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April 2011

Last-Minute Weeknight Dinner Trick: Raw Kale Salad

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On Wednesday, I was a part of the Family Food Summit, a multi-day conversation with leaders in the field about feeding one's family. The Summit featured such experts as Laurie David, of "The Family Dinner"; Rachael Hutching, founder of La Fuji Mama; and Catherine McCord, of Weelicious.

I was on the line with Michael Ruhlman, and we were talking about dads in the kitchen. My hat goes off to the Family Food Summit founder, Melissa Lanz (of The Fresh 20), for including men. If we are going to change the way we eat in this country, we have to start with the way it is cooked, and that starts with who is doing the cooking. It's a man's job now.

The Summit ended on Thursday, but all the conversations are archived and available for free. I encourage you to go and check it out. Michael and I were asked about managing weeknight dinners, and we both had good suggestions. He said that when you're making something, "make double of it." To which I added, "use your freezer." My black beans, dhal, and bolognese all freeze well, and if you freeze them in small quantities, can be defrosted on a weeknight in less time than it takes to order take out.

We were feeling pretty good about our approach when someone on the line (it might have been Michael) mentioned vegetables. They don't freeze well. That's true, but Santa Maria recently came up with a shrewd solution--eat them raw.

The other night we were tired, pressed for time, and hungry. She washed and chopped and put together a kale salad before I could bring a pot of water to boil. She dressed it with olive oil and lemon. According to her, the lemon juice softens the kale and "cooks" it, like ceviche. I tried it. It's no Fly Sky High Kale Salad, but it's a whole lot less work, and if you have a craving for green vegetables in a hurry, it is just the thing.

Raw Kale Salad

  • 1 head Lacinato Kale, washed with the stems removed
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and Pepper

Chop the kale (a chiffonade is best, but that might take a bit of time) and dress it to taste with the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper.


Do's and Don'ts of Making Pesto: A Taste of "Man With a Pan"

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On a recent Saturday, while walking to the Green Market, Pinta remarked that she missed my pesto, which we haven't had since last summer. I was touched, and her comment got me to thinking about one of the interviews from my forthcoming book, "Man With a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families." Henry Schenck, a mathematician with the University of Illinois and the father of three, revealed one of his early experiments with making pesto.

Once, when I was learning to make pesto, which I make with a mix of spinach and basil, I had trouble with the greens, which were sitting up above the blade of the blender. I hadn’t added the olive oil, and I thought I could tamp them down with a wooden spoon. I tried this, of course turning off the blender first. But, then they immediately went back to the top.  And then I tamped them down again, and they went back up to the top. I decided to tamp them down while the blender was running. It turns out, it’s rather hard to estimate how close the wooden spoon can get to those swirling blades. The wooden spoon hit the swirling blades, and I learned that pesto can become a projectile. It hit the ceiling, and the chunk of the wooden spoon that surrendered to the blades fragmented. The pesto had a bit of a woody taste. Usually you hear woody associated with a red wine, but this was woody pesto. I tried to pass it off as a “chunky, oaky” new version, but my wife soon put together the big green splotch on the ceiling of the kitchen with the woody taste in the pesto. My advice: Turn off the blender before putting in the wooden spoon. Turn off the food processor.

When we returned from the Green Market, I looked in the freezer and found a bit of pesto for Pinta. She was delighted, and I was relieved. That's one of the nice things about the sauce, it keeps very well.

Spinach-Basil Pesto

  • 1 medium-sized head of basil (about the size that is typically sold as a unit in stores)
  • An equal amount of spinach.
  • ½ cup nuts (Pine nuts are popular, although walnuts work equally well. I've also used pecans or almonds, which result in a slightly sweeter pesto.)
  • ½ cup olive oil

Rinse and wash the greens well.

Place them in food processor or blender (If the stems of basil are tender, they can be tossed in also; late in the season stems are often woody and should be discarded).

Add the nuts and the oil and blend for about twenty seconds.

Note: Most recipes call for adding ½ cup of Parmesan, but I think it works fine without it. This is also true for adding a clove of crushed garlic. Add salt to taste. Most important part: After blending, taste and add what you think it needs! For a creamier pesto, add more nuts and/or olive oil and blend longer.


Popcorn Stirs a Memory

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I'm often asked how I started to cook, and I don't have a simple answer. Ask me why, and that's easier to field: I was always hungry. How I learned is a more complicated, and the truth is that I'm still learning. Bob Dylan once said "he not busy being born is busy dying," and I believe that's true.

My mother did the cooking around the house when I grew up, but I didn't learn many techniques from her. She was too busy to teach me. I picked up a great body of knowledge, though, from what she served. She always used fresh ingredients and leafy greens. We had fish once a week, and she made almost everything from scratch (no wonder she was busy).

