Fruitcake Weather

Truman Capote and his cousin Sook

I got an e-mail from a friend gently inquiring about fruitcake. Some people think of fruitcake as holiday doorstops, but they haven’t tasted mine. I really can’t boast or really call the fruitcake “mine” because it’s truly Aunt Pearl’s Fruitcake. I never had the pleasure of meeting Pearl. She was the relative of a friend of mine, and every Christmas I would find myself sniffing around their house to see if the mysterious Aunt had forwarded a loaf of heaven their way. Eventually Aunt Pearl wrote down her recipe and my friend gave me a copy. The sad fact is that we are no longer in touch. In fact, we had a bad break, but I do think of Leesa and thank her every time I make a batch of fruitcakes.

Es and I read Truman Capote’s beautiful “A Christmas Memory,” which describes his elderly cousin declaring: "Oh my,....it's fruitcake weather!" I don’t think it was actually fruitcake weather yesterday, but that didn’t stop me from getting all Christmassy in the head. There was a pocket of free time and fruitcakes to be made. We assembled all of the ingredients, cracked a few eggs (The Girl's first on her own!) and at the end of the day had the great satisfaction of seeing the beautiful bumpy loaves lined up on the kitchen counter. Capote’s cousin, according to the story, sent one of hers to Eleanor Roosevelt. I can’t think of a politician today worthy of these cakes, but I suppose if Eleanor Roosevelt were around I’d offer her one.

For years I never shared the recipe, being faithful to Aunt Pearl and keeping the fruitcake as a special holiday gift. Then one year I acquiesced. I gave the recipe to a friend and then…a while later our friendship collapsed. Isn’t that interesting? Is the recipe jinxed? I’m not going to mess with it; I’m keeping it for myself, and if you’re lucky you’re on my list for a little fruitcake this year.


Pasta and Prose

Here's a book recommendation for young readers and people who just like good books: Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, by Sharon Creech. It's a charming story about friendship, love, family, and food. I read it aloud to my 6th grade classes, and they were enthralled the by story and the complicated emotions. Our family listened to it on tape over a long car ride this summer, and there were parts that were so beautiful they made me cry. Granted, I cry easily, and no, I wasn't driving.

Most of the story takes place in the kitchen, and Creech lovingly describes Granny Torrelli making a chicken and pasta soup, homemade cavatelli, meatballs, and spareribs. I've never made homemade pasta, but this book got me as far as buying the semolina flour. It's still in my cupboard, but hey, that's the closest I've ever been to making homemade pasta. Pretty inspiring, hmmm? There's also a simple salad of oranges, olive oil, salt and pepper, and parsley. Doesn't that sound refreshing and easy?


Confessions of the Anonymous Dinner-Slave

Oh that’s not true. Well, the title is not completely true. I have been overwhelmed and feeling like all working people (moms and dads and grandmas and everyone) who serve a family dinner nearly every night should get some kind of merit badge. It’s tough. And as I’ve written in here before, it’s not just the making and the serving. No, it’s the thinking about it, what used to be called “meal planning.” It’s the psychic energy extended to the whole idea of what to cook for dinner. Then there’s the shopping, and the actually lugging of groceries into the house. Then you have to put all that food away, and somehow it seems like it was much easier to put it in the cart and even organize it onto the conveyer belt at the checkout than to put it all away in the right cupboard or fridge shelf.

It’s not that my family hasn’t been having dinner (or that I haven’t been cooking it). I haven’t been writing on the blog because having a new job is just so taxing, so many transitions to make, and things to get used to, and on and on. Sure, we’ve had more dinners out than I care to admit, and our neighbors have had us over much more often than they’ve been to our house. It has seemed that it took every ounce of my creativity and energy to get the meal on the table; there wasn’t much let to spend on reflection and creative writing.

But tonight I made an old stand-by. I have grade reports to write (pages and pages about how my students are doing in my classes), so I needed something easy and quick. I call this dish pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage; that’s pretty much it.

You have to start off boiling a big pot of water for the broccoli rabe. Get that going first. In the meantime, wash up the broccoli rabe and cut it into one to two inch pieces. Get the water going for the pasta too. I believe it’s supposed orecchiette, so that’s what I use, little ear-shaped pasta.

After the big pot of water is boiling, blanch the broccoli rabe for about 3-4 minutes. You can tell when it’s done because you’ll begin to smell the greens. Take them out and into a colander, shock them with some cold water to stop the cooking and preserve the green color.
Slice up some Italian or Italian-like sausage. I used D’Artagnan Mediterranean chicken sausage tonight. It wasn’t as heavy as the Aidells chicken sausage, so it made the dish lighter. Sauté the sausage slices in a skillet with a little bit of olive oil if you’re using a chicken sausage. Let them cook through.

Once the water in the other pot is boiling you’ll be ready to cook the pasta. It will take about 11 minutes for orecchiette.

Put about a tablespoon and a half of olive oil in the empty big pot that cooked the broccoli rabe. Toss in a peeled garlic clove, and turn on the heat so that the olive oil warms and is infused with the garlic. Throw in the cooked broccoli rabe, and let it sauté for a couple of minutes. I add salt, pepper, and a dash or two of hot red pepper flakes.

When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Combine the pasta with the broccoli rabe, the sausage, and some freshly grate romano cheese. Serve and be thankful that you get to sit down.


Flash: Working Mom Tries to Keep it Together: Buys Crock Pot

Technically the word to use today is “slow cooker.” That keeps us "highly educated" "too much time in therapy" types from acknowledging that we are actually in some ways like our mothers.

My mom was not a big fan of many kitchen appliances, but that was mostly because she was not very interested in cooking. But she did have a crock-pot. It was avocado green, tall and round, and I can’t remember a thing that she made in it. Maybe we used it to keep cider hot at a Halloween party.

Cuisinart saved me from the ‘70’s style appliance. They’ve produced a sleek, professional looking contraption of polished chrome that fits perfectly with my Russell Hobbes electric teakettle. My plan is to find “some other place” for it, but for now it boldly hogs a good section of my kitchen counter. I’m compelled to use it to justify the amount of space it takes up.

Design wasn’t the only criteria for choosing the Cuisinart crock- pot (I mean slow-cooker). I did a thorough search on line, reading lots of Amazon reviews, until I came across an article by Jill Hunter Pellettieri in Slate that actually gave a rundown of some of the crock pots on the market. According to the Pellettieri, the Cuisinart “wins the prize” for cooking, ease of use, design, taste, and value. That clinched it.

So far I’ve had successes and failures. The Husband insists that the soups have been the best. I made a split pea soup that came out rich and delicious. I made an Italian White Bean Soup from Marcella Hazan that was pretty good (though some of the beans were more tender than others). I’ve also made an okay chicken with wine and a pretty good pot roast (though I will definitely use chuck next time).

The biggest problem for me seems to be figuring out how much liquid to add, how long to set the timer for, and what level of heat to set it at (low or high). According to the directions, if you set the thing on “high” it will cook the food to some safe temperature and then continue the rest of the time on “low.” After the timer is finished it will then automatically set itself to warm, keeping the food hot until you come home hungry.

I tried to make a lentil soup, but the minute I came in the door I could smell that the poor things were running out of water. Some were crunchy and it was even crispy around the edges. Then there was the second attempt at pea soup, a sad, sad story. I thought I would cook the pea on low all day, to make sure there wasn’t a repeat of the lentil saga. We all came home hungry, but the hard little pea pebbles were still sunk in a big puddle of water. I took the peas out of the pot and tried to cook them over the stove. Two days later they still weren’t done. You can only imagine the frustration.

On Monday, however, the thing redeemed itself. I sautéed some onion, celery and carrot, threw that in with some smoked, sliced ham shanks, black-eyed peas and water. I started it out on high and let it cook for hours and hours. I wasn’t trusting it with legumes, so I had already decided that this meal was going to be for the next night. For the next few days we ate the most scrumptious black-eyed peas over rice. The vegetables had cooked into an incredibly tasty sauce. The smoked shank meat fell off the bone, giving nice chunky pieces of ham to go along with the incredibly tender peas. It was a triumph.


My Obsession

Although I mostly write about dinner, I have a different obsession. Cookies. Well, not exactly cookies (though I’m rarely known to pass up a chocolate chip with walnuts), I’m talking about what Europeans might call biscuits (beece-kwee).

Part 1 Le Petit Beurre
I was fortunate enough (and I mean really, really lucky) to study in France for a year in a town that had a Brun factory. Brun is a brand of cookie, kind of like our Nabisco, I suppose. And because the dollar was so incredibly high at that point, I could buy these sumptuous and delicate little cookies for about 20 cents a pack. They’re called Petit Beurre Extra. It’s the Extra that’s important; otherwise you’ll end up with something LU (French cookie company who makes those lovely little schoolboy cookies) calls “veritable,” which means “the real thing.” No, the perfect cookies, the most amazing little wafers that have the right amount of crunch and butter are the Extras. And here’s the truly sad part: I’ve never, ever seen them for sale any place but France.

