Mutiny Over Mac and Cheese

I couldn't believe it. This incredible macaroni and cheese, a dish even finicky The Husband named the best ever, was snubbed by my own flesh and blood.

"No," The Girl declared, "it's not really the best. I like Arthur pasta better."

That stuff in a box with orange cheese powder? How can that compare with this dish that is full of butter, whole milk, and two different kinds of cheese?

She ate a few bites. I had six servings.

Hey, they were small!


Performance Anxiety

We went over to Mark’s house for dinner tonight. Few things are as wonderful as somebody else serving you a home-cooked meal. All you have to do is sit down and enjoy. He made a salad of escarole and then some penne with a Bolognese. Desirée (his sister / our friend) and her daughter Sarah were there, and we talked about the up-coming Oscar awards, UAE managing of US ports, and the advantages of having a Lexapro prescription. The girls regaled us with skits from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie (“Dadee, I whant a new pohny”) and then we discussed the Olympics and the complexities of computers and cable. It was a wonderful evening, and I couldn’t help but ask myself why we didn’t do this more often.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot: why does it make me anxious to invite people over for dinner? If it’s a spur of the moment thing it’s not problem at all. I’m just roasting up a chicken and Mark or Jim should come over and join us. No sweat. I’m okay with Dorte coming over any time. She does kitchen duty too, so it never feels as if I have to put together a meal to impress or satisfy.

The trouble sets in when I have to start thinking about what will make people happy. How clean does the house have to be? Do all of the Polly Pockets have to be picked up? What should the menu be? Should I try something new? Sometimes when I’ve tried a new recipe for dinner I’ll ask The Husband, “Is this good enough for guests?” Invariably he says yes, and still I never get that dinner party going.

I was talking this over with Chrystèle the other day. She’s always having people over for dinner, so I consider her a pro. “You just can’t worry about not having it perfect. People are just happy to be at your table.” She sounded so convincing in her French accent that I think I believe her.

I’m going to invite the next door neighbors over. I’ll make flank steak or macaroni and cheese. Maybe I’ll do fish filets in parchment with an endive salad. I’ll think of something.


Promise Keepers

I have so wanted to go out to dinner the past two nights, but our new austerity plan forbids it. Only our vow to stay within our budget (and my work’s inability to pay me in a timely fashion) has kept us at the table here at home. Last night was Valentine’s Day, so even though I just wanted someone to take my order, I whipped up a paste of rosemary, parsley, garlic, olive oil and salt to spread over some luscious Costco lamb chops. Mashed potatoes and carrots did the rest. But what really irked me was my lack of foresight. We had a bottle of champagne in the fridge, and I volunteered that we open it on Sunday night to celebrate the blizzard. So here it was Valentine's Day and no champagne.

Tonight was hardly different. The Girl and I drove to the Hastings station to pick up The Husband, and all the way there I kept thinking how nice it would be to just pick him up and go to Ardsley for some Thai food. We could be there in a flash, and I was already so hungry from only having an economical peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana for lunch today. When The Husband got in the car I tested him out: "How about going out for dinner tonight?"” He agreed without hesitation, and that, somehow, made it easier for me to confess that the dinner I had at home would be a snap and would take less time than going anywhere else. I mean really, how long does it take to heat up some smoked pork chops, boil up some egg noodles, and steam some broccoli?

And in the long run it all worked out for the best. The Girl was full of stories about her first 100th day of school, which she reported was the greatest day she's had at school yet. And then of course there's the issue of tomorrow night. The Husband will be at his studio to paint, and The Girl and I have an invitation to meet Desirée and her daughter Sarah for dinner at Haiku in Bronxville. I have already said "yes."


Just Like Mom Used to Make

Just when I needed it most, my daughter came over and gave me a kiss. She got up from the dinner table and came around for a mid-dinner smooch. I've been kind of down in the dumps, what with work and all (read: my job sucks), so I was really on the lookout for any hint of positive reinforcement.

I had been feeling really bored with my dinner repertoire and completely uninspired for my foray to Fairway Market, so I started going through my collection of recipe clippings to find something new. Who knew? Back in December 2000, Mark Bittman shared a recipe for black-eyed peas in his Minimalist column in the New York Times. As The Girl said at dinner tonight, "I love black-eyed peas," and she comes by it naturally.

Her Great-Grandma Gertrude, The Husband's Grandma —who unfortunately she never met, introduced me to black-eyed peas when I first had Christmas eve dinner at her house about 20 years ago. For a while she grew her own, then later she got them, pods and all, at a farmer's market. Eventually I tried to reproduce her recipe and had a heck of a time tracking down her secret ingredient:Liquid Smoke. I also had to substitute green beans for the black-eyed pea pods. Even though it wasn't absolutely authentic it was pretty good.

Tonight's blackeyed pea recipe hit the spot from a number of angles. It was easy—very few ingredients. It was cheap, if you (like me) happen to have some kind of ham, lying around your fridge.