We had such a healthy diet that I thought eating iceberg lettuce was a treat. And it was for me. Whenever we ate at a restaurant, I would order a huge wedge of it slathered with Thousand Island dressing. My mother would make a face and roll her eyes, which made it taste all the better.

I have one memory of learning to cook from my mother, and it came back to me yesterday when I was reading Mark Bittman's blog, which featured an entry on homemade popcorn. It was one of the few things that my mother taught me how to make. We didn't have it often, but we would have it occasionally on a weekend afternoon.

I can still see the inside of the tall Revere pot with it's shimmering layer of vegetable oil in the base, and hear the plink of the single kernel of corn going into the pot. I can feel the heft of the handle as I put it on the burner. I remember well the sound of it popping and the rattle of the rest of the kernels going onto the hot oil. Moments later it would burst into a drumroll and when the rat-a-tat-tat of delight subsided, we would pour the steaming white kernels into a big wooden salad bowl, and top them with salt and butter.

On Saturday, I cooked almost a whole meal with Pinta (she also helped me make the guacamole, but as she herself said, she was too little to open the oysters), and the popcorn article on Bittman's blog, which was written by Freya Bellin, made me very excited. It is one more thing I can make with her and her sister. And the nice thing about Bellin's entry is that it is full of suggestions for flavoring the popcorn, if you feel like learning something new.

 

 

 


The Legendary Powers of Asparagus

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Last week, I praised late-stage capitalism and the global supply chain for the availability of blackberries, and I’d like to extend my appreciation of such modern miracles to one of my favorite vegetables, asparagus.

Asparagus is, of course, the supreme spring vegetable, and it never tastes better than this time of year. But no matter what the calendar says, it’s not quite spring here, and I haven’t seen any local stalks in stores (I came up empty handed on my last two trips to the Green Market). So the asparagus I’m getting from the Park Slope Food Coop must be coming from somewhere else.

No matter where it comes from, it is heaven sent. Asparagus not only tastes delicious, but it has a fascinating history and magical powers.

The vegetable was prized by Egyptians and Romans, and so sought after for its medicinal and culinary properties that Roman emperors kept a special fleet on hand for the expressed purpose of fetching it. More recently, circa 1979, it was declared as a cure for cancer. Many of these claims may be suspect, but they’re fun to know about.

And I can now certify that asparagus has a previously undiscovered power—to mesmerize small children. On Saturday, Pinta wanted to help me make dinner. Cooking with one’s children is an admirable goal, but it is not an easy one. The task has been described by Santa Maria as akin to “showering with monkeys,” and that pretty much sums it up.

But I love spending time with my children, and I’m fortunate that they’re at an age where they love spending it with me. When Pinta said she wanted to help, I was game.

We were having a simple dinner of flounder, asparagus, and baguette, so there wasn’t much to do (I complicated things by adding to the mix oysters on the half shell, fresh guacamole, and fresh salsa, but that was my problem, not hers).

Pinta helped me break the ends off the asparagus, and wash them in the sink. She spent a good half hour getting those stalks clean. She loved swirling them around in the water, shaking them out, and then doing all over again. She was happy, and it gave me time to finish making the rest of dinner. Talk about magic.

Roast Asparagus

 

  • 1 bunch asparagus, stems broken off, and washed.
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Lay the asparagus stalks in one layer on a baking sheet. Dress with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper.

Roast for about 20 minutes, or until the stalks are crispy on the outside and sufficiently tender on the inside.

Serve them plain, with a vinaigrette on the side, or dressed with balsamic vinegar and topped with parmesan.


My First Visit to Roberta's: A Long and Strange Trip, But Well Worth It

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Last night I was out for dinner, celebrating the birthday of my brother, at Roberta’s, the esteemed neo-pizzeria in Bushwick, Brooklyn. On the subway there my company was “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone,” a collection of essays from 2007 edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.

I bought the book a long time ago, when I was formulating the proposal for my anthology, “Man with a Pan,” but only now have I actually gotten around to reading it. Ferrari-Adler was in grad school when she came up with the idea for her book, and the essays skew young.  Many are about being single and having to navigate the romantic labyrinth of one's twenties.

As the L Train rumbled on, I flipped through my copy and found a few treats. I lapped up Amanda Hesser’s “Single Cuisine”; got a kick out of Steve Almond’s “Qe Será Sarito: An (Almost Foolproof Plan to Never Eat Alone Again)”; and relished Haruki Murakami’s “The Year of Spaghetti.”

