Planning ahead

When I became conscious–somewhere around 30–I started to live an exclusively spontaneous life, because I had very little idea of what I wanted or what I loved, except independence. I searched for work, men, and places to live that had no ties. I had no schedule and no phone number. The idea of commitment to anything gave me a rash.
Then I fell in love with my husband, and somewhere around the same time, with cooking. I found I wasn’t happy without a constant dose of both. Thank God they travel.
If when you walk into the grocery store, you walk in with no list and no sense of what you want to make, because you feel “I don’t want to rope myself in, I want to do new, I want to do different, I want to do absolutely fabulous”, it is very possible that you are going to leave the grocery store–tired, with a bag of frozen peas, some crazy looking vegetable you never saw before, a bag of cookies, and a loaf of bread. And then stop for take out before you get home.
I am a big believer in waiting for love or lust to strike, but an idea of what your main course will be, can be a pillar of support and increase your chances of actually cooking.
Think about something you know you’ll want to eat–minestrone soup or a seared and roasted chicken with potatoes, as givens and what goes with, who knows–a salad of fresh figs, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves with the chicken, or a gorgeous saute of wild mushrooms in the standard soup.
Cookbooks with the pictures are an inspiration. I opened up an Alfred Portale book to a beautiful piece of fish “en papillote” (a paper pocket). I have complete faith in the man that any recipe will be worth the life experience.
Cut out a circle of parchment, lay down a few sprigs of cilantro, and a few green onions in the center of the circle, and set an individual filet on top. Give the filet a seasoning of salt and pepper on both sides. Grate on a little lemon zest, a little fresh ginger zest, a spoonful of soy sauce and a few drips of sesame oil. Top each with a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Pull one edge over to meet the other, and crimp it up like a calzone. Bake until the pocket puffs up at 450 degrees for about 8 minutes on a cookie sheet. Cut the pocket open, set the fish on a platter, and baste with the the juices. Scatter on fresh thinly sliced green onion and cilantro. I might work my way through the book page by page.

Sauce vs. Sauce

The love of our lives is coming home on Wednesday, and Ferdinand and I are getting ready. None of us work so well when we are apart, and life is getting better with just 2 days to go.
Ferdinand feels that we need to make him a big cake and buy him some beer; I’m thinking meat sauce. He has been in Italy for the past month which clearly puts my sauce against some of the best. I went hunting for our cart. (New Yorkers make use of serious fold up shopping assistance way before old age.) I need bags of carrots, celery, and onions, a pack of skinless, bone-in, chicken breasts, some fresh sausages, at least a pound of meat that goes through the grinder twice, and two cans of San Marzano tomatoes. I need a pound of flour to make the pasta, a dozen eggs, a pound of bittersweet chocolate for the cake and fresh cream to whip into soft clouds for the top.
When it’s love you’re looking to give, be ready to put your time in. It will only give to you for the effort. Finely dice two carrots, two stalks from the inside of the celery and one large onion. Cut a whole head of garlic in half, and saute on the cut side until golden. Add the vegetables with a sprig of rosemary and a sprig of parsley, and over a medium low flame, and another spill of your very best olive oil that brings the love up from your heels, cook them until they have absolutely no more restistance, not leaving them for a minute. If you aren’t stirring them, you should be meditating on them. Or squishing your two cans of San Marzano plum tomatoes with your hands until as smooth as possible. Or searing off two (seasoned with salt) chicken breasts, four sausages, and a pork chop if you like pork chops. When the vegetables are done, add your pound of chopped meat (all organic beef, or combination of organice beef and pork, or beef, pork and veal.) Slowly cook the meat until completely cooked through with a bay leaf. Drain, if there is excess fat, using a fine sieve, so you don’t lose any of the vegetables. Add the tomatoes, and the seared meat. Be sure your pot is big enough. Give it about a quarter cup of the red wine you are serving with dinner. Let it simmer for two or three hours, removing the chicken and pork chops when they are cooked through (about 30 minutes for the chicken, and maybe less for the pork chop.) The sausages you can leave in. Taste the sauce for salt, and red wine. If you need to add more red wine, let it cook for at least another twenty minutes. Sauce your pasta for the first course, for your second course, serve the beautiful pieces of meat (warmed in the remaining sauce) To finish, serve a simple salad of arugula leaves, shallot, and ripe grape tomatoes with a small wedge of earth rich Parmigiano Reggiano with a deep yellow rind visible on the interior.