To round things off, I pulled that cute little box of Jiffy corn muffin mix out of the pantry. This is what my mom made when she was really cooking something good. Looking at the box, you wouldn't think it could possibly taste as good as it does. Add a third a cup of milk and an egg to the mix and you've got a sweet little corn bread muffin.

And it not only got me a hug and kiss from The Girl, but The Husband even reached over and planted one on me too. I know I've been kind of pathetic lately, what lamenting about work and all, but I really think it was the black eyed peas and corn bread.

Here's how to make Bittman's Black-eyed Peas, which he calls South in a Soup.

Quickly sauté 2 oz of ham in 1 T of olive oil. Throw in a chopped medium onion and cook until it begins to get a little golden. Add 2 C of black-eyed peas. [He recommended frozen, which only took 30 minutes to get nice and tender.] Cook them with 4 C of water until tender. I let the water drain down a bit so that it was a bit thicker. Add in 2 C of greens. I used watercress, so that didn't take very long at all to wilt and cook down. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Dash with Tabasco. Serve.


Charge It To My Room

There are times when this whole dinner ordeal is a burden. Take tonight. I have the dinner all planned, and it’s not too involved or anything: grilled swordfish, some rice, and some kind of vegetable that’s in the crisper and that I bought today, but I’ve completely forgotten. Granted, I genuinely enjoy having dinner with my family. Tonight, however, I want room service. I want to be in a hotel ordering something that will taste good from a cart and that comes with a metal cover. I want to stay up late and watch Charlie Rose.

Why Charlie Rose? He’s having a tribute broadcast to Wendy Wasserstein tonight. That shouldn’t make any difference in a family dinner blog, but it does make a big difference to me. I feel so completely sad about her death. I’m a huge fan of her play “Uncommon Women and Others,” but I never saw anything else she ever wrote. Still, she always impressed me as somebody who enjoyed life, approached it with a great sense of humor, and (it seemed) knew how to be a friend. The thing we have in common is that we both gave birth to baby girls in the winter of 1999. She wrote about the birth of Lucy Jane in the New Yorker and then in her collection of essays Shiksa Goddess, and it’s such a compelling story of love and faith (in her doctors, in her daughter’s will) that it moves me no matter how many times I have read it.

Work isn’t exactly a piece of cake these days either, but I won’t go into that right now. Can I add that the hot water heater broke down over the weekend, the roofer came last week, and the washing machine repair man stopped by too. Such a klatch of home improvements experts (no matter how friendly) don’t brighten my mood. And to make matter worse, I just had a birthday, inching my way toward the unspeakable.

So perhaps I’ll get in a better mood by the time I start making dinner or by the time I sit down at the table. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll at least break one rule and have a gin and tonic before Memorial Day.


Fast, Cheap, Easy & Good

Most times I cook where I follow a recipe. Sometimes it’s a recipe that I’ve made many times before, so I can improvise a little bit and fool around some (a little more of this, some of that instead). There are very few dishes that I can put together without consulting anything. Even when I grill a steak I have to look up every time how many minutes for how thick a steak. But there is one dish that I have learned to do by heart: bucatini all’amatriciana.

It sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Well it’s easy! It doesn’t take a lot of time or ingredients, and it’s good enough to serve to guests.

The first thing you have to know is that bucatini is a long, narrow tubular pasta—kind of like a hollow spaghetti. Find something close enough and you’ll be fine. Boil up a pot of water with a tablespoon of olive oil in it (keeps the pasta from sticking together).

While you are waiting for it to boil, dice about a third a pound of pancetta (Italian bacon) into pieces the size of a pencil eraser. Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a good-size sauté pan and sauté the pancetta until it is nice and crispy. Then let it drain in a bowl padded with paper towels, keeping the olive oil in the pan.

Now your water should be about ready to boil. Add some salt (adds flavor to the pasta) when it’s at a rolling boil and add the pasta.

Add 2 cups of canned diced tomatoes (almost all of one of the big-size cans) to the olive oil in the sauté pan. Cook it for a few minutes (about 5-7) to let it thicken up a bit. Then lower the heat and add 4 tablespoons of freshly grated romano cheese and about 1 teaspoon of crushed red peppers. Stir on low heat for a little bit, and then add in almost but not all of the crispy pancetta.

Drain the pasta (it should be just about al dente by this time), and mix the pasta and sauce (to make it so that there is a nice coating of sauce on the pasta, but not like it’s swmming in it). Top the dish with the remaining pancetta and some more romano. And that’s it!

That’s what we’re having for dinner tonight. I’ve already crisped up the pancetta, and I’m going to stop at the market the romano and some broccoli rabe as a side dish.

I have made this pasta so many times that I could (almost) make it with one hand tied behind my back. It’s what I’d cook if I was nervous about having people over for dinner, and it’s what I’d make if I was on vacation in some strange house without a cook book.