Saturday, December 30, 2006

Margy's Pizza

I've waxed rhapsodic over Margy's pizza many times now, but it would be irresponsible of me not to commemorate each and every appearance of this magical food.

It's always the same, yet it's always different. Temperature and humidity surely play a part in the behavior of the dough, and who knows how many other subtle factors are at work. Water salinity? Margy's body temperature? The shifting moods of fickle flour?

Tonight the crust was a little thicker and a little more pale than usual, but it cooked up perfectly and, as always, tasted fantastic. I've been experimenting with sprinkling Maldon sea salt over the white pies -- we alternate red and white -- once they come out of the oven, to great results. The large, flaky salt crystals really wake up fresh tomatoes (especially ones bought in December). The difference in flavor with and without the salt is illuminating.

Margy, you've done it again.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Nice Butt

For Margy and me, the last few days of the year have traditionally been all about cooking, and this year is no different.

Yesterday, we stocked up on supplies at the Asian market. We replenished some pantry staples, like green tea and mirin, and we got lots of fun produce -- long beans, Chinese leeks (the root ends look like garlic bulbs), insanely hot Thai chilies. We had a whole red snapper filleted, which I cooked last night, and we got a pork butt for this evening.

Boy, does that place have some good butt.

The fish and meat guys at the market really know their stuff. Over at the seafood counter, they clean fish quickly and thoroughly, and of course they sell good specimens. I never go to this place, Kam Man, without stopping in for some seafood. But I'd only bought meat a few times before today. That's going to change. Everything looked fresh and firm, and when I saw the pork butt I was hit by the thunderbolt. (The oxtails must wait for another day.) I asked the butcher for something around three pounds. He poked around for a second, grabbed a piece, and threw it on the scale: 3.00. Wow -- practically a parlor trick. I wonder if he does it at parties. "Gimme some meat, and I'll guess its weight within an ounce!"

I had to be sure to treat such a perfect piece of pork with the care it deserved, so, since I was going to braise it, I resolved not to cut corners during the browning process. With a decent-size cut that has many uneven surfaces, browning can take forever, and I've been known to lose my cool during this step and flip meat before its time. No, I wasn't going to do that today. Browning took 30, maybe 40, minutes, but when it was all over I had an even finer-looking butt on my hands than I had started out with.

By the way, pork butt actually comes from the shoulder. Go figure. According to the book How to Cook Meat, "It got its name because in colonial times this type of pork was packed into barrels called 'butts' for shipping and storage."

Meanwhile, I deglazed the pot with a splash of white wine, and then I gently cooked onion and, eventually, garlic until it was nice and soft. Adding a hint of Mexico to what I consider my all-purpose Italian-style braise, I tossed in one chopped canned chipotle and a spoonful of its adobo sauce. Then I put back the pork and covered it halfway with liquid -- canned tomato, white wine, and chicken broth. I covered the pot and popped it in a 325-degree oven, and we waited, less than patiently, perhaps.

Two hours later we had on our hands what seemed like something of a magic trick itself. I never tire of the wonder of slow-cooked pork, its formerly chewy meat now falling apart in tender chunks and strands, its ample fat melting into the other flavorings to form a rich and delicious sauce. In this case, the chipotle really made its presence known, adding a good holler of heat and just a whisper of smokiness.

It's a good thing we get such a kick out of stuff like this, because the butt will be feeding us for days -- and it may even taste better the next time around. I see a taco night in our immediate future...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sweet (and Slightly Salty) Relief

"I need sushi. It's been long enough."

Margy had been hearing some variation on those words for a couple weeks now, and it was time to do something about it. So we made a reservation at Shumi, our favorite Japanese restaurant in Jersey.

I was ready to go all out. We took a seat at the bar, and, with Margy's permission, I asked the chef/owner, Ike, to just start feeding us. "We like everything," I said, and I meant it. After a soft-shell crab salad took the edge off ever so slightly, Ike presented us with a magnificent plate of sashimi as a prelude to the sushi that would follow.

Each fish made us swoon. Clockwise from top left: white tuna; toro; Japanese horse mackerel, or aji, dressed with a wonderful mince of ginger and scallion; tai, a sea bream that's somewhat similar to red snapper; sweet shrimp from Maine, the first of the season and tonight's special; and squid that Ike scored with a knife and rolled around seaweed, spicy tuna, and cucumber.

What followed were greatly conflicting impulses to devour it all on the spot and slow down to a crawl in order to savor every morsel. I didn't want the moment to end. After the sashimi, as a parade of sushi began, with Ike handing Margy and me two pieces each at a time until we reluctantly asked him to stop, I was struck with one of the reasons why a meal of sushi and sashimi is among my very favorites: It's an ephemeral experience.

And in so many ways. Take, for instance, the pieces of seared salmon with spicy cilantro dressing that Ike gave us near the end of the feast. These hit just about every note that sushi can sing, and in perfect harmony -- the char on the border of the fish gave it wonderful smoky flavor, while the uncooked interior was briny tasting and refreshing, with the perfect meaty but tender texture. The dressing tingled on the tongue. And the rice was just right, meaning it wasn't tightly packed and had a presence of its own. One piece of sushi offered all this -- but there was only one piece for each of us. Sure, we could have said, "Ike, do that again!" But what would we have missed? Seared white tuna with sriracha sauce? That would have been a crime.

So the pleasure of each incredible bite was fleeting, and the wonder of the whole meal was fleeting too, since it's just not possible for us to eat like this every day, or even every week. And though a good sushi meal is supremely satisfying, it also comes with a certain lightness when it's all over, which only contributes to the bittersweet feeling. After I eat a good steak, I feel full and don't want anything more than maybe a nip of brown liquor and a couple bites of dessert. After I eat a good sushi meal, I'm thinking, I could do that again RIGHT NOW. I know it's time to stop -- my wallet knows, at least -- but I want to continue, and the feeling lingers. I would say my number one, taken-for-granted eating rule is to keep things varied, yet for years I've noticed that when I have a memorable sushi meal, I invariably wake up the next day wanting to eat the stuff again. I think it's addictive.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Oh, Snap!

I felt like cooking fish fillets. Margy was in the mood for a whole fish. Guess who won?

The Asian market provided another fine specimen, a red snapper, which I adorned with herbs, lemon, and olive oil and then slipped under the broiler. The fish was moist and succulent -- the "cheek meat," as my parents would call it, was especially delicious -- but the crispy skin was the best part.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Duck Fat Dinner

I did not leave Paris empty handed.

At our friends' place on my last evening in town, the mommy-to-be slipped me a hefty can of duck confit, to my great delight. Tonight I opened it up and made a meal designed to remind us of our little European sojourn.

Inside the can was one big ol' breast suspended in thick, milky white duck fat, not a drop of which will go to waste. Using our pals' Paris home cooking as my inspiration, I attempted something akin to a quick deconstructed cassoulet. I bought a nice French garlic sausage at the nearby luxury-consumables megastore Wine Library, which I sliced and browned and served with white beans cooked in duck fat. I also sautéed potatoes in duck fat and dressed them with parsley when they were done.

And I crisped up the duck skin by cooking the breast fatty side down in a pan, with a little... you guessed it... duck fat (it didn't take much -- that sucker was self-basting). I'd never before brought a duck into our home, so this part was big fun. It sizzled and sputtered and got all nice and brown. When we eventually cut into it, a perfectly brittle crust gave way to the silky richness of the fat beneath and, finally, to the dark and tender meat itself. Margy, normally monolingual, spoke a few happy words in French.

And now the rest of the fat is sitting in a container in the fridge, biding its time until we need it again. It won't be long.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Homeward Bound

As I tried to avoid the tractor-beam pull of the latest Lindsay Lohan movie and keep my nose in the book I'd never started reading on my trip, I heard the flight attendants coming up the aisle with meal service.

"Beef-chicken-vegetarian? Beef-chicken-vegetarian? Beef-chicken-vegetarian?"


I thought that one was reserved for people who call ahead. I was intrigued. My row -- all to myself, I might add (Margy still had a few days of work left in Paris) -- was in the back, so I knew one of those choices would be eliminated by popular demand by the time it was my turn. But which one would it be?


The beef ran out! Without even asking what the hell it was, I threw caution to the wind and asked for veg. Anything to avoid the funky chicken.

And wouldn't you know that on my afternoon flight out of Paris on Continental Airlines my lunch was... black-eyed peas masala.

It wasn't good -- I won't go that far -- but you know, it was the best meal I've had on a plane in a long time, maybe ever.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Home Cooking

For my last meal in Paris, while Margy worked a thirteen-hour shift, I was treated to a home-cooked dinner at our friends' lovely new apartment. And did I mention I spent the day zipping around town on the back of a scooter? This is one of the finest possible ways to tour the City of Light, assuming you don't get into an accident as you clear accelerating vehicles by less than an inch, over and over again, as is mandatory.

