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Preview: Cooking for Margy

Cooking for Margy

She's gotta eat!

Updated: 2014-10-04T17:49:39.427-07:00


Still Cooking for Margy


I've obviously been a horribly delinquent blogger. It's been eating away at me. Plus I'm not inventorying our meals properly, which was always a fringe benefit of running CFM -- if I wanted to remember how I'd handled a dish or an ingredient, I could just look it up. That's helpful when you don't really use recipes and tend not to write things down. So the details behind that amazing roux-thickened, herb-flavored sauce I made for a red snapper back in October will keep fading away until I just have to start again from scratch and hope I haven't lost my juju. Now, let's get caught up a little. We have a trip to rehash before I get back to discussing my own kitchen experiments. Last September, Margy and I went to Amsterdam and Germany. It was our first visit to Amsterdam and my first visit to Germany (Margy's been there countless times; her mom is German born). Everything we ate in Amsterdam was delicious -- every meal, for each of our five days. We went fancy; we went humble. I had rare lamb chops with fried gnocchi one night (before we went to see the Police at the 50,000-seat Amsterdam ArenA), and the next day, after hanging around the Rembrandt House, I ate the best hot dog I've had in my life. I dressed it with mustard and a zig-zag of curry ketchup and nibbled on it as a brass band floated by on the canal beneath us, a bunch of guys in yellow shirts and red ties, packed so tightly into a little boat that there wasn't room for them to move beyond working their trombone slides. And of course we ate Dutch pancakes. This is our sweet/savory combo: one with lemon and sugar, which we dressed with a thick molasses-rich syrup, and one with bacon and onion. Just thinking about the aroma of the batter on the griddles in that restaurant is enough to make me book another ticket. The German food we ate didn't dazzle me the way the Dutch offerings did. We had a few fancy meals that were excellent, but I had my eye more on the everyday foods. Would you believe that I couldn't get myself a bratwurst? I don't know, maybe in its native land bratwurst has become a joke, or a myth. Is it the Salisbury steak of Germany? Not once, but twice, I found a wonderful-sounding item on a menu -- "seven little grilled bratwurst served with potatoes and onions," let's say. I stomped my feet a bit and rubbed my hands together and got ready for snappy sausages. Then I'd hear, "I'm sorry, it isn't available." The first time this happened I ordered roasted chicken and vegetables instead. I got roasted chicken and vegetables. Not bad. The second time, on our last night in Germany, at an adorable restaurant, sitting on a vine-covered porch overlooking the moonlit Rhine along with Margy's parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins (and their dog), it was harder to take no for an answer. I was confused: "I'm in Germany. Why can't I have a bratwurst?" I listened to Margy's cousin explain that there should be no good reason why a restaurant would run out of bratwurst -- after all, he said, it's vacuum packed and refrigerated and not in danger of spoiling quite like fresh beef would be. I sulked, I pouted. At everyone's suggestion, I ordered a rindswurst. It was okay. It was like a thick-skinned hot dog, only not like an Amsterdam hot dog if you catch my drift.Looking back, it was in Cologne, on our first night in Germany, where we had what I'd call our most authentic and fun restaurant meal. (It was also in Cologne where I could have had my way with a bratwurst or a currywurst, but at the time I deemed a stand outside the train station to be an inappropriate setting. Wish I could take that one back.) The place was a "small" beer hall, which meant it could hold only about a hundred people or so. We started with pickled herring, which frankly was more of a red herring if you ask me -- it had the perfect balance of flavors and was so wonderfully delicious that it set up, in my mind, expectations that would not be met over the next few days. Here's Margy's main course from that meal -- curled sausage with potatoes. The creamy white mound at left is the vegetable. It's c[...]



Our garden gets a little more ambitious every year.

Last summer, we had three cherry tomato plants, a bunch of cucumbers, hot peppers that weren't even close to being hot, lots of herbs, and a crop of long beans that yielded a serving for Margy and me about three times.

This time around, we've got one grape tomato and one beefsteak tomato plant, more cukes, jalapeños that might actually hold a little heat (if they'd just mature already), oodles of pole beans (green, yellow, and purple), arugula and mixed baby greens (wonderful but now succumbing to the burgeoning summer sizzle), and again many different herbs.

And beets. Some of which are now ready. The leaves and stalks have been gorgeous -- that deep red-purple color that there's no point in calling anything else but beet red. Once the bulbs poked out of the soil and showed themselves as relatively plump and ready to be eaten, it was time to go.

Of course, one of these plants (we have three) offers only a few small beets, so that's all I had to work with today. Using a recipe from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I cubed the beets and roasted them with olive oil and salt and pepper until they just began to caramelize. As I removed them from the oven, I popped a piece in my mouth. Sweet and earthy. Ready to become a salad. I dressed them with oil, vinegar, and fennel seeds and let them steep awhile.

