Friday, March 31, 2006

Bake It Up

As a kid, I hated cheese. The only thing worse than the scent of cheese was the scent of cooked cheese.

What was I thinking? Clearly I wasn't. I'm happy to say I've long since changed my ways, and now baked pasta with Parmesan and bread crumbs is one of my favorite treats, especially if it's nice and crunchy. The inviting, house-filling aroma that used to have me climbing the walls now has me pacing the kitchen in anticipation.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Shrimp of Convenience

Today I got the shrimp.

But when I arrived at ShopRite, they had meager choices behind the counter. There was just one kind, previously frozen, at $10 per pound. I remembered my mom mentioning the 2-pound prepackaged bags of frozen shrimp that line the freezers next to the seafood counter. She said they're pretty good, so I checked them out. Twelve bucks for an abundance of shrimp. Why not? Most if not all supermarket shrimp have been frozen anyway.

I basically made a Thai green curry, using Thai Kitchen curry paste out of a jar. Bearing in mind the unexpected success of my recent white dinner, I was trying to make an uptown version with shrimp instead of tofu, but I used a little too much chicken stock and fish sauce to get the same thick consistency. However, it was a tasty, spicy meal, and I had it ready for Margy right after she walked in the door -- with enough for leftovers and some shrimp left in the freezer for another day.

By the way, we liked those bagged shrimp. They might not have been the freshest and most flavorful, but they were good to bathe in a bold-tasting sauce on your average Thursday night. Once I had defrosted them under cold running water and peeled them, they were rather attractive little guys.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Trusty Meat Sauce

All day I had a plan to make Thai-style shrimp. My mind was white with visions of coconut milk. But then everything went red.

Once it was time to cook, I couldn't focus. I had a plan, yes, but on the way to the store to buy shrimp, I found my steering wheel pulling me toward the old family house for one last evening visit. I hung out for a few minutes with my mom and sister and got a little sentimental. But I snapped out of it and volunteered to run an errand for my dad during the shrimp run.

Basically, I had limited time and several choices of supermarket. I picked the wrong one. It was the one that had two kinds of shrimp -- $13.99 a pound and $15.99 a pound. My Thai experiments are not worth that price, especially since I had an eye on getting a pound and a half so Margy and I could have leftovers.

So I split. I ran my errand, scooped up Margy, who was walking home from the train station, and defrosted our last container of meat sauce. Every bite was precious -- even the one when I found a bit of pork bone.

The shrimp can wait for another day.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Margy Had a Little Lamb

We've really been digging lamb blade chops. The ones I grilled tonight even went so far as to offer the ultimate bonus: a creamy bit of marrow. I sautéed onions and chilies to top the chops.

Monday, March 27, 2006

A Nice Jersey Duck

I've done my share of complaining about Chinese restaurants, and I'm sure there's much more to come. Overlong menus that don't allow a place to highlight its strengths, anonymous gloppy sauces, lack of culinary nuance -- the list of offenses is vast. So imagine my delight to have a terrific meal at a little restaurant in north Jersey called Cathay 22.

Margy and I went with my mom, who had moved out of one kitchen but had yet to move into the next, and my sister, who was in from out of town putting her singular organizational skills to very good use at my parents' new home for a few days. Sis wanted duck. Who am I to argue?

This is the Peking duck, cut from the bone and arranged on the plate roughly in the shape of a very wide, very flat bird. The presentation wasn't what I would call gorgeous, but the meat was tender and flavorful and the skin was crisp yet moist with bits of tasty fat. We ate some duck in pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce, and some by itself. The crunchy legs were of particular interest to me.

And then we had tangerine prawns and baby bok choy. The prawns were big and succulent, coated in a light batter and served with garlic and pieces of tangerine rind. The tangy sauce was so spicy that my mom and sister gave up after a while and let Margy and me finish the prawns. For the two of us, the lip-smacking heat level was just right.

