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March 2014

What Are the Benefits of Generosity? A Reminder to Check Your Frequent-Flyer Program.

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This post is a reminder to check your frequent-flyer program today. Consider it a public service announcement, amid all my posts about cooking. I recently lost 135,000 miles with American Airlines, and then was able to get them back, simply because of a small act of generosity four months ago. I’m using the miles to cross the country to spend time with an old friend who has fallen ill. I feel very fortunate that I will be able to take the trip, and because I got my miles back—after almost having lost all of them because of inactivity on the account—I want to help others avoid this situation. So check your program today—there may be a small thing you can do to keep it active.

I had accumulated the miles long before I became a parent, by using a credit card linked to American’s frequent-flyer program. I thought someday I might take a big trip somewhere, but all I really ended up doing was visiting the hospital for two births, and then making repeated trips to the grocery store. Paris, Rome, and Bangkok, it seems, would have to wait. Because I wasn’t traveling, I switched to a cash-back card, and put those miles on hold. All I needed to do to keep them from moldering into non-existence was have some kind of activity on the account each 18 months. That sounded easy enough (and once, I gave miles away to veterans, a great service, to keep the balance active) but over the past year and a half, I somehow was distracted (ha!), and lost the miles. They expired March 9.

It was only when my friend called, on March 16, to invite me to Los Angeles, that I made this discovery. Had he called just a few days earlier, I would have had access to them. I couldn’t believe it. The American-Airlines representative was sympathetic, and she pointed out that if I had purchased something from an affiliated partner in the months before the deadline, I might be able to get the miles back.

In December Santa Maria and I sent my mother flowers for her birthday. We used 1-800-Flowers, which, as it turned out, is a partner of American Airlines’s program. I called them up right away, and Diane, in their consumer-service department was extremely helpful. She riffled through her records, found the transaction, and posted the activity to my frequent-flyer account. Just this week, the miles re-appeared in my American account, and I secured tickets to Los Angeles and back.

What happened for me illustrates the untold power and benefits of being generous, in other words, it’s an example of the far-reaching effects of karma. The way I understand karma is this: we don’t know the full extent of our actions, so it’s best to be kind and generous in our actions and accepting of the results, no matter what. If a hurricane starts, as they say, with a butterfly flapping its wings over the Sahara, who knows what might become of what we do. Santa Maria’s generosity—she’s the one who actually ordered the flowers for my mother (full disclosure)—saved the day.

I’m very happy to be seeing my old friend. Spending time with those we care about is hard at times, because we get so very busy with domestic, professional, and other responsibilities, but it is paramount in its importance. You don’t have to cross the country to be generous, of course: just cook them a meal. I know a blog where you can get a few good recipes, ahem… And in the meantime, check your frequent-flyer program to make sure you’re not about to lose out on anything valuable.


Why I Only Eat in Fancy Restaurants

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With one broad exception, I don’t eat out unless the meal is expensive. White tablecloths aren’t necessary, but there better be aged steak served by seasoned waiters. Wallet-crushing, geometrically confusing and gastronomically rewarding grid-like menus are welcome. An auteur-chef will always do the trick, so long as his tricks take a bank-loan to experience. And I once spent more than a month’s rent on dinner at Per Se, to celebrate my wife’s birthday, but that hardly puts me in high-spender territory. Consider Jim Harrison, who years ago departed Montana for lunch in Burgundy, France, where his thirty-seven course meal at Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance restaurant “likely cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon,” (as he told The New Yorker; subscription required).

I skip cheap restaurants because I know how to cook for myself. I’m not saying that I’m as good a cook as most chefs (hardly) but I have a secret ingredient that they all lack—I know my tastes and I therefore can cook things the way I like them. On my budget, if I’m eating at a restaurant I can afford, I’m really just paying for the washing of the dishes. And I have a dishwasher, so I prefer to save up for something that really blows my taste buds.

Knowing my own tastes makes all the difference in the world. I don’t like a lot of salt and fat, and most mid-priced restaurants need to ladle those on heavily to deliver on their promise of flavor. Imagine going out to eat and not having that salad dance on your tongue. It would be like going to a concert and not being able to here the band. So restaurants increase the salt and the fat and the sugar. Thing is, I don’t like loud music, and I don’t like sugar in my dressing.

