Grilling in Winter

When we moved to Hastings from our apartment in the city last year I knew that I wanted a grill. My heart rate would quicken every time I stumbled upon a July issue of a cooking magazine outlining all the fun other people were having with their grills. They were making sublime vegetables with beautiful lines across them. They were flipping steaks and chicken parts to their heart’s content. Back in the apartment, I had thought about using one of those stove-top grill pans on our little gas range, but without a range hood I knew that I was only asking for trouble. So the first warm day in May last year, The Husband, The Girl and I trekked over the hill to Home Depot and got ourselves a grill.

When I lived in California I had a Weber kettle charcoal grill, which I used mostly for marinated chicken pieces. I was ready to put a grill to a lot more use now. I didn’t want to be limited to only cooking in warm weather and I didn’t want to come home from work and wait 45 minutes for the coals to get just right. That’s why I got a gas grill. And even though I miss that wonderful carcinogenic flavor from the coals, I use the grill rain or shine (well, to be honest—sprinkling or shine, and snow has been a deterrent too). There are two problems with grilling when it’s cold 1) it takes a lot more gas to keep the grill hot, and 2) the cold air drifts into the house every time you go in and out. Another negative is that you can’t really cook dinner in your pajamas.

So last night, even though it is winter, I fired up the grill to make dinner. First I wrapped some baking potatoes in foil, and set them up on the shelf, a bit aways from the burners. I let them sit there as the grill got hot and hotter. In the meantime, I made up rub (from the Cook’s Illustrated Best Recipe cookbook that I got for Christmas) for the flank steak. It was basically a couple of tablespoons of ground cumin and chili powder. About half of that of ground coriander, some pepper, a little bit of cinnamon, some dried chili flakes and some salt. I did those puréed parsnips, but also made some steamed carrots as insurance.

With about 15 minutes left for the potatoes I put the flank steak on the grill. Turned it after seven minutes and then let it cook for about 5 or so minutes more. The potatoes continued cooking while the steak “rested.” And that was dinner. The Husband and The Girl took doll-sized bites of the parsnips, but the flank steak and potatoes were a hit.


Only Connect

I might have made a big mistake the other night. I answered the phone during dinner. At the moment it didn’t seem like such a big deal. The phone rang as we were having the leek and potato soup, and I automatically leapt out of my chair like a teenager. We have an interesting division of labor around the phone in our house. It’s basically this: I answer the phone. It’s not that the phone calls are always for me. It’s not because I am always rushing for it; sometimes it will ring and ring and ring until I get it. I usually answer it. Evan usually doesn’t.

So this was just one of the many times that the phone rang, and I looked (yes, we have caller ID) to see who it was and made the snap judgment that I needed to talk to that person more than I needed to have my leek and potato soup.

The truth is that it was a kind of “important” call in that the person was a neighbor that I don’t know too well, that there is an issue of a shared fence that the wind blew down, that she, too, works and has children and has a busy schedule. We talked and made a plan for the poor, lopsided fence. We talked about our kids, our work, and both (I think) felt that it would be great if we were to talk in person sometime soon. I hung up feeling glad to be a neighbor, even if we have to deal with problem fences.

When I returned to the table The Husband and The Girl were eating the chicken and the spinach in silence. The chicken (which I bought already roasted) was pretty dry, and something was clearly lost from the mood while I was up and talking on the phone.

I’m not trying to scold myself; given the same situation I might take the call again. But what the experience did remind me of is how precious and tenuous those moments at the dinner table can be, how much they connect me to the people I care about, and how hearing about what The Husband did for lunch and who The Girl played with at recess really matters to me. Maybe I don’t have to be so hard on myself to produce a terrific meal, maybe showing up is more than half of the work.


