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January 2011

Super Bowl Special: Mark Bittman's Old Oven-Grilled Rib Recipe

Long before I had kids, I was looking for a good football-watching party dish, so tried my hand at Mark Bittman’s “oven-grilled” ribs. I was going to take them to my brother’s apartment for some big playoff game (I don’t remember which one) but I came down with a wicked case of pink eye and stayed home.

Santa Maria and I had a whole tray of ribs to ourselves, and we went wild over them. They’re easy to love—simple to prepare and more tasty than you have any right to expect. I haven’t made them since, though. I thought my life was too complicated with a job and two kids, but I recently learned that’s not a good excuse.

My friend Jon Michaud, the head librarian at The New Yorker and a regular contributor to, makes them repeatedly. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with his wife and two children. The son of a pastry chef, he cooks most of the meals his family eats. Jon is also a novelist, and his first book, “When Tito Loved Clara,” will be published by Algonquin Books in March. Here is his story about making the ribs.

This February will mark the tenth year in a row that I'll make spareribs for the Super Bowl. I first made them for a party at my sister's house in Bethesda Maryland. My wife, Z, and I--newlyweds--had just moved to the D.C. area after our September wedding. (Yes, that's September, 2001.)

We lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, and my wife was in the earliest stages of pregnancy with our first son—so early that we weren't telling anyone about it. Not having lived with a pregnant woman before, I didn't realize how heightened her sense of smell could be. If I had known, I might have chosen to make something less odiferous than ribs—perhaps untoasted bread with butter.

At Christmas that year, I'd received the original edition of Mark Bittman's “How to Cook Everything” (the one with the yellow cover), and I intended to put it to use. Not having access to a barbecue grill, I opted for Bittman's “oven-grilled ribs” made two ways: a slab of dry ribs with “Chris's great rub”* and a slab of wet ribs using Bittman's home-made barbecue sauce.

Before I'd even finished cooking the sauce, my wife fled the living room that adjoined our kitchen and took refuge in our bedroom. “What the hell is that smell?” she said, slamming the door behind her. For the next three hours, as the ribs cooked, our apartment filled with the thick, saliva-inducing scent of barbecue sauce, pork fat, paprika, cumin, and chili powder.

It was too cold to open the windows and my wife buried her head under a pillow. She hadn't had morning sickness yet, but it seemed likely to arrive at any moment. “God, how much longer is this going to take?” she asked. When I told her there was two hours still to go, she said, “I'm going out for a walk,” and disappeared. Meanwhile, I didn't want to go anywhere. If those ribs tasted half as good as they smelled, they were going to be a treat.

When they were done, we loaded the two trays into the trunk of our car for the half-hour drive to Bethesda. No sooner were we on the George Washington Parkway than Z looked at me, like the heroine of a horror movie, and said, “I can smell them! It's coming in through the trunk!” I pushed down on the accelerator and hoped the cops were all busy watching the pre-game show.

The ribs were a huge hit, and even as my family members were eating them they were asking me, “You're going to make these again, right? Maybe next week?” I nodded, because that's what every cook wants to hear—when can I have more of this? I decided that a tradition had been born. Even my wife tried them and admitted they weren't bad.

Over the years, I've made those Bittman ribs in any number of ways—on a gas grill; on a charcoal grill; with cayenne or cinnamon added to the rub; with baby back ribs, and even with beef ribs. Some years they've come out crispier and some year they've come out wetter. It doesn't matter: there are never any leftovers.

Last February, I got a call from my sister in Bethesda, who was hosting a party for the Saints/Colts Super Bowl. She wanted to make the ribs. I had given her the revised edition of “How To Cook Everything” (the one with the red cover) for Christmas that year, and I directed her to the index. “It's not there!” she said. “That's not possible,” I said. “That's my favorite recipe in that book.” I told her to look again, in the chapter on meat. She did: no oven grilled ribs. No rub. (There's the rub!)

I took down my copy and transcribed the recipe into an email and sent it to her. At the bottom of the e-mail, I wrote: DO NOT COOK IN THE PRESENCE OF PREGNANT WOMEN.


Mark Bittman's Oven “Grilled” Ribs with Chris's Great Rub


  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • ½ tablespoon ground cumin
  • ½ tablespoon freshly ground pepper
  • ½ tablesppon chili powder
  • 1 tablesppon paprika
  • About four pounds spareribs


Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Mix the salt and all the spices together and rub them well into the ribs and pace in a roasting pan in one layer. Bake, pouring off accumulated fat every thirty minutes or so, for about two hours, or until the ribs are cooked. (If you're in a hurry, cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil. When you're ready to eat, roast the ribs at 500 degrees F for about ten minutes, or run them under the broiler, watching carefully, until nicely browned.