I spent my college days flipping pizzas in the student center and I later worked as a short-order cook, which means I’ve been behind the counter and seen behind the curtain. There’s one thing about mid-priced establishments that gets on my nerves. Many, if not most, are supplied by the same company, Sysco. I came to realize this during my manual-labor days, opening boxes of their oil, and bags of their French fries. Whenever I eat out, I’m unable to stop thinking about that giant restaurant supply company.

Only recently, did I come to realize how big a grip Sysco has on the business. According to a 2007 Slate column by Urlich Boser, Sysco “serves nearly 400,000 American eating establishments, from fast-food joints like Wendy’s, to five-star eating establishments like Robert Redford’s Tree Room Restaurant, to mom-and-pop diners like the Chatterbox Drive-In, to ethnic restaurants like Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant.” I knew it was involved in the business, but I had no idea.

If Sysco is supplying high-end places, why don’t I mind? For a couple of reasons: First, some of the places I might prefer, such as Peter Luger, aren’t getting their signature dishes from the supplier. Secondly, at the kind of fancy places I like, I’m paying to see what a chef can do with a given ingredient; maybe Wylie Dufresne is freezing and then deconstructing an ingredient from Sysco, but whatever he’s doing with it, I doubt it’s what they intended for it. Finally, it often depends on how the Sysco offerings are deployed.  As Boser writes, “many quality restaurants, like Tree Room, use Sysco responsibly—shying away from pre-made items they can disguise as their own. Bardia Ferdowski of Bardia’s New Orleans Café in Washington, D.C., purchases only raw and unprocessed Sysco products such as flour, potatoes, and beef, and receives frequent deliveries so that ingredients are as fresh as possible.”

So unless I can’t afford it, I’m unlikely to eat out. The only exception I have to this rule, is for foods from abroad. I might know how to roast a leg of lamb, but Vindaloo? Fuggedaboutit.

(By the way, I was recently  invited to do a guest post for Food Riot, a great website whose motto is "Play With Your Food." This post originally appeared there. Furthermore, the above image is via this posting about saving money on your food bill, from Lifehacker. )


How Is an Egg Poached in Olive Oil like a Good Marriage?

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If a poached egg is is like being engaged, then an egg poached in olive oil is like being married—a bit more effort, but infinitely richer and more rewarding. I was first introduced to the idea of an olive-oil poached egg a few years ago, when I interviewed Tamar E. Adler, the author of “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace,” but much in the same way it took me some thirty years to get married, I only recently tried poaching an egg in olive oil.

I don’t really know how to describe how good an egg poached in olive oil tastes. It’s like asking me to tell you what’s great about my marriage. You’ll probably lose your appetite before I can get to the second sentence. Just trust me, and try it. If you don’t like it, it’s not as if you’ll have to pay for a divorce. We’re talking about a relatively small commitment here.

One thing that did hold me back a bit was the relatively large amount of oil that’s needed. I didn’t want to waste it, but as I recently learned, you can save the oil after you are done with it, and use it for cooking over the next few days. Like in a marriage, a little information can solve a lot of problems (and I won’t charge $150 an hour for that advice).

Santa Maria wasn’t interested an olive-oil poached egg, and my kids didn’t care for one either. Still, I made the egg for myself the other day—taking care of one’s self is important in a marriage, for how can you take care of another, if you haven’t cared for yourself? I wanted a break from my standard daily-cooking fare, and I also wanted a taste of simple luxury. A quarter cup of olive oil on an egg provided that with ease.

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I started with a pan full of oil, and added a touch of butter for some more luxury. The more traditional recipes for olive-oil poached eggs use garlic, peppers, bay leaves, and other ingredients to flavor the oil. Seamus Mullen, the New York City chef, has posted a nifty video that shows just how to enhance your experience with poaching in olive oil. He also has a good tip about getting the oil to the right temperature—keep the heat low, and get it to a point where you can stick your thumb in it for a moment without burning it which somehow sounds a bit like marriage to me, but I’ll skip that.

