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November 2011

October 2011

A Dastardly Halloween Guest Post

My friend Michael McKinley is a father, a cook, and a crime novelist (check out his latest, “The Penalty Killing”), and, in honor of today's holiday, he sent me the following meditation on food and its various uses.

Dining with the Dead: A Ragout of Thoughts on Murder and Food

As we’re now in a week that celebrates the dead through Hallowe’en and All Souls and Saints Days, I got to thinking about food and the dead. I’m not talking about eating your way into the grave or a fatal attack of anaphylaxis, but rather the deliberate use of food as an instrument of killing. It’s a question that interests me, because I write crime novels.

I have not yet fictionally killed anyone with food, but I suspect that I will, one day, because killing with food is much more diabolical than other murders for one reason: food is the first thing that mom gives you, after giving you life. You could say that food is a motherhood issue, and as such, sacred. Of course, women have long used food to dispatch enemies—the Victorians made a cultural industry out of the female poisoner – but the idea of using food to kill, or to set up a killing, is one that plays on the bred-in-the-womb trust we have toward those who feed us.

Eating is primal, and we have an equally primal sense that mealtime should be safe, a place where the person feeding you has only your well-being at heart. Which, of course, is exactly why using food, or the idea of it, to commit murder is so bloody sinister.

One of most gruesome foodie murders in fiction actually uses food to take revenge against mom. In Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare’s dramatic anticipation of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the title character is a Roman general whose pride and honor leads to a stage littered with dismembered bodies. When Titus kills the two surviving sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in revenge for their rape of his daughter (he has already killed her other son), he holds a banquet. When a character inquires why the two lads aren’t at the feast, Titus, dressed as a chef, exclaims:

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
'Tis true, 'tis true; witness my knife's sharp point.

Then he kills Tamora. Some host.

Michael has promised to write up a longer list of the use of food as a weapon in literature, and you can check that out here. In the meantime, here’s his recipe for Dead Easy Fried Chicken. According to him, “It’s sublime, and idiot proof. And so simple you think I'm missing stuff. It is also an aphrodisiac.”

Dead Easy Fried Chicken

Take your favourite pieces of chicken-- bone in or boneless, doesn't matter --and lay them out on a sheet of wax paper.

Roll them in seasoned salt and pepper-- liberally, but not so much that their skins are totally covered or you'll die of salt poisoning!

Roll them in flour so that their skins are totally covered!

Fry them in 2 cups of vegetable oil (Canola works very well) until they turn golden brown (a bit longer for bone-in).

Place on paper towel and pat dry, then serve with potato salad, coleslaw, and cold lager. If making for a beloved, expect to be most gratefully rewarded.


Does Going Off Dairy Help with a Cold or Cough?

My post the other day that mentioned taking Nina and Pinta off of dairy because they had coughs confused one of my readers. In responding to her, I wondered where I got this idea, and whether or not it is true that going off dairy helps with a cold or a cough.

Santa Maria believes that dairy consumption increases congestion, and an old football coach once claimed the same thing (I know that football coaches aren't necessarily authorities on this subject, but he also said, while fitting me for a helmet, that my head was shaped like a watermelon, and I hate to admit that he was right).

On the other hand, a short article in the New York Times from last year testing this hypothesis came to the opposite conclusion. "There may be a link between milk and phlegm in some people, but for now it is only hypothetical," it stated.

But, Tara Parker-Pope's Well column linking to that article is full of countless comments from people who make the same claim as Santa Maria, and who have found a direct link. 

I think Santa Maria is right, and I'd like to hear about your experiences. Have you found that dairy increases congestion?

A Miracle: The Best Mushroom Risotto Ever

On Sunday, we cooked dinner for old friends who were visiting from England. Because they had just arrived in town, there was some issue with their cell phones, and we didn't know until the last minute that they were coming over.

Santa Maria was on the way back from the Food Coop when she finally connected with them. Among other things, this meant that we really didn't have enough food. In particular, we didn't have enough bread. I had already made a double batch of frikadeller, which are Danish meatballs (I'll share the recipe and that story later in the week), so we had our main course set. But the starch for the meal was another story.

Because she thought that it was going to be just the four of us for dinner, Santa Maria had bought one tiny  boule. When I looked at it, I felt a bit like what I image Jesus must have felt when he was preaching to the masses and had but five loaves and two fishes. Lacking the power to deliver a miracle, I decided to make a mushroom risotto. I had fresh cremini mushrooms in the fridge, and I always have aborrio rice on hand.

I got started, and then realized that I was out of two key ingredients: chicken stock and dried porcini mushrooms. As our guests arrived, I shuffled through our cabinets and found vegetable-bouillon cubes, but I knew the risotto would need something else to give it a good flavor base, to stand in for the porcini.

