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September 2011

Empyt-Nest Soup: A Guest Post

As I mentioned last week, things have been a bit crazed around the house. Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. Do you know what it’s like trying to find a pediatric dentist in Brooklyn the night before Rosh Hashanah? Don’t even ask why we needed a pediatric dentist at midnight—just know that everything is more or less fine.


And they improved markedly yesterday, when I received this guest post from a remarkable writer, scientist, father, and cook, Saverio Monachino, the cousin of my brother-in-law, John Rando. I met Saverio last Thanksgiving, and we’ve stayed in touch since then. Here, he reflects on what it means to have your children go off to college, something that’s very far from my mind at the moment. 



Recently, there has been so much going on in the world—the Arab Spring, the U.S. bond rating downgrade, debt crisis here there and abroad—but the most important issue for my wife, Rachel, and I struck much closer to home: both of our children would out of the house and be off to college this fall.


Our eldest daughter is entering her third year at university, and our empty-nest disease really began its insidious encroachment when our son was accepted at the college of his choice, earlier this year. The syndrome made its presence felt whenever Rachel and I were alone together.  At those times we would look at each other and, without needing to share a single word, know exactly what was on each others’ mind—Why do parents only get their children for 18 years when the rest of the whole world gets them for so much longer?  


It is said that the stronger the bond between parent and child become… well we were bracing for the worst.  Our daughter had been out of the house two years and so we thought it would help ease us into the situation, but as the days grew closer to our son’s departure, the storm clouds became more menacing.


What most people don’t realize is this; the English language has issues too.  ‘Empty nest’ does not mean the place one calls home is empty.  All you have to do is look up from your dinner plate to see a person across the table.  The trick is to reengage all those processes by which you lived before the storks flew by.  It is easier said than done.  Apparently our children must have taken an on-line course or something because they both had a good handle on the developing situation.  On our last meal together, before we had to drive them off (three hours from home… in opposite directions), they gave us a care package. 


Where did the care package come from?  Well, all summer long I was interrogated by one or the other of my children. 


“What are you guys going to do together when we’re gone?”  One or the other would ask.

“Together… well let’s see.  Oh I know; she can help cut the grass.”

“No, dad I mean fun stuff.  You and mom have to find some fun activities to share.”

“Well football season is almost here and...”


The package they put together contained flip flops, because, they said, “we want you to go to the beach together, just the two of you.” It also had a movie for us to use on a ‘date night’ and there was a deck of cards with a caveat thrown in: “NO Solitaire!” There was also a home spa treatment, which I do hope was just for the wife. 


Most importantly, it included a homemade cookbook that my daughter, a vegetarian, had put together from recipes on the Internet. She called it, “Food From Around the World… For Every Day of the Week,” because, “You need to spend time together.  Explore new things you both like and rediscover old.”


We love to travel and embrace regional idiosyncrasies (we have lived in Houston Texas and Montreal Quebec and it doesn’t get more diverse than that) and, we have relatives who live throughout Europe and Australia as well as friends in various parts of the globe, so this gift was perfect.


Saverio wanted to share the recipe for Mediterranean Monday, a Greek Lentil Soup. After tasting the soup, it immediately brought back memories of his mother’s lentil soup, and since she was from Sicily he gave it a new name.


Mediterranean Lentil soup


  • 1 cup red lentils (any lentils will work in a pinch)
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 pinch safflower spice (or Saffron if you cannot find safflower)
  • ½ cup chopped white onion (though a Vidalia onion will work too, if it is a true Vidalia gown in Vidalia Georgia)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin (of course more can be added to taste)
  • ½ cup of very thin noodles (angel hair works)
  • 1 lemon, juiced



In a 4-quart pot add 5 cups of water.  Add the salt, olive oil, safflower, chopped onion and the lentils.


Keep the pot under high heat until the water boils then reduce to medium heat. 


After 15 to 20 minutes the lentils should start to get soft (mushy?).  How will you know when they change from hard to ‘ready for the next ingredient’?   Good question.   I remember my mother cooking in the kitchen and she would monitor the progress of the dish by tasting it. 


Once the lentils are no longer hard, add the cumin and the noodles.


This next part is very, very difficult.  Cook for five minutes, or until the noodles are done.  You will know they are ready if you taste it… again.  (When I was young I was always amazed at how my mother and grandmother would spend so much time in the kitchen and yet when dinner was served they were never hungry.)*

Add the lemon juice for a little extra zest, again… to your own taste. 



