Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Margy's Night Out

While I ate leftover pizza at home, Margy and my sister had a leisurely Thai dinner at Spice in Chelsea. The reports were favorable. That's Margy's pad thai with chicken up front, a few spring rolls with lime-mustard sauce in the middle, and my sis's chicken and eggplant with chilies and Thai basil in back. Next time I'm inviting myself.

Monday, February 27, 2006

3-Ingredient Meal

Steak. Potatoes. Brussels sprouts. That's it.

Okay, I lied. There was also butter, olive oil, salt and pepper. But that's it.

It was one of the easiest dinners I've ever prepared, and not just because Margy handled the brussels sprouts.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Margy's Polar Plunge Pancakes

Today at noon we stood on the beach wrapped tightly in scarves and down jackets while three of our friends jumped into the Atlantic Ocean. They were taking part in the annual Polar Bear Plunge at the Jersey shore, where 2,000 people think of pretty much the most painful thing they could possibly do -- strip down and dive into 38-degree water on a 30-degree day -- and then do it in the name of charity.

Crazy people, these three. It's no coincidence that they're siblings.

After our friends' split-second "swim," we went to a bar, the Polar Bears thirsty and jacked with adrenaline. We ate good bar food and got rowdy in a public place on a Sunday afternoon, and then Margy and I went home and she made German apple pancakes, possibly her best ever.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Getting Colder...

We ate only five out of eight slices between us, a new low. I now understand that there can be no ordinary pizza until I satisfy my intensifying craving for something serious. It might be time to go to New Haven.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Indian Visions

The first thing I think of when I think of Indian food is color. I see green, I see red, I see yellow; I see shades that are even more beautiful, like fried-dough brown, ginger gold, and tomato-cream orange. Then I think of the aroma of cumin, the smell of garlic and curry leaves frying in a pan. And I think of textures from crackling to creamy. I think of a lot of things.

It's the sheer sensory bombardment that seems to be the hallmark of many things Indian -- the food, the music, and, so I'm told, the country itself (which Margy and I have vowed to visit). It's the right kind of sensory bombardment.

When you make Indian food at home, you get to enjoy all of the above sensations when you eat the food, but you also get to enjoy them when you cook the food. Just make a green chutney and you'll see what I mean. Throw a whole lot of fresh cilantro and mint leaves in a blender, add as many chilies as you can safely endure, plus a squirt of lemon juice and a drizzle of yogurt, and turn that blender on. Get a snootful of what's happening in your kitchen and I defy you not to find yourself humming a happy tune along with the whirring blade.

Of course, then you need to make a bunch of things to eat with that chutney. Nurse, cancel my one o'clock...

Besides an occasional streamlined curry and our official household dish, the quick-to-prepare turkey keema, I cook Indian food when I have some time to spend on it. The kinds of dishes I choose tend to keep me busy -- chopping, grinding, pureeing, then finally cooking -- for so long that I get a very real sense of accomplishment just putting them on the table.

This was my first vegetable curry, based on a Bombay curry in Suvir Saran's Indian Home Cooking and thickened with coconut milk (left over from Wednesday's surprisingly successful white-food experiment) and a puree of onion, garlic, and ginger. Could anything be bad about that? I used every vegetable in the house: peas, carrots, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, and string beans. Margy and I were pleased with the texture of the sauce, though there was a hint of separation on the plate, which I'd like to eliminate. And the flavor was gorgeous, bright on the surface from the spices and deep down below from the well-browned puree of aromatics.

We ate the vegetable stew with basmati rice and a piece of pan-roasted steelhead trout -- and, of course, green chutney.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Burgers on the Brain

I rely on a certain measure of spontaneity when deciding what to cook, but some things have to be planned ahead. I certainly don't mind shopping for food -- the only kind of shopping that doesn't have me breaking out in hives and conjuring ever more desperate excuses to get myself off the hook -- but I'm not going to the store every day. So Margy and I usually have a vague conversation early in the week where we lay out a few culinary touchstones for the next few nights, mostly old favorites and premade freezer stuff, around which we can arrange more creative or more ambitious meals. Anything can be put off when inspiration strikes, but it's good to have a strategy in place just in case.

