Sunday, April 30, 2006

Curry Lab

Lately I've been trying to combine two of my most pleasurable hobbies: braising pork and cooking Indian food.

I don't think I've ever eaten pork in an Indian restaurant, and my Indian cookbooks contain only a few pork-centered recipes. Apparently it's not easy to come by a pig in India, and if you do, apparently there are other more important things to do with one besides eat it. But as much as I love the traditional lamb, it's more expensive than pork -- and pork's incredible melting fat does thrilling things to a curry.

For this one I decided to use whole country ribs rather than cut the meat into chunks and take it off the bone. First I browned the ribs, and then I braised them on the stove. I basically did Italian-style pork in an Indian sauce. Oh, the results! The thick curry, made with onion, garlic, ginger, tomato, coconut milk and spices, was enriched by the pork fat, and the flavors, helped along by the presence of bones, were deep after about an hour on the stove.

As a corner-cutting naan substitute, we heated some pocketless pitas and brushed them with butter. We needed as many things as we could find to soak up that sauce.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Avoiding One's Mis-Steaks

I'm not a big-time steak guy. There are too many wonderful permutations of pork to distract me. But Margy and I do like a good steak, and since we rarely have one, we tend to go for broke and get a porterhouse.

This one looked so great as I seasoned it up -- all thick and red and sturdy -- that I made a pact with myself: I would not overcook it. I'm getting better at judging cooking times, but I still let things go too long (or not long enough) on occasion. Steak especially, since I don't get to practice very often, and since I'm frankly not exactly sure how I want to cook it. I gave tonight's porterhouse about five minutes on the first side to get a nice char, and then I flipped it for three minutes more, maybe three and a half. After letting it rest, I started carving it up, and it was clear that it was not overdone.

"Is that cooked enough?" Margy asked.

"Yes," I said. In my heart, I wasn't sure.

I took a bite. Man, it was good.

"YES," I repeated, more firmly. "Don't worry. Eat it."

It was medium rare, more rare than we usually eat steak -- it was more like the way I usually cook lamb -- and it was a revelation. I had a good piece of meat on my hands, sure, but cooking it correctly made it that much better. I served it with a crispy-creamy potato gratin and broccoli rabe with garlic. With a big glass of red wine, it was a good way to end Margy's workweek. I bet we'll get another steak soon.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Simple, Perfect

Just one question: Is the little green strip of fake grass really necessary?

Sagami, Collingswood, NJ

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Best Use for Leftover Meatballs

I like a nice sandwich. Bread, of course, is one of my favorite things on earth. My sisters remember how as a kid I would make bread sandwiches -- a slice of white between two slices of rye, or whatever. But cold cuts don't really do it for me. Ham is the main exception. Ham and its bad-boy Italian cousins: salami, sopressata, capicola, and mortadella. Them's my peeps.

Hot sandwiches, though, are my beloved. The hamburger being the all-time heavyweight champion hot sandwich, the one that transcends sandwichdom to earn its own section on the menu. But tonight we met the challenger: the broiled veal-ricotta meatball hoagie (I use that last term as a nod to Margy's Philly roots).

I dare say we couldn't have loved this sandwich more. The roll was vitally important. I scored some fresh specimens from my local bakery, and under the broiler with some meatballs, sauce, and grated Parmesan they got all crisp outside and soft inside. I might not have bought seeded rolls, but that's all that was left -- and like so many unplanned things, it was the perfect little accident.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Real Quiche Does Get Eaten

Do people still talk about that book Real Men Don't Eat Quiche?

Probably not. They probably don't talk about the companion volume, Real Women Don't Pump Gas, much either. Why? Because these concepts are ridiculous. I'm pretty sure I understood this even way back in '82, when Quiche appeared one day on the kitchen counter at a friend's house. I remember looking at the cover and, without being able to articulate it of course, knowing some smug author was trying desperately to be clever. But still, I thought, Why not? Why don't real men eat quiche?

And gosh, why don't real women pump gas? Hey, wait -- what is a "real" man, or a "real" woman?

