Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Shrimp Share the Spotlight

I used to use stir-frying as an excuse to throw everything I had into the pan -- meat, shrimp, four kinds of vegetables.

But I began to notice that good Chinese restaurants keep it much more simple, and I started paring down the ingredients in order to focus on one or two main items. For the most part I would relegate the green vegetables to a separate pot.

I get lazy, though. And I want to experiment. So tonight I just par-boiled lots of string beans and threw them right in with the shrimp in black bean sauce. It wasn't a disaster, but the crunchy beans dominated; if the dish were on a menu it would be called string beans with shrimp and not the other way around.

None of this, of course, was lost on Margy, who ate well enough but suggested I cook the beans separately next time. She knows her stuff. It shall be done.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Not the Kind That Comes in a Jar

A fresh ragu doesn't mind waiting in the refrigerator for a few days before its grand unveiling.

In fact, it likes to bide its time. Let everybody mingle, get comfortable, loosen up. Pork, meet beef -- you've met before, remember? Hey, it's my buddy garlic! WassUP!

So on the third day, we began to eat it. It was ready.

Margy loves ragu. You could also call it Bolognese. You could probably also call it gravy, but that's another conversation. It was a staple in our house for a while, but we took a break. Of late I had been keeping "meat sauce," not ragu, in the freezer (there's only enough room for one or the other). Though both sauces are tomato-and-meat based -- and both are essential to true happiness -- meat sauce is made with meatballs, pork ribs, big pieces of sausage, and whatever else looks good, while ragu is made with ground meat and a mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery. I had been distracted by meat sauce for a year, but I hadn't forgotten about ragu. Margy wouldn't let me.

My blueprint takes a few ideas from Marcella Hazan (cooking the meat in milk) and a few from my Italian friend Giuliana (wrapping garlic, bay leaf, peppercorns, and rosemary in cheese cloth and letting the flavors simmer into the sauce). If meat sauce transports me to my mom's kitchen, ragu transports me to northern Italy. Like I said, both are essential.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Sausage Immemorial

We thought about having ragu for dinner, but hey, this was Memorial Day, and pasta isn't so good on the grill.

So for the obligatory Memorial Day cookout, we grilled the hot sausage that was left over after Margy made her quiche. It was wise to cook it now, since fresh Italian sausage doesn't age well. Even frozen, I find it has to be used within a relatively short window or it loses its mojo.

I'm glad to say the mojo was well intact at this point, but, just in case, I prepared a fiery topping for our sausage sandwiches: sautéed onions, mushrooms, and hot peppers. The chilies I have are incendiary, so I figured I'd remove the seeds to cut the heat and use more chilies than I normally would in order to get more pepper flavor. Well, the fire remained! But just the right amount.

We had the sandwiches with broccolini (a rarity for us because it costs so damn much, but we love it) and potato chips. And the rolls were so fresh that they got crispy on the side that hit the grill but stayed all soft and supple on the other side.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Filling the Freezer

Before it gets too hot, Margy and I wanted to spend a day cooking a few things to stuff in our empty freezer for those busy weeknights. So we both got to work.

She made her increasingly renowned Italian quiche with sausage, mushrooms, spinach, and three cheeses (ricotta, Parmesan, Gruyère), and I made a ragu with beef and pork. Ragu takes a bit of prep time -- lots of chopping and sautéing -- but once it's on the stove it just sits there simmering for hours, and then it's done.

Not so with quiche. Margy and I always marvel at how much work those things take. She makes the dough, preps the filling while the dough rests, and then has to bake the crust for a few minutes, pull it out of the oven, and let it cool. Once the filling is finally in there, the real waiting game begins, as baking takes a while too, and by that point we're starving. But we got a great dinner out of it tonight, with many more, much easier dinners to follow with the frozen leftovers. We'll try my ragu in a day or two.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


A while ago I posted a recipe for teriyaki sauce (ingredients: sake, mirin, soy sauce, sugar), and sister #1 made my day by saying she used my blueprint and whipped up a batch. She said it turned out beautifully. "But," she added, "I didn't have sake, so I used white wine."


