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April 2012

Make Cooking a Habit—It’ll Make Life Easier

This afternoon, I came back from helping my mother do a spring cleaning of her house, and I got to work in my own kitchen. I like to roll into the week knowing what I’m going to cook for dinner (and, lately, bring to work for lunch). We were low on my staples—Bolognese, black beans, and chicken stock—and I needed to restock. I fired up the stove and started cooking all three of those dishes at once. This kind of thing gets easier the more time you spend in the kitchen.

Recently, I picked up a copy of Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” and it explains why the more you do something, the easier it becomes. We have a little part of our brain called the basal ganglia  (a “golf ball-sized lump of tissue,” as Duhigg describes it, “toward the center of the skull”) that encodes certain behaviors so we can do something without even thinking of it. “This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as ‘chunking,’ and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavior chunks that we rely on every day. Some are simple: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed or making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex.”

I cooked the black beans, the Bolognese, and the stock all at the same time by combining steps. I chopped the onions for all three dishes first, and started to sauté  them as I chopped the carrots and rendered the bacon for the Bolognese. Soon all three were ready to start cooking down.

“Habits,” Duhigg continues “emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.” I’ll say: I set all the dishes to simmer, and I went and took a nap.  That’s something I’d like to make a habit of.

Super Speedy Spinach-Sausage Pasta with Truffles

The more my children age, the more I realize that we are in a race against time. Soon, they will be teenagers, then young adults, then, perhaps, parents themselves, and I’ll be in once place and one place only, that place that Tolstoy alluded to in his story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (the answer, of course, is six feet).

And if the race isn’t big, it’s small—the race against low blood sugar and getting the kids in bed. The race to eek out some leisure time between work and going to sleep. The race to get food on the table.

I recently picked up a new book, “Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (And Really Well)” by Peter Kaminsky. I got to know Kaminsky when I put together my book, “Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families,” which came out last Father’s Day. Kaminsky was one many contributors, including Mark Bittman, Jim Harrison, Stephen King, and Mario Batali, who talked about what it takes to keep their wives and children well fed. I haven’t had a chance to read “Culinary Intelligence” yet, but I’m sure it’s full of good advice. The title of one of its chapters, “It Starts With the Ingredients,” sums up my approach to cooking.

I had the right things on hand tonight when I came home from work a tiny bit earlier than usual. I put a savory dinner on the table in fifteen minutes, which gave me enough just enough time to eat a meal with my children before they went to bed, and before they’re all grown up.

Here’s how I did it (Pinta took the pictures!)

Super Speedy Spinach-Sausage with Truffles

I diced some garlic.


I sliced some D’Artagnan chicken-truffle sausages and browned them gently in a large frying pan. As soon as they were brown, I took them out of the pan and added some olive oil and sautéed the garlic in the residue from the sausages, building a flavor base. I tossed some crushed red pepper in to the pan. (Pinta tried but couldn't capture these steps).

Then I added spinach. Prewashed is key for saving time.


My next ingredient was pre-cooked (read left-over) spaghetti. (But if you wanted to make if fresh, it wouldn't cost you any time, just make boiling water your first step, and then it can cook while you chop the garlic, brown the sausages, etc).


 Then I combined everything.


And then I stirred it all about and grated some Parmesan over it.


And voila, it was all done.



Speedy Weeknight Dinner: Salmon Broccoli Fried Rice

In a perfect world, a married couple would communicate like an ace jazz band—fluidly, intuitively, and easily. In the kitchen, the husband might solo on the saxophone-stove and the wife might hold the beat chopping vegetables on the counter. In real life, trying to coordinate cooking time in the kitchen between two working spouses can sound less like Ornette Coleman and more like your twelve-year-old nephew falling down a set of stairs with his saxophone in his mouth. Ouch.

