How to Open an Oyster

My post about oyster chowder prompted a friend of mine to say, “once I go to all the trouble (and usually, bloodshed) of shucking oysters, the last thing I want to do is cook them!” Every time I open oysters now, this rings in my ears.

And his words (especially “bloodshed”) got me to thinking that I treated the small but vital detail about how to open them a bit too lightly. So I made a 46-second video this afternoon. And I’d like to offer the following pointers.

First, start with small oysters. They’re much easier to open than large ones (when making the chowder with the six too-big-to-eat ones, I not only broke a sweat, but I seriously contemplated getting out a hammer and smashing one or two of them).

Second, wear gloves. Because I tend to get eczema on my hands, I do all my cooking while wearing heavy blue Nitrile gloves. (Also, if you’re not wearing gloves, you can stabilize the oyster while opening it by placing it on a dishcloth.)

Third, practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. I hope you like the video.



I bought a dozen and a half oysters today, and ate most of them for lunch with Santa Maria. I have six left over now, and I’m thinking about making a tomato-based oyster chowder. Anyone have any suggestions?


How Not to Make Quinoa Salad

BurningOven In many ways, cooking for a family differs from running a restaurant, but in some ways it is similar. Restaurants serve several different entrees, and there have been nights when I'm deep into multiple dishes for each member of the family, such as when we have our seafood feast: Nina likes mussels, but Pinta does not. I try to limit the options each night, though. After all, I’m not trying to run a restaurant.

Both professional chefs and parents who cook also have to do more than one thing (or six things) at time. Chefs have training and develop skills to do this well. Take short order cooks. I learned a little bit about how their minds keep track of tasks from reading “The Egg Men,” Burkhard Bilger’s pulse-raising story about short-order breakfast cooks in Las Vegas, which ran in the Sept. 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker (subscription required for the full article).

"Warren Meck, a neuroscientist at Duke University, has identified the neural circuitry that allows the brain to time several events at once. As it happens, short-order cooks are among his favorite examples. They’re like jugglers, he says, who can keep a dozen balls in the air at the same time. He calls them “the master interval timers.”
    Whenever a cook sets a pan on a griddle, Meck says, a burst of dopamine is released in the brain’s frontal cortex. The cortex is full of oscillatory neurons that vibrate at different tempos. The dopamine forces a group of these neurons to fall into synch, which sends a chemical signal to the corpus striatum, at the base of the brain. “We call that the start gun,” Meck says. The striatum recognizes the signal as a time marker and releases a second burst of dopamine, which sends a signal back to the frontal cortex via the thalamus—the stop gun. Every time this neural circuit is completed, the brain gets better at distinguishing that particular interval from the thousands of others that it times during the course of a day. An experienced cook, Meck believes, will have a separate neural circuit set up for every task: an over-easy circuit, an over medium circuit, a sunny-side-up circuit, and so on, each one reinforced through constant repetitive use."

In my case, I had a bit of trouble managing multiple tasks last night. I foolishly tried to roast the potatoes for my quinoa salad while at the same time trying to decide if acquiring a piece of real estate would be good move for my family. The house hunt is one thing that’s not giving me a dopamine rush, and I burned the potatoes.

Oysters Save the Day

This weekend I took charge of the children. Santa Maria was facing a major work deadline, and I told her that I would take care of things around the house. For me, this meant planning lunches and dinner. Saturday, I went to the greenmarket for fish. Flounder for dinner that night. Clams for dinner the next. Oysters for me.

Weekend lunches bedevil me. I reach my mental capacity planning two or three meals at a time. For Saturday lunch, I punted, and took the girls out to eat.

We’ve never been big on restaurants, partially because of the expense, and partially because I can cook better food at home than I can get at the restaurants I can afford. I’m not talking about a Per Se level of expense (though that was fun and memorable, from the black salt from Molokai to getting to drink my wine flight and most of Santa Maria's, the one time we went a few years ago and spent about a month’s rent on a meal), but I’d have to spend at least $75 a head to start tasting things that couldn’t come out of my kitchen.