The question is: Will Cathay be this good the next time? Please let it be so.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Margy Bakes! Poppy Seed Angel Food Cakes

My parents were about to move out of the house they'd been living in since I was a year old, but first we had one more dinner in the almost empty space. Sister #1 brought a whole mess of pizza from the famous Star Tavern. It was pretty good, and I ate too many slices to be counted. For dessert Margy made her special angel food cakes with poppy seeds and lemon. She served the little cakes with strawberries in lemon syrup.

It was family day, as we'd had lunch at our place with Margy's parents. The chicken cutlet sandwiches went over well. Both Margy and I felt guilty that we couldn't offer angel food to her parents, but her cake output was limited -- and we needed to be sure to have extra for my brother-in-law, who's real skinny but packs it away like Andre the Giant.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Don't Slam the Big Clams

In southern Italy, clams can be as small as a pinkie nail. You put in a lot of work to get yourself fed, but the tender meat and briny nectar make it worth your while.

After spending some time among such precious bivalves years ago, I tried to hold out for the little guys back at home. At the seafood counter I would glance right past the cherrystones and littlenecks in search of much smaller cockles, which are the closest thing to those Italian beauties that I can find. If there were no cockles to be had, I bought something else entirely.

And then one day I said what the heck and brought home some littlenecks.

Not only do littlenecks require less cleaning (and eating) time than cockles, they can be tender and tasty. Tonight I got 18 of them for Margy and me. The fish guy was cool enough to allow for the inevitable duds, and he threw in a few extra.

I made a basic white clam sauce, starting it by sautéing onion, garlic, parsley, and a couple of anchovies in olive oil and sprucing it up just a little with a few diced canned plum tomatoes. I'll still look out for cockles, but it's good to know there's another worthy mollusk in town.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Cutlet Supreme

With Margy's parents coming for lunch this weekend, I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone and make chicken cutlets for dinner tonight, with enough left over for Sunday sandwiches. When breading the cutlets I mixed a few tablespoons of sesame seeds in with the panko crumbs for a bit of extra flavor and texture.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Next Time I'm Using Capellini

I have seen my mother, wonderful chef that she is, spend hours cooking something, take a taste, make a face, and then turn and dump the entire meal into the garbage.

Tonight I almost joined her. And it always starts with high hopes.

Looking to make a light dinner, I thought I'd try to conjure the Asian peanut sauce of my dreams. Who needs a recipe? I started with some organic peanut butter and added whatever I felt like. A little sake, a chopped-up chile, a dollop of hoisin... The sauce wasn't the problem; it was the noodles. I saw two aging packages of flavored ramen in the pantry and figured I'd use the noodles and toss the seasoning packets. But like a fool I obeyed the cooking instructions: three minutes in boiling water.

As a kid, I learned how to make instant ramen from a Taiwanese friend. His mom would get the real packaged ramen from Chinatown, the kind with no English on the label at all, the kind with an oil packet and a bouillon packet, the kind with even more MSG than usual. From third through maybe fifth grade, it was my most coveted food. I couldn't get it at home, and so I craved it all the time and elevated it to mythical status. The few times I actually got to eat some, I felt like the luckiest kid in Jersey.

Frank would cook ramen like this: He'd put the block of noodles in a bowl along with the contents of the seasoning packets, then pour boiling water over it and cover the bowl with a plate for a few minutes while the noodles softened. Had I understood the term al dente, that's what I would have called ramen prepared this way.

Tonight, despite my better instincts, I dropped the noodle blocks into boiling water and left them there, at full boil, for the entire recommended time. They came out practically more bound together than they'd gone in, a gummy, gluey clump that didn't yield to the bite as much as simply give up. But I knew a hungry Margy would be joining me soon, and so I plowed ahead and tried pouring some of my (tasty but admittedly too thick) peanut sauce on the noodles. This wasn't a great move. The sauce helped to join together the few noodles that remained relatively free.

As I mixed the sauce and noodles in a big bowl, which basically amounted to flipping over a solid mass of ramen again and again, Margy walked through the door to see me struggling with what she hoped was an almost-ready dinner. "I think we have to order out," I said.