Margy shaved some farmers'-market fennel ("What do you do with the tops?" said the woman who sold me the fennel, just as I was wondering myself) on the mandoline, almost shaving her palm along with it. What is it about that device? Me, I basically refuse to touch it, even though I'd love to put it to use. It terrifies me.

Bottom line: Beets plus fennel in three forms -- bulb, fronds, seeds -- equals deliciousness. Just be sure to eat a sweet salad like this along with something salty or sour, or else you'll think you've skipped dinner and gone right for (an admittedly very healthy) dessert.

Crab Month Ends on a High Note


I really should have called my dad.

Earlier, as I set out for ShopRite, I told Margy: If they still have soft-shell crabs, I'm getting some. It's the end of June; time is running out.

And what do you know, there they were, languishing in short stacks behind the glass. "Are they alive?" I asked.

"Some of them," said the fish guy, rooting around the crab bin. "But they're fresh -- they just came in today. Oh, look, that one's alive."

"I'll take four."

He knows that if something isn't up to par, then I don't need it that day. He found me four good plumpies.

Now I had to think about frying. For what was surely our last fling of SSC season, it was fry or bust. The first three times, I went with the grill, which was great, but I've regretted not breaking out the peanut oil. Sputter and pop all you want, crabs -- you're taking a hot bath.

In a way, frying was only the beginning, because my overarching scheme was to make soft-shell crab po' boys. I'd never had one, though an oyster po' boy I ate once at a place that used to be on 1st Street at 1st Avenue in NYC was until today my favorite sandwich ever.

The idea of a soft-shell crab po' boy just seemed too good to be true. It reminded me of reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and poring over passages that mentioned the delectable-seeming but hopelessly exotic Turkish delight. This is just a fantasy food, I'd think while I drooled on my OshKosh dungarees.

But somehow I knew soft-shell crab po' boys existed, and I knew how I wanted to make my version. (And I'm still traumatized by the fact that real Turkish delight isn't as good as C.S. Lewis made it sound, though the deconstructed version at Zaytinya in Washington, DC, might be even better.)

While Margy broke out the mandoline to julienne carrot, zucchini, and apple for a slaw, I started with a recent Mark Bittman recipe from the Times for the basic frying method, which was fantastic. I dipped the crabs in a mixture of egg and milk, then dredged them in a 50-50 blend of flour and cornmeal and slipped them into a hot quarter-inch of oil. Good things started to happen.

To make the sandwiches, I broiled split foot-long rolls (coming just a second within having mine go up in flames) and layered them with chipotle mayo, baby red leaf from our garden, sliced pickles, and slivered red onion. On each roll went a crab and a half. That meant there was even a whole crispy, golden-brown crustacean left over for Pops, had I had the foresight to tip him off. What a lousy son.

After Margy wisely decided that one enormous sandwich was enough for her, I ate the fourth crab with a knife and fork and my fingers, drizzling it now and then with lemon juice. I saved a crunchy claw for last.

The Greatest Sunday


Our farmers' market is open.

Nothing against ShopRite, but from now until mid-November we're pretty much all about the Jersey produce, grown locally, bought locally, eaten as soon as possible. And it's amazing to see what a difference a few thousand miles makes. Right now, supermarket berries are pretty good. But the ones at the farmers' market? Amazing. Margy and I bought a box of some of the juiciest strawberries we've ever had, and we found blueberries that taste exactly like... blueberries! It's the best.

I also picked up a big box of fava beans, which I had never dealt with before. I got home and read up on the ingredient, and suddenly the big box of beans seemed a lot smaller. First, you shell the beans. Then you blanch and peel them (unless they're very young and tiny, which mine weren't). The usable portion is minuscule. So I drove back to the market.

"Didn't you just get some of these?" said the guy at the stand as I grabbed a second helping. I'm guessing he's never cooked with fava beans.

A while after I got home and went to work on, oh, a hundred pods or so, I stood back from my kitchen table to see a craggy green mountain of empty casings casting a shadow over a small bowl of beans. A while after that, once I'd dropped the beans into boiling water, rinsed them, and slid off their skins, I could fit the foundation of our dinner in the cupped palms of my hands. I allowed myself to eat a single fava bean. It was ultrafresh and delicious.

I boiled about four-fifths of the beans in chicken broth along with more farmers'-market bounty -- garlic scapes and sweet summer onions -- plus oregano and parsley from our garden. Then I puréed this glorious stew and warmed it up on the stove with the rest of the whole beans and served it over spaghetti, garnished with fried garlic and the sliced green tops of the onions.

Summer really is here, and having access to ingredients like these makes those stifling, sticky days a lot easier to handle, and a lot more tasty.

Crab Month Marches (Sideways) On


Another plate of grilled crabs, even simpler still this time. All they had was a dusting of kosher salt and cracked white and black pepper. I also made soy-honey salmon.

