Saturday, December 31, 2005

Chinese (and Japanese) New Year

For Margy and me, New Year's Eve has historically been a night for cooking projects. Obviously we never really mind spending time in the kitchen, but our stamina only seems to increase on December 31. This probably has something to do with cold weather and plenty of days off.

This year I thought it would be fun to make dumplings, which we'd never tried. Looking back, I bet it would have been easy to roll out homemade dough for the wrappers, but we'll have to save that for the next time, since I bought packaged wonton skins.

My mom gave me a great new Japanese cookbook, Washoku, for Christmas, so I picked the pork and wakame (seaweed) potstickers from there. I also wanted to try steamed dumplings, because we like them, and because we never use our steamer. I poked around and found a recipe for Chinese shrimp and pork wontons, and it seemed they might go well with the potstickers.

And then, and this is where I get a little kooky, I added some side dishes. (But again, the whole point was to spend hours in the kitchen.) Margy loves cucumber salad, so that was an easy pick. I marinate sliced, seeded cukes in salt, sugar, and rice wine vinegar and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top for serving (lower right corner of photo). Washoku's hijiki seaweed recipe (far right, cut off) called for dashi, the sea-essence stock made from kombu seaweed and bonito flakes, so I knew I'd have some dashi left over for a miso soup appetizer. Rice and various dipping sauces -- most of them invented -- rounded out the menu. Margy and I put on good tunes (by the second song she told me to ditch Keith Richards's first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, with an unmistakable "You like this?") and set to chopping and mixing.

As often happens when I follow recipes for exotic things I've never made, there was no shortage of eureka moments. After stirring a heap of scallions into a mixture of ground pork and chopped shrimp, I was suddenly seized with a familiar aroma: wontons! Even though the ones in wonton soup don't usually contain shrimp, my wontons were telling me I was on the right track.

Along those lines, I grew to better understand Japanese gyoza as I cooked the potstickers. The recipe told me to pan-fry them, then add water to help them steam, then let the water evaporate as the dumplings brown and stick to the pan (hence the name). All of this was thrilling, and reminded me of watching the gyoza man at my regular Japanese haunt in Paris (regular for a week, at least) do something similar.

We were struck by the similarities in the dumplings we chose, despite their coming from different cultures and employing different cooking techniques. Of course, both had the same wrappers, but both also featured ground pork mixed with a member of the onion family -- leeks (Japanese) or scallions (Chinese).

And there was enough room for improvement to make us excited to try dumplings again. Practice will help us get more dexterous with the shaping part, though Margy's steamers came out a bit more elegant than my potstickers.

Happy new year!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Plan B Squid

Sometimes you have to go with the flow.

I had set out to make stuffed squid -- I had even told Margy so, which got her psyched -- but I wasn't explicit enough with my fishmonger. He went heavy on the tentacles, which I wouldn't mind ordinarily, but I found myself with a dearth of stuffable bodies. So I put the food processor away and made squid stew, in a sauce of tomato with garlic, shallot, herbs, and a shot of pinot noir.

This would have been wonderful over pasta, but we mopped things up with bread instead.

A recipe follows this post.

Recipe: Squid Stew

Amounts are approximate, so use more or less of the aromatics if you like. And feel free to experiment. As long as you use the proper amount of liquid, you can't really go wrong. The squid should be almost, but not quite, submerged when the liquid is added. And if the stew begins to dry out during cooking, add a bit more crushed tomato or a few tablespoons of water.

Serves 2

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1-2 shallots, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 small fresh chili pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 1/4 pounds cleaned squid, bodies and tentacles, bodies sliced into 1/4-inch rings
1 1/2 cups canned crushed tomato
1/4 cup red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste (optional)

In a pot large enough to hold squid and sauce, heat oil and butter on medium heat. Add shallot, garlic, carrot, chili (if using), and parsley, and cook for about 5 minutes until vegetables soften. If they begin to brown, lower heat (it's okay if the garlic becomes golden, but it shouldn't quite brown).