This week it was decided early that hamburgers would be on the menu, and the anticipation built. Even shower meals and Chinese banquets couldn't distract us from counting down to burger time. Margy even confirmed our choice of main dish when she called me this afternoon for some other reason. Could the call have been just an excuse to validate a burger craving? I say yes...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dinner, in Shades of White

Thank goodness for black sesame seeds.

Tonight I was all alone (Margy didn't even have dinner, or I'd show you hers), and that meant it was either time to order out or time to play around in the kitchen laboratory. After flirting briefly with the former, I did the more fun and more economical thing and went for the latter.

As I peeked in the fridge to see what was up, I was still under the spell of the fried tofu dish made yesterday by my mom's student. Coincidentally, a wedge of fresh tofu was pretty much the only thing I could find besides peanut butter that held the promise of protein. I also had some leftover jasmine rice. I wasn't looking for an elaborate meal, but tofu and rice would need some dressing up.

So as I fried the tofu in a little bit of peanut oil until it colored and crisped up a bit, I mixed some ingredients for an impromptu sauce. I started with a teaspoon or two of Thai green curry paste. It comes in a tiny jar, it keeps forever, it's seriously hot, and it's something I'd hate to do without, though grinding up a fresh curry paste from scratch is high on my list of new things to try.

To the paste I added a bit of shrimp stock, which was in the fridge and needed to be used (canned chicken or vegetable broth would have worked too), plus a bit of fish sauce. I whisked it all around, and though it was a strange color -- a pale brownish green -- I figured it would probably taste pretty good. But I wasn't finished, because even if I reduced this little concoction on the stove, it would have been too thin; I needed a thickener. I ran to the pantry.

Coconut milk!

I scooped the thick, sweet, deliciously rich coco-cream out of the top of the can and heated it in a pan with the sauce, stirring to incorporate everything. The creamy consistency was encouraging. I tasted it. Too salty. More coconut milk, another taste. Better, but still a little salty. I kept adding coconut, a spoonful at a time, to sweeten and thicken the sauce, and a minute later I felt the rush of discovery. A squeeze of lime juice after I removed the pan from the heat, plus another good stir, and the dish was perfect -- a bit monochromatic, but a lot more flavorful than it looks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Eat Drink Men Women

Two mornings a week, my mother teaches English as a second language to a small group of women. Over the years that she's done this she's developed a wonderful rapport with her students, two Chinese women in particular. Once Mom let it drop that she likes Chinese food, the containers began to appear. She'd come home from class with tubs of dumplings, jars of noodles, even a box of fiery little shrimp to be eaten whole, head, legs, and all. Frankly at one point a few years ago, before things calmed down a bit, I think the two students saw themselves as embroiled in a cook-off, duking it out to earn "Teacher's" favor. ("Enough!" my dad was heard to report, after forcing down his umpteenth dumpling.) But of course my mom loves all her ladies and doesn't play favorites.

Can you see where this is going? Yup, #1 son got involved. Margy and I actually live right near one of these students, who's the cook for a family in the neighborhood. From time to time she invites my folks and some of the other students over for a home-cooked meal, and at some point I -- lucky me -- got added to the list. In fact, sometimes I get my own special delivery of a round of dumplings or a container of noodles, to Margy's great delight.

Today we had quite a banquet, as you can clearly see. There were six of us -- my mom and dad, the chef extraordinaire, my mom's other Chinese student and her husband, and me. I hung my head a couple of times when asked where Margy was. "She's working," I said sheepishly, feeling like I should be working too. Little did I realize I'd soon be punching the clock -- that is, eating absolutely as much as I possibly could.

Did I say this was lunch for six? Well, the food you see here was about half of what was served. We ate slowly and chatted and lingered and ate and laughed and lingered and ate, and there was still tons left on the table. Clockwise, from the lower left:

* Fried spare ribs
* Whole fish with leeks and red bell pepper (the Chinese among us didn't know the English name of the fish but described it as "yellow flower fish")
* Spicy dried beans with leeks (I had a hard time imagining what the beans look like in their natural state -- green beans? black beans? chickpeas? -- and wasn't quite able to find out)
* Those legendary dumplings
* Clam soup, in the very small bowl -- wonderful!
* Fried tofu with a spicy soy-garlic sauce -- divine!

