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May 2013

Simple Steamed Artichokes Blow Away Self-Doubt

Artichoke
There are many moments of parenting that result in stupendous self-doubt. If you have kids, you’ll know what I mean. And if you have kids, your moments of self-doubt are doubtlessly going to be different than mine. That I guarantee. There is one moment, however, when I have no doubts: serving artichokes.

“Artichokes?” you say. “How do artichokes and kids go together?” I can’t really tell you, other than you play the hand your dealt. Maybe your kid likes the piano. Or maybe your kid likes baseball. Or maybe your kid likes reading. And someone else’s kid likes playing in the mud. My kids like artichokes. At least one of them does.

A long time ago, before kids, Santa Maria introduced me to them, and we used to have them fairly often. They became notorious around our house because Nina is so proud that she likes them.  They are, she will tell you, her favorite vegetable. Now, if you know anything about the way artichokes are typically served, saying they are a vegetable is getting a little into the realm of the Reagan era, when ketchup in school lunches was allegedly declared a vegetable. I’m sure the thing that Nina likes about the artichokes is the copious amounts of melted butter that accompany each bite.

Tonight I served them again, and Pinta, who has typically spurned them, decided to try some. When she saw the cooked artichoke in the bowl, she said, “I thought that was a big mess of hair.” She gamely ate a few leaves, and a bit of the heart. Maybe she’ll like them even more next time.

There is a very good reason to introduce them around the house, even if your kid decides that they look worse than a big mess of hair. They are odd things, and if you are not taught how to eat them, you might not figure it out. You might end up like this grown lady, the “Anonymous Executive” blogger, who found herself facing artichokes for the first time at a business lunch and spent thirty minutes chewing on one leaf. At least I have spared my children that fate—even if they are still, at an age when they should know better, struggling to use a fork. Whew.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and give a recipe for cooking artichokes that you might not find anywhere else. Every recipe I’ve seen for an artichoke has been full of instructions to trim the top, trim the bottom, trim the inside, and trim the outside. I say forget all that and just do the following. I have no doubts about it.

Simple Steamed Artichokes

 

1 artichoke per person

Slice about ½ inch off the bottom of each stem.

Rinse well.

Place in a pot of water and bring to a boil.

Reduce to a low boil and cook until the outer leaves come off fairly easily, about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size of each artichoke and how many people you are feeding.

Serve with melted butter (with a bit of lemon in it) and eat thusly (courteous of the “Anonymous Executive.”)

How_to_eat_an_artichoke


Strawberry-Rhubarb Ugly Pie

Ugly_Pie_2

Once upon a time, I was six. And once, even, I was eight. But never before have I been a parent of a six-year old and an eight-year old, and I have to ask, does it have to be so full of yelling, screaming, crying, and other forms of conflict? And I’m just talking about Santa Maria and myself—just kidding. But seriously, did kids always fight this way, this often?

Now, I’m not blind, and I’m not an idiot, so I know I bear some responsibility. If the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” is to be believed, mothers and fathers are to blame when their children are brats, though I don’t happen to know any brats myself.

Around the dinner table, things often come to a head, especially when dessert is served. Santa Maria recently made a quick strawberry-and-rhubarb sort of compote with biscuits, and the children went to war over who was getting more biscuits, or who was getting bigger biscuits, or some other earth-shattering slight. Their yelling took all the sweetness out of the moment.

Later, Santa Maria was distressed, and she told me privately in the kitchen that she couldn't be happy when everyone in the family was fighting. She looked up at be dolefully, and asked if I could be happy in situations like this. I didn’t have the heart to tell her then that it was actually the only way I knew how to be happy. Growing up, my parents yelled at each other and my siblings routinely violated the Geneva Conventions when they were supposed to be babysitting me.

Despite (well, actually, because of) the intermittent conflagrations, we’re working hard around the table and house to defuse the fighting, to cease the yelling, and drain the swamp of anger. It’s a slow process. At our best moments, we work together to have a family meeting once a week (if you haven’t checked out Bruce Feiler’s “The Secrets of Happy Families,” which goes into detail about family meetings, I suggest you do so right away; it’s a very useful book).