I squinted my eyes for a sec and told her to try sake sometime.

Then tonight, after I got hooked on the idea of making teriyaki pork chops, I realized I had run out of sake. So you know what I did, and it wasn't dashing out to the liquor store. I tried my sister's adjustment. I increased the mirin amount slightly and cut back a bit on the wine, and though the sauce didn't quite have that boozy sake tang, it really did work out fine. Margy and I enjoyed our caramelized chops.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Shellfish Improv

Why yes, that is a cut-in-half soft shell crab perched atop the linguini with cockles.

I am powerless to resist.

See, I was at ShopRite restocking the larder, and I saw the crabs waving to me. But the case held cockles too, and I can't resist those either. In fact, the fish guy caught me ogling them. "I know you want some cockles," he said. "I saw the way you were looking at them." Was it that obvious?

So, without a clue as to what I would do with it all, I bought two crabs and a couple of pounds of cockles. We had pasta last night, but I was feeling the semolina pull once again, given the wonder of merging pasta with clams and their juice. And I knew Margy wouldn't mind two consecutive noodle nights.

For the crabs I tried something new for me and made a simple compound butter with some hot paprika and chipotle powder. I kept it subtle, as I didn't want any vivid images of the Southwest to compete with my Neapolitan clams, but I certainly didn't mind a bit of cross-pollination. I rubbed the softened butter on the crabs and broiled them, slipping the leftover butter into the clam sauce, which was bubbling away on the stove.

It was a shellfish match made in heaven. Why, oh why must the soft shell crab season be so painfully brief?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Welcome-Home Spaghetti

Well, our trip was a quick one, but it was a good one.

We arrived back at our place just after dinnertime, hungry and a little torn. I hadn't cooked in almost a week, which meant I was raring to go, but after a long day of vacationing and driving I didn't feel like getting into anything major. So I went for quick and easy and made a simple pasta dish. A sauce of butter, pancetta, garlic, hot pepper, black pepper, lots of Parmesan, and a few snips of fresh chives from my sister's garden was just the ticket. It all came together in the time it took to boil water and cook spaghetti.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hunka Chunka Hubba Hubba

My sister knows dessert.

Not only is she an unbelievably talented pastry chef, but she is also quite the connoisseur, able to sniff out only the best of the many mass-produced sweets. Margy thinks she should be a dessert developer.

Sis's current favorite is Friendly's Hunka Chunka Peanut Butter Fudge ice cream. In fact, she swears her fierce devotion to this variety led to its elevation from ephemeral flavor of the month to permanent fixture on Friendly's ice cream menu. She insists on serving Hunka Chunka drizzled with Friendly's peanut butter sauce, which is a sweeter, more viscous version of regular peanut butter. Sis says she's tried to make something similar herself but has yet to figure out Friendly's secret. (My guess is that the secret involves chemicals.)

So after finally spending a day outside in the warm sunshine, we ordered another round of pizzas and capped the last night of our Vermont jaunt with a little Hunka Chunka PB Fudge. We even got to watch the Yankees beat the Red Sox from our post on enemy territory (that is, New England). All was well in the world.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Funky Gabagool

Normally when we're in Vermont and staying with my sister, we make a supermarket run early in the trip so we have the necessary supplies.

Not this time.

Lazy, chilly, indecisive, I don't know what, but at lunchtime we were looking at each other like What are we gonna do now? So today we went to the local Italian market, cheekily named with a title that's dangerously close to "Balducci's" (you know, in a copyright-infringement sense), and loaded ourselves up. We got pea soup, lentil soup with escarole, ham, and this capicola, otherwise known in the Northeast as gabagool. We also bought a "ciabatta," which was not a ciabatta but more like a peasant bread. It was doughy and weighed about ten pounds, but the crust was dark and smoky and I loved every bite, whatever you wanted to call it.

