French Dinner, Italian Style

My Girl’s best friend is French, so when she had dinner at her house on a hectic day (and when is dinner w/ a play date not hectic) the mom often served a simple dinner. She would put together some plates of ham, cheese, and salad, some cornichons and mustard; that would be it. My Girl began to think of this as a French Dinner, and in many ways it is. Delicious food served thoughtfully and with ease, what’s more French than that?

Tonight was a perfect night for a French Dinner. The Girl and I were tired out from 19 holes of mini golf. It is too hot to have the oven on, and the thunderstorms are keeping me from the grill.

So we made a detour to Mamaroneck on our way home.

It has only been three years that we’ve been in Westchester, so as the face of Manhattan evolves into some unknown entity (goodbye La Fortuna, Hunan Park, Lenge, Le Gamin, The Gardenia Coffee Shop, Jerry’s. (The Old) Palm Court, Zen Palate, Café Gray, Le Madeleine, Diwan Curry House), I have tried to become more familiar with my new territory. I let myself get “lost” to discover what’s worth finding around here. That’s how I found Cosmo & Alex Pisano Brothers’ Italian market in Mamaroneck—just driving through on my very round about way to the Apple Store at the Westchester Mall. This little market has everything (even the I Rigoli cookies I crave) and is definitely worth a detour (don't miss the bakery a few doors up either).

Today I went there purposely, with a goal in mind: dinner! I got a few slices of Madrange Ham, a Fava bean salad, another salad of celery, ricotta, and escarole, some fresh mozzarella, and a small ciabatta. I combined this at home with some fresh basil leaves from our garden, some curls of Parmesan cheese, and some roasted red peppers from a jar. The three of sat outside and enjoyed our feast, early for a change because it was prepared with ease.


How Do You Feel About Croquettes?

Dr. Freud's Couch

Croquettes creeped into my life slowly. Once, when I was whiling away my 45 minutes of psychoanalysis I asked out loud what I could prepare for dinner with leftover roast chicken. “Croquettes!” was the enthusiastic response from my analyst. This from the person who was so professionally restrained that nearly every question I asked in 10 years went unanswered. Croquettes? What in the world was she talking about?

Years went by and that cryptic and isolated response perplexed me. What are croquettes and why, of all the things she could possibly tell me, did she recommend them?

Then I picked My Girl up from a late afternoon play date (which marvelously included dinner). I could see some of the leftovers on the kitchen table, and the kind dad (who also happens to be a wonderful cook) offered me some. They were little potato pancakes full of chicken and peas. “What are these?” I asked with a mouth full of the light and savory morsel.


They are indeed an excellent way to make use of leftover chicken, leftover mashed potatoes, and leftover peas. But I was so in the mood for them the other night that I made fresh mashed potatoes and fresh corn to accompany the leftover chicken and to appease my hunger.

They are most definitely comfort food, and perhaps that comfort was what the wise doctor was trying to relay.

Here’s how I made them:

Mashed potatoes—this is the main ingredient, and the amount you have will determine how many croquettes you will have. Remember, butter makes them better.

Roast Chicken – take the meat off the bone and chop into bite-sized pieces

Some sautéed onion, shallot and/or garlic will add more flavor. You won’t need a lot

Some vegetables – corn, peas. I used one ear of corn for about 10 croquettes

Egg—(beaten) Think of this as meatloaf, you want enough to bind everything together and add some lightness when it cooks, but don’t make it too wet.

Salt / Pepper

Bread Crumbs or Panko

Vegetable Oil

Mix the potatoes, chicken, onion, veggies, egg, and salt and pepper. Form them into balls and flatten them out into cakes (about the size of a hamburger patty). It’s not a bad idea to let them chill in the fridge if you have the time. I think this helps them set.

Lightly bread each side of each croquette with breadcrumbs

Heat a griddle and add some oil (don’t let it smoke), and cook the croquettes, letting them crisp up on each side. Let each one drain on some paper towels after you cook them, then keep them warm a low oven until they are all done.

Image: From Freud.uk.org


A Day with Frog and Toad

I was feeling a lot like Toad yesterday, Frog’s rather glum and pessimistic friend. An iced coffee at about 4:00 finally shook it out of me, but I promised to have a brighter outlook today. So I started things off with a brisk walk and came home to stare down the three baskets of raspberries in the fridge.

The local A&P has raspberries on sale this week, three baskets for five dollars. It is actually a sweet deal when one considers that a half-gallon of organic milk is almost that. The thing with raspberries though, is you have to use ‘em or lose ‘em. So the pressure was on: what was I going to do with those berries?

I thought of a raspberry mousse, that is until I looked up the recipe and saw how many cups of heavy cream go into it, and it seems a shame to eat all those calories without the chocolate. I riffled through as many cookbooks as I could and came across this from my guru, Laurie Colwin: “God created raspberries in large part so that we would preserve them in glowing jars to stack smugly in our cupboard. Lord knows I love jam making—the ravishing color of the berries as they first combine with the sugar, the moment when the thickness is right, the satisfaction of ladling the wanton jam into the tidy jar.” See! Toad would not make jam; it is such a Frog activity.

