What Are You Doing for Valentine's Day? I Have An Answer

Ever since the beginning of time, one simple question has bedeviled men: what to do on Valentine's Day. Worry no more. I am introducing the Build a Meal feature, a simple map of an excellent repast. Most folks who visit blogs like this or who look at cookbooks know how to do many things in the kitchen. What might be lacking are ideas. How do you put together a memorable meal? If you are working or have kids to take care of (or for most parents, you are doing both) it can be very difficult to carve out the time to think about these things. And on Valentine's Day this is no trivial matter. For those who know how to cook, the above picture will do the trick. For anyone else, let me explain the steps.

1) Steal a salad. I was recently at The Odeon, where I had a most enticing baby kale salad topped with knobs of white goat cheese and sweet red pomegranate seeds. You can riff on this recipe here, which, by the way, I stole from Prune, years ago.

2) Make a mushroom risotto. Instruction are here.

3) Get a good steak. I suggest the 28-day aged steak from Union Market, if you are in Brooklyn.

4) Cook it like I showed you how here. You can't lose (though it will get smoky).

5) Finish with some store-bought ice cream. You've cooked enough already.

Now go get shopping (and don't forget the wine. If you need some help there, try my friend Jim's site, JVB Uncorked or if you are on a serious budget,  Cheap Wine Curious.)

Hammer Time! New Cookware from Hammer Stahl


I don’t believe that one needs fancy cookware to make a fine meal. It’s more important to knows one’s cookware, to know one’s stove, to know one’s ingredients, and, of course, to paraphrase the Greeks, to know one’s self. All the same, it's nice to have good pots and pans. I cherish the Le Creuset Dutch Oven that Santa Maria and I received as a wedding present many years ago. And now I can count among my treasures a brand-new Hammer Stahl sauté pan.

The manufacturer recently gave me one to test out and write about and it is a fine addition to my kitchen. The bottom is thick and heats evenly. It has a pair of handles, which I found useful while making bacon. And it’s deep, holding four quarts, and comes with a lid, which means it can do double duty making sauces.

I used it the other night to prepare my “trusty” puttanesca. I put trusty in quotes, because in recent months the sauce has fallen out of favor with my youngest one. However, the night I used the Hammer Stahl, she ate it enthusiastically. Could it have been the new pan? Who is to say?

Through the end of the year, Hammer Stahl is making it easy for you to find out for yourself. It is offering the new, 4-quart deep pan with cover at the special price of $99.00 (regularly $229). Visit www.hammerstahl.com/316Ti to take advantage of this offer.

And if you don’t know how to make a puttanesca, get thee to the stove and get started!

Puttanesca Sauce

  • 1 28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, crushed (or hit with an immersion blender, which is very fast and kid friendly)
  • 4 or more cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 3 anchovy fillets
  • 1 chili pepper
  • 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.

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

        Serve over the pasta of your choice.

What I Learned Today: A Beef Tagine Recipe


I’m working from home these days, concentrating on making art. Because of the delicate interplay between domestic bliss and domestic solvency, this also means I've taken on more of the tasks around the house. It's my job now to clean it.

The thing is, cooking comes much more naturally to me. Maybe it's my Irish genes, but I have a yearning to be hospitable. I can't help it. I want to feed and entertain and take care of others. I'm working on finding the joy in scrubbing the counters. It's a slow process, all of it. The making of art, the cleaning of the house, and the exploration of one's talents. I'm starting with Steven Pressfield's shrewd book "The War of Art," and I'm learning as I go along.

The lesson for today is that it’s not only difficult to clean a kitchen while cooking dinner, it’s downright impossible. Here's the recipe for my beloved Beef Tagine.

Green-Olive Beef Tagine

  • 1½ lbs braising beef
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne (or much less; to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • 4 shallots (or more), quartered
  • 1 large potato cut into small cubes
  • 2 large carrots, cut into small cubes
  • 1 28oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
  • A pinch of salt
  • ½ cup pitted green olives, sliced in half (or more; to taste)

Trim the beef and cut into 1-inch pieces.

Mix together the five spices with the garlic, two tablespoons of olive oil and the tomato puree.

