Party Dishes

Coq au Vin Recipe in the House

One of Nina’s first favorite dishes was Coq au Vin, the French, chicken-in-wine, one-pot wonder, that’s full of mushrooms and rich flavor. Some of her first words, I am often reminding her, were “Quak o Van," which was her way of rendering “Coq au Vin,” but, as she is often reminding me, she has changed. She does not like mushrooms now (though what was recently a near-phobia has dropped to mere dislike, thankfully).

I bring this up because I made Coq au Vin on Saturday, and when I was looking through this blog for the recipe, I realized that despite often mentioning the dish and its family lore, I have not posted the recipe.

Before starting the dish, I knew that Nina and Pinta would spurn it, so I broke down and made them fresh flounder. I’m usually opposed to doing the whole short-order cook, make-a-million-meals-to-keep-everyone-happy thing, but in this case I caved. Call me weak if you will, but I just wanted everyone to be happy. I know I was happy with my Coq au Vin—it is one of my favorite dishes (there’s a reason Nina’s first words included its name).

Coq au Vin

  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 chicken, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup or so of flour, for dredging
  • Olive or other vegetable oil
  • 1 strip of bacon, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 carrot diced
  • 1 small stalk celery, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • ½ to ¾ cup of cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups dry red wine
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme, or a good shake of dried
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ cup minced parsley

In a small sauce pot, bring to a boil enough red wine to cover the porcinis. Once the wine is boiling, drop the dried mushrooms in the pot, cover, and turn the heat off. Allow to soak while performing the next steps, and/or at least 20 minutes.

In a good-sized Dutch Oven, heat on medium some of the olive oil.

Dredge the pieces of chicken in flour, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then brown them in the pot, working in batches if necessary.

Once the chicken is browned, remove it from the pot and set aside.

Drain any excess oil and then sauté the bacon, onion, carrot, and celery.

Once those are soft (after about ten minutes, at least), add the garlic and cook about two minutes more.

Add the cremini mushrooms, and cook until brown and/or soft.

Drain the porcinis, reserving the liquid, chop them a bit, and add them to the pot.

Strain the porcini liquid through a couple of layers of cheese cloth and add it to the pot.

Add the chicken, the wine, and herbs; cover and bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Keep on the heat until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 to 30 minutes more.

Serve over couscous, garnished with more chopped parsley.

How to Stretch a Meal

Just the other day, I overheard a friend at work talking on the phone to his out-of-town spouse. He was complaining that his teenage daughter had brought a last-minute friend to dinner the night before, and there wasn’t enough food for everyone to eat. His story made me wish I had put this post up sooner. I know he follows this blog and he might have benefited from a similar experience I just had.

Recently, Santa Maria invited the daughter of an old friend over for dinner. The daughter was fresh out of college and was visiting New York. After a bit of back and forth, she was set to come to dinner one Saturday night. We invited two other friends and their elementary-school-age son over too, to make a bit of a party out of the evening. An hour or so before the dinner, Santa Maria got a text from the out-of-town daughter: she wanted to know if she could bring three friends.

Santa Maria, one of the softest-hearted people this side of the Rio Grande (she married me, after all) told her “yes,” and said to me, “what can you say in a situation like that?” In the interest of marital harmony, I kept my response to myself.

And just like that, I needed to stretch the dinner I had made, but I wasn’t concerned. A few years ago, something like this would have caused a spike in my blood pressure and have stressed me out, but I've learned a lot since then.The biggest thing I've learned is to stop fighting reality. Plus, I had a few tricks up my sleeve. I was serving corn on the cob, and though I had counted out enough ears for the original group, by breaking each one in half I instantly doubled the amount of corn I could offer.

I took some black beans out of the freezer (the three additional guests, I had been told were vegetarians, though what showed up was two extra meat-eaters and a libertarian) and I carefully arranged the other things I was serving: Chicken Tikka Masala, Kale Salad, and Dahl.

I arranged everything on a counter in the kitchen, for people to serve themselves. I was a bit short on the chicken (times being what they are, especially in publishing, of course), so I put that dish at the end of the line. If people started with the kale salad, then moved on to the rice and beans and dahl, and put an ear (or half an ear as the case might have been) of corn on their plate, they wouldn’t really have any room for the chicken. It worked brilliantly. Everyone was forced to go back for seconds, and the slower people eat, the more full they feel. If I had been really pressed for food, I could also have boiled a couple of eggs and served those, too. That trick worked well this summer.

In the end, I didn’t mind at all that so many people showed up. In fact, I reveled in it. It’s not often that I get to eat with some bright young people with such wide political leanings. I was honored to feed them. As always, youth must be served.