*Chris Schlesinger, co-author, with John Willoughby, of “The Thrill of the Grill.”

Old Dog, New Tricks: A Pork Chop Recipe and New Music

Occasionally, when I arrive home from work and need to get dinner on the table, I feel like I'm trying to defuse a bomb—if I don't work fast enough and carefully enough, someone is going to get burned.

The other night, I cruised into the apartment just in time to kick off my boots, hang up my coat, and chill with Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria for a few minutes before starting the teeth-brushing, face-washing, book-reading bedtime routine.

We had the girls in bed by 8:10, which meant I was free to head to the kitchen and cook. Santa Maria was hungry and tired, and she wasn't quite finished with the sandman dance. As the girls took a second curtain call, each asking for a glass of water, I could see that she was reaching the end of her fuse.

I was ready, though. I had black beans and rice to heat up, spinach to quickly steam, and an avocado to slice. I wanted to serve it all with a nice little pork chop, because no matter how hard I might try, I can't make it through the day without eating some meat.

Pork chops may be one of the oldest things in the book, but they have always vexed me. I would often burn the outside and dry out the interior. This time, I took it slow, and I covered them as I cooked them gently in a cast-iron pan. Once I had one side browned, I flipped them and turned the heat down low. The second side didn't brown right away, but I figured that was okay. As soon as the interior was up to about 140 degress (an instant-read meat thermometer is an inexperienced chef's best friend), I turned up the heat and made sure both sides were brown.

They were delicious, and dinner was on the table in twenty-minutes. No one got burned.

Before I give the recipe, I want to mention the Cowboy Junkies because they are masters of doing old things new ways. Perhaps best known for their irresistible, down-tempo cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," from the late eighties, the Toronto-based group is back with a new album, "Demons," a tribute to the late Georgia singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. It's not due out for another two weeks, but here's a chance to listen in advance. Enjoy.



Simple Weeknight Pork Chops
  • Ground cornmeal
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1-3 boneless pork chops, depending on their size (to serve two)
On a plate, combine the cornmeal with salt and pepper, and dredge the meat in the mixture until it is coated on each side.
Heat a cast-iron frying pan and add a bit of olive or other vegetable oil.
Fry the meat on one side, with the pan covered until it is brown, about three or four minutes.
Flip the meat, cover, and turn the heat down low.
Watch the meat and cook until it is 140 degrees inside.
Take the cover off, turn up the heat and brown to your liking.
Let rest a few minutes before serving.

I'm Toast: My Alarmist Side Comes Out Over Breakfast

Often, I’m humbled by the way my kids watch me and mirror my behavior. I’m not just talking about admirable things, like buckling my seat belt, eating my vegetables, or crossing the street at the light. They see everything; my therapist says they’re like the paparazzi, sure to catch you at an awkward moment.

Yesterday morning I put an English muffin in the toaster, grabbed my cereal and milk, and took it to the adjacent room to eat. By the time I sat down, the muffin had popped up, so I returned to put it down again. It wasn’t quite ready, but it was close.

Back in the dining room, I joined Nina and Pinta and Santa Maria, who were all at the table. Breakfast is one of the few meals that we always eat together, and it’s fun. I forgot all about the English muffin, until, suddenly, I remembered it.

I jumped up, and dashed to the kitchen while somehow sighing, gasping, or otherwise contorting my face, and thereby communicating to Pinta that something had gone terribly awry.

She ran after me into the kitchen and said, “Who’s hurt? Who’s hurt?”

“Hurt?” I said, “No one’s hurt. I just didn’t want to burn the toast.”

Saturday Afternoon Treat: A Vanilla Flan Recipe

Next month, we will be moving to a new apartment. We need to leave our present place for a number of reasons (some of which date back to October of 2009, at which time I wrote about Chicken Tikka Masala) and I’ll eventually get around to telling that long story. In the meantime, our new home needs to be painted.

On Saturday afternoon we set off to the hardware store to select colors for its walls and to get paint samples. Santa Maria also wanted to go to a special yoga workshop, which was being held around the corner from the hardware store. Doing anything with kids is a little bit like swimming with your clothes on—you’ll get there, eventually, but it will take much longer than you’d like. By the time we reached the store, Santa Maria’s class was about to start, and I was left alone in the paint department with Nina and Pinta.