The apartment was way over on the edge of town, mere blocks away from Bistrot Paul Bert. I arrived to find my pals, a couple expecting their first baby, setting a charming table and laying out plates of spinach salad with mustard vinaigrette and warm goat cheese. Delicious. The main course was a sort of riff on cassoulet that merged duck confit (in Paris this is wonderful even out of a can) with a mild yet porky Toulouse sausage and beans cooked in goose fat. Oh, yes. The lady of the house -- she's Parisian, her fella's from California -- had taken pity on me, knowing it was a goal of mine to enjoy a real French cassoulet, and though she was great with child and had worked a long day, she made sure I didn't go home disappointed.

Not even close.

As I reached for the bowl of beans for the third time and scraped the spoon against the bottom to try and liberate even the ghost of any remaining goodies, the father-to-be reminded me that we weren't through with dinner. Indeed, out came a nice piece of unpasteurized cheese, followed by cookies with ice cream and chocolate sauce. All the while, we drank wine that my buddies had bought in bulk from an independent vintner and bottled themselves. These were maybe my favorite glasses of the whole trip. It just goes to show you what can be achieved in a country that holds wine in high regard -- in the States, homemade wine is almost always terrible, at least in my limited experience.

But really the best part of the whole evening was being removed from the restaurant scene, as exciting as it is, and hanging out with some friends on their turf, chatting, laughing, listening to their music, eating their food. It was lots of fun, and it made the trip feel more personal. If only Margy had been able to join me.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Aux Lyonnais

I've always been interested in eating at an Alain Ducasse restaurant, and tonight I got my chance.

Ducasse, so decorated by the Michelin guides for his worldwide network of restaurants, isn't exactly thought of as a hero in New York. When his NYC joint opened at the Essex House in 2000, the reviews were not great ("a wow that wavers," the New York Times has said). If you weighed the so-so feedback against the astronomical prices, let's just say no one I know was beating a path to the door.

But when I began hunting for Paris picks before last year's trip, Aux Lyonnais started popping up everywhere. Ducasse has a bunch of restaurants in Paris, including an eponymous one that's supposedly incredibly opulent and hugely expensive, and Aux Lyonnais is regarded as more down-to-earth than many of the others but just as memorable. This was the place we booked way back on Friday afternoon.

Now, I've never eaten dinner in Lyon in the 1850s, but if I had, I'd imagine it would have been something like the meal Margy and I ate tonight. We weren't getting a "Ducasse" dinner (he was probably not even in the country), but that's to his credit -- he and his kitchen are clearly more interested in preserving the weighty charms of true Lyonnaise cooking than in advancing any modern, world-domination-through-excessive-amounts-of-truffles-and-foie-gras-type agenda.

After we had a lovely amuse of fresh cheese with herbs and shallots, Margy started with pumpkin soup with andouille sausage. A tangle of porky bits sat in the middle of the bowl, and a waiter poured the creamy orange potion over it. It was delicious, and I don't even like pumpkin soup (too sweet). As we started to dig in, another waiter swung over and placed a small plate next to Margy's spoon: "This is a cake that goes with the soup," he said. "Try it, and then after I'll tell you what it is."

What it was was awesome.

It was dense and contained little bits of meat. It reminded me of my mom's pizza rustica, or pizzagaina (ahem, "pizza keen"), but there was no cheese in it. Long after it was gone I had to beckon the waiter over to make good on his promise.

"It is a cake made with a pig's ear," he said. "If I tell you before, you would not eat it."

"Oh yes we would!" I said. I'm not quite interested in, say, gnawing on the whole ear of a pig, but I'm happy to enjoy the meat that comes from it. Especially now.

I began with a marinated-eel salad. It had been a goal of mine to try eel outside of a Japanese restaurant, and this was my first opportunity (sadly, my mom has never prepared it on Christmas Eve). I even recognized the word on the menu -- anguille -- from a mile away. The eel was snow white and chewy, but pleasantly so. It wasn't far from the strong flavor of sardines or mackerel, and I look forward to eating it again in a non-Japanese context. Of course, I look forward to eating it again in a Japanese context too!

Margy had chicken with vegetables and crawfish tails (pictured) for her main dish. It came in a red enamel vessel, straight out of the oven, and the bird was bursting with pure chicken flavor, which just underscores how flavorless chickens tend to be back home. The skin wasn't crisped, or even browned, and the crawfish didn't add much, but it was a homey, satisfying entree.

Meanwhile, I had crawfish quenelles (clearly crawfish are big in Lyon). These were essentially two giant white dumplings, just right in texture, neither too firm nor too soft, and they also arrived in a red enamel dish, still bubbling away. The quenelles sat in a deep-brown shellfish stock that was richly flavored, with crawfish tails scattered around the plate. I'd never had anything like this, and I liked it more as I went along. But Paris eating was taking its toll -- had I eaten this on our first night in town, I'd have cleaned my plate, but as it was I couldn't quite finish it.

Dessert was a large sablé cookie, spread with a layer of sweet cream and topped with stewed pears and plums. A great cap to a fun meal.

Ultimately, Aux Lyonnais did not provide our favorite Paris dinner, but its sheer timelessness, or should I say old-timeyness, made it an integral piece of the French-food puzzle that we're slowly assembling. I love the idea of traditional yet somewhat offbeat dishes surviving intact through the ages, shepherded by caring history-minded cooks from one century to another, and another.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Vin & Marée

On any trip to Paris, eating shellfish should be part of the agenda. Parisians know how to get it right.

For our seafood meal, we took our concierges' suggestion of the nearby Vin & Marée (which they explained means wine and tide). When we walked through the door for our 8:30 reservation to find a quiet, harshly lit, and drab dining room, I remembered my new rule for Paris restaurant seating: Always choose the smoking section. In other words, we were standing in the smoke-free zone, while the smokers were led upstairs to a more comfortable and ever so slightly more charming dining room. Something analogous seems to happen in most other restaurants as well -- the good tables, whatever that may mean at a given place, are where the smoke is. This may not be a factor much longer, with talk of a smoking ban that has the French huffing while they're puffing, but for now it's good to keep in mind.

Even upstairs, among industrial carpeting and white walls that sported a strip of blue waves, I could tell Margy wasn't nuts about the decor. What can you do -- it was Monday night, not the best evening for Paris dining. At least the menu looked good, and there wasn't a nonseafood choice on it.

As we were finalizing our selections, a waiter brought us a bowl of mussels in a bit of chive-butter sauce. They were the best mussels I've had in years, briny and tender. We ordered snails and oysters, plus a bottle of white Sancerre.

A young woman came over with an ice bucket and a bottle of wine, and she proceeded to open the bottle without showing it to us. She poured me a taste as I strained to see the label behind the towel she'd wrapped around the bottle. Not bad. She filled our glasses and then left, and I picked the bottle out of the bucket. Nope, not Sancerre. I mentioned this to our waiter, who smiled, removed the mystery bottle, and declared our glasses an aperitif. (The Sancerre was noticeably more complex, and I was glad to have had a mini comparative wine tasting in addition to a free drink.)

The oysters were good but not spectacular. Their liquor was a bit too salty, so unfortunately it was wise not to slurp it all up. But the escargots were wonderful. Last year, they were my revelation -- I hadn't realized how much I loved them before that trip. Once I caught on, I ate big ones, small ones, and microscopic ones that came with a tiny needle, which was the only device that would make it possible to remove the minuscule amount of meat. (I don't mind working for my dinner.) Tonight there was no need for a magnifying glass, but the snails were just as good. They were meaty and firm yet not tough or chewy.

For my entree I had roasted prawns with "caviar d'aubergine." Now, "caviar" I understood, or at least I thought I did; "aubergine," not so much. The word looked familiar, so I just figured, Hey, I'm cool with caviar of whatever. Well, I was surprised to find out that this accompaniment to the prawns was pureed eggplant. Eggplant isn't my favorite, but I was nevertheless thrilled to find some form of vegetable on my plate. The prawns were very good -- they had a bit of char on them, and they offered much more flavor than the shrimp I get at ShopRite back in Jersey.

But Margy's bouillabaisse took home first prize. In fact, I probably stuck my spoon in the bowl almost as often as Margy did. The powerfully flavorful broth was deep and rich and offered a big blast of fennel that joined nicely with the fish stock. The pieces of fish -- mostly rockfish, I believe -- were abundant and weren't overcooked. Rather than being served with a rouille, the bouillabaisse came with croutons and a saffron-garlic aioli. Truly delicious.

You know how I said the dining rooms lacked a certain charm? Well, any missing pizzazz, and then some, could be found in the restrooms. Each of the four men's-room walls contained a row of tiles adorned with cartoons of people using the facilities (as this is a food blog, I'm trying to choose my words carefully). These included a zaftig couple locked in passionate embrace while set upon the porcelain god and a pair of suited businessmen shaking hands while crossing streams. Wouldn't you know I had my camera in my pocket, and I captured it all.

When I returned to the table and showed Margy one of the photos I'd just taken, she shot out of her seat without a word, grabbed the camera, and made a beeline to the ladies' room. Did she find four walls of toilet cartoons? Hardly. The little chamber was decked out in mirrors from head to toe. She'd never seen so many Margys at one time, not even in a Lord & Taylor dressing room...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Sapporo

On last year's trip, the hole-in-the-wall ramen house Sapporo was my safe haven, the place I could go when I needed a butter-free meal that featured the presence of vegetables. I ate lunch there three times, but always alone, and I regretted that Margy, who was working long hours with only a sandwich break during the day, was unable to join me. This time, though, she got to enjoy Sapporo's humble yet considerable charms.