I found some old jars and fresh lids and put them on to cook. Measured out equal parts berries to sugar and let my mind drift to other literary inspirations for the process. Suddenly I was Sal’s mom, in their kitchen, making blueberry jam. Yes, I am hopeless.

Feeling even more empowered I sliced up 9 lemons, sprinkled them with sugar, and began to mash them with a potato masher so we can have lemonade later too.

It’s 11:00 am. Maybe it’s time for a nap.

Frog and Toad illustration by Arnold Lobel
Sal and her Mom, inside cover from Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey


Oh Yeah, I Forgot...

A friend told me that she actually knew of a reader (thank you, thank you) who has been waiting for months (Such patience! Such loyalty!) to hear how that darn pork roast turned out. I remember it well, even though many meals have been plopped down on my table since.

It was horrible, like cardboard.

Michael Pollan’s latest actually sheds some light on the pork loin problem. With our “lipophobia” (fear of fats) that came out of the ’77 and ’82 dietary guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences, we began to breed for leaner pigs. They became “The Other White Meat.” But it seems my high school home ec. teacher had it right: the flavor is in the fat, and that’s why the Prime steaks at Fairway have gorgeous marbling and taste like heaven (if red meat is your thing). Note that three of us share one small steak, so as red meat consumers we’re not at the top of the charts.

Since the March Madness of the pork loin debacle, I have been a champion of the pork shoulder. It’s cheap, difficult to botch, and oh my does it taste good.

One time I put a whole boneless roast in the slow cooker along with some celery, carrots, cannelloni beans, and a big can of tomatoes. I think I made a sauce of some of the veggies and juices after it all cooked for 6 hours and the meat was all falling apart. We were happily heating that dish up for a couple of days.

When I was in Sacramento last summer and under the tutelage of Iron Chef Maurice, I raided his cookbooks, xeroxing every good thing I could find. Many of these were from Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday, a book Maurice swears by. This past Sunday I made Puerco y Papas al Gujillo, which translates into Guajillo Spiced Pork and Potatoes. It was a revelation.

The deceiving thing about slow cookers is that it’s easy to confuse them with the Ron Popeil philosophy of cooking: “Set It and Forget It.” You usually can’t just throw everything into the pot, set the timer and go to work. There is usually some kind of prep work (e.g., chopping, sautéing) to do before you can resume your leisure activities. This recipe is no exception. You have to toast the guajillo chilies, puree them with a bunch of ingredients, and strain them over the meat and potatoes. Don’t let me dissuade you, however. It’s about 30 minutes of prep—then you’re free to watch movies, read a book, do a load of laundry, and have a good long phone chat.

It’s a heavy dish; still it’s good for a summer night (like in Mexico). I served it with black beans, tortillas and corn one night, escarole salad on the next.

Puerco Y Papas al Guajillo
(from Bayless’ Mexican Everyday)

Serves 6

1 1/2 pounds red skin or Yukon Gold potatoes, each cut into 6 wedges
1 1/2 – 2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cubed (I used 1 1/2” cubes)
2 oz (about 8) dried guajillo chilies (stemmed, seeded, and torn so they lie flat)
1 – 15oz can diced tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
2 tsp dried oregano
2 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
1/2 C (loosely packed) chopped cilantro for garnish
1/2 C diced white onion

1. Set the potatoes over bottom of slow cooker and top with pork.
2. Heat med. (8-inch) skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, toast the chilies – about 10 seconds per side. Any smoke means they are burning. Put in blender.
3. Add tomatoes w/ juice, garlic, oregano, Worcestershire, a generous 1 1/2 tsp. Salt, and 1 1/2 C water. Blend until as smooth as possible. Strain mixture through a medium-mesh sieve directly into slow cooker, over meat and potatoes. Stir to mix.
4. Put on lid and set to slow-cook on high for 6 hours. (It can keep on “warm” for 4 hours after cooked.)
5. Stir when done, add water if sauce seems too thick. Add salt if you think it needs it.
6. Serve in bowls with cilantro and onion on top.

Note: You can also do this in a Dutch oven at 300 degrees for 2 -1/2 to 3 hours.


Better Than Making Dinner

I'm about to get up and make dinner...but first...The Tape of Love


Not For Dinner

Some of my dinners have been pretty crappy lately, but I do have some handy tips for good things to serve.
First for the healthy: fruit kabobs. I had to bring something to The Girl’s school picnic, and I swear I lost sleep over this assignment. What will most kids eat that is good for them? What won’t spoil in the sun? What is easy to carry? Yes, delicious fruit-on-a-stick was the answer. I cubed up melons, blackberries, pineapple, and strawberries (having forgotten the organic grapes in the fridge), and they were pretty darn good. Color-wise, the pineapple blackberry combo looks best.

Now for the decadent! Our dear neighbors help us out in so many ways. I did two loads of laundry at their house yesterday because our machine is on the fritz; that’s how generous they are! They are so thoughtful that it isn’t unusual to get a phone call around dinner time announcing that “s’mores” will be available over their leftover coals. [They grill with charcoal, which is pretty much the only way to toast marshmallows.] They were out of chocolate on this particular night, but they did have Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Oh man! The gooey hot marshmallow with the graham cracker and chocolate were amazing, but with peanut butter it was overwhelmingly delicious. We named them “Nutter S’mores.” Try it for yourself.