But sweet music can be made—it just takes some planning. The other night, I knew I was going to be home late. Santa Maria served the kids salmon and broccoli while I was still at work, and I asked her to cook some extra fish and vegetable, which I whipped into a savory dish of fried rice within minutes of coming in the door. Here’s how:

  • Cook a pot of rice ahead of time (it's always a good idea to have one one hand)
  • Do the same with a head of broccoli, cut into florets
  • And cook some salmon
  • Dice a small onion
  • Dice an inch or more of peeled fresh ginger
  • Dice a couple of cloves of garlic
  • Crack one or two eggs and beat slightly
  • Juice half a lemon

Brown the onion in a large frying pan with Canola or other vegetable oil.

Add the ginger and garlic, and sauté briefly.

Toss in the rice, salmon, and broccoli, and continue to stir.

Add the egg, stirring.

Add some soy sauce and the lemon, and you’re done when the egg is cooked. Garnish with fresh basil, if you happen to have some on hand.

I recently wrote about why it’s important to undercook fish. Cook it too long, and the oils in it can oxidize and cause a fishy flavor. Undercook it, and it will keep that fresh taste. Keep that in mind if you want to make a dish like this. It takes a light touch, just like making good music. 

Oysters and Wine Turn a Simple Dinner into a Party

I knew that having children would change my life, but I didn’t expect it to lay waste to my friendships. Trying to get together with old friends, even those with children around the same age as mine, takes, in the words of one old friend who I ran into on the subway the other morning, “precision planning on par with the military.” When my girls were infants, it was hard to socialize, but being tired, overwhelmed, and befuddled hardly compared to the endless roundelay of soccer practices, dance lessons, and birthday parties that seem to dominate everyone’s schedule these days.

Still, as I discovered on Saturday, it’s possible to turn an ordinary dinner into a quick party, and all it took was a couple of bottles of wine and some oysters. 

Santa Maria was out for the day and evening at a bridal shower, and I was on my own with Nina and Pinta. That morning, I was craving company, and because it’s been some time since I’ve seen my brother and his family, I called him up. Luckily their son didn’t have anything going on that afternoon, and they came over for an early dinner.

I served flounder (basically, this recipe minus the sauce), roasted potatoes (basically this recipe, minus with baking potatoes and no rosemary), and a romaine salad. And, with the flick of my wrist, I turned that simple dinner into a party by adding a first oysters, cheese and crackers, and olives.

The oysters made the meal, and they are an easy and elegant way to elevate any evening with friends or family. Don’t be scared of opening them. They couldn’t be any easier to open if they had a screw top. Here’s how you do it (for an old video of me opening some, click here).

  • Wash the shells carefully, to remove any mud or grit.
  • Make sure the ones you want to eat are tightly closed; any that are open are dead and should be discarded.
  • Put the oyster curved side down on a solid work surface, such as cutting board, and hold it place with a folded dish towel (I skip the towel, because I routinely cook with gloves on to protect my hands from eczema).
  • With the narrow end of the shell facing you, work the tip of the oyster knife into the shell, twisting a bit, until the shell “pops” loose.
  • Slide the knife under the shell and cut the muscle on the top, then run it around and cut the muscle on the bottom, being careful not to spill the liquor out of the shell (that’s one of the best parts).
  • Serve on a bed of ice or a gently folded dish towel, anything to keep the shell level and stable.

We had a couple of simple bottles of wine with the dinner and the oysters: a 2011 Kermit Lynch white, and a 2011 Graffigna Centenario Pinot Grio. The Lynch, which my brother and his wife brought, was soft and easy on the tongue (literally and figuratively) and the Graffigna, which had been sent to me by the company, was crisp and refreshing. They both went down easy, the kids all played together, and I got a chance to catch up with my brother and his wife. The evening was a delight. I'd even say it changed my life—It made me realize that all I really want to do is cook for my friends and family.

Quick Dinner Trick: Chicken Truffle Sausages

“Kids today, they grow up so fast.” I suppose parents have been saying that since the beginning of time, but I know it’s true in one regard for Nina and Pinta, and I have no one to blame but myself. It took me half a lifetime of living before I tasted my first truffle (and I have a funny story about my long road to my first encounter with their succulent flavor), but my girls have had them many times over.