There’s another reason we don’t eat out very often. Our children don’t really know how to behave in a restaurant. Once, while visiting the grandparents, I watched my preschool nieces and nephews sit patiently at a table at the Olive Garden while we pored over the menus. My kids didn’t know what to do with themselves. They wandered over to check out the food on other tables and gaze at the baffled diners.  Pinta began squealing and chasing Nina. Breadsticks became daggers. I’d like to think that they were protesting the chain restaurant (which is what I felt like doing), but the truth is less appealing. Because we eat at home, they haven’t had a chance to learn what do to while eating out.

We’re working on teaching them how to behave in a restaurant, and the only real opportunity we have to do so involves pizza. It’s the absolute surefire thing that they will both eat. And it’s best if I don’t make the pizza, as the one time I tried, I didn’t exactly succeed. A pizzeria is not necessarily the best school, however.

Our favorite low-priced option, Roma Pizza, is a typical slice joint, without waiter service (which is why we like it). The neighborhood’s go-to family pizza place, Two Boots, knows its clientele too well: kids are encouraged to run to the kitchen window, where the pizza makers toss raw dough to the kids to play with while they wait.

Campo de Fiori, which opened recently, is different. It serves slices, but they are unlike any other slices you will find in Brooklyn. Most New York City pizza is Neopolitan, round with a thin crust. Their pizza is Roman, square with a crisp but thick and airy crust.  The dough is made in Rome, frozen, and then flown to Brooklyn, where it is baked and topped with extremely fresh ingredients. Everything at the place tastes like what I would like to cook with at home. My favorite is the matriciana, full of smoky bacon and spicy tomato sauce.

I love the food at Campo de Fiori, but there’s another aspect of it that I like even more. The restaurant has a relaxed elegance. The décor is crisp, clean, and unassuming. The owners, Andrea and Yari, are welcoming hosts. I get to sit with my girls while they practice proper restaurant behavior. Andrea and Yari don’t use plastic cups. They have nice glasses. They serve the slices on little wooden planks. These little touches add up to a nice experience for me, and the girls. And apparently, I have a lot to learn myself about the Campo de Fiori. This New York Times review focuses on the pastas and other dishes that I have yet to try.

There’s one small point that makes it complicated for me to eat pizza, especially pizza as fancy and expensive as that at Campo de Fiori. It’s never really filling enough for me, unless I eat six or so pieces.

So, to prepare for my latest visit, I prepared a little snack before hand. I had six raw oysters from the Greenmarket. Raw oysters are one of life’s greatest pleasures, and they are very easy to make at home. The ones I ate on Saturday were the sweetest tasting ones I’ve ever had. I ate them in a rush, standing in my kitchen. I found a great video from Coastal Living magazine that explains how to open them. It is really very simple.




Cheating Heart: Leftovers are an Easy Way to Improve Quinoa Salad

I make a quinoa salad just about every week. Santa Maria loves it, and she eats it for lunch almost daily. It's a tasty, healthy, economical, and easy-to-prepare dish. One nice thing is that it keeps. If you don't dress it, the salad will stay reasonably fresh for days. Make it Sunday night; finish it Thursday at noon.

I usually eat it once a week, but I need more protein than it provides, so I often pair it with poached chicken, or whatever leftovers I might have on hand. Yesterday, I was in a rush and I supplemented it with some prepared and marinated soy bars from the coop (which we almost always have on hand) and half a ball of mozzarella cheese. The salad is so low fat that I always need to add something rich, such as bag of potato chips or a half an avocado, to really feel full. The cheese did the trick. Like the soy bars, it was approaching the end of its usable lifespan, having lingered in the refrigerator for more than a few days. I was happy to eat them (part of my job around the house is cleaning out the refrigerator, a task I take literally), but I would not suggest it on a regular basis. It didn't taste very good.

Today, however, was a completely different story. I had a bit of the quinoa salad left in my office refrigerator, and I paired it with a real delight. Last night, Santa Maria was out at a business dinner at Community Food & Juice, a restaurant on the Upper West Side. She had the steak of the day, a slab of "sustainably raised Piedmont beef," she called it. Now I don't know if she meant that it came from Italy or from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. I do know, though, that she brought half of it home, and gave it to me. It was delicious. I sliced it up and had it, along with a bit of the restaurant's broccoli, with my quinoa salad. I couldn't have been more pleased.