The gabagool was sharp and tasty, but its aroma was strange and unappealing. Kind of woodsy, but not in a good way. Margy, while teasing me about having an anxiety attack (a Sopranos reference), was sure to stand way across the counter from me while I ate it. Oh well.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Few Warm Pies

Despite the fact that it was 45 degrees outside and 51 degrees inside, we decided to get some take-out.

Now, I am not ordinarily one to order pizza in Vermont, snob that I am, but Margy and I had visited this new cafe on our last trip and been impressed with its brick-oven pie. My sister agreed. So she made a salad and we ordered three pies, one for each of us. Two wouldn't have been nearly enough.

I have to say it was the best pizza I've had in months, besides Margy's of course. The crust was tasty, and it was browned and charred in spots. The sauce on the pepperoni pie was tangy and not too sweet. The cheese was creamy. And the fresh tomatoes on the two Margherita pies actually had some flavor. My sis doctored the Margheritas with some chopped anchovy, Margy and I poured some Magic Hat beers, and, standing in the kitchen by the oven that kept the pizzas hot, we all stopped shivering for a few blessed moments.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hen of the Mountains

More than ready for a few days off, Margy and I headed up to Vermont to visit my sister. We were greeted with VT's eleventh rainy day in a row, a bitter little number that kept us huddled together inside.

During a break in the rain, my sis went out to grill some Cornish hens. Of course, the dry spell was mercilessly brief, and she had to stand under an umbrella for part of the time and then finish the hens in the oven inside.

I am happy to report that all the hullabaloo was more than worth it; finer hens we have seldom had. My sister marinated them in teriyaki sauce bolstered with ginger and lime, and the meat was juicy and the skin wonderfully crisp. For a while on this soggy May evening in Vermont, we felt nice and warm.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Why I Love the Month of May

I woke up this morning with a single thought in my head: It's time to make soft shell crabs.

May, after all, is their time to shine. And they're one of my very favorite things to eat. So I drove a bit out of my way to a good fish market, confident they'd have crabs. I circled around a few times, as there was high drama going on in the late innings of the Yankees-Mets game, and when I got inside I found a fresh crate of beautiful live crabs -- and at only $3.50 each. I resisted the urge for an extra and went home with four for Margy and me.

I did the flour-egg-panko thing to fry the soft shells up crisp. And I opened my first-ever can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (a gift from my sis) to make a spicy accompaniment. I wanted a sauce, but I wasn't exactly sure how to proceed. I ground up a chipotle in the blender and added some shrimp stock and a splash of wine. Good so far. Then I sprinkled a bit of sugar over the sauce and added a teaspoon of chickpea flour as a thickener. Oops. Bad idea(s).

The sugar and the chickpea flour were mistakes -- both tasted terrible with the other ingredients -- and down the drain went my efforts. But I regrouped and simplified. Chipotle, stock, and wine were all I needed for the base of the sauce, and while the crabs were cooking I thickened the sauce with a quick roux. The spice of the chipotle worked great against the nuttiness of the crabs. And that crunch! Margy and I were in soft-shell heaven.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Old Reliable

No one wanted to cook, so we grabbed a pizza.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


I was in Williamsburg visiting my friend the Triple G, and he brought me to his neighborhood Thai spot. I'd been eating chicken all week, but the chicken in a sauce of garlic and black pepper (gai tod) jumped out at me, so I ordered it. The fact that the menu referred to a "half chicken" told me I'd be getting some of my precious dark meat in addition to the obligatory breast, which sealed the deal.