But she told me, bless her heart, she was sure it would be fine. So I dutifully went through the remaining motions -- steaming some spinach and sprinkling cilantro and sesame seeds on top of our sad, insubstantial little bowls of noodles. I stopped eating about halfway through my bowl, unable to face the harshly overcooked ramen any longer. Margy finished hers and then said, "So, what's for dinner?" But she said it with a smile.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Forgive me, for I am weak.

I really can't resist pizza. Especially when I get home hungry at 9:30. Yet I'm destroying my own suspense. I've said I'm on a crusade to get a real piece of pizza, but I'm just blowing smoke. Clearly I am willing to settle for convenience over artistry.

I could get in the car and drive to New Haven for some of the best pizza in the country, some say the world. I could hop a train to Manhattan and finally visit Una Pizza Napoletana. I could try one of several well-reputed places in Brooklyn, relatively easily. But these special trips seem to go against the casual inspiration of "let's have pizza."

See, I'm still justifying. I need to make a special trip, just to cure my jones. It must happen. "Let's have pizza" clearly isn't working out.

These, by the way, are Margherita slices from the only pizzeria in town that Margy and I hadn't tried until now, the one local place with a brick oven. The pizza looks pretty good, doesn't it? All I can say is this: having a brick oven means nothing unless you make a decent pie to cook in it. The fresh mozzarella was good. That's about as much praise as I can muster. The sauce was sweet enough to put over ice cream, and the crust had no flavor at all. It did, however, have plenty of texture: It was so dense at the end that a saw would have had trouble getting through it.

I swear, some places expect, I might even say encourage, people to throw away their end crusts. Disgraziato.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Rice Redo

There are lots of fun things you can do with leftover risotto -- roll balls of it in bread crumbs and fry them, for one -- but I chose to take the quick, straight-ahead path and just reheat it on the stove for an easy dinner. If I'd had more time, I would have let it develop a crust on the bottom.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Teriyaki Plus

Tonight's menu was simple enough that I found myself waiting around while teriyaki sauce bubbled and brown rice simmered. All I had left to do was broil salmon and boil broccoli, so I killed some time by making side dishes.

I had bought a bunch of watercress last week at the Asian market, and it was ready for its close-up. I'm in the process of nailing down a nifty little miso dressing that tastes great on watercress, so I mixed up some of that. The ingredients are sake, mirin, miso paste, sugar, and soy sauce, but I'm still playing with the measurements. I threw the watercress into boiling water for a minute or two, drained and squeezed it, then tossed it in the dressing while hot and let it steep. One side dish down.

Since Margy and I are suckers for spiciness (and since she doesn't like watercress), I thought I'd make a fiery cucumber salad to balance the sweetness of the teriyaki and miso dressing. I was reaching for the chilies when I remembered my kimchi experiment, inspired by last month's incredible Chinese banquet. The cook had explained her broccoli-stem kimchi but didn't provide specific guidelines, so I did the best I could, and the results were sitting in the fridge. I ended up using so many Thai peppers that you take one bite and your tongue disappears in a puff of smoke. It's not so fun to eat on its own -- though the hallucinations can provide a pleasant diversion -- so I sliced a few stems and added them and some of their vinegar dressing to thin slivers of cucumber to make a salad that was hot but not unbearable.

Salmon teriyaki, of course, was the main attraction: salty-sweet, slightly boozy, and caramelized on top. It was a blast to have so many varied accompaniments -- including power-packed teriyaki onions -- but the fish is delish on its own.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Dear Sweet Risotto

With time and practice, my kitchen repertoire is expanding. But risotto will always be my first love. (Margy, if you're reading this, no offense.)

When I first started cooking, in high school, I made two things for my hungry but nongourmet friends: stir-fries and "red sauce." (The secret ingredient of the latter was pepperoni.) So risotto wasn't the dish that got me going. But when I first made it, in college, for my girlfriend (Margy) and my friend Jake (who became a chef), it's what got me hooked. I liked stirring. Constant, relentless, unstoppable stirring. Did I have anything better to do? I didn't even mind so much when the stirring went far beyond the printed guidelines and stretched into hours rather than minutes. I had an important and delicious chemical reaction happening right under my nose and I was going to see it through.

