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.