Not seen here:

* Not one, but two whole steamed chickens, both falling-apart succulent, one in a light ginger-scented broth and the other, called "3-cup chicken," in a dark and delicious potion made with a cup each of soy sauce, Chinese wine, and sesame oil
* Steamed crunchy greens that our host likened to Chinese lettuce
* Red-hot kimchi made with broccoli stems (I sort of got the recipe and have stems drying in the fridge as I type)
* Tiny slices of beef on toothpicks, flavored with hot red pepper and cumin seed
* Something surprisingly similar to Margy's Asian pot roast; our host said it contained radishes but my mom and I agreed they were turnips
* Sweet sticky rice with raisins and dates

And I seriously think I forgot something. Frogs' legs? No, that was last time (yum). Hmm...

Our host was a tad forgetful too -- she had made so many dishes that some of them never came out. In fact, the kimchi was presented just after dessert (which was a huge bowl of fruit with scoops of mint chip, dulce de leche, and butter pecan on top). It was just in the nick of time for us to try it before digging into our ice cream -- but the Chinese man in the group loved the kimchi so much that he kept snagging bits of it in his chopsticks between bites of mint chip. Now that is a good eater.

After a meal like this, I would've expected night to have fallen. But I staggered home in strong daylight, full to the gills and loaded down with plenty of food for Margy's dinner.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Power Chicken

There are days when I think and think and still can't come up with any good dinner ideas. Those are the days when I make chicken.

Yes, chicken is something of a dark horse in our house -- and like any respectable dark horse it sometimes wins the race. Margy spent Presidents' Day at a bridal shower (it's shower month, I guess), and so I was alone with my empty dinner thoughts. I had plenty of accoutrements lying around, but no main dish. So I just went to the store, where epiphanies are known to happen. Sitting in the refrigerator case, the organic legs looked fantastic -- eureka!

Once I got home I worked without thinking much (clearly I'd wasted the day's thought allotment on not knowing what to make for dinner). I set the oven on 425. I cut up an onion, mixed it with olive oil and salt and pepper, and threw it on a baking sheet with a rack. I massaged oil into the chicken pieces like a poultry masseuse, sprinkled some salt, and improvised a quick dry rub to get a bit more flavor (chipotle pepper, Szechwan pepper, a dash of cumin and coriander). Before I knew it the chicken was atop the onions in the oven and I was making bulgur. I basted the bird(s) with a little bit of broth and water from time to time, and in 45 minutes we were having dinner. Margy, a little dried out a few hours after sipping those shower mimosas, sprang right back to life.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Two goals:

1. Become sure-handed with cream-based pasta sauces.
2. Eat more mushrooms.

I've had enough sauces break on me in the past that I wanted to solidify my recent successes with heavy cream into a second-nature, muscle-memory skill. Which meant I was forced to make another rich dinner. It was a cold Sunday and mushrooms were part of the plan, so Margy was on board. There was cream left over from last week's carbonara, I had already bought mushrooms, and I had everything I needed -- even one last precious piece of pancetta in the freezer, the sole remnant of what was once a very impressive supply of cured pork.

As far as the cream, I stirred it into the mushroom and broth base slowly and evenly and never let it clot up. The consistency of the sauce was beautiful, even when thinned out a bit with water -- silky and earthy, but not heavy.

The post below tells you how it all went down.

Recipe: Mushroom Cream Sauce for Pasta

I'm not exactly hardcore when it comes to cream -- I only use half a cup for two to three servings. Broth from reconstituted dried mushrooms and some stock or pasta cooking water provide the rest of the liquid. As far as the fresh mushrooms, use your favorite kind or a combination of different varieties (though regular white mushrooms are fine), and feel free to chop or slice them however you like. As a guide for timing, I start cooking 12-minute pasta just after adding the mushrooms, parsley, and salt.

Amounts are approximate and can be messed with.

Makes 2-3 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup sliced pancetta or 2 slices bacon, in thin 1/4-inch strips
2 tablespoons butter
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup (about a handful) dried mushrooms such as porcini, soaked in 3/4 cup warm water for 15 minutes and drained; reserve soaking liquid
5-6 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup or less chicken or vegetable stock, or pasta cooking water
Parmesan for grating
Black pepper

In a large skillet or saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add pancetta or bacon and cook until browned and crisp, 6-8 minutes. Remove pancetta or bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels to sprinkle over pasta later. Leave fat in pan.