Trying to Please Everyone Some of the Time

Via Quadronno is just about my favorite restaurant in Manhattan. I came across it one day when The Girl was almost 1 year old and I had gone to Zitomer on Madison because I was convinced she needed more duplo. We turned the corner on 73rd Street and there were a couple of little tables and chairs set out in the sun. I sat down (with The Girl in her stroller) and ordered an Il Toast sandwich (grilled ham and cheese) and a bottle of Moretti. I was in heaven, and have returned, (with The Husband, bringing along a friend or having a great cappuccino all by myself) again and again. The Girl used to know it as The Fancy Schamncy Sandwich Shop, but now knows the place by name. The Husband is a fan of their sandwiches too, but I’ve noticed that when he’s in particular need of comfort and cheer he orders their Lasagna Bolognese.

You should see how happy he is when the bubbling hot au gratin dish is brought to the table. It’s a special treat and it comes with a hefty price. That wonderful, rich lasagna goes for $22.00. I’m not kidding. It’s that expensive, and it doesn’t come with a salad or anything—just a little basket of toasted bread slivers. Is it worth it? Well, there are times that Evan would say “yes,” because it is just that good, but you have to really, really want it.

We’ve been trying to live more within our means and are hunkering down with a new austerity plan. Fancy Schamncy East Side cafés cannot be rationalized easily into this scheme. That’s why I decided that I was going to make Lasagna for dinner.

It took about two days. The first day I made the sauce. I decided to go for a modified Bolognese, substituting turkey instead of the ground beef (which I mostly avoid because of food fears), ground veal (which I avoid because I used to live in Berkeley) and ground pork (which I’d buy if I’d thought of it). I haven’t made lasagna in years and years, the last version being a vegetarian edition (I made it in Berkeley over 14 years ago) that called for 21 ingredients. I wanted a much more basic sauce for this lasagna: onion, garlic, the turkey, some mushrooms, a couple of cans of tomatoes (one whole and one crushed because that’s what I had on hand), some oregano, a little thyme, and some salt and pepper. I let it simmer for hours and hours, filling the house with the promise of something good—later.

The next night I assembled and cooked it. Having cut back on the interesting meats, I decided to go for the cheese: fresh whole-milk ricotta (mixed with grated parmesan, fresh basil and an egg) and fresh mozzarella. I found some lasagna pasta like they use at Via Quadronno too. It’s flat and thin, almost like construction-paper thin, so it doesn’t monopolize the whole thing.

I did the layering thing, and baked and baked and baked it, almost 50 minutes in all. In the meantime I blanched and sautéed some broccoli rabe, adding a clove of garlic to the hot oil to add some zing.

Here it was, my gorgeous lasagna! Days in the making! A synergy of economy and epicurianism. Let the compliments begin! The Husband did exactly what a dear partner should do when someone makes something so layered, so time-consuming, so delicious. He savored it, had seconds, and was openly appreciative. The Girl on the other hand…

Who would have guessed that a kid would refuse to eat lasagna? She picked some of the pasta out of it, separating as many of the ingredients on her plate as she could: tomatoes in one section, cheese in another, mushrooms way over there. She did have a good serving of the veggies, but her dissatisfaction was evident. Two thoughts crossed my mind: I’m glad she didn’t order this at Via Quadronno—and poor kid, we’re going to be eating this for days!


La Tarte

All successful dinners are alike, but every unsuccessful dinner is a disaster in its own way. We hardly give it a thought if a meal plan goes well, but there are so many little ways that things can fall apart, so many mistakes to be made.

To understand why the meal was a failure you have to first understand what it was I was trying to replicate. I had a very simple meal at our friends Chrystèle and Pierre’s house. It was something Chrystèle whipped up while The Girl was playing with their daughters. Do you see how inconsequential this meal must have been for her? She had four children in her house (ages from about 18 months to six) and she served me an amazing dinner when I came to pick up my child.

The meal was basically this one, perfect savory tart. It had the bite of Dijon mustard; the tang of Gruyère cheese; squishy, baked tomatoes, all on a crisp little crust. It was incredible, and I had to stop myself from eating more than my share. And this part is especially neat: she served it with a plate of proscuitto and some cornichons. Brilliant, right?