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Most recipes for poaching an egg in olive oil show instructions for a soft yoke yolk. One of the advantages of this way of cooking is that the edges of the egg take on the characteristics of a fried egg, but the yolk comes off more as poached. Many people like it this way. I, on the other hand, like my yoke yolk cooked all the way through. This is a good example of why one should learn to cook for him or herself—you can make the food the way you want it. I encourage you to play around—not with your marriage, but in the kitchen.

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Therefore, I flipped my eggs and cooked them all the way through. This is not traditional, but it’s what I wanted.

I served my eggs on toast, dressed with slices of Parmesan, a garnish of fresh parsley, and a dash or two of Tabasco. But eggs poached in olive oil are extremely versatile, and are good for far more than breakfast. They make for a nice salad with chicory and speck (as Samin Nosrat shows on Food52.com); they go over flatbreads (as Oh Joy! does, with chicken mole), and Tamar E. Adler puts hers over pasta. Like a good marriage, an egg poached in olive oil will take you all kinds of wonderful places.

Olive Oil Poached Eggs

  • 1/4 cup or so of olive oil
  • 1-2 eggs

Heat the olive oil in a small pan until you can hold your thumb in the oil for just a moment, without burning it.

Slide the egg into the oil, using a spoon to ladle the hot oil over the yolk.

Cook as you like it, and serve over toast as mentioned above.


Santa Maria—the Raita Proselytizer

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I don’t know how cooking for the family is for you, but, personally, I get tired of what I make all the time. I’m too tired from work and other duties to do much about being tired, but on occasion I dream about making new dishes, and that’s a bit of relief, at least for a moment. One of my cousins from Ireland recently sent me a book from abroad, “The Hairy Bikers' Great Curries,” by Si King and Dave Myers, and at least one recipe, for “All-in-One Lamb Dhansak," enticed me. But my arms got tired holding the hardcover well before my brain could wrap itself around finding all the ingredients, so that will have to wait.

I don’t say much about how I feel about my cooking because I’m afraid that if I bring it up, I’ll have a revolt on my hands. As it is, my kids are already sick of roast chicken once a week and feel much the same about salmon, and some of my other regular dishes. One of them is even rethinking her allegiance to hot dogs. I don't want to give them any ideas. Things could become dire.

So, I quietly keep cooking, knowing there’s always one seasoning that never lets me down—hunger. When we all come home from work and school, it’s a blessing to have those black beans ready to warm or that Bolognese ready to defrost.

In the meantime, I do what I can to vary my repertoire. Lately, I’ve been returning chicken tikka masala to the mix, and Santa Maria has been stepping in to spice things up. She loves Indian food, and on Saturday she mixed a raita to go with it.

Raitas, according to “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” are “yogurt salads popular in India” that are typically “used as condiments,” and commonly “seasoned with black mustard seeds, garam masala, and herbs such as chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, mint, parsley or tarragon.” There’s a wide latitude to how you can make them—consider Mark Bittman’s post on The Diner’s Journal, from a few years ago.

And, according to Santa Maria, raitas “are a condiment that deserve wider acceptance, like the way salsa has crossed over from Latin-American cuisine.” She made the raita for the chicken tikka masala, but it would work well on lamb chops or roast pork, for example.

On Saturday, Santa Maria had a hankering for black mustard seeds, so she toasted a handful and mixed them with plain, non-fat yogurt, a few leaves of fresh basil, some olive oil, and some lemon. The black mustard seeds popped in our mouths as we ate the chicken tikka. It was refreshing, and I almost felt renewed.

Black Mustard Seed Raita 

  • 3/4 cup non-fat yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • Juice of 1/4 lemon
  • Couple of shakes of salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 7 washed and chopped basil leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds, toasted

Mix the ingredients together, and serve as a cooling accompaniment to your favorite dish.

Note: This recipe could easily be enhanced by adding julienned cucumber (seeded and peeled), or grated carrot.