Add squid to pot, and stir to coat with aromatics. Cook over medium to medium-high heat for 1-2 minutes. Pour crushed tomato and wine over squid, and mix well. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stir in tomato paste (if using), and lower heat to low. Cover pot, but leave lid slightly ajar. Cook for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Near end of cooking, check sauce and add salt if necessary.

Serve over cooked pasta (or grains), or in a bowl with sauce. Garnish with additional chopped parsley if you like.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Keema Improv

In Indian cooking, I believe the word keema refers to any dry-textured (not too saucy) dish made with ground meat. Which means the possibilities are endless. I've been making big batches of it with ground turkey, but tonight I tried it with beef.

I was still intent on cooking out of the pantry without making a trip to the market, and I had one more day before we needed indispensable items like milk and fresh vegetables. Poking around, I found a single hamburger in the freezer. A good start, but not enough to feed Margy and me. I looked in the cabinet and saw a can of chickpeas. Now I had my dish.

It was a snap: Add tomato paste to sautéed onion, garlic, ginger, and fresh chili (powdered cayenne or red pepper flakes would work just fine), mix in ground cumin and coriander, toss in a can of rinsed and drained chickpeas with a little water, crumble the hamburger on top, stir everything around until the beef is cooked and the beans are tender, and that's pretty much it. I found the keema holds together a bit better with beef, because it's fattier than turkey and the fat acts as a binder, but both versions are delicious.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Rigatoni with Whatever

My cooking decisions this week are driven by two ideas:

1. Let's keep it relatively light. Relatively.
2. I ain't going to the supermarket.

This means our relatively light meals must only call for things we have on hand. Honestly, I love this test. I've spent a long time -- and not a little moolah -- stocking our pantry, and I enjoy nothing more than creating a full dinner without needing to pick up anything.

So you might guess that our (post-King Kong) meal began with me browning some pancetta. I'm so predictable. The final dish was rigatoni with a not-very-saucy sauce of pancetta, spinach, onion, garlic, parsley, chili, and tomato. The tomato was minimal. Margy had brought one plump red little guy home last week and I wanted to use it in something, so I tossed it in.

This turned out to be a cinch of a meal, and a tasty one too -- the modest one-dish antidote to multicourse holiday blowouts. We didn't even have bread. (But we did have cookies.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

One Last Christmas Dinner

Look at this lovely leftovers buffet. Clearly Margy also has a family that can cook. Her mom made the sliced filet mignon in the foreground, and her sister made the ham and chutney. And Margy's brother-in-law whipped up an Indian dessert -- bananas with spiced yogurt.

Eating is beginning to make sense again.

Monday, December 26, 2005

More Food on the 26th

I for one think our bodies should give us a break and not demand to be fed on the day following a holiday gorge. But alas, biology doesn't work like that. In fact, the more I've been eating, the more I've been wanting to eat. I think I had three dinners the other day.

Along those lines, here's Margy's salmon at a family fete outside Philly. A private room was rented, the kids in the family ran around, and a good time was had by all.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Regal Roast of Pork

Everyone in my family knows how to cook. (Okay, so I'm giving my father the benefit of the doubt. He could cook if he had to.) My mom is the master, but my three sisters have all ascended far beyond apprenticehood. Margy, too, has it going on in the kitchen. If she weren't married to an obsessive stove hog like myself, I have no doubt she would be well on her way to great things, even more than she already is. Her baking is becoming legendary, and I bet she could easily reach the same level with her cooking. But alas, I insist on doing much of the cooking for Margy.

Anyway, this year my family had Christmas dinner at my sister's place -- a first. We had always gathered at our parents', so this was a big deal, and no one really knew what to expect. There were lots of inquisitive phone calls leading up to the big day, mostly related to scheduling and menu.

"So, what time do we go over there?"

"Hmm... not sure. Ask Mom?"

"Yeah, Mom doesn't know."

"Gotcha. What are we having this year?"

"Hmm... not sure. Ask Mom?"

But my sis -- we'll call her Sister #1 with a nod to chronology, not preference (the only brother is unwise to play favorites) -- did a wonderful job. Not that I was worried. Again, she's a terrific cook, and together with my mom (and, I'm sure, Sisters #2 and #3 here and there), she put out a truly memorable dinner.