As a cook, a hungry person, and a francophile, I found myself with two important goals: 1) I wanted to eat more of that tart and 2) I wanted to be the kind of cook who could whip up something so delicious and with so little effort.

My first mistake was to not write down the recipe. I wanted to be someone who could just get the gist of the recipe and then rely upon my years of experience and instinct to replicate it. I asked Chrystèle how to make the tart about three times over the course of a month or so, thinking about trying to make it. Once I went so far as to buy the tomatoes, but I still didn’t have the confidence and ended up using them for something else. After days and days I finally felt I was ready.

I made the tart; things went downhill from there.

It looked great when I put it in the oven. The tomato slices looked bright, making a nice contrast with the chiffonade of basil and drizzle of olive oil. But my certainty began to falter when the cheese started to melt out onto the baking sheet and the pie crust wasn’t really browning. I fiddled around with the temperature (lower? broil?), but the cheese kept oozing and the crust kept looking rubbery.

Finally, after about 25 minutes I called it done, slid it on to a beautiful plate and brought it to the table.

First bite: “How much mustard did you put in here?” asked The Husband. Yes, there was a really powerful wallop of mustard. I had slathered it on pretty thickly, but I like mustard. The French like mustard. Mustard is good.

Second bite: “What kind of cheese is this? Gorgonzola?” The Husband isn’t a big cheese fan, and I’m happy to say that our marriage survives despite this huge character deficit. I sneak cheese into food, and he always imagines that it’s Gorgonzola.

Neither The Husband nor The Girl ate any more of the tart. I slogged on with another slice or two out of pride. The Husband brought out a couple of containers of yoghurt.

As soon as dinner was over I got on the phone to Chrystèle. She said first you prick the pie crust (oops), then you spread a thin layer of mustard on the pie crust (oops). Then the tomatoes (oops), then the cheese (oops), then drizzle some basil and garlic (oops) in olive oil. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes or so.

I’m not giving up. I’m going to try again, perhaps with some goat cheese though because that will go over better in my house.


Just Us Girls

It’s curious to me how some food splits along gender lines. In her wonderful book, Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin notes that men don’t seem to like bitter greens like Broccoli Rabe, but I think the list stretches further. Maybe it’s because women need more iron or folic acid or something, but there are certain foods that conjure up deep groans of enjoyment in my girlfriends while men politely pass the serving plate or even protest. When I took the brussel sprouts out of the oven on Thanksgiving the women gave nods of gratitude. I felt smug because The Husband had promised that if I made them he wouldn’t eat them. [They were terrific, by the way, roasted with salt, pepper and olive oil along with julienne slices of proscuitto.] I have never cooked liver or lima beans (foods I think of women enjoying more than men) in the 18 years I’ve been with The Husband, which is a loss for me. Still, The Husband takes such obvious enjoyment in the meals I prepare that, for the most part, I'm content to make dinners that we will all eat.

If I had said to The Husband “What do you think about trying some pureed parsnips tonight?” his face would have screwed up into something meaning “bleh.” But I was shopping for dinner at Trader Joe’s with my good friend Dorte on Saturday, so it was a different outcome altogether. Parsnips have intrigued me for years, ever since my analyst (who rarely says much to me) voiced shock and outrage when I made an uninformed disparaging remark about the vegetable. Then I recently came across a parsnip recipe, so parsnips were ready to happen in my life. But on this night, Dorte’s husband was out in Santa Barbara for work and The Husband was working in his studio. It was just us girls, and we were ready to do some cooking.

Parsnips look like albino carrots, but they give off a strong sweet scent as you get a blade to them. We peeled, chopped and boiled them to tender perfection in about 15 minutes. We threw in a couple of carrots for fun, and to hedge our bets against having them turn some vile shade of grey. Then we put them in the Cuisinart with some salt, pepper, a bit of butter, some parsley, and a little bit of the water from the boil. My thinking was that though potatoes don’t do well in the Cuisinart (they become gummy), the parsnips should be okay—and that was true.