What could I put in it to make it richer and fuller tasting? Anchovies. Sure enough, a couple mixed in before I added the rice gave the risotto a remarkable flavoring. The anchovies didn't make it taste fishy, they just made it taste better. Santa Maria said it was the best she'd ever had.

Miraculous Mushroom Risotto

  •  olive oil and butter (about 2 tablespoons, or so, to taste)
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms, or to taste
  • 1 cup aborrio or other short-grained rice
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 3-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, heated
  • Parmesan cheese, grated, to taste

In a heavy-bottomed stock pot on a medium-high flame, heat a bit of oil and butter and saute the onion until it is soft.

Once the onion is soft and translucent, add the anchovies, and saute a bit more.

Add the mushroom slices, and saute until they start to give up their juices.

Toss the rice into the pan and stir until the grains are coated with oil.

Pour the white wine into the pot and leave on a high heat until it boils off.

Turn the heat down to medium and spoon a ladle full of stock in with the rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until the stock is absorbed. Repeat.

Repeat ladling in the stock until the rice is cooked, about twenty minutes. It should be tender but firm inside.

Finish with grated parmesan.

Blue Moon Bash

Nina and Pinta have developed chest colds, and their hacking coughs woke us repeatedly on Saturday night. To help them get better, we eliminated dairy from their diets, and on Sunday morning this meant no yogurt (Pinta's usual breakfast) and no cheese (on Nina's eggs). I tried to feed them chicken breasts for breakfast. I knew it would be a hard sell, so I rendered a bit of bacon fat, sliced the breasts wafer thin, and fried them until they were crispy. I presented it as chicken bacon, and it didn't fool anyone. Nina ate a bit, but I was forced to finished the rest. Later, we had dinner with old friends, who were visiting from England. I whipped up frikadeller, from "The Family Dinner," and a variation on my mushroom risotto. I'll be blogging about those later this week, as soon as I get some sleep.

In the meantime, I wanted to follow up on an earlier post. In writing about World Food Day and the idea of knowing the farmer who supplies your dinner, I mentioned the farms in upstate New York that suffered terribly when Hurricane Irene swung through the region recently. My friends at Blue Moon Fish are organizing a benefit to help two of those farmers, Ray Bradley, of Bradley Farm, and Kira Kinney, of Evolutionary Organics. Information on their benefit wasn't available back when I wrote my first post, but things are falling into place now. On Nov. 6, there'll be eight bands, one dance company, and "Alex's awesome clam chowder, lots of food from local farmers and restaurants, and a fab raffle," at Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue Brooklyn. Try and make it out if you can. Full Details are here.

Caren Alpert's Amazing Food Photos

When I'm not actually cooking, I'm reading about recipes and looking at photographs of pasta, chicken, steak, vegetables, and all the food I like to eat. I thought I knew what those things look like, but now I'm not so sure.

Caren Alpert, a San Francisco-based photographer, makes her living shooting food. Most of the time she traffics in recognizable images, but lately she's been using a scanning electron microscope to capture close-ups of common foodstuffs—table salt, chocolate cake, cauliflower—and the results are spectacular, and completely eye-opening. Those are her cake sprinkles, above. See what I mean?

Alpert has a show at the James Beard Foundation in November and December, and you can learn more about her remarkable work at her website, here.

Chicken Tikka Masala Recipe

Friday night’s dinner might not have gone as I planned it, but the nice thing about cooking for one’s family is that there’s always a chance for redemption, there’s always another meal that needs to be made. This is a good thing (unless, of course, you’re a devotee of the Peg “I Hate to Cook Book” Bracken school of thinking), and on Sunday I was inspired to make chicken tikka masala, from scratch.

Actually, inspired wasn’t quite the right word—“desperate” would have been more apt. The fridge and the cupboard were a bit bare and I was desperate to make something delicious and tasty. I had all the fixings on hand for the chicken tikka, and I dove right in.

Nina and Pinta have a waxing-and-waning taste for chicken tikka masala. Years ago, they shocked me by spurning the red lentil dhal I had made for them (something they usually eat) and gobbling up leftover chicken tikka from a party we had thrown the night before. That evening, they loved it, even though it was almost too spicy for my lips.

Since then, we’ve slipped into the habit of using a commercial sauce, but its popularity around the house has been fading like an aging pop star’s chart prospects. In fact, on Sunday night I had a jar of it in the fridge, but I didn’t feel like eating it. I wanted something homemade, something good (I’m no Peg Bracken, as you might know).