Part 2 Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treat Minis
Don’t go for the regular size Breakfast Treats; they have much more crumb and are higher in saturated fats than the Minis. Look for the crunchy little Minis (of course neither Fairway nor my local Food Emporium sells them) and dip them in your coffee or tea.

Part 3 Mulino Bianco i Rigoli
These are little honey flavored cookies from Italy, and they are so amazingly perfect that I am very particular with whom I share them. They look like a big Petit Beurre, but the honey flavor gives a zing that takes it to another level. Again, what adds to their specialness is that they are so incredibly hard to find. I first had them in a little Italian food shop near Friends Seminary on East 16th Street. They had a glass canister of them on the counter and you could take a couple with your coffee to go. That place didn’t last very long because Starbucks was moving in a few doors down and part of their deal was that the little Italian competition had to go.

Now I sometimes find them at Buon Italia at Chelsea Market. I buy about 3 packages at a time, but at $4.00 a box it adds up pretty fast.

Part 4 Polaîne’s Punition
Imagine that you walk into a bakery and there in heaps and mounds on the counter are teeny little butter cookies for you to snack on while you wait your turn. They are like crunchy butter that just melts in your mouth. That’s what it’s like at Polaîne in Paris, and you can order them online (4.4 pounds of cookies that will keep for “at least a month”) for $64.10 (including tax and delivery) from www.polaine.fr I suppose that might work if you ate a lot of cookies and had a lot of money. But if I had a lot of money, I'd go get them myself in Paris.


Stand Up Dinner

I can’t really say that I made dinner tonight. The best way that I can put it is that I “opened” dinner. The Husband is at his studio, so it was just The Girl and me. We were sitting there at 6:30 going through all of the extras in her new Angelina Ballerina video (Choreograph your own dance! Find the cheese to feed the castle ghost!), and that took about all the enthusiasm I could muster.

School starts next week (and I’ll be starting a new teaching job), so these waning days of leisure and summer need to be embraced. Making dinner didn’t really seem like a priority. With nothing planned and nothing even leftover, I padded over to the pantry shelf to see what I could find. The Girl stayed glued to the opening credits, anticipating yet another viewing of the dancing mouse. I came back with a box of crackers and asked her how she felt about hummus.

She was game, so we went upstairs, peeled open the box of whole-grain crackers, sliced up some apple, opened up a tub of hummus (it still had 28 days before the expiration), and found some pickles that we got at the Farmer’s Market last Saturday. We sat at the counter and dipped crackers and such into the hummus, chatting and making jokes.

I have to admit that though the meal wasn’t much, some would call it a snack, it still gave that opportunity for connection that the meat and potato meals provide. There was actually a closeness there at the kitchen counter, taking turns dipping, comparing what tasted best, discussing the pronounciation of her name, my teaching her that there is actually a country called Djibouti (Eastern Africa, near equator).

Then I had a brainstorm of an idea: “Would you eat hummus for lunch at school?”

“I like it here, but I wouldn’t eat it for lunch,” she said.

“Is that because hummus is kind of weird and kids might make jokes about it like they did when you had tacos?”


“What if we called it ‘dip’? Would that work?” I pressed, hoping to add another possibility to the lunch list.

“We could call it ‘cracker dip,’ and it would be okay.”

"I'll put it in a little round plastic container and then you could have crackers too"

So that is how one overwhelmed mom exhaled a bit by not having to fix dinner, enjoyed herself, and added another easy solution to the lunchtime dilemma.

Not bad.


It's 5:30-Do you know what you're having for dinner?

I’m wondering how long does it take frozen shrimp to thaw? What am I going to do with the shrimp after they thaw? Will Es and the boy from next door eat them with curry?

I’m guessing 30 min. in cold water, grill on skewers, no way!



School is coming up on me, and I just got that letter home telling us we can’t send any nut products for lunch or snack. The Girl was just about doing a happy dance when she heard the news. Last year I gave her PB&J sandwiches for about a month, and I finally got sick of making them and then throwing them away every day. She has refused them ever since.

Still I was hoping that I could get away with a month of slathering bread with spreads with I waited for the coffee to kick in. No such luck.

So here’s an attempt to come up with a list of possible lunches that can survive without refrigeration but may require a hot thermos.

1. Some kind of pasta

2. Edamame

3. Sliced apples

4. Cheese and Apples

5. Fruit – all kinds

6. Red pepper strips (or orange, yellow, green)

7. Carrot sticks

8. Hummus and carrot sticks (or celery) or pita

9. Did I mention pasta?

10. Crackers and Cheese

11. Dried Fruit (esp. cherries because she’ll eat them)

I just asked Es what she sees other kids eating that she likes to eat. She said “pasta.”

12. Beans (esp. black beans)

13. Ravioli – oh right, that’s pasta

14. Tea Sandwiches: cucumber? Smoked turkey? Apple and cheese? [For mornings when I’ve already had a lot of coffee.]

15. Soup

Okay, so that’s my starting list. I’m going to keep adding to it…and suggestions are always welcome. What I don’t want to hear is how horrible dried fruit is or how bad anything else is on this list. I already left yoghurt off because of SFMom. And I’m telling you right now, chocolate milk is going to qualify as a snack in this house and that’s it!

And I'm also laying down the gauntlet to any folks from the nabe who scoff at Pizza Friday. They can start making lunch for my kid every Friday if they vote that little weekly reprieve down—and that goes for the little Anti-Pizza Friday contingent in my own house too!


The Amazing Woman Juggler

The summer is winding down, and I’m getting kind of jittery. The big question that every working Mom (and some working dads? …maybe) asks herself: How am I supposed to fit everything in to my schedule?

Even as I’m writing this, The Husband is informing me that The Girl wants a play date with a friend and that she told him that I “forgot.” I’m home more, so it makes sense that I be the one to schedule it. Okay, that’s true. But still…

What is it about trying to fit everything into place, like a jigsaw puzzle that has too many pieces, that makes me want to run from the room pulling my hair?

And on top of The Girl’s dance lessons and piano lessons, my seeing friends when I can, going to therapy, doing laundry, shopping for groceries, keeping up with regular doctor appointments, sewing for fun, keeping the garden watered, scheduling repairmen when necessary, getting the car tuned up, going to work…I have to fix dinner. How is this supposed to work?


And the Livin' is Easy

Maybe it’s practice. Maybe it’s a new mindset. I don’t know. I put together a lunch party and didn’t even break a sweat.

Jim and Vika were coming over at 2:00 pm, and here it was 9:00 and I hadn’t even thought up a menu. So rather than panic (regular mode), I sat at the table with a cup of coffee and some cook books and went through the possibilities (new and improved). I opted for:

Poached Salmon with Yoghurt Dill Sauce
Black Bean and Orzo Salad
Grilled Asparagus
Peach and Blueberry Crisp

I did the grocery shopping and preparation in 4 hours! It was as if my brain went on autopilot and I just knew what to do and when to do it.

First off: poach the salmon (in water, white wine, peppercorns, lemon, salt and dill. Cover the salmon with the liquid. Cover and bring to a boil. When it boils turn off the heat and let it sit for 30 minutes or so in the hot bath.

Peach and Blueberry Crisp – Peel and quarter 2.5 pounds of peaches. Combine peaches with 1 C of blueberries,1/4C white sugar, 1T instant tapioca, 1/2t lemon zest, 1-1/2T lemon juice. Grind up the topping in a Cuisinart until coarse: 5T chilled butter, 1/4C brown sugar, 1/4C white sugar, 1/4t nutmeg, 1/4t cinnamon, 3/4
c nuts (I chose pecans). Put the fruit in the bottom of a glass square-ish baking dish (so you can see how it’s cooking inside), and coat with topping. Bake for 30 minutes at 375, then pump the heat up to 400 and bake for about 10 more (not letting it burn). This recipe is from Cooks Illustrated.

We sat out on the deck talking about vacations and work, and even a pesky, determined yellow jacket couldn’t get us out of our summer mood.

The Peach Blueberry Crisp was by far the highlight of the meal. The peaches were soft, sweet, and melted in your mouth. The topping gave a gratifying crunch that made you want to scrape the sides of the pan for the crispiest bit, something I indulged in after our guests had left. The Husband was much less cunning. He unapologetically plopped the remaining helping into a bowl all for himself.


the basic cause, source, or origin of something

My Uncle Harold was my grandma's oldest child. She adored him. That and the fact that he was more of an intellectual than anyone else in the family put him out of step with his twin sisters (my mother and my aunt). He could be incredibly sarcastic and spoke with a kind of nasal whine that would have made him very hip in New York. He liked astronomy, philosophy, and chess, and he had a little 24 hour restaurant called Cherryland Cafe in Hayward, California.

