You know the way a log breaks up in a river on its way to the ocean, after it’s lived its life as a tree and it either fell because of old age and it was too tired to stand up anymore, or a bug got into it and ate it out from the inside, or it was cut, sawed down from the roots, and when it finds itself in the water, it tries to hold its shape for a while, sometimes an awfully long time, until it releases limbs and finally its core softens and breaks down into pieces worn away past anything recognizable or that could be put together again, and the rest of it becomes part of the water that carries it? That’s what happened.

Still, water is full of life.

before they get here

I woke up at three a.m. and made myself stay in bed until six, before I went looking for coffee. Even at six, the sun hasn’t come up here yet. The streets were deserted. I like to go to a caffe that’s about a five minute walk from where I’m staying; it opens for cab drivers and old ladies at 6:30. I got three skinny churros, a cafe con leche, and a champagne flute of fresh orange juice, for a total of 2.75. Then I went grocery shopping and then I went back to bed. I still can’t sleep, but I figure it’s best to lie down as much as possible, before there will be no more lying down. I’m pretty much terrified now. Don’t ever think that it’s only the people who don’t know how to cook that tremble before the guests come. You would be so wrong about that. It gets so much better, though. By tonight, when I can smell everything on the stove, I’ll be fine. Laughing even.

I’m trying to remember Madrid as it used to be. Which is futile. Nothing is at is used to be. My face for instance; not what it used to be. So, as nervous as it makes me, I’m going to try and let Madrid be what it is when I get there. I have faith that Mercado de Anton Martin is still standing and the Prado and my niece. I’m nearly sure that I’ll still be able to cook when I get there, which I’m really hoping for, since that’s what I’m getting paid to do. But you know every time I get on a plane I panic that when I get wherever I’m going, my cooking is going to act like it never knew me. It’s that dream you have that the one you love doesn’t love you anymore. That’s a killer. I hate that awful dream. I’m not going to think it. I’m going to mow it down and pretend that I live a life of the most beautiful thing ever, which is when you get off the plane when you come home, there they are, waiting. And when you search their face for truth, all you see is eyes that love you.

The Popeye Method

I’m still not right. It feels like I forgot something or I missed something. Like my arm. Or my pants. Sometimes I can stand over a pot of what’s on the stove and taste it once and fix it. Sometimes I stand over it and taste it a thousand times and have to go to bed, not knowing what happened.

I’m not smart enough to figure it out. So, you know..I think, “what would Popeye do?” The truth is, if you’re trying to hold on to the calcium in your bones, spinach isn’t the best choice, so go with collards. Have a collard sandwich. If you’re in no mood even for cooking, you can get the king of collard sandwiches at Superiority Burger. Or buy the best bread you can get your hands on and make some toast. Serious toast–not halfway toast. If it’s not completely golden, shove it back down again and watch it like a hawk. Have your filling ready to go. Rinse one bunch of baby collards and give them a rough chop. Pull the ribs out if the leaves aren’t as young as they could be. Salt a few inches of water and drop in the leaves with a garlic clove, a few sprigs of parsley and a spill of olive oil. Simmer them for at least 15 minutes and longer if the leaves are really big. You want them to be tender. Drain well. Sauté one small yellow onion and three cloves of garlic, banged from their paper wrappers, with a few peperonicini or a shake of red pepper flakes. Make sure the pan isn’t dry; don’t be stingy with the olive oil. Salt and pepper the onion and keep the flame low. Let them go until they’re melted and caramelized. Add the collards and drizzle with olive oil and a few drops of white wine vinegar. Let it reduce. Add a little water or homemade stock, until they’re juicy. Taste for salt. Drizzle the toasts with olive oil and pile on the greens with either sharp cheddar melted on the first piece or a piece of feta, broken up on top of the greens, with another piece of toast on top.

Some days

Some days, it just rains.

