Make mine a mini

I have this thing with my back. Everytime I get into a pyschological squeeze, my back starts acting like I bought somebody’s Mr. Man weights at a tagsale and I’ve been benching five hundred pounds with my friends the International Olympians. There is this theory that if something is really bugging you and it freaks you out to think about it, (usually something to do with fear or anger) that you can repress it, without even realizing it, and shove it into your back muscles. Now I could sit here and pretend that it would be so much more likely that I would be mistaken for a Mr. Muscle look alike than being angry or afraid, but I may as well pretend that I was a tuna. The theory works with me, even if it takes me a while to figure out or admit what the issue is. I have had pain burrowing into my back since my son got sick a week ago. This morning, he was better enough to go to school, and you would think that would have meant my back would have been better, but it was worse. When I came home from dropping Ferd off and begged my husband to rub my shoulders he said, “there has to be something wrong with you.” I said “I know I believed in that crazy theory, but this time there is nothing wrong with me. I have asked myself upside down and sideways what is the problem, and there is no problem.” “Are you sure he said”. I said, “the only thing that could possibly be wrong with me is that I am worried that I am going to lose Ferd.” And then voooom. Crying, crying, crying, and about ten minutes later, no pain. I don’t advise coming up with what you think could never possibly be an issue on the subway, because you might just hit the jackpot, and it is embarassing to overshare with people you have only been looking at for a couple of stops.
Run to the library and ask for a book by Dr. Sarno called “Healing Back Pain.”
The good thing about back pain is that you might get out of making dinner. Otherwise, how about making everything mini? We had mini hamburgers tonight, and you can cut out the toast with a biscuit cutter to fit. You can have baby carrots and baby zucchini, make a potoato gratin, and cut it out into little tiny squares, and serve mini oreos for dessert. How cute is that?
You know how to make the hamburgers. For the baby carrots and zucchini, blanch a bag of the baby carrots in boiling water for about three minutes and then lift them out with a slotted spoon. Do the same, in the same pot, if you can find baby zucchini or chop normal zucchini into little cubes, but only for a minute. Drain well. Heat up some extra virgin olive oil in a large saute pan and add three whole cloves of garlic, stirring around for a minute until the garlic is golden. Add some fresh mint and parsley leaves. Add your zucchini and carrots. Season with salt, and let them sit in the pan without stirring, until they have a little color. Stir, and drizzle with a little olive oil.

For the gratin, slice your potatoes as thinly as you can. Chop up a little garlic (I like to cook it first, but you don’t have to). You can also leave the garlic out all together if you want to. Layer the potato slices in a baking pan with a little olive oil, some salt, a little pepper, the garlic, and if you have it, a drizzle of heavy cream. Keep going to make three layers. Heat up the oven to four hundred degrees, and bake covered until a knife goes easily through the potatoes. Uncover and sprinkle with parmesan or sharp cheddar or gruyere, and set it under the broiler, watching it like a hawk. When it has cooled for a few minutes, cut it into the little squares (or not).

I’m eatin’ breakfast tonight

I am so tired, I have to manually move my mouth with my hands to make the words come out. Taking care of a sick child is exhausting. I have been cooking non stop for a non eater and I have left the house only to shop for more food. I’m not cooking tonight. I have to return library books, go to the grocery store, and then I’m making French toast with the bread left over from breakfast. If you don’t put sugar in it, it’s good with melted cheese on top, and a salad makes it dinner.
For half a loaf of French bread, use three eggs. For every egg, use one Tablespoon of milk, and a teeny weeny pinch of salt. Cut the crusts off, and then slice the bread. Let it sit in the egg until it is soaked through, and then melt some butter, or a little olive oil in a heavy pan. Cook over medium heat until beautifully browned on both sides. Let the cheese melt on top if you want cheese. This is also good with bacon and sauteed mushrooms, but all I’m having is the French toast.

