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December 2010

Step in and Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

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I carry a sketchbook around with me wherever I go, though I don’t draw these days as much as I used to. One of my regular places to sketch was the subway (which provided me with a never-ending source of models; the above image is from 2003), but now you’re more likely to find me nodding off—mouth open, head back, eyelids drooping—than holding a pen and paper. Working fulltime, cooking, grocery shopping, finishing the book, house hunting, watching the kids, and blogging takes its toll.

Despite my sleeping habits, art continues to fascinate me, and I was delighted to stumble across The Food Illustrator, a site run by the English artist David Meldrum, who has decided to draw what he eats. Unlike my other recent find, They Draw and Cook, where a given recipe is illustrated, Meldrum takes a slightly different tack—he’s spending a year drawing everything he eats. Everything. Take a look:

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A Season of Giving

I received an early Christmas gift yesterday: I was shown the cover for my forthcoming book, "Man with a Pan." The artwork is not 100% finished, so I can’t reveal it here, yet, but I’m delighted with it.

It put me in the mood to think about giving, and getting. On the giving side, there’s a reading of food-related poetry and prose at The Old Stone House, in Brooklyn, tonight, that benefits the food pantry at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, in Park Slope. The writers are Greg Fuchs, Jim Behrle, Louise Crawford, Michele Madigan Somerville, Peter Catapano, Sophia Romero, Amy Gilbert and Jake Siegel, and there’ll be snacks, too.

On the receiving side, Michael Ruhlman has come up with an inventive set of cooking tools that solve some kitchen problems that only a hyper-busy home cook might have. My favorite of his are the All-Strain Kitchen Cloths, which are pictured below (photo thanks to Donna Turner Ruhlman).

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I can’t say I’ve had as much trouble has with straining my chicken stock as Ruhlman has (he reverted to using his handkerchiefs), but I’ve always struggled with the task. I use a colander lined with cheesecloth, and it never really works. The cloth never stays in place and part of it often appears to dissolve as I pour the hot stock through it. Ruhlman’s invention would seem to solve that problem, and they look good, too.

The other creation of his that caught my eye was the Easy-Clean Knife Grabber. Like Ruhlman, I’ve always found magnetic knife holders beautiful and useful. Ever since I became a parent, though, I’ve been committing the sin of keeping my knives in a drawer (both Santa Maria and the babysitter refused to allow the knives on the wall in reach of the young children; for some reason the blades scared them). I hope that we'll be moving to a new apartment soon, though, and this is one thing I’d like to hang on the wall now that the kids are a little older.


What a Difference a Day Makes

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The night before last, I let Santa Maria know that I was leaving work and she texted me the following:

"yay!!! girls cutting kale! eating artichokes"

I came home and found Nina and Pinta satiated and amused. It was a pleasure to join them, but I didn't quite realize how much of a treat it was.

Last night, I called Santa Maria on my way home. "Nina has a fever of 102.5," she said. There's nothing like a sick child to make me miss the common joy of the everyday.

 


The Artful Bolognese

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One of the great things I like best about being in the “EAT/ART” exhibit at the Atlantic Gallery (in addition to supporting Just Food, of course) is getting to know some of the other artists, many of whom like to cook. Some, such as Adam Van Doren, are fathers too, and he has offered to share the tale of one of his favorite dishes, Bolognese.

Van Doren, who has two children, is a kind of Renaissance man (he studied architecture, paints watercolors, draws cartoons (that's one of his, above), and has made two documentary films about The New Yorker magazine), and his Bolognese is different than any I’ve ever known. It’s made with beer, for one thing. It’s spicy, for another.

I’ve written before about the complex history of what makes a Bolognese a Bolognese. In Bill Buford’s “Heat,” his book about learning how to cook Italian food, he observes that “a Bolognese is made with a medieval kitchen’s quirky sense of ostentation and flavorings.”

Van Doren understands this. His recipe comes from a cousin, Robert Ashby, an actor who was raised England, but also lived in India as a child. “Strictly speaking it is an Italian dish,” Van Doren says, “but this version is a sort of hybrid, a kind of ‘Michelangelo meets Gandhi,’ if you will.”

I was a teenager in the 1970s when I first met my cousin, who was traveling through New York City as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I have seen him every few years since then, whenever he passes through Manhattan, and he always makes a point of making his famous spaghetti sauce. From his days in India, he was used to very hot dishes. For a long time, I tried valiantly to eat what he made for me, but my tongue initially couldn't handle the strong, intense curry. My mouth would burn, and my face started to sweat. Eventually, I developed an ability to handle it, and loved it.