Turn the beef in this mixture and leave, covered, in the refrigerator overnight (or longer or shorter—it works either way, trust me).

Heat the remaining oil in the tagine base.

Fry the shallots, potatoes and carrots until they begin to color, lift out.

Fry the marinated beef until sealed on all sides.

Salt the beef as it cooks.

Return the vegetables with the chopped tomatoes any remaining marinade and the parsley.

Cover and cook over a low heat for 3-4 hours, or until the beef is tender (I’ve done this over two days, and about five hours).

Stir the olives into the dish and allow 15 minutes to heat through.

Serve with couscous.

Serves six.

Four Legs Good: How to Prepare Your Pets for Natural Disasters


When you’re running a household, you need to look out for all of its members. If a natural disaster strikes, you want to be ready. The Federal Government has its suggestions, but what if you have pets? Purina, which is sponsoring this post, recently invited me to a Google hangout with the veterinarian Dr. Kurt Venator and a few other bloggers, including the cat-centric publication Mousebreath, which offers these tips; The Los Angeles-focused site MomsLA, whose insight is here; and the opera-singing Tenor Dad, who hits these notes.

Dr. Venator lives in upstate New York with his wife, Kristi (his high school sweetheart), and their three sons (Parker, Camden, and Knox) and three yellow Labrador Retrievers (Sailor, Chance, and Thatcher). “I’m actually a big fan of cooking,” he told me. “I find it immensely relaxing and a great way to bring the entire family together.” The Venators have a number of traditions, including gathering for a Sunday morning brunch. “Nothing fancy, but a nice full spread,” he said. “Pancakes, hash browns, made-to-order omelets, and locally made peameal bacon.”

The other go-to meal around their house is a traditional steak dinner, “Charlie Palmer steakhouse style,” Dr. Venator said. “We start with local fillet, prepped with freshly ground peppercorns and sea salt in a mortar and pestle, which the boys love helping with.” He then pulls out antique cast-iron pans, heats up grapeseed oil (which, he says, has a higher smoking temp and clean, light taste), sears them on each side for two-to-three minutes, and then puts them in the oven for seven minutes at 350, with a pat of butter on each one. “The boys can’t seem to get enough,” he revealed.

There’s another noteworthy custom of the Venator household: periodic, classic Thanksgiving meals. “Honestly, we do it about four times per year because the entire family loves it,” he said. “All the standard fixings, including homemade stuffing, homemade mashed potatoes, a delightful blended squash (butternut, acorn, and the somewhat rare Boston marrow." He also makes a cranberry-habanero chutney. “Given the time of year, I thought I would share the recipe,” he said. “It’s really easy to make but really tasty – nice balance of heat and sweet.”

Dr. Venator’s Habanero-Cranberry Chutney

  • 1 bag fresh cranberries
  • 1 habanero chile
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup orange juice, fresh squeezed
  • Put first five ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to boil.

Lower heat and simmer till thickened.

Remove from heat and add orange juice.

Let cool about 15 minutes, then place in a food processor.

Pulse to desired consistency.

And in case catastrophe strikes, here are six tips for caring for you pet in the event of a natural disaster.  

  1. The first step to preparing your pet for a natural disaster is to make sure that he or she is wearing a securely fastened collar with up-to-date identification in case you become separated.
  2. To prep your home, talk to your local veterinarian who can provide waterproof, “Pets Inside” stickers that you can place on the front and back door of your house to alert rescuers that there are pets inside your home.
  3. Prepare a disaster kit, with basic pet essentials such as bottled water, cans of wet food, blankets, collapsible bowls, cat litter and pan, and a leash and collar. Be sure to include a basic pet first-aid kit. A one-to-two-week supply of food that your pet usually eats is an ideal amount to include, too, however make sure to replace the food according to the expiration dates.
  4. Have photos of your pet on-hand in case you need to distribute pictures if your pet gets lost and make sure to include any important paperwork pertaining to your pet (e.g. vaccine records/medical history, veterinary contact information, medications list and emergency contacts).
  5. Develop an evacuation plan: Save precious evacuation time by identifying possible locations where you can take your animals. These locations can include animal shelters, veterinary clinics or even pet-friendly hotels where you and your pet can find relief until the disaster passes. Keeping your dog’s medical records on hand is vital since some pet-friendly emergency relief centers require proof of vaccinations in order for your pet to stay there.
  6. Recruit friends and neighbors: Consider creating a buddy system with your neighbor, family or friend who can look out for your pet in case you are not home when a disaster strikes. Add this person to your veterinarian’s emergency contact list of people who have authority to approve necessary emergency treatments if you can’t be reached. Also, identify places where you can leave your pet while you are out of town to avoid leaving your pet alone. Always let your pet sitter and back-up person know where your pet’s disaster kit is stored in case of an emergency.