I don't know. All I can say is this: Margy's Italian quiche is so good that it appeals equally to both sexes, and, in fact, would surely appeal to both real and unreal members of both sexes. There's one more piece in the freezer -- we might have to stage a battle of the sexes to determine who gets to eat it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Shrimp with a View

"It's not black tie," Margy said when she and I accepted an invitation to a swanky dinner at the New York Athletic Club.

Then why were all the men wearing tuxedos?

I bought a tux for our wedding, and I am always looking for an excuse to wear it. (Anybody need a waiter?) Of course, I can't really button the pants anymore, but I am willing to go an evening without breathing if it means I'm getting my money's worth out of the monkey suit.

Alas, that would have to wait for another time. But it's okay. I wasn't the only guy in the place in a blue blazer.

The event was fun. The huge rooms overlooked Central Park, and we got to hear great speeches and Cambodian folk music played by a father and his preteen son and daughter. (Good drummer, that kid.) Dinner was shrimp with soba noodles followed by chicken with baby bok choy. All that was missing was a swing band and a dance floor -- and my tux.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Margy's Choice

After eating out for a few days, I was back in the saddle. To celebrate my kitchen homecoming, I told Margy she could request anything she wanted and I would make it.

She asked for veal-ricotta meatballs.

I was more than happy to oblige. Anyway, I needed to improve upon my texturally shaky first attempt at such meatballs. Part of the problem was that I'd used too much ricotta, so I played it safe this time. And since my last meatballs flattened while cooking, I took a tip from Alton Brown and let this batch firm up in the fridge for 10 minutes after I'd shaped them. Both of these adjustments helped my efforts greatly. My ace in the hole was finding San Marzano tomatoes at ShopRite to use in the sauce. They just have more zing than average tomatoes, and their bright red color is unmistakable.

I must say, this was one of the finest plates of spaghetti and meatballs we've had. I give Margy the credit; I was going to grill a steak.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Batter Up

What do you know -- Margy and I suddenly found ourselves way down near the edge of the world. That is, in Cape May. We had a great late breakfast at a big, bustling place called the Mad Batter.

Does that name refer to the makings of pancakes, or to Barry Bonds?

I guess it's pancakes, because Margy's buttermilk blueberry jobbies were incredible. I don't see how she ever could have finished them, even with my help, but they struck quite an impressive pose.

On the left of the pancakes is Margy's... uh... scrapple. I kind of didn't want to admit that. I don't think I'll let her order it again. (Though I'm sure the Batter's version was quite good, if you like that sort of thing.)

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Cooked Fish?

I've eaten lots of raw yellowtail in my day, but this might be the first time I've had it fully cooked. Imported from Japan, grilled, and served with a ponzu sauce and cabbage slaw, it was mild, meaty, and tasty.

Kushimbo, Cape May, NJ

Friday, April 21, 2006

Cauliflower Variations

Necessity is the mother of invention, and I had a head of cauliflower and a single ripe tomato that I needed to use. I thought, What would Mom do?

Of course Mom would make an utterly delicious pasta sauce.

I came close, but I didn't quite cook the cauliflower long enough, so it was a little too firm. We don't want mush, but we want those florets to be cooked through. I'm glad I didn't have any real Italians at the table -- they like to cook vegetables to death and probably wouldn't appreciate a bit of snap.

Otherwise, I will make this dish again. All I did was brown some pancetta (it's a full-blown addiction at this point) and render its fat, then remove the crispy bits from the pan. I added chopped onion to the fat, then in a few minutes some sliced garlic and a chopped chile. Parsley would've been nice, but I didn't have any. I dropped my tomato in the water that was boiling for pasta, and then removed the skin and chopped the flesh, tossing it into the pan along with the cauliflower and a splash of white wine. Then I began to cook the pasta (I should have given the cauliflower five minutes of cooking time first). When the sauce got a bit dry, I added some pasta water to it. Near the end I threw most of the browned pancetta into the pan to heat up, saving a little to sprinkle over our bowls. I love a meaty garnish.