I only had to make risotto this way for a few more years (I called it "fifty-minute rice") before I learned my heat was too low. My Italian friend Giuliana taught me this by example. She also taught me by example that you don't have to never, ever, at any cost, stop stirring. She'd be doing three or four other things -- making a salad, combing her toddler Silvia's hair, running out back to the cantina for another bottle of her father-in-law's homemade wine -- while she had risotto on the stove, and she just couldn't be that vigilant. I would say she stirred frequently bordering on often, and still her simple zucchini risotto was wonderful, better than what you'll find in most restaurants.

Not that it's easy to get decent risotto in a restaurant, but we'll save that topic for later.

The dish does represent a commitment of time and effort, and if you're going to fight that, you're going to lose. But it's not that much time and not that much effort, and it's more than worth it to have a hot plate of creamy, oozing, plump, savory rice in front of you, rich with the flavor of homemade stock. You realize you have to make your own stock too, right? Hello?

Actually, Giuliana didn't. She used some sort of Italian bouillon cube. That woman had the Midas touch. For me, though, risotto is a Sunday-night dish, and it's time to go all the way, because you are pumping each grain of rice full of whatever liquid you're using, and if your liquid is Campbell's broth, your dinner will remind you of that over and over. (Unless you're Giuliana.)

Tonight's shitake risotto came up almost by accident. Basically, I had some shitakes and a dream. And a freezer that held A) chicken stock, and B) pancetta. It was so obvious I almost missed it...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Nice Plate of Fish

We're really digging the newest sushi joint in town. Tonight it saved me from having to cook while sating my burning desire for raw fish and rice. I'll be back in the saddle tomorrow, though!

After a wonderfully tender octopus sunomono starter, plus some hijiki seaweed and shrimp gyoza, Margy and I had (more or less from top to bottom):

* Salmon skin roll
* Eel and avocado roll
* Salmon sushi
* Tuna sushi
* Sweet shrimp sashimi
* Yellowtail sushi
* Alaska roll (salmon, avocado, cucumber, masago)

Yes, this seems to be a place where it's best to stick to the basics, but that's fine by me. The fish is very fresh, and so far the restaurant is 3-for-3. Will it settle into sushi complacency after a stellar opening run like the other Japanese restaurants in town? I hope not, but time will tell.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Submarine Solutions

Margy didn't want to wait it out and reheat another piece of quiche. She picked up a St. Paddy's Day meatball sub at our local pizzeria instead. Corned beef next year.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Quiche to the Rescue

Both Margy and I have entered the lots-of-plans zone, so there'll be no time to cook for a few days. Luckily she spent all those hours baking quiche a few weeks ago.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Sprouting Up

Tonight I thought I'd give Margy one of her favorite treats. Chocolate cake, you ask? A sundae? Nope -- Brussels sprouts!

The tiny cabbages are gaining serious ground lately, even though my mom still hates them. I understand the appeal, but I was surprised to see so many positive comments when Frank Bruni, the New York Times' restaurant critic and aspiring waiter, wrote about them recently on his blog. Now might be the time to open a joint called Sprout.

This time I served the sprouts with grilled burgers. I sliced them and cooked them in butter and olive oil, taking a tip from one of Bruni's meals and adding a dash of balsamic vinegar at the end. My dash wasn't very dashing, because it didn't make much of a difference, but now I'm primed for sprout experimentation. However, when hamburgers are on the menu, old habits die hard; I would have preferred a salad. Margy, though, was delighted.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Chutney Makes It Better

For this quick dinner of leftover turkey keema and cauliflower dum, I boiled a few green beans and tossed them in tamarind chutney while hot. We poured the chutney over the turkey and rice as well.

Too much is never enough.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Margy Cooks! Striped Bass with Artichokes

The Asian market not too far from our house has the most beautiful fish, and today the striped bass looked best. Normally I might lobby for a red snapper, but their eyes were slightly clouded over while the bass looked like they wanted to leap off the ice and into our arms.