Add butter to pan and allow to melt. (If it melts very quickly and begins to brown, lower heat to medium low.) Add garlic and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes, until garlic begins to turn golden. Add reconstituted and fresh mushrooms and parsley, and stir to coat with mixture in pan. Add a good pinch of salt to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until mushrooms are tender and slightly browned on the edges, about 8 minutes.

Stir in mushroom broth (you can strain it first if it looks murky). Add heavy cream slowly, stirring constantly, until blended with mushroom broth. Add enough stock or pasta cooking water to almost cover the mushrooms, no more than 1 cup. Cook for about 4 minutes at a low boil. Check for salt, adding more if necessary. Serve hot over pasta with grated Parmesan, freshly ground black pepper, and pancetta or bacon on top.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Margy Cuts a Corner

You gotta do what you gotta do. You could do worse, I guess, than a meatball sub from Subway.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Lazy World of Times Square Pizza

Pizza is one of my very favorite topics. I am not unique in this regard. I've said it before, and I'll undoubtedly say it again: I know how to recognize good pizza, but I understand that it is not always possible to find good pizza. And I live twenty miles outside of Manhattan, in an area where fine specimens are available, not in, say, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I've heard it's impossible to get quality baked goods of any kind, let alone a decent pie.

I'm not like my dad. As he chews on any slice that was not either A) made by my mother, or B) from his hometown of New Haven (where you can find some of the finest pizza ever), he's famous for saying "This isn't pizza." No, I'm more realistic than that. But I can still get my hopes up and then fall prey to true pizza disappointment, which is one of the most stinging letdowns there is. And I never learn.

Tonight my disappointment came at John's Pizzeria in Times Square. I knew I'd be in the area, and early in the day, as I thought about where to eat, I remembered John's. My decision was made, and I started to obsess in the mid-afternoon until it reached a fever pitch. I dreamed of tangy and vibrant tomatoes, oozing oases of fresh mozzarella, blackened bits of crust shattering under my teeth...


What I got was much closer to my local pizzeria's undistinguished output than I could have imagined. I had been to John's before, years ago, and I knew I wasn't going to have the best pie I'd ever eaten, but I wasn't expecting this isn't pizza. You can see the photo -- it wasn't awful. I'll admit that it was pizza. But there was absolutely nothing special about it. Neither cheese nor sauce had much flavor, plus the pie committed the cardinal sin of having a pale bottom. A pizza cooked in a brick oven should get banged up a little bit, show some signs of almost touching the flame. This sucker was all dainty on the flip side. I appreciated the browned top crust, and especially the few little bubbles, but if I'm going to have an achy jaw in the morning from all that chewing -- and this stuff required more work than usual -- I want to remember my pizza fondly.

I'm going to chalk this one up to the Times Square location; surely a pizzeria can get away with anything in such a tourist trap of an area. And I am going to vow to soon try Una Pizza Napoletana downtown, which I understand is the real deal, even going as far as turning out unsliced pies like they do in Italy. But my excitement begins now, and it's a long way down.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Margy Cooks! Chili

As Margy was getting ready for work this morning...

Me: "Chili tonight?"

Margy: "Oh, is it going to get colder?"

I clarified that I meant chili, the food, not chilly, the temperature (or, if you prefer, the penguin).

Margy's chili is a staple in our freezer, for those lazy or busy or just plain chili-wanting evenings. Served hot -- as opposed to chilly -- with tortillas, cheddar, greens, and sour cream (the latter is for Margy; I don't like sour cream), it's spicy and stimulating. Working from David Waltuck's Staffmeals recipe, Margy uses a bit of unsweetened cocoa powder in the seasonings. It's the best chili I've ever had. Would it be cheating to enter someone else's recipe in a cook-off? She does substitute ground beef for Waltuck's venison...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Showered with Thai Delights

Tonight Margy attended a coworker's baby shower, so I was at home hunched over a plate of leftovers while she enjoyed spring rolls, satay, pad thai, and various vegetable side dishes from a Thai restaurant on the Upper East Side. They had blood-red cupcakes with pink icing for dessert. (Me, I had a Fig Newton.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

V-Day Soufflé

I'm really not much of a baker. But Margy requested a lemon soufflé for Valentine's Day (I'd asked what she wanted). Who am I to refuse?