I was surprised to find the chicken had been hacked into small pieces, but I didn't mind, because it hadn't been taken off the bone. It seemed more authentic this way, and it was much more flavorful. I know dealing with bones can be a drag, but I'll never complain. I'll take a bunch of labor-intensive bones over a bland boneless breast any day.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Chicken Soup, East

I stored the remaining steamed chicken in its wonderful broth of soy sauce, sesame oil, and wine, and when it was time for leftovers, I cooked some capellini and poured the chicken and broth over the pasta for an almost souplike concoction. It was incredibly flavorful (the aroma didn't really linger this time), and a dusting of chopped toasted peanuts gave the whole thing a bit of crunch.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Well-Baked Memories of Mother's Day

We made so much rigatoni all'amatriciana for the gang that we'll be eating it all week. It was quite delicious baked in the oven with lots of Parmesan.

Monday, May 15, 2006

One-and-a-Half-Cup Chicken

I had a dilemma: After shopping all weekend for the Mother's Day extravaganza and then cooking all day to prepare for our guests, we wanted tonight's dinner to be easy and not require a trip to the store.

One out of two ain't bad.

In the end, I opted for easy and go-to-store over time consuming and no store. I recalled having a delicious, falling-apart chicken at the home of one of my mom's Chinese students (Mom teaches English as a second language), and thought I'd give it a whirl. She called it 3-cup chicken, and she told me how to make it: Put a big piece of ginger in the bird's cavity, then steam the thing over a mixture of one cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and Chinese wine.

I ran out to grab a chicken, and five minutes after I got home the dish was steaming away. However, I found I didn't have enough sesame oil or soy sauce to get a cup of each, so I improvised and made one-and-a-half-cup-plus-a-little-water chicken.

I steamed my three-pounder for about an hour. Next time I'll check it after forty minutes, because it was slightly overdone. But hey, my first steamed bird was a total revelation, and Margy and I were buzzing with excitement. It was one of the simplest meals I'd ever made, and the flavor of the steaming liquids was all there.

Yet something was lost in translation. My mom's student's version was deep and dark, while mine was pale. I remember noting the rich color and asking her if the chicken should sit in the sauce, and I remember her saying no. So clearly some follow-up questions are in order.

Oh, and there was one more thing: the smell. While the bird cooked, the house filled with a nutty and inviting aroma that only made us hungrier, even after an hour. But sesame oil is potent stuff, and that aroma did not go away. All night, we had visions of sesame seeds and soy sauces. Each and every time I awoke in bed, that half cup of sesame oil was right there next to me. I could taste it. Putting on my jacket the next morning was like wrapping myself in one big sesame seed.

But it was worth it. I'll just do a little spraying next time.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Margy's Mother's Day Tart

Clearly Margy is a woman of many talents.

Her fruit tart was a big hit with our Mother's Day crowd, which was my family minus sister #3. (That mother...) The weather was a bit chilly and overcast, so we stayed inside all afternoon, but we had fun. My mom brought a wonderful dip made of edamame, and I made rigatoni all'amatriciana, which turned out pretty well.

I also made a salad with baby spinach, Boston lettuce, carrot, cucumber, and apple. The dressing was a honey mustard vinaigrette. I had a bit of a heavy hand with the honey, which led to a strange and unusual turn of events. My father, the man who eats everything, couldn't deal with a sweet dressing and pushed his half-eaten salad away as everyone else finished theirs. I mean, an hour before dinner the guy was boasting about being willing to consume any animal part, and now he was setting aside his usual "don't waste a BITE!" attitude because of some honey and a drop of balsamic? I couldn't believe it. You think you know a guy... Yet of course he's allowed. If you don't like it, you don't like it!

I think he did like Margy's tart. Long before the guests arrived, as she put the sandy, crumbly shortbread crust (damn short) in the oven, neither of us could quite imagine that it would turn out solid, but it did. The fruit came next. And then Margy glazed the tart with "Tortenguss," a German import that her mom gave her. (The photo is pre-glaze.) It set the fruit nicely, causing me to make many naughty comments about hooves.