I actually found it intoxicating and couldn't stop once I'd started. He was proud of me when I could eat his creation with gusto (without having to run to the sink every five minutes for a glass of water), but he used to rib me that what I had sampled was what he considered MILD. The REAL stuff--which I don't touch--is beyond my reach, and he eats that himself.

In any case, I have since then created my own improvised variation of this sauce, which is different from my cousin's in terms of the specific recipe, but not in the overall concept--that is, of being somewhat fiery and spicy. My preparation requires a couple of hot pans working at the same time, one which has a pound of ground beef sizzling in butter to a nice brown; the other simmering on a low flame with  sliced garlic, yellow peppers and chopped onions in oil and butter. Once the beef is cooking nicely, I mix in whole tomatoes from a can, and add a small jar of tomato paste. After churning that over with a big spoon, I add two cans of canned spaghetti sauce into the ground beef--both from Patsy's famous Italian restaurant in New York: one is a jar of creamy vodka sauce, and the other a jar of spicy marinara.

As these sauces start cooking, I mix in a bottle of beer for flavor, and of course for consistency. Soon after that, I pour in my garlic, onion, pepper mix from the other pan, and let everything work together. Then I start adding some salt, some healthy dashes of curry power, and a good bit of ground pepper. Oregano also is sometimes added. I add a little more beer or water sometimes to make sure the texture is nice and gooey without being watery.

My family loves it, though I have had to be careful and modify it somewhat so that it doesn't get TOO spicy hot for them. They get a charge out of it, and really enjoy it. It is really tasty the next day, heated for a bit in the microwave, with the sauce nicely imbedded into spaghetti noodles!

 

The Artful Bolognese

 

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • Butter
  • 8 gloves of garlic, chopped
  • Half an onion, chopped
  • One yellow pepper, chopped
  • 1 28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes
  • 1 six-ounce can tomato paste
  • 12 ounces Patsy’s creamy vodka sauce
  • 12 ounces Patsy’s spicy marinara sauce
  • Four pinches curry powder
  • Ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 12-ounce bottle of beer

Sauté the ground beef in butter in one pan until a nice brown.

In another pan, sauté the garlic, yellow peppers, onions in butter until the onion is soft.

After the beef has browned, add the tomatoes and tomato paste.

Add the jars of tomato sauce to the beef.

Add the beer.

Add the sautéed garlic, peppers, and onions.

Add salt (to taste), curry powder, ground pepper, and more beer or water, if necessary.

Also, oregano, to taste.


More Kale Salad Madness

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Santa Maria is a woman of few vices (assuming you don’t count me). When she gets addicted to something, it tends to be something healthy, and her latest fixation is the “Fly Sky High Kale Salad” recipe that I devised a few weeks ago.

Over the past few days she has made it half a dozen times, and she keeps buying the leafy green vegetable. At present, we have two heads of lacinato kale in the refrigerator, just waiting to be sliced, sautéed, tossed with toasted pine nuts, and dresses with Parmesan, olive oil, and lemon.

Her obsession with the salad is understandable. It is extremely delicious. One of my sisters is a devoted reader of this blog, and after she made it for her husband, he told her it’s "way, way, way" better than her usual method of sautéing it with garlic and olive oil.

Nina and Pinta liked the salad the first time I made it, but I don’t think they’ve had it since. Santa Maria keeps eating it up before they can get any of their own. Their interest in kale keeps is growing, though, albeit in a different way—they like to chop the stems and make “soup.”

The other night I came home to find small saucepot full of the nubby little green ends. Pinta had spent the afternoon cutting them up with her little blue children’s knife. She was so proud of what she had made. The next night, Nina, not to be out done, chopped a bunch and took a hunk of Swiss cheese out of the refrigerator to put in hers.

I had to draw the line there. It’s one thing to play with kale stems, it’s another thing to waste food. Soon, though I won’t be surprised if they start making real meals of on their own. Our bedtime reading is headed in that direction.

For the past few weeks, Nina’s choice has been “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first of Laura Ingalls Wilder's “Little House on the Prairie” series. If you think those books are just about quaint patterns of gingham and dainty ponytails, think again. As Pete Wells’ “Cooking with Dexter” column from earlier this year makes abundantly clear, there’s a whole lot of present-day, locovore inspiration in the book; the first chapter is about killing and butchering a pig.

Pinta, for her part, has taken to a new book, “Chef by Step,” by Chef Laurie. It’s a nifty cookbook for children full of bright pictures, clever illustrations, and easy-to-make-recipes that many adults would be happy to eat. If you’re looking for a good cookbook for a child, I suggest you pick up this one. Chef Laurie knows what she’s doing: I’ll have to show my kids this video she made about knife skills:

 

 


Teaching Our Children Well

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The scary thing about being a parent is that children learn more from your behavior than they learn from anything else. Two weeks ago, I was late in getting my submissions to the curator of the “EAT/ART” show, and I had to bring my drawings to the gallery the morning work was being hung.