*One qualification, the word ‘done’ can take on slightly different meanings so perhaps ‘done to taste’ should be used instead.


Note: Because this recipe came from our care package, it calls for two cooks.  The cooks are labeled e.g. cook 1 and cook 2. Using this method, Cook #1 begins to share events from his day… the more details the better the results, while water boils for the lentils. Then, at the end, once the table is set and the food served, Cook #2 talks about her day while Cook #1 eats.  Believe me, it works best this way.


Finally, the Chicken Fajita Recipe

I keep this blog to assist other dads (and all folks) learn about cooking, and one nice thing about it is that it also helps me. Over the weekend we had a mad dash from a cousin’s birthday party to dinnertime, and I had a whole flounder to cook. I knew how to do it, but couldn’t remember the details. Luckily, I had blogged about it before, and dinner was ready in thirty minutes.

A few weeks ago, I made chicken fajitas for the first time, but I got too busy to blog about the dinner. Bummer. On Friday, I wanted to make the fajitas again, but I had to start thinking from scratch. Thinking is hard enough for me, so if I’ve done it once, I don’t like to have to do it again.

Of course, fajitas don’t require much thought at all, unless one heads to the web for suggestions. That’s where things get confusing. Food and Wine had a recipe for fajitas made with powdered onion and powdered garlic. Powdered onion? Powdered garlic? Really? Others required marinating the chicken for three hours. Some included soy sauce. Say what? Nothing, seemed right, so I decided to wing it.

I wasn’t sure how well seasoned chicken would go over with the girls, so in keeping with my philosophy of making one meal out of multiple parts that appeal to all, I decided to cook half the chicken in a simple fashion with a bit of lemon. The rest of the chicken I hit with a bit of chili powder, some Worcestershire sauce (another of the ideas from the Internet) and a touch of lime.

As I sautéed the seasoned chicken, Nina popped her head into the kitchen, and said, “I smell French fries.” I pointed to the chicken, and gave her a taste; she liked it. I caramelized slices of onion and sautéed slices of red pepper, and served everything with fresh guacamole, salsa, and warmed, soft corn tortillas. In the middle of eating, Pinta said, “How did you make this awesome dinner?” Nina replied that it wasn’t that awesome. “There are more awesome meals, like Bolognese,” she said.

Chicken Fajitas

  • Avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro, and lime for guacamole and fresh salsa.
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced lengthwise
  • 1 red pepper, seeded and sliced lengthwise
  • A dash of chili pepper, optional
  • A shake of Worcestershire sauce, optional
  • 1 to 3 boneless chicken breasts
  • a bunch of cilantro, washed
  • 6-8 soft corn tortillas

If you want to season the chicken, cut the chicken breasts into strips and toss in a dish with the chili pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and, if you like, lime juice. Let this marinate while the peppers and onions cook down.

Saute the onions in one pan, until soft, and in a second pan, do the same with the peppers.

If you don't want to season the chicken, simply slice the breasts in half lenthwise (so they are thin) and saute them in a frying pan with a bit of oil over a high heat. While the first side cooks, squeeze a bit of lemon juice on the meat. After the first side is nicely browned, flip the breast and finish cooking through.

After the chicken has cooked through, slice it crosswise into strips.

The seasoned chicken strips can be sauteed next, in the same pan.

Warm the tortillas in a frying pan bring to the table with everything else. Serve by wrapping the chicken and onions and peppers and guacamole and salsa in a tortilla. Top with fresh cilantro.

Taking a Break with a Home-Cooked Steak

The back-to-school period has been more complicated than we expected (there have been issues with Pinta's school), and I've found it difficult to make the time to blog. With things so stressful, I thought it would be nice to cook Santa Maria something special.

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I cooked a steak at home. I took time out from my day to stop by Whole Foods, and pick up a prime piece of grass-fed New York Strip. Wilson, the man behind the counter, tutored me in how to cook it: Salt it, and let it rest on the counter for an hour before cooking; heat a cast-iron frying pan, and render the fat from the edge of the steak on the pan; char up one side nicely, then flip and turn down to medium heat for three-to-five minutes.

This sounded simple enough, but the steak was very thick and I ended up fliping it back and forth a few times before pulling it from the pan. Even at that point it wasn't done correctly, so I ended up cutting it in half and searing it one more time. Not the greatest outcome, but tasty none-the-less.

