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October 2010

New Brooklyn Cookbook

Cookbook Despite what I was saying below, there is an enormous difference between what I make at home and the food that can be found in most restauarants. I was reminded of this when I opened "The New Brooklyn Cookbook," a recently published and fascinating account of the dining scene in Kings County. Melissa and Brendan Vaughan, who may very well be neighbors (though I've never met them) talked to the cooks and proprietors of more than thirty restaurants around Brooklyn. They worked with the photographer Michael Harlan Turkell to make a lavish and delicious looking collection.

The Vaughans start the book with one of my favorite places, Al di Là, and they get its chef and owner Anna Klinger to divulge her spaghetti alle vongole recipe. Her secret for tender clams is to take each one out of the pot as it starts to open, and let them finish cooking on a warm plate. I make a white clam sauce all the time, and I can't imagine paying this close attention to detail at home. It's why I eat out. I'm hoping to get back to Al di Là as soon as I can.

Oysters Save the Day

This weekend I took charge of the children. Santa Maria was facing a major work deadline, and I told her that I would take care of things around the house. For me, this meant planning lunches and dinner. Saturday, I went to the greenmarket for fish. Flounder for dinner that night. Clams for dinner the next. Oysters for me.

Weekend lunches bedevil me. I reach my mental capacity planning two or three meals at a time. For Saturday lunch, I punted, and took the girls out to eat.

We’ve never been big on restaurants, partially because of the expense, and partially because I can cook better food at home than I can get at the restaurants I can afford. I’m not talking about a Per Se level of expense (though that was fun and memorable, from the black salt from Molokai to getting to drink my wine flight and most of Santa Maria's, the one time we went a few years ago and spent about a month’s rent on a meal), but I’d have to spend at least $75 a head to start tasting things that couldn’t come out of my kitchen.

There’s another reason we don’t eat out very often. Our children don’t really know how to behave in a restaurant. Once, while visiting the grandparents, I watched my preschool nieces and nephews sit patiently at a table at the Olive Garden while we pored over the menus. My kids didn’t know what to do with themselves. They wandered over to check out the food on other tables and gaze at the baffled diners.  Pinta began squealing and chasing Nina. Breadsticks became daggers. I’d like to think that they were protesting the chain restaurant (which is what I felt like doing), but the truth is less appealing. Because we eat at home, they haven’t had a chance to learn what do to while eating out.

We’re working on teaching them how to behave in a restaurant, and the only real opportunity we have to do so involves pizza. It’s the absolute surefire thing that they will both eat. And it’s best if I don’t make the pizza, as the one time I tried, I didn’t exactly succeed. A pizzeria is not necessarily the best school, however.

Our favorite low-priced option, Roma Pizza, is a typical slice joint, without waiter service (which is why we like it). The neighborhood’s go-to family pizza place, Two Boots, knows its clientele too well: kids are encouraged to run to the kitchen window, where the pizza makers toss raw dough to the kids to play with while they wait.

Campo de Fiori, which opened recently, is different. It serves slices, but they are unlike any other slices you will find in Brooklyn. Most New York City pizza is Neopolitan, round with a thin crust. Their pizza is Roman, square with a crisp but thick and airy crust.  The dough is made in Rome, frozen, and then flown to Brooklyn, where it is baked and topped with extremely fresh ingredients. Everything at the place tastes like what I would like to cook with at home. My favorite is the matriciana, full of smoky bacon and spicy tomato sauce.

I love the food at Campo de Fiori, but there’s another aspect of it that I like even more. The restaurant has a relaxed elegance. The décor is crisp, clean, and unassuming. The owners, Andrea and Yari, are welcoming hosts. I get to sit with my girls while they practice proper restaurant behavior. Andrea and Yari don’t use plastic cups. They have nice glasses. They serve the slices on little wooden planks. These little touches add up to a nice experience for me, and the girls. And apparently, I have a lot to learn myself about the Campo de Fiori. This New York Times review focuses on the pastas and other dishes that I have yet to try.

There’s one small point that makes it complicated for me to eat pizza, especially pizza as fancy and expensive as that at Campo de Fiori. It’s never really filling enough for me, unless I eat six or so pieces.

So, to prepare for my latest visit, I prepared a little snack before hand. I had six raw oysters from the Greenmarket. Raw oysters are one of life’s greatest pleasures, and they are very easy to make at home. The ones I ate on Saturday were the sweetest tasting ones I’ve ever had. I ate them in a rush, standing in my kitchen. I found a great video from Coastal Living magazine that explains how to open them. It is really very simple.




Wooden Beams and Green Beans

Early this morning as I was getting out of bed, three-year-old Pinta stood beside me in her pink pajamas, looked down, and said, "There are nails in the floor!"

