Monday, October 31, 2005

Margy Cooks! Halloween Chili!

She didn't actually cook the chili on Halloween, but rather a few Sundays ago when the two of us took our kitchen by storm in an effort to fill our freezer with weeknight-ready meals. This is something I could not recommend more highly. Even a nut like me, who actually finds midweek cooking relaxing, likes to have things on hand for those inevitable evenings when there's no time, or the ingredients aren't there and the inspiration doesn't come.

As a point of departure, Margy uses the recipe in Staffmeals by David Waltuck, the chef at Chanterelle in NYC. His version calls for venison, but that just ain't gonna happen -- though it would be great to try it sometime, when we can find the stuff without hitting the woods with shotgun in hand. Instead she simply goes with ground beef, which works perfectly well. This recipe is not timid with the cinnamon, which I wasn't sure about until I took a taste to find that it, along with some cumin, gives the dish added depth in a way that's almost Indian. And for the "good-quality chile powder" in the ingredients list, Margy uses ground chipotle. She's wild like that. The chipotle makes the chili good and hot -- two alarms, we'll say -- and its smokiness snuggles right up to the cinnamon and cumin to form the perfect spice combo.

Margy tends to experiment with the accoutrements on chili night. This time we had corn tortillas, shredded spinach, shredded sharp cheddar, sour cream, and brown rice, with some string beans on the side. Corn tortillas are lower in calories than flour tortillas, but they're harder to fold around the filling.

Margy received the sum total of two trick-or-treaters, both before I got home for dinner, which meant we ate a ton of miniature Tootsie Rolls and Peppermint Patties. Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Give Sardines a Chance

Like most people, I long considered sardines to be piscine symbols of cramped confines, not a healthy and delicious food.

But really, a great many edible items that come in packages tend to share close quarters. Why do we never hear, "Man, we were packed like frickin' prunes into that subway car"? Or, "Like a bunch of Cheerios we crammed into that taxi"?

I think it's because some people can't think of anything nicer to say about sardines. Well, I can. And I'm not even a nutritionist.

I love the little guys. I like the canned ones, as you see here in a spinach/arugula salad that I made for Margy, and I adore the fresh ones, which you will see eventually if you come back to CFM from time to time. Give sardines a chance, I beg you. It's cool that they've been making headlines for their "superfood" properties, but most of their press just makes them sound like something you swallow while holding your nose. No way. They are indeed full of nutrients -- I'm trying not to use terms like omega-3 fatty acids if I can help it -- but, more importantly, they really do taste great. If you eat fish at all, especially if you eat canned tuna, you'll probably like sardines.

In fact, a dish like this was the thing that introduced me to the glory of sardines. I was at my parents' one day, and Mom asked if I wanted lunch. She said she could make a nice salad with canned sardines. I'd acquired a taste for anchovies by then -- an infatuation, really -- and so I fought my built-in sardine skepticism and said sure, why not. The salad was wonderful, just drained sardines on top of greens, dressed with olive oil and lime juice. I was delighted to find that, unlike most dishes my mother makes that are impossible to replicate for the five-billion-plus people in the world who lack her Midas touch, this was almost as good when I made it. I even added a drop of dark sesame oil to the dressing and sprinkled some sesame seeds (clumsily, I admit -- Margy had to hit the road, and I hate to keep her waiting at the table) as a garnish.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


Tonight I was not near whomever was cooking for Margy. So my dinner will have to suffice. I was at a Halloween/birthday party for Famiglia McDonald, and lasagna was the main course. Veggie on the upper left, meat on the lower right. Dig the Halloween plate and witch napkin. And that's a classic McD mixed salad. The lasagna was good -- better than my photo.

I ate more candy in the hour afterward than most kids eat on Halloween.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Siam Chicken and I

It was a quick trip to Lemongrass Grill on Broadway, before we headed to Symphony Space to hear South Indian classical music. The headliners were the violinist brothers Ganesh and Kumaresh, with accompaniment by tabla virtuoso (and quite possibly the world's greatest drummer, period) Zakir Hussain. It was a beautiful performance, full of deep, sighing violin melodies and playful percussion that was at once romantic and whimsical. The sheer sense of fun at an Indian music concert is something that might surprise lots of Western listeners. It's a real romp, with the players trying to one-up each other like kids talking smack on the playground.

On the left is a green curry with tofu. Simple and tasty, with subtle spicing. On the right is Siam chicken, which snared me on the menu by employing one of my favorite phrases: "served over a bed of braised onions." Indeed it was tangy and savory, with a sauce made of black beans.