Workers were busy munching bagels and pounding nails in the walls. The artwork had been carefully laid out on the floor in front of where it was going to be displayed. Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria were with me, and the kids were as enthralled with the magical scene as they were with the free bagels. They tiptoed around the art, as I dropped my pieces off.

A week later at home, Nina took out a large stash of her old drawings, and started laying them out one by one on the floor along the wall in a long hall in our apartment. She then proceeded to hang them.

Yesterday morning when I was going out to work, my youngest, Pinta, was eating a toasted, buttered baguette that she had doctored. “Cinnamon toast,” she shouted. “I made it,” as proud as one would be upon discovering the cure for cancer.


No Time to Cook: At Just Food's Farm School Art Show

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I was out last night at the Atlantic Gallery, for a party celebrating Just Food's Farm School NYC. This new two-year program offers certificates in Urban Agriculture, which combines high-tech activism with dirt-under-the-fingernails gardening.

It was an evening of art and food, and in keeping with that theme, I'd like to share one of my recent discoveries: They Draw and Cook. The image above is from this nifty website featuring "recipe renderings by artists & illustrators." Enjoy.


Kale Salad SmackDown

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When both parents work, life gets a bit like tag-team wrestling. I was home last night at 7:25, and Santa Maria had the girls ready for bed. I kissed them goodnight and started to think about dinner for myself. Santa Maria put on some makeup and headed out to a work event.

Earlier in that afternoon, she had a craving for kale. The Park Slope Food Coop was out of lacinato kale, and only had purple-stem kale. Both are fairly similar, so she bought it. Taking it home, she discovered one key difference—she didn’t need to pull the stem out before making the Fly Sky High Kale Salad.  She liked this convenience a great deal.

Santa Maria left the kitchen and the rest of the house in perfect shape. More than perfect, actually. She had grated the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, cut half a lemon, and toasted some pine nuts for me. All I needed to do was wash the kale, chop it, and start cooking.

I wanted more than a salad for dinner, though, so I added a few things to the dish. Taking a nod from Pinta, who had combined penne with her kale the first night she tasted it, I decided to pair it with a bit of leftover spaghetti. I didn’t think kale and pasta and cheese would satisfy me, so I added prosciutto  (and some garlic, for good measure).

I cooked the kale the same way as the salad, fried up the prosciutto and chopped it, and warmed the pasta in the microwave. I tossed everything in with the kale when it was finished, gave it a quick stir, and sat down to enjoy it.

Pinta had other ideas, though. She was having a hard time going to sleep, and she made a couple of curtain calls. Twice she called out. The first time I went to her, I leaned in close and asked her what she needed in a whisper (so as not to wake her sister). “You smell like Bolognese,” she said. I told her about my dinner. She said she needed water. The next time she called out, we made a trip down the hall to use the bathroom. On her way back to her room, I gave her a hug and she said, “You smell like prosciutto.” That girl was paying attention.

Software companies release beta versions of their product all the time, but I’m not going to stoop to that level. I don’t think this recipe is quite complete. I used too much of the ham (I was hungry, and I threw in four pieces), and the dish lacked balance. Though I was happy to have it while wrestling with my parenting duties, I'm going to have to go back to the mat on this one.


Old Dog, New Tricks

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We went out to dinner last night, to one of our favorite neighborhood spots, Bark. To say it serves hot dogs, which it does, is akin to saying that the Yankees are just a baseball team. Anybody can throw a baseball, only the Bronx Bombers can claim twenty-seven World Series titles (and like the Yankees, Bark has its haters, but I’m not going to indulge them here).

I like Bark’s tall wooden tables, green ethos, locally sourced food, and, of course, its food. Hot dogs are not one of my favorite things to eat. In fact, I’ve never cared for them. I always thought of them as boring, and slightly suspect. Bark’s are the opposite. Even the plain dog is wicked tasty, perhaps, because, as I just learned from New York Magazine, the owners and chefs Joshua Sharkey and Brandon Gillis trick out their dogs by basting “them like a Peter Luger porterhouse with—get this—housemade smoked lard butter.”

Dining out on a Monday night felt decadent, until I remembered that I worked all weekend. I had my manuscript to review, and late yesterday afternoon I went on a cooking frenzy, making chicken stock, black beans, a vegetarian version of my dhal (to serve to a non-meat-eating friend who was coming to dinner), and roasting a chicken. I didn’t get a break at all, so it was nice to kick back at Bark with a hot dog and a beer.