"Yes, there's a line of them," I said, "see," pointing to a straight line of tiny steel tips in the wooden planks. "There's probably beam under there."

"A bean?," said her older sister Nina, who had joined us.

No, "A beam, with an "m" not an "n," I replied. "A beam is a thing that holds up buildings. A bean is what you ate for dinner last night."


Steamed Green Beans

     Do vegetables need a recipe? If you're ambitious, I suppose. I've always admired "Chez Panisse Vegetables," by Alice Waters, but I've never had the time to open it up.

    To make green beans, wash and slice the tips off as many as you feel like eating. Then bring a pot with about an inch of water in to a boil. Use a vegetable steamer if you have one, or just toss the beans in. Cover and cook for about five or so minutes, until they are as tender as you might like.

    I take them plain, but I know many people, including my two little ones, who like them with butter.





Hungry Again: A Roasted Potato Recipe

Those who watched the Robert Benchley film, posted below, to its end will appreciate what happened to me last night. (Those of you who didn’t can jump to the 7:28 mark).

I was back in the neighborhood early to look at a potential rental, and when I was done figuring out where the third bedroom was in the narrow Brooklyn floor-through that the realtor took me to (it’s in the living room, or rather it is the living room), I headed home to cook dinner.

I threw a chicken in to roast and chopped up some red potatoes. For some reason that defies logic, my children won’t eat potatoes unless they are French fries, which they consume at a rate that would make Jamie Oliver burst a vein.

Recently, however, we got them to try roast potatoes by using the oldest trick in the book. We lied to them, and told them that the roast potatoes were French fries. It worked, and now they enjoy them.

I ended up like Robert Benchley because there’s one important thing to remember while making roast potatoes—If you want them to be crispy, you cannot, absolutely cannot, crowd the pan.

I have but one large frying pan suitable for placing in the oven, so I limited myself to four little potatoes. They were gone in a flash, and I was left holding an empty fork.


Oven Roasted Potatoes

  • 4 small red potatoes
  • a bit of olive oil
  • a pinch of dried rosemary
  • salt and pepper, to taste

        Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.

        Wash and dice the potatoes.

        Toss with the olive oil, rosemary, and salt and pepper in an oven-proof roasting pan or frying pan.

        Roast in the oven about thirty to forty minutes.

        At about the ten-minute mark, give the potatoes a good stir and scrape up any that might be sticking. Do this once or twice more before they are done.

        When the potatoes are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, they are finished.

How to Eat: An Old Video Tutorial

Benchley_fright I started to cook for a very basic reason: I love to eat. But eating with a family is never simple. It can be stressful. As a kid, I can remember how chaos reigned over my brothers and sisters at the dinner table each evening, until my father’s feet thumped up the back stairs of our suburban home. As soon as I heard his footsteps, I would straighten my fork, tuck my napkin, and wipe that smirk off my face. He ruled the home and had little tolerance for any kind of disorder.

My household is a little different. There are no back stairs to our apartment, and like many modern dads, I don’t consider myself king and I don’t consider my children subjects, objects, or things to be seen and not heard. They are individuals. People who deserve a voice.

If anything, parents these days run the risk of going too far in the other direction. There’s precious little separation between the child and the parent. A generation ago, the concept of helicopter parenting didn't exist. When I left for university, I didn’t speak to my parents once between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Okay, maybe once, but not every other day.

I was reminded the other night how great the distance is between the child and the parent. We were at the table for Sunday night dinner. I wanted a nice, sweet moment when we would all be together, but Nina and Pinta were having a hard time sitting in their seats. I told Nina to stop squirming in her chair. Pinta, who is three-years old, thought this was hilarious. She burst out laughing. “Squirming, squirming, squirming” she exclaimed. Of course, they were then moving around even faster than before I said anything.

Eating (and cooking) for me right now is even more complicated. We are under enormous stress in our lives because we need to find a new place to live. When I should be cooking (and even when I should be working), I'm running around looking at frightening Brooklyn rentals. If it isn't the price that is scary, it's the cracks in the bathroom tile. This search doesn't make my life any easier.

The humorist Robert Benchley gives instructions on how to eat in the following short film, from 1939. The role of the father has changed substantially since his time, but the underlying dynamic is the same--you really need to relax. Maybe this will help.

Why Make Pancakes with the Kids?

When I married Santa Maria, I knew that she didn’t like to spend much time in the kitchen. She once stunned me by taking a twenty-six-step Moosewood Cookbook recipe for an Ethiopian stew and reducing it to about a half dozen steps. It was delicious. (A nice online version is here; skip steps at will). I never would have had the gall to disregard the recipe.