This chicken tikka masala, which I adapted from "Food and Wine’s 2001 Cookbook," is a bit different than the ones found in most Indian restaurants. It’s not creamy. The dish, by the way has a fascinating history, and may not be from the subcontinent at all. As this article from Saveur points out, a Scottish parliament minister maintains that chicken tikka masala comes from Glasgow, where, according to him, in the nineteen-seventies, a customer complained about the dryness of his chicken tikka at a local restaurant, and the chef responded by whipping up the now-popular sauce.

When I made the dish in the past, I increased my odds of getting Nina and Pinta to eat it by having them help me make it. The two used to love opening and smelling the kitchen spices (ground clove was once a particular favorite), and I would have them measure out the garam masala, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. I’d slip them bits of the sauce as it cooked and we’d be home free from there.

On Sunday night I popped my head into their room and asked if they wanted to help me cook. They weren’t interested, and later that night they rejected the chicken tikka masala as too spicy. Oh well.

Santa Maria pulled some leftover chicken from Friday’s debacle, and they ate that with the rice. So, as it turns out, Friday wasn’t as much of a fiasco as I had thought. It’s always good to have roast chicken around the house. And it meant there was more chicken tikka masala for me. I call that a win-win.

Chicken Tikka Masala


  • 8 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • One 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup water
  • one can (28 oz) peeled tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • a touch of cayene pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 to 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs (or breasts) cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (optional)

        In a blender, puree the garlic and the ginger with the water until smooth.

        Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot and cook the minced onions over high heat until softened and golden.

        Add the garlic and ginger puree and cook stirring until golden and fragrant, about two minutes.

        Pour the can of tomatoes into the blender, and puree.

        Add the remaining oil and the spices, cook stirring constantly until lightly toasted, about one minute.

        Add the tomatoes and cook until thickened, about ten minutes.

        Add the chicken and season with salt. Reduce the heat and cook through. Add the cilantro. Serve over rice.

Late With Dinner Leaves Me Feeling Down

The good folks at Drawn and Quarterly keep me apprised of such books as “Who Will Comfort Toffle?: A Tale of Moomin Valley,” a sixties-era Scandinavian children’s book by Tove Jansson about a shy little boy and his misadventures. It’s a touching tale and I felt like the main character on Friday night: lonely, and sad.

It was a rare evening when things didn’t work out for me in the kitchen. When I was in my twenties, I new people who “liked to cook,” but who would begin making dinner at 9 pm and food would be on the table around midnight. It was charming at first, but as I grew older, it became tedious. Who wants to eat that late? After kids arrived, this kind of late-night dinner trick became impossible. If you’re feeding your children dinner at midnight, something is wrong in my book. Maybe in other cultures it’s okay, but not in mine.

I wanted to make a roast chicken, and I intended to get out of work early enough to have dinner on the table by six. I got stuck at work, and one thing led to another and we weren’t sitting down until 7:15. My girls are used to going to bed between seven-thirty and eight, so in kid time, having dinner at 7 is like having dinner at midnight. I had become that idiot I despised who couldn’t get food on the table at a decent hour.

I got home late, and only to discover that I didn’t have enough potatoes to go with the chicken. I found a sweet potato and an old head of fennel, and thought I was really on to something by deciding to roast them in the oven. There were also some old plum tomatoes linger in the back of the fridge, so I thought I’d roast those too.

Maybe because I had so many things in the oven—rosemary roast potatoes, the sweet potato and fennel combo, the tomatoes, and the chicken—that the bird took longer than I expected to finish cooking.

By the time I had my spread of chicken, broccoli, potatoes, roasted vegetables, and tomatoes on the table, Pinta was complaining of exhaustion and wanted to go right to bed. Santa Maria got up to take care of her, and I was left sitting with a big table of food and only one member of my family to eat it with. Little Toffle, would have understood how I felt.

Homemade French Fries: The Oven Way

One of our favorite rituals is going to Bark, the high-end hot-dog place near our old house. Bark is wonderful, and I love it, but it has a few strikes against it. First of all, eating hot dogs, French Fries, and beer for dinner every night is a quick way to a short life. And if you frequent Bark, you risk going bankrupt before you get to the grave—it's expensive.

Don't get me wrong. I think Bark is amazing, and for a special treat, it's one of my favorite places to take the family. But as the dad who does most of the cooking at home, I need to feed everyone, whether it's a special night or not.

Recently, I tried to recreate the Bark experience at home. The hot dogs were easy to replicate (sort of, that is: my Applegate Farms organic dogs were delicious, but they were a far cry from Bark's, which are basted, “like a Peter Luger porterhouse," according to New York Magazine, "with housemade smoked lard butter”).

But the fries were another question. Could I make French fries at home? Or at least something close?

I don't have a deep-fat fryer, and I've never used one before. I wasn't about to start now, so I turned to the oven. It had worked for me before: my rosemary roasted potatoes are always popular, so I figured I had a chance.