I'm starting to feel like I'm torturing my father every time I mention my crabby exploits. He loves dear, sweet, crunchy-meaty soft-shells as much as I do, but my mom, who's the sole cook in their house, claims to be allergic. It's not hard to do the math: Pops hasn't had a crab all year. I keep telling my mom that even supermarkets sell the things now -- she says she's willing to feed my dad as many crabs as he wants, if only she could find some -- but apparently my parents have moved too far away from civilization to have access to such exotic creatures. I gotta have Dad over for dinner.

Crab Month Continues


For this week's installment, I kept the crabs simple but surrounded them with a few little goodies.

Goodie No. 1 is invisible to the eye, but it made its presence known. My parents recently traveled to Italy, the lucky ducks, and, in Amalfi (my ancestral hometown -- one of them, at least), my mom bought Margy and me a big ol' bottle of our beloved limoncello. Of course, Italian flight officials callously snatched it from her before she boarded a plane to Rome. They were supposedly invoking the no-liquids rule, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the limoncello was not screened for explosive material -- beyond grain alcohol, that is... and we all know what that screening process is like.

So, Mom gave me the next best thing: actual Italian lemons. Big, fat, knobby lemons whose juice is sweet as candy but still carries a lovely tartness. Seems she had offered yummy cookies to their chambermaid and in return was presented with these fresh Amalfitano delights. Five lemons made it home, and I got two of them. The pressure to use them well was enormous.

With the juice of one, I made a poached shrimp dish from a recipe by Marcella Hazan. I boiled unpeeled shrimp in water perfumed with vegetables and a drop of vinegar, then peeled the cooked shrimp and marinated them, still warm, in a two-to-one mixture of good olive oil and (great) lemon juice. I used the same oil-lemon potion to dress purple baby artichokes, which I'd steamed and grilled briefly.

I also grilled the soft-shell crabs, brushed with chive butter that included zest from the Italian lemon. Those legs got nice and crispy!

Crab Month Begins


Yeah, I still cook every now and then.

Especially in May, when soft-shell crab season arrives with a great big crunch and a tasty spurt of crab mustard. Sure, I stopped by the fish counter in late April, just in case, but I was sent away with everything but soft-shells. Then I had no choice but to wait as patiently as I could.

The time finally came, and to kick off this year's soft-shell series I tried grilled teriyaki crabs, along with my stalwart teriyaki bearers, shrimp and salmon. (The stuff is great left over, though the crabs, at least, would never make it beyond this evening.) I didn't want to marinate the crabs and soften their legs and claws, so I just seasoned them with salt and pepper and began brushing on the sauce after they'd crisped up a bit on the grill.

After having my anticipation reach a fever pitch, I admit I felt more relief than joy as Margy, now home safely from Beijing and ready for everything but Americanized Chinese food, and I tucked into our first crabs of '07. But this was just an hors d'oeuvre -- there are many more soft-shells to come before the Fourth of July.

Margy's Beijing Journal: A Spicy Farewell


For the last meal of her trip, Margy, along with her hosts/culinary tour guides, ate at a place called the Middle-8th, which serves "refined Hunan food."

"Refined" is not how I'd describe that indecent-looking mound of hot peppers; "thrilling" is more like it. Of course, the peppers aren't meant to be eaten. Rather, they're there to produce heat by association, lending just a steady glow rather than outright flames to the fried heads-on shrimp they surround. Margy was generally dazzled by the chile effect in Beijing, saying that the spicy dishes carried the perfect level of heat, a mellow yet persistent tingle that was dialed only one step down from euphoric.

Adding to the pleasant feelings was a refreshing house-made rice wine that Margy described as looking like lemonade. It was served in tall, handleless bamboo pitchers and drunk from glass Mason jars, and Margy just said "I wish I had some now." Me, I'll settle for about 25 of those shrimp.

So there you have it, Margy's Beijing Journal. I hope I get to join her one day should she ever return, but for now I'll just be glad to have her back and to have someone besides myself to cook for.

Margy's Beijing Journal: Korean Detour


After you hit a donkey restaurant, how do you follow that?

In Margy's case, the answer was going to a Korean hole in the wall for some delicious bi bim bob, shredded beef and vegetables mixed into rice. Margy's gang sat at a table that was fitted with an exhaust hose for Korean barbecue, and they had kimchi and a giant scallion pancake before the main course arrived.

That's the server who's mixing the bi bim bob for Margy. How fresh and tasty it looks. One bite... just give me one bite!

Margy's Beijing Journal: What Have We Here?


Tonight, as Margy was finishing up her workday, her friends/hosts asked a familiar question in a most unfamiliar way. Instead of the usual "What would you like to eat tonight?" or "What are you in the mood for now?" they asked, "Would you like to eat some donkey?"

"Sure..." Margy said, not a little timidly. "Is it good?"

Next thing she knew she was whisked off to what seemed like the outskirts of town, where she and her posse drove down a dirt road and arrived at a building that was hopping with activity and aglow from the neon sign out front (Margy says she saw lots of neon on her trip). The sign was translated for her: "Beijing's #1 Donkey Restaurant."