Uncle Harold worked the graveyard shift, which catered to the workers at the Hunts ketchup factory across the street. My grandma and I would walk there on summer nights, cut in through the parking lot to the backdoor, and Harold would whisk us up something. He always had a pot of chili going, made a decent burger, and sometimes I would get those flattened out crispy prawns.

He was a multi-tasker in that in addition to his short-order duties, he also had a game of chess going at the counter. It turns out that Cherryland was an East Bay institution for late night chess. He had a whole crew of regulars who would spar with him and each other over the board. One article that I found about the cafe on the web says that "when Harold triumphs, the defeat can be very embarrassing for his opponent, since he usually is cooking and serving customers as he moves."

I missed all that because at first I was too young and later began a quest to find things more remarkable than my family. Uncle Harold taught me how to play chess when I was about 6, but I never got into the game. I still have the set he gave me: big, clunky weighted pieces that mean business. So I have that, a fondness for diners of all kinds, and a feeling that I missed out on something way cooler than I ever suspected.


Too Darn Hot

Once, in a boring meeting, I started to list my most memorable meals of all time. They were easily catagorized: meals where the people and circumstances were unforgettable and meals where the food itself seemed to awaken me from a sleep.

A lunch in Helsinki many, many years ago is an example of the latter. I was visiting some friends in Finland and their father invited me to lunch at a restaurant that specialized in all things Finnish. The glassware was by iittala, the tableware by arabia, table linens by Marimekko, in a room looking out on the Baltic and Helsinki itself. Still all of this paled next to a meal which couldn't have been more straightforward: smoked salmon, dilled potatoes, and a glass of white wine. The simplicity and elegance of that lunch along with the eye-opening zing of dill and salmon together made me feel as if I lived in a beautiful world.

Smoked salmon and dilled potatoes have become a menu favorite for the past 20 years: great for my own birthday meal when I don't want to cook, wonderful for New Year's Eve because it goes so well with champange. I have tried and occasionaly succeeded in recreating the sublime, but firsts are hard to beat.

Last night the old favorite became my ace in the hole because it was just too hot to do much about dinner. I boiled some of the smallest red bliss potatoes I could find, made up a quick sauce of dill and mustard, and put the smoked salmon on a platter. That was it.

We were all too broiled by the summer heat to eat too much or linger at the table. The Girl and the little boy next door wanted to get back to the sprinkler as soon as they could, so it was a short and functional meal. Not overly exhausted from "cooking," I even helped with the clean-up.


Table for Two

After months and months of thinking about, shopping for, and preparing family dinners, I was recently struck by how important it is to not have the whole family together at the table once in a while. We were all on vacation with Evan’s family up in Ashland, Oregon, and the opportunity arose for Evan and I to go out to dinner to a fine restaurant — alone. This hardly ever happens, but there we were with a cadre of built-in babysitters and two hours to enjoy a meal. What the heck, reservations were made!

Those who know me well are probably fully aware that I am not one to shy away from a splendid restaurant, and it was important to me that Es learn the rudiments of “restaurant manners” at an early age so I could keep up with this habit. I have lots of memories of wonderful meals that she and I have shared: tea at the Plaza Hotel on a day when nothing seemed to be going right, lunch at the white table cloth Scossa in Paris to get ourselves out of the rain and assess our Petit Bateau cache, and bowls and bowls of penne with butter all over Manhattan.

But having a nice dinner with one’s husband (or wife) is another story. There’s a sublime pleasure in just relaxing and having an easy conversation over delicious food that is so necessary and wonderful that I can’t believe how rarely we have the experience. Sure, it's about cost (meal + babysitter = yikes), but it's also about priorities.

Given the opportunity to only have to splurge on one aspect of the date, we treated ourselves to a meal at a little place called Amuse in Ashland, and everything about the meal was exquisite. It’s the kind of place that offers a little amuse bouche before your appetizer (mine was a little piece of toast with some charged up pesto) and the possibility of cheese course—in other words: my kind of place.

Evan and I had a fabulous meal(we both had salmon on a crispy little potato pancake and if my memory serves me there was some kind of creme fraiche and dill in the mix); wonderful wine; some astonishing cheese; and rich, uninterrupted conversation. We reminisced, laughed, and made a couple of plans; It felt more like a real date than anything in a long time.

My friend N. had a similar experience lately. She was on her way to meet her husband at a posh French restaurant for a birthday lunch. She decided to look at her husband with the eyes of someone on a date (possibly some of these: open-minded, curious, intrigued), and I think she’s on to something. In order to have a satisfying family dinner most of the time, we have to take ourselves out of it once in a while to re-connect with our partners and remember why we want to sit down with these people all the time.


Maurice's Hot Summer Tip

Maurice reminded me that now is the time to grill asparagus, so that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I used to carefully cut the bottoms and sometimes even go so far as peel the spears. No, he instructed. Bend the asparagus spear and let it break off where it wants to—that’s the right spot. Don’t bother with peeling them for grilling. Both of those suggestions have saved me lots of time.

Drizzle the asparagus with some olive oil and grind some fresh pepper over them, then put them on the grill: direct heat. Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the spears, but I’ve been liking them pencil-thin. The thin ones are more apt to fall through the grate, but think of this as yet another skill to develop. You have to watch them pretty carefully so they don’t char up, but let get a little brown. I’ve even liked them a little over cooked, which I’m sure many would complain about.

I wait until they’re evenly cooked, then sprinkle them with salt off the grill. They remind me of French Fries this way, a finger food that you can serve either with your grilled chicken or before as an appetizer. I can imagine grilled asparagus tossed in a salad, but mine barely make it to the table, let alone in another dish.


Variation on a Theme

I made another cilantro/lime marinade last night, and I have to say this version is even better (sorry, Stonewall Kitchens). I put a couple of handfuls of washed and dried, fresh cilantro in the blender. I added the juice of two limes, about a half a teaspoon of salt, some fresh coriander seeds, peppercorns, and a little whole cumin seeds. Then I blended. After everything was chopped up, I added olive oil to form an emulsion like last time. I gave it a taste, and it needed something more. Remembering that I had seen salad dressing recipes with lime call for orange juice, I looked in the fridge for something sweet. No orange juice, but I did have mango juice. I dipped a little bit of the marinade on one spoon and a little bit of mango juice on the other to try the two out. Oh my was that good!I added about 1/4C of the juice and blended well.

I marinated chicken breasts in the marinade and then brushed more on while the chicken cooked.

I tried the Cook's Illustrated version of grilled corn on the cob. They say to peel the corn down to the last layer of husk, grill 8-12 minutes, turning every minute in a half. Master Chef Maurice is against the grilled corn idea, but I thought I would try it out. Result: It tasted kind of nice and nutty, but it was a lot of work to stand over the grill turning it every minute and a half. The regular boiling method produces fine corn with much less work.


Out of Gas

I had a pretty good menu planned for last night, but instead I made one of the worst meals of my life. I had intended to grill up some shrimp—seasoned with lemon, garlic, and whatever else, along with a sliced avocado squash. I thought of serving the beautifully grilled shrimp on a bed of rice. So far, so good.

But then the grill wouldn't light. File this as argument number 321 for having both a gas and a charcoal grill.

So I sautéed the shrimp, which became less than memorable, except for the squishy centers. The squash (which cost $2.50 at the Larchmont Farmer's Market!) was bleh under the broiler. The rice couldn't help anything. Besides, it was kind of like paste.

Better luck next time. And I'm going to need it too; Lora is coming to dinner tomorrow!


Announcing: The Summer Food Competition

Here is the first official entry in the category: best dish to take to someone's house for a barbecue. Black Bean Salad.

We were invited to our neighbor's house for a super-casual barbecue, and I wanted to bring something easy, fresh, that would travel across the backyard well, and that most people might like. I love black beans, and I've had lots of variations on black bean salads, so I decided to make one with all the different things that I love all in one big bowl.

When I make a salad I mostly measure with my eye. I want things to be represented but not dominate, so my process is chop a little bit, see how that looks—add more if necessary. Here are the ingredients for the salad, a salad that is so good that I quietly took the leftovers home and am eating it right now for breakfast.