Pink is my girls’ favorite color, and I thought they would go straight for pink samples only, but they didn’t. They took some pink cards, but they also grabbed ones with blues and purples and blacks. In other words, we made no progress, so we headed home.

I was delighted with our outing, though. It was wonderful to spend time at the hardware store and then idly walk the snowy streets of Brooklyn. Over the last year, I was engaged in seemingly endless landlord-tenant legal maneuverings, as well as a repeatedly frustrating search for a new place to live. Now that all of that is over, I was enjoying my free time.

Back home I wanted to get a jump on the packing, so I made a flan. That might sound like procrastination, but E. B. White once wrote, “Possessions breed like mice. A man forgets what a raft of irrelevant junk he has collected about him till he tries to move it.” We have a lot of things around the house that we don’t need to bring to the new place. One of such thing was a long glass tube containing two organic vanilla beans.

I was inspired to use the vanilla beans by the chef Marcus Samuelsson, who recently tweeted his recipe for homemade vanilla syrup. I showed his recipe to Santa Maria, though, and she dismissed it. Not her kind of thing, but a few weeks ago she used one of the beans to make a flan herself.

She rushed the process though, and the result was not exactly appetizing—imagine sweet scrambled eggs. I was determined to make a smooth and creamy custard. Desserts are not something I have much experience with, and with Santa Maria out of the house I needed advice. So I turned to my reliable source: Mark Bittman’s "How to Cook Everything," the iPod application.

I nailed the texture, but completely failed to caramelize the sugar. I didn’t cook it long enough, so it didn’t turn golden. My mistake was keeping the heat too low, and relying on Pinta to time the cooking. That’s not what she set out to do, but when she started howling with hunger, I knew it was time to get that dessert in the oven and get on with the meal.

Vanilla Flan


  • ½ cup of sugar
  • ¼ cup water

Combine the sugar and the water in a pot, and heat over a low flame until the liquid turns clear, and then a golden brown.

Immediately pour the sugar into a pie dish or the ramekins that will be used for the custard, below.

To make the custard

  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 cups milk or cream
  • 2 eggs plus 2 yolks
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/3-cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees, and put a full kettle of water on to boil.

Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and open it to expose the black seeds inside. With the tip of a spoon, scrape the black seeds out and toss them (they will clump) into the milk or cream mixture.

Heat the milk or cream until it is just about steaming.

With a whisk or a fork, mix the eggs, yolks, and sugar.

Slowly combine the heated milk with the eggs and then pour the custard into the pie dish or ramekins containing the caramelized sugar.

Place the pie dish or ramekins inside a larger baking dish, and then pour the hot water from the kettle into the baking dish to surround the custard.

Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes. The center should still be a bit wobbly when it is taken out.

Set on a rack to cool.

To serve, place the bottom of the dish into boiling water for 15 seconds, and then invert it on a plate.

Delicious with fresh whipped cream.

The Truth About Kale Chips

Given that I have recently written about wild boar stew and sage-and-apple pork roast, I think I can produce one more post about kale chips without this site turning into a kale ghetto. Shortly, I will share my weekend adventures in making flan, but first I have a confession to make.

I never liked the New York Naturals Kale Chips that were Santa Maria's gateway drug to the vegetable, and I wasn't really all that fond of her home-cooked version that she wrote about yesterday. I didn't see this as consequential. An old friend once said that for a couple to be happy, its members should have "sympathetic neuroses," and I think embracing the foibles of one's spouse is the foundation of a good marriage.

It's hard to blame Santa Maria for her kale addiction. I enabled it with the Fly Sky High Kale Salad, which her father said was great because he didn't taste the kale. I wouldn't go that far, but something about toasted pine nuts is incredibly mouth watering. And I'm proud of her for figuring out a way to make her own kale chips.

Kale is an amazing vegetable. It has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years. It grows in almost any kind of weather, and becomes sweeter after a frost. In some regions, folks leave the vegetable in the garden through the winter and pick the frozen leaves to eat as needed. It is rich in vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium, and iron.

Last night, Santa Maria roasted up yet another batch of her kale chips. Because we were out of Parmesan cheese, she made them with nothing more than salt and lime juice, which leads me to another confession: These I liked, a lot. I would even call them addictive.

Super Simple, Super Addictive Kale Chips

  • 1 head kale, leaves washed and dried; center stalk removed
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil, or from a spritzer
  • 1/2 lime, juiced, or to taste
  • salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 225 degrees.