Don’t eat the playdough

It’s amazing what you can come up with on no sleep to entertain a child when he has been home for two weeks. We have made guitars out of coffee cans and rubber bands, sculpture from lots of glue, old Halloween teeth, glitter, bits of wood and stickers, wrapping paper for next year, valentines that Ferd can’t part with to send to his friends, cupcakes, cookies, tents for the dinousars, computer movies and this morning, a marathon play dough experiment. It’s not for eating, but it only takes five minutes to cook and it can keep Ferdinand busy for a good twenty minutes, which is standard available time for putting dinner on table. Play dough that you don’t cook only lasts a few hours before it starts to dry out and get crumbly. They say that the ones you do cook last for a few months if you keep the stuff in a plastic container. This is my favorite cooked: 1 cup of flour, 1/4 cup of salt, 2 T cream of tartar, 1 T of oil and a few drops of food coloring. Get all of your dry ingredients into the pan off the heat. Stir them around. Add the oil, water and food coloring. Turn on the heat and cook, stirring constantly until the whole thing comes into a big lumpy ball in the middle of the pan. Don’t worry about the lumps. Rest the thing on a cutting board or plate until it cools and then knead it to make it smooth. It’s great. We use a garlic press (because you know how I feel about using garlic presses for garlic), chopsticks, plastic forks, a rolling pin and cookie cutters for real mileage. For dinner I’m making orchiette with mushrooms. If you can’t find orchiette, use fusilli. You are looking for a shape that is going to trap a little of the cream that you use to make the sauce. Get your pasta water going with water that tastes almost like the sea. When it comes to a full boil, add 9 ounces of pasta. In a saute pan, add your best olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Slice three cloves of garlic, mince a shallot, and add this to the olive oil with an unchopped sprig of parsley and a sprig of fresh thyme, and cook over low to medium heat. If you don’t have the herbs, just leave them out. When all of this is done, scrape out your pan with one of those handy dandy heat resistant rubber spatulas (I don’t have one) and onto a plate. Add a little more oil, and add a 10 ounce box of sliced mushrooms. Turn the heat up to medium. DON’T MOVE THE MUSHROOMS. They should stay with no jostling for about two minutes in the pan so that they get a nice sear. Then give them a shake, add a little salt and pepper, and turn the heat down again, adding the garlic mixture, and cooking until the mushrooms are done. There should be a little umph left, not totally limp. When the pasta is al dente, strain and add to the mushrooms with a drizzle of heavy cream. Grate your best parmesan and serve. For a knock your socks off cream, reduce the whole pint of heavy cream with a clove of garlic and a sprig of thyme by half over a low flame. Add a little salt, and stir this into the pasta at the end instead of just your plain old drizzle. You don’t have to eat cream every day, so when you do, you may as well go for the gusto. This is really nice with that famous arugula salad with pan roasted asparagus, a few hard boiled egg slices (keep them yellow by shocking the eggs in ice water), some nicoise olives and parmesan shavings (use your vegetable peeler). And bread. And some wine, and a few candles. I think I may just break out the candles tonight, and maybe even clear the table. My sister Hannah has this thing about having junk on the dinner table. She clears the whole thing before every meal. For a lot of years you couldn’t see my plate for the junk on the table for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I gave up cleaning for a while. I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but I decided that I could get a lot more done in my life if I didn’t spend so much time cleaning. My theory is, you have to prioritize. Let’s say you clean for two hours every day. That’s practically a part time job. If you only cleaned for twenty mintues a day, and two hours every other week, your house isn’t going to look that much different, and you could read a book or write one in the time you saved. For a lot of years I cleaned like I was going to be inspected by the cleaning police, and the truth is, the cleaning police don’t live with me anymore. Balance is key; organization is a huge time saver and it’s great to have the feature on the table be dinner.

Saturday is for sausage!

There is a butcher in Mercatale di Cortona where I teach, who makes the best pork sausage I have ever tasted. They make them by hand every day, and there is nothing better than a Trabalza sausage cooked over the wood coals and then stuffed into a Tuscan roll. Unless you make your own sausage, which I can’t expect you to, because I’m darned if I’m going to do it, you have to really hunt for good sausage, but just like fresh fish, a good sausage is worth hunting for. Especially because once you find them, they are so easy to cook. For pork sausages, bring a pot of water to the boil. Add a little red wine and a clove of garlic. Add the sausages and cook for about fifteen minutes. Pour out the water and rinse. Add a little olive oil. Give a few whole cloves of garlic a little golden color, and remove them from the pan. Add the sausages and cook on two sides until they are nice and brown. Meanwhile, make some mashed potatoes. My husband has been coming home with five pound bags of potatoes from the grocery store, and I think it’s a sign that he feels he’s not getting enought of them. I love yukon potatoes, and you can use them for absolutely delicious mashed potatoes, but the five pound bag in my pantry is Idaho, so that’s what I’m using. Peel them and cut them into large chunks, all about the same size. Cover them with water so that the water just comes over the top of the potates, and crowd them into a pan. Add salt to make the water taste almost like the sea. If you don’t do it now, they will never taste properly seasoned. Cover, bring to a simmer, and then cook on a low flame until they are fork tender. Drain and mash immediately. This is no time to chat on the phone, because cold potatoes make glue. Heat up a little whole milk in the pan, and off the heat, stir in some butter. These proportions are personal. I like a little bit of milk and a lot of butter. Stir into the potatoes and reseason with salt and pepper. For your veg, have broccoli rabe. Bring a pan of water to the boil, add some salt, cut off the stems of the rabe, throw it in the water, and cook, covered, for about three to four minutes. Drain well. Heat up a little olive oil in the pan, add three whole cloves of garlic for every bunch of rabe, and get a little color on the garlic. Add the broccoli rabe. Season with salt. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, and serve with the sausages and mashed potatoes. Polenta is really good with this instead of the potatoes. Or if all you have is a piece of left over bread from breakfast, make yourself a sausage sandwich, and have the broccoli rabe on the side.