How to Make Pizza at Home When Things Aren’t Working


Everything they say about making pizza at home is true. It’s easy (here’s my sauce recipe). It’s delicious (here’s my dough recipe). And it’s fun (here’s how to put it all together, using store-bought ingredients, but the method still holds).

If you still need more proof, check out this handy guide in The New York Times, from Sam Sifton, one of my food-writing idols (anyone can who can reference Ludwig Bemelmans “Madeline” in a charitable review of Nello—see the last graph about a row of Saudi women in two straight lines at a table not covered in wines—will forever be a hero of mine). I believe every single word of the Times’ guide. Really, I do.

But just as every story has three sides—your side, my side, and the truth—sometimes you you have to make a “calzone.” For no matter how long you may have been making pizza, something will, eventually, go wrong. And when that happens you will face a choice. If say, for example, you are struggling with a recalcitrant bit of dough that won’t slide off the peel and into the oven, you can strangle yourself with frustration as you feel 475-degrees of heat on your forehead. Or you can step back and improvise, which is what I did the other day. I rolled up the mess of dough and cheese and sauce and pushed it into the oven. A few minutes later (just enough time to put together another pie, with sufficient flour on the peel to prevent any stickiness), I pulled a “calzone” out of the oven.

I was happy to be done with mutant mass of misery, but you know what happened?  The gaggle of hungry and waiting kids (some some friends, some family, some of whom are famous in these parts for spurning the Sifton-esque pizzas of the past) nibbled and gnawed and enjoyed the scalawag “calzone.” I keep putting the word “calzone” in quotes, because whatever I made was far from the Italian classic, but the kids were sold on it and everyone was happy. So no matter what happens when you’re making pizza, don’t give up on it. Just keep going.

What's the One Thing to Do to Get Better at Cooking for Kids?


If you want to get better at cooking for kids, you don’t need to pick up another book. You don’t need to scroll through another blog. You definitely don’t need to take any classes. To get better at cooking for kids, you only need to do one thing: listen to them.

Yes, listen to them. I’m not really talking about infants and toddlers, but rather about slightly older kids. If you give them a chance, they will tell you what they want. Heck, even if you don’t give them a chance you’ll hear all about what they want. I’m not saying you have to give them everything they want, but if you listen to them you might just be surprised at the results.

As anyone who has ever been married knows, listening does not necessarily come naturally. Sometimes, it has to be learned. I can’t claim to be an expert at listening, but I am an expert at studying how to do it. I’ve discovered it’s a three-step process. The first and the last steps are to stop talking. This also happens to be the second step.

While you’re at it, if you’re going to stop talking, you might as well stop blaming, too. And judging. And minimizing. And otherwise invalidating the child’s experience. Listening is key to acceptance. And acceptance is key to everything. I don’t have the vocabulary, experience, or expertise to explain this, and I don’t expect you to take my word for it. Instead, read a bit about the life experience of Marsha M. Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. She started out as a disturbed child intent on harming herself and who found freedom and salvation through self-acceptance. For some practical advice, check out this piece on Psychology Today’s website by Dr. Karyn Hall.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that everyday I learn the lesson of how important it is to listen. Just the other day I made Puttanesca sauce for Nina and Pinta. The elder one had been longing for it for a while, and I was pleased to break out of a recent cooking drought (have you noticed a lack of posts???) by stirring up the old favorite.