How to Properly Test the Temperature of a Roast Chicken

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Sometimes it can feel as if all of life is tied up in a roast chicken. Cook enough of them, and you’ll get to experience everything, from savory triumphs (long ago I helped a friend cook about eight birds at once for a big party) to silly setbacks (those birds took much longer than I had planned) to plain old boredom (we have them about once a week, in the winter, and I’m looking forward to the summer).

If you are just starting to cook, a roast chicken is one of the easiest things to do, and if you’ve been cooking for a long time, they are one of the easiest things to obsesses over doing right. The Internet is full of advice about keeping the breast meat moist and getting the skin perfectly crisp.

But one thing the Internet is lacking is a decent video about how to properly use a meat thermometer. I know because I’ve been looking for one for longer than it takes to roast a chicken, serve it, and clean up afterwards.  This came up because the other day, Santa Maria, who is often at home roasting a chicken for the family while I’m at work, asked me if there was a good video showing how to use one.

I was sure that a good video would be easy to find, but I’ve been proved wrong. Unlike this excellent video showing how to cut up a chicken, I have not been able to locate any decent videos. If you know of any, please send me a note.

In the meantime, I’ll go over the basics, in case anyone is like Santa Maria, and unsure about what to do.

  • Get a good meat thermometer. I use a simple instant-read one, but there are countless options. Here is a list of the types.
  • Know what temperature you need to cook the meat to in order for it to be safe. The government says 165 degrees for chicken. Here is their chart.
  • Place the thermometer in the proper part of the meat. The best practice is to insert it into the thickest part. In the chicken, the thigh is recommended. Here are the USDA’s tips. Worst comes to worst, you can check multiple places, which is what I did when making a standing-rib roast for the first time).

And here are my a few of my favorite recipes for roast chicken:

But keep in mind that if you have a quality bird, sometimes all you need is salt (which is Santa Maria's favorite way to make it). Remember, if you know of a good video on how to properly use a meat thermometer on a chicken, please let me know.


Before Midnight and the Value of a New Pizza Sauce

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Over the weekend, we watched "Before Midnight," and if you ever want to see a dastardly accurate account of how a couple with kids is prone to fighting, stick with that movie until its end. The hurt, angry, and helpless self-involvement of the partners is breathtaking, not that I really know anything about anything like that.

Near its conclusion, one line resonated with me, from the man, Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke. Pleading with Celine (Julie Delpy) for her love, he starts talking about himself in the third person. “God knows he has many problems and has struggled his whole life connecting and being present, even with those he loves the most. And for that he is deeply sorry. But you are his only hope,” he says. I won’t ruin the ending by saying anything more than that it looks like there’ll be yet another sequel. I will however, offer you hope, and a solution for connecting with the ones you love: pizza.

Or more accurately, cooking. Put some food on the table and share it with those you care about, and you’ll be one mouthful closer to connecting with them. Besides, I find that when I’m chewing, I’m not liable to say something insulting. It’s a win, win.

Pizza came to my mind today when I was doing my weekly cooking. I was making a tagine (to eat later in the week), and I’ve found that the tomato juice I have leftover from that recipe is perfect for pizza sauce. I put the tomato juice in a bag and freeze it for future use. It’s a way making a better sauce and saving money. Pizza is a very cost-effective meal, and you can, with a little practice, make it at home for a fraction of what it costs to eat out. The key with pizza is the same as it is with love: don’t let the effort show, and give, give, give. This can take some practice. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to make pizza in a simple fashion than in a fancy way.

But I encourage yourself to decide what is best. For despite my successes with simple pizzas made from pizza-shop bought dough and sauce out of a jar, I’ve recently decided to play around with making the dough and a sauce from scratch. I’ve been making the pies better with each attempt, and I now have a simple pizza sauce that works very well. In a future post, I’ll write about making the dough from scratch. It’s very easy. For now, I’ll leave you with the recipe for the sauce. Save it away somewhere, and think of it as first step in connecting with those you love.

Simple, Delicious Pizza Sauce

  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • 4 oz tomato juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil

Mix the ingredients together and let them sit. Use to make pizza, like this (substitute this sauce for the marinara sauce—you’ll be glad you did.)