I don’t know who has been to Trader Joe’s yet on 14th street, just spitting distance from Whole Foods, but there is a miracle happening over there. Stuff is flying off the shelves so fast that it looked like there was either a massive weather system coming that nobody told me about, or a truck strike. It’s amazing the patience New Yorkers will muster up to stand in line when they want something. You can go out of business making somebody wait more than 26 seconds for a milked and sugared coffee and a bagel with cream cheese, but for good, cheap groceries, people didn’t seem bothered at all about possibly missing whatever was next on their schedule.
They don’t have everything, but they have a lot. I normally stand in front of the little tiny lettuce leaf section of a grocery store saying, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? $4.99 FOR TWELVE LEAVES OF LETTUCE?” At Trader Joe’s I was quiet as a mouse, throwing $1.99 bags of mixed field greens into my basket as fast as I could get them in there.
There is a definite avocado overtone to the place, which made me want to make one of my favorite sauces, avocado and tomatillos. Serve it with seared salmon and a warm salad of roasted corn, shallots, new potatoes, and toasted pumpkin seeds, with a lemony vinaigrette, and some cheap field greens.
The sauce couldn’t be easier. One part avocado to one part tomatillo. Put them in the blender with some salt and some lime juice. Taste for more lime or salt, and it’s done.
Heat up a heavy saute pan, drizzle with olive oil, add a piece of shallot and some parsley leaves, and then fillets of salmon that you have seasoned with a little salt on both sides. Not too much. Fish is delicate, and if you over season it, you miss the flavor. The most important thing is make sure the fish has been swimming recently. You want plenty of room between each piece of fish in the pan. Wait until the flesh goes a bit opaque around the bottom sides to touch it, and then flip. You cook salmon, until it is still a little pink in the center. Remove from the pan, and serve. These are fine rooom temperature, so it’s a good thing to make if you don’t know what time anyone is coming home for dinner, or if they just aren’t as dependable as they should be about sitting down at the table.
For the salad, roast the corn on sheet pan with a little olive oil and salt at 400 degrees, and the onions and potatoes on another sheet pan, with olive oil and salt. A little red pepper, chopped up and roasted with the corn, is nice as well. Toast the pepitas (pumpkin seeds) in a frying pan for a minute, and then when everything is ready, toss together with a little lemon, or lime juice, and some of the best olive oil you can find. Taste for salt and pepper.
We have no grocery stores, counting none, in my neighborhood. It got a little embarassing (for the other customers in line) when I wouldn’t let up to no one in particular about how Trader Joe’s could go one step further and remember the have nots in Queens by opening up a partner ranch in Long Island City. It’s hard enough to make dinner every night. To make dinner from what the deli has to offer can become a battle lost.
I want to go to Paris and eat food that I can’t pronounce, and drink too much wine, and wake up in a room with high ceilings and frescoes on the walls. And I don’t want to cook. I want someone to make the food for me–course after course–and when I’m done, I will ask for pillows on the floor so that I can go to sleep. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s not going to happen. I don’t even have an Edith Piaf tape.
It’s not that my husband won’t cook. He would be happy to cook every once in a while. The truth is that I’m the biggest control freak in a kitchen known to human or beast, so it’s my own fault that nobody cooks for me. I don’t know what to tell you if you have the same condition, because I’m forty two now, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
The only solution is to buy a plane ticket, or when you get that feeling of “my job is done, and I am sitting down”, make something for dinner that takes less than ten minutes. There was beautiful broccoli rabe in the grocery store this week, and all you have to do with it is wash two bunches, cut off the bottom stems, and then throw it in some salted boiling water for about four minutes. Drain it, get new water in the same pan, salt it, and add about nine ounces of De Cecco pasta. Cook until it is al dente. Drain again, saving some of the pasta water in a cup. Put the same pan back on a flame with a good drizzle of that extra virgin olive oil that brings tears to your eyes it’s so good, and about four or five cloves of garlic sliced very thinly. Just when the garlic is going golden, add a quarter cup of chopped fresh parsely to the oil. This is critical. Fried parsley and steamy parsley are two different things. You need it to hit the oil for this. Add a (very) few red pepper flakes, or a whole pepperoncino if you have it, and then the broccoli rabe. Season with salt. Add the noodles, and a bit more of your olive oil, with a spill of the pasta water. Not too much, you’re looking to just moisten the pasta, and to finish cooking it. When it looks perfect, taste again for salt, add a heaping cup of Parmigiano Regiano, and serve. That’s it.