Now that I think of it, I neglected to ask how many other donkey restaurants there are in Beijing.

The place offered its signature ingredient in an array of preparations, and Margy's party chose donkey patties (top right). She said they were quite good, covered with sesame seeds and filled with juicy red meat. (The big pot holds a mountain of tofu, which was eaten with the sauces, presumably nondonkey all, in front of the pot.) I think she understood that her hang-ups -- if, in fact, she had any; I'm not quite sure -- were purely cultural and that hey, this is where you eat donkey, so gimme some. When I got her text message about this swashbuckling dinner, I said to myself, I married the right girl. Of course, then I said to myself, Wait, I've never eaten donkey.

So send me to China and bring me to Beijing's #1 Donkey Restaurant, and I'll do my part. But you know what they say about donkey: It goes straight to your ass!

Margy's Beijing Journal: Chou Dofu


...or, as it is more commonly known, "stinky tofu" -- tofu that's been marinated in a brine of fermented vegetables.

It's the yummy-looking fried stuff on the plate at left. How innocent it seems -- golden cubes of crispy deep-fried food. Fried anything is good -- how strange could this be?

According to Margy, pretty strange.

A few days ago, after correctly pegging Margy as an adventurous eater, one of her hosts started chatting her up about stinky tofu, asking whether she'd ever had it and beginning to prime her for the experience. Was this a test? After all, Margy had two hosts, and the other one didn't want to have anything to do with the stuff. But Margy was game.

She said she took two bites and knew that fermented tofu wasn't the dish of her dreams (okay, she knew this after the first bite, but she wanted to be sure). The smell and flavor were superstrong and a bit too jarring to be enjoyable. The other American at the table plugged ahead a little longer than Margy before he too gave up.

Luckily there were other, more familiar foods going around, like a whole fish with chili sauce. Margy had lots of whole fish in Beijing, and what could be better? Anyway, the only real reason to object to eating whole fish is that dealing with bones can be a drag, and in general Chinese don't mind dealing with bones. Margy's companions used their chopsticks to make quick work of the task.

While the Beijing gang sipped plum wine and noshed on stinky tofu, I was at Rudy's on 9th Avenue having "rehearsal" with my band, which consisted of drinking beer and eating a lousy but free hot dog, which, now that I think of it, might have also been fermented...

Margy's Beijing Journal: Hot Pot


Tonight was Margy's introduction to Mongolian hot pot. (I don't think it counts that we've visited the dreadful J.P. Lee's in Millburn, NJ, a Mongolian barbecue place that's like a less fun version of a hibachi restaurant.) The joint was hip and classy, and parties could seal themselves off from the throng by closing what Margy described as a shower curtain around their table.

Legend has it, Margy says, that Kubla Khan brought hot pot to Beijing from Mongolia, though tonight I believe someone else delivered it to Margy's table. A big pot of broth was set over a burner in front of the diners, and Margy and her companions used chopsticks to grab a slice of meat from a tray and then swirl it around the broth for a scant minute until it was cooked. After the meat came a plate of dumplings, which were bathed in the broth in the same way. To the left of the broth is a bowl of tripe.

Me, I had Vietnamese food on Baxter Street in NYC -- not bad, but hardly a trip to the Forbidden City followed by a hot-pot feast.

Margy Goes to China!


Please forgive my absence. I've been eating bad takeout in New Jersey while Margy's been off frolicking in Beijing.

Okay, I exaggerate. She wasn't only frolicking; she was working very hard too. Alas, it just wouldn't have been practical for me to join her on this tightly packed business trip, so I held things down at home and wished for her quick return.

Margy's first taste of Beijing's many culinary delights was in the courtyard of the Huajia Yiyuan Restaurant, after she'd endured a full day of traveling and didn't know which end was up. (Though conveniently, with Beijing being twelve hours ahead, she didn't have to change her watch.)

But if Margy's body and mind had no idea what was going on, her appetite knew exactly what to do, and she had a great first meal, which was ordered by her two gracious and knowledgeable hosts and washed down with Chinese beer. Just look at those greens! As I imagine what they tasted like, I kind of feel like a fool for not finding a way to share this exotic trip with my beloved world traveler. Sigh. In the foreground is a plate of tofu on top of mushrooms, and at right is another assortment of mushrooms (or so Margy guesses). She loved it all, and then came the Peking duck. Sigh.

Choke Char


I am something of a suggestible shopper. Place Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in my path, and I'm bringing them home. And, somebody, please stop putting Kinder displays right next to the register. They're working too well.

Luckily, my willingness to depart from my list doesn't apply only to candy. The other day, ShopRite had a big display of baby artichokes set prominently in the vegetable section: rows of shrink-wrapped packages, each holding nine neatly arranged little artichokes. I was powerless to resist.

I'm hardly an expert choke wrangler. I'd worked with full-size artichokes a few times, but it had been years. Margy, who's known to make an awesome whole fish with artichokes, has had a little more experience. But let's just say my purchase meant this was a special occasion -- we had spiky green guests in the house, and I was on my best behavior.