The crown roast of pork was a vision of beauty. My mom had ordered it from our awesome local butcher, who as usual came through with a gorgeous piece of meat -- nine tasty pounds of porcine succulence. And don't you love the little hats on each chop? Or are they booties? Mom brought her famous sausage stuffing and let it get really crisp and browned in the oven (all of us like everything crisp and browned), and my sister made new potatoes and a giant plate of deep-green broccolini, one of my faves. She chose great wines and added more irresistible cookies to the traveling carnival of sweets that came over from my parents' house.

Another triumph. A Christmas full of fun and food. The eating never stops.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

'Twas the Lobster Before Christmas

This is how my mother does things.

My family looks forward to Christmas Eve all year, because we know Mom's going to make some serious seafood. She doesn't force herself to use seven fishes, but she always has some tricks up her sleeve. This year the main dish was spaghetti with lobster -- white sauce, not red -- and despite her tendencies toward making twice as much food as is required, it all went. Fast. I got a succulent claw and will be forever grateful to my sister for hooking me up at serving time.

There were also broiled smelts and, of course, baccalà salad. Plus crusty rolls, greens, and a dessert spread to rival papal banquets of the Roman Empire. My sisters, my bro-in-law, my niece, my folks, and Margy, we had a hard time getting up afterward. But there was a crown roast of pork counting on us for the next day, so we had to keep our game face on.

Only one year to go till Christmas Eve '06.

Friday, December 23, 2005

It's Always Christmas on Indian Row

Sadly, this is about the best I could do in a joint where the only illumination is provided by thickets of Christmas lights. You do not want to see the hideously overexposed food shot I took with a flash.

What else can I say about dinner on Indian Row in NYC? It's frickin' cheap. And sometimes it's really good. If you aren't claustrophobic and you're not freaked out too badly by the sight of a cockroach sashaying along the wall, you can eat quite well for 10 bucks.

I'm not making up that cockroach thing. It happened tonight. And it wasn't the first time. We pointed it out to a waiter, who deftly snatched it up in a napkin in a way that suggested this wasn't the first time for him either. But that's enough of that. Dinner was good, and I will go back. Just not anytime soon.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Chicken Sighting!

Margy and I have nothing against chicken. Really. We like it sometimes. We just don't eat it very often.

I will say this: Apart from the essential dinnertime staple of crispy chicken cutlets, I don't really have any use for boneless breasts, the dullest meat going. So when we do chicken in our house, it's almost always on the bone -- and yes, we like the dark meat.

I had some thighs and drumsticks in the freezer, and they were dangerously close to wearing out their welcome, so it was time for them to cross the road (to the oven). I whipped up a quick faux-barbecue sauce with onion, garlic, ketchup, vinegar, mustard powder, brown sugar, and chipotle powder -- I was drinking a beer at the time and some of it might have fallen into the saucepan -- while I began baking the chicken pieces in a 400-degree oven, naked save a little S&P. After they'd baked for 20 minutes, I brushed the pieces with the sauce, and cooked them another 20 or 25 minutes until they were done, basting them once more about 10 minutes before I pulled them.

Margy actually walked in the door as I was mopping up excellent Italian vinegar and bits of glass from the floor near the pantry. Yeah, clumsy me. But I quickly snapped back into action and made some little home-fry/french-fry-type things and steamed broccoli and got everything to the table before she could say, "You know, I walked another two hours today..."

The transit strike and the chicken strike are over.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Few Words on Pizza (More to Come)

A confession: I am a pizza snob.

Yet not really. Let me explain. I know good pizza, I want good pizza, but that doesn't mean I must always have good pizza to be satisfied. Sometimes any old pie will do just fine. Like now, for instance. Our local pizzeria turns out a perfectly respectable product, which Margy and I enjoy from time to time. She's not a pizza snob at all, though she too can appreciate the good stuff; in fact, she makes the best homemade pizza I've had after my mother's. And that's no joke. But there was no dough to be kneaded tonight -- we had to order out.