If I got you all hot under the collar for French though, forget the pasta, and buy a handmade pate (three pigs is a good one). One of my favorite ways to serve it is with brisee salad with a shallot and red wine vinaigrette and a fig jam on the side. You don’t need much after that. Maybe an omelette with caramelized onions and a pear that is just beginning to soften with a piece of Camembert.
I am off to the middle of Italy soon. There is no escaping cooking meat in Umbria. It’s just too good. They have pork and beef delicious enough to convert respectable vegetarians. The classic is Arista, which means the best. Buy three pounds of pork loin, flatten it out, and spread it with a mix of four cloves of thinly sliced garlic, half of a cup of chopped fennel, a few chopped sage leaves, parsley, and very finely chopped rosemary leaves, seasoned with a little salt. Leave a border all the way around, and tie the whole thing up. Season the outside with salt, and sear it in a heavy bottomed Dutch oven. Spill a little white wine over the top, and roast in a slow oven at 325 degrees. Every fifteen minutes or so, baste the loin, without moving it. After about an hour, pour about a quarter cup of milk into the pan. Cook until the meat is done, or 155 degrees in the center. Let it rest for at least fifteen minutes. Slice, and serve with pan juices.
I like this served with oven roasted tomatoes stuffed with risotto, (just scoop out the tomato, mix arborio rice with a little fresh basil, parsely, olive oil salt, and juices from the tomato, and a little stock. Set them all in a a baking pan, and cover tightly with foil. Roast for about half an hour, checking to see if they need more (hot) liquid. Spoon hot water or stock onto the rice every once in while until the tomatoes are soft and getting golden, and the rice is fully cooked. Take the foil off for the last ten minutes.
Let’s just say for the sake of argument, that all of a sudden and out of nowhere, you fell madly and completely in love. Maybe just because it is Spring, or maybe somebody made you laugh or for no reason at all. Once it’s done it’s done, and there is no rest for the weary, and no thinking about anything else.
That is what has to happen to make you want to cook. You have to be seduced by fava beans, fresh from their pod with a tiny spill of olive oil that still has the heat of newness to it, on a sliver of a creamy baguette. You have to worry that other people are going to hear your heart going if you get too close to the handmade and unpasteurized cheeses. Or the hamburgers and buns. It doesn’t matter what it is, you just have to need it, want it, and be ready to do what it takes to get it closer to you.
Stay simple. You don’t need dinner and dancing and a wardrobe to fall in love. Soft shell crabs take about five minutes. Buy two per person. Season them with a little salt, dredge in cake or all purpose flour, and then fry them in about a quarter inch of 350 degree olive oil, on both sides, for about two minutes per side. Lift them from the oil, and drain on paper towel. When they are done, drop a clove of garlic into the remaining oil, take it out, smash it into a paste, and then smush it into a stick of room temperature butter. Add a few drops of lemon juice, some finely chopped parsley, and some torn basil leaves or fresh thyme. Swirl it into the oil, off the heat, and once it has melted, spoon over the crabs.
Serve with brand new fava beans that are the first of the season, and don’t need to be cooked. Just drizzle with olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of kosher salt, and add shavings of pecorino stagionato or a good parmesan. (if the fava need a little help, after removing them from their pods, drop them into boiling salted water for a few seconds, then lift them out, and squeeze them from their skins, before dressing them with the oil and lemon.