I tore open the package and dumped the little guys on the table. They rolled around a bit, orbiting out in random directions. I collected them and began to whittle. A few long minutes later I was looking at a huge pile of stiff green leaves and nine puny yellow-green cylinders. These were obviously not so-young-you-barely-have-to-peel-them baby artichokes, but among the wreckage I had enough to make an ample side dish to go with grilled sausages.

I steamed the suckers for about ten minutes, let them cool, and tossed them in a few tablespoons of lemon vinaigrette (lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper). Then they followed the sausages on the grill, to take on a bit of char. When they were done I dressed them in more vinaigrette. They were fun to eat, pleasantly al dente, with their natural tanginess highlighted by the lemony dressing. Given all the work they required -- the peeling, the slicing, the steaming -- I think baby artichokes will remain infrequent guests, but we'll definitely look forward to their next visit.

Happy Easter


Ah, Easter at my parents'. One of the only feasts that could possibly follow a Peking duck pilgrimage with any real success.

The troops fell in -- Margy and me, my three sisters plus entourage, and my folks -- and Mom kicked things off, and nearly ruined my appetite for anything else, with her beloved meat pie. Its literal name is pizza piena, or stuffed pizza, but the glories of dialect and Italian-American bastardization have basically rendered it "pizza keen" (or "pizza gain"; pick your fave). Eggs, cheeses, meats and sausages, and brown, flaky crust: It's pretty much the perfect food. I swore I'd only have two slices. I had four.

Mom ran the show, as is everyone's preference (including Mom's). She made the gorgeous ham, the roasted potatoes, the artichokes, the broccolini. But the rest of us pitched in. Sister #2, who brought along a vegetarian friend (he's a great guy so we forgive him), made quinoa and black bean cakes with chipotle mayo, which I nominate as an Easter staple from now on. I made Indian tamarind sauce to go with the ham, at my mom's request. The sauce was a little spicy for certain more timid tastes, but at least I could count on my brother-in-law to slurp it up, hot peppers being his drug of choice. Kudos to my mother -- she was right that the sweet-tangy-spicy condiment would work well with ham. And sister #1 joined the dessert fray with a great-looking chocolate cream pie that sat beside my mom's Italian cheesecake.


Wait a second. I'm counting here and coming up short. Sister #3, didn't you bring anything to the Easter table? No, leftover Peking duck doesn't count! And neither does a hearty appetite! You're a baker for heaven's sake! Next year you're making me a chocolate lamb.

Peking Duck (in da) House


Such a lovely day, such a lovely duck. My sister was in town from Vermont for Easter, and at the last minute we decided to give her a Manhattan dream day, or at least a fun trip to the city with the promise of Peking duck as the climax. We kicked things off in the East Village with a quick visit to an organic vegan restaurant, Angelica Kitchen. Not to eat, silly, but to say hello to one of my sister's VT-transplant friends. And then I took Sis on a subjective culinary tour of the neighborhood. We strolled by Una Pizza Napoletana and considered ordering an "appetizer." (We wimped out.) We walked past Hearth, Rai Rai Ken, and the old site of Iso, where Margy and I had our true sushi awakening years ago. This sister doesn't do sushi, but her pastry-chef ears perked up when I told her we were right near the famous bakery Veniero's. (I also told her how disappointing I've found its pastries, though it's been awhile.) To this point our "food walk" had found us taking nary a bite of anything, so we dropped in for a few cookies or a sfogliatella. Wouldn't you know there was a line that snaked clear through the bakery and all the way down the hall of the dining room. Obviously Easter is a good time for Veniero's. We moved on, our minds filled with sustaining thoughts of duck. Next we tooled around the West Village for an hour or two, and then it was time to meet Margy in Chinatown. We found our third parking spot of the day -- at this point I really felt like I was pushing my luck -- not too far from Mott Street and the Peking Duck House. I should mention that this whole thing was a bit of a quest for my sister. When we were planning the trip and I asked her where she'd like to eat, she didn't hesitate. She'd heard about the incredible pie at Una Pizza. I'd told her all about the steamed pork buns at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. She wanted the duck. I'm happy to say she got her fill. I figured one bird would go pretty far among three people, but I wasn't certain. Anyway, we went all out with our appetizer round and ordered both pork dumplings and pork buns, so we weren't about to go hungry. We also balanced things out -- yeah, right -- with some sautéed Chinese cabbage, which was delicious and still held a bit of crunch. But again, this was all about the duck. Even the absurdly loud and out-of-place techno music pulsating from the speakers couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for the magical meat on the platter in front of us. (I could swear they were playing lite-FM on our last visit, and I'll take robotic techno every time over the dreaded "American Pie.") Peking Duck House is hardly the snazziest or the most interesting restaurant in New York City, but it bears remembering that the place does indeed get into some pretty important details, even beyond the duck itself. Take the pancakes. They're thin but soft, a little stretchy -- a far cry from the dry, dusty, easily torn wraps that accompany moo shu dishes at inferior joints. And the hoisin sauce is more delicate in flavor and less sweet than most, which makes a huge difference. It's what the duck demands, par for the course for a bird this good. We sat right near the carving station and watched the "duck guy" deftly run his knife into each dark-roasted specimen until its flesh was set onto a plate in a swirl of perfect slices. Finally, it was our turn, and we asked for the bones, which as presented are really just the leg bones. But that would suffice. We rolled our own pancakes, with hoisin, scallions, and cucumbers, and at last my sister's quest was coming to fruition. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she made numerous yummy sounds. Margy ate quietly, smiling and sipping[...]

