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March 2012

Five Tips for a Five-Minute Meal

I strive to deliver a good set of interesting recipes here each week, and I do it for two reasons. The first is to feed my family a wide variety of healthy and delicious meals, and the second is to provide readers of this blog with a number of options to help them do the same.

Today, though, I’m going to do something different. I'm not shooting for the culinary stars. I'm down on the ground, foraging. I’m going to show how a tasty, well-balanced meal can come together in about five minutes by using some very basic dishes. This in and of itself is a great thing, but this meal has a bonus: it requires no thought, and as anyone who has ever worked all day and come home hungry knows, thinking is the last thing you might want to do. Certainly, that’s the case for me.

My father, who was a lawyer, used to complain at night when he was tired by saying, “Working with you back is one thing, but when you work all day with your mind, that’s what being tired is.” I know what he means, and he didn’t have to cook for himself, or his family.

So the other night, I came home from work a bit on the late side. Santa Maria had already had dinner out, at a business meeting, and in the time it took her to sing goodnight to the girls, I made a couple of quesadillas, heated some previously cooked rice, warmed some black beans, and whipped up my hot robot spinach. Dinner was done before she could finish her rendition of “Au Clair de la Lune.”

Here’s a breakdown of how it’s done (the links above have the recipes for the dishes).

  1. Cook rice early in the week and keep it in the fridge to heat at a moment’s notice.
  2. Always have black beans in the freezer, or better yet, in the fridge; make them on a Sunday morning.
  3. Keep your larder stocked with cheese and corn tortillas.
  4. Always have garlic on hand.
  5. Buy pre-washed baby spinach so you can toss it right in the pan.

And here’s a rendition of “Au Clair de la Lune” that I found. Santa Maria grew up listening to her mother sing it, and it’s a beautiful thing to do with you kids.



Summer Preview: Best Mussel Recipe Ever

This year, there wasn’t much of a winter in New York City. Granted, we did go sledding once, but it was, literally, the day before Halloween, so I’m not even sure that counts. Other than that freakishly early storm, I don’t think there was any more snow.

It was mild all winter, and now that spring is here, I’m not surprised that the days are as warm as summer. It’s been very pleasant out, and one of the delights of the new season is the return of Blue Moon Fish to the Greenmarket near my house.

Blue Moon catches its offerings off the end of Long Island, and it sells the freshest seafood in the city. But it sells strictly what can be caught in local waters. They have flounder, for example, but you’ll never find them selling Red Snapper. A weekly visit to their stand is a savory part of our summer. So I was very excited on Saturday morning when I received an email from a friend of mine who works there, an artist named Sally Mara Sturman. Blue Moon was back!

Nina and Santa Maria love mussels, and Santa Maria’s first thought was to get a bunch of them. It was my recollection, though, that they wouldn’t have mussels until later in the season. That’s the way it’s been in previous years. Maybe it was the warm winter that changed things, but whatever the reason, they had mussels on their first day back.

Santa Maria picked up two pounds for dinner for the kids and a snack for us. We were headed out to a Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebration that night. Nina ate her share. Pinta, who said she wanted them though she’d never liked them before, tasted one and rejected it.

It was her loss. I cooked the mussels very simply, and the flavor is amazing. Each mussel has a salty outside, and when you bite into it, you can taste the sea in every mouthful. There's a smoky finish that can't be beat. If you have a cast-iron frying pan, you can make them this way, too. It's very easy. I learned about this method from a newspaper column by Mark Bittman more than a decade ago, and every summer they’re a regular part of our weekend feasts. Who knows, maybe the way things are going, they’ll be a part of our weekends in the winter, too. 

Mussels a la Plancha
  • 1 pound mussels
  • 1 cast-iron frying pan

Rinse the mussels well and pull any beards off them. Use only the intact ones that are completely closed. 
Heat the cast-iron pan until hot.
Place the mussels on the pan in one layer. 
Cook over high heat until the mussels open, release their juices, and the juices boil off. When the    liquid is gone, the mussels are ready.

        Notes: I typically make this with about three pounds of mussels and use two cast-iron pans at the same time. Serve the mussels in the frying pan. Just put it on a pad on the table and enjoy. The pans will develope a salty and smoky residue. Rub the mussels in it before eating. And if you want, you can melt some butter and serve it with them, but it's really not necessary.