This was my third soufflé attempt, and my first in two years. It was also my least successful. Thank goodness the soufflés were still edible, because I made a tragic mistake early on: When separating egg yolks from whites, I carelessly allowed a tiny speck of yolk to corrupt the whites, which made those wonderful "stiff peaks" impossible to achieve. I should have started over, but I was out of eggs, and my main course was waiting in the wings while Margy cruised home for V-Day dinner. So I soldiered on.

Anyway, Margy is a most forgiving audience. Of course, I plied her with chilled chardonnay and pan-roasted red snapper fillets with rock shrimp sauce, so it's not like she was going to starve. But that damn soufflé thing was stressful regardless. I feel cursed by the beginner's luck that seemed to guide my hand the first time around.

The practical upshot of my clumsy egg manipulation was this: I mixed and mixed, and yet the whites would not fully stiffen. (Did I mention it was one drop of yolk that caused all this?) As I shrugged and suggested I get in the car to see if the store was still open, Margy gave me a don't even think about it look. The oven was preheated, the dinner dishes were cleared, and it was time for dessert. I folded the disgraced whites into the yolk-butter-flour-sugar-lemon base and hoped for the best. In the end the soufflés did rise, just not enough, and they didn't brown up well. The inside was a bit too moist, but we've certainly had worse desserts. I would have taken a chance and baked them longer, but they had already exceeded my time guidelines, and, dammit, something about messing with a dessert recipe scares me. It was still a pretty good Valentine's Day. I cannot complain.

Now this is a soufflé.

Monday, February 13, 2006


For something made of eggs, bacon, cheese, and cream, it's rather refreshing. At the very least undeserving of its "heart attack on a plate" reputation. Seems like it, anyway (I'm not a nutritionist). I keep the eggs and cream under control, and I only go slightly wild with the bacon and Parmesan. However you like it, a nice plate of spaghetti alla carbonara has no substitute. It's an ode to the dairy farm with a shout-out to the pigs out back, and you need the aforementioned main ingredients to do it right. You get that itch, there's only one way to scratch it.

And it's one of Margy's favorite dishes. I always get support for the carbonara plan. I'll mention it casually sometimes:

"What should we make? I haven't done carbonara in a while."

"Yeah? Carbonara?" Eyes widening. "That would be good."

That's pretty much how it went this time. I used a tiny bit of chopped onion in the sauce, as I sometimes do -- every carbonara of mine is slightly different -- and added some of the spaghetti cooking water to get more volume with less cream. I also used the last of my dear sweet slab bacon, and I noticed I'm almost out of pancetta (which I will occasionally use for this dish instead of bacon).

Looks like it's time to make a pork run.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Divine Inspiration

There's nothing like a couple of feet of newly fallen snow to spur a bit of kitchen creativity.

As Margy and I, fresh from a bout of shoveling, trekked around our hood to admire the winter wonderland, I threw out some dinner ideas. My strategizing began with a week-old head of napa cabbage that needed to be eaten. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for an Asian peanut dressing, which I'd been wanting to attempt. Margy dug that idea. But what would be the main course?

This being a serious blizzard, dinner was limited to what we had in the house. As I remembered putting a ball of ground pork in the freezer, left over from our New Year's dumplings, I recalled a Chinese dish of pork and tofu that we'd had someplace. Noting the fresh tofu currently in the fridge, I told Margy what I was thinking. "That sounds okay," she said just a little flatly, but I figured that if I played my cards right she'd be pleasantly surprised. Plus there wasn't much else on hand that would go well with cabbage in peanut dressing.

I've made it a point recently to experiment with stir-fry sauces, since for years I haven't been happy with overly salty soy-based sauces that were unsubtle and almost too flavorful. I find it helps to streamline the ingredients and use a bit of sugar to balance out the salt. Tonight I hit the jackpot with a sauce of fermented black beans with a shot of chicken stock, hoisin sauce, sugar, and sake. It was just sweet enough, plenty spicy from some fresh chilies, and made nice and heady by the splash of booze and tangy black beans. The firm bits of pork were a good textural contrast to the softer pieces of tofu.