Basically this is the best pizza we can get without going to too much trouble. And sometimes you just need pizza.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Shells = Stock = Soup

Okay, now we're really in the thick of holiday season. Which means things like having cookies and pancakes for dinner and generally enjoying disgraceful eating habits. But every so often I crave an antidote. I wanted something warm and light, maybe a little spicy, and I thought a soup might help jostle the colds that both Margy and I are dealing with. Plus the poor kid was traipsing around NYC all day and night, struggling to cope with the selfish and illegal transit strike, so she deserved a tonic.

This inauthentic Thai-style shrimp noodle soup came together fast -- by necessity, as I had to run off to rehearsal. My ace in the hole is that I always have shrimp stock on hand. (That's why we eat shrimp so often: I collect their shells! They wait in the freezer until I have enough for a batch of stock.) Basically, I tried a few things that seemed to make sense, and it worked. I might not be so lucky the next time.

I heated about a quart and a half of stock in a pot, and threw in two crushed garlic cloves and a couple of Thai chilies. I let that simmer so the garlic and chili would flavor the broth. When it wasn't getting spicy enough, I slit one of the chilies to let the fiery seeds seep out and spread their influence. I added a few tablespoons of Thai fish sauce too. After 15 or 20 minutes of simmering, I added raw shrimp, parboiled rice noodles, and some spinach leaves, and cooked it for about three minutes until the shrimp were opaque and the noodles were hot. A squeeze of lime and a few cilantro leaves on top brightened everything up nicely. Soon Margy and I were sweating happily and letting our bodies thank us for a break from the holiday madness.

And then we had some cookies for dessert.

Monday, December 19, 2005

My Best Potato Gratin

Do you ever make a meal out of a side dish?

We did tonight. I'm not exactly endorsing this idea, but it's going to happen now and then. Like when you keep pork chops in the fridge for so long that they lose their luster. The chops were edible and all, but they weren't at their best. I don't know how I missed this in the supermarket, but one of the chops was big enough for me to wonder if it had been taken from a brontosaurus. I gave Margy the smaller one.

But look at our savior, that browned, bubbling potato gratin. I was more careful this time about slicing the taters to a uniform thickness (Sous Chef Margy handled that part, with her secret weapon, the mandoline) and arranging them properly in the dish in a slightly overlapping fan pattern. The dish itself was a gift from my sister, and I think it helped me get the right results, as it was the perfect size for the potatoes.

Still, despite my using a new dish and making the right moves, there was something mysterious about why this particular gratin was so wonderful. Did I soak in some "way with potato" by osmosis when I was in Paris? Possibly. But I guess part of it can be chalked up to the magic of cooking -- like any kind of inspiration, you can't always explain it; you just have to be grateful when it appears.

Along with our megaserving of potatoes and not-too-many bites of pork, we made sure to eat our vegetables: roasted brussels sprouts, Margy's favorite. Chops? What chops?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Margy Cooks! German Apple Pancakes

Mmm... apple pancakes.

Again we had a big late lunch, so we needed to take it easy for dinner (those pork chops, now fully defrosted, are still sitting in the fridge, waiting for an appetite that's hearty enough to dispose of them). Margy's solution was a great one. We ate her incredible apple pancakes with a few strips of bacon and a salad.

Yes, we sprinkled the powdered sugar with our fingers. Why not. We didn't feel like washing a sieve.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Big Pale Pie

Now this would be a New York pizza.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Margy Bakes! Her Famous Ginger Cookies

I'm not really cheating, since this was pretty much our dinner. And Margy deserves a big hand for making her amazing ginger cookies again this year. They're crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, and they offer a nice hit of spice. The icing is lemon juice mixed with confectioners sugar (as my sister said, you can't beat the combo of ginger and lemon).

We made the mistake of baking the cookies around 6:30pm -- by the time we had each sampled three or four, we were no longer in the mood for the pork chops I'd defrosted for dinner.

So we ate a few more cookies.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Where's the Lobster?

While Margy enjoyed an Italian dinner at her office holiday party, I met with my own former officemates for a well-balanced meal of beer, scotch, and tequila.

Ho, ho, ho!

This was the "lobster" linguine carbonara she ordered, which naturally was made with squid.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


"That's not trout," Margy said as she walked in the door after a long day of work and saw bright orange pieces of fish sitting on the counter.