Black beans (of course)— I used one can of Goya beans, carefully rinsed.
Orzo — cooked in salted water
Corn — I cooked one ear of fresh corn. I think I'd use frozen, but not canned.
Red Pepper — diced to about the same size as a black bean
Yellow Pepper — also diced to about the same size as a black bean
Red Onion — I used about 1/4, diced smaller than a black bean
Mango — about 1/2 C, diced
Cilantro — fresh, about 1/3 C chopped
Juice of 2 limes
salt / pepper
Ground Coriander — a couple of shakes
Ground Cumin — a couple of shakes

I'm eating it right now with a dollop of spicy guacamole on the side. I would add some diced jalapeno if I didn't want kids to have any and wanted most of it for myself. Fresh little tomatoes could be good too, but chopped tomatoes might make it a little watery.

Make it. Love it. Submit your own best take-away summer dishes.


You Say "Tomato"; I Say "La Tomate"

I got the latest Penzey’s catalog today. They’re a mail order spice and herb company with what must be very Mid-Western roots. I place orders from them from time to time, unless I run out of something and need it right away. Now they’ve opened up a shop in the food mall at Grand Central Station, so I’ll be able to save on shipping fees.

I thumbed through the catalog anyway because I’m always entranced by the food photography. They offer recipes that use a good portion of their product and the photos that reveal the desired result are shockingly bright. They’re old school, like the photos that illustrate Betty Crocker cookbooks or 1001 Quick Meals Using Campbell’s Soup. You can almost feel the warmth of the wattage used to light the food.

All of a sudden a bunch of bright shiny tomatoes caught my eye, and there it was: La Tarte! Penzey’s was suggesting that we should all make fresh Tomato Tarts this summer. They put the Penzey’s spin on the recipe by calling for Shallot Salt (a new product of theirs) and suggest that you could use either dried or fresh basil (as if!).

The part that truly surprised me, and made The Husband jump, was their suggestion to spread a full 2 T of Dijon mustard on the bottom layer. Regular readers will know the problems that can come from that kind of advice. They leave out the cheese too, which I think is a mistake. The Gruyere adds a nuttiness that balances out the tangy mustard and the sweet tomatoes.

It’s a strange to see something that has seemed so quixotic and unattainable in boldface in a catalog. Everyone will be making Tomato Tarts now, and I wish them luck.


The Squash of Summer

The vegetable of the moment in our house is summer squash. I slice it , length-wise, in thirds. Then sprinkle salt and pepper; drizzle with olive oil. I put it on the grill for about 3-4 minutes a side. That's it.

I used to steam summer squash and zucchini, and it always tasted kind of bitter and watery. Grilling makes summer squash incredibly sweet and succulant. I make sure not to overcook it, so there is still a bit of bite to it. Plus, the grill marks make it look much fancier than it really is.


More on Steak

I can clearly remember the first meal I had with The Husband. We were walking out of an Environmental Ethics class in Berkeley, and he was on his way to The Stuffed Inn on the North Side of campus. He didn’t really invite me to dinner, it was much more casual than that. He was going to get what must have been the cheapest vegetarian meal in town and I could too.

The Stuffed Inn was a darkly wooded den of a place with serve yourself soup, kept hot all day in steam kettles. Split Pea soup was their specialty, it seemed, and you could ladle yourself up a big bowlful and grab a wedge of chewy bread to go along with it. I was nearly in love with him by then, and it just seemed so fitting to be discussing living attuned with the environment and then having a peasanty porridgey bean soup. At that point in my life I knew how many acres of arable soil it took to produce a pound of beef, and I tried really hard to live a life that considered human impact on the planet.

I am not a hemp-wearing vegetarian. That’s a fact. I think my life began to shift when we moved to New York City. It can be extremely difficult to feel in touch with the Earth when you see so little of it. Some things don’t change: The Husband is an avid recycler. I prefer to buy organic food. Some things have.

Once bean soups were satisfying and comforting for The Husband. Now steak does the trick. When I know that he’s been having a hard time and that he needs to feel loved, I make steak. I either pan-fry it in a little bit of peanut oil or put it out on the grill. I like to make a rub out of coarsely ground peppercorns and coriander seeds, and a sprinkling of salt. I’ve gotten pretty good at telling how much it has cooked by how much the steak “gives” when you press on it (the softer it is, the more rare it is).

I usually buy prime beef at Fairway. It’s kind of pricey, but the three of us share one New York or Rib Eye steak, so it doesn’t set us back that much. Once I bought a strip steak at Lobel’s on Madison. It was delicious, but I just couldn’t rationalize the price. (Their ribs though, that’s another story).

The Husband can be less talkative at the table when we have steak for dinner. But that’s also because he’s usually enjoying his meal, as well as busily cutting up The Girl's portion too.


Turkey Because I'm Chicken

I grew up on hamburgers. I used to pinch pieces of the raw meat when my grandma was making meatloaf or burgers. She used a castiron meat grinder that she screwed onto the tabletop and ground it all herself. Years later, when I first saw someone eat steak tartare in France (a plateful of raw ground beef with a raw egg on top), I was overcome by both desire and revulsion.

We were regulars at Val's Burger's in Hayward, California when I was a kid. My cousin and I would get charcoal grilled "baby burgers," grilled by Val himself, and then add ketchup from a squirt bottle, lots of pickles. We'd share a plastic basket of crinkle-cut french fries and be in heaven.

Fear of mad cow disease has pretty much taken me off of ground beef, so whenever I go to a diner I usually order the same thing: a turkey burger, well done with tomato, onion, and mustard. They are usually pretty dry and sometimes taste like cardboard with mustard. I decided that I could possibly do better, so I took a stab at my own turkey burgers.

I didn't do any of the "fancy" things that make diner turkey burgers even worse. I didn't add chopped onion to the meat or add anything else that makes you sorry you ordered it. I simply made patties out of the burgers, put a little salt, pepper and ground coriander on top and then put them on the grill. I pulled out some of the bready part of the bun, gave each a brush of olive oil and let them toast on the grill for the last couple of minutes.

What really set these burgers apart, I think, were the condiments. I'm so tired of getting 1/2" slices of onion and tomatoes at diners. I know it takes more trouble to slice them thinly, but they would save money by having the onion and tomatoes go further. Mine were about 1/8", which seemed perfect. You could double up on tomatoes without having them slip out of the sandwich. I couldn't find dill pickle chips, so I went for sliced, and they were fine too.

I got mixed results with this dinner. The Husband was extremely happy (or extremely hungry—or both); he ate three! I thought they were much, much better than anything I previously ordered, and ate two (they were small). The Girl ate the pickles. Lots of them. At one point during dinner she came over and climbed on my lap and whispered, "I think I'm going to throw up." We waltzed away from the table, and I applauded her for paying attention to her body.

I know I'm going to be dissatisfied next time I go to a diner. Maybe I'll have to be like The Husband and order the fish filet sandwich. Next time I'm in the Bay Area, though, I'm going to Vals.


I Did It - My Way

I'm a big, big fan of Stonewall Kitchen's Cilantro Lime Dressing. Mostly I use it for marinating chicken before grilling, but at about $5.00 a bottle ($5.95 if you buy it through their website) it can get pretty expensive. I can go through a bottle of that with a whole chicken. So, in an effort toward living the frugal life I decided to make my own cilantro / lime concoction.

I put about 2-3 limes (cut away the peel), 1/2C fresh cilantro, 1 heaping Tbl of toasted, whole coriander seeds, a clove of garlic, and about a tsp. of salt in the blender. Then I added 1/4 of olive oil. I blended it really well for about 20 seconds. Then I poured in more olive oil while the blender was running to get it the consistency I wanted: a thick paste. Then I pourerd it over cubes of chicken in a shallow baking dish to marinate.

When it was time to get dinner going I jabbed the chicken cubes on to skewers and grilled them for about 8 minutes. Other grilled vegetables balanced out the menu (e.g., mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, tofu), and it was all served over rice.

Here are some of the good things about this:

1. It took hardly no time at all.
2. I got to use up some of my "older" limes.
3. The thick paste adhered nicely to the chicken, so a lot of the flavor stayed -on- the chicken.
4. It was truly delicious. Everybody said so.


The Trout

I've been immersed in readings about women cooking in France. I finished the recent Julia Child memoir with the definite understanding that not only am I not Julia Child, I don't even want to be like her. I don't have her drive and enthusiasm for the details and technique of cooking. I'm not even especially intrigued by nuanced combinations of flavors. I cook for friends and family, and I'm still trying to figure out my nexus of cooking, pleasure and servitude.

After Julia Child, I picked up Madeleine Kamman's When French Women Cook, a memoir with recipes. She goes through each stage of her life, chapter by chapter describing the women who influenced her with their cooking. There's Marie-Charlotte, her great-grandmother, who taught her La Cuisine Misere ("cooking something from nothing"). A recipe for Cream of Dandelion Soup (Creme de Pissenlits) follows. I haven't tried this recipe, and I can pretty much promise that I never will. It's stipulated that you want two pounds of the early dandelions, and it's already too late for that.