Lay the kale out on parchment paper on baking sheets, and spritz with olive oil, sprinkle with lime juice, and dust with salt (if you don't have a spritzer, mix oil and kale in a bowl).

Bake in the oven about 20 minutes, or until the leaves are crisp. This may take longer. Be patient.

Doubling Down: Santa Maria Strikes it Rich with a Kale Chip Recipe

On Sunday afternoon, while I was resting after making a pot of Bolognese and a batch of  black beans, Santa Maria slipped into the kitchen to experiment with kale chips. Here is her report:

I love, love LOVE the Fly Sky High Kale Salad, but alas, the kids don't. Sometimes, Nina will have a bit, but not much more. Pinta, won't even try it.

Because our big girl, Nina, can't eat nuts, I was dismayed when she looked with such interest at my New York Naturals Kale Chips—they're yummy, but quite expensive at $6-9 for a small box -- and covered in pulverized cashews (and other stuff).

I looked around and made up my own recipe for kale chips, which she loves. Everyone gobbled them up!  And I am happy to have made a delicious healthy snack. It really takes just ten minutes.

The Deep Fragility of All Existence As Represented in a Vegetable Snack (a.k.a. Santa Maria's Kale Chips)

  • 1 head kale (washed, spun dry, with the stiff spines ripped out)
  • 1 Tablespoon lime juice
  • salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup micro-grated parmesan cheese
  • olive oil (about a teaspoon) or from a spritzer

Preheat oven to 225 degrees

Place the leaves on a piece of parchment paper, spritz with olive oil, then sprinkle with lime juice, salt (not too much!), and cheese (or, if you don't have a spritzer for the olive oil, toss everything in a bowl, and then lay the leaves out on the parchment paper).

Bake about 15 minutes.

Note: Watch them carefully while they are baking. They don't taste great if the edges blacken, and all ovens are different. Other recipes I found on-line said to bake them at 350 degrees. I did, and I burned my first version. Other recipes often simply suggest just the olive oil and salt -- but I like them a bit more piquant.



How to Make a Weeknight Meal In Less than Ten Minutes

Want a quick dinner? Cook up some leftovers. I came home the other night and didn’t have anything to eat. Then I remembered that the sage-and-apple pork and the roasted potatoes I had made over the weekend were still around.

If the pork was a bit tired, but oh so welcome, the potatoes were a revelation. I warmed them in a cast-iron pan and they were as crisp and tasty as the day they were made. I sautéed some "Hot Robot" spinach, and suddenly dinner was ready.

Later, I did the dishes listening to an advance copy of Lucinda Williams’ forthcoming album, “Blessed.” I’m an old fan of hers from her “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” days, back in the late nineties. I was excited to discover that her new album, on first listen, is on par with that classic.

“Blessed” is not available until March, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with another recent find of mine: The David Wax Museum. They're an up-and-coming indie-folk band out of Boston, and they have a new release, "Everything is Saved," coming out on Feb. 8, and a show at Joe's Pub on Feb. 9. I came across them on The Kitchen Sessions, a music blog with a name I just couldn't resist. Here’s a video of their song “Born With a Broken Heart.”

"Born With A Broken Heart" from Anthem Multimedia on Vimeo.




Sweet Talking: A Lentil Bulgur Soup Recipe

Long before I was married, I had a dream of what my domestic life would eventually look like. I saw a place where a large pot of something—a stew, a soup, a sauce—was always simmering on the stove. I’ve started to realize that vision, slowly.

When Pinta was very young, she had the charming habit of waking at about 5:00, and not going back to sleep. I would let Santa Maria stay in bed, and I would get up to take care of her. There was much I didn’t enjoy about this period of my life, but rising at that early hour gave me time to cook, which I liked.

These days, I’m better rested (we’re all better rested), but I have to scramble to get my cooking done. Lately, I’ve been making that big magical pot of food on the weekends.

One Saturday earlier this month, I made my dhal. Last Saturday, I made another old favorite, a Turkish lentil soup from the “Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant” cookbook. This lentil soup is different from any other that I’ve ever tasted. It is made with bulgur wheat, which releases a sweet and divine aroma when it is browned in the pan. Adding bulgur to the lentils makes for a complete protein, so the soup is very filling. It is seasoned with rosemary, and I just love it. Finished with fresh spinach, it really is a complete meal.