Lunchtime Surprise

Pinta, who is three-and-a-half now, likes to say little sentences to me. At bedtime, before I turn the lights out, she'll say "I hope you have a good sleep, daddy," and, earlier today, as I left for the office, "I hope you have a good day at work." These are sweet gestures, but nothing is as sweet as what she did this morning.

She was up early with her sister, and Santa Maria had started on their breakfast. Pinta is still young enough to be a terror upon waking if she doesn't get food into her stomach pronto. She loves fruit, and would eat it all day if she could. Santa Maria handed her a small bosc pear, and Pinta turned it upside down, like an ice-cream cone, and started to eat around it as if she was licking a scoop of Van Leeuwen vanilla.

Pinta offered to share the pear with me, but I wasn't in the mood. I like fruit well enough, but it is a taste that came to me late in life, and a 6:53 a. m. pear is not really my thing. Pinta was undeterred, though. She asked if I would like to take one to work. I said sure, and she trotted off to the kichen to get one for me. Santa Maria washed it, and I put it my bag, along with leftover scallops and fried rice that I had made the night before.

I forgot all about the pear until lunch today, when I opened my bag and found the little treat. I think it was the most delicious piece of fruit I've ever had. I enjoyed it before I even tasted it. My camera is broken, so I drew a little picture of it on my desk, next to a reporter's pad. Then I gobbled it in about three bites.

Planning and Food Shopping Tips from the Trenches

My late father had many colorful expressions at his disposal. He wasn't a man who swore a lot (at least not around the children), and he had a great faculty with language (he was a litigator). One the things he used to say when something wasn't going his way was, "I need this like I need a hole in my head."

That expression came to mind tonight when I came home. I have a number of recent and unexpected stresses in my life right now. One is a career-related project that I'm very excited about and will fully describe in the near future. As thrilling as this project is, it does take up a lot of brain power. The other stress is related to my living situation, and it remains in my best interest not to detail it here. Suffice it to say that I need it like I need a hole in my head.

I've been so distracted that I can barely cook. Usually, I do the menu planning and grocery buying, but this week Santa Maria volunteered to take on this task. She's doing her best to pick up much of the domestic labor as I throw myself into this new work project of mine, but she is also subject to the same living-situation stress as I am.

When I plan a menu, I try to think three or four steps ahead, and I'm proud of one of my more recent tricks that helps me balance work, play, parenting, cooking, and shopping. For a long time, I've been frustrated by the way fresh herbs spoil before you can use them up. Take parsley, for example. How many times have you thrown out three-quarters of a limp head a week after using a pinch to gussy up a dish? Parsley is on my mind lately because it is a key ingredient in the weekly quinoa-and-sweet-potato salad I make for Santa Maria's lunch.

Due to the recent distractions, I forgot to put parsley on the shopping list last weekend. But I was still able to make the quinoa salad because of the trick I've learned. As soon as a head of parsley comes into the house, I wash it well and dry it thoroughly in the salad spinner. It will then keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

I'm very grateful that Santa Maria is helping out with the shopping and planning. Her menu for this week included mushroom risotto. Delightful, I thought. It was something I could put together tonight while the kids were playing before bedtime. I'm not of the persuasion that risotto needs to be stirred constantly. It's not necessary. I'm not a great chef, just a great eater. Though if you ate my food, you might quibble with that self-deprecating description. I can cook very well, and love to do it.

Tonight, though, I was stymied. I couldn't find any mushrooms in the house. I asked Santa Maria where the dried porcini were, or if we had any at all. "I don't know," she replied. "How could you not know, if you put the dish on the menu for the week," I snapped. 

"Porcini mushrooms are a staple." she said. "They should be in the house, like salt, Mr. Stay-at-Stove-Dad."