The dish is a Marcella Hazan recipe that Margy dusts off when she's really ready to rock. It's not for the faint hearted, or at least not for those who are afraid of getting speared a few times while cleaning artichokes. I stood around, making a sort of shrimp cocktail appetizer (I'd be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to buy a few heads-on shrimp), while Margy whittled four very expensive artichokes down to almost nothing.

It was worth it. Margy scattered the trimmed and sliced artichokes around and inside the bass, added a sprig of rosemary, and poured olive oil and lemon juice over it all. The fish was then baked in the oven. Some of the artichokes got browned and crispy, while others remained green and tender. And the artichokes and lemon gave the dish a pleasing acidity that worked nicely against the mild, slightly fatty bass. Before I washed the dishes, I was the guy who stood by the stove scraping the pan in search of burnt bits. Mmm!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Tamarind Dreams

Weddings are wonderful, but it was time to get back in the kitchen.

I was planning to whip up a large batch of ground turkey keema to feed Margy and me during the week, and I needed a side dish. Lucky for us I had a head of cauliflower, that most Indian of vegetables, in the fridge. It gave me the perfect reason to use my newish cookbook, Mangoes & Curry Leaves, a huge, colorful volume that explores the food of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It was a Christmas gift from my mom and I had yet to try one of its recipes.

This one, cauliflower dum, was a winner. It's a tomato curry made rich by lots of grated onion. (I have to say that as thickeners go, you can't really beat grated onion.) Traditionally the pot is sealed tightly with a strip of dough and submerged in coals or ashes, but tin foil and an oven make things easier, if a bit less fun. When the pot came out, the cauliflower had become very tender, but it wasn't mushy, and it kept its color in the face of all that tomato and turmeric.

I also made a tamarind sauce from the same book. I had made thin brown tamarind chutney before, and it was much like the condiment used in most Indian restaurants. But this one was different. It was thicker and lighter in color, and it really highlighted tamarind's sour fruity flavor, sweetening it just a bit with sugar but also spicing it up with ground fennel and a strong hit of cayenne. Margy and I couldn't get enough. We poured it on the keema, the cauliflower, the rice -- and we may just have it on a hamburger later this week.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Wedding Fish

"Do you, Margy, take this mahi-mahi to be your dinner?"

"I do."

The food was good -- baby lamb chops caused quite a sensation during the cocktail hour -- and the wedding was gorgeous. It was held in a room lined with huge windows, overlooking the harbor in Battery Park. Margy read the lyrics to a Gershwin tune during the ceremony, and later we danced to swing tunes. The bride and groom were lit up with joy. It was a fun night. Until we missed the last train home. But that's why they have cabs.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Rehearsal Dinner Pastry

Margy celebrated our friends' union with a pre-wedding goat cheese and onion tart.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Kinder, Gentler Squid

The pork was beginning to cloud my brain. Thank goodness cooking is often an inexact science, because I was making a lot of mistakes.

First of all, I started much too late, and I was really feeling the time pressure. When stuffing squid, especially squid that are too small to be stuffed properly, one must stay relaxed. (It's easy to miss those narrow, floppy openings, and giving in to frustration never helps.) In my haste, I also messed up the stuffing itself. I had rinsed some tentacles to be chopped, but I didn't dry them well. Ditto with a handful of parsley. So when I threw tentacles, garlic, parsley, and a bit of bread into the food processor, I ended up with more a paste than a stuffing. I forgot salt and pepper, and, for good luck, a hot pepper, so I added them to the processor at the end. But since the stuffing was already well chopped, I only pulsed the mixture a few times, which left large pieces of red-hot chile that would surprise us later on.

Margy, surely famished, was now minutes from home, and the bodies weren't even stuffed. I didn't want her ruining herself for my squid by eating peanuts -- or worse, more pork -- as she waited for dinner.

Having no choice, I hung in there and finished the job by somehow getting the slippery filling into its sleek white vessels, sealing the bodies shut with toothpicks. I sautéed onion and garlic in a Dutch oven, then added the squid along with some tomato paste, white wine, and shrimp stock, covering the pot and leaving it to simmer slowly for about 40 minutes. Finally I could relax and make a salad. I gave Margy a glass of wine, which helped her endure the wait a bit more agreeably.