Chicken Tikka Masala


  • 8 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • One 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup water
  • one can (28 oz) peeled tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • a touch of cayene pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 to 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs (or breasts) cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (optional)

        In a blender, puree the garlic and the ginger with the water until smooth.

        Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot and cook the minced onions over high heat until softened and golden.

        Add the garlic and ginger puree and cook stirring until golden and fragrant, about two minutes.

        Pour the can of tomatoes into the blender, and puree.

        Add the remaining oil and the spices, cook stirring constantly until lightly toasted, about one minute.

        Add the tomatoes and cook until thickened, about ten minutes.

        Add the chicken and season with salt. Reduce the heat and cook through. Add the cilantro. Serve over rice.

New Cookbook: Small Plates & Sweet Treats: My Family's Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking

As Santa Maria mentioned recently, we had friends over for brunch this weekend, and I made a new salad. The salad was a big hit, and I wanted to share the recipe with you. But first, a bit about where the recipe comes from: “Small Plates & Sweet Treats: My Family's Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking” a great new cookbook coming out at the end of the month.

The book is a collection of gluten-free recipes, but I have to say that flavor, more than anything else, seems to be its driving force. Written (and lovingly photographed) by Aran Goyoaga, of the blog Cannelle et Vanille, the book is a rare combination of the practical and the aspirational. I can tell from reading it (and from having met Aran) that she cooks for her family on a regular basis. Unlike some other folks who I know who cook for their families and blog about it (ahem, I mean me), she’s actually qualified. She’s a culinary school graduate, and she comes from an old-world family (she grew up in Spanish Basque country, and when she was a child her grandparents raised their own pigs to make their own chorizo.) I mean, she is serious about good taste.

And—here’s where the book gets aspirational—she an amazing photographer. Unlike other bloggers who can’t do better than to muster a quick snapshot (ahem, me again), she’s a professional. I met Aran on my recent trip to Alaska, and she was one of the many women on that trip who routinely carried more cameras than your average A.P. pool photographer—they turned every meal there into a Presidential press conference, snapping endless shots of salmon, crab, and oysters as if the fate of the free world depended upon it.

Her photos in this book will stop you in your tracks. Santa Maria, who loves Basque cuisine, and I recently spent a rare hour of leisure the other night just flipping through its pages. The book is organized by season, and it shows that a lot of time and effort went into its creation. She must have been photographing for years to come up with the captivating images in here.

I haven’t attempted any of the baked recipes, but based on her general approach, I’m confident that they will be great, too. If you make any, please let me know how they go. In the meantime, here is the recipe for the salad, thanks to Aran.

Warm Roasted Brussels Sprout, Black Quinoa, Pear, and Crispy Chorizo Salad

  • ½ cup black quinoa, rinsed
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 lb. Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed and halved
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 ounces dry Spanish chorizo, sliced into ¼ inch pieces
  • 2 Anjou or Bosc pears, cored and thinly sliced
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • ½ cup arugla

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Put quinoa in 1 cup of water with a ¼ teaspoon of salt, cover, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer; cook about twenty minutes, and/or until fluffy.

Toss the Brussels sprouts with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt. Spread them out on a baking sheet (or two, if necessary) and roast for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

In a small saucepan, heat a bit of the oil, add the sliced chorizo, and cook on a medium-high heat until the edges are crispy (I then took the sausage off the pan and drained on paper towel).

In a large bowl, toss the quinoa, roasted Brussels sprouts, chorizo, sliced pears, lemon juice, and arugula. Serve warm.

A few notes: I couldn’t find black quinoa, so I used red quinoa, and it was great. My oven was set at 375, becaues it's being balky again, but it didn't matter. Also, I sliced the chorizo in half lengthwise before cutting into ¼ inch slices, figuring that I wanted to spread the flavor around the salad. It was a good choice. And I ended up using baby Brussels sprouts because that is all that I could find. Another good choice. And, finally, I decided to dress it with more olive oil and lemon.

Also, I cooked a cup of quinoa so I would have some extra left over (more on that later) and I didn’t measure how much I used in the salad. I was actually making two versions for the party; one without the chorizo and one with, so I was winging it. The nice thing about a recipe like this is that it has such an inspired combination of ingredients that it is almost impossible to mess up. And it was a great party dish—easy to make ahead of time and good looking on the table. We ate it all up, obviously. 

Stunned by Gumbo: The Follow-Up

As I mentioned earlier, I was stunned by the gumbo I made for Santa Maria’s party. So stunned, that I forgot to photograph the finished dish, which was not nearly as large a crime as the fact that I missed out on her sour-cream coffee cake that she made for the occasion; I forgot to take a bite at the start of the party, and then it was gone before I could seek it out, finished off by some (uninvited) teenagers, but that’s another story.