There are two nights a week that the girls’ babysitter ends up giving them dinner, and on those evenings I want to make it easy for her. Usually, I have her serve them an old standby like black beans and rice, pesto pasta, or Amy’s frozen pizza, but lately I wanted to switch things up. I put D’Artagnan’s very delicious Chicken Truffle Sausages, which we used to eat fairly frequently, back into the mix.

They had them tonight, and the babysitter told me that they each ate two links. That means they really liked them. I had asked her to cut the links in little nickels and brown them. “They counted out the pieces,” she said. “Fifteen each.”

I like the sausages for two reasons, and here's why they're a worhty quick dinner trick.

  • First, there is the taste—that indescribable and evocative truffle flavor, the one that drives folks all over the world crazy, is there in just the right amount, subtle and rewarding.
  • Second, there is the convenience—slice them up, brown them in a frying pan, and toss them over some greens, and you turn a side salad into a meal (or if you’re having a dinner party, a fancy, flavorful, and filling first course!) in a matter of minutes.

Long before I became a parent, and even before I was married, I took a trip to Provence with Santa Maria and I secured a travel-writing assignment to help pay for the journey. I pitched a magazine that shall remain nameless on a “Truffles of France” story, and they bought it.

The thing was, at that time I had never once tasted a truffle. And for what they were paying me, I wasn’t about to get a chance to taste many, I mean any (their fee covered the airfare, and that was about it). So I did the logical thing and got an expert, an English woman who led fancy truffle tours for wealthy people, to describe the flavor for me. She gave me a priceless quote. “Truffles are like B.O.; once you smell them one place, you smell them everywhere,” she said. But the editor of the piece changed the quote so it read in print, “Truffles smell like B.O.”

Fortunately, I don't think the woman ever saw how she was misquoted. The piece was published before the age of the Internet, back before I was really grown up myself. 

French Country Lamb Stew to the Rescue

This evening, I left work dreaming of leeks, of butter melting in a cast-iron pot, of the scent of wine as it cooks down in a pan. I was dreaming of cooking for fun, for friends, for a party. Dreaming of spending an afternoon at the stove with nothing else to do, no bills to pay, no children’s homework to check, no work waiting in the wings. I was dreaming of cooking, pure and simple.

A casual comment of a colleague had sent my mind, tongue, and belly spiraling in that direction. “You’re going to go home and cook dinner,” he said. Yes, I was, but what I do most nights is less about cooking, and more about eating. I’m hungry, so I make myself some food. It’s rarely cooking.

I long for the time in the kitchen to make a casual fritto misto, to poach a salmon, to char a steak over charcoal. To try a new recipe. But that’s not my life right now. I work, I squeeze in a grocery shop once a week, and then I try and rescue old broccoli and green beans and turn them into something healthy and appetizing. Did you know you can cook a chicken well past its expiration date? Yes, you can. Then I have ten minutes to talk with my wife before I collapse with exhaustion. Of course, it’s never really that bad, but it often feels that way.

Once when I was a boy I saved money from odd jobs and I bought myself a ten-speed bicycle. I think I spent as much time riding it as I did polishing its blue frame, silver wheels, and leather seat. I took care of that thing. Owning it felt like money in the bank.

These days, I feel the same way about what’s in my freezer, and riding home on the subway I remembered that there was a bit of lamb-and lima-bean stew in it, left over from a dinner party I threw last fall. When I wrote about the dish last year, I compared it to a French daube I had once had while in Provence years ago. It was that good.

As soon as I entered my apartment (and just after hugging Nina and Pinta), I pulled the container out of the freezer, dropped the frozen stew in my thick-bottomed Le Crueset, and put it on the lowest heat possible. I got the girls ready for bed, read to them, and kissed them goodnight. Then I sat down for a French country meal. It might not have been what I was dreaming of, but it was mighty tasty all the same.

French Country Lamb Stew, with Beans and Olives


  • 1 cup dried pinto beans—soaked overnight in water to cover, drained and rinsed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch, or smaller, pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 1/2 ounces finely chopped pancetta
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 3 large shallots, minced
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/3-1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 4 cups stock (I used vegetable stock, from bullion, which is all I had on hand, but the original recipe calls for 4 cups beef stock or 1 can low-sodium beef broth diluted with 3 cups of water)
  • 1 1/2 cups frozen baby lima beans
  • 2/3 cup Calamata olives, pitted and halved
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley

In a medium saucepan, cover the dried beans with water. Simmer the beans with the bay leaf over low heat until tender, about 45 minutes. Leave the beans in their cooking water.