In the end, everything was fine. The stuffing wasn't exactly airy, but it wasn't overly dense either. And the flavor was there, including a few fire blasts when we found the chilies. This squid was in a forgiving mood.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Repurposed Puerco

And there's still enough of our Mexican leftovers for Margy to have pork for lunch tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Pork Week Travels East

Margy was starting to panic. Night was falling and she hadn't eaten pork all day. So, along with her sister, who was in town on business, she went to Katsuhama, the best place in NYC for the Japanese pork cutlet called tonkatsu. It's a simple restaurant, but its deep-fried offerings are second to none -- crisp, greaseless, and delicious. And the many accompaniments, including the tangy tonkatsu sauce that occupies a ceramic pot on every table, make things even more fun.

The sauce is like a Japanese A1, only better -- a thick, sweet-savory condiment made with onions, tomatoes, apples, and spices. (Why can't I stop drooling?) And then there's the rice, the miso soup with scallions, the pickles, and the shredded cabbage with onion dressing.

Okay, enough. I will write more about this wonderful pork mecca when I get to go there myself. Right now I'm seething with jealousy.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Margy Cooks! Main Line Quiche

One of Margy's first cooking texts was a gift from her mom, Main Line Classics: A Cookbook from Historic Philadelphia Suburbs. It has served her well, providing recipes for what are now two of her own classics -- honey whole wheat bread and Italian spinach quiche.

I don't know that Gruyère and Dijon mustard are Italian, but this quiche rocks (and does contain Parmesan, ricotta, and Italian sausage).

Making it was good old-fashioned teamwork. I grated cheese, chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, and drained and squeezed frozen spinach while Margy browned the sausage and made the pastry. Once she stirred everything together and filled the pie pans (she made two quiches, so we could have frozen leftovers), the real work began: waiting, the hardest part.

Here's where I beg to differ with Main Line Classics. I've spent hours of my life waiting for this quiche to come out of the oven, whether Margy's making two at once or one at a time, and the 25 to 30 minutes of baking time the book advises is so far off that it's just a tease. As I type I am noting in the margin of the book "almost 1 hour!" Thank goodness the leftovers don't take that long.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Oscar Fiesta Fiasco

Hollywood's all about product placement, right?

For the Oscars this year, we decided to order out from the expensive but reliably good Mexican restaurant up the road. But the path to tacos was fraught with obstacles.

Police had closed a big stretch of the one street that brings us right to the restaurant, and we got lost, as a ten-minute trip doubled and then nearly tripled in length. We pictured all the red-carpet moments we were missing and thought about bagging the dinner entirely. And then, after a few more twists and turns in pursuit of the confusingly placed orange detour signs that were our only hope, we saw, off in the distance, the glittering string lights of a taqueria.

The damage to our food was done, but we didn't care. Actually, Margy's pork tacos were packed smartly, with the tortillas to be filled at home. My massive taco-tostado-enchilada assortment, however, had sort of solidified into a homogenous mass where beef was indistinguishable from bean, shred of lettuce from soggy strip of tortilla. Whatever. Jon Stewart was making his way to the stage.

And now I report that we are officially in the midst of Pork Week. With brats and beans in the fridge and sausage quiche on tomorrow's menu -- not to mention the fact that Margy's Mexican leftovers will feed us thrice over the next few days -- we're ready to pig out.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

German Pork & Italian Beans

Margy sent me to the pork store for sausage. Italian sausage, so she can make quiche. But what am I going to do, buy just two links? Not at my favorite butcher. I kept it under control and merely added a bunch of bratwurst for this Germany-meets-Italy dish.

The menu: cannellini beans with tomato and sage, with grilled bratwurst and sautéed spinach. The accompaniment is grilled baguette.