Victoire the mushroom maven is Kamman's next mentor. She starts that chapter saying "Disappointment comes early in life." How true! Her letdown came when she injured herself in the audition for the Paris Opera Ballet and was sent off to a distant relative's care for recovery. This raises all sorts of unanswered questions; Kamman stays focused on her accidental apprenticeship, recording what she refers to as a "France that has disappeared."

She describes a time that she and Victoire celebrated a mushroom windfall by eating out, having Truites au Lard. Following the theme of disappointment, the special meal didn't "measure up," so Victoire promised to prepare the dish the way it was supposed to be. Her story goes on with the older lady catching a trout with her bare hands, and of course they tasted better than those from the restaurant.

Having passed on not only weed soup but Squabs with Grapes and Pineau and Poached Chicken in Vinegar, I decided it was time to recapture lost France in my kitchen. Even though I knew I wouldn't be able to grab any trout except at Citarella, I decided on Truites au Lard. It's basically trout pan-fried in fat rendered from diced pancetta. [Note to self: try to avoid using the word lard in recipes; real turn off.] It was one of those French recipes that are deceptively easy:

• soak trout in milk (I don't know why, but it said to, and I did)
• render pancetta fat (1/2 oz cubed pancetta for each trout)
• take out crispy pancetta.
• flour the trout and saute about 4 min. a side. (I had some big trout, so this wasn't nearly enough time.
When the trout are done, put them on a platter and return the crispy pancetta to the pan along with 2 cloves of garlic, 2 T parsley and 2 T butter. It's done when the garlic starts to color up.
• Pour this over the trout. and serve.

I had the full Madeleine Kamman experience: I was thoroughly disappointed. I don't know what exactly I was trying to conjure. This certainly wasn't the fresh trout my mom used to make when everyone had gone fishing in the Sacramento Delta. Nor did it seem decidedly French with the mammoth fish on offer in New York. I had high expectations, to be sure, anticipating being transported to some little French kitchen where nobody had to hurry about synchronizing dinner, piano practice, bath, and bedtime stories in two hours time.


Iron Chef Maurice!

The Husband's dad (my cooking mentor), Maurice, is here for a visit from California, and this presents an opportunity for both learning and anxiety. After a lunch out at Nick and Toni’s in Manhattan, we drove up to Fairway on 125th street to plan the night’s meal. “What should we do for dinner?” I asked.

Smiling, Maurice offered: “Hey, you decide. It’s up to you. Cook anything you want.” It all seemed so inconsequential to him. So easy.

When in doubt, fix chicken. So I got an organic broiler and had the butcher butterfly it for me. I thought of rice and then an endive salad. Maurice was being completely nonjudgmental, pushing the cart along and oohing and aahing at the shelves of oils and sauces and the tubs of olives and capers. He couldn’t resist though when we came along the little Italian cippolini onions. I had never noticed these before. They’re right next to the shallots and the ginger, across from the cornhusks for tamales. He noted that the price was about a third of that in Sacramento and started stuffing about eight or so into a bag.

We came across a heap of pears (Bartlett, Red Bartlett, Anjou) and Maurice bagged 4 of those, along with some heavy cream from the cold room.

Then we came by some “heirloom” tomatoes. One of the highlights of our annual trip to Sacramento is when Maurice takes me to the Farmer’s Market and we pick out wild and gruesome looking tomatoes to slice and drizzle with olive oil. I was hoping that these New York tomatoes might qualify as worthy. Maurice looked at the $5 a pound price and edged over the cheaper beefsteak variety. “You have breadcrumbs? Parmesan cheese?” We picked up some oregano and then headed over to the check out line.

When we got home I threw together a marinade for the chicken (lime, garlic, crushed cilantro, olive oil, s&p) and Maurice started in on the onions (peeling and trimming).

As I grilled the chicken and cooked the rice (sautéing in butter first, adding a sprig of the oregano, and covering the lid in a linen towel (I don’t know, that’s what a French woman taught me), Maurice was simmering the onions in some butter and olive oil and a bit of water. He was also halving and cleaning the tomatoes, crushing garlic, stuffing breadcrumbs, Parmesan olive oil and oregano into the nooks and crannies of the tomatoes—ready to be roasted in the oven.

Then I washed the escarole and made a 3:1 olive oil/ balsamic vinegar salad dressing. As the onions were perfuming the whole house with their heavy, sweet fragrance, he let the sauce cook down among the tender little buds and then caramelized them with some balsamic vinegar.

So there on the table was a nicely grilled chicken, some white rice, a nice green salad along with the most delectable little onion buttons you have probably ever seen and some squishy bright red tomatoes oozing with garlic and cheesy bits.

If you were lucky you got an onion small enough to pop in your mouth all at once, that way you had that little explosion happening as you bit into it. As for the tomatoes, I’m glad The Girl didn’t like them because that left more for me. I choose to cut them into pieces and plopped it on a piece of baguette. The only thing that would have made it better is if we were sitting in a café in Italy.

I got up to give The Girl a bath, and when we came back down Maurice was sautéing the pears, building up a caramel sauce, to which he added some of the heavy cream. He cooked it down and cooked it down, shaking the pan to keep the pears from burning or sticking. When the sauce started to turn a light brown, they were close to being done, and he carefully waited for that moment when they were just right. I was in charge of scooping up the vanilla ice cream that went on the side. He said he saw this recipe on the America’s Test Kitchen show and that they had said to serve it with blue cheese. We all agreed that cheesing up the caramel pears was just plain wrong.

As I scooped my final bite of pear, scraping whatever bits of caramel sauce I could onto my spoon, I considered not that I had been beat, for this wasn’t a competition. It was more like cooking with Master Kan, and I was trying to snatch the pebble.


It's What's For Dinner

Laurie Colwin told me about flank steak; then it took me years to try it. I passed over the New York and Ribeye cuts at Fairway because I just couldn't see putting all that money on one steak. But here's what made the flank steak good tonight: I smashed up some peppercorns and some coriander seeds, sprinkled in a little salt and then added some olive oil. This made a flavorful rub. I grilled it for about 7 minutes a side and everyone was happy.

I grilled the little pencil asparagus too, without dropping even one down the grates.


Where There's a Will

It started with one of my best qualities: optimism. I was going past the fish case at a nearby fancy-schmancy market when my eyes fell upon some gorgeous wild salmon filets. I wasn’t sure how I would prepare it (broil? grill? Try out one of those smoker bags that stowed away some place?), I just new that a hunk of that salmon was coming home with me.

But then it became Thursday evening and one of my worst qualities set in: lethargy. I think the religious call it sloth. In my defense, I had spent most of the day furiously working on a project (a muslin for a dress that was going very, very badly), and when dinner time rolled around I lost all interest in the salmon.

The Girl fed right into my mood. When she found out that it was just the two of us for dinner she made a winning plea for Arthur Pasta. Still, I knew that I had to do something with the salmon while it was fresh, so I poached the salmon while we spooned up orange mounds of whatever Arthur pasta really is. And actually, the crispness of my Sancerre went well with the tang of the pasta. Well, it was kind of like that.

Now it's the next night, and I have opaque pink salmon, speckled with coriander seeds and peppercorns lying on a plate in the fridge. Again, its me and Es (Evan is at his studio painting again), but my energy is uplifted, having solved one of the horrible sewing problems. Optimism and enthusiasm take over and I make just about the world’s best salmon cakes. I adapated Mark Bittman’s Salmon Croquette recipe, borrowed an egg from next door, and served the delectable crusted patties at about 8:00 p.m.

I can attest to the fact that children love them. My sample size is weak, but according to my sole juvenile test subject they were “great” and “beautiful.” Adults too have raved. “Write this recipe down; it’s a winner,” said The tired and hungry Husband when he got home an hour later. And that was his comment after eating one cold!

Here’s how to make them:

Combine about 1 to 3/4 pound poached salmon with 1/3 C mayonnaise, 1/4 finely chopped white onion, 1/4 C finely chopped red bell pepper, about 2 tsp Dijon mustard, 1/2 to 3/4 C bread crumbs, one egg, 2 Tbl. finely chopped fresh parlsey, 1/2 tsp Tabasco sauce, 1/2 tsp. ground coriander, pepper, and a bit of salt.

Form into 3” round cakes, any bigger and they can be hard to flip.

Cover each cake in panko (Japanese bread crumb).

Pour 1/4 inch of oil in skillet and let it get pretty hot.

Cook each salmon cake about 2.5 minutes per side, letting the crust get golden brown. Adjust heat as necessary.

Let cakes rest and blot off extra oil on paper towels. Serve and enjoy.

Thanks to the Riverdale Salmon Students for the great salmon painting.