But it was, despite its very salmonlike appearance. Fresh Canadian trout to be exact. And it was really good. I've been trying to get better at sautéing fish, and practice makes perfect. I heated about a tablespoon and a half each of olive oil and butter and got it hot but not so hot it would burn. I put some S&P on the fish filets and threw them in the pan, skin side down. The filets were thin, so they took only 4 1/2 minutes to cook to perfection -- most of that time on the skin side. Once the skin got a bit of color and I flipped the fish, it needed only a minute on the other side. I let it rest for a couple of minutes after it was done to allow the juices to settle, and then we dug in.

The fish is sitting on top of bulgur, that firm and tasty grain. Rich in fiber too, in case that makes it more attractive. You essentially cook it like rice, with about a 2.5-to-1 ratio of liquid to bulgur (the ratio changes a bit depending on the kind of grain you use). I had a carton of vegetable broth lying around, so I used half broth and half water, but just water is fine. And you can toss in extra goodies like shallot, carrot, and celery to add flavor to the bulgur, as I did here. It's great stuff -- and it makes a terrific leftover. Margy will be having some for lunch any day now.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Pass the Wasabi, and Make It Snappy

What a life.

While I'm at home eating birthday pork yet again, Margy's at a cocktail gathering, hobnobbing with the glitterati and choosing from great colorful platters of maki. But it wasn't all fun and games. "People were practically seizing the tray and going for seconds, thirds, and fourths," she said, adding, "Two hands." As Margy tried to take the picture, the woman holding the tray kept swaying and swerving while people grabbed at the sushi. Good thing I wasn't there -- I would have just followed the stuff around the room till it was gone.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Skillet, the Shrimp, and the Panko

Can you tell that this title was inspired by a certain C.S. Lewis flick that Margy and I saw a few hours ago?

Anyway, I hadn't fried shrimp in a while, so it was time. I don't love the lingering "fry" smell, but it's a small price to pay for such crispy magic.

The method is simple: Before frying, dip shrimp in flour, then beaten egg, then panko bread crumbs. Panko, that Japanese wonder, is a course crumb that's almost white in color and is very low in moisture so it browns up beautifully and develops a nice crunch. I will never, ever use anything else for frying. Try it -- you'll see what I mean.

I've also discovered the delights of frying in peanut oil. It's more expensive than other vegetable oils, but it makes a big difference. It has a higher smoke point than corn or canola oil, which allows you to use more heat and therefore cook the food faster, without it absorbing too much oil. And I'm not talking about deep-frying here -- just a coating of oil on the bottom of the pan. Someday I will try deep-frying at home, but I'm not ready yet.

Margy asked for Turkish delight for dessert, but who am I, the White Witch?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Let the Holiday Parties Commence

It was our first visit to the Thompson Annual Holiday Bash, and it was a lot of fun. Guests sign up to bring either food or drink, and you know what I picked. That's someone's hand scooping a pita chip into my Indian chickpea dip. Next to it is some green chutney. I honestly intended to make canapés, with a dollop of chickpea topped with a bit of chutney, but there wasn't really the space to do that, so we just set the stuff out in bowls. This made it tough to use the chutney as a condiment, so by default it became a dip of its own.

I wish we had caught some of the other stuff on camera (so self-centered we CFM'ers are). You can see the great salami and a few cucumber sandwiches. There was also creamy guac and hummus, and someone brought a huge tray of tiny BLTs, made on heart- and flower-shaped pieces of white toast. Brilliant!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mushroom Workshop Revisited

When I fall off the horse, I like to get right back on.

As you may recall, I was unsatisfied with my previous attempt at a cream and mushroom pasta sauce, which tasted great but was too dry. I would wake up in the middle of the night pondering what went wrong, then pace around like a zombie during the daylight hours thinking about heavy cream and pasta cooking water. Trying again was my only recourse.

This time I got it right.