In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add half of the lamb and season with salt and pepper. Brown the meat over moderately high heat, about 3 minutes per side; transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining oil and lamb.

Add the pancetta and butter to the casserole and cook over low heat until the pancetta is slightly crisp, about 4 minutes.

Add the shallots and cook until softened but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Stir in the tomato paste and then the wine and simmer, stirring, for 3 minutes.

Whisk in the stock until smooth and bring to a boil.

Return the lamb to the casserole and simmer over low heat, skimming a few times, until the lamb is tender, about 1 hour.

Drain the dried beans, add them to the stew and simmer for 15 minutes longer.

Cook the lima beans in a small saucepan of boiling water until tender, about 4 minutes; drain well.

Add the lima beans to the stew and season with salt and pepper.

Stir in the olives.

Spoon the stew into shallow bowls, sprinkle with the parsley and serve.

Notes: Freezes well!!!

The Science Behind Why It's Important to Undercook Fish

The other day, I was buying frozen salmon and I ran into my sister-in-law, who saw my purchase and asked me how I kept the fish from drying out when I cooked it. I didn’t have an answer, as I always undercook fish to keep it moist. I spent many years working in a retail fish market, and I learned that it’s best to turn off the heat when the fillet is still a little raw. Recently, I learned a bit more about why this is the case.

A colleague of mine who is about to give birth was recently cleaning out her desk, and she gave me an old copy of Cook’s Illustrated. I have mixed feelings about the magazine. I think it’s beautifully illustrated and written, but I sometimes stumble when I come face to face with their thoroughness. When they check something out, they go all out, testing things this way and that way and everyway in between. I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants guy, and I don’t necessarily need to know the best way to do something, just the way that works for me. And that is one of the things I love most about home cooking—do it your way, and enjoy it.

On the way home from work that evening, I read through my copy of the magazine. They spent about a thousand words on how to make the best salmon cakes, something I will never ever do, but a sidebar to that article intrigued me.  They examined why salmon sometimes tastes fishy, even when it’s fresh:

First it helps to know that there are two different kinds of ‘fishy’: one is a sign of spoilage; the other is an indication of the presence of healthy fats. The flesh of all fish contains an odorless, nonvolatile chemical called trimethylamine oxide (or TMAO). During storage, bacteria on the surface of the raw fish convert TMAO into a volatile compound called trimethylamine (TMA), which produces the unmistakable smell of rotten fish.

The fishy smell of cooked salmon (and other fatty fish such as mackerel and tuna) comes from a different source. Salmon fat is highly unsaturated, which makes it susceptible to oxidation when cooked. Oxidation causes the breakdown of the fatty acids into strong-smelling aldehydes, which are the source of salmon’s characteristic flavor.

Apparently, the more you cook the fish, the higher the level of aldehydes, and the stronger the odor. That night, I came into the house, and it was fragrant, well actually, pungent, with the smell of salmon. I had left some for the babysitter to cook for Nina and Pinta. I guess she doesn’t know to undercook the fillet. I’ll have to try and show her how to do so. If you want to try salmon cakes the Cook’s Illustrated way, here’s a link to their article and recipe.

Olive-Stuffed Lamb: The Rest of the Story

Just like going to therapy, going home is always full of surprises. Take the olive-stuffed lamb I was going to cook for Easter. My mother was kind enough to buy a leg, but the leg she bought had the bone in it. I was surprised as all hell to see a knobby and sinewy shin buried inside the slab of meat I was planning on to rolling up and cooking.

But there it was, and I had to cut it out. Years ago I worked in a fish market and I prided myself on learning to fillet all kinds of species, from blues to fluke (flatfish are particularly delicate). I never learned the devilishly tricky shad, but few do. Though this gave me a good knowledge of the anatomy of various sea creatures, let me tell you, a fish bone is nothing like a lamb bone.