Best beans and greens for mortar

At the end of the day of no improvements in my mothering skills, no improvement in my communication skills and just barely holding my own in remembering to remember everything that I keep forgetting, I cook.
Even when the world has become particularly challenging and the walls appear to be cracking, I cook.
Fill the sink with cold water and cut the stalk end off from a head of escarole to release the leaves into their bath. Submerge them, lift them from the water into a colander, empty out the sink, and fill it again. Repeat the washing and then let the leaves drain well. Heat up a heavy saute pan with olive oil and add five smashed and minced cloves of garlic. Don’t leave them alone, or they will burn. As soon as they start to go golden, add a sprig or two of parsley, uncut, and turn off the flame. Spoon out about a tablespoon of the olive oil and reserve. Roughly cut the escarole, before adding it to the pan. Set the flame back to medium high. Season the leaves with salt, and continue turning them with tongs, until completely wilted. Taste for salt and freshly ground black pepper. Remove to the colander to drain of the cooking liquid. Rinse out the pan with plain water, and heat it up dry. When warm, add a handful of pine nuts. Toast until just about golden. Turn out immediately onto a plate. Open a can of cannellini and drain/rinse well. Pour them into a bowl and toss with the reserved olive oil. Smash a half of one clove of raw garlic; mince well, and add to the beans. Give them a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a little kosher salt, and a grind of black pepper. Dice a few ounces of your best parmesan and add to the beans along with the pine nuts and about a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh parsley. If you have a beautiful balsamic, give the beans a tiny spill of that as well. If it is not so beautiful, reduce it in the pan for a few seconds to nearly a syrup, and then pour it over the beans (start with about a teaspoon and add a bit more to taste.) Drizzle the greens now with a few more tablespoons of olive oil and toss with the beans. Taste. This is best left to marinate for at least a few hours (out of the fridge) or more (in the fridge). It’s gorgeous with roast chicken and roast potatoes, followed by sleep.

First graders are bringing me down

I am convinced that the school lunch isn’t doing Ferdinand any favors. Mostly because he isn’t eating it. “Ferd” I said, “would you rather bring your lunch?” “Yea.” “What will you eat then?” “Two chocolate chip cookies, or you can give me chocolate milk.” “I can’t do that Ferd.” “I love potato chips.”
If he could, he would eat sliced meat, or cold cheese sandwiches like the rest of them. But they sceeve him out. He can’t eat soup, pasta, or anything rice related in a packed lunch, because he says his friends will make fun of him.
I made a gallete, filled it with peanut butter, swirled in a little nutella, and laid pretzel sticks across the top. Ferdinand gave me the two thumbs up and shoved it into his backpack. On the way home, he told me that I could only make a peanut butter, pretzel gallete again at home. “They laughed,” he said. This morning I got up to make a salad of peeled potatoes cut into tiny squares, chic peas and corn off the cob, with just a little olive oil and salt. On the side, I toasted pine nuts and pumpkin seeds. “Look Ferd”, I said, “it’s a totally normal salad.” He got all choked up and tried not to cry. “Don’t worry, I said, we’ll come up with something.”

Use it.

Ever want to get your money’s worth from the attachments on your food processor? Or make use of the choppers with the 38 year guarantee and a one time hospital stay and a free piece of meat that you buy on late night television?
Make a nice pasta with zucchini trifolatti. Scrub the zucchini well, and plunge under cold water. You will need about 8 small, tight looking zucchini for 9 ounces of pasta. Run them through the thinnest slicing option, or get out your knife and show off your stuff. Heat up a large, heavy, high sided saute pan. Drizzle with olive oil and add 4 cloves of garlic that have been cut in half. Let them go golden. Remove. Add 8 leaves of clean, fresh, dry basil and a few leaves of parsley. Let them go dark green. Remove. Add the zucchini along with a 1/2 piece of lemon zest and a few red pepper flakes (teeny weeny bit, unless you like it spicey–I usually add about 1/8 teaspoon just to pop up the flavor.) No salt yet–just the squash. Let it go over a medium flame until the bottom layer gets a little golden with NO STIRRING. Once you see gold, stir, and give it a good dash of salt. Add the garlic and herbs. Turn the flame to medium low and let it saute until completely wilted and soft. Boil a pot of salted water for the pasta (try De Cecco) and cook until al dente. Smash up a few of those garlic cloves with your knife and add them back into the pan. Discard the others. Save a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Drain well and stir in the zucchini. If you need a little extra liquid, add the reserved water. Give the pasta a good drizzle of your best olive oil and a shower of Parmigiano Reggiano. Rip in a little more fresh basil. Pour yourself a glass of crisp white wine, and pull the love up from your heels and right through your heart and shoulders before you sit down to eat.

Chicken soup is eaten here.