How to Clean Winter Greens: And a Kale Chip Recipe


On Tuesday, I was having an email conversation with a work colleague on the West Coast, when, out of the blue, she ended her one of her messages by saying “I just made your kale chips. WOW. Addictive.” I was delighted by this. I don’t always hear from my readers, and I’m glad to know that I’ve made someone’s life better, half a continent away, one mouthful at a time.

I mentioned to her that one way to improve the recipe is to roast the kale for the requisite time, and then turn the oven off, and leave it in oven while it cools. If you make them in the morning, and then leave them the rest of the day, you’ll have a great snack in the afternoon. This would even work with someone who had to go to an office. Cook them before you leave the house, and then turn off the oven, go to work, and come home to crispy, savory, neigh addictive, kale chips.

She said that she had used Trader Joe’s prewashed kale, and that the pieces were nice and small. “Next time I'm going to get whole leaf kale (and I think I'll plant some this summer, to go totally native),” she said “and have bigger pieces.” I asked her if she knew how to clean the leaves. “I usually just strip it, and it comes off nicely, but I'm no expert,” she said, adding “Is there an easy way to pull off the leaf?” No, I said, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t using a knife.

“A knife?” she replied “Ha! Never.” I told her she was doing it the right way, but then this evening I happened to look on the Internet. I found countless videos directing people to use a knife to clean winter greens. Really, I have to tell you: There’s no reason to do so. Just grab the stem with one hand, and use the other hand to strip the leafy part off. It’s very gratifying, and very easy. Trust me, you can do it.

Super Super Simple Kale Chips

  • 1 head kale, leaves washed and dried; center stalk removed
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil, or from a spritzer
  • 1/2  lemon or lime, juiced, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Preheat oven to 205 degrees.

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

Bake in the oven about 30 minutes, or until the leaves are crisp.

Turn the oven off, and let them rest in the oven for an hour or longer.

Note: Image courtesy New Pi Eats.

Lemon Roast Chicken with Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Olives


Is your family life volatile? I’m not saying mine is, but that’s not to say that strange things don't blow up around the dinner table, and I’m not saying that it’s me, or Santa Maria, or anyone else. Definitely not saying. That said, some strange things were uttered yesterday evening.

As soon as I put the dinner on the table, Nina said, “Why is there this gross thing on my plate?”

“Nice,” I thought.

She was referring to one of my favorite meals: roasted chicken with lemon, garlic, tomatoes, and potatoes. I had sliced a bit of the chicken breast up for her, and put it on the plate with a bit of extra, oven-roasted rosemary potatoes that I had made just for the girls, because I knew that they wouldn’t like the dish I was making.

Nina was having a bit of a blood-sugar moment, so I let it go. She ate the chicken, ate the potatoes, and had her side of green beans. All was well. How could it not be? The lemon-chicken dish is a divine combination. The pan is full of sweet roasted tomatoes, savory olives, and rich cloves of roasted garlic. Yum!

Even before my first bite, I knew things were going to turn out fine. As I sat down with my plate full of food, her sister had let slip something that made me want to laugh. Referring to the perfectly roasted drumstick and thigh I was about to eat, she said, “That looks like a curled up cat. The world’s tiniest cat.”

Chicken Roasted with Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Olives


  • 9 garlic cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons, about, olive oil
  • 1 large lemon, cut in half lengthwise and then sliced crosswise
  • 1 whole chicken, cut into parts
  • 1-2 baking potatoes, cut into small cubes
  • 4 or more plum tomatoes, cut lengthwise
  • a fistful of Kalamata or other black olives, pitted
  • 1 tablespoon, about, dried rosemary

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Mince 4 of the garlic cloves and then mash with the salt to make a paste.

Whisk together the garlic paste, lemon juice, and 2 of the tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl.

Lay the sliced lemon in the bottom of a large roasting pan.

Dip the chicken parts in the garlic-lemon-oil mixture, and place them skin-side up on top of the lemon slices in the pan. If there’s any mixture over, set aside. If not, don’t worry.

Toss the potatoes, tomatoes, and remaining garlic cloves in a bowl with the other tablespoon of oil.

Arrange the vegetables around the chicken and toss in the olives and the rosemary.

Roast in the oven for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending, or until an instant-read meat thermometer reads 175 in the breast.  If you had any of the lemon-garlic-oil mixture left over after putting the pan in the oven, you can baste the chicken with it about midway through the roasting.

Notes: The recipe is adapted from “Gourmet Every Day.” Also, the picture above depicts a version of the dish made just with chicken breasts, per that book's original recipe. I make it with a whole chicken so I have leftovers for lunch the next day. 