I hacked away with my mother’s knives, which we probably last sharpened before the dawn of the agricultural era, and I was confused. I followed the bone and carefully separated the meat from the flesh, but I came upon a joint. I worked my way around that, and, eventually, I had a boneless leg. I also had a giant bone, which I saved to show Nina and Pinta, who were asleep when I was doing this.

I needed to marinate the meat overnight, and I wanted to get finished. But, the leg I had was shaped slightly different than what I was used to. It was kind of a cross shape, and then it dawned on me: a butterflied leg of lamb. I’d heard that term before, and now I knew why.

I flopped the meat one way, and then another, and finally figured out how it might roll up. I covered one side with the olive-and-herb mixture, and tied it off with cooking string. I let it sit overnight, wrapped in foil and the paper it had come in.

The next day, I was flummoxed again. It looked to be too long to fit in a roasting pan, so I improvised a bit, putting it on the diagonal. I poured a bit of water in the bottom of the roasting pan to keep it from smoking.

I roasted it for ten minutes at 450 degrees, and then poured the wine over it and turned it down to 350 degrees. I’m spending a lot of time on this lamb dish because it was so good. The moment I put it in the oven, the house filled with an intoxicating aroma of thyme and rosemary. As soon as I turned down the heat and put the wine on, I went out for a walk with Santa Maria. That’s another nice thing about the dish—no active labor once it’s underway.

It came out of the oven a little over an hour later. I wanted to check the internal temperature, but I couldn’t find an instant-read thermometer in my mother’s kitchen. It looked done, so I left it to sit for about ten minutes.

When I started carving it, I knew it was going to be amazing. The very thick center turned out pink and juicy and the ends were a little more well done. All of it was tender and savory, with the olives and the thyme and the lemon leaving a great flavor on the meat.

But perhaps the most very nice thing about the dish is that it makes mouth-watering leftovers. I ate it for dinner last night with an arugula salad and some bread and cheese, and I ate it today for lunch. That’s the end of it for me, but I know I’ll be making it again soon.

If you try it, let me know how it goes. A friend on Facebook saw the recipe posting last week, and she made it in a toaster oven (and then on the stovetop). She said it was fantastic, so I don’t think there’ll be any surprises.

Here’s how it looked halfway through eating it. Doesn't it just make you want to run out and make it now?


And here’s the recipe again, in case you missed it. Don't be afraid--you can do it!

Olive-Stuffed Boneless Leg of Lamb 

  • 1 ¼ cups Calamata or Gaeta olives (½ pound) pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 teaspoons thyme leaves plus 4 thyme sprigs
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¾ teaspoon finely chopped rosemary, plus 4 rosemary springs
  • ¾ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • One 4½-pound leg of lamb—boned, butterflied and trimmed of all visible fat
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • ½ cup dry white wine

In a food processor, combine the olives with the garlic, thyme leaves, olive oil, chopped rosemary and lemon zest. Pulse until a chunky puree forms. Spread the lamb on a work surface, boned side up, and season with salt and pepper. Spread the olive paste all over the lamb and roll it tightly lengthwise into a roast. Tie the lamb with kitchen string at 1-inch intervals. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for a least 6 hours. Let return to room temperature before roasting.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the lamb on a rack set in a roasting pan and season with salt and pepper. Tuck the rosemary and thyme springs under the lamb and roast for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and pour the wine over the lamb. Roast for about 45 minutes, basting twice; the lamb is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part registers 140 degrees for medium.

Transfer the lamb to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, pour the pan drippings into a bowl and spoon off the fat. Discard the strings and cut the lamb into thick slices. Pour any lamb juices into the pan drippings, spoon them over the meat, and serve.

Family Crisis Postpones Olive-Stuffed Lamb Report

We had a great Easter dinner, and I’m happy to say that the olive-stuffed lamb turned out more fragrant, more tender, and more delicious than I remembered it. Unfortunately, the night ended with a medical emergency (everyone’s fine now, save perhaps, for the parents) and I spent much of the night in the Emergency Room. I hope to have the full story about the lamb to you in a day or two.