My son is eating chicken soup. Oh, HAPPY DAY! This may seem like a small thing, but in my world–the world of the mother–it is monumental. What it means is, that he accepts not-always-identifiable objects floating around in his soup bowl, including onion, celery, carrot, garlic, fresh herbs… It also means that he accepts that everything is touching–chicken touches broth, touches parsley, touches his SPOON. I didn’t say one word about it. When he said “Mom, this soup has so much flavor. It’s delicious.” I said, “thanks, Ferd, I’m glad you like it.” (implode, implode)
Cut up one onion, two carrots, and three stalks from the inside of the celery into small pieces. Heat up a heavy saute pot and coat the bottom with a good spill of olive oil. Cut a clove of fresh garlic in half and let it go golden. Remove from the pan and take the skin off. Add the onion mixture and season with salt. Saute until for at least fifteen minutes, stirring every once in a while to prevent too much browning. Add a bay leaf and a few tablespoons of roughly chopped parsely. Smash the reserved garlic clove and chop a bit to puree. Add to the onion mix. Give it all a little grind of freshly ground pepper. Peel and chop a potato into small bits. Add to the onion mix, and allow to saute until the potato sticks to the bottom of the pan. Cover with water and bring to simmer. Add one chicken breast, from a grain fed, never met a steroid chicken, no skin, but still on the bone. (If you like parmesan, save a rind from parmigiano reggiano, scrub well, and put it into the pot with the chicken. Don’t forget to remove before serving.) Allow this to simmer, covered with the lid tilted, for about 20 minutes, or until the meat is just cooked through. Remove the chicken and let it sit on a plate for about 5 minutes. Remove the bone and put the bone back into the pot for another 10 or 15 minutes to deepen the flavor of the stock, then remove. Shred the chicken. You can cook pasta al dente on the side for this, or not. If you are using pasta, drain it well, then put about a half a cup into a soup bowl, along with a little of the chicken. Pour the hot soup over. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve. (For even more flavor, you can add a sprig or two of fresh thyme in the beginning, a piece of ripe fresh tomato or canned, a piece of fresh fennel chopped up with the vegetables, or a sprinkling of parmesan over the soup bowl at the end. You can even make a gremolata of mashed raw garlic, fresh lemon zest (no pith), toasted bread crumbs and finely chopped flat leaf parsely, and sprinkle it over that over the soup bowl before serving.)

Fresh Fig Jam

Want to be popular? Carry good food with you. Lately I have been packing tree ripened figs from the miracle in my backyard. It shot me to the top of the list. Who hands out sweet and succulent figs, black on the outside and ruby and gold on the inside, in Queens? To keep a good thing going, I made preserves with the rest of my bumper crop.
Equal parts in weight of fresh figs and sugar (or slightly less sugar if you like it no so sweet) and 2 whole pieces of star anise per pound. Start with a few tablespoons of water and bring to a simmer. Add the sugar and cook to melt. Add the figs and star anise. If you like lemon, add a piece of zest with no pith. I am thinking this could be good with a half of a vanilla bean thrown in as well. Cook over a low flame, until a little puddle stays in tact on a plate.

I have rehearsed my line for my first meeting with the principal: “I come in peace.”
Then I set a pack of freshly baked snickerdoodles on the table. (2 and 3/4 cup of flour, 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon of salt combined. In another bowl cream 2 sticks of room temp butter with 1 cup of sugar and then 2 eggs. Combine dry with wet. Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Roll walnut size balls in 2 Tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes.)

It ain’t easy

Do you ever feel like you oughta mind your business and watch more TV? I love my couch, I love my snacks, I love alone time…the thing is:

A. Guilt

B. the world is a different place since I gave birth.
I used to be perfectly happy to keep my fridge full of vitamins, Diet Coke and old cream cheese.

I forbid even the mention of anything with fur (including the cream cheese) coming into my house.

And I worked wayyyyyy too much to volunteer.

I remember years ago, when I had a restaurant, one of my customers asked if one his students couldn’t do an apprenticeship in my kitchen. “Does he have experience?” I wanted to know? None. “Does he want to be a cook?” He wasn’t sure. My answer: “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” He didn’t give up. He brought the kid in to meet me. And so then what are you supposed to say? “Don’t look at me like that?” He started that Monday. All of a sudden I had to completely rethink cooking. I had to break it down into translatable pieces that made sense. I had to explain why salt and a dash of olive oil goes into the cooking water for potatoes, and why I loved cooking like I loved my husband (madly, deeply). And I realized that I love teaching. And I love learning from people whom I would otherwise never even know. That kid ruined my potatoes, would have me on the phone looking for him when he didn’t show up, made a beautiful tomato soup and changed me.
I now know, that believe it or not, I love to share. I love the challenge of getting people to love their food and to consider making it, even.
This PTA stuff is taking up way more time than I would have ever agreed to. But I have a (used to be) hidden agenda of teaching myself to probem solve, how to work well with others, how to inspire curiosity and motivate action.
All this is only going to help me get you loves of my life to cook dinner.