Pasta and Pastry


A reliably good Italian restaurant is a wonderful thing, especially if it isn't far away. Basilico in Millburn is just such a place, a BYO with great food and an atmosphere that looks Manhattan-style trendy, with dark red tones, wood floors, big windows out front, and high ceilings. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable -- if I weren't obsessed with cooking, it's the kind of place where I'd want to eat every couple weeks.

Tonight we were packing a gift certificate from my parents, so we went all out. We had a trio of ceviches and a stuffed artichoke to start, then Margy had porcini ravioli with truffle sauce and I had a special of seafood ravioli with vodka sauce, asparagus, and mushrooms. Everything was delicious, especially the ravioli. The homemade pasta was just the right thickness -- we could almost but not quite see the filling smiling through each tasty little package -- and it had been expertly cooked. We wiped our plates clean with fluffy focaccia.

But we saved room for dessert, which is essential here. Though Margy's banana tart was excellent, the apricot strudel (pictured) took first prize. I can't decide how I feel about the presentation -- gorgeous? clumsy? overwrought? -- but we didn't look at it for long. The strudel was warm, the filling was hot, the ice cream was cold. It was over before we knew it.

Don't Try This at Home?


One of the coolest places in all of New Jersey is the Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in Edgewater. I'm trying to think of something you can't get there, and I'm coming up blank. There's an amazing produce section that offers nothing but prime specimens and includes enough imported fruits and vegetables to set my heart aflutter. There are shelves packed with all kinds of rice, condiments, tea, seaweed, and other dry good(ie)s, plus a vast sake section (which really should come with a person to help us neophytes make sense of all the choices). There are huge cases of fresh, vibrant-looking meats. There are even more cases of sashimi-grade seafood, from familiar varieties (salmon, tuna) to more esoteric choices (salted herring roe) to the just plain decadent (a big box of sea urchin that I wanted to scoop into my mouth as I shopped). And then there's the food court, which boasts a ramen house, a gyoza stand, a sushi bar, a cream puff shop, a tonkatsu counter, and a pasta station. A pasta station? Hey, we're still in Jersey. I had been to Mitsuwa once before, solo, but this was Margy's maiden voyage. Her eyes grew wide as we entered. It was a bustling Sunday afternoon, so rubbing elbows with everyone else was unavoidable, but we didn't mind. All the activity simply added to the impression that we had actually arrived in Tokyo.Margy did hone in pretty quickly on the one thing Mitsuwa seems to lack: a gift shop. But I'm not sure we turned every stone -- there may be one back there someplace. Plus apparently there's an ordinance in the area about selling certain goods on Sunday, so the aisles and aisles of rice cookers and other fun-looking appliances were kept under wraps. We'll be back, and we'll find the gift shop. Anyway, there was an enormous sweets counter that held every imaginable variety of candy and cake, many of which looked too precious and ornate to eat (and some of which, I'm sure, would be too shocking to the western palate to enjoy, as has been my experience with Japanese desserts). That stuff would make great gifts, depending on the recipient. The first thing we did was eat lunch -- gyoza and fried rice with a tiny cup of broth and a small daikon-and-seaweed salad. This good-sized meal was $6.95 (Margy and I ordered the same thing), and it was delicious and had been made to order. After lunch we took a walk by the river, and it sometimes seemed like we could toss a pebble and hit the west side of Manhattan. When our stroll was complete, we returned to Mitsuwa to shop. It wasn't easy to stop. I felt an electric current of adrenaline as I picked through things I'd never seen before, never even heard of. I grabbed some new stuff, some of the usual, some "eureka!" favorites, some things I had no idea what to do with. We bought two tiny yuzu fruits. We bought Japanese tofu. We longed for a knobby root of fresh wasabi, but it was $99.99 a pound and we put it back. We agreed that tonight we'd have sashimi at home, at our kitchen table, which we'd never even considered before. Back at the ranch, the buzz of discovery continued into the evening. Among our purchases were four kinds of produce that were new to our kitchen: yuzu (citrus fruit), myoga (a mild gingerlike bulb), mitsuba (an herb that sort of falls between parsley and celery), and mizuna (a slender salad green). What the hell was I going to do with these things? First I made some sashimi dipping sauces, including a riff on ponzu that used the zest and juice of the yuzu plus soy sauce and grated ginger. I'll tell you, those little fruits are stingy, with a yuzu about the size of a small plum yielding maybe [...]