I had some beets lying around (another vegetable that makes me swoon), so I dashed some salt and pepper on the beets, wrapped them each in a little foil, and put them on the grill for about 30 minutes. My only mistake there was that I didn’t turn them while they cooked, so one part got a little burnt. I didn’t say anything about that (lesson learned from Maurice), and just cut that part off while I was peeling the hot little devils.

We had them with some beautiful 2” lamb chops from Costco, that we rubbed with salt, pepper, olive oil and rosemary before putting them on the grill, 8 minutes a side. You might think that such chops would overshadow the poor little parsnips. Not true! There were lamb chops left over, but I ended up scraping the bowl of parsnips with a chunk of bread.

The Girl didn’t take to the parsnips in a big way, even though we described them as being French, like her best friend. But that's okay, she's only six. She always has been a big beet fan though, and her second helping of those was enough to warm any mother’s heart.


Taco Night

I have this great recipe for a chile verde sauce. It calls lots of tomatillos, pipitas (pumpkin seeds) and jalapeños, requires some nice, long simmering, and tastes so authentic you’d swear you were in Mexico—or at least in California. I make that about once a year, maybe less. Taco Night, however, happens much, much more often than that.

Taco Night is one of those meals that starts out with a box. I know that’s never a good sign of a home-cooked meal, and I’m sure you could make Taco Night from scratch, but that would take away from the whole concept. The point of Taco Night isn’t that you’re having Mexican food; it’s a kind of throw-back to the days when dinner involved boiling water and tearing through some cardboard (think Rice-a-Roni, Hamburger Helper, and Noodles Romanoff). To truly enjoy Taco Night you have to let go of your pretentions and be ready to embrace a little nostalgia.

We’re a crunchy taco family, so I carefully cut the plastic off of the nest of taco shells and lay them on the baking sheet. Experimentation has taught me that it’s best to have the opening of each shell resting on the edge of the back of the next shell—this keeps the shells from crisping up closed. You also want to make sure to bake the shells for at least the full 6 minutes. I hate to tell you this, but I think there is some kind of gum in these taco shells (probably keeps them from breaking in the package), and if you don’t crisp them up enough their texture is off. While they’re toasting, just follow the package directions. (i.e., brown the meat (we use ground turkey), add the taco seasoning and water, and prepare the condiments.

The condiments elevate this meal from something sad and a little dreary. More is more here. I use black beans (canned), grated cheese (organic—pre-grated from a package), some lime, avocado, chopped romaine lettuce, chopped grape tomatoes, and some salsa. Once I went for the high calorie route and added some leftover sour cream. If I have some fresh cilantro in the house I’ll put some of that out too.

Taco Night makes for an interactive meal. Each of us has our own way of constructing our tacos. The Husband goes for the basic model, but then insists on a particular kind of Salsa made by Coyote Cafe. I still don’t know which one that is, but I just put out whatever bottles we have. I prefer to make mine like a salad, crumbling taco shells on top of my toppings. The Girl is much more experimental. Last night she decided that her tortilla needed a good dousing of lime juice before anything else could go in it. Then she made big heaps of beans and cheese on her plate, keeping her interest in the lime and talking about her day.

It’s fast. It’s easy. It’s cheap. It’s a good meal to have when other kids are coming over for dinner because it’s fun too. Yes, it did mostly come from a box, but it’s really kind of yummy too.


The Roast Chicken

Here’s how I knew that the Roast Chicken was good: 1) Evan kept coming into the kitchen saying “Mmmm, when's that going to be done?” 2) while he was carving it he couldn’t stop taking little bites of the teeny pieces on the cutting board. It’s only been a couple of years that I’ve been roasting chickens, but it’s one of those things that once you start, there’s no turning back.