She is also a fantastic baker: When she puts something in the oven, I’m assured that something sweet and tasty will come out. There are just two problems—I don’t like to eat pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and as the working mother of one, now two children,  baking is the last thing on her mind. (Santa Maria would like the record to reflect that last week she made husband’s favorite organic banana walnut bread, one loaf still in the freezer, along with a stash of plain banana mini muffins for fruit-hating, nut-allergic Nina).

 So, I started making most of the meals once we had Nina and Pinta. I found it fun to do, and as a new father, I found it easier to slice onions than try to quiet a fussy baby.  In fact, for a long time I preferred to work in the kitchen than to deal with the kids. Then they started to grow up, and now they are great fun to be with. I’m torn between cooking and spending time with them.

The conventional response to this situation is to have the children cook help make the meal. But this ignores the fact that cooking with children is rather like taking a shower with monkeys. If a recipe normally takes ten minutes to prepare, it will take half an hour if the kids are involved. Measuring a cup of flour will take five minutes, not including the time spent wiping up spills. It might be heretical to say, but only the insane try to cook with kids.

Of course, in retrospect one might call it insane to ever become a parent, but this is such a widespread collective delusion that the human race is in no danger of dying out. People adapt, and I’ve learned that there are times when it is very useful to have the children in the kitchen with me.

Take last Saturday morning. I went for a run, and when I returned, Nina and Pinta were running their mother ragged. “Pfannkuchen! Pfannkuchen! Pfannkuchen!” they were chanting. Santa Maria had taught them how to say “pancake” in German, and now she was reaching her limit. I could tell by the tone of her voice, and by its volume. Even though I was in the shower and the water was cascading down around my ears, I could hear her starting to yell.

I was feeling very good after exercising, and I thought to myself as I toweled off, time to throw myself on top of the grenade, and invite the kids to help me make breakfast. Pancakes are one of our old favorites. 

I gently engaged Nina and Pinta, who settled down and were thrilled to join me. Pinta ran to get her Hello Kitty apron. The two took turns measuring the dry ingredients. We beat the egg whites to glorious peaks.  We didn’t mix the batter too much after adding the wet ingredients. And then the batter just sat on the counter while we waited for Santa Maria to return. I had sent her out for a bike ride (apparently exercise can even moderate anger).

Letting the batter rest before making the pancakes is one way to ensure that they are light and tasty. Mixing the batter too vigorously can activate glutens in the flour and result in chewy pancakes. It’s best to leave the mixture lumpy, and let Fick’s law do the work of diffusing the ingredients.

We all enjoyed a peaceful and scrumptious breakfast. Nina said the pancakes were like pizza. What? She explained that she liked them as much as pizza. They are one of her favorite things.

That was last weekend. This Saturday we had pancakes again, only this time it was just Pinta and her Hello Kitty apron keeping me company. I learned something. I don’t have to go to such effort to make great pancakes. I’ve always been proud of how I like to beat the eggs, and then fold them into the batter. This weekend, I broke a yolk into the whites and couldn’t beat them. No one noticed the difference. Much like Santa Maria and her magic with the Ethiopian stew, it can be possible to cut corners.

Basic Pancake Recipe

  • 1.5 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspon salt
  • 1.75 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 to 1.25 cups milk
  • 2 eggs


        Combine the dry ingredients and mix well.

        Mix the eggs into the milk.

        Melt the butter, and add it to the milk and eggs.

        Combine the wet and the dry ingredients, without mixing the batter too much. Leave some lumps.

        Heat a frying pan and add a little butter. Ladle out the batter in small amounts and cook until bubbles form on the surface. Flip and cook a moment longer. Enjoy.



Long Story Short: How Is My New Black Bean Recipe Going to Turn Out?

A week ago, I was at my desk in Manhattan late in the afternoon and my cell phone rang. A mother I know from around our neighborhood in Brooklyn was on the line. She was on the playground. Nina had fallen. Something about monkey bars was mentioned. The word “ambulance” registered in my brain. My cell phone is crap. It’s the one Verizon gives away. I can’t really hear anything on it. I wondered why she was calling, and not Nina's babysitter.

I called the mother back from a landline, and quickly got the story. Nina’s babysitter’s phone-battery was dead. Nina had fallen off the monkey bars. When our babysitter picked her up, Nina was groggy. There was a bit of drool, followed by a moment of panic, during which a nearby dad was enlisted to call 911. The EMTs were on their way.

About three years ago, Nina fell off a couch at a friend’s house, and hit her head. We took her to the pediatrician. She sat in the doctor’s lap and appeared to be happy. Then she vomited on the doctor, and we were off to a long night in a pediatric emergency room for a CAT scan. She turned out to be fine, but I’ve since paid attention to the high levels of radiation in a CAT scan, and I don’t want her to have another one.