I’ve been longing to make a gumbo ever since I first visited New Orleans, many years ago. Everything I ate in that city, and I mean everything, was so delicious that I couldn’t believe it. Gumbo came up when I was interviewing fathers for my book, “Man with a Pan.” I was introduced to David Olivier, a native of NOLA, who shared his family’s recipe and methods. I say methods, because how you make the roux is a key part of its extravagant flavor—an unprecedented, at least in my kitchen, combination of earthy and vaguely Asian aromas filled the house as it cooked—and Olivier had a lot to say about making a roux, which is a combination of fat and flour:

How to best make a roux is an earnestly discussed topic. I find it's very easy as long as one obeys the key principal (emphatically and repeatedly proclaimed to me when I was a small child): Don't do anything else while you're making it. Just stand there, stirring the oil and flour over medium to medium-high heat for as long as it takes (typically 20-30 minutes) until it reaches the desired color. Again, the preferred color is a matter of some discussion. I like a darker roux, milk chocolate tending towards dark chocolate.

He also cautioned me about burning the roux—apparently, it can go from good to bad in a second—so I was a little nervous as I made the dish. His note about not doing anything else also weighed on my mind. I was making it the night before the party, and Santa Maria was out. The girls were asleep and I had the house to myself. Everything was perfect for making the roux, unless one of my daughters needed something, a glass of water or another kiss. As I stirred the flour and oil, I held my breath. Luck for me, they slept soundly, and I got that good and dark color and flavor that makes the dish so remarkable.

Because it was my first time making the recipe, I prepped all the ingredients before I started.


I cut up the chicken.

 I sliced the Andouille sausage.


I diced the garlic.


I chopped the onion.

I made sure the scallions were ready.

And prepped the parsley.


And so on and so on, until I was ready to go. I made the dish without incident that night, and even managed to cook and stir the roux for a good fifteen minutes, before I panicked and moved on. I certainly didn't want to burn it. The next morning I opened the oysters and added them to the dish. It was a huge hit, and I’ll be making it again soon. I hope Santa Maria makes the coffee cake, too. When she does, I’ll be sure to have some before it is all gone.

David Olivier’s Chicken Sausage and Oyster Gumbo

He says  “Chicken and sausage gumbo is a pretty standard dish. The addition of oysters is my own preference, undoubtedly influenced by the chicken and oyster gumbo my mother used to make. (Hers was very different in style from mine - and fairly atypical in general, very brothy, I don't think she used a roux at all - but I love the addition of oysters to the standard combination. It adds a lovely complexity. And oysters just generally make most things better.)

  • 2/3 c. vegetable oil [note: next time I would use ½ cup]
  • 3-4 lb. chicken, cut into pieces
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 lb. (or a bit more) Andouille sausage, sliced into 1/2 in. discs [I had under a pound and it was still good]
  • 1 large onion, chopped [I used a red onion, because that’s what I had in the house]
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 2-3 scallions, sliced thin
  • 2-3 Tbs. parsley, minced fine
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced fine 
  • 2 qts. chicken stock [I used homemade stock, and I think it made a huge difference]
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 pt. shucked oysters
  • 2-3 cups cooked long-grain rice
  • 3 Tbs. filé powder (ground sassafras) [note: I couldn’t find this, and it wasn’t missed]

Heat the oil in a large pot over high heat. Add the chicken and brown. (Don't cook through.) Remove the chicken and set aside. Scrape up any remaining browned bits, then gradually add the flour to make the roux.

Stir the oil and flour over medium to medium-high heat for as long as it takes (typically 20-30 minutes) until it reaches the desired color. Again, the preferred color is a matter of some discussion. I like a darker roux, milk chocolate tending towards dark chocolate.

As soon as the roux is ready (if you dally, the roux will burn), add the sausage, onion, green pepper, scallion, parsley and garlic. Continue to cook over low heat for about ten more minutes, until the vegetables have softened and the onions have turned translucent. (You can see a photo of his gumbo at this stage on his blog.)

Add chicken stock, chicken pieces, cayenne, thyme, bay leaves, salt, and pepper and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 hour, until chicken is tender.

At this point, I like to let the gumbo cool, then refrigerate overnight, primarily because it improves the flavor but also because I typically make gumbo for dinner parties and, when entertaining, I like to do most of the cooking ahead of time so that when the guests arrive I have time for more important things—like mixing cocktails.