I started with three potatoes.

I sliced them lengthwise.

Then again.

And kept little hands out of them.

Then tossed them in a bowl with a bit of olive oil and salt.

After spreading them out on a cookie sheet and roasting at 450 degrees for about twenty minutes (all the while carefully keeping an eye on them, and shaking them around every so often), I dropped them on paper towel to remove the excess oil.

The kids were happy enough with them, though they knew these weren't real French fries, and they knew we weren't at Bark. We had a good time, all the same, and next time I do it, if I don't get around to deep frying the potatoes, I will be sure to cut them into as small sticks as I can manage. The smaller they are, the faster they cook, and the crispier they become.

Michael Ruhlman's Twenty

Lately, Nina has been playing with Duplos, building elaborate homes by constructing rooms with beds, furniture, and, of course, a dining room table out of the big blocks. She's a bit old for Duplos, though, so I told her about Legos. She's now keen on getting them, and keeps saying that she's going to ask for a set for her birthday. It's a little far off, so Santa Claus might have to be enlisted.

Her yearning to work with better materials made me think of Michael Ruhlman's new book, "Ruhlman's Twenty." It's not about materials, per se, but rather about technique. The book outlines the twenty fundamental techniques every cook should master, and over on his awesome blog, Ruhlman is giving away copies of it. He just wants you to comment with your "ah-ha," moment of cooking discovery. Mine was years ago, when I first tasted fresh bluefish that my mother had prepared in a seaside motel. I had no idea fresh fish could taste so good.  It's a longer story, and I'll save it for another time. For now, I encourage you to go visit his blog, check out the other cooking tales, and take a chance on getting his book.

The first pages of it, about the importance of thinking in the kitchen, have me intrigued. Ruhlman says "Organize and prepare. These are the two critical acts in the kitchen, and they happen by thinking first." I couldn't agree more, and I think I may even ask for a copy of "Ruhlman's Twenty" for Christmas myself.

World Food Day: Helping Local Farmers

Next Sunday, Oct. 16, is Oxfam America's World Food Day, a moment to "think about where your food comes from, who cultivates it, and how we can make the food system more just and sustainable.”  That sounds like every day around our house, and if you’re interested in contemplating these things, Oxfam America suggests having a dinner that night, and dedicating it to farmers. They're providing a number of items to foster conversations, including a discussion guide with these very important questions:

  •  Where does your food come from?

What is your favorite recipe? Why? What memories are associated with it? Where do you get the ingredients? Where do they come from and who grows them? Are there times of the year you can’t make your favorite dish because some of the ingredients aren’t available?

  • Who is the face behind your food? 

When you picture a farmer, who do you see? Do you know any farmers? How often do you buy food from a farmer directly? How many farms are in your town? County? State? Do you grow anything? If you could, what would it be? 

  • How have rising food prices affected you? 

Do rising food prices influence your choices at the grocery store or what you choose to eat? What are the staples you always have in your fridge? What is always on your grocery list? Where do you shop to get the basics (grocery stores, farm stands, corner stores, etc.) Do you grow or catch any of your food? Do you buy organic or local? Have you seen the prices of organic or local foods rise at all in the past year?

  • How is the global food system connected?

Have you visited another country? What are the popular foods there? Can you get those foods back home? How much of the food in your fridge is from the US? How much from other countries? If you could only buy food within a 100-mile radius, within a 1000-mile radius, or from the US, would it change your diet and life choices?

You can order free supplies for your Sunday World Food Dinner, including informative placemats and cards with recipes from the likes of Giada De Laurentiis, Mark Bittman, and Eric Yost, through Oxfam America by visiting their website.

I was thinking about their second point—Who is the Face Behind Your Food?—recently. I shop at the Greenmarket in Grand Army Plaza almost every week, and my friend Sally Sturman, an artist who slings fillets for Blue Moon Fish (the freshest supplier of seafood in the city), was telling about efforts to support local farmers who were devastated by Hurricane Irene, late this summer. The storm may have spared the city, but it dumped tons of rain on upstate fields, just before harvest time.

They’re organizing a benefit show at Southpaw on Nov. 6, with live music and food. All the proceeds will benefit two farmers, Ray Bradley and Kira Kinney. Details about the benefit are still being worked out, but in the meantime, there are ways to learn more about Bradley and Kinney. Pete Wells wrote a great piece in the New York Times about a very clever way Bradley is trying to make ends meet (it involves chicken scat bingo) and Kinney has since set up an innovative gift registry, where if you want to help her, you can buy her the seeds, feed, and other things she needs to keep her farm running.

When I get more details about the Nov. 6 benefit, I’ll post them. And if you are planning to organize a dinner for World Hunger Day, I’d love to hear about your plans.