We spent the day at Versailles, mostly waiting on line, and then we had plans to meet friends for a Jarvis Cocker concert in the evening. As we got back to town after strolling the gorgeous Versailles gardens and walking in the footsteps of at least several people who were eventually beheaded, we were starving, and we had just enough time to grab a little something to eat.

All day I had been worried that we were in for an entire day in Paris without a proper sit-down meal, and it wasn't sitting well with me. So when I saw the chance to return to Sapporo for a quick bite, I was more than eager to take it. Margy, of course, liked the sound of my plan.

The dynamic little woman who runs the dining room wasn't around, but the cooks were, and we had a delicious meal. After ordering a couple of beers -- Asahi, not Sapporo... oops -- we both got the essential ramen with roast pork, and Margy had fried rice and gyoza on the side while I had a plate of curry rice plus a salad and oshitashi (tightly rolled spinach in a soy and vinegar dressing).

It was one of those meals where we only realized the extent of our appetite once we'd lifted our chopsticks a few times, and it was one of those very few times when I eat quickly. We sat there at the Sapporo counter devouring our dinner, looking up now and then to watch the cooks perform some deft maneuver in a small vertical-handled pan or a giant flaming wok.

Though I watched them serve it last year, I had never eaten Japanese fried rice before. Well, it rocks. As you can see, it's not tossed with soy sauce or any other dressing -- oil is swirled around a wok, the ingredients (egg, peas, baby shrimp, bits of the finest roast pork available anywhere) are added, in goes the rice, and that's it. Simple, perfect.

Similarly, this was my first time eating Japanese curry, and it was also fantastic. (With a very short menu, Sapporo is pretty sure to nail every dish.) The sauce was a deep brown and bore the yellow tint of turmeric at the edges. The curry contained pork, carrot and onion, and it had a nice burgeoning hint of chili heat.

And the ramen is always excellent. It's fun to eat noodles that have a little bit of confidence, a spot of identity. Sapporo's are cooked just right and hold their own in their sea of broth, pork, scallions, mushrooms, and spinach.

I felt a moment of reflection coming on: I was able to read the entire menu, I had rice and vegetables and pork... I was in my element. We'll get back to proper Parisian eating tomorrow, but this meal was just what we needed tonight.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Bistrot Paul Bert

What a difference a day makes. By early afternoon today, after our concierge had a called a bunch of restaurants on our list to find them fully booked for tonight -- one of them gave her a "Wow, mademoiselle!" as if she'd been joking -- 10pm didn't sound so bad. That slot was offered by a place that had been plugged by a friend of a friend, and we jumped at the chance.

Bistrot Paul Bert, way over on the east side of the right bank (almost off our map), was hopping when we arrived. The menu was written on a blackboard that was passed around from table to table, the wine list was novella length, and the restaurant had that classic look that said I've been here a while, and I'm not going anywhere. The slightly crooked picture frames, the buckling and spotted mirrors, and, yes, even the floating clouds of cigarette smoke all contributed to the very Parisian aura of the place. I saw hunks of meat on plates all around the room, and I got excited.

The meat looked good, but I had fowl on the brain. And what do you know but I think I spotted some sort of bird on the list of main courses. When our waitress came by I asked for a few translations, and though she tried to be helpful she was nothing like the sommelier/waiter from last night. Her translations boiled a long phrase down to a word: côté de cochon fermier aux haricots mais became "pig." But that's okay -- you have to be ready for a wide range of experiences when you go to a foreign country and don't speak the language.

For our starters, Margy ordered veal carpaccio and I went with roasted scallops. I don't usually love scallops (except raw as sushi or sashimi), but they were in season and we'd already seen them around a bunch. Plus in French they're called coquilles St. Jacques, and to me such a refined and stately handle really makes a difference -- why order "scallops" when you can have "coquilles St. Jacques"?

For the main course Margy asked for steak frites, and I most enthusiastically requested roast pheasant (which I had noted actually came with vegetables -- chou vert, or green cabbage). As we began to wait, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation, and then... no, it couldn't be -- our waitress came back our way with the blackboard in her hands. Oh, no.

"I am very sorry. It is my fault. We have no more pheasant."

I've come a long way toward becoming a somewhat mature semi grown-up-type person, but it took all the self-control I had not to start banging on the table and maybe even shouting "Waaaaa!" The pheasant was all I wanted; I'd barely glanced at anything else. I felt helpless. A long, quiet moment passed as I stared a hole in the blackboard.

"If you wanted the pheasant, you should try the rabbit," the waitress said. "It is very like pheasant." She pointed to a dish I hadn't really noticed. I guess that was because I didn't know the word lièvre but assumed it might be some variant of "liver" (even though I indeed know the word for liver). Well, it means wild hare. I'd had bites of rabbit, but I'd never eaten my own. I knew it wouldn't be that much like pheasant, but I figured she meant that it was also gamy and maybe even that it also had lots of tiny bones. All day, I'd been ready to deal with some tiny bones.

I asked how it was served, and I didn't get much. "Is there a sauce?" I said.

"Yes, it's in a sauce, with mushrooms."

The night wasn't getting any younger. I went with the wild hare. A nice bottle of Bordeaux arrived, along with our appetizers, and I started to loosen back up.

The coquilles St. Jacques were terrific, roasted in their shells and sitting in a rich pool of melted butter. The presentation was beautiful and the flavor was excellent.

When it came to Margy's veal carpaccio, the one word in the description that we didn't understand -- and we only figured this out for sure later -- was the word for kidneys (rognons). Looking at her plate, Margy said something like, "I think this is liver." I knew it wasn't, because it didn't look like liver. The slices, sort of freeform roundish, were too small, and the shading of each slice, from dark to lighter to almost white in spots, was too varied for this to be liver. Anyway, it was absolutely fantastic, and it only got more tasty with each bite. The veal was dressed with olive oil, parsley, thin-sliced mushrooms, and chopped nuts, and all of those ingredients staked their claim in the overall success of the dish. I noticed that a woman at the table next to us received a parsley-free version, and I felt sorry for her. Not only was the green a lovely color contrast, but the bright, herbal flavor of the parsley was a happy surprise when you got some.

And then the main dishes arrived. Margy's steak and fries looked good, but I was sure I had been given the wrong plate. Take a look at the photo above, which you may have assumed captured some decadent chocolate dessert. Nope. It's the wild hare. I poked at the big molded cake with my fork, and meat flaked off. I took a bite. I knew I wasn't tasting rabbit, but I wasn't sure what I was tasting. The flavor was familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it. At this moment, I was extraordinarily confused. I didn't hate what I was beginning to eat, but I didn't love it, and it wasn't at all what I'd been craving. And on top of everything else, there were no mushrooms as advertised. The hare came with a side dish of large pasta shells dressed in a mushroom sauce. These were just lousy -- badly overcooked and tasting only of butter.

The waitress swung over at this most vulnerable time to check on things. I didn't really know what I was eating, but I was trying very hard to be happy. Margy had taken one bite of her steak, which she liked, but she hadn't learned the truth about her dinner either. When asked how everything was, we said it was okay. The fries were certainly good.

A minute later Margy realized her steak was essentially raw. The one bite she'd taken was one of the few perimeter pieces that were medium to medium rare (she'd asked for medium). And then I grabbed the non-English-speaking sommelier, whom I already trusted more than our waitress. I pointed at my plate and asked, "Lapin?" (That's the French word for rabbit.)

"Oui," he said, and then he proceeded to describe the dish, in French. I understood every word, though one grand gesture certainly helped. He kind of pretended to rip out his own loin, and then he said the loin was rolled and stuffed and served with a sauce of wine and chocolate. And what was it stuffed with? Well, that's the flavor I was struggling to determine -- the dish tasted of nothing else. It was foie gras!

Suddenly the six-euro supplement made sense. But now I really wanted to murder our waitress. She had misrepresented this dish straight down the line. It was not like pheasant in any way. And there weren't even any mushrooms.

Margy and I weren't sure what to do. We hate complaining in restaurants, plus we felt like we'd missed our chance to do so. (We've since sworn to each other that we'll be more assertive should anything like this ever happen again.) Her steak had been picked over, and I was really trying to eat my strange and heavy but not altogether horrible dinner. It wouldn't have been my cup of tea under any circumstance, but I wanted absolutely nothing to do with foie gras after having the best slice of my life last night. That was going to hold me for a while.

For a minute I was ready to pout. I'd come to Paris for six dinners, and now one of them was getting away from me, and that's a significant percentage. But hey, we were in Paris. We'd had great appetizers in a charming old bistro, and we still had a bunch of wine, plus cheese and desserts and a bracing snifter of Calvados, to look forward to. We surveyed the wreckage in front of us -- raw meat, the worst pasta ever, a plate swirled with chocolate sauce that looked like some abandoned meaty dessert -- and we started to laugh. It was all we could do. The waitress came and took our relatively full plates like she'd seen it all before. And I know she had. I believe it's not uncommon in Paris to eat a few bites and leave the rest -- but I'm assuming that's usually in the name of portion control, not frustration.