Santa Maria decided to make this dessert because she was looking for something that was easier and a bit more healthy than pie. It’s basically a pie filling, without the crust. I dubbed it, with deepest affection, “Ugly Pie” (and that was before the fighting started).

If you wanted to fancy this up, you could top the biscuit with the compote and then cover it with whipped cream. You’d have a pretty decent dessert then and there. This recipe is a bit of a work-in-progress, and you might want to play around a bit with the biscuit part of it. The compote, on the other hand, is just perfect. Consider making that and putting it over vanilla ice cream. Just don’t fight over it.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Ugly Pie

  • 2 cups hulled strawberries
  • 2 cup rhubarb
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • a light 1/4 cup tapioca
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Mix together ingredients, and let sit 15-20 min (or you'll have little hard nubbins of tapioca)

Place in 10" glass pie pan or casserole

Make biscuit batter:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Sift ingredients 3 times

Then cut in 4 Tablespoons butter

Quickly stir in

  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup ice water

Until it sticks together

Drop/form into little 2-3 inch blobs on a cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes

Bake the fruit for 30-40 minutes.

Drop biscuits in the cooked compote, if Ugly Pie is desired. Serve with compote over the biscuit, if so desired. Whipped cream works in both cases.


Family Fish Tacos for Young and Old

Photo-7
Sometime between the present day and the birth of my first child, about eight years ago, I picked up the knowledge that I’m not young anymore. I’m certainly not old, but young? Fuhgeddaboudit, as they say in my home borough.

One of my biggest lessons this ongoing education came a few summers ago, when I paid a visit to Rockaway Beach, to check out their burgeoning food stands. I had read somewhere about the otherworldly fish tacos that were served just off the boardwalk. We drove out to the Rockaways to try them, but could not, for the life of us, find a parking space. While I circled in traffic, Santa Maria took the girls and sought out the tacos. Apparently, I was not the only person in the metropolitan area to have read about them. There was a long line, full of self-possessed, pale-skinned folks. These were mostly bearded men and tattooed women who liked the same kinds of clothing, but more than their fashion choices they had one thing in common: they were all twenty-something.

Santa Maria bravely managed our two very little girls, and finally ordered a few of the tacos. Eventually, I found a parking space, and we met on the boardwalk to eat them. They were good, but not great. They had slices of radish on them, and other neat toppings, but they just weren’t worth the hassle.  Only someone young with a lot of time on his hands would make the effort to eat those tacos.

I knew we wouldn’t be back for them, but I did like the idea of a fish taco. Santa Maria is an expert in making guacamole and fresh salsa, so it wasn’t long before I was serving up fish tacos at home. The kids love assembling the tacos at the table, and the meal is now one of our top favorites, coming to rival that surest-of-sure things, the ever steady Bolognese and pasta.

I use porgy filets, a very cheap fish for the tacos. Porgies have a checkered reputation. According to SeaFoodSource.com,  “The name “porgy” comes from an American Indian name meaning “fertilizer,” a common use for these abundant fish during Colonial times.” I can think of other words for fertilizer that I wouldn’t want to eat. That same source describes the meat as tender and white, but in my experience, I would say they are very oily fish—they certainly spoil even faster than a bluefish, and this has made them hard to find fresh. Any fish that can’t be found fresh is going to get a bad reputation, and I’m sure this is what has kept the price down on these fish. Fortunately, the folks at Blue Moon Fish have them, and they are fresh enough to hold for a day, if necessary. The meat is perfect for a dish like the tacos, where they are served with salsa and other sauces. I love them for this.

Porgy flesh is very firm, and I cut the bones out of the center of the fillet and then cut the fish into small strips. I roll them in flour and then fry them in a generous bit of oil. They brown up nicely, and I put them on a platter.