In this case, Nina had fallen on her back. The wind had been knocked out of her. She was upset, but she seemed to be okay. That’s what the mother told me, though I didn’t really have any way of knowing. I was miles away, and I was stuck for a moment. If I left my desk to get on the subway, I would be without cell-phone coverage for about thirty minutes. During which time the EMTs were expected. I needed to stay where I was until I could talk to them.

The EMTs arrived and checked her out. They told me that she was fine, but because of her age they had to take her to the hospital. Apparently, if the ambulance comes in New York City for a child under five, the law says that child has to be taken in for an examination.

One of the EMTs was so sure that Nina didn’t need to go to the hospital he invited me to lie to him. “If you tell me she’s six, I won’t have to take her,” he said. I thought for a minute, and suddenly imagined Nina waking the next morning and being unable to walk. What if that happened? I told him the truth, that she was five-and-a-half, and they were on their way.

I hate going to emergency rooms. Often you have to wait for hours. Often they are confusing. Often the staff is busy with a major medical emergency and does not have the time, energy, or patience to deal with anything else. Getting a simple question answered can be a struggle. And, I’m convinced that if you go to the emergency room, you’ll come out with a gram-negative bacteria, the Swine Flu, or something worse. Hospitals are full of germs and sick people. I avoid them like, well, the plague.

On Thursday, it was not as bad as I had feared (there was rudeness, but no superbugs), and we were out in time for dinner. This pleased me greatly. I wanted to see if Nina and Pinta would like a new black-bean recipe I’ve been working on.

It’s not really a new recipe, of course, but it is new to me. I’ve pieced it together from references on the Internet and in various cookbooks. I've been tinkering with it. The first time I made it, the kids didn’t like it. Pinta objected to the onions. Onions are non-negotiable, though, so I had to find a way to make them palatable to her. I diced them very fine for this batch.

I love black beans. They are cheap, healthy, and delicious. They can be made in advance, and then they are extremely convenient. They freeze well, and can be defrosted with impunity on the stovetop, for quick weeknight dinner, after working late for example, or on those nights when your kid ends up in the emergency room.

We sat down at the table and started eating. Pinta said to me, “you can’t taste the onions in this,” and I knew I had a hit.

Delicious Black Beans

  • 1 onion diced finely
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups dried black beans, rinsed but not soaked
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • the juice of one or two limes, to taste


           Saute the onion in a large stock pot, using a little oil, until translucent.

           Add the garlic, saute for a minute or two more.

           Add the beans and the water, and bring to a boil.

           Turn down the heat and simmer for an hour or two, until the beans are tender.

           Add the cilantro, salt, and lime juice.


Note: I make these almost every week, and I never measure the cilantro. Just use a big bunch of it. Make sure to add the salt and lime juice at the end of cooking, and speaking of cooking, there have been days when I have started the beans on the stove in the morning, cooked them for an hour or two, turned them off, left the house, come back hours later, and finished the dish with the lime and salt. It's almost impossible to mess this up, so long as you leave enough time for it. They also freeze and reheat very well.

Men Who Cook Get a Little Love

A friend of mine sent me an article today that warmed my heart. Sara Leeder, a producer at CNN, wrote about exactly what I’m doing over here. "More Men Manning the Family Meal Making?" tells her story about being a working mother whose husband does the cooking.

In it, she makes an important point. “While cooking is the last thing I want to do after putting our little boy to bed, my husband seems to like it. Maybe it lets off stress, or is a release after a long day of work,” she writes. She is right.

The role of men in society is quite different now than it was even a generation ago. Women charged into the workforce in the seventies, and they haven’t looked back (consider how things have changed since the days depicted on “Mad Men”). Except in very rarified precincts of theoretical physics, no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time. If women’s participation has been going up in the workforce (both in status and in numbers) then it follows that men’s has been going down. In fact, very shortly, because of the nature of the latest recession, there will be more women with jobs than men.

For many, work is a place of enormous stress these days. There is a place, though, where men are wanted, where their efforts are rewarded, where they can be in charge, and where they can enjoy themselves. That place is the kitchen. The pay may not come in dollars (though cooking at home can save money, and a dollar saved is more than a dollar earned: when you figure taxes in, it takes about a $1.25 to bring home one buck), but men who cook are highly compensated. Their homes are flush with moments of happiness that take-out or frozen food can’t provide. Who doesn’t feel better after a good meal and a glass of wine?

A growing number of men understand this. The poll at the end of the article demonstrates it. Of the 6,000 or so responders, in more than half the relationships, the men do more cooking than the women.