Oh, and a word on the biscuit in the background. It's called a freselle (not to be confused with guitarist Bill Frisell), and its only ingredients are flour, water, yeast, lard, lots of black pepper, and salt. My sisters, parents, and I picked up a few bags when we were in New Haven two weeks ago. You can get freselles in other areas, but to our family New Haven is the only place to find the real deal. They're crumbly, peppery, and irresistible. Dunk them in coffee or soup or tomato sauce, spread them with peanut butter, eat them plain -- it all works.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Humble Pea

The freezer is our friend.

After hideously long days for both Margy and me, a frozen container of yellow split pea soup was our lifeline. Yeah, it always takes longer than I expect to actually defrost and heat the soup, but I'm not complaining. I even took time out of my busy evening to make a salad to get us some nutrients. We've had some virtually vegetable-less meals of late (I'm talking to you, Corner Bistro -- your slice of iceberg doesn't count).

This was a particularly good batch of pea soup, though I can't remember when I made it exactly. It seemed like I used extra pancetta, which is always a swell idea.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Name That Burger

Anyone who's been to the Corner Bistro will know right away. That is one FAT burger, fat like the fluffiest clouds in the sky. At first I have to bite at it rather than through it. Squint your eyes and the fries are in a clamshell. Crunch, crunch. The hot side hot, the cool side warm. A bottle of ketchup later, I can't believe I ate the whole thing. Yet I look over, and Margy has already been done for a while.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Old Faithful

I like to make enough turkey keema for us to have a few lunches throughout the week, but last time I made so much that even Margy, great lover of leftovers, grew sick of it long before it was gone. So tonight I made half the amount. I hope it's enough...

Monday, April 17, 2006

After the Lamb

For our post-Easter lunch, Margy's mom served lovely turkey BLTs and tomato soup.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


We had Easter with Margy's family. The weather was perfect, so we spent lots of time in her parents' yard, admiring the new growth.

Then the niece and nephews arrived, and it was time for an egg hunt. Twenty-four candy-filled plastic eggs hiding out among the grass and bushes. The kids zoomed around with their baskets, poking into every nook and cranny, yet only 23 eggs were found. Perhaps somewhere a groundhog is enjoying a Hershey's Kiss.

Dinner, served with champagne (a family tradition), was a nice leg of lamb cooked by Margy's mom. Margy's sister made a delicious salad with tangerines and black sesame seeds, and her aunt brought a rich potato gratin. I had seconds, but I could have had thirds. And then, after the fruit and homemade berry ice creams, I went downstairs and watched the end of Back to the Future with the kiddies.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

Care Package for Margy

Lucky me, I got to go over to my parents' new place for dinner, while poor Margy was stuck at work. But she didn't miss out. My mother, who tends to overestimate the amount of food she needs to make, had plenty of leftovers and packed up a nice dinner for Margy.

This is one of Mom's classics, simply called chicken and sausage. She takes a big pan and fills it with cut-up sausages and chicken pieces (this time it was drumsticks only), plus garlic cloves, artichoke hearts, and mushrooms, and then tops it with canned tomato, bread crumbs, herbs, and olive oil. After a spell in the oven, it's browned and crisp on top, but everything below the surface stays moist and juicy.

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Simple Clam

All this time on earth, and I'm just getting around to Japanese clam soup.

You could say I've been preparing myself all these years. I needed to explore flashier clam potions -- chowder, spaghetti alle vongole, thick and potent Chinese clam soup -- before boiling things down to their essence: broth and clams. This was about as simple as it gets, just a clear dashi stock with a little soy sauce and maybe a hint of sweetness, plus a few scallions and two tender clams. As we loosened our clams with chopsticks and slurped the meat down (chewing, of course), Margy and I agreed it was the perfect way to start a meal.

Nikko, Whippany, NJ

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Fettuccine Cure

Margy's back!

I like to think it was my fettuccine with shrimp that did it. But whatever it was, I was glad to see her at the table eating a full meal.

I had an impressive backlog of shrimp shells in the freezer, so while I prepared the main dish, shrimp stock was boiling away on the stove. I used some of the fresh stock to round out the pasta sauce, and then I froze the rest. It's a great feeling to tuck those containers into the freezer and know you've got the goods to make a bunch of future meals taste a lot better. If you've never made your own stock, you must.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

No Pork for Margy

Taking advantage of what was stored in the fridge and freezer, I had a grilled teriyaki pork chop with spicy cucumber and carrot salad, brown rice, and steamed spinach.