For the salad dressing I used an old Cook's Illustrated recipe as a point of departure, nicking their ingredients list (peanut butter, peanut oil, honey, soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili pepper, ginger, and garlic) but playing around with the amounts. I'm sure they had made 4,000 different peanut dressings to come up with the perfect formula, but one look at it and I knew I was after lots more peanuts.

Every winter, Margy and I talk about learning to make gnocchi. Maybe if we get hit with one more big storm...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dole Out the Dal

On top of rice, this savory Indian lentil stew is a meal in itself.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Almost Sort-Of Tandoori

It was all right there in the headnote to the tandoori prawns recipe in Suvir Saran's Indian Home Cooking: "You'll need to buy prawns or very large shrimp; the little ones cook before the marinade has a chance to become a delectable coating."

I ignored it.

I am one to alter a recipe whenever I feel like it, but this wasn't a matter of adding a little more garlic or keeping something in the oven a bit longer, so I suspected there may be consequences. Indeed, the "large" shrimp I found were the biggest and nicest at the market, but they were too small to develop the proper essence of tandoori.

Of course, this was a calculated risk on my part, since I had a pretty good feeling we would eat well regardless of whether we were able to find superjumbo prawns. Besides, for Margy and me, legume lovers that we are, the dal, and not the shrimp, was the true centerpiece of this meal. I made a huge pot of lentils (adding a few leftover kidney beans we had in the fridge) to ensure we'd be having dal and rice for lunch all weekend, and possibly all week. Margy loves nothing more.

As far as the shrimp, they were very good, if not even close to authentic. (Tandoori cooking at home is inauthentic by definition, since home-oven temperatures can't match the infernal heat of a proper tandoor.) I marinated the shrimp in yogurt, lemon juice, and spices for a few hours, and then cooked them in the oven at 550 degrees, letting them rest and then brushing them with butter in the middle of cooking per Saran's instructions. I did allow them to overcook a bit, hoping that would help the marinade bond better. The yogurt coating remained distinct from the shrimp without them fusing as one, but the flavor was there. Next time I see huge shrimp, I'm going to try this again.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Wasabi Blast from the Past

At my second visit to the newish local sushi joint, I did something I haven't done in a long time: I ordered a preset assortment, a "sushi deluxe" if you will. See, ever since I got truly hooked on sushi years ago, I've been an à-la-carte'r -- an uni here, an amaebi sashimi there, maybe a nice fluffy bed of tobiko that crunches and pops when I put it in my mouth. I've also been interested in avoiding the dull boiled shrimp and inexplicable fake crab that pad so many sushi sets.

But lately I've been more willing to go back to the basics. There's almost nothing I won't eat at a sushi place, and since I wanted to be more economical -- Margy and I have sometimes spent twice as much as our companions as we choose exactly what we want, and plenty of it -- I threw caution to the wind and ordered nine pieces of unspecified nigiri sushi and a tuna roll. Let's rock.

I expected to reacquaint myself with oily mackerel, to gnaw on a bit of chewy squid, to maybe even gain a new appreciation for a fanned-out boiled shrimp on top of a mound of rice. I got ready for a bite of eel, prayed for some sea urchin (this was "deluxe" after all).

And then I got a plate full of repeats. Two pieces of salmon, probably three of yellowtail, and a bunch of one or two kinds of white fish. Thank goodness it was all very good quality and the seaweed on the tuna roll was fresh and crisp. I was disappointed by the lack of variety, but that didn't stop me from having fun. I certainly didn't have to agonize over what order to eat things in, not the way I would have were there only one of everything.

I was sitting at the bar, and I tried unsuccessfully to communicate with the chef who'd made my dinner. He was busy -- and damn, was he quick -- but I only wanted tiny bits of information, like what I was eating. Earlier I had asked about two things he was making for other diners.

"What's that? Is it a scallop?"

"Live clam."

Ten minutes later. "What's that?"

"White tuna tartar."

"Wow. What's the sauce on top?" It was the color and shape of goldfish poop, squirted in zig-zag lines over the pale-pink tuna.

[No answer.]