I was trying to recreate a similar Tuscan dish, fagioli all'uccelletto. But I can't find a good unseasoned Italian sausage, so I used a mild bratwurst. I might not serve it to my friends from Florence if they dropped by the house, but then again I just might. I browned the brats up on the grill, turning them with tongs until they had a gorgeous crust all over. I brushed butter and olive oil on sliced bread and threw that on the grill too. It was fantastic -- crisp, chewy, and a little charred.

The stew was easy. I've been starting everything with a bit of onion lately, and this was no exception (there's no onion in the traditional version, but since I'd already made a sausage substitution...). I softened chopped onion in olive oil, added sliced garlic, two cans of cannellini, chopped canned plum tomatoes, and a crumble of sage leaves. When I took the beans off the heat, I stirred in just a dash of balsamic vinegar to add a hint of sweetness.

For Margy, great lover of wurst but also one of the biggest fans I know of Italian food, this was the best of both worlds.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Thai, with a Sigh

Tonight I had a gig with the band, so I let my local Thai joint do the cooking. It's safer that way -- on gig night as any other night I invariably find myself chasing culinary butterflies, and before I know it it's a mad dash to get out the door on time.

Alas, the pork curry was bland.

It caught me off guard. I've handled a few challenges at this place -- face-melting chile levels, for one -- but blandness was a first. Though I hate when food is overly salty, I'd rather have too much flavor than not enough. Did they run out of fish sauce back there? As I picked at the underseasoned curry I fondly remembered the time I ordered a tofu dish from the same restaurant and brought it home to find it had no rice accompaniment. ("Maybe they don't give you rice with tofu dishes?" Margy said as I tried to calculate how hungry I'd be fifteen minutes after dinner.)

As for Margy, she enjoyed a flavorful burger and fries much later at my gig.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Margy gave me a Le Creuset wok for Christmas. The thing is amazing. Stately, heavy as an anvil, and pleasantly rough to the touch, it's one of the most charismatic cooking vessels I've ever seen (the other items on that list are Le Creuset too). And the best part is that it shouldn't be scrubbed or washed with soap, which means that as we cook with it, it will accumulate the wisdom of countless meals gone by.

Don't worry -- I'm not saying I'm not going to clean it.

Tonight we needed a respite from winter decadence, a break from butter and fat and meat. Cue the wok. I whipped up a quick stir-fry with shrimp and (parboiled) string beans. I started the dish with onion, garlic, ginger, and chilies, added the string beans and then the shrimp, and hit it near the end with a sauce of fermented black beans, soy sauce, sugar, and sake.

I'm not quite used to the fact that this particular wok is designed to cook over medium, rather than high, heat. I think of stir-frying as fast and hot. This was more like sorta fast and kinda hot, so the process took longer than expected, and I'm afraid I called a hungry Margy to the table a bit prematurely. I will continue to heed the advice of Le Creuset, but next time I'll boost the heat just a bit and see what happens.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

It's the Onions

I don't know why pasta all'amatriciana isn't more popular. In fact, my mom never made it when I was growing up, and it wasn't until I went to Italy that I discovered it. I clearly remember my friend Giuliana, with her daughter Silvia in one arm, stirring onions at her brand-new modern Italian stove, showing me the basics of amatriciana. I stayed with her family for two weeks on one of my trips, and I learned a bunch of things. This one stuck with me.

Amatriciana is a tomato sauce made with lots of onions, some hot pepper, and, oh yes, a cured pork product. (After a trip to my butcher, I am happy to report that I am now flush with cured pork products.) Tonight I used bacon, but pancetta is good. I think Giuliana, living way up in the Dolomites near Austria, used speck. Mmm... speck.

No matter how rhapsodic I wax over the pork, the onions are what make this dish special. Diced and cooked long and slow, they melt into the tomato to form an almost creamy texture, while some pieces retain a little crunch. Bucatini, those beautiful fat hollow spaghetti -- the ones that spray sauce all over you as you try to wind a few on your fork -- are considered the ultimate pasta to serve all'amatriciana, but I find the sauce works with just about anything, like the regular spaghetti I used here. I thought I cooked enough for Margy to have leftovers for lunch, but we couldn't resist eating it all.