Truth be told, Margy and I are usually a bit more adventurous, or at least we try to taste more dishes, at a Thai joint, but we needed to hustle to make the show. Anyway, you go to Lemongrass Grill for a quick and dependable meal, not a banquet fit for the king of Siam. Plus I was in iffy shape after a few days of less than healthy eating (see B.B.'s wings and gnocchi with no veg below, plus I haven't even told you about Thursday's 2am Gray's Papaya run...), so I wanted to play it safe.

Margy, of course, never needs to play it safe. A stomach of iron she has! Lucky Margy...

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Nyuk, Gnocchi

My first stealth photography mission, badly blurred. Potato gnocchi with meat sauce, with sausage, meatballs, and pork ribs served as a second course. (Not a green vegetable in sight.) Casa Ricci. Buonissimo.

Margy was missed. But Mrs. Ricci sent her a bunch of gnocchi and a meatball to have for lunch. I love that woman. Like I've said, we're all just cooking for Margy...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

B.B. King's Wings

Here is (part of) Enzo's dinner backstage at 42nd Street's own B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, where we were playing a gig. Chicken wings -- look, he only likes the drumette part! -- and rice with salmon and vegetables. So-so, sure, but provided by the venue. I thought I was dreaming when we weren't billed for dinner later on. I'm just not used to playing such posh digs.

They also had pasta with a reddish sauce that no one really touched, plus a nice mesclun salad and mini cupcakes. And beer. Good beer. What a world.

Margy's meal out in the front of the house went sadly unphotographed. Apologies.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Leftovers: Boeuf L'Asiatique, Gratin, Salade

Look at Margy's photo -- can you tell we're going to Paris?

This was just leftovers night. I had chili shrimp with brown rice, and she had her Asian pot roast and the other night's potato-leek gratin. The gratin looks even better than it did the first time around -- all that browning is a thing of beauty.

A word on salad dressing. We tend to favor oil and vinegar, but to me balsamic or red wine vinegar doesn't work so well next to Asian flavors. So for meals like this I like to mix olive oil and lime juice (lemon juice or a combination of lemon and lime is also good), with a sprinkle of salt. I taste as I go, but equal parts oil and citrus seems about right. Forgive me for forgoing the sesame seeds -- a perfect garnish for this simple spinach salad -- I was in a hurry.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Margy Cooks! Asian Pot Roast!

Score another one for Mark Bittman. His handiwork showed up again on our table, this time courtesy of Margy, who made the Asian pot roast from the book The Minimalist Cooks Dinner.

Margy, who's very good in the kitchen despite her protests that she can only work from recipes -- as if there's anything wrong with that -- might tell you that she was playing with a handicap: She wanted swanky brisket, yet I bought her some humble chuck instead. But the recipe said that either cut of beef would do, and I admit I was looking to apply the concept of minimalism to our grocery bill.

Brisket = $3.99/lb.; boneless chuck = $1.79/lb. That really adds up over a four-pound piece of meat (never make a braised-meat dish without buying enough for leftovers).

Choosing the chuck was a hard decision, but we can get the brisket when we have company. Anyway, I'm happy to report that the meal came out beautifully. Simmered slowly in a powerful potion of soy sauce, water, star anise, and ginger, with a bunch of lovely farmers-market turnips added near the end of cooking, the falling-apart beef possessed an ineffable quality that made me unable to stop eating it. And this after the dish scared the hell out of poor Margy, who tired of the house-filling aroma of star anise long before the roast was ready and feared the spice would dominate the other flavors like a scenery-chewing actor alongside more subtly expressive performers. On the contrary, the anise perfumed the broth perfectly and remained satisfied with a supporting role.

So we're here to give Mr. Bittman the highest compliment we have in our house (well, right after "Sweet drum solo!"): His recipes work. And that's a great comfort, especially with a dish that takes three hours to cook -- unattended or not.

Score another one for the Minimalist, and score another one for Margy.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Chilly Outside, Chili (Shrimp) Inside

We like Mark Bittman in our house. The Minimalist's weekly column in the New York Times is read religiously, and his recipes hit our table on a semiregular basis. Margy, in particular, favors his fun but simple ideas when it's her turn at the stove. Me, I tend to be suspicious of any dish that's too quick to the table -- but lucky for me Bittman's 20-minute cooking times often seem somewhat… shall we say… unrealistic.

And so it was with his chili shrimp, from the Times a few Wednesdays ago. (I'm pretty sure he said the dish was an adaptation of a popular street food in Singapore, chili crabs.) But I can thank our food processor for the delay, at least in part. It just didn't feel like fully mincing the blissful conglomerate of ginger, garlic, shallots, and fresh chilies that the recipe called for, so I had to finish the job by hand. Which is funny, since I damn near bypassed the instructions to use a food processor and started with a sharp knife in the first place.