I warm corn tortillas and put those on the table, along with corn chips with melted cheese (just spread some on a cookie sheet, grate a bit of cheddar over them, and place in a 350 degree oven for about five to ten minutes, or until the cheese is melted). The fish, chips, guacamole, and fresh salsa make a delicious dinner. When I sit with my girls and they start laughing at the end of the meal, I certainly don’t feel old. I would even go so far as saying I feel young, though I know better.

Endless-Summer Fish Tacos

 

Serves 4

Start by making the salsa

  • 1 tomato, medium size, diced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, washed and chopped
  • 1/2 lime, juiced, or to taste
  • 2 shakes Tabasco
  • sea salt, to taste

        Stir ingredients together, and enjoy

Next, make the Guacamole

  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • 4 shakes Tabasco
  • 1 sprinkle salt
  • 1/3 tomato, diced
  • 1 tablespoon diced onion
  • 1 tablespoon diced cilantro

        Peel and mash the avocado and combine with the other ingredients

 For the fish: 

  • 1 ½  lbs of porgy fillets
  • flour for dredging
  • salt and pepper
  • 8-12 soft corn tortillas

Cut the pin bones (that row of bones down the center) out of the porgy fillet and slice the fillets cross ways, on a diagonal, to make decent-sized strips.

Lay some flour on a plate and season heavily with salt and a bit of pepper.

Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a frying pan on a medium-high heat.

Dredge the fish pieces in the seasoned flour and lay them in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan. Cook a few minutes on one side until browned just a bit, and then flip them. Cook on the other side until done, a few minutes more.

Set the pieces of fish aside on a platter and keep warm until you’ve cooked all the fish.

Warm the soft corn tortillas in a pan one or two at a time (depending on how large your pan is) and keep warm wrapped in a dishcloth as you take them off the heat. 

To make the cheesy corn chips.

  • Enough corn chips to cover a baking sheet.
  • Enough grated cheese to lightly cover the chips.

Place the cheese on the chips and place in a hot oven for about ten minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Place the warmed tortillas, the fish, the cheesy chips, the salsa, and the guacamole on the table. Each diner can make his or her own, with the various ingredients.

Enjoy! 


Weeknight Linguine alle Vongole? It Can Be Done!

Clams_cooking

I often get asked some variation on the following: “What’s a good fast meal for a quick dinner?” And the answer I’ve always given is to plan ahead. With the right ingredients around, there are many recipe options that can be done in about a half an hour.

Planning ahead, though, has its shortcomings. What if you plan ahead, and then the world doesn’t cooperate. Or what if when you’re planning ahead, you happen to be tired? Or worse, still, full of energy, ambition, and hope? In that case, you might plan on doing too much, which gets me around to how we ended up eating linguine alle vongole on a weeknight.

Now that spring is here, and the folks at Blue Moon Fish are back in business at the Grand Army Greenmarket, I’ve switched into my warm-weather routine of getting flounder, porgy, or clams on the weekends. I planned on having porgies last Saturday (they’re perfect for fish tacos—something I need to blog about here next chance I get because I’m sure you’ll love them, seriously) and linguine alle vongole on Sunday.

The thing I didn’t plan on was being out of the house on Saturday evening. Ironically, I was leading a panel on dads and cooking at the Food Book Fair, and I wasn’t able to be home cooking. I punted and had Santa Maria serve everybody Bolognese and pasta.

So I had the porgy tacos on Sunday and that left the clams for Monday. Linguine alle vongole doesn’t strike me as a weeknight dish, but I’ve learned a new trick that can transform almost any dish into a weeknight quickie. I might sound like an infomercial salesman, but I’m not kidding. Here’s the secret: do the time-shift shuffle and take care of the prep work before it’s time to cook. That way, putting the dish together doesn’t take much time at all.

I washed the clams and parsley and other herbs the night before. Had I peeled and sliced the garlic then, too, I would have saved even more time. When I came home Monday night after working all day and was then facing the GET-THE-DINNER-ON-THE-TABLE-BY-6:30 deadline, I was in good shape.