To make that tomato soup: Heat up a heavy pan and drizzle with your best olive oil. Add 3 cloves of garlic, cut in half, and 10 rinsed and dried basil leaves. If the basil goes a dark green before the garlic is golden, remove them from the pan with tongs. When the garlic is golden, turn off the pan, and get the basil back in there if you have removed it. Pour a 28 once can of San Marzano tomatoes into a bowl. Squish them with your hand until smoothish. Add them to the pan, and turn the heat onto medium. Bring to a simmer. Season with salt and if you like black pepper, a grind of that as well. Keep it on the heat for fifteen minutes. Taste for deliciousness. (if you aren’t crazy about your olive oil, use half olive oil and half butter to saute everything–it will improve the flavor. or look for better olive oil.) Puree the mixture with a hand held blender. Add enough whole milk to give the tomato mixture a creamy color. Taste again for salt. Serve with a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano and bruscetta, (grilled or toasted bread) rubbed with a raw clove of garlic and sprinkled with salt. It’s good with a side salad of sauted garlic, wilted spinach, chic peas and lemon zest.

PTA Food Fight

I think it is so EXCITING that so many people are so passionate about their food. We are flying down the ramp with our hands up in the first car of School Food Policy and there is a whole lot of screaming going on.
My goal: everybody feeling like they have been heard, and breathing normal.
I have been listening to mothers (what’s up with that?–is food not a father issue or are they going to call me later?) and I can say with confidence that I have people on both sides of the sugar camp ready to miss part of their work day to get their “no sugar, no way no how” or their “birthdays and sugar have had a long and loving relationship that should not be messed with” message written into school law.

Plan A: Speak to both sides of the camp.

1. Everbody knows I have a career built on sugar. Domino could name me their sugar queen, and everbody who knows me well would say, “yea, that’s right–she is the Sugar Queen.” At seven years old I was making my own caramel sauce. At 26 my first husband hestitated to let me go–I think only because he was going to miss my Rugelach. At 30 I was hired as pastry chef to the stars with no prior work experience–because the love of sugar is in my bones. My happiest childhood memories revolve around sugar.
2. (without giving up my love of sugar) I have become a believer and a doer of whole foods for the (almost) whole time. I have done a lot of reading about facts that have changed my feelings about just how much sugar the body can tolerate without your insides protesting in a variety of persistent and irritating ways. Who wants to act out in class or not score as high as they may have otherwise? Who wants to lose friends because of nasty mood swings and who wants to hang onto weight enough to make up for two? Who wants diabetes? It’s fun to lose the first set of the teeth, but let me tell you, losing the second set can get expensive! Having only gums isn’t good for your digestion, not to mention class photos.

Be prepared with fun facts:

Browns Mill Elementary and Magnet School in Lithonia, GA, eliminated
all refined sugar from the school for both students and faculty. Not
only was there a drop in weight, but the principal reported a
dramatic drop in discipline problems and a sharp increase in academic
achievement. Math and reading scores improved by 15% and discipline
referrals dropped by 28%. They had a contract with Coke, but it just
had to be Coke product. They switched from sodas (avg. 25% of the
intake of sugar in the daily diet) to water and fruit juice. The
principal also changed the caf menu from mystery meat and mac and
cheese to whole wheat buns, turkey dogs, and baked chicken, with lots
of veggies and fruit.

What I am going to ask: Can we make a scientific experiment: try no added sugar for a week and take notes. I want to know can we do it? (I have never done it.) How hard is it? How does it make us feel? What does sugar mean to you?

What I am hoping for: That everybody still likes me in the end.

Plan B: I am hoping it comes to me.

Jamina Oliver

It’s true, I have committed myself to be co-president of the P.T.A.. It’s for my son–proud member of the candy toting, cheap-chip chewing, chocolate for lunch set. And among other things, I am taking on the challenge of going right to the source and convincing the card carriers of this set to change their tune to the love of local apples, shunning sugar and making their own dinner menus.

My first inspiration: food on a stick. Check the bags of children when they pack their own lunch–it’s all about convenience and occassionally shock value. Favorites can run from chicken nuggets to psycholdelic gel worms, which on the plus side, leaves the possibility of a whole range in between.
Tomorrow for Ferd’s lunch: corn on the cob, cut into two inch sections–on a stick. Roasted beets (taste like candy) which leave the mouth an attention getting magenta–on a stick. Turkey dog–on a stick. Apple chunks with a peanut butter and honey dip–on a stick.