On to plan B, which was no plan. I found a head of cauliflower and Santa Maria offered to roast it. That was very nice of her, as it got me out of the kitchen. I was starting to feel angry because I wasn't going to have a delicious dinner. I sat with the kids while they played, and if ever there was an antidote to anger it's in their joyful laughter.

I snacked on some baby carrots, and gave my blood-sugar a boost. Pinta trotted around eating what she called a pequeño carrot, and I relaxed. There was left over asparagus from the kids' dinner, and I found some frozen empanadas to round out my dinner. A filling meal, but not one with any real culinary satisfaction.

One of my favorite artists, Prince, uses my father's expression in a slightly different context. It's not one of his better songs, but somehow it seems fitting. Santa Maria suggested it.

Late Fall Salad with Peconic Bay Scallops Recipe

Saturday morning I was grumpy about all the work I had do to. Domestic work. The pile of laundry was knee high. The weekly food shop loomed. These things would have to be taken care of, and the number of leisure hours available to me was rapidly dwindling.

The food shop could wait. Taking care of myself could not. I've learned the hard way (cf: therapy bills, etc) that if I don't tend to my own needs, there's a price to pay. So I went out for a run in the park, and on my way there, I threw the soiled clothes in the laundromat up the block.

After a cathartic workout, I stopped at the Green Market to buy fish. I don't often run, but it works wonders on my psyche when I do. Out of breath and sweaty, I was full of good spirits. In that mood I tend to start dreaming of buying loads and loads of fish and inviting everyone I know to dinner. My run had been good, but not that good (it was short for one thing--that laundry needed to be put in the dryer), so I checked that impulse and kept to my original plan. I had my eye on our usual weekend meal--white clam sauce and sautéd flounder. I buy my seafood from Blue Moon Fish. Years ago, I worked in a retail fish market, and I know how to spot quality fish; Blue Moon's is unusually good. Typically, there's a long, meandering line of stroller-toting dads, young couples with coffee cups, and other devoted seafood eaters snaking halfway across the asphalt of the Greenmarket like some kind of Great Wall of China. On Saturday, though, there wasn't any line. I felt lucky, and when I  spoke to a clerk and saw that they had real Peconic Bay Scallops, an extremely rare treat, I felt luckier still.

Small and sweet, Peconic Bay Scallops, from the namesake body of water on Eastern Long Island, were once relatively common. When I was working in that retail fish market in the eighties, the scallops were one of the things we carried in our gleaming display cases. During their season, a guy named Peter, the head of one of the store's wholesale accounts who was permitted to mingle among the staff, used to walk up behind the counter, where I stood as one of the clerks, and reach into the display of scallops and pop them into his mouth, raw. This was well before the vogue of sushi, and I was always shocked. He would swear that they were the best that way.

Peconic Bay scallops have nearly disappeared since I hung up my seafood smock. A mean brown tide, which is a toxic algae bloom, swept through Peconic  Bay in the late eighties, devastating the stock. The brown tide has since waned (no one really knows why) and efforts to restock the bay are bearing fruit. This year's harvest promises to be the best in years, according to a recent article in the New York Times. I was beside myself with delight walking home with half a pound for lunch. I picked up a fresh loaf of French bread and some arugula to go with them.

Santa Maria had to go to a meeting, so I ate alone with the kids. I took the scallops out of the refrigerator and told Nina and Pinta that if they were very lucky they might be able to have one. Nina grabbed the plastic bag of scallops out of my hand and pretended to keep it from me. I acted horrified. Terribly horrified. I don't think they've seem me react this way to a joke about food. I thought it might entice them to try one. It didn't, which was just fine with me.

I heated chicken soup that I had on hand for the children and started to consider my lunch. I wanted to leave the scallops in their sweet and simple glory, but I wanted a full meal. I wanted them over the fresh arugula, but that felt a bit too summery to me. Caramelized onions, I figured, would add a bit of warmth. All it needed, I thought, was one more note. Toasted pine nuts would give it a savory flavor and a bit of crunch.