I made sure to add plenty of cream -- I don't cook with it often, so there's no reason to skimp when I do -- along with all of the water I used to hydrate the dried porcini. (If you've never cooked with dried mushrooms, I recommend you try it. The soaking water becomes a powerful potion packed with mushroom essence, and you should never throw it away.) And when I put the undercooked pasta in the sauce to finish cooking while absorbing the sauce's flavor, I added a big ladle of the cooking water as well, to keep things flowing. The sauce was not watery, but there was enough of it, and it coated the noodles perfectly, with help from lots of Parmesan. Margy dug it -- to the point that we ate it all and had none left over.

Allow me a word about the salad. I am on the verge of discovering the ultimate nut topping. I'm not quite there, but I'm getting close. I took whatever nuts we had lying around -- walnuts, almonds, peanuts -- and mixed them with some honey (which I warmed in the microwave to make it easy to work with), sesame seeds, and ground cayenne. I then spread the nuts on a sheet pan and baked them for about 12 minutes at 375 degrees. Sweet and spicy and roasted! (I think Margy dug those too -- look at how many she put on her salad.) Yet they were neither sweet nor spicy enough, and they needed some salt. My mom suggested I try toasting the nuts in a pan on the stove with brown sugar instead of honey. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Memories of Birthday Pork

I made this dinner two months ago.

Well, not the broccoli or the rice, but the pork curry, which tonight was a gift from the freezer. Margy and I threw me a birthday bash in October, and I made a big Indian spread, again with counseling from the cooking-school wiz, whose advice on the main dish was invaluable. As I recall the menu was pork curry, dal, green beans with garam masala, and Indian rice. I also made an appetizer of chickpea flour pancakes with spinach and shrimp. For dessert Margy whipped up her incredible fall-to-your-knees raspberry bars and our friend Nikki brought great lemon butterfly cupcakes.

This dinner was just an edible reminder of that fun night.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Dinner at 8... and a Half

Again I found myself eating with Margy's work crew, which is always a good time. The restaurant was Brasserie 8 1/2. For some reason I was expecting a disappointing meal -- the place just seems so clever that I worried something important would get lost in all the bells and whistles.

Indeed some wrong moves were made as soon as we walked in. Let's just say we'd reserved for a party of 13 but still had to wait 35 minutes before being seated at two separate tables. And there were bits of attitude from some members of the staff, but this seems like the kind of place that wants you to feel so lucky to be there that you don't mind a bit of manhandling.

But I have to say, the food was impressive. An appetizer of grilled sardine, calamari, and fresh bacon with flageolet beans and grape tomatoes was our favorite. It was one of those times when you want to ask the server if the dish comes with free refills. The photo is Margy's Japanese bass special. If I recall correctly, that's cauliflower puree in front of the fish. I had braised short ribs (confirming my hunch about 8 1/2 being conspicuously clever, the menu told us how long they'd been braised -- 32 hours or something) with pomegranate glaze and a wonderful little nugget of fried marrow that melted in my mouth. The beef was cut into three rectangles and set atop geometrically precise cakes of potato and bacon(!), but Margy observed that the plate looked more like dessert than dinner. Anyway, it was pretty good. And the 8 1/2 french fries are among the best I've had. Yeah, we were all able to sneak a few of those in.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cold-Weather Grilling

Margy was coming home from Paris, and her whirlwind international sojourn had earned her a hearty home-cooked dinner. So I brushed the snow away from the grill and set up some coals.

I don't believe grilling has to be limited to the summertime. I didn't always feel this way, but one brisk winter evening a few years ago I saw Enzo's mom shuffle outside in a heavy coat and slippers with a London broil on a platter, and I had a eureka moment. Margy and I now stock charcoal year-round.

The lamb chops were on sale, and they were delicious. I served them with really chunky smashed potatoes (I added a bit of chopped rosemary) and long beans with garlic.

It was incredibly weird to drive to the airport for the second time in less than 48 hours, but Margy was there waiting for me -- tired, hungry, and just a bit Frencher than when I'd seen her last.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Margy's One-Night Paris Journal

If you're forced to go to Paris on business for the second time in two weeks, this time for just a single day, you might as well get a good meal.

It was a late-night affair (meaning for Margy it was right around dinnertime) at an apartment near the Pompidou modern art museum. The menu was smoked salmon with savory pancakes and crème fraîche, followed by a cheese course. How perfectly Parisian. Margy loved it.