Next, Margy ordered cheese and I ordered ile flottante, a meringue set in a pool of crème anglaise, with praline and roasted almonds. This stuff set us back on track, big time.

The cheese was magnificent. The varieties were described by the sommelier, so I didn't really get all of it. But the Camembert was particularly memorable. It had an intense savoriness that I'd never experienced before in a cheese. All the varieties were tasty, and I'm guessing all of them were made with unpasteurized milk and would therefore not be available in such fine form in the States. We circled around and sliced bits off larger pieces until we'd had our fill, and then the waitress came and grabbed the board when we were done. That's some fun eating... and we certainly had the room.

The ile flottante was similarly amazing. We loved the texture of the meringue -- soft and supple yet firm enough not to lose its shape in the crème anglaise, which was rich and cool. And the almonds had been roasted to perfection and gave a nutty and almost smoky counterpoint to the sweeter elements.

In the end, Bistrot Paul Bert, though certainly not perfect -- damn that waitress and her pheasantlike rabbit! -- was absolutely unforgettable. (I mean, hey -- I learned I like kidneys.) I would go back. Just not at 10pm.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Paris Journal 2006: Point Bar

Margy and I alighted in Paris, back once again in the City of Light on (her) business. This year, though, we allowed a few extra days to play around before she had to get to work.

We got to our hotel around 10am, where they graciously allowed us to check in early, and then we immediately took a restorative nap. Once we came to, my first -- okay, my only -- order of business was to figure out where to eat dinner. I had a list of places, but we wanted to stick close to our hotel on our first night and avoid any situations where we'd have to try to speak French.

I did, of course, offer a shaky "Bonjour, madame" to our concierge before I began pestering her with a dozen questions and asking her to call a dozen restaurants to start getting things on the books. So here we were on Friday afternoon, needing a plan for Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday, at least. (The other nights were still up in the air.) And we began very badly.

Not only was Saturday a bank holiday, it was also a Saturday, and good Paris restaurants tend to get booked up on Saturday night. We tried a few places on our list, and they basically laughed at our very sweet concierge. One offered a 10pm rez. We didn't bite. Ten o'clock worries us a little -- among other reasons because I tend to take hours to eat anything. We kept trying, but now I was starting to feel like an imposition. Finally, though, we booked Tuesday, at a place I keep hearing about and I'm sure I want to try. Phew. Finally, an encouraging sign.

As a last-ditch effort to nail down Saturday, we tried the site of our favorite meal from last year's trip, which I was sure wouldn't be fully booked. I was correct. It would be closed, for Armistice Day.

So we sort of staggered out of the hotel to start exploring, with nothing set for Saturday and a plan to stake out a few nearby restaurants the concierge had recommended for tonight. She seemed particularly fond of a joint that I thought sounded like "Plum Bar," but she said there are lots of reliable places on the Place du Marché Saint Honoré.

We had a lovely afternoon, taking a long walk, checking out a great photography museum, and eating the finest ham sandwich we've had in twelve months. And then we strolled back to our hood to see what was up by the marché. It's a charming area, and it's packed with restaurants. We took note of a few, and then at the hotel we asked the new concierge, just starting her shift, what she recommended nearby. (I'm a big believer in cross-referencing, especially when you don't know the people who are making the recommendations.) She also said the "Plum Bar" place is excellent.

"What kind of food is it?" I asked, not being nearly as specific as I should have been, as indicated by her answer.


But then she caught on and added, "Inventive. It's a small restaurant, very nice."

So we booked it. But there was one lingering problem. We really didn't have a handle on the name. Upon hearing it a few more times, I was sure there was no plum involved. Basically, it sounded like "pwah bar," and given my not-too-close relationship to that elegant yet sadistic language that is French, that wasn't nearly enough. I was a little embarrassed, but I needed to have it in writing.

Point Bar! Of course!

And it was just fantastic. It's indeed very small, and it feels bright and modern. It's not one of those old-school Paris bistros with yellowed posters peeling off the walls -- that would have to wait for another night. There weren't even that many people smoking, if you can believe that.

The menu was short, and I felt like I had a handle on all but a few things, so when our waiter came by I told him I had a few questions. He proceeded to translate the entire menu for us, in excellent English, which I must say was incredibly kind and helpful -- sometimes that one word you don't know is the one that means "bathed in liver" or what have you.

Actually, we started with liver! We shared a foie gras appetizer that was hands-down the most I've ever enjoyed eating the stuff. I savored every morsel, especially the yellow layers of fat at the top and bottom of the slice. (Margy very halfheartedly suggested we leave that part, but she knows how it works. It's Paris -- you eat.) The foie gras was served with a fig, hazelnut, and walnut chutney and a caramel-port reduction, plus sea salt and course-ground black pepper. Oh my. The sweetness of the condiments and the richness of the foie gras, along with the flavor-sharpening effects of the salt and pepper, made for one heck of a good time. Did I even mention the crispy toasts it came with? As was the case with the ham sandwich a few hours earlier, this little dish was saying "Welcome to Paris." (Except it was saying it in French.)

One entree sounded so appealing that both Margy and I ordered it. Anyway, the waiter (who said his real gig is sommelier and recommended a wonderful and affordable pinot noir) had told us it was one of Point Bar's signature dishes: Parmesan-crusted veal loin with truffle-cream sauce. Hiyo! Not since being in Paris a year ago have I so enjoyed a meal so utterly devoid of vegetables. The veal was cooked beautifully and was a little pink in the middle. The crust was incredible -- crunchy here and there, perfectly salty, and offering just the right amount of Parmesan flavor. And the sauce was delicious. The truffles made their contribution to the dish without being overwhelming. Potatoes included, this dinner had Margy and me oohing and aahing.

Dessert? Vanilla panna cotta with mango and mango ice cream. The waiter brought us glasses of strawberry wine that I believe he said had been made by a patron. It was good -- not too sweet and tasting very clearly of strawberries. Plus it was just nice to know that we, the Americans, had won his favor rather than invoke his tourist-loathing exasperation. Meanwhile, the panna cotta was creamy, sweet, fruity... just as delicious and memorable as the rest of the meal.

Score one for the concierges!

Sunday, October 29, 2006


I've never had a deep-fried Mars bar, but I know I would like it. Because I would like a deep-fried anything, as pretty much all of us would. Tasty, crispy, golden armor just has that magic.

Fried shrimp are a particular favorite around here. I leave deep-frying to the pros (and those who keep buckets of cooking oil laying around the house) and choose to focus on the kind of frying that happens in a quarter inch of peanut oil. I've said it before, but the difference between frying in peanut oil and, say, canola oil is stunning. Peanut oil has a higher smoke point and can cook food hotter and therefore faster, which is the name of the game.

Anyway, I had a leek in the fridge, so I thought I'd try frying it after the shrimp were done. Best idea I've had all week. I sliced the leek lengthwise into very thin strips, and then I dredged the strips in flour and tossed them in the red-hot, full-of-panko-shrapnel pan. For a little while, not much was happening besides a bit of bubbling. But I moved the stuff around with a pair of tongs, and after a minute it began to brown. Seconds after that, it was done, and I had a brittle little tangle of fried leeks that only needed a sprinkle of salt. Margy looked at me like I'd been keeping some terrible yet wonderful secret from her all these years.

Oh, and just for kicks I repeated the process with a thin-sliced jalapeño. Yowza!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


There's a guy at the ShopRite fish counter who kind of looks like a fisherman. He's the only one I trust back there, and today he told me to try the silverbrite salmon, which was on sale. When I buy seafood, I'm not necessarily looking for a bargain, and I can be suspicious of cut-rate items. But again, I trust this leather-hatted chap. So I bit.

The silverbrite was pinker and paler than bright-orange farmed salmon, and the last time I'd bought it, its flavor was a little strong for my liking. This time, though, as my pal said it would be, it was much better. I dusted it with barbecue rub, broiled it, and served it with a big "autumn power medley" of roasted potatoes with garlic and roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta. Sprinkled with lotsa lemon, the salmon made a great dinner. But the side dishes, with their fall flavors and alternating tender and crispy bits, were the best part.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Year of the Keema

I swear I didn't plan it this way, but tonight's turkey keema was a very fitting meal in terms of marking the anniversary of CFM. Keema may be, after all, the dish we've eaten the most over the last 365 days. (Either that, or hamburgers... or maybe bad takeout pizza -- I'll have to check.) This one was particularly fiery, thanks to a potent red jalapeño from the farmers' market. And though any bean will seemingly do and it's fun to sample a variety over time, chickpeas always turn out to be an inspired choice.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Crisp It Up

Ah, the joys of leftover pasta with ragu. I should try spreading it on a wide cookie sheet so every last piece, every single zito, gets crunchy. That would be heaven, if not necessarily for the jaw.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Living in the Jersey suburbs, it's just a given that good fish isn't so easy to track down. But it's out there.