I accompanied it with mushroom risotto and sugar snap peas. This was not the kind of cooking I do every day, and it felt good to be standing at the stove with top-notch ingredients at the late hour of 9 p.m. We cracked open a bottle of wine and enjoyed our dinner. Then Santa Maria fell asleep on the couch, and I did the dishes.

Butterscotch Brownies Recipe!

Santa Maria was under the weather this weekend, so we took it easy. Friday, we celebrated Nina and Pinta’s first full week of school with a visit to Bark, for hotdogs, French fries, and milkshakes (but no beer, for me—I had the kids solo, and I’m such a lightweight now that one beer will have me nodding off like Rip Van Winkle.)

Saturday, in spite of her ailing stomach, Santa Maria was up for bacon and eggs, so I whipped up a batch of those. Then, I started thinking about food for the rest of the day, which, inevitably, led around to Bolognese, as we were somehow out of it (I don’t sleep well unless there's some in the freezer). I was sure I had all the ingredients on hand, but I couldn’t find any celery in the refrigerator. The Bolognese would have to wait. Or would it?

It has been months since we last had our weekly fish blowout, and I decided it was time to head to the Greenmarket for fluke and clams from Blue Moon Fish. Pinta doesn’t like clam sauce, so I also wanted to get a head of basil to make pesto for her. And, I could pick up some celery.

I took the girls on my own, so Santa Maria could rest, and I somehow thought it would be a good idea for them to take their bikes. They were fine on the sidewalk and roads of the park, but amid the crowded throngs of the Greenmarket we slowed to a crawl. Actually, we would have been better if we could have crawled. I had the girls get off the bikes, but that didn’t help very much. Their bikes have training wheels, and one man + two girls + two bikes + training wheels = countless apologies to those around me.

Eventually, we found the end of the line for fish, picked up our flounder and clams, and got the hell out of there. I gave up on celery and basil. There was no way we could get through that crowd.

Santa Maria, meanwhile, was feeling a little bit better. She took off on her bike, to get some exercise, and then picked up the greens we needed. And when we were all back home, that afternoon, while I made Bolognese and pesto; washed kale for our Fly Sky High Kale Salad; and prepped the roasted potatoes to accompany the founder, Santa Maria continued her recuperation—she decided to make butterscotch brownies.

I don’t have a sweet tooth, but butterscotch brownies are one of my favorite desserts. I was so naïve before I met Santa Maria, that I thought the only way you could make them was with butterscotch morsels. Santa Mara showed me another way.

Butterscotch Brownies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt in a saucepan:

            ¼ cup butter

Stir into it until dissolved:

            1 cup brown sugar

Cool these ingredients slightly, then beat in well:

            1 egg

            1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift, then measure:

            ½ cup all-purpose flour

Resift it with:

            1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder

            ½ teaspoon salt

Stir these ingredients into the butter mixture. Pour the batter into a greased 9 x 9-inch pan. Bake about 20-25 minutes. Cut into bars when cool.


Notes: This recipe is adapted from the “Joy of Cooking.,” which is right on the money when it calls it “An all-time favorite, easily made.” Santa Maria uses organic flour, with germ. She also pressed a few chocolate chips in the top, at one end, and she used a larger pan.            

Red Lentil Dhal Saves The Day

James Joyce's last words were "Does nobody understand?" I ocassionally think of this while trying to make plans with friends and family members. Despite, (or is it because of?) the ease of text messages, emails, Facebook postings, tweets, and other means of staying in touch, communicating with loved ones can be a little bit like modernist literature: utterly confusing.

So it was over the weekend, when plans with old friends suddenly coalesced around a midday walk in the park with the kids. To any ordinary human, this might seem perfectly sensible, but it sent my mind racing. I quickly wondered, “What will we eat? What can I serve them?”

Because I’m constantly obsessing about food, my larder is almost always well stocked (after my trip to the store this week, Santa Maria started a new shopping list with the words “NO MORE CHEESE” written atop it). After a moment’s thought, I conjured a quick answer: my old favorite, spicy red-lentil dhal. It takes less than an hour to make, and, after all, I already had a pot of rice cooked, and waiting, in the fridge.

