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November 2012

Crispy Chorizo, Quinoa, and Sweet Potato Salad

Sometimes cooking can be so easy that it boggles my mind. Take tonight’s dinner, for example. I simply brought together something from a new recipe and added it to an old recipe, and voila, I had a smashing new dish. Okay, it wasn’t completely, 100% new, but, then again, what actually is new? Is anything?

I took the crispy Chorizo sausage from my friend Aran Goyoaga’s sublime Brussels sprouts, sausage, pear, and black quinoa salad, and added it to my sturdy old sweet potato and quinoa salad. It was that easy.

The result was satisfying and delicious. I’ve always liked my quinoa salad, but I often felt it didn’t have enough heft. The Chorizo solved that problem on two accounts. It added a touch of spice and it added a huge hit of protein. Easy, I’m telling you. Go try it, and see for yourself. You’ll be happy you did.

Crispy Chorizo, Quinoa, and Sweet Potato Salad

  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed well
  • 1 large sweet potato, scrubbed
  • 1-4 links of chorizo sausage, depending on how many servings of salad are desired.*
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • ¼ of a red onion, minced
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • olive oil
  • white wine vinegar
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the quinoa in 2 cups of water as you would cook rice, about twenty minutes. Set aside to cool.

Cut the Chorizo sausages in half lengthwise, and then cut into ¼ inch thick half moons. Add a little bit of oil to a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and crisp up the sausages on one side. Flip and crisp on the other. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Chop the sweet potatoes into small squares, about a half inch each. Coat with a tiny bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread out on a baking sheet or in a large frying pan and roast in the oven until the potatoes are soft on the inside and slightly crispy on the outside, about twenty to twenty-five minutes.

Toss all the ingredients, including the sausages, and dress with the oil and vinegar.

Notes: Dress only as much of the salad as you would like to eat in a given sitting. The remainder of the salad will keep for days, so long as it is not dressed before consuming.

*Crisp up only as much Chorizo as you might like to consume in that setting. Figure one to two sausages per person (though that’s what I eat, and I eat a lot more than most folks).

This recipe makes about five to eight servings of the salad, depending on how large each serving is. Just keep in mind that it makes a lot of salad.

Can Happiness Be a Habit? Does the 30-minute Meal Exist? Am I Joking Or Am I Serious?

I’m getting a great deal out of reading Dr. Christine Carter’s book “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” I’m just over halfway through the book, and I’ve come to a chapter on forming “Happiness Habits.” Having recently read Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” and having advocated here for making cooking a habit, I am very interested in the chapter. Habits are powerful things.

The happiness book itself, though, presents a problem for me. It takes an incredible mental effort for me to accept the idea that happiness can be a habit, that happiness can be learned. I really have to work at it to buy into it.

This is because have a congenital weakness, one born of the hard fire of a large Irish Catholic family, that is as real as my myopia and my high metabolism. Ever since I was young enough to hide my tears, I’ve flipped language upside down, pretended not to care, and covered it all up with a perfect patina of humor. I am, for better or worse, steeped in irony. It is such a part of my genetic makeup that I don’t think I have DNA. Rather, I have “AND,“ if that makes any sense. And it probably does not. Stupid jokes like that made junior high a living hell for me. And as you can see, I haven’t grown that much.

I’ve grown some, though. Christy Wampole’s recent New York Times article about the prevalence of irony among young people irked me, for example. Who is she thinking that her generation owns irony? Ever hear of Generation X? We were doomed from the start (I’m being ironic, ahem). And besides, didn’t irony die with 9/11? What ever happened to that?  If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, R. Jay Magill Jr., has a good history of irony (and sincerity) in The Atlantic, but I’m going to end this digression.

I want to get back to my life as it is now, and not as it was. I mention “Raising Happiness” because it is good and I believe people can change. Much of the chapter on forming happiness habits concerns how to improve the family dinner, and I’ll have more on that soon. For now, though I want to highlight one observation that Dr. Carter makes in it about how people change. “Change,” she writes, “rarely happens all at once. It happens in stages.”

She goes suggests various stages to effect change, and one of them she calls “Preparation.” In it, she talks about leaving enough time to get dinner ready. She knows that if she doesn’t leave enough time, she will start yelling at her kids, which is no way to accomplish anything.

Having enough time to make dinner was on my mind this evening as I lingered in the lobby of my office building chatting with colleagues. I had promised Santa Maria that I would have dinner on the table by 6:30, and I was cutting it very close. That’s the latest we can feed the girls without them breaking down and without completely screwing up the bedtime routine. I needed to commute home and then make dinner.