Today Margy and I found the elusive Asian market that had been relayed to us as Capital. Its actual name: Captain Fresh.

Judging from the seafood counter, that name is accurate. The place had everything, from snails to clams to finfish to eels, and it all looked pristine. I chose a fat red snapper and asked for it to be filleted. The fishmonger did a beautiful job, working slowly and methodically. I noticed that the man at the sink next to him was cleaning dozens and dozens of small fish, as a piscine mountain grew on the nearby counter.

Our fillets were packed up and wrapped. "Want the head?" the fish guy asked. I hadn't thought about it -- I don't have whole fish filleted that often, and when I do, no one never asks. "Sure, I'll take it," I said, and suddenly I was picturing a sauce in my mind. Margy looked at me and smiled.

I cannot rave about the freshness of this snapper enthusiastically enough. I could have served it as sashimi. You know how the experts always say that very fresh fish has practically no aroma, just a subtle perfume of the sea? This snapper was the very embodiment of that idea. Unwrapping it, I was met with firm but tender flesh, gorgeous unblemished skin, and the hint of an ocean breeze. I hadn't bought this little guy at ShopRite.

I took the head and bones, along with onion, carrot, and parsley, and made a very small amount of stock, which by itself was quite tasty. Then I sautéed the fillets and made a sauce with the stock and some herbs, wine, and heavy cream. Meanwhile, I was roasting potatoes with garlic. On another tray, I roasted some amazing purple-veined beans (I want to say the farmers' market called them lingerie beans, but forgive me if I'm unconsciously merging a few fantasies here) with pancetta.

I don't want to brag, but just in terms of my excitement over the high quality of the ingredients and the fact that everything came together perfectly without any hitches, I would put this dinner in my all-time stove-manning top ten.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Not Perfect, but Not Bad

We'd had a long week, so we decided to treat ourselves to a nice Sunday dinner. My mother had really talked up the site of her latest birthday dinner, Pierre's, to Margy (who was in Maine at the time and missed it), so Margy lobbied for that. I capitulated immediately.

Well, my second meal at Pierre's was almost as good as the first, but with a few bumps in the road, starting with our server being wholly incapable of answering even basic questions about the menu and the wine list.

Dinner began with an hors d'oeuvre tasting plate that was rather wonderful in all its Frenchness and included an endless array of goodies: celery root salad, lentil salad, ratatouille, cured salmon, red cabbage, country pâté, cornichons, beets, and a nice dried sausage. It was a great way to start things off and would have made a perfect lunch with just a good chunk of bread.

For her entree, Margy had duck breast with yams, Brussels sprouts, and sour cherry sauce. The flavor was excellent, but I must say the duck was overcooked by a pretty wide margin. This brought forth a bit of a dilemma, as we're not send-it-back'ers, and so Margy chose not to ask for a portion that was cooked more correctly, even though she would have been well within her right to do so. In fact, I'm guessing that whoever plated the duck knew there was around a 50-50 shot that it would be sent back and just decided to roll the dice and hope that the recipient either liked well-done duck, didn't know any better, or just didn't want to be bothered with sending it back.

That latter category is us. Who can be bothered? If the thing had been inedible, I'd like to think we'd have returned it. But I had a nice hot skate wing in front of me, and if Margy had asked for a new piece of duck, the timing of our meal would have been off the rails completely, and who wants that? Again, the duck was delicious, so she just forged ahead. My skate wing was also terrific, crispy around the edges and tender in the middle -- pretty much like the duck should have been. It was served with capers, napa cabbage, and an "olive oil emulsion" that seemed a hell of a lot like mayonnaise. But hey, at least it was good mayonnaise (I'm not normally a fan).

Desserts are definitely Pierre's blind spot. When I went with my parents, we had run-of-the-mill profiteroles that left much to be desired. Tonight Margy and I had a slice of plum tart, which was better than the profiteroles but still seemed a little tired and had zero visual pizzazz. The dessert-cart presentation surely doesn't help. Who wants to see their food paraded around the room for hours -- up and back, there it goes again -- only to be unceremoniously sliced into a portion and shoved their way? It's not like the cart is being replenished all that often. In our case, all the desserts were there and there to stay.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Out of the Frost: Ragu

For a while, as we favored meat sauce made with sausage, meatballs, pork ribs, and the occasional veal shank, ragu played second fiddle in our house.

But now it's back.

And what a sweet reunion it was. As my mom always says, of many different treats, "It's so good when you haven't had it for a while." I don't even remember when I made this ragu (I could probably check), but it was right there in the freezer when we needed it.

What I do remember is that I used ground pork and ground beef, where sometimes I just use beef. As I always say, pork makes everything more fun. Yes, hamburgers are high on my list of favorite foods, and my love affair with steak is having something of a renaissance, but if you made me choose just one meat, pork, in all its fatty, luscious, crisp-skinned, other-white-meat, cure-me-or-eat-me-fresh versatility, would sway me every time. Margy too.

So I'm thinking pork was the secret weapon here. Isn't it always?

Friday, October 13, 2006

And If You Go Chasing Radish...

It's come to the point where there are no more surprises at the ShopRite fish counter (not good ones, anyway). Going in, I know that the only reliable -- or, forgive me, semireliable -- things on hand will be shrimp, squid, steelhead trout, the odd cockle or littleneck, and salmon. That's a shame, because I love nothing more than poking around without preconceptions and having a meal be inspired by my spying a nice piece of fish. And I'm not in the market for a new market -- I'm sticking with ShopRite, the best choice in town for everything else.

Today as I approached the seafood stand I knew I'd be making salmon teriyaki. But, really, there's nothing wrong with that. The sweet-salty-boozy sauce is always welcome around here.

I served the salmon with cucumbers and miso-sesame paste, plus some grated daikon that I dressed with lime juice and togarashi pepper. It was my first time bringing daikon into the house -- I found it at the farmers' market -- but it won't be the last. I was surprised, and pleased, by how spicy it was on its own, which make me realize that in restaurants I've always eaten it in combination with other things. I look forward to exploring more ways to deal with this intriguing white radish.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Margy and I like a simple hamburger, but sometimes we'll trick one out a bit. As the burgers cooked, I grilled onions and chilies in a knife-slashed foil packet, which is nothing new, but tonight I added some of our cherry tomatoes for a change of pace. They lent a bit of tang to the fiery condiment (I used a superhot red jalapeño from the farmers' market).

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Missed Opportunities

How did I blow it with our Thai basil plant? Let us count the ways.

Way back in May, when we were poking around a nursery in Vermont, I was beside myself with excitement to find a tiny Thai basil plant sitting in an obscure corner of the greenhouse. We brought it home and I kept it inside until the weather heated up a bit (basil hates the cold), and then Margy potted it and set it outside. All summer I tended to it lovingly, making sure to prune the flowers and to give it enough sun and water. It thrived.

And then I hardly ever used it.

And now it's dying.

And I'm angry with myself.

Don't get me wrong -- it was occasionally put to good use, lending its herbal, aniselike perfume to the occasional stir-fry or curry. But I didn't make enough Thai or Thai-inspired dishes to properly exploit the exotic little bush growing in our back yard.

Tonight is the perfect example. I made a Thai-style squid stir-fry, fragrant with shallots and garlic and fish sauce and spicy with hot peppers, and then I garnished it with cilantro and Margy and I sat down to dinner. All day I was thinking Lotsa basil, lotsa basil, but somehow that crucial bit of information slipped my mind while I was laying out ingredients. Three bites into our meal, I shot out of my chair: "Dammit!" I scared the heck out of Margy, who for some reason doesn't appreciate my frantic non-sequitur exclamations. I clued her in to why I was suddenly upset.

It was pouring out, and we had already started eating. I sat back down.

Thirty seconds later I grabbed the kitchen scissors, stepped into my shoes, and went outside to clip some basil, which I then hastily snipped over our plates. I don't have many chances left, and it's going to be a long Thai-basil-less winter. I'm happy to say this last-minute herb application did indeed make all the difference. If only I had thought of it sooner. And more often.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Two Heads Are Better Than One

When Sonny presented us with that head of orange cauliflower a few weeks ago, I already had white cauliflower sitting in the fridge. I'd bought it at the farmers' market but hadn't used it, and it was in danger of expiring. And now its colorful cousin was threatening to upstage it entirely.

But still, I hate wasting food.

So I took the white cauliflower, trimmed a couple of brown spots, and made soup. I threw in about half of the orange cauliflower as well, saving the rest for something where it would retain its shape (which became last Wednesday's pasta dish). The soup was wonderful, and I froze some. We had it for dinner tonight.

Cauliflower has a great rich texture when pureed, which was enhanced by a bit of potato. And I added a chile and some cumin for a hint of curried flavor. I'm not happy about the weather turning so chilly so fast, but at least I'll always have an excuse to make soup.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Cranberry Sauce

Yesterday at the farmers' market I bought a bunch of fresh white-and-red-marbled cranberry beans in their pods. Until now I had never dealt with fresh legumes of this sort -- just canned and dried. Well, fresh is definitely more fun.