Food for Thought

I recently picked up Julia Child’s posthumously published memoir, My Life in France, and it drives home some of the many differences between the two of us. Although we both love France and French food, I’m nowhere near as passionate or dedicated to French cuisine, or cooking in general. She is just so excited about every little thing about learning to cook. She writes about the thrill she had in studying at Le Cordon Bleu, how she couldn’t wait to get home and prepare dishes (such as pigeon, I’m not kidding) for Paul.

That’s not me, and ever since reading about her zeal for the very act of cooking I’ve been asking myself what it is that I like about it. What about cooking, meal-planning, serving and eating a meal do I enjoy?

Then today I read Frank Bruni’s review of Jean-Georges in Manhattan. I have kind of eaten at Jean-Georges in that The Girl was invited to a birthday party there. She went to day care with Mr. Vongerichten’s nephew and his 5th birthday party was held at the restaurant. This was one party where the adults didn’t drop off the kids and race out. We stayed and lingered over the wonderful food, though I can’t remember what exactly was served. I do know that you could get a cappuccino on demand. The kids ate pizza and chicken tenders, probably a first for the restaurant.

In Bruni’s review he raves about the complex flavors that are layered in the dishes at Jean-Georges, how he had to carefully take bites so that each ingredient was on his fork. I love eating out as much as anybody, and that kind of dining experience sounds intriguing, but it’s not what I’m aiming for in the kitchen or even when I choose a restaurant.

On the other hand, I’m not a fan of Rachel Ray and her quickie meals either. It bugs me how she opens a can of this, chops up a bag of that, and then assumes that we find it appetizing. I don’t.

So where does that leave me? I’m not sure. Am I having an existential food crisis? Or do I just need a new job?

For Easter I made pork shoulder roast using a Cuban recipe. It called for a cup of lime juice, lots of garlic, and some vinegar with hours of roasting. It came out great, and I was just as pleased that the black beans grew uniformly tender in 2 hours. Still… there’s more to this than turning out a good dish. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m thinking about it.


La Tarte - Troisième Fois

I decided to go with puff pastry as the base for my third attempt at Chrystèle’s tarte. I had recently tasted an onion tart that had such a flaky and delicate crust that I thought this might be what this tarte needs.

Results? It was light and crisp on the edges, but the bottom was still like a bad pizza, soggy and gloopy.

Chrystèle’s daughter happened to be over at lunch the next day, so I heated up the leftovers and served it to the girls. “My mommy makes this same tarte,” remarked the little girl. I was thrilled that it was at least recognizable. “But I don’t like it.”

I whipped out yoghurts and fruit while the girls picked the crispy crust off of their tarts. When they were done I scavenged The Girl's tomato and cheesy bits, which even leftover weren’t half bad.


Food = Love

It’s an absolute luxury to meander through the wide aisles of Whole Foods, contemplating a single night’s menu. Es and I had nothing but time, and of course that is key to most creative endeavors. We got to the butcher case, and there, gleaming pink and white, were some gorgeous spare ribs. I had only really tried ribs once before, and this time I decided to go for the baby back ribs. The butcher said that they had less fat, which is good for the most part unless you’re looking for extra flavor.

I never tell the butcher how many people I’m trying to feed on the meager amount of meat I buy. I usually get one steak for the three of us, one good-sized fish filet, and this time less than a full pound of the ribs. Often it's enough, but not always.

The work at home was a snap.
1: Preheat oven to 300F

2: Plop ribs in a single layer in a shallow baking dish (or two)

3: Smother with barbecue sauce. I couldn’t find Stonewall Kitchen’s Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce, so I used Annie’s Smoky Maple instead.

4: Cover with foil.

5: Bake for 2.5-3 hours. Check on them after 1.5 hours and if the sauce looks kind of thin, take the foil off.

6: Crank the oven up to 500F, and blast them for 10 minutes.

7: After I put the ribs on a serving plate, I poured the sauce into a saucepan, skimmed off most of the fat, and then reduced the sauce down some. Then I poured a good amount of it over the ribs.

I braised some chard, heated up some rolls I had in the freezer and that was it.

I left the ribs baking in the oven while we went to the station to pick up The Husband. On the way home we teased him about what’s for dinner. “Pigeon gizzards,” The Girl cried out. “Frog cheeks!” There was no hiding it though as soon as we walked into the house. The sweet and tangy perfume filled every corner.

Making ribs is a great way to get anyone to feel better about the world. If I wanted to compel someone to love me, I’d make them some ribs. There was certainly a lot of love around our table that night. The Husband cut up some meat and put it on The Girl's plate. “Try that,” he coaxed. She took one bite, then to our surprise and amusement, she (really) got up and danced. Now how many foods can you say that about?


Poetry Month

I work in schools, and for some reason April is poetry month. I'm glad schools don't wait for February to teach African-American history or March to teach about women in history, but many of the English classes I know save poetry for April.

I have many, many favorite poems, but there is one that has a long history with me. I found it in the 70's in a free paper called The Berkeley Monthly. I loved this poem so much that I asked a friend who did calligraphy (he also made his own chain-mail from wire, could quote endless Monty Python bits, and became a firefighter) to write it out for me on parchment. It hung in my kitchen for years, and then in preparing for one cross-country move or another I took it off the matting, glass, and clips and rolled it up.

I still have it, though the paper is cracking in parts. Some might say that it's treacley, but I like that sometimes. I think it says less about what my life was like in the 70's, but more about one slice of the life I wanted to create for myself. I had some Julia Child on my shelf, but its pages weren't as worn as Laurel's Kitchen or Diet for a Small Planet. At the same time, I kept a little card in my purse that held the complete text of the ERA. It was a confusing time, maybe more so because I was so young and trying to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Biscuits Made-From-Scratch

I had forgotten how good it feels
To cook slowly and with patience,
To chop things fine and sauté, to bake and boil
To mix with care, to keep the oven warm all day
Through breakfast, lunch and dinner,
To clear and clean continually
Each meal's debris, to wipe
The tables and mop the floors
To fold the laundry, to set
The accounts in order
And color with the kids
To act as Solomon for all disputes
And nurse to every hurt,
To take the time to make things
More than tidy,
With flowers arranged just so.

The separate lives come and go
In the house, and I am
That day's center, the base
Each one touches.

I had forgotton nurturing
And in this slow, summer rain,
The soft gray sky, found again
What pleasure there is to start
The day with biscuits made-from-scratch
And end it with a bedtime story,
To narrow my world view
To those things I can touch
Only with my hands.

—Dian Hanley


Times on My Side

holds a heralded position in our household. Starting around 7:00 am (later on weekends) The Husband and I take turns peeking out to see if the blue plastic bag is lying in our driveway yet. The Times is the closest thing The Husband has to a bible in that he reads it religiously, pretty much cover to cover (omitting the Business section unless there’s some news about Apple). I’m a skimmer, breezing through the pages looking over headlines and then lingering on the obituaries.

Yesterday, right there below the fold of the front page, there was a whole story on people trying to get dinner on the table. It was exciting to find a topic so close to my heart right there, and I admit that there was a bit of pride of ownership. I was onto the Crisco Challenge way before The Times. [They must have done the same Google search that I did.] The long article had a lot of the familiar discussion with lots of statistics about how healthier kids are when there’s a regular family dinner. It reported that "children who eat dinner with their families regularly are less likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol than those who do not. They also tend to get better grades, exhibit less stress and eat better." They didn't mention that having dinner at home can be cheaper, that cooking dinner together can be a way to connect, or that the food can be much better when you make it yourself. But then they didn't consult me. This one Upper East Side woman kind of got to me:
"We try to have dinner together every night, and sometimes that means not eating until 9 o'clock," said Ms. Tatge, who lives on the Upper East Side. "But I think it's really important. We always have candlelight. It sets the mood and calms everyone down."
I don’t know, the candlelight kind of puts me off; it has that nuance of competition, that throwing down of the gauntlet (oven mitt?) that makes me cringe.

The article also mentioned the impulse to over-schedule ourselves (something I’m prone to do) and our children. For me, having a full calendar gives me the sense that I’m important, I’m popular and busy. But when I over-schedule myself I see the effect it has on everything else in my life, and I take myself away from what is meaningful, sometimes hard, occasionally thankless, often tiring, and extremely satisfying: making dinner for my family.



A sign of a meal gone wrong is when at least one person at the table ends up in the ER.

Everything was going along pretty well. I had some pre-marinated chicken breasts from Trader Joes on the grill, along with some flour tortillas (wrapped in foil with some water to make them steam up a bit). I even had a ripe avocado that I picked up for almost nothing at a Chinese grocery store in Jackson Heights. Then I had this idea, borrowed from our neighbor Michelle. The Girl and I had enjoyed a “taco night” at her house recently and she made some Spanish rice. Great!