But that dinner didn’t go quite as planned. I had chopped the tomatoes and both of my children were put off by the chunkiness of the sauce. They didn’t want to eat it, and I heard them. I often make the pasta and sauce as a side for frozen Alaskan salmon (which is so good it needs no recipe), and it mattered little to me if they ate the pasta with a sauce or plain.

Last night, I made the sauce again, but this time around I hit the canned tomatoes with my Braun immersion blender, and the sauce was as smooth as the night was fun. From the second when Nina came home from school and smelled that familiar aroma in the air and wondered what it was, to the moment that Pinta shouted out “Puttanesca,” from her piano bench where she was practicing, it was a peaceful and joyful evening. Listening, it turns out, is good for everyone.

Puttanesca Sauce


  • One 28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, crushed (or hit with an immersion blender)
  • 4 or more cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 3 anchovy fillets
  • 1 chili pepper (or a quick shake of red-pepper flakes)
  • 1 T capers
  •  12 or so black olives, pitted and 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 (or red pepper flakes).

Sauté until the garlic is soft, then add the tomatoes and reduce.

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

Serve over the pasta of your choice.

How Did I Get Here?: The Metaphysics of the Lemon Reamer


Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. I just finished “How Did I Get Here?” by Jesse Browner, and if you’ve ever asked yourself the question its title poses, you’ll be well rewarded by reading it. Browner, a talented novelist and translator, as well as family man and home cook, writes with humor and insight about the tension between responsibilities and aspirations. Speaking of the latter, I have mentioned before that I’m going to include more of my own illustrations on this blog, and I’m starting a new project, where I draw kitchen tools and implements. I had the great good fortune of making Browner’s recent acquaintance, and he offered to write about a favorite of his. Enjoy!

The Wooden Oxo Lemon Reamer, by Jesse Browner: 

            I estimate that I have had to replace my wooden Oxo lemon reamer at least four or five times in the past few years. I find this trend disturbing, as I am not otherwise given to carelessness. What happens to the lost reamers? I don’t know. Is there something about them that makes them especially easy to mistake for objects that need to be thrown in the garbage? I don’t know. Is it me, or my wife, or my children, or guests helping to clean up after dinner, or the cleaning lady who throws them away? I don’t know. Is it possible that they have not actually been thrown away at all, but that they have the ability to wink in and out of existence, like quarks? I don’t know, but I am beginning to suspect that very thing.

            The wooden Oxo lemon reamer is not an exotic accessory. When one goes missing, I am able to walk three blocks from my home and find its replacement, which is indistinguishable from the original, which itself was once a replacement. They all look exactly the same, down to the tiny, laser-cut alien logo on the handle. Once it is nestled in its niche of the utensil drawer, it is impossible to know whether this is the new reamer or the one that had gone missing, now re-embodied. Searching the drawer for the other won’t help, because the new one may just as easily have disembodied simultaneously. If you do find two, it is just as likely that they are one and the same reamer existing in two places at the same time, like a tachyon. It is this quantum personality of the lemon reamer that encourages me to believe that it is endowed with certain mystical capacities not possessed by any of my other utensils.

            But its probabilistic behavior is not the only quality that lends my reamer its metaphysical ambiguity. You may have noticed that you do not have many kitchen utensils in your arsenal that are made of wood. Spoons, salad tongs, chopping boards – most likely very little else. If you are me, you also have a wooden lemon reamer, which – unless you are an accomplished woodworker – is almost certainly the only object in your kitchen that you could even remotely imagine having made yourself, with a whittling knife and a little chunk of beechwood.

Go now, since you are at your computer, and type “lemon reamer” into the Amazon.com search bar. The results will show you reamers made of stainless steel, aluminum, glass, plastic transparent and colored, and wood. Now look just at the wooden ones -- among the Norpros, the Naturally Meds and the Holy Land Markets, the Oxo seems pared down to the most basic, essential quiddity of the lemon reamer. No ornament, no design flourishes, no excess of any kind. Less than simply modern and functional, it looks positively primitive. And that is precisely how it feels in the hand, for reasons I can’t entirely explain. When you hold a wooden Oxo lemon reamer, it feels as it might have felt to hold a neolithic tool – say a knife or a scraper that you yourself had fashioned out of a flake of flint 10,000 years ago at the mouth of your family cave. It fits just so into the palm of your hand, you angle it just so to attack the target flesh, you thrust it upwards and twist with a similarly brutish, venereal force, then withdraw it just so, dripping and pendant with glistening, shredded fiber.