Darina Allen's Irish Soda Bread for St. Patrick's Day


On Wednesday, I was invited to a cooking demonstration by Darina Allen, one of Ireland’s leading chefs. She runs a cooking school, Ballymaloe, in the middle of a 100-acre organic farm, and she’s the author of “Irish Traditional Cooking,”  a fascinating tome about the culinary history of the Emerald Isle.

Allen is a sixty-one-year-old, white-haired wonder, a ball of energy whose broad shoulders are only outdone by her broad smile. With the support of Kerrygold and the Irish Dairy Board, she regaled a small crowd of esteemed food-bloggers (this author included!) at Cooking by the Book, on Worth Street, in lower Manhattan, as she made Irish Soda Bread, spinach and potato soup, and an apple tart.

Her take on Irish Soda Bread captivated me. I grew up eating it as a kid, as my mother, who was born just a few hundred kilometers north of Ballymaloe, would make a loaf at least once every few days. But, as I learned from Allen, what we were eating all along was not Irish Soda Bread, but something slightly different.

Irish Soda Bread is made with buttermilk or sour milk. Back in the day, all the houses in Ireland would have a cow, and that being the time before refrigeration, some of the milk would eventually spoil. In the nineteenth century, when bicarbonate of soda became widely available, the farmer’s wife quickly found a use for it—making bread. The baking soda is what gives Irish Soda Bread its middle name.

It’s a very quick bread to make, as my mother can attest (in fact she can make it so fast that I had to plead with her to slow down a few years ago so she could show me how—I have a video of that somewhere and her recipe, too, but I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment), and as Allen demonstrated. The baking soda reacts with the acid in the buttermilk, releases bubbles of carbond dioxide, and gives the bread its lift. It’s important to get the dough into the oven before that effect passes.

The dough can be made in about as much time as it takes to preheat the oven. The trick, as Allen is demonstrating in the photo above, is to form your hand into a claw, and mix, in a wide low bowl, the dough in one, continuous, circular motion. Start at the center, and by the time you reach the outside of the bowl, your dough is ready. It’s as simple as that. And the ingredients list, according to Allen, is simple too—just four ingredients: salt, baking soda, and buttermilk.

But my mother made her bread with raisins in it, and Allen had a name for that. “When the bread has raisins or currants in it, it’s not Soda Bread. It’s a Railway Cake, with the idea being that there’d be one currant for each station on the line,” she said.

White Soda Bread


  • 1lb (4 cups) white flour, preferably unbleached
  • 1 level teaspoon salt
  • 1 level teaspoon baking soda
  • sour milk or buttermilk to mix—1½ to 1¾ cups approx.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using on hand, mix in the four from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface. WASH AND DRY YOUR HANDS.  Tidy it up and flip over gently. Pat the dough into a round about 1½ inches deep and cut a cross on it to let the fairies out! Let the cuts go over the sides of the bread to make sure of this. Bake in oven at 450 degrees for 8 to 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread; if it is cooked it will sound hollow.


Kitchen Closed? Try making Pan-Crepes

In my more imaginative moments of cooking for the family, I would pretend that I was running a restaurant. I would hunker down, step into my mise en place, and get my mirepoix on. I’d sweat out getting the plates from the kitchen room to the dining room in timely fashion. I’d make sure everyone’s order was met.

I never really thought I was running a restaurant, of course, but I now realize that I am actually running something else—a prepared-food business. My job is managing the food coming in, and adding value by turning it into sauces, stews, soups, and things that can be frozen and eaten by Santa Maria and the kids with the least effort. I make pesto, Bolognese, chicken soup, and I keep them in the freezer. So, as it can happen, when work or something else keeps me out of the house, come dinnertime, no one goes hungry.

Last night at dinnertime, before I came home, Santa Maria pulled a block of pesto from the freezer and mixed it with a roast chicken I had left in the fridge. Pronto, the wife and kids were fed. I had a coop-board meeting to go to, so, in the five minutes I had before I had to go out again, I grabbed a Siggi’s yogurt. I wasn’t too hungry because I’d had a late lunch (and a wicked hearty one, at that—my newly discovered Lentil-Bulgur-An-!@##@%&%!-douille Sausage soup), and that was enough to tide me over.

But when I got home from the meeting, I was peckish. The kitchen was closed down. All the dishes were done. I looked in the fridge, and found some pancake batter that was leftover from the weekend. I spied a package of ham and an old heal of Emmentaler. Bingo! I could make pan-crepes.