How to make a great piece of fish

Once you know how to sear a piece of fish, it’s hard to have it any other way. It’s just so delicious. The first thing you need to figure out is how to buy your fish. Do not get it from just any old grocery store that happens to sell fish. You are looking for fresh fish, and if there isn’t somebody standing behind a counter ready to cut a piece of fish for you or talk fish to you, then keep walking, and find out where the fresh fish is hiding in your town. If it isn’t fresh, it’s not worth eating. The point is to enjoy your food (and your life). That may sound obvious, but I can’t believe how many people eat something just because they think they should or because it’s there. Kick that concept to the curb. Look for a whole fish that has clear eyes and red gills or if it’s already cut, it should have a beautiful sweet smell to it. It should never smell like fish. Try a little halibut. Yum. Buy a nice thick filet, and cut it into equal squares of about three inches. Heat up a heavy saute pan (iron is best) and when it’s hot, drizzle in your absolute best oil (would you wear cheap cologne on a date that meant something to you? And you’re going to tell me that you spend goodness knows on cologne and you won’t buy good olive oil? Shame.) Season one side of the fish with a little kosher salt, and then lay the fish away from you into the pan. I used to use quite a bit of salt on fish, but I feel that if the fish is fresh and delicious you can easily mask the flavor with too much salt. DO NOT TOUCH the fish until the edges are just going white. Carefully lift it from the pan with a flat metal spatula and flip it. Cook only until it’s done, which might be another minute on the other side. The worst fish is (old) over cooked fish. Immediately remove it to a plate. For the sauce, make a salsa verde by putting five stalks worth of parsely leaves, a few basil leaves (if you have them), a drizzle of your best oil, a squeeze of lemon, some salt, some pepper, a clove of garlic, and some fresh bread crumbs from leftover bread into your food processor. If you want to go crazy, you can add some capers and a smudge of dijon, or instead, a few green olives. Whir it up until it’s smooth and adjust the flavor. I like fresh thyme leaves in this too if you have them. Serve the fish with roasted yukon potatoes that you have shredded up and added a little salt and onion to, and some string beans with either garlic, shallots, or both. You could even add a little tomato to the string beans by heating the tomato up in olive oil that has garlic in it, and then cooking the greens beans in the tomato, but I always like them just steamed or boiled til just cooked with salt, olive oil and a clove of garlic at the end. Drink your favorite dry white with this. Wine is so good with fish.

What the hell to do with Tofu

I don’t know about you, but whenever I stood in front of the tofu at the grocery store, I would think, “what am I going to do that?”, and then I would move quietly on down the aisle. Nobody ever taught me how to cook tofu, and the whole eat right and torture yourself concept of crumbling raw tofu into your salad never appealed to me. If you do know what to do with it, tofu can be something you look forward to. My favorite way to have it is seared. I don’t like tofu to be mush cold, or hot. To balance out the softness, I like to get it together with raw crispy greens, and to spice it up, I saute it with a pile of finely chopped ginger and garlic. The whole thing gets mixed into soba noodles with a drizzle of oil and a squeeze of lemon and lime. Get a heavy saute pan hot over a medium flame. For two to three little bundles of soba (they are usually bundled in the package) use two garlic cloves and a two inch piece of peeled ginger. Chop both finely and add to a little extra virgin olive oil. Add a little chopped fresh parsely or cilantro. When all this is golden, scrape it to the side of the pan, and add a little more oil, half a pound of diced tofu (I like small pieces). Sprinkle them with salt, try to get all of that ginger and garlic on the top of the tofu, and then let them sit in the pan without bugging them until they are nice and chestnut colored on the bottom. If you are worried about burning the garlic and ginger, just get it all out of the pan before you add the tofu, and get it back in there, once the heat is off. When the tofu has a nice sear, lift them from the bottom of the pan with a pancake spatula so that you don’t break them and turn the heat off. Meanwhile, get a pan of salted water going for your noodles. Cook them until they are just done. You want them to have a little stiffness in the center. Drain well. Toss with the tofu, a bunch of arugula leaves, a little more olive oil, some salt, a squeeze of lemon, and even some fresh chive if you have it. This is really good with Saporo beer or homemade lemonade.
5:48 pm pst

Bread and Butter and Ice Cream

Yesterday my son had a temperature of 105.7. There wasn’t much time for cooking or eating. I spent most of my day trying not to panic between the doctor’s office and the hospital. I have a hard time with things that I don’t understand, which is just about anything to do with medicine. And I have a harder time when the doctor says they don’t know what’s going on. I learned that you aren’t supposed to put a blanket over a shivering child if he has a fever, and that digital thermometers are useless. I made broth yesterday because it was one of the few things that Ferd was allowed to eat, and it I know it sounds crazy that I was cooking anything, but when you know there’s nothing you can do to make your child better, you can pretend that broth might just be the trick. I ate bread, butter and ice cream.