The girls love Bark, too. And their easy enjoyment makes it all the more fun for me. It’s impossible for me to enjoy a restaurant if they’re not having a good time (which can also make it hard for the other patrons to enjoy the place). Bark has just about everything I want from a dining spot, except for one thing: vegetables (I’m not counting pickles). 

A few months ago, though, Santa Maria started peeling a few carrots each day for the children and us, and placing them in their lunchboxes. She always gets them to eat the carrot before the day is over. Yesterday evening, at Bark while Santa Maria was (repeatedly) reminding Pinta to eat the one that was left over from her lunch, I looked in my backpack, and found one that she had tucked in for me.

After two hot dogs, a beer, and a bunch of fries, I think the tastiest thing I had all night was that carrot. It was so refreshing and healthy tasting. I’m amazed that Santa Maria has engineered such a simple and far-reaching change in our diets. I knew intuitively that carrots are good for the children, but last week I learned just how important they are.

According to an article in The New York Times, a recent study concluded that “people with high blood levels of alpha-carotene — an antioxidant found in orange fruits and vegetables — live longer and are less likely to die of heart disease and cancer than people who have little or none of it in their bloodstream.” I want to live a long time, in part to keep eating those dogs at Bark.


More About My Gallery Show, News About My Book, and a Recipe for Chicken Stock

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In journalism, the lede (rhymes with “need”) is the opening sentence, meant to draw the reader in and convey the essence of the article. When you leave the most important part of the story to the end of a piece, it’s called “burying the lede.” The other day, in writing about the opening of my gallery show, I didn’t just bury the lede, I cremated it: I left out the best part of the story.

Now that I want to remind you about the event on Wednesday, December 8th (the folks from Just Food will be giving a little talk at the gallery—135 W. 29th St.—from 6-8; come if you can!), I have a chance to set the record straight: my drawings (including the one above, which isn't in the show but is a favorite of mine) come from a bigger project—I have a book coming out in the spring about men who cook.

I’m very excited to announce that on May 17, 2011, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill will be publishing “Man With a Pan: The Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families,” an anthology of recipes and essays by the likes of Mark Bittman, Mario Batali, Mark Kurlansky, Jim Harrison, and Stephen King. I came up with the idea for the book, edited the collection, and wrote the introduction. I also contributed drawings and cartoons to it.

I’ll be posting more about the book over the coming months, but right now I’m under the gun to get the typeset pages back to my editor, and as a consequence I don’t have a great deal of time to blog about feeding my family. Of course, procrastination is as much a part of the writer’s art as is composition (an old friend and former roommate, who is an established author, used to clean the floor of the kitchen—with a toothbrush—when he was on deadline), so here I am.

Everyone else in the food world seems to be preoccupied with Hanukkah recipes, but I don’t have any advice to offer (other than get invited somewhere for a meal—the brisket I had on Saturday night at my friend Betsy’s house was out of this world). The great cooking site Food 52, however, is on the case, and they have some suggestions, here.

I’m concerned with more mundane tasks. Inspired by a passage in my book that I was working on yesterday (and fueled by my fourth cup of PG Tips tea in an hour), I decided to make chicken stock. It’s the basis for risotto and dhal, and it goes into my Insane Black Beans and my Bolognese. I ran out a few months ago, and needed to make more. I figured that stock could simmer for hours while I worked on the manuscript.

Freezing what remains after making, eating, and picking a roast chicken is an easy way to ensure a supply of chicken bones for stock. My freezer was a disorganized mess, however, and it took me a good fifteen minutes of shuffling things around (and throwing out a few things we’ll never eat, such as a dozen egg yolks, left over from making meringues, and a vegetable soup left over from Santa Maria’s post-birth Weight Watchers days) to locate the carcasses that I needed.

I spent the next fifteen minutes reorganizing things (something Mark Bittman has excellent advice about) and while I was knee-deep in frozen goods—bagels, chicken breasts, homemade soups and sauces—it occurred to me that there should be an annual event, along the lines of Open That Bottle Night, requiring that all home cooks clean out their freezer. One can only hope.

 

Basic Chicken Stock

 

  • 1 or 2 chicken carcasses
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped

In a large soup pot, briefly sauté the onion, carrot, and celery.

Toss in the chicken bones.

Cover the bones with water.

Bring to a boil.

Reduce to a slow simmer.

Simmer for as long as you can manage, the longer the better.

Strain out the bones with a colander.

Strain the stock through cheese cloth to remove any bits of bones.

Put the pot of stock in the refrigerator for at least a day.

Remove the pot from the refrigerator. The fat will have congealed on top. Skim it off with a spoon and discard.

Freeze the stock in quart containers.