The commute went fine, and I got home by 6:00. However, I have to report that there is really no such thing as a 30-minute family dinner. A thirty-minute dish, yes? But a thirty-minute family meal? No.

I was making a 20-minute dish (and that’s no exaggeration—Puttanesca originated as a quick dish), along with a ten-minute dish (you don’t want to overcook wild salmon) and a five-minute dish (greenbeans for the kids) as well as a two-minute dish (steamed spinach for myself and Santa Maria), and when you add all that up, you come to 48-minutes.

Fortunately, it all worked out because I turned to something that has always worked for me—humor. Positive emotions are contagious, and as soon as I saw that I was falling behind schedule, I started calling out for help from Nina. “I’m in the weeds,” I said to her, using an old restaurant expression for getting overwhelmed. I had to explain to her what it meant, and when I did, she said that if I was in the weeds, she was “in the flowers.”

She set the table, filled the water glasses for everyone, and asked if she could help me cook. I set her to work cutting up the olives for the sauce. She did a great job, and had fun doing it. Humor, it works every time. Try making that a habit!

Puttanesca Sauce

  • 4 or more cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 3 anchovy fillets
  • 1 chili pepper
  • One 28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, crushed (or hit with an immersion blender, which is very fast)
  • 1T capers
  • 12 or so black olives, sliced
  • herbs such as basil or oregano to taste (completely optional) 

Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the garlic and anchovies and chili pepper. Saute until garlic is soft, add tomatoes and reduce. (Remove the chili pepper early, right when you add the tomatoes, if you’re worried about making it too spicy for children)

When the sauce thickens (in about fifteen minutes), add capers and olives and any herbs.

Serve over the pasta of your choice.

Post-Thanksgiving Recap: Wonderful Holiday Yields a Cornbread Recipe

Halfway through the Thanksgiving meal—after cooking for three days, downing a glass and a half of champagne, and about halfway into a glass of a silky 2005 Barolo—I found a half-baked aphorism on the tip of my tongue. “Much like family,” I said, “I didn’t understand the appeal of hosting Thanksgiving until I had one of my own.”

I have never, ever, ever—in all the years I’ve been cooking and entertaining, through all the people I have fed and meals I have made—never, ever, ever had so much fun. I wasn’t even that big a fan of turkey, cranberry sauce, dressing, and all the fixings. But after I smelled my kitchen filling with the scent of the turkey roasting, after so many of my siblings and their families came over, and as we sat at the long, T-shaped table I assembled from the Home Depot special and my regular dining room table, I understood.

I do have a confession to make, however: I didn’t do the whole thing on my own. All of my siblings contributed something to the table, and my mother came to visit for the three days prior and she did much of the chopping, and the planning, and the hand-holding. She did everything from making the turkey stock to filling the salt and pepper dishes. She was the mortar between the bricks; without her the holiday could not have stood.

Most everything went swimmingly with my mother, except for one thing. Almost every time I consulted Sam Sifton’s book, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well,” she rolled her eyes. Well, she didn’t actually roll her eyes, but she didn’t like it. And the day after the holiday, on the phone with me, she made her opinion clear. Addressing my tendencies towards perfection (in parenting and in the kitchen) she said of the book, “I would just throw it out.”

What was it that irked my mother about Sifton’s book? An inkling comes from Emma Allen’s recent New Yorker blog post about cooking a meal according to its directions. She accuses Sifton of being a kitchen bully, of scolding and hectoring her with his instructions.  I’m not saying that I know of any other kitchen bullies, who might hector or scold, but I will admit to the apple not falling far from the tree.

The truth is that Sifton’s book is amazing, and full of great recipes. The same, of course, is true of my mother, but that goes without saying. One thing my mother did agree with Sifton about was the cornbread that we used as a base for his Three-Pepper Sausage Cornbread Dressing, of which Sifton says, “Rare is the month where there is not a frozen bag of this stuff in our freezer, ready to be deployed.”

The dressing was remarkable, but in our house we’re less likely to have it as much as we are to have the cornbread base. On it’s own, this cornbread stands tall. It is perfectly crunch, soft and crumbly. It will become a regular part of our cooking, I can tell. In fact, I made another batch today, to go with some chili tonight.

Everyday Celebration Cornbread

  • 4 cups organic flour
  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal*
  • 1 light cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 and ½ tablespoons canola oil
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and a 4x8 loaf pan. Place the skillet in the oven to heat. The loaf pan can remain room temperature.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and oil. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ones in the dry ingredient bowl. Stir until mixed through, and no more. Add the butter and stir again until it is all mixed together.