When my subway ride ended, I found myself in the labyrinth of Bushwick, an industrial maze of streets peopled by svelte couples struggling with big paper bags from Trader Joe’s and skinny guys wearing glasses with even bigger frames. All the men seemed to have beards, and almost every available surface was covered with white-paper signs saying “Huge Loft: Roommates Wanted.”

It was, I realized, exactly where I would have ended up living if I was in my twenties and had just moved to New York City. Down a dimly lit street I sought the purposefully poorly marked entrance to Roberta’s, and as I entered the restaurant, I knew that if Bushwick was where I would have lived if I was young, Roberta’s is where I would like to reside right now.

The smoky scent of freshly baked pizzas and the joyful cacophony of a crowd gorging themselves on the pies filled the front room. In the back, I found my brother and his band of merry revelers stretched out a long wooden table, tucking into salads of Bibb lettuce and meat and cheese plates. I sat down and tried a bit of the Verde Capra, a blue cheese made from goat's milk. I love blue cheeses, and it was irresistible.

Plates of meat were passed around. I dropped some prosciutto on my tongue and felt it (and the worries of the day) melt away. Beer flowed from a plastic pitcher. Pizzas arrived—baroque affairs piled high with brussels sprouts and onion (the “Lionheart”), pork sausage and kale (the “Good Girl”), and portabellas (the “Porta Baller”; my favorite—I swear those mushrooms were laced with vinegar).  

The food and the company were a powerful combination. I left happy, and took a cab home, done, for the time being, with “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.”


Santa Maria Shops! Blackberries all Around

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I've been extra busy at work recently, preparing for the launch of "Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook For their Families," and Santa Maria has stepped heroically into the breach. She did the weekly food shop yesterday, and when I came home from the office I was treated to a bowl of blackberries. Earlier that day, Pinta, who loves them more than I do, had to be prevailed upon to leave some for me. Thank goodness she did: it was a pure delight to pop them in my mouth. There's nothing like late-stage capitalism, the global supply chain, and a helpful spouse. Sweetness.


Cod Piece: New York Times Offers Sneak Peak of "Man with a Pan"

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Today's New York Times has an excerpt from my forthcoming book, "Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for their Families," which is being published by Algonquin Books on May 17th. The piece is by my friend Paul Greenberg, the James Beard Award-nominated author of "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food." It's about a cod-fishing trip he took a few years ago, and what one of his fellow fishermen, a plumber from Long Island, taught him:

...With my fillets stowed, I turned attention to my new idea of stretching my cod-fishing dollar. This came to me while standing amid a pile of guts at the back of the boat with the Lindenhurst plumber while the mate cleaned our catches. “Hey, you know,” the plumber said surveying the carnage, “there’s a lot of good meat on those heads.” Though the plumber’s remark was more apostrophe than prescription, I shoved 20 fish heads into my cooler...

To learn how he catches the fish, and what he does with those heads, click here (don't worry, he also checks in with Marcella Hazan for a savory pasta recipe). To get the whole story about what the plumber and others said (in salty language not fit for a family newspaper) pick up a copy of "Man With a Pan."


The Sound of Blood Sugar Rising

How certain behaviors are handed down through the generations is of great interest to me. I'm a legendarily bad-tempered hungry person. It runs in my family. My father was iritable when he was peckish. My siblings and I get "cranky" if our blood sugar dips for more than ten minutes. It's a terrible personality trait, but it can't seem to be helped. I'm tall and thin and well known for my high metabolism. This is clearly a genetic issue. Nina and Pinta? Here's how they are developing.

On Saturday, they went to a birthday party. I figured lunch would be served, at least pizza. It wasn't. Their midday meal consisted of cake with a cupcake chaser.

About forty-five minutes after we got home, a piece of chalk went astray on the floor, and this precipitated a series of sharp comments between the girls. Tears, and an "I-hate-my-sister" moment followed.

Don't ask me what happened. I was busy getting their lunch--grilled cheese, which I made using slices from the magical Leviathan loaf that I wrote about in yesterday's post about French Toast. I cut the bread extremely thin, and went for a high cheese-to-carbohydrate ratio, based on the theory that they had had plenty of calories that afternoon. What they needed was a bit of protein.

The girls eventually made it to the table and ate their lunch. Midway through their sandwiches, Pinta started reciting a nonsense word of her own devising, "bombacolupio." A few bites later, "bombacolupio" was a refrain in a duet they were singing. And by the time they had finished, there was a Bombacolupio dance, and a whole lot of laughter. Genetics at work?

Open-Face Grilled Cheese

  • Slices of bread
  • Slices of cheddar cheese

Place the bread on a baking sheet and lay the cheese slices on the bread.

Place under the broiler until the cheese has melted.