The only problem was that a big bag of pods doesn't necessarily yield a big bowl of beans, so I found I could have used a few more. But we made do. I put the shelled beans in a pot of boiling water and simmered them for around 40 minutes until they were tender. I drained them and set them aside, and then I grilled some sausages and cut them into thirds. I'd made time for all this, while Margy napped, or else I would have cut some corners someplace. I certainly could have just cooked the sausages on the stove, but I wanted to go the extra mile and get that grilled flavor.

Meanwhile, I made a simple tomato sauce with a little bit of onion and garlic, and I added the beans and sausages. The beans had a rich, creamy texture and an almost nutty taste, and grilling the links lent deep charred flavor to the sauce. This unassuming dish really packed a wallop, and Margy and I just kept on eating.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Fun Way to Get Hungry for Sushi

Happy birthday to me. Margy and I came up with a grand, blissfully elemental plan to celebrate my special day: We would look at sea creatures, and then we would eat sea creatures.

So we drove down to Camden on this gorgeous afternoon and spent a few hours at the aquarium, gazing at the seahorses, the seals, the sharks, the hippos. Yes, the hippos, Camden's aces in the hole. I'm not sure I'd ever hung out with hippos before, but I think I would remember if I had. Two enormous specimens live at the aquarium, and they're something to behold. You can watch them underwater through what must be very thick glass. The water is beyond murky and you think you'll never be able to see a thing, but then this massive gray blob begins to float by and come into focus, and what do you know -- it's a hippopotamus! Their skin looks like elephant hide, all wrinkled folds, and they seem positively prehistoric. And of course they're very charismatic. One of them played with a huge blue ball -- slowly -- for a few minutes right in front of us. I recommend paying them a visit if you're even in the Camden/Philly area. Tell them Margy and I say hi.

After hanging out with all these fish and the like, we figured it was time to eat some. I had found two good sushi joints in that area months ago, so tonight we made a reservation at Sagami, a great little place that's set, like most Jersey sushi restaurants, on a fast-moving stretch of commercial highway. Once you're inside, though, the setting is very serene and charming, and the kimono-dressed servers make you feel comfortable.

The sushi is simple and fresh, and Sagami makes the greatest fried oysters I've ever had. You can practically see how crunchy they are. They're dressed with tangy tonkatsu sauce, and after the initial crunch they explode with the juicy, creamy, briny essence of oyster. I could have eaten four orders myself, and I wouldn't have even needed a birthday cake. Just stick a candle in an oyster, and let's party.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Little More Fat Can't Hurt

I'm really starting to dig compound butters.

Tonight I made chive butter to brush on a grilled steak, and I spread a bit on some Italian bread, which I also grilled. We had an ear of leftover boiled corn in the fridge, and I grilled that too. Had I grilled the salad, it would have been a clean sweep.

The condiment, which was made by mixing chopped chives and a drop of lemon juice into softened butter, was delicious and really made a difference. Of course, the steak, a rib-eye, was the star, and I must brag that I cooked it perfectly. Margy grew up spending lots of time in Germany, the land of buttered meat (and, of course, the land of chocolate), so she definitely has carnivorous tendencies. I, on the other hand, have always been a great lover of pork, but for a long time I went entirely without steak. I'm glad to say those days are over. I'm not sure what I was thinking.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Tasty Dinner, Lousy Game

Had I realized that I was serving fried chicken on a night when a guy named Kenny Rogers was pitching against my beloved Yankees in the American League Division Series, I might have altered the menu. Baseball is a superstitious sport, after all.

But alas I didn't see the connection, and so Margy and I crunched on our cutlets while watching the Yanks get dominated by a suddenly (some might say suspiciously) commanding Kenny Rogers. Final score: 6-0. I'd say it was the only game all season that Margy watched willingly -- she only likes the playoffs, she says -- and it was a sad spectacle indeed. At least we ate well.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Homegrown Sides

Tonight was burger night, which is always exciting, but the real thrill was in the accompanying long beans and tomatoes, because we grew them ourselves. I know I've been going on and on about our tomatoes, but it's still a rarity for us to have a vegetable side dish that's entirely our own. Our garden is small and not exactly abundant, and this was only the second or third time since July that I was able to harvest enough long beans to feed us a proper portion.

Next year there will be lots more beans, because they're so vibrant and delicious (and stingy with their yield). Tonight I cut them up and boiled them for only about 90 seconds until crisp-tender, and then I tossed them with roasted tomatoes in olive oil while still warm. The tomato-flavored oil on its own tastes great on green beans, and having some little round tomatoes in there just takes the whole thing over the top. The veggies were fresh and tangy, and they'd only traveled about 30 feet to reach our table. Gets me every time.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Colors of Fall

When we had some friends over for our first-day-of-fall feast, our pal Sonny arrived bearing gifts: a couple of neato oblong serving platters (watch for them soon) and a fresh head of orange cauliflower, also known as cheddar cauliflower.

I had never had such cauliflower before, so I was eager to check it out. Apparently it contains many times more beta-carotene than its snowy white counterpart, and I'm all for that.

I figured I'd try to incorporate the stuff into a main course rather than serve it as a side dish, so pasta seemed like a natural vehicle. I followed most of my usual steps for an oil-based sauce: First I crisped up pancetta in a little olive oil and then drained it. Then I sautéed garlic, chilies, and herbs in the leftover fat, added the cauliflower with some wine and water, and let it all cook through, tossing in the cooked pancetta near the end.

The orange -- now yellow -- cauliflower tasted pretty much like white cauliflower, but Margy and I were enchanted by the color. And then there's the beta-carotene, of course. I don't want to say I'm going to bypass white cauliflower from now on (I'd like to think I'm more loyal than that), but look out -- there's a flashier crucifer in town.

Next up: purple.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pork Ribs, Day Three: Leftovers

The supply of ribs refused to dwindle!

So we continued eating. This time I just covered the ribs and heated them up in the oven, and we ate them with grits like we did the first time around. It would be the last time we'd have them for dinner, but there was still enough pork left for Margy to keep the magic alive for tomorrow's lunch.

$9 worth of country ribs made for seven meals. Not bad.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Meal of the Times

We figured we'd take a break from the pork ribs and try a few shrimp instead.

I returned to a great Singapore-style chili shrimp recipe that Mark Bittman wrote for the New York Times about a year ago. It has all the good stuff -- garlic, ginger, shallots, chilies, fish sauce, lime juice -- and uses tomato paste to achieve that fiery red color. I wish I could post the recipe, but it's not mine, and that wouldn't be right.

And for the second week in a row I tried a dish I'd just read about in the Times Magazine. Tonight it was lemongrass green beans, which were cooked in a mixture of dried shrimp paste, shallots, ginger, chilies, macadamia nuts (!), and, yes, lemongrass.

Starting with the funky scent of shrimp paste, a scent that I'm growing more and more fond of, believe it or not, our kitchen was filled with aromas that went way beyond the norm around here, which is great. And things got even more fun when it was time to dig in.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Pork Ribs, el Dia Dos: Tacos

Very early this morning, I practically shot right up out of bed: "I've got it! We'll make tacos!"

Pork tacos are one of Margy's favorite dishes, and my little eureka moment was me realizing how perfectly the braised country ribs would adapt themselves for this purpose. Hours later, as dinner approached, I put my plan into action.

First I made guacamole. Then I shredded the meat from a few ribs with a fork and warmed it up on the stove, adding some canned chipotle in adobo sauce for a bit of spice and a tasty Mexican twinge. Margy grated cheddar, I chopped lettuce, a can of refried beans was opened.

I heated flour tortillas in a dry skillet and then piled everything on. I couldn't resist overloading each and every taco, but we didn't mind a bit -- we came to the table ready to do some work. But still, there's plenty of pork left...

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pork Ribs, Day One

Margy was on her way back from Milwaukee, and I wanted to welcome her home with a nice cozy dinner. So I braised some country pork ribs.

I browned the ribs in a Dutch oven and then removed them and sautéed minced carrot, celery, onion, garlic, and herbs for a few minutes. I put the ribs back in the pot, along with some chicken stock, white wine, and canned tomato. I added salt and pepper and put the pot in a 350-degree oven for 90 minutes or so, until the meat came away from the bone without me even having to ask.

As an accompaniment I made cheddar grits in the rice cooker. Is there anything that machine can't do?

And I made enough pork for six people, so I doubt we've seen the last of these ribs. Yes, I was planning for leftovers, since braised meat heats up so nicely and the flavor even improves after a little rest, but as I packed up the remainder I wondered if we'd ever get through it all. We'll certainly try.

Friday, September 29, 2006


...I'm at my bachelor pad watching the Yankees game and eating a leftover-sausage sandwich.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Midwestern Salmon

What do you know -- Margy was in Milwaukee.