Margy had brown rice and steamed spinach. But she's getting better!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Quaker Meal

It's all Margy could handle.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Sunday Dinner on Monday Afternoon

I'm not sure how it goes with other ethnicities -- I imagine it's largely the same -- but after an Italian funeral, you eat.

And you reminisce, tell stories, laugh, drink wine, and remember the ones you love. It all makes perfect sense, really.

The New Haven-area restaurant where we had our Monday-afternoon "dinner" did a great job, putting out homey family-style dishes that hit the spot and made our exhausted clan feel right at home.

We started with a salad, which was served with baskets of brick-oven-baked focaccia and pepperoni-stuffed rolls (nice touch). Then out came great platters of delicious penne alla vodka, which were followed by the main courses, chicken cacciatore and sole francese. Dessert was something akin to strawberry shortcake.

Poor Margy just sat there and tried to hold it all together. She would have enjoyed this meal, but not today. Her stomach picked a lousy time to be sour.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

CT Chop

We were in Connecticut for a sad occasion -- a family funeral -- but it was still terrific to see all my relatives.

And of course we had to eat. After an emotional but beautiful wake, we headed over to a nearby pub-style restaurant. This is my pork chop with marsala sauce, "melted" cabbage, caramelized onions, and mashed potatoes. Margy asked that her dinner, which directly preceded a stomach bug (no, it was not the oysters), be stricken from the record.

I ordered the chop because a pork sandwich special was no longer available -- but it was too big. Plus we had a nice appetizer spread that included pane cotto, sausage with broccoli rabe, and two kinds of fried calamari, regular and "New York style," which was tossed with hot cherry peppers and a bit of tomato. (It was awesome, but New York style -- who knew?) Heading back to a fridge-less hotel room, I nonetheless asked if my leftovers could be wrapped. But then I had no takers... until my uncle decided to respect my aversion to wasting food and took the rest of my chop home. I hope he ate it. It was delicious.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Chew or Swallow?

There's a recent article in The New Yorker where the author asks all sorts of decorated oyster authorities whether they like to chew the mollusks or just let them slide down the throat.

Me, I chew. A little. Then I swallow.

Hey, if I'm paying three bucks apiece, I'm going to spend as much time with those little creatures as I can before it's all just a memory. A delicate chew or two prolongs the moment, deepens the intimacy. Why not? Conventional wisdom, according to the article, often dictates that chewing is a no-no, but it turns out that taking a few bites isn't as rare as the author had once thought.

This was a wonderful oyster sunomono that Margy and I fleetingly enjoyed. The oysters were small and low in number, but they were perfect in both texture and flavor, their brininess enhanced by a bit of citrusy ponzu sauce.

Sinking my teeth into two of them -- you can't share an oyster, and Margy, sensing my rapture, was kind enough to offer me the last one -- was my way of saying hello and goodbye all at once.

Shumi, Somerville, NJ

Friday, April 07, 2006

Another Burger

Two hamburgers for Margy this week. Tonight she had one at my gig in NYC -- lettuce, tomatoes, steak fries, and all. She needed a sturdy foundation, because I kept her out late.

Desmond's Tavern, NYC

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Hit by the Zucchini Thunderbolt

Making fried chicken, I'm out of my element. Give me a box of pasta and some bacon, and I'm right at home. Add a nice fat leek and some bright-green baby zucchini, and we're gonna have ourselves a good ol' time.

I'm not really the biggest fan of the zucchini. I mean, fry up some flowers in Rome and I'm there, but I don't usually buy zukes at ShopRite. This time the little guys were so adorable that I had to bring them home and eat them. Good thing I did, because I can imagine Margy and me enjoying variations on this dish all summer. It was one of those meals that taste better with each bite until they're gone. I'm not trying to brag; Margy said she noticed the same thing.

Vivono gli zucchinini!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Far from South Carolina

Wings and drumsticks, ah, wings and drumsticks.