Whenever my son is anxious he asks “where is home?” I don’t know how to answer that, so I feed him instead. I have tried to explain what home is and where it is. I have taught him his address, and I have convinced him that even though we all head off to the grocery store, or even Italy every once in a while to work, we always come home. I have obsessed over why he asks me; has he already moved too much, do I work too much, is he too young to be in school? I don’t think that there is an answer. When he asks me again and again, I hug him, and then I start to cook. If he is ever truly lost and lonely somewhere, and he can’t make sense of where he comes from or where he belongs, I want him to remember, when he takes a deep breath in, the steadiness of a slow simmering sauce, or the warmth of a hot buttered biscuit. I want him to long for the sweetness in deep red strawberries with cream. When I cook for him, I cook to give him a home.
Ferd loves sausages, and I love to make them with white beans and escarole. Buy the most basic sausages with the least ingredients possible. Just really good meat and a little salt is what you are looking for. Put them in a pot of boiling water, that has a little red or white wine it, along with a garlic clove. Simmer them for about ten minutes, to get them cooking, and to remove some of the fat. Meanwhile, you can either use cannellini that you have soaked the night before, and then started on a simmer with a sprig of thyme, a garlic clove, and a spill of olive oil, or open a can of cannellini, and rinse them really well. In a large saute pan, heat up a little of your best olive oil with four cloves of garlic that have either been cut in half, or sliced very thinly, depending on whether or not you want to eat the garlic, or pick it out. Give the garlic some color, and then add your well washed escarole. Cook the greens until they have wilted, and add a little salt, and the beans. Drizzle with olive oil, and set aside. Wipe out the pan, add a tiny spill of oil, and add the sausages. Brown on medium heat, on both sides. Serve on top of the greans.
Slice up a pint of strawberries, and mix in a quarter cup of sugar with a little orange or lemon zest. Beat (if you can find organic use it) a pint of heavy cream, only until it looks like soft sour cream. You don’t want it to be too thick.
Rub a half of a cup of chopped cold butter into two cups of flour, one Tablespoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt, and a Tablespoon of sugar, until it is nearly, but not completely uniform. Some bits of butter should be a little bigger than others. Add two thirds of a cup of whole milk, or enough to make the mixture like thick mud. Drop by spoonfuls onto a buttered sheet pan, and bake at 425 degrees. Split the biscuits and top with strawberriees and cream.
I think one of the hardest things about entertaining is what to serve. I have been planning menus since the cavemen, and you would think that I would be able to whip one up when I have people over to my own house, but I’m useless. Two things come to my mind: lasagna and chili. That’s it–there is nothing wrong with either one of those–but that’s it, that’s all I get. My grandmother had the same problem, but she just went with the flow. Once a year she served the entire extended family in her one bedroom apartment, the size of a dentist’s waiting room, but with way more furniture. She had chicken liver pate, quiche, smoked fish, and tiny little ham sandwiches with a gerkin. For dessert there was a cheesecake, or a strawberry pie.
If you make something that you love to make, and that everybody loves to eat, I’m all for serving the same thing everytime, whether it’s lasagna, chili, or shake and bake.
If you want to branch out though, and your fifty seven cookbooks make you feel tired before you begin, try to think seasonally.
It’s March. Strawberries are tasting like strawberries, and the asparagus is practically doing split leaps into your grocery basket to get you to take some home. Tiny green peas are making an appearance, and the potatoes are tasting like potatoes again. Leeks are so beautiful in the Spring that I think they should stand on their own. And shellfish. Now is just getting to be the time for shellfish, and the thing about it is, it’s exciting, with no effort.
Here’s my menu for you:
Mussels and garlic
Polenta covered with a salad of arugala, roasted asparagus, and parmesan
Pancetta and peas
Strawberries in red wine with a big bowl of cream
To get the mussels going, just mince about three cloves of garlic, and heat it gently in a some beautiful olive oil with a sprig of fresh oregano, or parsley and a whole peperonocino, until it starts to blush a little gold. Add five pounds of cleaned and scrubbed mussels with half of a cup of (good to drink) white wine. Cover this and simmer for about five minutes, and throw away any mussels that don’t open. Remove the mussels from the pan, whisk in a tab of butter, pour the juices over the mussels, and if your olive oil is really good, give a drizzle.
Sprinkle the mussels with a mixture of toasted ground fresh bread crumbs, parsley, lemon zest, a teeny bit more garlic, and olive oil to hold the crumbs together.