It was a quick work jaunt, and I stayed home, but she got a couple nice meals out of the deal. This is the pan-seared salmon at Coquette Cafe, where she went with a party of 40. Everyone was served each course (chosen from a short menu) at the same time, which Margy found most impressive. She says the food was excellent, though the "exploding brownie," otherwise known as warm chocolate cake, was a bit rich for her more delicate dessert tastes. We're a lot alike in that respect -- we prefer the light and fruity over the serious chocolate stuff. I know, we're on our own there...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Maybe you've heard me complain endlessly about the meager pizza choices in our Jersey town. I'm frustrated, I'm bitter, I'm angry, I'm depressed, I'm incredulous that no one has bothered to make a decent pie within twelve miles of our home. But then I go and eat the local schlock anyway... because it's pizza, dammit, and who wants to go weeks without pizza?

Well, sign me up.

I'm done with the places around here, and I'm not joking this time. I am now willing to go weeks without pizza if it means sparing myself junky pies. I'm not happy about this -- pizza is convenient, it's cheap, and it's always readily available... plus, you know, I'm a tiny bit obsessed with it -- but my hand has been forced by too many crushing disappointments.

Tonight, however, at least restored my faith that someone in this country besides Margy and my mom is committed to pizza excellence. Of course this was across the river in NYC, at No. 28 on Carmine Street, but at this point that's what I'm dealing with: either traveling a little or begging Margy for the homemade goods.

I had heard about No. 28 from Enzo, who is well aware of my obsession and who knew I'd dig the place. I just assumed Margy and I would have to wait for a table, but the joint was hardly full when we arrived. (Seems most New Yorkers are just like most New Jerseyans and choose their pizzerias based on proximity rather than deliciousness.) Walking in, we saw a brick oven, we smelled burning embers, we got excited. We ordered a Margherita with buffalo mozzarella and a white pie with garlic and sopressata.

As we were waiting for our pizzas, a trio of young Neapolitans walked in and made themselves at home at one of the outdoor tables. We were treated to the wonderful sound of their local dialect, which was so thick and obscure to my ears that, though I speak decent conversational Italian, I could only understand the odd word here and there. We were not in the New Jersey suburbs.

Again, that fact was borne out when the pizzas arrived. The first, most obvious good sign was burn marks on the crust. Aah, burn marks. All the ingredients were top notch, and there were very few of them -- another good sign. Pizza, to me, is not a depository for all my favorite meats and vegetables and cheeses; toppings are only there to support the most important component: the dough. And support it they did. The tomato sauce was fresh and bright, and the buffalo mozzarella was creamy and imparted just the right amount of dairy flavor. The garlic on the white pie made itself well known without being overpowering, and a bit of ricotta mellowed out the sopressata beautifully. The crust walked that delicate balance between crisp and chewy, offering a little bit of both.

It's no wonder that No. 28 has gained a "D.O.C." designation from the organization that recognizes proper Neapolitan, that is to say properly elemental, pizza. In that great miracle of culinary miracles, I got hungrier the more I ate, until my brain had to finally interfere and heed the stop signals that my stomach was refusing to send in such a blissed-out state.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Now the Party's Really Over

Well, we were able to squeeze one more dinner out of our party food.

This time it was the barbecued chicken, which I brushed with some remaining sauce, covered in foil, and reheated slowly in the oven. I can be funny about eating leftover chicken -- I find there's usually an unpleasant change in flavor -- but this worked out well. I think it was because the foil wrap and extra basting kept the meat moist.

And we were able to savor Margy's biscuits one last time... one last time, that is, before I beg her to make them again.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sparerib Salmon

Yesterday there was an article in the New York Times Magazine about Chinese-American barbecued spareribs. The piece noted the emphasis on American and reprinted a recipe from the early '60s that highlighted that point -- you'd never find these things in China. Inspired by the original version, which by the 21st century seemed to have more kitsch appeal than anything else, David Myers, chef at Sona in L.A., offered an adaptation featuring salmon. It was so easy, and he sounded so excited about it, that, though I had never heard of Sona, I trusted him instantly and had to give it a whirl. I had everything I needed but the salmon.

All you do is marinate salmon in equal parts soy sauce and honey, plus a little ketchup and some crushed garlic, and then you grill or broil it. I instinctively cut back just a bit on the honey, but otherwise I followed Myers's instructions, including making a cucumber salad side dish. I skipped a topping of preserved ginger, though... next time. I had to briefly boil the vinegar-based salad dressing, which stunk up the place for a while ("You dyeing Easter eggs?" Margy asked as she walked into the kitchen), but no big deal.

The salmon, which I grilled, was wonderful. The honey produced a gorgeous glaze, and the strong salty-sweet flavors of the marinade worked perfectly against the richness of the salmon. The cucumber salad was fragrant with ginger and subtly spicy due to a hit of Japanese togarashi pepper, and it made a great sharp-edged accompaniment to the luscious fish.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Evening After

We sent people home from our place with little foil-wrapped six-packs of cheddar-chive biscuits, but we kept a few for ourselves. And to my surprise and great delight, they warmed up beautifully and were almost as good as when they first came out of the oven. There were some sausages left as well, since at one point last night I decided we had too much food and held back a few links. So tonight I grilled a few of them, and we had an easy dinner of sausage and biscuits. Anyway, an easy dinner was about all we could handle.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Pulling Out the Big Guns

Margy and I had a bunch of friends over, many of them making the trek out to "the country" from NYC, and these people deserved to be well fed.

With the guests gathered out back, we started everyone off with a rousing round of Those Things, which I stuffed and rolled using Margy's incredible pizza dough. Half of them were the traditional anchovy version, but I also tried some with fontina, which melted beautifully, and some with pancetta and Parmesan. Though I have a way to go before I can live up to my grandmother's Those Things legacy, the results were quite successful, and there were no leftovers. I was particularly proud to see our 18-month-old pal Charlie nibbling on one with anchovies (though I imagine his little piece was fish free).

When dinnertime approached, I lit one, two, three grills, two of which I'd borrowed. This is when things really got interesting. I placed dry-rubbed chicken pieces (thighs, drumsticks, and, to appease those whose tastes run toward the conservative, a few breasts) on each grill, opposite the coals, and put down the lids. I'd also sprinkled hickory chips on the charcoal to generate some smoke. It was a lot to keep track of, but the fact that I was using indirect heat was my saving grace -- no need to worry about burning.

After maybe 45 minutes or so, the chicken was looking fine, and that telltale spicy-smoky aroma was telling me we were getting close. So I added a few hot and sweet sausages to the grills, right over the coals. I did a little much-needed charcoal replenishment, and we remained in business. As the sausage cooked, I brushed the chicken with a sauce I'd made earlier with beer, honey, ketchup, vinegar, chipotle, onion, garlic, and spices.

We set out the chicken and sausages on a serving table, along with green beans (dressed with roasted tomatoes), mac and cheese, and cheddar-chive biscuits that Margy had made in the morning. Those biscuits were wonderful, and, this being the first official day of fall, they played right into our theme: Summer's over -- let's eat a huge dinner with lots of carbs. People began to fill their plates and dig in.

And then, in one of my final work-oriented acts of the evening, I grilled the Thai shrimp, which I'd entrusted our friend Sonny with skewering. Oh, what a job she did -- her steady hand and ample patience meant the little guys, I think there were about 85 or so, were just the way I like them, meticulously arranged. I'm pretty much a disorganized mess everywhere else, but the kitchen is one place where I like to preserve order.

The shrimp had been marinated in a puree of ginger, garlic, lemongrass, chilies, cilantro, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. They cooked quickly, and then I sprinkled them with more lime juice and some Thai basil. As I set the platter on the table, I looked up and saw a line of people heading my way with shrimp on their mind. That made all the work, not to mention the fact that Margy and I, as hosts, sort of neglected to eat properly, more than worthwhile. (I certainly didn't neglect to have a bunch of beers.)

Of course, we weren't quite through. Margy had made dessert: lemon meringue tart. She'd assembled the tart earlier, but the meringue part came at the last minute, and a small crowd watched her work her finishing-touch magic. I'll be "ordering" this creamy, lemony tart again on a monthly basis.

By this point everyone seemed happy and appropriately loopy. Dinner down, it was time to keep howling at the moon, and we did our best to live up to the task.

Friday, September 22, 2006

It's Almost Fall

Tomato season is coming to a close, and I'm not happy about it. All summer long I've been pruning and picking and watering, and soon there will be a void in my life. Sure, the sungolds have gone yellow and the cherry tomatoes don't pack as much punch as they did a month ago, but I'm still out there like the loyal gentleman farmer I aspire to be.

This was probably the last opportunity to use our beloved tomatoes with abandon. I'd roasted a big batch with garlic and thyme, and here I simply tossed cooked gemelli with the mixture and finished the dish with a little olive oil and sliced basil and a scattering of fried ham (I don't think I've ever fried ham two days in a row, but the last bit needed to go). If the moment was bittersweet, the sauce was delicious.

A message to supermarket tomatoes during the colder months: I'm sorry, but I'm looking the other way. I have nothing against you -- your deep red color is enticing -- but there's only room on our counter for the true Jersey tomatoes of summer. No offense.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Tomato Sandwich, with Ham

Margy wasn't around and I was about to go out for the evening, so I improvised myself a sandwich.