This is why I suspect my wooden Oxo lemon reamer to be something a little more than a utilitarian hand tool. In addition to being an anomaly of quantum continuum mechanics, it is also a time machine capable of transporting the user to the very dawn of culinary history, not to mention to a distant, inchoate future when perhaps all food will be prepped and cooked by the power of focused imagination. Just as you cannot confidently locate the reamer in mechanical space, you cannot pin it with any certainty to one fixed moment on the temporal spectrum. Just as it exists everywhere and nowhere, it exists at all times and outside of time. Some might call such ambition in a utensil a design flaw, but as for me, the reamer is the one artefact I turn to when I wish to resurrect the Dream Time, when all cooking was an act of transcendent faith in the benevolence of the universe. 

Mint Lemonade

  • 1 cup of mint simple syrup
  • 1 cup of fresh lemon juice (from approx. eight lemons)
  • 1 quart of water
  • a handful of spearmint or peppermint leaves

Make the simple syrup by combining 1 cup each of water, sugar and tightly packed spearmint or peppermint leaves. Heat to boiling until all the sugar has dissolved, allow to cool, strain and discard mint.

Combine all the remaining ingredients in a jug with ½ to ¾ cup of simple syrup, to taste. Reserve leftover syrup for the next batch of lemonade.



Like a sailor cast adrift at sea, I'm on my own this week. Santa Maria and the kids have headed south to visit the extended family. I'm just feeding myself, and yet I created a dish rack full of plates, bowls, and pots and pans. How did that happen? What's it like for you when you cook for yourself and yourself alone?

Spare the Bagel, Save the Springtime Smoked Salmon-Cream Cheese Omelet


Springtime has arrived, finally, and nature is up to its old tricks. The days are getting longer. Trees are starting to blossom. Asparagus is in season. The daffodils arrive, then the tulips. It’s great fun to throw off one’s jacket and run through the sunshine. Everything old seems new. 

I like to learn from nature, so when the fine folks at Kraft asked me to do a post this month, I came up with a new take on an old favorite—the brunch bagel.

I did away with the bagel, and made a omelet that’s ripe for the season, full of my favorite fixings—smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes, and capers. The result is a fresh, delicious, and creamy omelet, with the smooth tartness of the cream cheese setting of the sharpness of the smoked salmon and the red onions. The tomatoes add a bit of sweetness and the capers a savory touch. All together, it’s a springtime delight. The recipe can be found here.

Have You Taught Your Kids the ABCs of the Kitchen?


We all want to teach our kids the ABCs, but when I step into the kitchen the ABCs take on a different meaning: Always Be Cleaning. Nina, my eldest one, reminded me this morning that it’s one of the first things I taught her about cooking. When we chop vegetables, we clean the counter right away. As soon as we measure out a spice, we return the jar to the cabinet. When we’re done with one pan, we wash it. And so on. In reality, this system often breaks down before the meal is finished, but what it means is that clean up is manageable at the end of the meal, and sometimes there’s nothing more to do than put a few things in the dishwasher.

We were talking about cleaning because Swiffer recently sent me a big green box of supplies, handily outfitted with its Wet Jet cleaning tool. The Wet Jet is a power mop that “traps and locks dirt so it doesn’t get pushed around.” I’m all for not getting pushed around, and the Wet Jet speeds up cleaning up by having a disposable pad. No need to worry about where the mop is drying out. That might sound like an absurd concern, but if you’ve ever tried living in a New York City apartment, you’ll understand.

Swiffer also supplied me with some handy statistics about dads today:



They also wanted me to share a video with Anthony Anderson and other dads talking about their experience cleaning. Pay attention to the dad at around the 58-second mark, who observes that everyone talks about a relationship being 50/50 but it’s more like 100/100. Truer words have never been spoken. Check out the video here. And here:


And thanks to Swiffer for sponsoring this post.