Follow the directions for making polenta (you can make the five minute kind, but not the instant; yick) When it is done, gently fold in some butter and parmesan. Pour it into a lovely flat dish and cover with your salad.
Cook the pancetta slowly until it crisps, add the peas with a spoon of stock or water, and cook for five minutes, until the peas are tender. Taste for salt, and tear in some fresh mint.
Reduce a cup of red wine with half as much sugar, and after about fifteen minutes, turn off the heat, and cool. Add cut up strawberries. These are good served with biscotti on the side.
By the time yesterday ended I think I lost a third of my hair, which I plan to tape back on my head, and I had eaten most of every flavor of ice cream in my refrigerator, without ever bothering to get a bowl. My family isn’t well, and my computer is on crutches, neither of which are any help in my efforts to be efficient and get my job done. I want to know how women work and have children. Are there “no speaking to the mother rules” in effect during business hours? Are women wearing their pajamas, and I just don’t notice? I think I have to buy some new pajamas. I’m about ten hours late posting my blog; I don’t think it’s dinner time anywhere on the planet at this point, so I’m going to tell you about some really good snacks:
Cheese on toast.
Roasted potatoes with a side of black olives, a little goat cheese, some roasted red peppers and wilted escarole with garlic
Chic peas pureed with a little cayenne pepper, roasted garlic, and lemon served with cold chicken and strained yogurt and cucumber with salt
Sausage with fresh mozzarella, oven roasted eggplant, and sauteed spinach on a hard roll.
Great big, homemade garlic croutons made in the oven with olive oil and parmesan. Serve with a little dish of spicy tomato sauce.
Do you ever have that feeling that you have so much to do, you might just dig a hole, climb in there and never come out? Or at the very least–if you have a child and climbing in a hole is not an option–open the garbage can, throw your computer in there and become one of those people who never leave their house again?
I do, and you would think that because I have so much work, I would be getting up at 5 and staying up until midnight. It’s not happening. I set the alarm for 5 and when it goes off, I look at the clock, I swear at the clock, I look at the clock again, I panic about not doing everything I need to do, and I go back to sleep until my son gets up at 7:30. Obviously some people can run a country or major business in a day, and then they exercise, they go to dinner, they kiss their husbands, they talk to their kids, and I don’t know how they do it. I am so tired at the end of the day that my desire to fall asleep is so strong it overwhelms my desire for world peace, for winning 10 million dollars, any of that.
What is this about? Is it because for some people who wait a ridiculously long time to have a baby, giving birth is the big finale? Or maybe I worry too much. If I didn’t worry so much, there would be a whole lot more highway in my brain to think efficiently.
I used to have a boss that would say to me “Faye, I am always available electronically.” (In my mind) I would say, “I hope you’re not saying that to your girlfriend.” His technique was to make a list of everything you have to do, with a box next to it, so that you can check each box as you finish each item. Getting things down in black and white is suppposed to prevent panic.
Simplify; make fried eggs for dinner. Cut up a bunch of potatoes into smallish cubes. Toss them with the most beautiful olive oil you have and some salt, and get them on a sheet pan. Roast them at 400 degrees until they are soft. Whack a bunch of asparagus about two thirds of the way down from the top, toss them with the same olive oil and salt, spread them out on a sheet pan, and get them in the oven. They will take a lot less time than the potatoes, and should be tender with a snap.
Fry some eggs in a heavy frying pan in olive oil, using a plate to nearly cover the pan so that the whites will set and the yolks will be runny. Season with a litte salt and pepper.
Grill or toast, some really good bread. On each slice, drizzle some olive oil, and top with some asparagus. Cover with an egg, and then a shower of parmesan peels.
Plan C: Get up at 5:30, have a cup of coffee, read the paper, and take a walk. The truth about most people that worry they don’t do enough is, they need a rest.
It’s nice to think about the possibility of eating something different every night, but the truth is, not everybody’s grocery store sells everything you need to do it, and not everybody in your family is going to be gung ho about the idea. A lot of people, including most people under the age of ten, like to eat what they know. A lot of people over ten like to eat what they know. You can go the route of picking one thing for each day of the week and sticking to it, but that can end up feeling like you are in some weird movie with no way out.