Meats and Things


Last time Margy made pizza, there were many mouths to feed, so she whipped up an unusually large batch of dough. I asked her to freeze a little of it, for two reasons:

1. I didn't want either of us to have to spend an entire evening slaving over a hot baking stone.

2. I wanted to keep trying to make Those Things.

Fast-forward to this morning, when I woke up thinking, Steak. Those Things. Steak. Those Things. Steak, AND Those Things! I became bewitched by the idea of beef and anchovies (the latter being a vital ingredient in Those Things) making sweet music together on our dinner plates. I could not get the idea out of my head. And Margy was all for it.

At the market, I couldn't find a single steak that was large enough to feed both of us, so I augmented a little porterhouse with a few lamb chops. (Lamb. Anchovies. Lamb, AND anchovies!) And I decided to try my hand at creamed spinach, which I love but had never made.

We let the dough defrost for a while in the fridge, and then we took it out so it could rise. Later on, I stretched it, sprinkled it with sweet paprika and hot pepper flakes, dumped a can of anchovies on top, oil included (this is of paramount importance), and rolled and sliced it. I'm still nowhere near achieving the crisp-and-chewy wonder of my aunt's (or my grandmother's) efforts -- remember, she uses supermarket dough, which may somehow be key -- but having even second-rate Those Things is cause for celebration. And I can tell you this: They go great with a mixed grill. And so does creamed spinach.

Health Food


After a recent steady diet of meats and tomatoey Italian dishes, we felt like we needed something a little lighter. So I whipped up some shrimp. With lots of bacon. I served them over grits. With tons of cheddar cheese.

Well, so much for that "lighter" thing. On the other hand, we didn't really eat lunch...

Of Sauces and Florets


I like to serve fish pretty simply, but I've also been experimenting with quick sauces to enhance the flavors.

Tonight, as I pan-fried pieces of steelhead trout, I whisked together a little potion on the next burner. I made the tiniest roux possible, with just a bit of butter and flour, since I wanted to bind the sauce without making it thick. I added an anchovy and broke it up, and then I poured in some white wine and shrimp stock. A dab of tomato paste for color, a few strokes of the whisk, and it was ready. Could I have made more of this tasty liquid? Sure. But I was going for just a small pool of flavor, not a full bath, and so the fish-to-sauce ratio seemed right. The trout received just a dash of pick-me-up on its way home.

Meanwhile, I roasted cauliflower with olive oil and pancetta. Per my mom's instructions, I cooked it nice and hot -- 475 -- and turned it with tongs along the way, until it had the proper char. Even without pancetta (bite my tongue!), this is something I could eat just about every day. Roasted cauliflower, you've officially entered our heavy rotation.

Paella Pretender


Ever since I got that great Spanish chorizo for Margy's empanadas, I've been looking for ways to slip the remainder of the sausage into our meals. A bastardized paella had been taking shape in my mind for weeks.

Tonight I gave it a shot. I cooked Arborio rice with chorizo, tiny pork spare ribs from the Asian market, shrimp, clams, peas, shrimp stock (didn't have any chicken stock), aromatics, saffron, and herbs. I definitely wouldn't call it paella, but I would call it dinner. The only bummer was the clams, which were rubbery, but at least they lent the dish a bit of briny sea essence, so they weren't a total washout. The highlights were the smoky, spicy chorizo and the tiny ribs, which were short on meat but long on porkaliciousness.

I should probably backtrack and attempt a traditional paella -- with that great crust on the bottom and all -- but for now this was a fun start. It was a little runny when compared to the real deal, so I'll just call it Spanish risotto and leave it at that.

Sticking with Sardines


Tonight, only sardines would do. Call it the need for oily fish.

Sardines aren't easy. Cheap, yes. Delicious, absolutely. But those little tiny bones, they can become a concern. Even the highly skilled guys at our Asian market's fish counter throw up their hands when you ask them to clean 'em. ("Only gut," is a common refrain.) So when I buy sardines, I feel the same way I do when I buy heads-on shrimp: excited, but a little guilty that I'm about to make Margy labor for her dinner.

Thing is, the bones are so small, in fact, that I'm pretty sure you can just eat them. The thinner, brittler ones, anyway. The pattern for me is always the same: I treat sardine #1 with kid gloves, gingerly excising each translucent little bone with the focus of a surgeon. I work hard for every omega-3-packed morsel I throw in my mouth. Then, somewhere, somehow, a bone or two gets through and I realize it's not the end of the world (as long as I make sure to chew). By sardine #2 I'm throwing caution to the wind.

Luckily, you can get in a rhythm of filleting the sardines and removing the majority of the skeleton in one motion, greatly cutting back on the bone crunching. And it's worth it -- there's nothing like a nice stack of freshly cooked sardines. Their flavor is related to that of their canned counterparts (which, let's be honest, have their share of little bones as well), but the fish are meatier, tastier, more succulent.