Potato Leek Soup:

Shave the outer greens from a bunch of leeks, using a sharp knife. They should look like you’ve whittled them to a point. Cut off the roots from the root end, and make a vertical incision starting at the top, all the way to the bottom. Cut each leek into 3 inch pieces and let them soak for a few minutes in a bowl of cold water. Lift from the water and drop into a soup pot. Add about the same amount of peeled, Yukon gold potatoes, cut into large chunks. Add a peeled clove of garlic. Don’t use garlic that comes pre peeled. It takes two seconds to bang the papers off garlic with the flat of your knife. Cover with water just to the top of the veg, not above. Add enough salt to make it taste delicious. Give it a solid pour of your best olive oil. Make a bouquet garni of a stalk of celery broken into two, a few thyme sprigs, a few bay leaves, and a few sprigs of parsley. Tuck that under the water. Cover the pot with the lid askew and bring to a simmer. Let it go until the potatoes are tender. Pull out the bouquet garni and blend with an immersion blender while the soup is still hot. If you blend potatoes when they’re not hot, they’ll turn to glue. Taste for salt, pepper and olive oil or butter. Give it a whisper of freshly ground nutmeg. Serve with a tiny dollop of creme fraiche. xo

Sit outside

I don’t wait as long as I could anymore; or maybe I wait as long as I can and not a minute longer. I used to wait until I bled. I always thought old people got more patient as their skin sank and everything they ate gave them gas. I thought they just gave into it. I thought it was easier to make them laugh. But I’m that fossilized guy who sits in a broken chair at the mechanic not talking to anybody. Except to make it clear to the mechanic, that what he’s doing is wrong. Just to pass the time. Sucking in the smell of motor oil and breathing it back out again. There’s nothing beautiful about it. I’m disillusioned. If you mention my heart, like you’re some brilliant heart analyst, I’ll have to slap you. I need to eat strawberries or something.

If you’re going to eat strawberries, eat ones with integrity. Taste them. Add just enough sugar to make them pop. Make a sweet biscuit dough of 2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 Tablespoons of baking powder, 1/4 cup sugar, then rub in 6 Tablespoons of unsalted, cubed cold butter. with your fingertips, until combined. There will be large pieces of dough and smaller ones. You don’t want uniform. Pat into a rectangle, fold over in half. Pat again. Repeat one more time. Let the dough rest in the fridge for an hour. Pat the dough out until it’s about 1/2 inch thick. Cut biscuits with a glass, without twisting, when cutting. Bake at 425 on a papered sheet pan until golden. Don’t overtake or underbake. (this is me, the mechanic’s wingman)

Beat a pint of organic heavy cream just until loose, soft peaks form. Add some of this cream to a quarter cup of mascarpone, then very gently whisk in the rest of the cream. Split the buscuits and serve with cream and strawberries.

The magic trick

Fifty years ago, there would have been an Easter basket at the end of my bed, with a chocolate rabbit, and a marshmallow egg. The rest you had to work for. But before I woke up enough to put my feet on the floor, I’d dream a little longer and let myself believe in the Easter Bunny. The world where anything can happen. You have to focus on the inside without the outside leaking in. A few years before, the kid of a friend of my mother’s, Rick Dowd said to me, “You have to think about it. It’s not possible. A giant rabbit, gets it into his head that it would be a good idea to deliver candy in fake grass to some, but not all kids, in America. Where does he get the chocolate?” After he said it, I couldn’t un-think it. I always wished I could have locked the door when Rick Dowd showed up. The magic trick was my mother. Even though my mother was the most practical person born on the East Coast with a leaning towards the apocalyptic, she didn’t budge when it came to the Easter Bunny. “Who else would have brought you chocolate?”

What the Easter Bunny is not going to do, is bake you a cake.

fresh ricotta cheesecake:

Lay a piece of cheesecloth over a sieve, and set the sieve over a bowl. Spoon 3 1/2 cups of best quality, fresh ricotta cheese on the cheesecloth, and let it drain overnight in the refrigerator. Make a shortbread crust with 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup unsalted cold butter cut into small cubes, 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, rubbing the butter into the dry ingredients, just til it comes together. Press and bake in a spring form pan at 375 until just golden. Cool. Turn the oven to 350. Separate 5 eggs. Beat the yolks with 3/4 cup of sugar until pale yellow and tripled in volume. Grate the zest of one small lemon. Gently fold in the ricotta with the zest to the yolks. Beat a half cup of cream, just til it thickens. Fold in. Beat the whites with a pinch of salt, just until soft peaks form when you lift the whisk. Fold in the egg whites. Add the ricotta mixture and bake for about an hour or until the cake sets with a fifty cent piece size of the middle still holding a jiggle. Make a caramel with 1/2 cup of sugar. Be a cowboy about it and just roast the sugar dry. As soon as it goes a chestnut color, add 1/4 cup of dark rum. Reduce to a syrup consistency and add 1/2 cup of raisins. Pour a little sauce onto each plate, next to a slice of cheesecake.

don’t give up

I taught my dog to stop on a dime. I used to think she didn’t have two brain cells to rub together, and I still don’t think she’s that smart, but she can definitely stop on a dime. I walk her early in the morning, down by the East River. My favorite part is when the path slides down so close to the water, you can touch it. It winds between wild grass and willow trees with the daffodils showing up the way unexpected guests do. I’ve never had feelings for a daffodil, but I could live with violets forever. An old lady saw my dog do her trick and said, “Very smart. Let me try.” “Oh, God,” I thought. She called out, “WAIT!” And the dog stopped. “Lucky,” she said. Exactly. When I go to work, I always feel lucky when it comes out the way it’s supposed to.

