock.  I had two pounds of beef, five 28 oz cans of peeled plum tomatoes, and plenty of wine, but I wanted to stretch the sauce.

Classic Bolognese recipes call for making it with milk. I’ve always shied away from that because I like my sauce lean. Marcella Hazan insists that it makes the meat tender, and I thought, now’s my chance to see if she’s right. I don’t know if the meat was more or less tender than usual, but I do know that my friends were pleased, and I was overjoyed to see them.

Double Sized, Double Rich Bolognese Recipe

  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 carrots, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 4 slices bacon, diced
  • 2lbs ground beef
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup white wine
  • Five 28-ounce cans peeled plum tomatoes, diced
  • cinnamon and nutmeg, to taste

        Sautee the onion, carrots, celery and bacon until the onion is translucent and the bacon fat is rendered.

        Add the ground beef and cook and break with a fork or other kitchen instrument until all the pink is cooked out of the beef. Salt the beef.

        Add the milk and some nutmeg and cook until it is boiled off.

        Add the wine and repeat.

        Add the tomatoes and simmer for three or more hours.

        Season with more nutmeg and some cinnamon.


        Note: When making it in this large a quantity, I use two pots.

The Color of Pomegrantes: A Dialogue

When Santa Maria saw yesterday's item about pomegranates,  she had two things to say.

"If you want something utterly gorgeous upon which to feast your eyes, try Sergei Paradjanov's 'The Color of Pomegranates.' It recreates the inner world of a poet and was considered so subversive by Soviet authorities that he was tossed into the gulag for four years."

To which I replied, "That's why I married you."

The second thing she had to say concerned getting pomegranate seeds out of the shell. She said the task isn't hard, it's a fun puzzle, like a Rubik's Cube. "I never shy away from anything complicated or messy," she said.

To which I replied, "That's why you married me."

The Sounds of Pomegranate Season

I’ve promised myself that when I move, I will upgrade my kitchen equipment. I have a few exotic things—such as a fish poacher, a Moroccan tagine, and a Swiss pressure cooker—but as one of my readers recently pointed out, I’m lacking some important items. “Dude. Seriously. Buy a Kitchen Aid mixer. I mean, if you're going to go through the trouble of having this blog (which I just discovered) and do things in the kitchen, get 2 tools: 1) The mixer and a food processor,” wrote Jez, of the website Fresh Beer Every Friday.

He’s probably right, but I’m a firm believer that you do not need fancy equipment to make fine food. You need a few good knives and a few solid pots. Fresh ingredients are more important than anything else. A bread maker, fuhgeddaboudit.

I plan on staying in an apartment in the city, and not moving to a house with a huge kitchen, so I will always have to limit what I keep on hand. There is one thing I will be certain to improve, though—my kitchen stereo. At the moment, it has a half-broken old boombox that only plays the radio. I dream about installing a Sonos system that magically keeps the music flowing in all the rooms, but my budget will probably be too modest for that.

I have a sizable library of music, and I’m often on the lookout for new acts. Pomegranates, an up-and-coming quartet out of Ohio, just caught my eye. It is pomegranate season, after all, and the ruby fruit is one of Santa Maria’s favorites. (She recently left a half-eaten one on the counter, and I’ve seen her toting the bright red seeds around with her; last week she gave them to our friend Randall Eng, at a performance of his opera "Henry's Wife".)

It seems like a perplexing puzzle and an enormous amount of effort to open one and get the seeds out (though Santa Maria has never been afraid to do the work). A colleague of mine who is a fan of the fruit recently told me about a method involving a giant bowl of water. She swears it is easier, but I haven’t had the time to try it. As soon as I do, I’ll share the results here. 

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Pomegranates, the band. They join a long list of quality acts from the Buckeye State, which includes the punk rock greats the Pretenders, Erika Wennerstrom’s raucous power trio the Heartless Bastards, the experimental blues-rock duo the Black Keys, and the eternally funky Ohio Players (“Love Rollercoaster”). The Pomegranates have a more contemporary and chiming sound (the remind me a tiny bit of the lovely English act the xx), and they even have a song called “In the Kitchen.” Enjoy.



Find more artists like Pomegranates at MySpace Music

How Not to Make Quinoa Salad

BurningOven In many ways, cooking for a family differs from running a restaurant, but in some ways it is similar. Restaurants serve several different entrees, and there have been nights when I'm deep into multiple dishes for each member of the family, such as when we have our seafood feast: Nina likes mussels, but Pinta does not. I try to limit the options each night, though. After all, I’m not trying to run a restaurant.

Both professional chefs and parents who cook also have to do more than one thing (or six things) at time. Chefs have training and develop skills to do this well. Take short order cooks. I learned a little bit about how their minds keep track of tasks from reading “The Egg Men,” Burkhard Bilger’s pulse-raising story about short-order breakfast cooks in Las Vegas, which ran in the Sept. 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker (subscription required for the full article).

"Warren Meck, a neuroscientist at Duke University, has identified the neural circuitry that allows the brain to time several events at once. As it happens, short-order cooks are among his favorite examples. They’re like jugglers, he says, who can keep a dozen balls in the air at the same time. He calls them “the master interval timers.”
    Whenever a cook sets a pan on a griddle, Meck says, a burst of dopamine is released in the brain’s frontal cortex. The cortex is full of oscillatory neurons that vibrate at different tempos. The dopamine forces a group of these neurons to fall into synch, which sends a chemical signal to the corpus striatum, at the base of the brain. “We call that the start gun,” Meck says. The striatum recognizes the signal as a time marker and releases a second burst of dopamine, which sends a signal back to the frontal cortex via the thalamus—the stop gun. Every time this neural circuit is completed, the brain gets better at distinguishing that particular interval from the thousands of others that it times during the course of a day. An experienced cook, Meck believes, will have a separate neural circuit set up for every task: an over-easy circuit, an over medium circuit, a sunny-side-up circuit, and so on, each one reinforced through constant repetitive use."

In my case, I had a bit of trouble managing multiple tasks last night. I foolishly tried to roast the potatoes for my quinoa salad while at the same time trying to decide if acquiring a piece of real estate would be good move for my family. The house hunt is one thing that’s not giving me a dopamine rush, and I burned the potatoes.