So on one hand we have this powerful little spice paste, and on the other we have the ingredients for the sauce: tomato paste, lime juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar. Do you see where I'm going with this? Let me list these ingredients one more time:

  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Shallots
  • Chilies
  • Tomato paste
  • Lime juice
  • Soy sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Sugar
  • !!!

  • This list is pure bliss to lovers of Asian cuisines, which Margy and I most decidedly are. (Though I appreciate all kinds of food, I can find turn-offs on, say, a French menu, but I'll be happy with just about anything done well at just about any type of Asian restaurant.)

    How was the dish? Even better than I'd hoped. It was hot as hell thanks to my arsenal of mixed fresh chilies (you could make it as fiery or as mild as you wanted) and sharpened even further by the fish sauce and lime juice. Sweating happily at our little kitchen table on a cold fall evening, Margy and I were seeing psychedelic visions of the Malay Peninsula.

    Saturday, October 22, 2005

    All You Need Is Bacon

    That's the secret to a well-stocked pantry.

    If I have the proper pork products on hand, I can make dinner. I could be out of everything, down to the dregs of the cabinet, but bacon saves the day every time. Take this meal. Margy was on her way home from work, and I had to head out for an all-night gig with my band, so I needed something both quick and substantial. I figured I'd conjure up some sort of pasta dish, using whatever odds and ends I had sitting around. I opened the freezer door and peered into the meat section as little wisps of frost curled around my face and nipped at my nose. I reached down past the chicken legs (take too long to cook) and hot dogs (no thanks) and yanked at a plastic bag whose contents I couldn't quite see because the bag was buried among the goodies. A little tug gave me all the inspiration I needed:

    Slab bacon.

    The rest fell into place quickly. Margy and I are trying to limit our tomato consumption after a recent harried week of consuming nothing but red dishes, so I already knew this would be an olive-oil-based sauce. I didn't have time to make a salad -- okay, I didn't feel like making a salad -- so I figured I'd use spinach in the sauce. Here's how it went down:

    I sliced the slab bacon -- 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound -- into thin pieces and cooked it till browned and crisp in a bit of olive oil. Not too much fat was rendered, so I saved it all for the sauce when I drained the bacon on a paper towel. In the fat I sautéed 1 small diced onion, 2 small thinly sliced garlic cloves, 2 little minced chilies (you can see a whole one in the pic), and a couple of tablespoons of chopped parsley, with a bit of salt. By now I had wilted around 4 ounces of spinach in the water I was boiling for the pasta, drained the spinach, and started cooking the pasta. Yes, I mixed spaghetti and fusilli -- sue me. (I had little bits of each left over from other meals and knew it would be the right amount for two portions when combined. It actually worked out okay, but I shall be more exclusive should Marcella Hazan turn up for dinner.) When the onions just started to brown I stirred in 1 tablespoon of butter. I added the spinach to heat it back up and, just at the very end, the bacon. I drained the pasta when al dente and stirred it into the sauce to coat it well.

    Margy came home and I was ready for her. That's how she likes it. Bacon makes everything good. This time, it made me seem like a genius.

    Friday, October 21, 2005

    Pork & Potatoes

    I have used a mandoline for the first time. And now I can understand why Margy calls it a "guillotine." I certainly expected it to chop off my hand, if not my head.

    But really that's my own dumb fault. I used the damn thing to slice fingerling potatoes, those oddly shaped little guys (I swear, one was the spitting image of the profile of Jay Leno). They'd been in the refrigerator for a while and needed to be eaten, plus I'd picked up some good-looking leeks at the farmers market last Sunday, and I just couldn't shake weeklong visions of a potato-leek gratin. In the end, the slicing worked. Sorta. It was scary -- I was unable to handle the guard/holder properly, and my spud-victims kept slipping around as my fingers slid perilously close to the unforgiving V-shaped blade. I think I need to go back and practice with an onion or a zucchini. Fingerlings are simply inappropriate for a mandoline maiden voyage.

    (Later on, Margy -- by now a mandoline virtuoso, thanks to all those late-summer beets -- showed me the incredibly easy way to work the guard/holder.)

    Luckily, the gratin was wonderful, thanks to the sage guidance of my mother and sister. I simmered some light cream with a couple of smashed garlic cloves and a few sprigs of thyme, and enlivened the mixture with a pinch of cayenne. Then after about 10 minutes I took out the garlic and herbs, lined a buttered baking dish with the thinly sliced, well-salted potatoes and leeks, poured the cream over it all, grated some Parmesan on top along with a scattering of breadcrumbs, and put the gratin in a 450-degree oven. I find it can stay in there a while -- I cover it with tinfoil for the first half of the cooking time, and then remove the foil to let the top get some color. 40 minutes or so usually does the trick, but for me there's no such thing as too much browning. Next time I'll start earlier. (I say that every time.)

