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.