The next day, skim off any fat. Remove the chicken, strip the meat, tearing it into coarse chunks, and return it to the pot. Gradually heat the gumbo. Shortly before serving, add the oysters along with the oyster liquor. Continue to simmer just long enough to cook oysters through. Just before serving, add the filé powder.

Ladle gumbo into individual serving bowls. Add a generous spoonful of rice, and serve. (Provide Crystal, Louisiana, Tabasco, or other hot sauce at the table for individual doctoring.)

Note: For more food from his hometown, Olivier recommends a couple of local cookbooks: The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collin and New Orleans Food by Tom Fitzmorris. And to learn more about the gumbos he grew up with, check out this amazing interview with his aunt, which even has some nice photos of the finished dish:


Party Time: How to Make Pizza at Home

I threw a party recently for Santa Maria’s birthday, and when I throw a party, I can’t help but throw myself into things—by which I mean the kitchen. For this particular party, I made a gumbo (which I hope to write about here shortly) and my signature dhal. I also prepared a cheese course (or, more accurately, Nina prepared a cheese course) and I opened some oysters and served them on the half shell.

I expected more than a few kids at the party (it was in the afternoon, and many of our friends have young children), so I needed to make something that the children might like to eat. A few of them might try the gumbo, perhaps, and my children actually eat the dhal, but in general those dishes lack, how shall I put it, kid-appeal.

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with making pizza at home, and in preparation for this party I hit on the perfect combination of ingredients to make a kid friendly pizza. The trick, I realized, is to get ingredients that are the cheapest, least-gourmet, totally non-fancy, and embarrassingly un-foodie. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. I once made the worst pizza in the world, simply by following a recipe in The New York Times which was far too aspirational for my children’s tastes. They hated the chunks of San Marzano tomatoes, I burned the homemade dough, and that whole effort has since become a legend of failure around our house.

I knew I could do better, though, by trying to do less. And as soon as I switched to dough from a local pizzeria, opted for an off-brand supermarket mozzarella, and spooned out an inexpensive tomato sauce, I got the result I was looking for. The kids loved it, and one of my friend’s sons actually said, as he bit into a piece, “Did this pizza come from a store?” Could there ever be a better compliment?

How to make Pizza at Home

Note: A pizza stone and a peel (the wooden or metal paddle used to slide the pie into the oven) are essential. They’re easily found on the Internet and at kitchen-supply stores.

  • A ball of pizza dough
  • 1 lb. mozzarella, grated
  • 1 jar of marinara sauce 

Put the stone in the oven and preheat it to 475-500 degrees. The hotter the better.

Start with a ball of dough from a local pizzeria. Most will sell you one, and it will be easy to work with. Let it come up to room temperature before starting, and experiment with how much dough to use for your pizza stone. I use one half of the local pizzeria’s ball of dough, so one ball equals two pies.

Flour a clean surface lightly and stretch the dough out by pushing it with your fingertips or using a rolling pin. Once it is a little wider and flatter, pick it up and stretch it with your hands. Keep your fingers curled under, so you don’t poke a hole in it, and throw it in the air if you’re feeling adventurous (or, if like me, you want to relive your foodservice-work college days).

Spoon a bit of sauce, less than you think it might need, onto the dough and leave about a half-inch border around the edge for the crust.

Sprinkle grated mozzarella on top of the sauce, and slide it into the hot oven. Let it cook for about ten minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and brown, and the bottom of the pie is crisp.

Cut, serve, and enjoy. Then repeat. 

Damn-the-Tornadoes Corn-Tomato-Feta Salad

When I was in Alaska recently, we had some nasty weather, which isn't surprising given we were in a rainforest, but nothing compares to what we just had in New York City, where two tornadoes swept through the outerboroughs. Up North, there were clouds and showers every day, but the dramatic setting and the great company made up for it. I was joined by a bunch of really entertaining food bloggers—Cannelle et Vanille, Family Fresh Cooking, A Less Processed Life, Sippity Sup, La Tartine Gourmande, and The Wicked Noodle—who have already (or will soon, I suspect) start telling their versions of the trip, and I encourage you to check out their postings.

I’ll be telling my Alaskan tales soon enough, but what I want talk about today is something that the two chefs on the trip, Dan Enos, of The Oceanaire Seafood Room, in Boston, and Patrick Hoogerhyde, of The Bridge, in Anchorage, kept mentioning. And that is “Flavor Profiles.” They kept saying that each fish or mollusk had its own flavor profile, and that was what mattered most.