Remove the hot skillet from the oven and fill it with the batter. Put the remaining batter in the baking pan. It should fill it about half way.

Bake in the oven for about 40-45 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a sharp, thin, knife into the center. It should come out clean. Cool on a rack (or better yet, cut some slices, slather with butter, and enjoy).

*As for cornmeal, I suggest (and Santa Maria insists upon) Bob’s Red Mill, coarse ground.

Note: This recipe is adapted from Sam Sifton’s “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well”; Sifton in turn adapted his recipe from Chris Schlesinger’s East Coast Grill. Sifton added frozen organic corn (1 ten-ounce package, for those who want to try it—Sifton says mix it in just before the butter). I in turn, omitted the corn, so I guess I’m back at Schlesinger’s recipe, though I did cut the sugar by a third. 

Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving!

I've been busy getting ready to host 15 people at my house, and I don't have a food-related post for today, but as someone greater than myself once said, "Man does not live on bread alone." I wanted to send a note to let you know what I am grateful for. First, I am grateful for your readership. Thanks for following along, stopping by, commenting, and staying touch.

I am also thankful for my health, my wife and children, my family, my job, the United States of America, and the wonderful opportunities we have. I'm thankful for my friends, and all the books that have been written, including Dr. Christine Carter's recent one "Raising Happiness." I'll have more on the book in later posts, but for now I want to leave with a quote from it:

"As an irrigator guides water to his fields, as an archer aims an arrow, as a carpenter carves wood, the wise shape their lives."--Buddha

We Interrupt Thanksgiving Planning To Eat Peconic Bay Scallops

I’m knee deep into Sam Sifton’s “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well,” but thus far my holiday prep has had more to do with buying tables, washing folding chairs, and counting cutlery than cooking.

As this is my first time hosting for the holiday, I’ve taken a few days off work to get ready (It’s good timing, because things are slow this week in the office), and yesterday I spent the afternoon wandering the wilds of the Brooklyn Home Depot to find a good deal on a folding table. I succeeded, but, boy, was it an education. Not so much for me, but for Pinta, who came with me. That store was was full of angry contractors cursing out folks on the phone as they stormed around the aisles. Unbelievable. I think five-year-old Pinta’s vocabulary has grown quite a bit.

As this is supposed to be a cooking/parenting blog, not a shopping-for-tables/parenting blog, I’ll get back on topic. And this is important, because Peconic Bay Scallops are in the midst of their short season.

On Saturday, I was at the Greenmarket, buying fish from Blue Moon, my favorite purveyor. They were selling the little scallops, which are a rare seasonal delight that is not to be missed. They are the sweetest, most divine scallops you can imagine. So, for nearly the price of a new table, I bought a pound, and cooked them up for lunch. If you see Peconic Bay Scallops in the market near you, I suggest you grab them while you can. The season doesn’t last long.

Sautéed Peconic Bay Scallops

  • Any amount Peconic Bay Scallops
  • Olive Oil
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half but otherwise left whole

Dry the scallops on paper towels. Bring them to room temperature if you have the time.

Heat the oil and the garlic in frying pan that is large enough to hold the scallops without crowding. With your spatula, move the garlic around as it is heating.

Get the pan good and hot, nearly smoking. Remove the garlic if it starts to brown (which it will).

Once the oil I just about smoking, toss in the scallops, being careful not to crowd the pan.

Leave them alone for three-or four minutes, or until they get a nice crisp finish on one side.

Move them a bit in the pan with a spatula to cook the other sides.

Remove from heat and serve.

Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, by Sam Sifton

Much in the same way that a child might get excited about seeing Santa Claus for the first time, or an adult might be thrilled by meeting Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan, Pete Townshend, or Prince (insert hero of your own here), I came home this evening to one of the greatest moments of my life: A turkey—the first one ever at that—in my refrigerator.

Yes, that is correct. I have never cooked a turkey before. I have never hosted Thanksgiving before. I have not, so to speak, achieved manhood when it comes to cooking for the family, which in this case, for this holiday, extends to about sixteen folks. That, my friends, is about to change. I’m the proud owner of a 14.9 pound Bell & Evans bird from the Park Slope Food Coop. (Earlier in the day, when I was at work, Santa Maria sprinted over to the coop to get one as soon as the birds arrived for sale. She brought it home, and it is now on the top shelf of our fridge.)

I volunteered to host Thanksgiving this year for three reasons. The first is because I have never done it before, and I feel like it is time. The second is because I now have an apartment suited to the occasion. And the third is because Sam Sifton, a writer and a cook I much admire, recently wrote a how-to guide to the holiday, “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well.” Were it not for this slender volume, handsomely illustrated by Sarah C. Rutherford, I would not have the confidence (I won’t say hubris) to take on the task.