The bottle at the top of the photo contains what was described to Margy as British black vodka. She said it was good. I keep thinking it's a bottle of vinegar.

For dessert they had dried strawberries. I would love to have tried those.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Pre-Plane Food

I make a big batch of this Indian ground turkey dish (turkey keema) every few weeks or so, and we eat it for days and never get tired of it. I got the basic recipe from my pal the cooking-school wiz kid, and I change it around according to my whims and whatever I have on hand.

Sometimes I make it with chickpeas, but this time I used frozen green peas. And I was -- gasp -- out of fresh chilies, so I sprinkled some ground chipotle to heat the sucker up.

Margy ate this just before I drove her to the airport so she could board another plane to Paris.

We are not jet-setters. But she had some unfinished business in the City of Lights and had to return for a whirlwind 26-hour jaunt. I stayed home this time.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

In the (Shrimp's) Eye of the Beholder

Margy and I, though fundamentally quite different, tend to agree on a lot of things. After a movie, we almost always feel the same way about the film we've just seen. And so it goes with food.

This time, not so much.

I was slapping myself on the back for this dinner, but then I turned my head and I could tell Margy was struggling. She ate well and said nice things, but I knew she wasn't thrilled.

It's the heads-on shrimp. That's what it is. They simply make you work too hard for your dinner. You're practically starving, and your reward for carefully (yet messily) removing a shell is a quick bite of shrimp -- and then you have to do it all over again for the next bite. I just can't resist. They taste so good, and dammit, I like to suck the heads and munch on the legs. But I promise to wait many months before I ask Margy to deal with the little critters again.

The sauce was a Sichuan peppercorn concoction that I adapted from a recipe in Food & Wine, and it was really good. The accompaniment was my own creation -- a Japanese-style watercress salad. I say "style" because it's probably not remotely authentic, but I loved it. And it marked the first time I ever cooked with watercress (I bought some at our Asian market along with the heads-on shrimp, with an eye on experimenting).

In its raw state the watercress seemed a little firm and bitter, so I blanched it for a minute in boiling water. Then I mixed a dressing of white miso paste, sake, mirin, and sugar, and cooked the mixture for 30 seconds to burn off the alcohol. Once it cooled I added a bit of rice wine vinegar, and then I let the drained watercress marinate in the dressing for a while before serving. As soon as I get the proportions exact, I'm going to post the recipe. The mixture of sweet, salty, and bitter was magical. Well, to me at least; Margy thought it leaned too heavily toward bitter.

I'll make it up to her.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Himalayan Hunger

I tried to get Margy to write this one, since I wasn't there, but she demurred. I'll nab her as a guest blogger soon.

She was celebrating her friend Saul's birthday with a meal at the Tibetan restaurant Tsampa in the East Village. It's a fun place, with lots of atmosphere. The lighting is so low you suspect they don't want you to take a good look at what's on your plate ("Hey, what is Tibetan food anyway?"), but it seems the dishes stand up to being well lit.

In a proud there's-a-first-time-for-everything moment, Margy sensed that A) her friends had no idea what to eat, and B) they couldn't see the menu anyway, so she ordered dinner for five all by herself. A smash success, I might add.

Tsampa specializes in wonderful dumplings called momo, which are at the top of the photo. And damn, look at that bright red dish of hot sauce.

I'll be there next time.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Margy Flirts with the Dark Side

There's only so much I can do.

But we can handle an occasional trip to McD's. I partially wished I had been there myself. I had kidney bean stew again. It's still delicious, but it isn't deep fried.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Shapes of Semolina

It's creamy pasta week.

Our pal Roberto made this big bowl of macaroni with peas and bacon (uh, I took the picture before he added the bacon). I watched with great interest as he mixed a quivering mound of ricotta with a bunch of butter and Parmesan, added some sautéed onion and garlic, and stirred in a ladle of the pasta's cooking water to turn the whole thing into a rich sauce. Buonissimo.

I'd never seen the shape of pasta before, and I loved it. It's sort of a cross between bucatini and cavatappi -- a hollow little twist, but with a very small hole. I'll be tracking those down soon.