Don’t get me started

Using gluten-free flour makes me feel like I did when my mother brought home a big orange can with a black striped white tiger on it when I was 10 and said, “Taste this; you’re gonna love it.” “What is it?” “Tiger milk.” “No it’s not.” “Yes, it is. It says so on the side of the can.” “Mom.” She dumped a few big scoops of powder into a glass and stirred it. “What?” “You can’t milk a tiger.” “Baby tigers can.” “I don’t want it.” “Just taste it.” I left the room. Powdered milk was bad enough. We drank powdered milk because she felt she didn’t have the funds for straight up. I had no idea what they were trying to pass off as Tiger milk and I didn’t want any part in it. It’s like trying to fall in love with the wrong one. Who are you kidding?

Anyway, it’s my job to figure it out, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I added one part medium grind polenta to 3 parts Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour. You can’t roll a noodle with medium grind polenta as thin as you should, because it breaks. I’ve got fingers that could do surgery on a butterfly wing, and the noodles were collapsing on lift off. So instead, I left them thick like spaetzle. Not terrible. The polenta worked the way I wanted it in terms of flavor, by sort of bullying the gluten-free to the background. I made a bolognese you could practically eat on its own and sauced the noodles until they were nearly swimming in it. I showered them with Parmigiano Reggiano. By the last bite, my bad attitude had worn down to an, “okay, they’re pretty good.”

The B57

I went to the graveyard day before yesterday. I catch the bus in front of two abandoned restaurants and a Starbucks. It rolls under the train tracks and makes a left at a strip club called, Sugardaddy’s. I try to memorize the route, in case I ever have to walk. Then I give up always trying to prepare for the worst and just let the view roll by. It has that faded look of the stuff people throw by the side of railroad tracks. In Manhattan, everybody has an eye on your business. On the B57, you can cry all you want. I get off at an old Irish deli in Maspeth and then it’s a block to the gate. The hours are from 8 to 4:30, and the rule is that you can’t leave anything with water from April to October, or they’ll throw it away. I don’t leave anything that needs water. I walk up the sidewalk until the sidewalk ends and then walk on the grass further up the hill and between the graves to a bent cypress. I lie down on top of where I know they left him so I can hear better. There’s always something. Before he died he said, the reason he picked that grave was because it was easy to take the bus to get there.

He also said, “overcooked chicken is highly underrated.” I’m still arguing with him about that, even though he’s dead.

I’ve loved dal from the first time I tasted it, but I never got it right. People say it’s easy, but it’s not easy. You don’t want to over spice it or under spice it. You don’t want to over stir it, and if you’re using urad dal or moong dal, you have to soak it first.

It goes really well with a whole, roasted chicken stuffed with ginger, garlic, and cilantro and glazed with tamarind water from soaking dried tamarind, mixed with honey and red chile flakes.

For the dal, start with 2 cups of fine red lentils (moong dal). Rinse them until the water runs clear and simmer with about an inch of water over the top. Add a knob of ginger to the pot. When the lentils are tender and the water is nearly absorbed, remove the ginger and turn off the flame. If the water is absorbed too quickly, replenish to keep the inch of water at the top. If there is too much water when the lentils are done, you can always skim the water off. Add a few solid pinches of salt and using a wooden spoon standing straight up in the lentils, roll the handle between your palms, to soften them, moving the spoon around the pot. In a separate saute pan, saute 5 garlic cloves, 2 inches of grated fresh ginger, and one small shallot. Add 1 teaspoon each of black mustard seed and cumin seed that you have first crushed in a mortar and pestle, and about a half teaspoon of red pepper flakes, or a green Indian chili. Be sure your flame is low, so that nothing is browned, just cooked through. Add two seeded and diced plum tomatoes. Season with salt. Add to the pot. Break off an inch of tamarind and cover with about a quarter cup boiling water. Let it sit for about 10 minutes. Break up the tamarind, and then pour the strained water into the pot. Taste for salt. Add 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, and taste again.