Few things taste so good, require so little effort, and make you feel like you really cooked dinner.

Evan used to be the chicken roaster in the family. I gave him Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for Valentines Day one year, and he mastered her roasted chicken with lemons. Then time passed, Esme came along and soon we didn’t have the luxury of the European dinner schedule (e.g., dinner at 10 or so), and Evan's roast chickens kind of fell off our menu. It was one of those weird things that happen to couples (or maybe just happens in my marriage) where something becomes the “territory” of one partner. Cutting edge pop music, abstract art, and roasted chicken with lemons are Evan’s turf.

Then one of our favorite restaurants in San Francisco, Zuni, came out with a cookbook, and in it is one of the easiest roast chicken recipes ever. They have you wash it up, sprinkle it with salt and then let it hang out in the fridge for a good long while. Turn your oven up to 450 to 500F, plunk in a skillet to let it get real hot, and then after about 10 minutes put the chicken in it, breast side up. Check on it after 15-20 minutes to make sure the temperature isn’t too high or too low. Turn it over after 30, roast for about 20-30 minutes and then turn it over again for a few minutes until it reaches the right temperature.

Notice how I avoided telling you what temperature to roast it to. I read Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts, and she got me all crazy about what happens when good food goes bad. Maurice, my father-in-law and cooking mentor, got me one of those thermometers that you stick into the thigh of the chicken and the thermometer has a long coil that plugs into a digital display (which is kept outside of oven) that buzzes obnoxiously when the meat hits the "right" temperature—175F.

Now the roast chicken is in my court. I butterfly chickens and cook them flat, I make them do acrobatic things on beer cans and put them on the grill, I stuff them with garlic, rosemary, or whatever. I just don’t do them with lemons.


Out of My Groove

As any home cook intending to create some kind of regular meal structure in the house will tell you, it’s not just the cooking. No. Sometimes it might just be a quick, 30 minute meal or something, but that’s just the time in the kitchen. A meal takes much more time than that. Take tonight’s fare, for example. I’m going to make a quick little broiled snapper. Salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil maybe, and a couple of minutes under the flame, and that’s it—except for all the time that it took me to think up the broiled snapper.

It all started with a need to go to the grocery store. The California cookbooks always say to go to the market and see what looks good. Well, I went to Whole Foods in White Plains this morning, and I thought the chocolate looked good, but nothing seemed right for dinner. I was completely uninspired. I got some bananas, some tea, some prepared soup for Esme’s lunch, my favorite little crackers (Water Wheel Original Minis) and some McCann’s Quick Cooking Irish Oatmeal. I was tired of chicken, tired of beef, not in the mood to cook anything.

Then I remembered that The Girl had dance class that afternoon and that I’d be right next door to Citarella’s on Broadway. Fish! That was my second grocery shopping expedition of the day. See all the time? All the thought? And that’s just the entrée—I haven’t even started cooking. Of course, rice, peas, and leftover Broccoli Rabe will round it out, and maybe some frozen bread that I can pop in the oven.

Sometimes I get completely inspired and am able to plan a couple of menus all at once, including how to use the leftovers. That’s kind of like being “in the zone.” But I’m off kilter, what with the holidays and all. I remember when I just had The Girl, it took me about a year to figure out how to take care of her and make dinner. The nadir of that era was when I tried to make chicken parmigana, not wanting to pound the chicken breasts too loudly (so as not to wake up the slumbering infant). I came to the table exhausted, and when The Husband and I cut into the chicken (which had been breaded, sautéed, smothered in a tomato sauce, topped with fresh mozzarella and baked) it was completely raw in the middle. I broke into tears and gave up cooking for a good, long while. I may not have been able to cook and care for a child, but I could eat with chopsticks with either hand—even while nursing.

This snapper dinner will be just what I need to get me back in my dinner groove, and I can go to the market again tomorrow to pick up a chicken to roast. That will get me to Thursday.