I poured the pancake batter into the buttered frying pan, and spread it as thin as I could.


 I fried the ham up in a separate pan.



I sliced the cheese thinly as the pan-crepe cooked on one side. As soon as it was finished, I flipped it, layered the cheese and then the ham, folded it over, and folded it once more before plating it.


I paired it with an arugula salad, and dinner was ready. How I had washed and fresh arugula ready to go on a moment’s notice is a trick of my prepared-foods branch, and I’ll tell that in a subsequent post.

Lentil Bulgur Soup with Andouille Sausage


I think of my freezer as a metaphor for my life. Recently, I reorganized it, and I can now see clearly what’s going on there. In the freezer, that is. Not my life. I'm still working on that. 

I have my bread lined upon one side of it, my prepared foods (Bolognese, dhal, black beans, etc) on another. I put all the loose little bags of frozen corn, peas, and other vegetables in a clear plastic bread bag, and I gathered my stock of frozen salmon fillets into another one. I put all my meats together, and now everything is in its place.

My little exercise paid some benefits—I discovered a lone D'Artagnan Andouille Sausage, left over, presumably, from making black-eyed peas at New Year’s. I love that sausage, and I always thought it would go well in my lentil-bulgur soup. I love that soup, but my metabolism has always demanded that I eat more that it at one sitting. I figured the sausage would cure that.

Adding the sausage is a bit of a sacrilege, of course, because the recipe for the lentil-bulgur soup comes from "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant," a vegetarian cookbook classic. But I’m not actually a vegetarian, so I didn’t hesitate. For me to worry about adding meat to the soup would have been a little like an atheist worrying about not getting into heaven.

So I whipped up a batch this morning. That sausage is so spicy and smoky it made the soup into something more like a chili. And one bowl left me more than satisfied. This is what a bit of clarity brought me today. 

Lentil Bulgur Soup with Andouille Sausage


  • 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, chopped
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • Pinch of dried rosemary
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Andouille sausage, cut into pieces


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.

Add the sausage and cook for about five more minutes.

Remove the bay leaves and serve, stirring in fresh spinach if you have it.

Vanilla Yummy Cake Recipe


As I promised earlier in this week of posts about baking, here is the recipe for the cake Santa Maria made last week. I swear that it was so good that I can still taste it in my mouth: light, fluffy, sinuously vanilla-y, and delicious beyond belief. I’m tempted to go make it myself right now, it’s that good.

Santa Maria was kind enough to write the recipe up, and here’s how the cake came about, and how to make it.

I found the following recipe in “The Joy of Cooking” and I vowed to make it the week before my big darling’s birthday.  Then the eve of the party rolled around. I was tired and frazzled as usual and thought, “I don’t want to make a complicated 4 bowl cake! Let me find an easier recipe.”

“The Joy of Cooking” accommodated and, a few pages later, I duly found a "Quick or Lightening Cake" recipe.  But then I read its description: “We all want a good cake in a big hurry.  But let’s not delude ourselves that shortcuts make for the best textures or flavors.”

Bad mama smackdown! "I’ll make the !@#$!@% four bowl cake," I thought.

And I did.

Vanilla Yummy Cake, adapted from "The Joy of Cooking"

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease two round 9” cake pans with butter.

Have ingredients at room temperature (about 70 degrees). I like to use organic ingredients whenever possible.

Sift (then measure) – yes, it’s a pain, but the cake is a lovely combination of rich and light:

2 ¼ cups all purpose flour

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt


In a separate bowl, cream until fluffy:

1 ¼ cups sugar

½ cup butter


In yet another bowl, combine:

1 cup milk (I used 1 %)

1 teaspoon vanilla


Add the sifted dry ingredients to the butter in 3 parts, alternating with the liquid combination.  Stir the batter until smooth after each addition.


Whip until stiff (but not dry – whatever that means) – I just did it until the whites stand in firm peaks:

 4 egg whites

Fold them lightly into the batter and bake about 25 minutes.

When cool, ice with the following:


Santa Maria's own Buttercream Frosting

  • 6 T butter (very soft, at room temperature)
  • 1 entire package confectioners sugar

Mix these together then add 1 teaspoon vanilla and about 1/3 cup milk until you have a lovely creamy bowl of frosting. 

Nina wanted a black and white cookie cake, so I frosted half the cake with the above mixture, then added 1 ounce of melted and cooled 70% dark chocolate to the remaining half of the frosting.  It was a very delectable cake!