I'm not a huge fan of subs and cold-cut sandwiches, but hot sandwiches are a different story. Hamburgers, meatball hoagies, po' boys -- that's my scene. Tonight I was mainly looking for an excuse to eat some of the roasted tomatoes that were sitting in the fridge, and I figured a fried ham sandwich would be a worthy vehicle. Earlier in the week I'd bought some ham for lunches (the one cold cut I do like), so I had everything I needed.

I cooked a few slices of ham quickly in a skillet with a drop of olive oil, browned a roll under the broiler, found an ear of leftover corn, and that was that. The meat was just protein -- this was all about bread and condiment.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Tofu Teriyaki

Peanut oil's the secret.

Frying food in corn or canola oil is fine, but peanut oil has a higher smoke point, so it can fry more quickly and with less oil absorption. When I'm cooking things like chicken cutlets, fried shrimp, and, more recently, tofu, the difference is impressively clear -- everything is crispier and less greasy.

This really comes in handy with tofu, because teriyaki sauce would sog up soft slices of soy -- you need a nice firm texture on the outside before applying any liquids. So tonight I sliced the tofu and drained some of its moisture using paper towels, then I pressed the slices into a plate of black sesame seeds and dropped them into a red-hot peanut-oil-coated pan. There were splatters, sure, but eventually I had myself truly crispy tofu sitting on a rack in a warm oven. I painted on some teriyaki sauce, and dinner was served.

Despite the frying, this is a good light meal and a refreshing change of pace when we're sick of the same old stuff. I always worry that Margy won't find it substantial enough, but fortunately my fears remain unfounded.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Three More Times...

We reheated the paella at home for another fine, fragrant meal, and believe it or not there was still one portion left for Margy to have for lunch.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Mom's Midas Touch

I was saddled with the important duty of picking up my father at the airport, and in exchange for my efforts Margy and I were invited to my parents' place for dinner.

Or, more accurately, I invited us over for dinner. But there's no need to split hairs here. I delivered said father into the waiting arms of said mother, and she in turn delivered a big bowl of spaghetti with squid to the table.

There's very little Mom can't cook. (Duck comes to mind, but even there I'm not convinced. Every time she made it when I lived with my folks, I'd be eating happily only to hear constant complaints from both of them. Mom: "I don't know why I try to make duck -- this is terrible." Dad: "I told you that you can't cook duck, but you never listen!" My protests always fell on deaf ears.) That said, she has a special rapport with squid and achieves hands-down excellence every time. Those little guys get mouthwateringly tender for her on command.

This sauce was wonderful as usual and tasted vibrantly of squid. Somehow Mom knows how to avoid buying flavorless cephalopods. I don't know her secret, but if she could apply her deft touch to shopping for and cooking a duck, my dad would be most impressed indeed.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bienvenido a Newark

Margy joined me for day two of the drum festival, but the performance we were most looking forward to was dinner at a Spanish restaurant in Newark.

All my life I've heard about Newark's great Portuguese and Spanish food, yet I'm ashamed to admit this was my first time trying it, at a place called Casa Vasca. Well, it won't be my last. As we looked over the wine list, we were given steaming bowls of kale and potato soup with chorizo. That started things off right, but looking at the kale I couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor spinach farmers whose livelihoods have been ruined by the recent health scare. Anyway, none of this stopped me from cleaning my bowl.

Though we eventually settled on the entrees we wanted, I asked the waiter a few questions anyway. We were generally thinking seafood, but there was something in his tone when I asked what the best dishes are. "You want fish?" he said.

"Why? Is meat your specialty?" I said.

"Yes," he said, "but all the best dishes are sold out by now." It was 7pm. Popular place.

We heard a few suggestions, but we weren't swayed. Margy ordered paella with seafood, chicken, and chorizo, and I went for a special of fried whiting. I am powerless to resist the pull of small deep-fried sea creatures. We'd been warned about the ridiculous amount of food you get at these restaurants, but what the heck -- we also ordered the stuffed mushrooms appetizer.

All the dishes were excellent. The whiting, four of them, served whole, scared Margy a little by bearing their little teeth at her, but she didn't complain when she took a bite. The fish was firm, the outside crisp, and the frying was relatively gentle, with no heavy coating. The paella, enough for at least three people (at under $20 no less), was a treasure chest of goodies that included lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, chicken on the bone, and slices of wonderful mild chorizo. On top was a fat spear of white asparagus. We also had a nice rioja that went well with the food.

I don't know why we skipped flan for dessert -- maybe it had something to do with eating half our weight in entrees -- but we'll be sure to order it next time.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Every Bite You Take

I was at a drum festival all day, but I planned to beat Margy home and cook some hamburgers just in time for her arrival. That didn't happen -- the schedule got delayed, and I wasn't about to miss the headliner, Stewart Copeland, so I called Margy and suggested she start dinner and I'd meet her back home. Despite her long Saturday at the office, she reluctantly agreed.

She didn't beat me by much, but she got tons of work done in that time. The grill was lit, the table was set, the salad was made. "Want me to do the dressing?" I asked. Nope, already done. The girl knows how to take care of business. All I had to do was grill the burgers.

Anyway, Margy's a huge Police fan, so she understood that I needed to be late. And it was worth it -- Stewart was in fine form, playing with the band Gismo, which he tours Italy with every summer (not a bad hobby). He wore a tight green soccer shirt and white drumming gloves, and he hammed it up at every opportunity, beginning his performance by bounding onstage and shouting, "Good evening, New Jersey!" He played great too -- he made a few deft ska-style moves, and even his softer strokes were brought down with serious force.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A First at Our Place

Well, I still can't say I've cooked eel, but now at least I can say I've served it.

Last month, when we were trying in vain to find the nonexistent Asian food market called Capital and instead found only the one called Asian Food Market, we spied prepared Japanese eel in the freezer case, and we brought some home.

The eel was precooked, and the package contained various heating instructions. All of the methods involved first placing the sealed package in hot water to "soften" the eel. Tonight I chose the method where you heat it further on foil in the oven, like many sushi chefs do (too few of them have those nifty eel grills that I've only seen once or twice at the best restaurants).

While the package soaked, I cooked teriyaki sauce, with a bit of shrimp stock added, to brush on the eel. But after all that careful sauce brewing, I pulled the softened eel out of its package to find it had already been dressed with sauce and was practically ready to eat. It was exactly like the stuff I used to get for lunch in the eel bowl at Saga Sushi, nee Daikichi Sushi, in NYC -- sweet and meaty and tasty, if not close to homemade. (I also get the impression that, with all the sugar and salt in the sauce, it's not exactly health food, despite eel being high in protein and vitamins A and B12. I'll have to look more closely at the package next time.) I slipped it into the toaster oven, and later I brushed a little of my sauce on it anyway.

The eel was quite the conversation piece when Margy got home, and we made quick work of it. I do intend to learn how to cook my own eel someday, but in the meantime this will do rather nicely.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's All in the Condiments

Lentil soup is a staple around here, because it's simple to prepare, freezes well, and makes a great quick dinner. But it helps to surround lentils with other fun stuff.

Like green beans.

Kidding -- green beans are wonderful, but I'm not sure I'd call straight-up boiled ones fun. I'm referring to the little bowl of roasted tomatoes with thyme and garlic. Whenever I've picked enough tomatoes from the garden, I toss them with salt, pepper, thyme sprigs, and garlic cloves and throw them in a not-too-hot oven for a couple hours. (As is so often the case, this brilliant idea came from my mom.) After barely half an hour, amazing things begin to happen. The aroma, savory and herbal yet a bit acidic, is enough to torture me, and it only grows more intense and tantalizing. Then when the tomatoes are finally finished -- some shriveled and deflated, others wrinkled but still plump -- I cover them with olive oil and put them in a jar, and they keep in the fridge for a long time. They make the ultimate condiment (see the rib eye from a few days ago).

Tonight I spread the tomatoes on a toasted roll as I ate the lentil soup, and that made dinner a lot more fun.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hello, Old Friend

As always, when I don't feel like running out to pick up any missing ingredients for a given dish, I make pasta with whatever's on hand. Tonight it was spaghetti alla carbonara, which we love but hadn't had in a long time.

Usually I don't skimp with the parsley, which I mix together with a couple of eggs, a bunch of Parmesan, and lots of black pepper. To that mixture I add the hot pasta, dressed with pancetta or bacon plus cream (if I have cream) and whatever else I feel like adding that day (sometimes onion, sometimes garlic, sometimes broth). Then I stir it all together to distribute the flavors evenly and "cook" the egg. But I was out of parsley, and the sprigs in our garden had nearly died, starved of light and nutrients by sharing the soil with our out-of-control tomato plants. I rescued the crop, but barely, and it was coming back slowly. So I clipped only a couple of perimeter sprigs tonight, figuring that if I'm patient we might have a decent plant just in time for the first frost.

To make up for the lack of attractive green specks, I threw in a few frozen peas, which carbonara often includes anyway. And I don't usually have heavy cream lying around unless I have some left over from another use. I had it tonight because I'd bought it to use in celery soup, but the soup was rich enough without it.