Getting this all together while feeding the kids was a bit like being in a Marx Brothers movie. Back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room I ran. Caramelizing onions is always a bit of hit or miss for me. I didn't have time to think about it, though, so I heated the cast-iron pan, added some oil, and threw in slices of onion. I bashed the onions with a spatula to break them up, covered the pan, and ignored it. Every so often I'd give it a shake or stir, until the pan was smoking and they were in danger of burning, at which point I turned off the heat, and really ignored it.

I served the children their soup, and started to put together my salad. The kids seemed content, and I poured myself a glass of white wine. I took my wine and my salad to the table, but tasting the scallops became another Marx Brothers comedy. Pinta was exhausted and she nearly fell asleep while eating her lunch (or more accurately, not eating her soup). I kept her from falling over, and was able to take one bite of the salad. The scallops were warm and they bounced in my mouth. The pine nuts crunched beneath my teeth. I took and other bite, and, hurriedly, another. But I knew that Pinta really needed to be put into bed. I got up and took care of that. I sat back down with Nina, who had finished her soup and was happily eating slices of French Bread. I had two more bites. Then Nina announced that she was ready for bed. I got up and got her dressed, and put her into bed.

Finally, I sat back down. I had three bites left. A perfectly equal amount of arugula, onion, pine nuts, and scallops. I had my wine. I had a slice of freshly buttered bread. I ate them all, and then wondered where the rest of my lunch had gone. Had I really eaten it? Was it as good as I hoped it would be? Was eating it quickly, in fits and starts, anything like the way Nina and Pinta's childhood is passing? Would I miss that as soon as it was over, and wonder what had happened to it?

Late Fall Peconic Bay Scallop Salad
  • 1 onion, sliced in half and then repeatedly, lengthwise.
  • t tablespoon or to taste pine nuts
  • fresh arugula
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 lb fresh Peconic Bay Scallops
  • Olive Oil
  • White wine vinegar

Heat some oil in a frying pan, preferably cast iron, and add the onion, stirring occasionally.

Cover the onions, stir every so often.

When the pan is so hot that the onions are at risk of burning, turn off the heat and let the onions sit, covered. There will be enough heat in the pan to sweat them sufficiently. If not, repeat the above steps a bit more rapidly.

Heat a second cast-iron frying pan and sprinkle the pin nuts on its surface. Shake and move the pan about until the nuts brown.

Remove the nuts from the pan, set aside

Wash the arugula and place in a bowl.

Heat the cast iron pan that was used to toast the pine nuts.

Put some oil in the pan.

Dry the scallops on paper towel and toss in pan.

Sear them about thirty seconds on one side, and thirty on another, keeping in mind that they don't really have to be cooked at all. (I only like them with a nice brown crust, though.)

When the scallops are reasonably browned, have swollen but not given up their liquid, remove them from the heat. 

Toss the arugula with olive oil and white-wine vinegar.

Add the pine nuts to the arugula, layer a bit of the caramelized onions on it, and top with the cooked scallops.

What I Learned from "Julie and Julia": How to Make Better Scallops

Last night I watched "Julie and Julia," and I learned something. After seeing scene after scene of Julie Powell drying the meat for boeuf bourguinon, it occurred to me that I should be drying my scallops when I sauté them. 

I tried it this afternoon when making lunch. I patted down the scallops with paper towel before throwing them in the pan.  It really makes a difference. The scallops browned better, and stuck less. Who knew?

Where I've been

Last week, we headed out west to see Santa Maria’s folks, and spent five days in their company. They have many things at their place, from a grand piano that needs tuning in their living room to an old Mercedes coupe that’s going to seed in their garage. But they don’t have wireless Internet access, so I wasn’t able to blog.

Instead, I went swimming at a nearby lake where evergreens ring the water and canoes slip silently by. Another day we went to a family-run amusement park out in the country where green mountains stand sentinel over the gleeful screams of children and piped-in strains of country rock.  It was a fine way to end the summer.

We make the two-hundred-fifty-mile trip to visit them once or twice a year. Sometimes the journey goes well for me. Other times, not so well.

A low point of recent memory: Thanksgiving last year. Pinta screamed through dinner. I lost my temper and tossed some thoughtless verbal barbs at those gathered around the table before retreating to the kitchen. I’m forever grateful to Santa Maria’s brother for the sly comic line he let loose as I departed the dining room. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that it was funny and that it made me feel a little bit better.