I sautéed some onion and green pepper in butter along with the rice and added some chili powder, ground coriander and ground cumin. Then I added a combo of canned tomatoes (Fancy S&W brand), the juice from the can, and some water to round it out. I let that cook for 20 minutes. Some of the tomato juice got on my hand and stung like mad. It was all red, and it didn’t stop hurting until a few minutes after I had scrubbed and rinsed it off.

The meal was pretty good. The meat was tender, spicy and juicy (note to self: refill the canister on the grill; the chicken got done just in time for the gas to run out). The avocado was smooth and decadent, tangy from lime. And the rice was so good that I ate all of mine and then what Es left on her plate. Somewhere in that time my voice started to give out. I had started the day with a scratchy throat, but it was getting worse—fast. I was able to breathe fine, but I my voice was a rasp.

Water didn’t help. My throat felt raw and tight. Thinking I was having an allergic reaction I took some Benedryl. Nothing happened. Next I went to my friend (the internet), cruising around for information about allergies, throat-constricting, tomatoes. I found out that five years ago a woman in the UK died from opening up a can of tomatoes for a Bolognese.

So I called my GP, who uncharacteristically called me back within a minute. He told me to take another 25mg of Benedryl and that if I wasn’t better in 20 minutes to go to the emergency room.

I kept hoping that suddenly it would clear up, but no.

I called our neighbors to have them take The Girl while The Husband drove me to the ER, and they were so nice that they stayed here with her! I didn’t want to go all the way to Columbia Presbyterian, so we went to the Westchester Medical Center. It was about 8:30 pm.

The triage nurse established that my breathing was fine, and so we had to wait…and wait. About an hour later they called me in, and another nurse told me to change to an exam robe and wait in a curtained cubicle for the doc. Next door, beyond the curtain a poor guy was suffering from a partially amputated finger (cooking accident?). He was getting shots of lydacaine, which were supposed to burn like hell. I didn’t even hear the guy wince.

Then this really tentative guy in a white coat, must have been 14 if a day, enters my curtained space. It seemed as if it must be his first rotation ever because his confidence was nil. He kept asking me the same questions over and over again. “What did you eat?” “What allergies do you have?” I joked that even though I sounded like a heavy smoker that I never smoke anything. “How much do you smoke?” he wanted to clarify.

So after that there was more waiting to do. Another hour ticked by, and all I could think of was poor Michelle hanging out at our house. At least she didn’t have to hear a commentary about how well the finger was being sewn up behind curtain number two. I had to put my fingers in my ears to keep from squirming.

Next came the big guy, the main man, the doctor in charge. He was tall, bald, and had the kind of suntan that shows how big his sunglasses are. There was nothing iffy about this guy. Much more macho Dr. Romano than sensitive and handsome Doug Ross. He was here on business, ready to make a quick diagnosis and move on to more important matters. My voice, at this point, was getting better, just a hint of Brenda Vaccaro about it. I answered the same questions over again. He ruled out allergic reaction (no swelling) and gave me a pepcid. I was glad not to need an epi shot, but come on, a pepcid? Such a let down.

Again we waited while the prescriptions and the discharge papers were prepared (and the guy next door continued to be sewn up). He was given delauden, so maybe he was in a happier place than the brightly lit curtained cubicle.

We finally got home at about 11:30. I was exhausted. Evan was exhausted. Michelle was exhausted.

The rest of the tomatoes are in a jar in the fridge. I think I’m going to throw them out.


March Madness

This has been a month of medical procedures for me. I found myself putting this and that off, and then when I heard that Wendy was dying—suddenly all this time opened up in my schedule for all of those time-consuming medical visits. The list is long and gruesome, but I’ll leave it that it involved being stuck with needles, lying in a tube, ultra sound gel, drinking potions, and worst of all: being weighed!
Wendy was a colleague and friend, and among the many cool things about her it stated right there in her obituary that she made her own knishes. They were good too. Evan and I got to try them when we ventured to Staten Island once for a party at her house. It was the kind of party where the people “in the know” hung out in the kitchen for first dibs.
A friend who visited her while she was in the hospice told the story of how Wendy declared that she had become much more blunt since she got sick. More blunt? How could that be possible? This was not a woman who pulled punches. I had a hard time with how blunt she could be with me. “You know you’re cat’s going to die from this, right?” she said when Sula was first diagnosed with kidney disease. When I confessed having trouble being pregnant at the same time my mom was dying she instructed that I would have to look at why I chose to get pregnant at that point. That was a little more bluntness than I was hoping for right then.
Still, she was funny and committed to doing good work: one of those atheists who serve the common good better than many believers.
What does this have to do with dinner? Well, family. Near her 50th birthday Wendy reported that she came up with the meaning of life. I feel lucky that I was one of the ones she shared it with: spend time with the people you love. She did that, and threw herself a big birthday party. It wasn't as fancy as Oprah's, but then Wendy wasn't the kind of person who liked a lot of attention.
So now as I’m waiting for my date with Dr. G.I. and his sleep inducing cocktail (sounds like a bad date), I’m starving. Hungry for that cinnamon toast I smell The Husband making downstairs. Hungry for the sandwich from Via Quadronno that I’ve requested for after the date, I mean "procedure." Hungry for dinner.

P.P.S. Everything's fine; thanks for asking.


Much Depends on Dinner

I ran into a colleague today who told me how our conversation about dinner changed her. I listened, nodded, and felt like a fraud. I have been completely out of the family dinner mode. It’s as if having guests over knocked me for a loop. It’s not that I haven’t fixed dinner; it just hasn’t been that often or that much of a family thing. It seems that for one reason or another we weren’t together around the table.

It all started last Tuesday when I picked The Husband up from the station with the news that we were eating out that night. That’s how it starts, and it’s downhill from there. Thursday he was home late, so The Girl and I shared a steak. Dorte came over on Friday, and we ate out again. Saturday The Husband was at his studio again. That left Sunday: I roasted a chicken on the grill and the wind blew out the flame. The grill got down to 200F before I noticed the problem. Then the meat thermometer went bust. We recovered, but it wasn’t pleasant. Monday night, we ate out with friends in Queens. Finally, tonight I fixed lamb chops, asparagus, and rice. We lingered over regina biscotti from Dorte for dessert

And all of this makes me realize, again, that it’s not a family dinner. It's all of them, back to back. It’s the ritual and the routine. It’s what can be depended upon, looked forward to, and expected.

So, tomorrow night we’re having dinner out with Desirée and Sarah. Then I’m having the special colonoscopy diet on Thursday night. [Was that too much information?] I think Evan is having a studio night on Friday. I might be meeting Chrystèle for dinner and French practice on Saturday. How am I going to make this work?


Cooking Dinner for Other People - Epilogue

My father-in-law (Maurice, the wunderchef) has taught me some things about cooking. Rule Number One: no matter what doesn’t go right with what you're serving, put it on the table and shut up. Rule Number Two: dinner takes less time if you work quickly, and you can work quickly with practice. Rule Number Three: the more you cook the easier it gets.

The potatoes weren’t cooking fast enough. The roast was done resting. The salad was ready to toss, and even the asparagus had come off the grill. Still those little taters refused to brown and crisp. The cocktail hour was reaching its factual limit, the nibble bowls were nearly empty (except for the olives), and the gin and tonics were getting down to ice cubes. In a last ditch effort, not knowing what else to do, I turned the broiler on high. That was the only true moment of anxiety the whole evening. I decided to shove them all into a serving bowl and call everyone to the table. I served the dish of potatoes, and even though I should have implemented Maurice’s first rule, I just quoted the rule, which must be almost as good.

Everything else was a breeze. The food was tasty. I had prepared enough (though the roast shrunk during cooking) food. Everyone seemed to have a great time. Nobody was shocked that there were blocks under the coffee table. The Girl gave a brief piano concert.

When you decide to move someplace you check out all kinds of things, but you don’t really get to interview the neighbors. We were incredibly lucky because the Nordlinger’s are incredibly friendly and unpretentious. Their two kids are sociable, well mannered, and interesting. After dessert The Girl and their youngest son went to watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and their 13-year-old son stayed and talked with us at the table. We talked about our town, the schools, where we grew up, and the benefits of using Netflix. It was almost 10 when we realized that it was late. We all said good-bye and they left out our backdoor through the gate that leads to their yard.

Even the clean up didn’t seem too onerous! We had it done in no time.

This reminds me of Rule Number Three. I can do this. I’m thinking of whom we should invite next. A former colleague of Evan’s is on the list. Just about everybody we know has had us over for dinner, so I could get lots of practice.