Sifton may have given me one of the nadirs of my family-cooking tenure (it was his pizza recipe in The New York Times that I was following all those years ago when I wanted to emphatically demonstrate to my children my fallibility), but now that I am familiar with his limitations (what the world would call ambitions—it’s not his fault my kids don’t like San Marzano tomatoes), I am confident that his book will help me pull off this greatest of culinary holidays. Here’s his take on it:

Thanksgiving is not easy. The holiday is for many of us a day of travel, of traffic and stress. It is a day of hot ovens, increasingly drunk uncles and crowded dinner tables, of people arriving late or needing to leave early, of burned yams and spouses who forgot to buy the one thing—the one thing!—you asked them not to forget to buy. Thanksgiving can be a hard day to manage. It takes strength.

The cooking can be difficult. (That turkey is so big, and your oven so small.) The interpersonal dynamics are often harder. [Cue tears.] Either you are traveling somewhere to be fed, or opening your home to people in order to feed them. This is not easy, ever. You may be putting feuds on hold or building bridges between clans. You may be sharing family traditions or creating them or fighting against them or all three at once.

With writing like that, I know the book is gem. “Thanksgiving,” the book that is (and the holiday, for that matter), Sifton says is not “for those interested in cutting conrers. Shortcuts are anathema to Thanksgiving, which is a holiday that celebrates not just our bounty but also our slow, careful preparation of it. There is no room in Thanksgiving for the false wisdom of compromise—for ways to celebrate the holiday without cooking, or by cranking open cans of gravy to pour over a store-roasted turkey reheated in the microwave. Thanksgiving is no place for irony. We are simply going to cook. …  Put plainly, we are going to cook Thanksgiving correctly.

I’m all for that, and in the interest of increasing the odds of my success, I want to ask you, my dear readers, for your advice. All these years I have shared my culinary tips with you. Can you tell me the one thing that is most important to you for a successful Thanksgiving?

Better Cooking Through Technology: A Guest Post

Paul Kidwell, a Boston-based reader of this blog and a cooking father, wrote to me recently offering to contribute a guest post. I always enjoy hearing from Paul. He has previously written here about Mushroom Bruschetta and Christmas, as well as about a Father’s Day meal his son once made for him. This time, he has a tale of how technology helps him help his son, who is living abroad, in the kitchen. Here it is:

Like most fathers I tried to do my best in preparing my son for the rigors of the world, especially when he left for college. In between admonitions and advice on courtesy, relationships, honesty, and "not doing as I say, but rather as I do," I helped him develop an interest in my raison d'etre; cooking. Happy to say that he mostly listened to me and my wife, as we shaped this kid into a young man and turned out to be someone in whom we take great pride. He's a good kid and we are quite happy with the outcome. Personally, I am extremely pleased that he has taken after me when it comes to cooking and being around food. As much as it's terribly important to be kind, courteous, and respectful of others; I also feel that every young boy should know a few of the basics around food and its preparatio—particularly if he wants to impress a young girl, which is a story for another time.

When I introduced him to the fine art of making a marinara sauce, roasting a chicken, smashing garlic, and testing the "doneness" of a steak or pork tenderloin with his finger ("when it's undercooked, the downer I push, the upper it goes"), little did I know he would have an opportunity to put to use my teachings so soon. This was a life skill and I thought at the very earliest it would be a post-college activity. But this year he finds himself in London for a year of economics study at a school that has not embraced the concept of the U.S. college dining hall. Students are expected to fend for themselves in the daily provision of sustenance, which in his case means shopping for food and turning those purchases into meals, by himself or with a gaggle of his fellow classmates. Through the marvels of technology, though, I am not altogether absent in this process, and I help him shop for groceries and triage his meals as he cooks them, in real time.

One of the best cooking tools for us has become the iPhone's Face Time and Skype. Through these tools—though I am thousands of miles away—I help my son pick out produce at the market and navigate his cooking. Typicaly, I do this from the comfort of my office. I’m not sure if the manufacturers of these advanced technologies ever envisioned this novel use, but it certainly provides a "I am there" immediacy that I would otherwise miss. Also, he might not be feasting as good as he is. A recent meal of his was one of our family's favorite and a quick fix for when we would get home late from work and school during his younger years when there was always a PTA meeting, violin/swim practice, etc. to waylay me and take me out of the kitchen. The recipe below (my son called it "books of chicken" because the butterflied chicken breast resembled an open book) has now become a staple of his London cooking repertoire and, I must say, what I saw recently, stacks up favorably to anything I make back at home.