My grocery list is almost always the same, I just change the outfit. Nicoise olives are so good with asparagus, shallots and fresh basil in a pasta. The perfect appetizer would be a beautiful prosciutto with delicious bread. Or you can grind the same olives up with a little olive oil, lemon, thyme and garlic to make a tapenade to serve with a chicken breast and a bit of goat cheese. Maybe some garlic string beans on the side. Or make your same old red sauce with olive oil, garlic basil that you fry in the oil, and San Marzano tomatoes, and put the string beans in there with those olives. All you need for that is a little skirt steak, or even a piece of fresh tuna.
Potato leek soup is good on its own, or you can simmer broccoli, spinach, or tiny fresh peas in the soup right before you puree it. Serve it with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a shaving of pecorino and some fresh mint, or a little dressed arugula salad right on the top, with a dallop of fresh ricotta. Same soup, new wardrobe.
Some people have a favorite car guy, some people have a favorite massage guy, this is my favorite onion guy. He’s what keeps me coming back to Italy. Is he selling tired old onions in an overheated grocery store that plays bad music? No. When he feels up to it, he piles all of his fresh, braided onions into the back of his Ape (Apay) and drives to market. If you’re lucky, he will throw a bunch of pepperoncino into your bag. How is any guy better than that? He’s relaxed and he gives you free stuff.
To make good onions divine, cut off the bottom edge of about eight of them, and stand them in a baking dish. Drizzle them with your best olive oil, a cup of red wine, a sprinkle of sugar, some salt, pepper, and if you have it, a little homemade stock and a thyme sprig. Bake them at 400 degrees uncovered, for twenty five minutes, and then at 300 degrees for half an hour, tightly covered with foil, until they are softened. For the last ten minutes, roast at 425 degrees, so that the liquid reduces a bit and they get a nice brown color. No complaining about changing the temperature of the oven. It’s worth it. Be sure to keep an eye on them so that there is always liquid in the bottom of the pan. Serve them with lentils and a roasted chicken. Have a little salad on the side with salt, olive oil and lemon. How beautiful is that?
Before I started cooking, I don’t know that I ever saw a lentil naked. If we were playing a word game and you had said “lentil” to me, I would have said “soup.” You could have even said “OK, try again: lentil” and I would have said “Progresso”. The lentil is an ancient legume that deserves a little attention. It’s cheap, and and if you know what to do with it, it can be a whole other taste sensation from the one you might expect: boring. In Norcia, which is in the north of Italy, they grow some of the best lentils in the world, called Castellucio, and if you can’t find them, the French lentil, or Puy lentil is also very good. Both of these have a distinct, nutty flavor, and each lentil retains its shape when you cook it. The way to take it to whole new heights is easy. Wash a half a pound (for four to six people) of them really well. Pour them in to a large saucepan with cold, salted water. Add a drizzle of beautiful, extra virgin olive oil, a piece of onion, a garlic clove, and a sprig of thyme. Bring the water to a boil, and then with the cover askew, over a low flame, cook the lentils until they are tender. Drain well, and immediately add more extra virgin olive oil (about three to four Tablespoons), some finely chopped parsely, some torn fresh basil leaves, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a drop (measure it in the cap) of balsamic vinegar. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve these with shavings of Parmesan, dallops of fresh ricotta or slices of fresh mozzarella.
(A note about salt: use kosher salt. Pour the salt into a little bowl, and when you need it, grab a pinch with your finger. You will have a lot more control over how much salt you add.)
Along with your lentils and roasted onions, serve a whole chicken. Season it inside and out with salt, drizzle the top with olive oil, stuff a whole head of garlic (cut in half horizontally first) and a few sprigs of rosemary inside, and roast it in a 375 degree oven. Every fifteen minutes, pour a little cold water over the top, until there are juices in the bottom of the pan, then use that. A three pound chicken should cook for about an hour and a half. A small knife stuck between the leg and the thigh should be hot to your lip. (150 degrees). Don’t overcook it, and BUY ORGANIC.