Eat your eggs

OK, so here is how to make an omelette. Nothing is faster, and if you serve it with a really good piece of French cheese, French baguette and field greens, you have a gorgeous meal. Heat up a 6 inch heavy saute pan over a high flame. High. Mix two to three eggs together in a little bowl with a pinch of salt just until they are mixed through. When you are ready, melt about a Tablespoon of butter, and when it stops talking to you, the pan is ready for the egg. Pour in the whole thing at once, and right away, start shaking the pan towards you in quick thrusts. Now is going to take practice. Could you kiss the first time out? No. So don’t expect miracles if you have never made an omelette before, and the worst thing that’s going to happen is, you crack a few more eggs. Keep pulling the pan towards you to move the egg, and right when the egg is almost set, still a little liquidy on top, give a really sharp tug on the pan so that the omelette folds over itself about a third of the way. Toss the omelette up a bit, to make do it’s last little flip, so that it’s folded like a letter. Now read this through a couple of times so that you know what your goal is, and then go try, because no matter how many times you read this you’re not going to get it until the pan is in your hands. As soon as the egg is flipped slide it onto a plate so that it doesn’t overcook. Now give yourself a little yeehaw! (Or wait until you get it right, and then give yourself a yeehaw.) Remember I’m on your side.
5:44 pm pst

Eat some soup.

5:30 pm pst

Monday, January 23, 2006

I will never forget when my friend said to me “you can always tell a chef by their soup”. Up to this point I always thought you could tell a chef by their hat, but I didn’t know much, so I didn’t say anything and made a mental note to think more about soup and less about my hat. My friend had hired me to cook, not because I was a good cook, or because I was a cook at all. At that point I was resting on the laurels of having read a solid four years of Bon Apetit Magazine, a lifetime of Women’s Day holiday cookie pull outs, and I had a massive talent for moral support. Bless her. She taught me everything I know about professional cooking and put the fear of God in me anytime I even thought about making soup. I didn’t make soup for years after that. The same thing happened when I read this other chef said it was all in an omelette. I thought, I don’t know to cook, I can’t make an omelette. Don’t to this to yourself. First of all, no one is going to come into your kitchen and start ranking your soup. Well your family might, but there is a big fat rule in my family that if you don’t have anything nice to say about dinner then you can find something else to talk about. Anybody can make soup, as long as you practice. Think about what’s going to make it taste good. A good stock is a great place to start, before the stock even goes in, if the soup has onions in it, let the onions cook until they are really soft, a good twenty minutes on low to medium heat. Same for carrots and celery. You develop a whole new flavor when you give your soffritto (the mix of celery, carrot and onion, maybe even garlic) time to cook. Think about it like you think about love. Some things you can’t rush. Tonight though, I’m going to give you a quickie. Tomato soup. Just give about three cloves of whole garlic a little color in the pan in your best olive oil, over low heat. Add a sprig of fresh rosemary and a sprig of parsley. Add a can of crushed tomatoes, and a quarter cup of water, and simmer for half an hour. Go through it with your boat motor, or stick it in the food processor until smooth. Add organic whole milk unti it’s the color that you like it, somewhere around one part milk to one part tomato. Stir through and add salt and ground pepper to taste. If you like it cheesy, serve with grana padano, or when you are cooking the tomato, add a parmesan cheese rind, and remove it before the cheese comes to the table. For the sandwiches, butter slices of bread on one side. Cover the unbuttered side with some sharp cheddar cheese, and top with another piece of bread, buttered side out. Fry in a medium hot frying pan until the bread is browned. Flip, and cook on the other side. The cheese should be melted. Serve with something green like romaine lettuce with either your favorite creamy dressing, or olive oil, lemon and salt. You could serve the soup with an omelette instead, and you better believe I know how to make an omelette. I’ll tell you tomorrow.
5:46 pm pst

Kick the snacks and make a stock

Here’s what’s going to change your cooking without ever going to a cooking class. It’s going to cost a little bit, but kick packaged snacks to the curb for just one week, and use your saved up cash to buy yourself some good olive oil. You know it’s good if it tastes like an olive, and it doesn’t feel like gasoline on your lips.

Buy good bread.

Make your own stock. For goodness sakes all you need are some raw bones or even a few chicken legs, a carrot, an onion, a piece of celery and a sprig of parsley. Cook it for a few hours and strain. We can get more complicated later. I have one thing to say about stock cubes. Throw them away.

If the only way you can get chicken stock is to add a cube, use plain old water instead. If you think I’m hard headed you’re right.
There’s just some things in life you have to stand up for and stick by.