Linguine alle vongole is a quick dish, provided you do the pre work ahead of time. It was a real treat for a weeknight, and it’s nice to know that such delights can be put within reach of the working man.

Weeknight Linguini alle Vongole

 

  • Enough pasta for three to four people
  • Three dozen of the smallest little neck, or other hard-shell clam
  • One chili pepper or a good shake of crushed red pepper
  • Three or four cloves garlic, sliced in half lengthwise and then sliced thinly
  • One cup or so of white wine
  • A handful of fresh parsley, washed and minced (do in advance)
  • A few leaves of basil, washed and chopped (do in advance)
  • A few sprigs of mint, washed and chopped (do in advance)

 

        Put a pot of water on to boil

        Scrub the clams well (do in advance)

        As soon as the water boils, salt it and start cooking the pasta, and then proceed to other steps.

        Heat some olive oil in a stock pot.

        Add the garlic and the pepper.

        Cook just a few minutes.

        Add the clams, the herbs, and the white wine and cover.

        Cook until the clams open up, just a few minutes (give the pot a good shake every so often).


Beet and Mint Salad: A Harbringer of Summer

Photo-6
Guess what? Work and other things didn’t slow down at all last week. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a bit of a luxury to get paid to write, and I have two assignments due this week, which makes me feel doubly fortunate. And one of the other things I had to do last week was to tour a chocolate factory.  I’m not joking. That’s my life at the moment, twisting up words and tasting chocolate.

I’ll have more on the chocolate-factory tour soon, I promise, along with some treats for you all. In the meantime, I’ll get back to my life’s work, which is not actually cooking for my family, but, rather, ever so slowly wiping away the emotional fog of my relationships in the hope of communicating better and seeing clearly what matters most. It’s not a linear progression. Recently, Santa Maria left me a little note with the names of dishes written on them. It started with script letters spelling out  “Chicken Tikka Masala,” and then went onto list a slew of other dishes.

I first saw the list when I was trying to compile the weekly shop list and the menu for the following week. It was about 10 p.m. on Friday, which in parent time is the single-person’s equivalent of about 2 a.m., and I was tired. I glanced at it, and, in light of all the things I knew I had to do during the coming week, quickly discounted it. There was no way I’d have time to make Chicken Tikka Masala, as much as I might like to eat it myself.

I didn’t completely disregard all the suggestions Santa Maria had made. One of the things I did remembered from her list was “Beets.” I thought of it when I was doing my weekly food shop at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. There in the produce aisle were some massive, lovely beets. I bought a bunch and took them home.

This morning—while I was making pesto and quinoa salad for the week and pancakes and bacon for breakfast—I decided to boil the beets, to make a salad with mint later in the day. Beets and mint go together like sunshine and the beach. They are just made for each other.

I had fun cooking the beets. When I took them out of the water this morning, they looked quite odd. Pinta asked what those giant blobs were, and I told her “octopus testicles.” “Ewwww,” she said, and then we all laughed. I cooked the beets in the morning, and this evening I skinned one, diced it, and combined it with a bit of fresh mint and a Dijon vinaigrette. It was a perfect side dish. Every bite made me think of summer. Here's how it looked in the sunshine:

Beet Salad

Beet and Mint Summer Salad

  •  1-3 beets (depending on size and number of folks to feed), ends cut off and washed
  • 1 fistful of fresh mint, chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
  • Dijon Vinaigrette*

Submerge the beets in a large pot, and bring it to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer, and cook until a fork can slide easily into the beet.

Remove from the water and let cool.

Once cool, slide the skin off with you fingers and give the whole beet a rinse.

Cut the red flesh into small cubes.

Combine the beets, the mint, and the vinaigrette.

Enjoy.

*For the Dressing:

 

Combine the following:

  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Note: these amounts are approximate, and this will probably give you more dressing than you need. Keep any extra in a glass jar in the fridge for as long as you might like.

Note: also, if you cook more beets than you need to use, they will keep for a few days in the refrigerator. Don’t peel them until you want to use them.