But when he set my plate down in front of me, I decided to try again. "Sir? What kind of fish is this?" I knew the tuna and the salmon, of course, but that left six pieces I couldn't ID exactly.

He frowned. "Sorry, please ask your waitress. Sorry."

The guy had selected my fish, sliced it, and shaped it carefully in his hands, and now he wanted me to ask someone else what it was. I chuckled to myself and dug in. I'd never know for sure.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Stubborn Lamb

Last time I went shopping, I spied some good-looking lamb loin chops, and they were about $10 a pound cheaper than the swankier rib chops. Two of them came home with me.

I made a marinade with olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, chopped rosemary, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and S&P, and let the lamb soak up some flavor. When Margy came home, I threw the chops on the grill. Seven minutes later, plus a few minutes of resting time, I cut into one. Oops -- raw near the bone. (We like lamb medium rare, but this wasn't it.) And by now the coals were dying, along with my patience... and Margy needed to eat.

I've gotten pretty good at cooking rib chops, but these bigger, bonier loin chops threw me a curve. They had thin bones in a few places, not just on one side, which slowed the cooking. But in the end they came out right, a little charred here and there, tender, and delicious. The marinade had done its job and enhanced that slightly gamy flavor just a bit. Lamb and rosemary really are perfect partners.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Lentil Therapy

I wasn't feeling great when I woke up, and I was in the mood for procrastinating. So I turned on Food Network, where Giada was making lentil soup. Hmm... I have lentils. I have carrots. I have onions. I have herbs. I turned off the tube and pulled out my chef's knife.

The only thing I didn't have was celery. So I grew daring: Today I will make soup without celery! A brash move, I realize, but I wanted to see what would happen. Well, the soup gods let it slide, because that celery was not missed. After all, I did have bacon -- slab bacon. As I began the soup, I sliced the bacon razor thin and let it get real crisp before I removed it (to add back at the end) and left its fat behind to cook the vegetables in.

I didn't really use Giada's recipe for much beyond inspiration, as hers was a heartier stew made with chunks of beef. But I did heed her advice to use canned tomato. In the past, I had made a tomatoless version, and it left something to be desired. Now I know what it was. I don't mean to brag, but Margy called today's offering "the best lentil soup I have ever eaten." Sometimes procrastination pays off.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Crispy Cutlets

Forgive me for discussing two days' worth of people cooking for me and not Margy. I couldn't resist.

Now I was back from Vermont at our place, and it was chicken cutlet night. This was a joint effort between Margy and me. She pounded the cutlets and dredged them in flour, then dipped them in egg and then panko crumbs, while I made mashed potatoes and got ready to cook the chicken. Problem was, I hadn't realized we were almost out of peanut oil, that precious substance. It's so superior to canola for frying that I was trying to stretch it as far as it would go. Mistake. Having enough fat is more important than having the best fat.

But it was no big deal. (I did eventually stretch our oil supply with canola. How timely -- oil alternatives.) A few of the cutlets didn't quite color properly on the bottom, but we made it through with enough for dinner and a few lunches.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Our Daily Bacon

Did I mention we were in Vermont? This here is a Wilmington breakfast, courtesy of Dot's Diner. One last fling before driving home. It doesn't look like it, but under that little cup of top-shelf maple syrup is a blueberry pancake. Our amazingly skilled waitress helped me decide how many to get when I asked how big they were. "'Bout the size of your head," she said.

All but one of us had bacon. (Enzo had sausage.) And after we paid the bill, two of the guys, not quite sated, ordered a BLT to split in the parking lot.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Where's the Beef?

Sometimes the band goes out on long-distance party gigs where we need to be fed. It is fascinating (read: excruciating) to observe the dynamic between band, host, and caterer. It's rarely the same thing twice, and my gang has seen everything from being promptly filled and thoroughly lubricated and later handed beer to go, to driving two hours and setting up for two before waiting around for two more and not being given dinner until our pleas turn to threats. (Read: my pleas, my threats.)

When you are at an event as a vendor, which is not a term the fellers and I normally associate ourselves with, you are there to work. And when you've driven four hours and it's dinnertime and your PA system is oozing the soothing sounds of Ella & Louis while the guests strap on the feedbag, it's time for you to eat too, while no one notices. It's been discussed beforehand; it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody. Should your host tell you to start playing and should you have to skip dinner, you're eventually looking at ten, twelve hours without eating. That plus rock and roll plus a couple of beers isn't as much fun as it sounds like.