Restaurateurs, of course have their own set of concerns, such as how to satisfy each “guest,” as they kept calling their customers. Home cooks who work full-time have another set of concerns, such as how to remain employed and find the time to shop, or how to use up that feta you happened to have bought too much of and that is at risk of going to seed in the back of the fridge. Home-cooking working parents have yet another set of concerns, such as how to do all the above and not end up with TMJ, an ulcer, or divorce.

I kept the idea of balancing flavor profiles in mind on Saturday morning when I was rushing to make lunch for a quixotic trip to the beach. We thought we could enjoy one last summer day at the shore, but it ended up raining on us, which reminded me of my trip to Alaska (and those two twisters made me think of Kansas).

I made simple sandwiches for Nina and Pinta, but I wanted something savory and satisfying for myself and Santa Maria. I had a bit of corn on the cob left over from the night before, and I had that aforementioned feta. Also, I knew I had an extra tomato, so I was three-quarters of the way to a decent salad. I added some olives to give the salad a bit of salt, and I dressed it with a cider vinegar to give it a bit of sweet acid. To give it a bit of a bite, I tossed in dried oregano and thyme, but if I had any fresh herbs on hand I would have used those instead. Finally, I finished it with olive oil, because that is good on everything.

We ate the salad in the car after giving up on the rainy beach. The dressing had collected in the bottom of the container, and once the salad was gone, we sopped it all up with ends of fresh bread. Like Alaska, it didn’t matter that it had rained—the food was so good.

Quick Damn-the-Tornadoes Summer Feta Tomato Salad 

  • 1 ripe tomato, chopped
  • An ear or two of cooked corn, kernels sliced off the cob
  • Feta to taste, chopped
  • ¼ to ½ onion, diced
  • A handful of black olives, cut into quarters.
  • Dried oregano and thyme, to taste (or other fresh herbs if available)
  • Cider vinegar and olive oil, to taste.

Combine the ingredients in a bowl, and serve with fresh bread.


How to Cook for a Big Group

There are many different ways to cook for a big group (and I’ll get to my favorite way in a moment) but I want to warn you off the most obvious way.  Don’t fall into the trap of just trying to double or triple a recipe. It won’t work well. Ingredients, like people, behave differently when they are in crowds. Pieces of meat or vegetables that that were supposed to be sautéed end up becoming steamed if the pan gets to crowded. Things don’t brown the way they were supposed to. Three times the amount of one spice may not taste right compared to three times the amount of another.

There’s an easy way to avoid this predicament, and the nice thing about the solution is that it will make you look better as a chef, and it will make your guests much more satisfied with their meal—just make a large number of small dishes. And by small, I must mean normal sized. If a given recipe serves four to six people, pair it with one or two other main courses that do the same, and all of a sudden the cooking becomes more manageable, and the meal becomes more elaborate. You suddenly have a six course meal. It’s a kind of culinary alchemy.

I had this in the back of my mind the other weekend that I cooked for my sister and her brood, after coming back from the shore. I was so excited to see everybody that I accidentally invited them all to my mother’s house before consulting my mother. She had been planning on getting a bit of fish for five, and all of a sudden it was dinner for nine.

I was in the grocery store with my mother when I sprung this on her. She was a bit nonplussed, and I couldn’t blame her. So I started tossing about ideas for side dishes, to stretch the fish. I was already planning on making the Feta, Tomato, and Parsley Salad, so I picked up some tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, to make a couple of plates of Caprese Salad. My sister had agreed to bring a green salad, so we just needed one more dish. I thought about my Fly Sky High Kale Salad, but decided the Kale in Westchester in the summer is not worth the effort.

At that point, my mother mentioned that she had some green-market zucchini that she’d sautéed up and stuck in the freezer before going on vacation. She wondered if I could use it (I think she finally came around to the idea of a big gathering when she realized she could clean out part of her freezer). She mentioned ratatouille, but the eggplant looked worse than the kale. She was determined to get rid of that zucchini, though, so I offered to make a faux-ratatouille. I bought a link of spicy Italian sausage, to substitute for the eggplant. It worked well, and everyone was happy and well fed. I don’t really have a recipe for you, but I can tell you want I did.

In a large frying pan, I sautéed some slices of red onion and some sweet onion that had been hanging around the house. After they were soft and brown, I took them out of the pan. I broke up the sausage and browned it in the pan. Then I added a bit of chopped garlic, and tossed in the mostly defrosted zucchini (which my mother had sautéed before freezing; if I was starting with fresh zucchini, I would have cubed them and browned them right after doing the onions, taking care not to crowd the pan). Once the zucchini were hot and sizzling, I tossed the onions back in. I chopped some extra tomatoes, and tossed those in, too. After they broke down and the water from the zucchini had simmered off, I was done.  

Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder for the Whole Gang

On our recent trip to the New Jersey shore with my extended family, I took responsibility for cooking for the gang a number of nights. In cooking for a big group, there’s always the issue of balancing cost and flavor. Sure, I’d love to serve rib eye steak to everyone, but I’d also like to be able to send my kids to college. The more mouths, the bigger the bill.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a slow-roasted pork shoulder comes in handy at times like this. It is a delicious and cheap cut of meat that’s easy to cook and is perfect for a big group. The only thing you need is some time. It can take about five hours to cook, but most of that time is unattended, leaving plenty of opportunities for swimming and hanging on the beach.

This recipe uses a simple spice rub and mesquite chips to give the meat a killer flavor. I first made it in July of 2004, when we were in a rambling home in Cape May. Mark Bittman wrote it up in the New York Times Dining section that week, and I was inspired to fire up that home’s superb gas grill. I cooked that shoulder all day, and I’ll never forget its salty, spicy, and sweet flavor. My mother’s comment sealed the deal for me. “It’s so fatty,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “It is.”

This time, at the run-down home on Long Beach Island, I was working with a gas grill that looked like it had survived a few hurricanes. Or maybe it had been blown in by a Nor’easter. It had three burners, but the controls were a bit shaky and its thermometer looked about as reliable as certain famly members of mine. I couldn’t get the temperature down to the low 300 degrees the meat is supposed to roast at. The grill’s thermometer kept creeping up past 400 degrees.

I tried turning the burners off. I thought about opening the top, but that would let the smoke out. I was getting close to being a disaster, but then I realized that the grill’s thermometer couldn’t be trusted. Maybe its 400 was really 300. When I was roasting those sublime chickens a few nights before, it told me that the temperature in the grill was 500 degrees. Thinking back on the way the chicken cooked up, I realized that the it probably hadn't been that hot in the grill. And, “What the hell,” I thought. “I’m on vacation.”

I let that meat cook for about five hours at what the grill was calling 400 degrees. I didn’t trust it, and the meat confirmed my judgement; it turned out fine. The truth is the pork shoulder is a forgiving and durable cut of meat, which, by the way, are the same qualities that make a good spouse, in case you're out there looking.

Other than the amazing flavor, the best thing about the dish is its cost. I fed about fifteen people for less than $27 dollars. The meat was about $17; and the rice and beans and salad I paired it with couldn’t have cost more than $10. Down in that part of Long Beach Island, one entrée at just about any restaurant runs more than $30, so I knew I was coming out ahead. 

Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder for the Whole Gang

  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons mild chili powder, like ancho or New Mexico
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 pork shoulder, about 5 or 6 pounds
  • Mesquite chips for grilling.


Soak the chips in water for about a half hour before cooking.

Mix together the dry ingredients and rub the mix all over the pork shoulder, working it into all the nooks and crannies.

Using a gas grill, heat all burners for about fifteen minutes to clean grill (this is a rental-house tip).

Turn off two of the three burners, or do what is necessary to get the heat inside the covered grill down to under 300 degrees.

Put the chips in a tinfoil pan and set it over the burner that is on.

Place the meat on the cooler side of the grill and cover. Keep an eye on the grill to make sure the chips are smoking (and if they’re not, don’t sweat it), and that the heat in the grill is under (or around) 300 degrees.

The pork is finished when the internal temperature reaches 190 degrees. This will take four to six hours. I could only get portions of the meat I cooked at the shore up to about 180, and it was fine. I think the longer it cooks, though, the more tender it will get.

I let the meat sit for about ten minutes after I took it off the grill, then I hacked it into small bits. I served it with rice and beans and a salad, but it would work well in tacos or in a sandwich. This, I believe, is the kind of meat made into pulled pork, for example. You really can’t go wrong with this cut.

For an online version Bittman’s recipe, click here

Shore Special: Rental-House Wine and Herb Grilled Chicken


I’m back from vacation, full of good memories, tanner than I’ve been all year, and, yet, just nearly as tired as any other day. It was great to be at the beach, and great to see family, but I tend to get very little rest because I suffer from an unfortunate condition: I have a bad case of  “Needing to Do Things the Right Way.”*

So, when my wife and kids got to the beach before me and put the towels and toys down too far from the water on a day when the tide was going out, I picked everything up and moved it four feet. Only after I did this, did I realize that no one but me cared.

The condition intensified around mealtimes. If I didn’t get involved, I would have been eating tuna casserole, pizza, or hot dogs and hamburgers (the latter of which we did eat the one night I didn’t cook, and even then I had to take my burger back to the grill and finish it, but that’s life in a big family).