During this visit I happened to be sitting outside a local shop drinking an iced coffee. It was Sunday, and I watched a father and his family leave the shop. One of his boys was whining about something he wanted to keep. His father insisted that he throw it out. The child was about eight, and he had his heart set on holding on to it. I heard them arguing before I saw them, and when I looked at the father I could see how angry he was.

Why are dads typically so angry? My dad was angry. I’m often angry. If I thought for a minute, I could find many more examples than the guy at the coffee shop, my dad, and myself, but three examples constitutes a trend so I’ll stop there.

Perhaps it is because men are conditioned to succeed in the business world, where controlling, managing, and more-or-less avoiding emotions are part of the unofficial office rule book. Except for anger (see professional football, traffic cops, and investment bankers at the top of their game). Anger is ok.

Children, on the other hand, are nothing but pure emotion. They cry. They scream. They have temper tantrums. All things grown men wish they could do around the cubicle, but can’t.

Put men with children, and out comes anger, the single emotion men are most versed in. Of course this is not true for all men, and it's not true all the time for any man. But there's some truth to it, I'm sure.

I'm sure this dynamic can change, and the thing I'm banking on is awareness. If we can see it, we can change it.

What does this have to do with cooking? Emotions are at the root of why I cook so much: where else do I experience the same sense of control and reward?

I found some reward in my lunch today. Because we were away for few days, we're a little behind on the shopping. There wasn't much in the kitchen this morning, but today I found enough left-overs to make a nice sandwhich. The key was basil pesto. I had it in the fridge from the other day.  I put it on some poached chicken and had it with fresh bread. It changed two simple ingredients, bread and chicken, into a tasty treat.

A Hard Way to a Great Squid and Potato Salad Recipe

I’ve long known that I’ve suffered from esprit d'escalier, or what is roughly translated from the French as “staircase mind.” The condition refers to failure to come up with a witty reply in a timely manner. Imagine you are at the top of a staircase. Your adversary is at the bottom. You both start walking and pass in the middle, where he insults you. Your mind goes blank and you each continue on your way. Only when you are at the bottom and he is at the top do you think of anything clever to say. Then, it is too late. He is too far away.

I’ve also known the emotional corollary, such as only realizing I loved someone after they left. And of course there must be a financial version of it, too: who amongst us these days doesn’t wish they had thought of selling their stock a year ago? To the list, I now add, a culinary version.

In the confusing chaos of Sunday night’s dinner, I overlooked what Santa Maria was up to at the table. She later told me that she combined the squid with a potato salad I had made. I should have paid closer attention— I just used some leftovers to do the same thing, and discovered that it is an amazingly delicious combination.

I make my potato salad with nothing more than salt, pepper, scallions, parsley, and olive oil. It is a light and fresh combination. I’ve already established just how light and fresh the squid is when it’s cooked without any dressing. Put the two together, and it’s brilliant. The scallions have a light crunch. The parsley is refreshing and clean. The squid is salty and slightly crispy on its edge. All the pieces work together. Now if only I had thought of making it the other night.

Squid and Potato Salad

  • four baking potatoes
  • three scallions
  • parsley to taste, washed and chopped
  • one pound squid, cleaned and cut into rings
  • sea salt
  • olive oil
  • two cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half

        In a pot of water, boil the potatoes until they a fork can be inserted in them with ease.
        Cool the potatoes and cut into cubes.
        Trim and finely chop the scallions into tiny circles.
        Combine the potatoes with scallions and enough olive oil and salt to taste.

        Heat a cast-iron frying pan until it is smoking.
        Add olive oil to the pans.
        Rub the garlic in the oil and remove once it starts to brown.
        Toss some sea salt into the pan.
        Add the squid in one layer; work in small batches.
        Leave it spread out until it starts to brown.
        Flip or otherwise stir the squid to cook the other side (the whole time is just a few minutes)

        Cool the squid and combine it with the potatoes.

        Note: I suspect this would also be good with some lemon juice, but I haven't tried that yet.