My girls, on the other hand, don’t care for it. They prefer Progresso’s canned lentil soup. They haven’t been reacting well to what I’ve been serving lately, but it won’t stop me from making good food for them. I tried using an immersion blender to puree the soup and its onions, but I wouldn’t suggest that. It made the soup look ugly and taste a bit weird. Pinta wasn’t fooled, and she chose not to eat any. She went hungry. Nina ate a bit (the blended version didn’t taste that bad), but she wasn’t really keen on it.

Earlier, when the soup was simmering, I took down a can of the Progresso soup and read the label to Nina. It’s a very healthy soup (aside from any BPA concerns), but I was surprised to read that sugar is among its ingredients. I shouldn’t have been. Many commercial foods cheat with a bit of sugar to hook the consumer. When I gave Nina my Turkish lentil soup, she tasted it and said, “It needs sugar, dad.” Believe, me, it doesn’t.

Turkish Lentil Bulgur Soup

  • 1 cup lentils
  • 5 cups water (or chicken or vegetable stock)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Olive Oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • A dash cayenne
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup raw bulgur
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • Pinch of dried rosemary
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 cups washed baby spinach


Rinse the lentils and bring them to a boil in the salted water or stock. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for about forty minutes.

While the lentils are cooking, heat the olive oil in a heavy soup pot and saute the onions until they are translucent.

Add the garlic, cayenne, bay leaves, and bulgur. Stir, until the onions and bulgur are lightly browned.

Mix in the tomatoes and parsley.

Pour the cooked lentils into the pot.

Add the tomato paste and rosemary.

Simmer for another 15 minutes or so; until the lentils are tender. If the soup looks too dry, add some boiling water or hot stock.

Remove the bay leaves and serve, stirring the fresh spinach into the soup (I do this in each serving bowl) until it wilts. Garnish with more parsley, if you would like.




Thinking About Getting My Kids to Eat New Things

Some guys think about sports. Others think about cars. I am constantly thinking about food and cooking. I focus on planning menus, buying ingredients, storing them, preparing them, and, of course, eating them, but there is one thing that really dominates my mind: what my kids think of the food I serve.

I’ve introduced them to brown sugar, bacon, and gruyere, so I feel like they should understand that I have their best interests at heart, at least when it comes to flavor. Yet, somehow, they’re reluctant to trust me. Do you know how long it took me to convince Nina that eggs with ketchup taste good?

She liked eggs on their own, and she liked ketchup on French fries, but no amount of salesmanship on my part was going to unite the two for her. Eventually she relented, and now she eats them that way all the time, much to Santa Maria’s dismay; she hates ketchup. I don’t mind it though: in my lazier moments I like to invoke President Reagan’s alleged judgment that the condiment is a vegetable. It makes me feel like I'm feeding them well.

I ran into a hard time the other night when I served my wild boar and lentil stew. They should have liked it. They were fond of its main ingredients: pork, rice, and lentils, all things they’ve eaten previously. The seasoning, a vaguely Indian combination of garam masala and thyme, was something they've enjoyed, too (as of late, my last-minute, commercially prepared meal of chicken tikka masala has become perfectly fine by them).

Yet when I put the boar stew in front of them they froze. Pinta backed away from the table. Nina broke into tears, and managed to get down five little bites. The tears were particularly painful for me. I knew she was crying because she wanted to please me by trying the dish, yet at the same time she found the whole thing reprehensible.

I gave up, and offered them a dish of the plain rice and lentils. Nina wolfed hers down; clearly she was hungry. Pinta didn't bother with more than a few mouthfuls, and I can't blame her. Plain rice and lentils is just plain nasty, unless you're five and feeling like that's what you need.

Later that night Pinta stood in the kitchen with me looking at the pot of stew (there was a lot left over, given that half the family didn't eat any), and said to me, "I know I'll like it, I just need to get used to it."

It's hard to know what's the best way to get kids to eat new things. Parent Earth, a new site about food and families, has a video that offers some helpful hints. The host of the clip is so calm that she seems like she's from another planet, but her advice is very down to earth.


Day Off

Yesterday was a national holiday, so I took the day off from blogging. I was still in the kitchen, though, and you'll hear about that as usual over the next few days. In the meantime, I want to let you know that I don't always have to do the cooking. My girls have previously shown an interest in culinary pursuits, and one night last week I came home to learn that Nina had made me dinner. That's a picture of it above. In case you're wondering, it's rice, fish (flounder), cheese, and asparagus. She calls it "The Food Dish."