Cooking Dinner for Other People #4

It's almost 6:00 pm. The roast has been in a 250F oven for about an hour and is now at 90F . Ten more degrees 'til I pump up the oven to 500F for it's final blast. Chef and father-in-law extraordinare has assured me that I can cook it to 130F (despite the fact that my thermometer reads 140F for medium-rare).

The salad is washed, dried, and sitting in the fridge. The potatoes are tender and are waiting in a pot with some salt, pepper, rosemary and garlic for their turn in the oven. The asparagus is sitting in a pan with olive oil, salt and pepper.

This is the time that I get a little anxious. The Girl's bed isn't perfectly made, but I'm not going to let it bother me. I haven't mopped or vacuumed—keeping to my promise. I did clean the bathrooms though because that just seems like the courteous thing to do. There's a box of blocks under the coffee table. I'm not going to move them. I don't even know if the piano is dusty. This is progress!

My goal is to concentrate on my guests and not get overally obsessed with how the house looks or how the food tastes.

Cooking Dinner for Other People #3

It's almost 4:30. Our next door neighbors are going to be here in about an hour and a half. The table is set. The roast is getting to room temp. The escarole is soaking in the kitchen sink, ready for a spin. I made little post-its for each part of the menu (e.g., potatoes, boil for 20, roast w/ garlic and rosemary for 20) to keep me focused. Evan brought home two bottles of red wine (Cotes du Rhone). I start to flinch: what if they want white? We have some champagne, but that would absolutely go against my trying not to do anything too big. I better put some seltzer in the fridge. I have the before dinner munchies down: rosemary potato chips, olives, pistachios, dried cherries, and a peanut mix that might appeal to the kids (it has M&M's in it). What am I forgetting?

Cooking Dinner for Other People #2

The Menu

Esacarole Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Rib-eye Roast

Roated Red Potatoes with Rosemary and Garlic

Grilled Asparagus

Red Velvet Cake

Okay, the cake is done and in the fridge. The roast will probably take about 3 hours (roasted slowly). The asparagus will take no time, but 15 minutes to get the grill hot. I do potatoes out of the Zuni Cafe cookbook (boil them and then roast them), so oven time is about 20 minutes. Salad I can wash early, have the vinaigrette ready and toss just before serving.

I think I'm set. The Huband and The Girl went to the school yard to learn to ride a bike. I'm still in my pajamas trying to rid the house of clutter. I'm promising myself I'm not going to mop or vacuum. Really.


Fixing Dinner for Other People

"I am relaxed. I am not getting all worked up. I don't need to get into a tizzy just because the next door neighbors are coming over for dinner tomorrow night." That is the mantra I chant while I'm trying to whip up a Red Velvet cake, from scratch. "I am powerless over my addiction."

Right now, I'm hoping the fancy schmancy red food coloring dissolves in the buttermilk, egg, oil, vanilla and vinegar mixture. Why couldn't I have just used the little squirt bottles?


La Tarte: Take Two

The Girl and I were driving south on Lexington when I told her that if there’s a parking space we’re going to stop at the Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore. She gave out a sigh, clued in that it wasn't likely a place that sold Playmobil, lollipops, or sticker books. She was right. This place sells cookbooks and is one of the reasons New York is such an amazing city. Scanning their shelves, I was drawn to the title When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman and was quickly whisked into her world where “Sundays were gastronomic celebrations, where dinner tables were islands for animated conversations around plates of nuts being cracked and picked by nimble fingers.” I don’t know about you, but I’m there!

The book is full of wild recipes that I can’t imagine I’ll ever make. “Duck with Artichoke Hearts and Hazelnut Sauce”? “Shank of Veal with Masses of Garlic”? I don’t think so. But doesn’t “Rabbit with Shallots and Pickles” sound intriguing? Who has time for that, though, when there's dinner to be made?

The tomatoes had been sitting on the counter for days. Each day they got a little less shiny and their skin began to show it's age. Kamman's writing about butter, how to get ready to cook, and her memories of shopping for cheese with her grandmother began to fortify me and she give me the confidence to confront my problem: La Tarte.

Once again I started with the Pillsbury pie shell, the kind that comes in a box and you unroll. I rolled it out a little thinner and carefully spread an ever-so-thin layer of Dijon mustard on it, then the sliced tomatoes. Slices of rich Gruyere cheese went on top, and then a drizzle of olive oil infused with garlic and basil. I set it in the oven and crossed my fingers.

Not being too much of a gambler I padded the rest of the menu. I marinated some chicken breasts in olive oil, garlic, smashed coriander seeds and lime juice, ready for a quickie on the grill. I used up the rest of the escarole for a salad and put a loaf of Whole Foods frozen baguette in with the tarte. Not only that, the fridge was completely stocked with yoghurt. Nobody was going to be hungry tonight.

The first sign that things were going well was that it smelled really good in the kitchen. The cheese wasn’t oozing out on to the baking sheet this time, which I also thought was positive. After about a half an hour I declared it done, but I let it sit on the sheet a bit to become a little less molten. I think I’ve seen guys do this in pizza shops when a fresh pie comes out.

It was a hit. The Girl had a third slice (really). The Husband said it was good. I knew it was almost there. The tomatoes where nicely smooshy with cheese melted into them. The schmear of mustard had some kick. The crust, at least around the edges was crisp and brown—the center was a bit limp though.

It was definitely edible, dare I say tasty, but not quite ready for guests. Next time I won’t roll the crust any thinner and I might not drizzle the olive oil until it comes out of the oven. I may, even, make my own crust, (but that might be pushing it). Soon I might be ready for "Pigeons on Butter and Prune Pudding."


Three Nights, Three Dinners

Night One
It was a fairly typical evening in that I was rushed to get dinner on the table. The Girl and I did a dash through the Food Emporium on our way to the pick up The Husband on the 6:28. I was thinking of grilling some Portobello mushrooms, but we were already having rib eye steak, so that seemed redundant. I decided to opt for the endive salad that I had learned from Chrystèle, a variation of which I e-mailed off to Natalie for her Unitarian potluck. Chrystèle served this great salad at a party to celebrate the birth of her second child. She and Pierre displayed a vast array of cheeses with the confidence and pluck that only the French can, and in the back was this simple salad of endive and roasted walnuts in a simple, simple vinaigrette. I gorged myself.

I was trying the version that I shared with Natalie, all of the above but with some chopped apple and dried cherries (Food Emporium didn’t have a good selection of nuttish cheeses—surprise).

I have been on this kick of trying to serve two vegetables at dinner, so I steamed some broccoli too. The steak was simple and quick (salt and pepper, direct grill heat for 10, indirect grill heat for 6). It cooked so fast that I was constantly going in and out of the house, crunching snow all the way.

The dinner was done by 7:20, everyone was happy and well-fed.

Night Two
The Girl and I had gone to the Inwood section of Manhattan for her piano lesson, and by the time the lesson was over we were both zonked. There was no way I was cooking dinner. We climbed into the car and just started driving North on the Saw Mill. “Think there’s anyplace new we can go to?” I asked (and by new I meant new and cheap). Nothing was coming to mind, and we just kept passing exits. “Let’s see what kind of diner Bill Clinton goes to in Chappaqua,” I suggested.

So the next thing I knew we’re in the Chappaqua Café and Restaurant, aka Jacques. It didn’t really look like the kind of place where Bill would hang out, but it was definitely kid-friendly. Every booth had at least one kid in it; it almost seemed mandatory. The Girl ordered the pasta “wheels” which went with the model car décor and the hot wheels brought along with a basket of crayons. The best part, she decided, was the jello that came with kid’s meal. Not being a whipped cream fan, she missed out on being handed the whole can to garnish her dessert.

We got in the car, took a wrong turn and ended up on a dark (and to The Girl scary) country road that eventually led us to the cosmopolitan hub that is White Plains. We overcame our frustration and fears by singing Rockin’ Robin extra loud.

addendum: I was wrong! Look here for correction info on my favorite living former president and the Chappaqua Restaurant and Cafe.

Night Three
As a parent I try to listen for the subtle cues my child gives me. I watch for the ever-so faint indications of what is going on with my child in order to support her the best that I can (see Mutiny Over Mac & Cheese). That’s why she and I had Arthur pasta for dinner on the third night. Teh Husband was getting a haircut, so it was just the two of us again. [The Husband took umbrage about being called “finicky” in a previous post, but he would be the first to admit that he draws the line at Arthur pasta. He absolutely refuses to ingest it.]

First we mixed it in bowls with peas and chicken (the florescent orange of the so-called “real cheese” and the shamrock green peas make a colorful plate), then she wanted to try it on a plate, all separated. Dinner went on and on. She reveled in it all. I was done much sooner and picked up Haroun and the Sea of Stories, reading aloud as The Girl savored every last Arthur-shaped piece.