We were about eleven heads in the house. I say “about,” because some of those heads belonged to small children, and some belonged to teenagers. Sometimes the teenagers ate like small children; other times, they brought their friends to dinner.

When I was a boy, my father—who was a lawyer and had his own practice—would complain mightily about the break up of Ma Bell. After the telecommunication giant lost its grip on the country’s phone system, he wrestled with buying new equipment each year, was constantly frustrated with his phone bills, and generally had a hard time running the communication aspect of his business. The way my grown siblings and I talk to each other makes those days look like a model of efficiencey. All we do is cross wires when it comes to talking about important things, especially dinner.

One night, when I was planning on grilling a pair of chickens for eleven, I was told (after much back and forth) that my nineteen-year-old niece and her college roommate and her boyfriend, would be coming for dinner, too. One chicken feeds about four people, and I was planning to stretch the chickens by serving my three-bean salad. But I figured there was no way the two chickens would feed all thirteen, especially when I learned that the boyfriend was a football player.

I almost panicked, but then I took a page from Tamar Adler’s book “An Everlasting Meal.” In it, she often throws an egg into a salad to make it a meal. All I needed to do was to boil some eggs (I cooked nine), slice them in half, and serve them with the chicken, three-bean salad, a plate of tomatoes and red onions, and a large romaine salad. My mother, wise to the ways of feeding many with little, insisted that I serve bread, too. She was right, and we had plenty of food. It helped, too, that the football-player boyfriend was a punter, with a normal appetite, and not a lineman, with an outsized one.

I had always found it vexing to cook chicken on the grill because the legs would burn and the breast would come out raw, or vice versa, but I was excited to make these two birds because of an amazing recipe I found in the current issue of Cook’s Country magazine. It suggested butterflying the birds, which allows them to cook flat on the grill, and it solved all my problems. The chickens practically cooked themselves, and the act of butterflying the animal was as easy as peeling a carrot. Anyone can do it. Just flip the bird so it’s back is up, and cut with a knife or scissors along one side of the backbone. You can either cut along the other side of the backbone, and remove it, or you can leave it attached (which if you’re feeding a lot of people can be a good idea). With the bird laying flat, press on the breast to break the breast bone and have the bird flatten out further. If you are confused, look on the Internet; there are many videos demonstrating the technique.

The recipe called for marinating the birds in wine, thyme, lemon, olive oil, garlic, sugar, and parsley. Cook’s Country magazine is very thorough—they are masters of doing things the right way—and the recipe writer tested all kinds of wine, and all kinds of methods for marinating and cooking the birds.  He suggested using a blender to make the marinade, claiming that the blades would release the flavor of the herbs. He may have been right, but he didn’t take into account a rental house that lacked such standard kitchen equipment as a blender (the house lacked a whole lot of other things, but that’s another story; let’s just say “location, location, location,” was all that mattered as it was about fifty yards from the beach).

I did my best to follow the recipe writer’s intentions, but in addition to forsaking the blender, I forgot a key step: poking holes in the chicken so it absorbs the marinade. But, their thoroughness means their recipes really work. They’re built to withstand bad rental houses, dysfunctional families, and anything else that might stand in the way of culinary perfection.

It didn’t matter that I chopped everything by hand (and didn’t really measure anything) mixed up everything in an old Pyrex bowl, threw the marinade on the birds and tucked them into zip lock bags for a couple of hours. The marinade was so good, Santa Maria said she wanted to drink it. The chicken was well worth the effort. Sometimes, it pays to do things the right way, even if the right way isn’t the “right way” at all.

Shore Special: Rental-House Wine and Herb Grilled Chicken

(serves 8 to 13, depending on sides and appetites)

  • 3-4 cups dry white wine (cheap is fine, so long as you would drink it on its own)
  • 2 or 3 lemons, juiced
  • More than couple of good “glugs” of extra-virgin olive oil (about 6 tablespoons)
  • 1 head of parsley, chopped
  • 1 bunch of fresh thyme, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 heavy teaspoon fresh pepper
  • 2-3 tablespoons salt
  • 2 whole chickens (about four pounds each), butterflied.

Combine the wine and other ingredients in a bowl and whisk together.

Put the chickens in with the marinade and mix around.

Put each chicken in a gallon Ziploc bag and pour the marinade around each one, evenly.

Marinate the chickens in the bags in the refrigerator for two hours or longer. 

Using a gas grill, heat all elements to high for about fifteen minutes.

Make sure the grill is clean.

Turn off all but one of the elements, and put the chicken, skin side down, over the cooler part of the grill.