Paul Kidwell's Books of Chicken

  • 3 chicken breasts
  • 1.5 cups of Swiss cheese shredded
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 1 lb. baby Bella mushrooms, sliced thin
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Butterfly chicken breasts and place in baking dish, book side up

Sauté asparagus and mushrooms together about 4-5 minutes

Salt and pepper inside of chicken breasts, and spread cheese, followed by asparagus and mushrooms inside one side of each chicken breast.

Fold over other side of breasts to cover the other; like closing a book. Stick 2 toothpicks into top of each breast.

Slather olive oil onto each breast, and salt and pepper.

Bake for about 30 minutes.

While chicken is baking make a couple of cups and rice. Serve rice covered with leftover asparagus and mushrooms. Don't forget to take the toothpicks out of the chicken breasts before eating.

Arsenic Leads to Better Way to Cook Brown Rice

Over the past few months, I’ve migrated to a cooking style that really suits my needs. On the weekends, I make a big pot of something—Chili, Coq Au Vin, Tagine, or the like—and I eat it a couple of times that week. I typically get one solid family meal out of it, and then a multitude of lunches. I’ll have more big-pot ideas going forward, as I plan to add to my repertoire.

But first, I want to return to the issue of arsenic in rice, something that hit the news media a few weeks ago, as I often serve those dishes over a starch, typically rice. In light of the reports that rice, especially brown rice, can carry high levels of arsenic, I have changed the way I cook the grain. Apparently, rinsing it first, and then cooking it in an excess of water (the same way one might cook pasta) can reduce the amount of harmful compounds present.

The good news about this new method is that it’s easier, and the rice turns out better. There’s no more measuring, worrying about keeping the heat low, or ending up with a soggy mass at the bottom of the pot. Here’s how I do it:

  • I start by putting a large pot of water, the size I would use to cook pasta, on the stove to boil.
  • I salt the water, a bit less than the amount I would salt it for pasta.
  • I take a given amount of rice, say two cups, and I rinse it a few times before cooking.
  • Once the big pot of water is boiling, I toss in the rice.
  • I bring it back to a boil, and then cover loosely and let simmer on a low heat. I use one of the small burners at the back of my stove; you can experiment with your stove and see what is best for you.
  • About twenty-five minutes later, I use a spoon to check a few grains. I taste them, looking for a soft but not mushy texture. Once I get that, I drain the rice in a strainer, just like making pasta.

I wasn’t happy to learn about the risks associated with eating rice, something I thought was so basic, safe, and healthy that I would never have to worry about it, but I happy that my new method is both better for me and better tasting. If you want more details on the situation with rice and arsenic, this post at CommonHealth is helpful.  

TGIF Funnies

Let's be honest--cooking for a family is a lot of work. It can be tiring. It can be boring. It can be a pain. But only you can make it fun. That's as much of the job description as drawing up menus, going shopping, and getting down to cooking (never mind doing the dishes). So, tell me, what do you do around the kitchen and the table to put a good face on things?

More Tales of the Chorizo: Spicing Up Lentil Bulgur Soup

One of the benefits of making meals for the family on a regular basis is that cooking begets cooking. What does that mean? Simply, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You start to see ways to combine things and make old things new again. Take the my recent infatuation with Chorizo, the Spanish pork sausage. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I've been using it to transform various dishes. Here's the latest way.

Over the weekend, I needed a quick, no-hands lunch for myself. Santa Maria was out of town and I was on my own with the kids. I copped out and gave them canned lentil soup. Not the best thing in the world, but not the worst, either. I knew I had some lentil-bulgur soup in the freezer (that's the benefit of keeping a regular cooking schedule). It is one of my favorite soups, but it has an Achilles' heel: It doesn't have enough protein for me. I fixed that problem once before, with Andouille sausage, and I knew I could do it again, with the last bit of Chorizo I had in the fridge.

As with the other recipes, I cut the sausage in half-moon shapes, crisped them up nicely, and then put them atop the soup. It was super delicious. 

Lentil Bulgur Soup with Crispy Chorizo 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
  • 1-3 Chorizo sausage, cut into half-moon 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.

When you want to serve the soup, crisp the sausages in a bit of oil in a frying pan, and drain of any excess oil

Serve the soup in bowls, with the sausages on top (figure about one to a person)

Note: you can also stir in fresh spinach and let it wilt in the soup first, for a completely nutritious meal. And this recipe makes a large quantity of soup; adjust the amount of sausage accordingly.