Me, I always hope the caterers, bar staff, and band will form an alliance and do things throughout the evening to please each other. You give me a nice scotch on the rocks, you get yourself some Allman Brothers. I'll gladly offer some James Brown for a cannoli to whoever's asking.

Tonight we were going down the wrong path, but people stepped forward and made things happen. I mean, the band did enjoy an appetizer of oysters on the halfshell, but ninety minutes later we were in definite danger of being ordered to our instruments with nothing but those oysters to sustain us. We waited and waited, pacing the bandstand, as the many guests grew closer to putting on their dancing shoes.

It turned out in the end that the caterers had not been told about our needs. As soon as they understood the situation, though, they set a table and quickly brought out a meal. Grilled beef with a red wine sauce and mashed potatoes. Even a mixed green salad with raisins, dried cranberries, and shredded mozzarella. (Shredded mozzarella? On a salad?) Balance was restored.

Then, while we were playing our first set, one of the catering staff brought us a huge tray of cookies and left it behind the bass rig. She was the one who had thanked me earlier for playing Buena Vista Social Club on the PA while everyone was setting up. The bond had been formed.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Supermarket Salmon Wearing Thin

Margy and I like to eat seafood a couple of times a week (or, should we find ourselves in, say, Seattle, every day). But we don't have a good nearby fish counter, which means we have to make most of our purchases at the supermarket. Nothing against my local ShopRite and its impressive recent attempts to shape itself up, but as far as seafood goes the only things we can count on are squid, shrimp, clams, and farm-raised salmon. The rest is for the birds -- the whole fish are gray gilled and cloudy eyed, and the fillets look as if they've seen better days. Many better days.

So I keep going for the old favorites, like salmon, with which I made this salmon teriyaki. Along with the teriyaki I made a resolution to go more often to our not-so-nearby Asian market for wonderfully fresh whole snapper and bass and sardines. Yes, sardines.

Soon, soon... I need Thai chilies anyway.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Word on Microwave Reheating

Tonight I tried an experiment with leftover turkey keema: I reheated some in the microwave and some on the stove, to see which method was better.

I'm totally lying. I reheated some in the microwave because I couldn't wait for Margy to get home before I started eating. So I took the edge off with a bit of nuked keema, and then I put the rest on the stove. When all was said and done, I noticed a couple of things, neither of which was exactly news to me but was nonetheless worth remembering. A) The stovetop keema seemed to taste slightly better than the microwave keema, and B) it also seemed to stay hotter longer than its carousel-spinning counterpart.

I really do try to use the microwave as seldom as possible. I wouldn't say I'm paranoid; I don't worry that I'm cooking the insides of my head or anything like that when I stand near it. But love it or not, it's something I'd hate to have to do without. Sure, defrosting and reheating are great, but it really comes down to one word: popcorn.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Payback Time

Was I just complaining that my turkey keema wasn't hot enough? It seems our local Thai joint heard me, because someone put a big ol' pinch of pepper flakes in our green curry. Three bites and I was like Yosemite Sam firing off a bunch of rounds. It was quite a buzz, and it did wonders for Margy's head cold.

This leads me to a question. What is the proper way to address spice levels in a Thai restaurant? I simply cannot figure it out. I've confirmed that Margy and I like our food a bit hotter than the average American. But the one time we went to a Thai place and I foolishly said "We like things spicy," the food blew a hole in our foreheads. (I mean, we still ate it.) So you'd think medium, like I asked for it tonight, might be the way to go. But there's something tricky about that too. I guess this is just my own bias, from having the opposite problem at Chinese restaurants, where "medium" means absolutely no heat whatsoever. (I'm not talking about good Chinese restaurants.)

And then there was another Thai joint, an excellent place in central New Jersey. There, the server said this: "How do you like your spice? 'Mild' means very spicy."

So there you go. I wanted to answer, "No, I'm pretty sure 'mild' means mild," but that wouldn't have been very nice.

Placing my order in Scoville units probably wouldn't help, would it? I guess I'll keep trying "medium" and keep noting the incredibly wide range that word suggests.