Reserve the marinade.

Cover and adjust the grill so it’s about 400 degrees in the grill.

Cook covered for about 50 minutes.

Pour some of the marinade on the chicken.

Flip the birds, and move closer to the heat if possible.

Pour some more marinade on them.

Cook for another 15 minutes or so, or until the internal breast temperature is about 165 and the thigh, too.

If possible, let rest for about ten minutes before serving.

Cut into pieces and enjoy.

Note: For those who really like to do things right, the Cook’s Country recipe is available online. A trial subscription is required.


*(Credit to identifying the “Right Way” condition goes to L. Rust Hills; see “How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man,” for example.)



Three-Bean Salad Recipe

Recently, I had the far-too-rare-these-days chance to see old friends not once but twice in one weekend, and I was delighted. The first occasion was a friend’s barbecue, and I knew that was going to be fun. My friend is a great cook and he kept everyone happy with fish, hot dogs, and burgers off the grill. It was a perfect summer evening.

The second occasion was a trip to the beach the following day, and culinarily I knew that it was going to be a bit trickier. The words “Pot Luck” tipped me off. For me, “Pot Luck” means “Cook or go hungry.” It’s hard for me to trust that a bunch of other folks are ever going to be able to feed me properly, especially when that bunch of folks is so loosely organized that it can barely settle on which beach to go to.

After much back and forth, we agreed on Jacob Riis, and I took matters into my own hands when it came to the food. I made enough three-bean salad to feed an army. I’m not sure how I settled on the idea for a three-bean salad, but the idea came to me, unbidden, shortly after I heard those words “Pot Luck.”

I got started a few days before the trip to the beach. I looked through Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” I checked “The Food 52 Cookbook.” I scanned the Internet. Strangely, I couldn’t find a half decent recipe for a three-bean salad. I found lots of odd but apparently popular suggestions to use canned green beans. Talk about a horror.

I decided on kidney, garbanzo (chick peas), and black beans, and, in the interest of saving time, I figured I could get two cans of each and be done with the salad in about ten minutes. Then I looked at the price of the organic beans: $1.72 a can at my coop. What the?

So I bought dried beans in bulk to save money. Later did the math on what I saved: about $6. It took me two hours to cook the beans (more on that in a moment) so I saved $3 an hour. Perhaps it is not really worth it by a simple dollar measure, but I couldn’t wrap my head around paying more than $10 for the beans alone. I would have felt silly about being so thickheaded, but the home-cooked beans were a revelation. They were incredibly delicious, and they would have been worth it at three-times the price.

The kidney beans and the black beans held their own, but it was the chick peas that settled it for me. I never really liked canned chick peas, finding them kind of bland and slimy, but my home cooked garbanzo beans were so nutty tasting and flavorful, I could have eaten them plain, as a snack.

I wasn’t sure about quantities, and, after some further research, decided to cook a cup of each, which gave me a huge bowl of beans. There seems to be no end to the discussion of how to best cook beans. Presoak? Salt? No salt? I was momentarily nervous, but then just decided to wing it. I cooked each cup with three cups of water, and I just cooked them until they were done. The kidney beans were ready in about forty-five minutes, and the garbanzo and black beans took longer. I realized it’s not even necessary to measure the water. Just keep them covered and drain them when they are done. They should be soft but not falling apart, with a little crunch to each one. Stir them a bit as they cook. It’s not hard. You can do it.

I added chopped red pepper, red onion, and cilantro, and I was finished. For a dressing, Santa Maria (an expert in these things) suggested plain white vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. She was right on the money. The salad was tasty and delicious, and it fed more than six adults, with leftovers for my lunch the next day.  

Three-Bean Beach-Day Salad

  • 1 cup dried Black Beans
  • 1 cup dried Garbanzo Beans (chick peas)
  • 1 cup dried Kidney Beans
  • 2 whole red bell peppers, diced
  • 1 whole head of cilantro, diced
  • 1 large (or two small) red onions, diced

Rinse the beans carefully.

Using three pots (or working sequentially) cook the beans—each variety at a time—in about three cups of water. Cover, bring to a boil, and turn down to a simmer. Stir them occasionally to keep any from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add more water if necessary. Drain them when cooked (break into one or two with a fork or knife and look at its inside—it should be moist all the way through, and not yet at the point where it’s collapsing and turning to mush). It will take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours for each pot of beans. You can do this the day ahead of time.

Cool the beans and combine them in a large bowl.

Add the other ingredients, and dress to taste with olive oil and white vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste.

Note: the salad stores well, either dress or undressed, for a few days.