It was our first time hosting on a holiday, and despite a hint of the inevitable anxiety, we enjoyed ourselves. We're looking forward to the next one.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Nothing but the Wurst for Margy

Margy and I gamely volunteered to host my family for Mother's Day tomorrow. I settled on rigatoni all'amatriciana as the entree, so I needed to make yet another pork run.

And what a pork run it was! I picked up a hearty stash of slab bacon (for the amatriciana and beyond) and pancetta, and while I was at it I got the necessary ingredients for a grilled sausage sampler, one of Margy's all-time faves.

On the left we have a couple of snappy and delicious Bavarian bratwurst, and on the right a zesty pair of hot Italian sausages. Despite their differing European provenance, the two make a great combination. I served them with roasted potatoes, sautéed spinach with garlic, and whole grain mustard.

It was a nice, easy meal, allowing me to rest up and gain the strength I would need to try and please my family for an entire day.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ali Baba to the Rescue

Tonight it was my turn to eat out, solo, on my way to see my friend Ads's band in Hoboken.

I had everything mapped out perfectly: I would drive into town, find a parking space, have a delightful and delightfully cheap Cuban dinner at La Isla, and then head to the show with time to order a beer before the first note.

Did I say Hoboken? Did I say parking?


I don't know how I became so deluded, but it's really not possible to park in Hoboken on a Friday night, a Saturday, or ever. So I watched time slip away as I circled around and around, wider and wider, thinking, This garage that charges $20 used to be $5... Suddenly I found myself, basically at showtime, far from La Isla but close to the club where Ads was playing. Somehow, I even found a spot. All that was left was the nagging emptiness in my stomach.

Luckily, I spotted good old Ali Baba, a mere block away. Two of my sisters lived in Hoboken years ago, and we'd had many a falafel at the little Middle Eastern joint. I was glad to find the place pretty much unchanged. The food's still good, the prices still reasonable. I am the world's slowest eater, but my lateness combined with my hunger saw me scarfing down those little chickpea balls like Oprah on a baked ham.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Mystery Meal?

I don't even know what this is.

Oh, wait -- Margy does. It was her night out with a friend, and they had a bunch of Indian-fusion appetizers at Leela Lounge in NYC. This is a paneer kabob. Paneer is Indian cheese, and Margy said this version was nicely grilled and quite delicious. She didn't have as much praise for the "assorted veggies" that accompanied the paneer. They were just red and green peppers, which aren't a favorite of either of us. We like red peppers sometimes -- they definitely have their place -- but the greenies just don't do it for us. I aspire to eat everything, but I fall short.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rice Rush

I was desperate for ideas, so I forced the issue: Instead of eating rice at a natural pace and letting leftovers accumulate, I boiled a batch specifically for fried rice.

This is tricky. A night in the refrigerator prepares rice to be fried, letting some of its moisture evaporate and steeling it from soaking up too much of the oils and flavorings that it's about to meet in the pan. A soft, fresh grain will stay that way: soft.

I did put today's rice in the fridge for a few hours. Yet as I later scooped it into a hot pan full of onion, garlic, ginger, and, of course, bacon, I felt like I was pushing the baby bird out of the nest before it was ready to fly.

The texture was off a bit, but the flavor was there (thank you, bacon). Margy didn't complain. Plus she'll have leftovers for lunch -- hopefully by then the rice will be more al dente.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Burger Time

Now that the weather is getting nice, it'll be an endless parade of hamburgers until winter.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Now with Even More Pork!

Red snapper wasn't all we bought at the Asian market. I also seized the opportunity to pick up ground pork, fresh tofu, green long beans, and the ginger candies that Margy and I like and everyone else can't stand.

Using everything but the ginger candies, I made pork with tofu and leeks in black bean sauce. The dish is quickly becoming part of our heavy rotation. It's quick, it's delicious, and it's relatively light. Tonight, in fact, it was light enough that I could get away with slipping more pork into the side dish: long beans with garlic, basil, and... bacon!