Tonight I cooked the sardines in hot oil for a minute and then poured in teriyaki sauce, which got nice and sticky and almost burnt in spots as it cooked along with the fish. Its potent salty sweetness was a good match for the strong-flavored sardines.

I adapted the side dish from the Crispy Vegetables that accompany Lemongrass-Crusted Skate (sounds good) in Dominique's Fresh Flavors. Margy, the mandoline expert, julienned daikon, carrot, broccoli stems, and celery root, and we tossed them in sesame oil with a little soy sauce and Sriracha hot sauce. Whenever we grew weary from the precision demanded by eating sardines, we could just tear into the rice and veggies with flagrant disregard for any consequences.

Murray's Cheese and an Italian Tortilla


Every month, Enzo and his wife receive a pound and a half of cheese from Murray's Cheese Shop. Whenever possible, they share the wealth. For example, when the band did our annual Vermont gigs in January, along came that month's fromage. The Gorgonzola was eaten heartily; the one nicknamed "Old Stinker" didn't have to be unwrapped to reveal its undesirability and spent the weekend shivering on the porch, only to be tossed altogether once it made it back to New York City. (I understand the latter variety to be an aberration. Apparently Murray's tends to ship edible cheeses much more often than "I dare you"-type selections.)

Tonight Margy and I attended one of Enzo's cheese parties. On the invitation email, he referred modestly to "light fare," but he and his wife presented quite the impressive spread -- three excellent cheeses of the month (Gouda and two softer Brie types), bread and crackers, fruit and crudités, olives, quince jam, assorted salumi, proscuitto-wrapped asparagus, and Enzo's terrific Spanish tortilla (pictured). Everything was tasty, as was the wine, which flowed freely and included guests' selections as well as bottles from our hosts' carefully chosen private stock. A little later on, someone brought baked Brie in a bread bowl, and Enzo made sliced-steak crostini. Long after our other bandmates had switched to Budweiser, it was kielbasa time. No one went home hungry... or sober.

Shank Shack


We hadn't seen my parents for a while, so we booked them for a Sunday dinner at our place. And so began the discussions of what to cook. Mom -- easy. Anything but soft-shell crabs and Brussels sprouts. (Weird, I know. In my heart I still believe I'll find a way to get her to like Brussels sprouts.) Virtually any nationality is fair game. Dad, though -- tough. He claims he likes just about everything, but I say there's a shade of distinction between eating everything and actually liking everything. "I love Indian food," he'll say. "But only the best." First of all, it's hard to love Indian food if you can't stand cumin. Secondly, the idea of "the best" -- somehow, improbably, an objective standard in my father's mind -- can get pretty muddy outside the largely European concept of fine dining, where more stars often mean higher prices and more reliable quality. Is "the best" Indian food found in the most opulent restaurants? Not in my experience. Even after all these years it's hard for me to follow my dad's reasoning when he goes down this path. To his credit, it probably harks back to the time when there were only a handful of decent Chinese restaurants in New York City ("decent," I can work with). He hunted for them, and he found them, while all I have to do is open a Zagat's. Anyway, Dad is actually pretty open-minded. He really will eat anything, which I greatly admire. It's just that when you're his son and daughter-in-law and you have him over for dinner, you're wise to stick pretty close to Italy and France. And if you make a salad, you should probably skip the balsamic. Since we don't really do much French food around here, and since a visit from the food-savvy parentals is hardly the time to experiment, we settled on Italian, which led quickly and easily to the idea of osso buco. After all, I needed something that isn't in my mom's bag of tricks (not much to choose from there), and I don't remember her ever making osso buco, while I'm pretty comfortable with it. It's not hard to be comfortable with something that doesn't need much coaxing to melt itself into the most rich and velvety and tender and delicious substance known to humankind. So yesterday morning I headed over to my favorite butcher to get the meat. I was a bit worried, because sometimes they're out of osso buco, and I didn't want to have to get it at the supermarket, where it's not as pristine. I tried to drag myself out as early as I could. I walked through the door and made a beeline to the pork/veal/lamb case. Standing right there, holding an overflowing basket of assorted meats, was my mother.We laughed, and hugged, and she said to the guy who was buying short ribs, "My son!" He remarked that the resemblance was clear. "I'm shopping for you," I said to my mom, who of course protested. Wait till she sees what I have in mind, I thought. There was no point in hiding it. I told her, just as the guy in front of me said to the butcher, "I'll take those last three osso buco." I nearly fainted. Then I saw another whole shank sitting in the case. Phew.I asked for four pieces, and the butcher went to cut them for me. They were absolutely beautiful, and even he couldn't help but admire his fine product. He weighed them -- at $13.99 a pound, the quartet came to $52.75. Yikes. My mom had to be standing right there, didn't she? "You're worth it," I insisted. We walked together to the register, and Mom, with her lam[...]