    Anyway, by now Margy was already home, famished and munching on Smart Puffs and peanuts, so I had to make my move. I threw two primo pork chops on the grill and sautéed some thinly sliced brussels sprouts (these little f**kers I did by hand) in butter and olive oil until they began to crisp up. It's so easy, and something magical happens to the sprouts -- the carmelization makes them supersavory. Wanna try it yourself? The recipe follows.

    Recipe: Pan-Fried Brussels Sprouts

    Serves 2 as a side dish

    12 medium-size brussels sprouts
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    1 tablespoon butter
    Freshly ground pepper

    1. Trim and discard the tough, dark outer leaves from each sprout. Slice off the end of the stem of the sprouts, and discard. Stand sprouts on flat stem end and cut in thin vertical slices, about 1/8 to 1/4 inch wide.

    2. Heat oil and butter over medium-high heat until butter is melted and foaming but not browned. Add the sprouts and salt to taste, and sauté until starting to brown, stirring occasionally so sprouts don't burn, 4-5 minutes. Cook a bit longer if you like your sprouts very brown and crisp.

    3. Grind pepper to taste over sprouts, and serve.

    Thursday, October 20, 2005

    Keema Again?

    "Ta-ra-ki-ta, ta." --Ravi Shankar

    We've been eating this all week. It is the stuff of paradise, this turkey keema.

    But why the hell didn't I throw in some peas?

    Wednesday, October 19, 2005

    Good Snapper/Bad Snapper

    Sad but true: It's not easy to buy fish at the supermarket.

    Nothing against my local ShopRite, which has armed me well with sea creatures over the years -- notably wonderful squid (see below) and tiny cockles that give off beautifully briny juice when they open and offer a little bite of meat that's better than finding a pearl in an oyster -- but sheesh, a good filet is hard to find.

    I wanted Margy to have one helluva Sunday dinner. Work was kicking her ass, and it was finally her day off (she works Saturdays), so some royal fish was in order. I never make filets, so I figured we'd try that for a change. I had some potatoes from the farmers market, and again was looking to break with tradition, since I usually make rice with fish. So fish filets with potatoes -- that's what got me started.

    As I often do before a weekend kitchen project, I opened some cookbooks for inspiration. I turned to my pal Tom Douglas from Seattle -- we've never met, but my meal with Margy at the Dahlia Lounge just after we got engaged was memorable enough for me to pretend Tom and I are buds -- and found a recipe for pan-roasted fish with green lentils in his Seattle Kitchen book. The lentils I had on hand were brown, but so what. They were imported from Italy, and that was more than good enough for me. Plus they were really round and adorable, begging to be eaten. Margy and I'll give 'em a good home... I rinsed them, then boiled them in water until tender. I chopped and sautéed the holy trinity of onion, carrot, and celery, plus some minced garlic, and added the cooked, drained legumes. Once everything was hot, I tossed in plenty of fresh herbs from our garden -- sage, thyme, rosemary -- and stirred in a small amount of butter and a few tablespoons of chicken stock. We then not only had a savory little bed for our fish to luxuriate upon, but a bunch of lentil lunches for the week ahead as well.

    Anyway, the fish. What you see here was Margy's piece. Mine was just as nice looking, but too big -- and far too tough. When you buy a whole fish, you can see the shape it's in. The eyes should be clear, the gills red. Cloudy eyes, pale and shriveled gills... have a hamburger instead. But with filets it's not so easy. I bought two fine-looking pieces of red snapper at ShopRite, and one of them (again, with nothing to distinguish it visually from the other) sucked. Margy got the good piece. And guess what? She shared it with me.

    The other one sleeps with the fishes.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2005

    Leftover Squid

    And so it unceremoniously begins, on a warm Tuesday in late October, with me heating up stuffed squid I made for Margy over the weekend. She was out at some work thing -- I never quite understand what -- so I was flying solo. Which was fine, since I didn't even have enough squid to feed myself.

    But a resourceful cook is a resourceful eater; I heated a huge chunk of decent Hoboken baguette I got at our Sunday farmers market. Dipped in the strongly flavored squid broth (tomato puree, shrimp stock, a hit of white wine), it would help me fill up, thus increasing my chances of avoiding a Peppermint Pattie maelstrom an hour later.

    And because Margy's cook wants his best girl to eat both deliciously and healthfully, I continued to set an example by including vegetables at every meal, this time in the form of a spinach/arugula salad. The arugula was from the farmers market -- tasty, peppery stuff, only a little wilted after a couple days in the fridge -- as was a tiny beet that I julienned and added after I dressed the greens. (That's my new trick to prevent the entire insalata from turning purple before the first bite.)