Red Lentil Dhal
  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise 
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • One 2 inch or so cinnamon stick 
  • 2 teaspoons (or more) of minced fresh ginger 
  • 3 cloves of garlic 
  • 1 dash of cayenne pepper 
  • 2 cups small red lentils, about a pound, rinsed
  • 1 lemon, halved and juiced (seeds removed) 
  • 3 or 4 cups of chicken stock 
  • 3 or 4 cups of hot water  
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
Heat the oil in a heavy sauce pan
Add the onion, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick
Saute until the onions are translucent
Add the garlic and the ginger and the cayenne
Continue cooking another few minutes
Add the lentils and stir to coat them with oil
Add the chicken stock and the water
Add the lemon juice and the squeezed halves of the fruit
Add the salt
Bring to a boil
Reduce to a simmer
Cook for about a half hour, until the onions mostly break up and the lentils more or less dissolve. If it looks like it needs more water, add some. 
This freezes remarkably well. It is best served with rice. To make it more fancy, caramelize some onions to go on top, along with some plain yogurt, and some chopped cilantro. 

Back to School: A Time of Learning

Nina and Pinta started school last week, on Thursday. I questioned the wisdom of this strange and short schedule, until I realized that it must have been chosen not for the kids' benefit, but for that of the parents. Getting everyone out of the house in the morning feels only slightly less complicated than organizing the Berlin airlift, so it was very nice to have a break this weekend, after two days of packing lunches, making breakfasts, and getting shoes on (the girls, not myself).

There's a bit of a learning curve in reorganizing the family schedule for the fall, I'm still figuring out how to manage getting them to school, along with working, shopping, cooking, and blogging. The cooking is ongoing, of course, and I have recently made chicken fajitas and other dishes that I want to share.

Speaking of learning, I've been reading a thin paperback called "How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children," and though I've only started it, I would recommend it to all parents. I know there are scores of parenting books out there, but something about this one resonated with me; Maybe it was the subtitle, "Meeting the Five Critical needs of Children ... And Parents Too."

The book, which was written by a child advocate and father named Dr. Gerald Newmark, outlines five needs that children (and all people) have: to feel respected, included, important, accepted, and secure. The book goes into great detail about why this is so, and how families can cultivate these emotions in their children. One of the chapters lists family activities, and it mentions cooking.

Cooking with kids is a great way for them to feel a part of things, and to learn about food, nutrition, math, and science (what is cooking other than measuring and using intense heat to change the chemical composition of food?).

And it can be fun, too. On the first day of school last week, Santa Maria made her Divine Biscuits. The girls joined in, and four-year-old Pinta really got into the swing of things. "This is teamwork," she shouted enthusiastically as her mother measured the flour. Then she took the rolling pin and started to move it up and down her torso. "I'm the dough," she said with a wry smile.

 Divine Biscuits

  • 2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour (King Arthur Flour)
  • 2 ½ t. baking soda
  • ½ t. baking powder
  • ½ t. salt
  • 4 ½ T butter
  • 1 – 1 ¼ c. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 405 degrees.

Sift flour with baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl, cut in cold butter (you can use a knife, then finish with your fingers) into size of peas.  Quickly mix in buttermilk (depending on thickness of buttermilk – if it’s thin, you can likely get away with the smaller amount).

Turn batter onto a lightly floured counter, knead lightly (you want it to stick together, but lumpy is fine).  Roll dough, cut into circles (you can use a jar, about 1 ½” wide – and stack two rounds). 

For the kids, form little shapes, like Easter eggs and bunny ears from the remaining scraps of dough.

Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden on top.

Back From the Beach With Some New Music

We were out of town for the holiday weekend, which now seems like six years ago—with the get-the-kids-to-school morning scrambles now well underway, I miss summer more than I thought possible.

We took our vacation in Montauk, a most magical place where the beaches are surrounded by high buffs that the wind has carved into fantastical shapes mirroring the rocks of Cappadocia. The surf was high, the company amazing, and the weather great. Traffic was another story, though, and after a long, long trip back to New York City on a parking-lot-like Route 27, I was relieved to find a bag of Bolognese in our freezer.

This is my tip for the day: always be able to replace a last-minute take-out meal with one from your freezer. It requires a bit of planning (to make the sauce ahead of time), but think of the comfort, pleasure, and happiness of knowing that you are moments away from a good meal whenever you might need one. Even if your stuck in traffic.

I know I've written about Bolognese before, so for those readers who know its joys, I want to leave you with something else--a bit of new music. While we were at the rental house, we listened to Beirut, a little indie-rock group with a Balkan-vibe led by a talented young songwriter named Zach Condon. Here's the title track to their latest album, fittingly enough dubbed "The Rip Tide."