It Came from the Deep: A French Toast Recipe

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I’m in the habit of asking men I meet about their kitchen habits. I’m interested in knowing if they like to cook, and I’ve discovered that, very broadly speaking, there are three types of male cooks: The very involved (such as myself), the completely uninvolved (such as my father), and those who cook breakfast. If a guy does some cooking around the house, most often it’s for the first meal of the day: pancakes, scrambled eggs, oatmeal, mostly on the weekends.

Of course, in my house, things are not at all like that. Santa Maria jumps at cooking breakfast—she’s the engine that drives the weekday get-out-school mornings, and on the weekends, she’s the first to suggest bacon or homemade buttermilk biscuits. I handle pancake duties, but that’s a legacy of our courtship. I won her over with fruit-laden pancakes, from scratch (it’s not much more difficult than opening a box of mix, by the way).

French toast is one of my favorite breakfast dishes, but I rarely eat it. Santa Maria has never warmed to the way I make it, and it has always been easier for me to break out the pancakes. I’m nothing, if not lazy. Our girls have only had it once or twice.

On Saturday, though, we were at the Green Market, buying clams for dinner. I wanted a loaf of fresh bread, so I stopped by the Bread Alone stand. They were out of baguettes, and I opted for a gigantic loaf of fresh sourdough, the one they called the Levianthan. And rightly so—it was a whale of a loaf.

I knew there was no way we would eat all of the bread that night, and I was thinking one thing when I picked it up: “French toast.” Santa Maria was on to me, and later she said she knew exactly what I was thinking.

On Sunday morning, she was up first with the girls, and she let me sleep in. I was under the covers until the remarkably late hour of 7:45, and by the time I made it to the kitchen, she had already given the Nina an egg and Pinta a cup of yogurt. I was free to make French toast for myself.

Perhaps because I didn’t expect anyone other than myself to eat it, I was very relaxed. I made slice after slice after slice; I can’t really just cook for myself. And I was glad I made so much: it was a huge hit. Pinta didn’t want any at first (she was acting her age), but when I gave her a bite, she was an instant convert. Pinta said it was better than everything else anywhere, and Santa Maria thought it batch was the best ever. The moral of the story: get good bread.

French Toast

 

  • 4-5 eggs
  • about a cup of milk
  • 8 slices or so of bread of your choice
  • butter
  • Maple syrup

 

Beat the eggs and add in the milk.

Slice the bread and dunk pieces into the mixture.

Brown the slices on a well-buttered frying pan.

Serve with warm maple syrup, cinnamon, powdered sugar, and/or whatever you would like.

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Paul Bocuse Makes Me Hungry

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On Wednesday, the French restaurateur Paul Bocuse was named “Chef of the Century” by the Culinary Institute of America. I learned of this news from a friend, Richard Brody, who tweeted me an oblique note. Shortly before midnight, my iPod displayed his message to me, “Paul Bocuse's big cookbook is as much fun to read as a novel; even when the technique is beyond me, the ideas stick.”

The next day, when I asked him about the tweet, he shared the news of Bocuse’s award. Now, the interesting thing about hearing this from Richard, is that to my knowledge, he doesn’t cook at all.* So I asked him (an unabashed Francophile; see his amazing biography "Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard”) to explain his fascination. His eyes lit up and he launched into a great discussion about what he he has learned from the book. He talked about passages that explained the need to bleed out a rabbit, and how he once burned his hand on a frying pan (so, I was wrong about him not ever cooking), making something from the book—Bocuse, apparently, is quite captivating.

My first introduction to Bocuse was about a year ago, when I was working on the manuscript for “Man with a Pan.” Jim Harrison’s essay was full of references that sent me running to the Internet. On Bocuse, he said, “There is simply no substitute for wild game with the pen raised variety.  If you want to make Bocuse’s Salmis de Becasse (an improbably elaborate recipe), you have to take up woodcock hunting.  I love ruffed grouse and Mearns quail, but neither can be raised in captivity so you better train a bird dog and head to the field and forest with a shotgun.”

I’m not headed to a forest with a gun and a dog anytime soon, but I do wish I could have a Bocuse meal. Recently all I’ve been eating are leftovers. I’ve been staying at work late, and I haven’t cooked a proper meal since the weekend. I eat okay, and so do the kids. We have salmon, broccoli, roast chicken and the like, but  it can get boring.

I’d like to tuck into a rich multi-course French meal. In an interview the night Bocuse received his award, the great chef revealed the following. “On his favorite ingredients: ‘Butter, cream and wine,' Bocuse said without hesitation. 'It’s very light,' he added with a knowing smile.” It will be some time before I get to France; in the meantime, maybe I can borrow Richard’s book.

*Late word from Richard is that he does cook, for fun! More on this later, if time permits.

(Becasse, or woodcock, image courtesy of this site)