I had those rich, flavorful pieces right where I wanted them, but I didn't really nail it in the end. At least I tried something new -- oven-fried chicken -- and can improve on it the next time around. Oven-baked is more like it, but the goal is to get a crispy coating and a result that's somewhat like fried chicken, without all the oil.

After receiving a bit of telephone coaching from my mom and sister, I laid out the dipping-and-dredging station: flour, egg, and trusty panko crumbs. This time I added some crumbled Corn Flakes (nice tip, Sis) and some sesame seeds to the panko. I ran the chicken down the assembly line and put it on a baking rack in a 400-degree oven for about 40 minutes.

Half an hour in, the browning was not to my satisfaction, so I raised the heat. I waited a while -- as did Margy, munching cashews -- and checked again. After about 45 minutes total, I was concerned about overcooking the chicken so I took it out of the oven, but I should have just let it go longer.

It wasn't overcooked, and some pieces were well browned. The Corn Flakes in particular had undergone an impressive transformation. But other pieces were a bit pale. And overall the coating wasn't moist enough. My results were worthy neither of my mother's nor my sister's oven-fried chicken. Not to mention I wished I were giving Margy a more exciting dinner. But she was happy. And now I know where I can do better next time.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Spartan Hamburger

We were a little short on toppings, but Margy and I don't mind being burger purists. I did make some chipotle ketchup to liven things up a bit.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Our Favorite New Stir-Fry

A stir-fry of ground pork, leeks, and tofu is becoming one of our staples. It's irresistible, if not exactly photogenic. The sauce is a mixture of fermented black beans, chicken stock, sake, hoisin sauce, and sugar. The whole dish takes no time to prepare, and it's great left over. Tonight I served it with brown rice and broccoli.

I worked with tofu from a cardboard package rather than the superior fresh tofu in water. The packaged kind is fine, but it's a little soft (despite my using the "firm" variety) and fell apart while cooking, even when I stirred very gently. There was one unexpected bonus to this: A thin layer of tofu coated the bottom of the wok and turned into thin, crispy pieces that were delicious and texturally divine.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Now That's Real Thai

We've been eating out a lot this week. I ain't complaining. Especially when we're getting meals like this one.

Pam Real Thai Food on West 49th St. might have just provided the best Thai dinner Margy and I have ever had. We started with these incredible fried fish cakes, spicy with red curry paste and fragrant with lemongrass. They have a unique texture -- dense and not easily cut with a fork (hence the knife), yet tender to the bite. We were delighted to have eight of them, but then we were just as sad to see them go so fast.

We followed those with som tum, which is shredded papaya salad with lime juice and crunchy-chewy peanuts. My goodness. Entrees were prawns with chili sauce and pad kra prow, or crispy duck with basil, garlic, and chilies. (I realized later that we'd unconsciously repeated the duck/shrimp pattern from Monday's Chinese dinner with my mom and sister. But duck isn't something I make at home, so I never need much of an excuse to order it in a restaurant.) The chili sauce for the prawns was unlike any chili sauce I'd had previously. Instead of being sweet and red with a relishlike consistency, it was a gorgeous thick brown paste threaded with basil leaves, fresh and subtly hot. The duck knocked it out of the park -- crispy, spicy, a little salty... I could have stopped yet I ate it until nothing was left.

The ingredients were fresh and handled with care. That plus the level of nuance was what impressed me the most about Pam Thai. If many Thai restaurants paint with primary colors, this place has a full palette of detailed shades, from pale to bright -- and knows how to use a background of rich flavors to spotlight the main ingredient at the foreground.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Postmodern Strudel

Tonight I sneaked out of the kitchen and Margy and I headed over to a nearby fancy Italian joint for a late dinner. She had spinach and ricotta ravioli in a cognac sauce with bits of veal, and it was marvelous. I had some nice braciole with light and delicate ricotta ravioli on the side. Everything was good, but the apple strudel might have been the best part. A rather humble-looking hunk of fruit and pastry, the strudel seemed to take itself a bit too seriously by surrounding itself with such glitzy modern-art effects as painted sauces and a 12-inch-high triangular cookie, but hey, we'll play along. The whole shebang was delicious. And you just can't beat a dessert that's hot and cold at the same time.

Basilico, Millburn, NJ