I don't know, it was just late-breaking inspiration. I felt like the beans needed some pizzazz, so I chopped a tiny bit of slab bacon and let it work its magic. I will keep this in mind for the future as a surefire way to get Margy to eat her vegetables.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Back to the Sea

I can't remember the last time I made fish. (I could probably check.) I was dreaming about skin-on fillets, and that meant venturing out to the Asian market for decent specimens. It might cost a little more -- then again, the prices are very reasonable at this market -- but buying a whole fish and having it filleted is the way to go. It means the fillets are fresher, and it's always nice to know that Margy and I are enjoying the same red snapper.

I cooked the fish in a very hot pan and browned the skin a bit. Then I took the fish out and made a quick roux with flour and butter and whipped up a lemon-wine-parsley sauce. On the other burners I had crispy potatoes and sautéed zucchini. I hardly ever cook zucchini, but I was in the mood for it today, and it seemed like it would be a good textural contrast to the firm snapper and crunchy potatoes.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

An Appetizer Breakthrough

This is a turnip patty, from our new favorite Chinese restaurant, Cathay 22.

Wow, is it good. First of all, it's fried, which is always fun. It's crispy and flaky outside, and the sesame-seed coating adds nutty flavor and a little crunch. Inside, there's creamy pureed turnip and tiny dried shrimp.

I can tell I'm going to conjure up any reason to be "in the neighborhood" so I can get more of these. Two to an order, eh? Margy and I split an order tonight, but I envision matching sets the next time around.

Friday, May 05, 2006

One Last Slice...

We hate to see that pizza go, but it served us well.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Good Old Tomato-Basil

My food shopping has been uneven lately, which means I'll find myself out of main ingredients in the middle of the week. This is usually when I'll make pasta, that shape-shifting, put-anything-on-me symbol of versatility.

Tonight I didn't try anything wacky (Hmm, all I have in the house is pickles, black beans, and brown sugar -- I'll put them on spaghetti!); I just made a simple tomato-basil sauce with gemelli pasta, using the basil that was left over from Margy's pizza. I did try to liven it up with some fresh chilies, and of course just two tiny Thai peppers made it three-alarm hot (I'll never learn). But Margy and I can take it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

More Pizza!

Now wait a minute. Pizza isn't a braised dish. Then why was Margy's pizza even better the second time?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Supercharged Chutney

We had the pork curry again, and like most braised dishes, it was just as good or better the second time around.

Even with a strongly flavored curry, condiments make a difference. The two chutneys I whipped up usher the taste buds in different directions and, with their brightness and sweetness, join with the curry in different ways. The color contrast is pretty cool too.

The tamarind-based chutney is sweet and sour, with a little heat off in the distance. The green cilantro-mint chutney is vivid and herbal, and its chile heat is right up front. The two make great partners.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Margy Brings the Magic

After I begged for months and months, Margy finally agreed to make pizza.

I'm not telling the truth. Fact is, she has fun reveling in her special pizza-making gift. After all, what better way to spend a few hours in the kitchen? And with all the oohing and aahing over the results, there's no way she could think her efforts go unappreciated.

It's wild to note the changing moods of a batch of pizza dough. Margy always uses the same method, yet there are always subtle differences in the final product. One day the dough won't stop rising. One day the crust comes out chewier than most. Is it the weather? The tides? Margy's disposition?

This time I noticed the crust didn't brown as easily at its thickest points as it usually does. So in some spots it was almost pale. But it was crispy, often crunchy, and it was as savory and delicious as ever.

Tonight we had two kinds of pies, a few of each, with enough leftovers for two or three more meals: a red pie with pancetta, mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil; and a white pie with olive oil, spinach and garlic, anchovies, fresh mozzarella, and Parmesan. Both of us ate far more than we needed to, but we couldn't help ourselves. This pizza is magic.