Mirepoix -- From the French, a mix of aromatics that provide the savory foundation of a recipe. From The City Cook, a periodic report on things that have been collecting on my desk.
I've been largely absent from The City Cook these past few months due to knee surgery. Many friends (and my surgeon) have reassured me that people of all ages have meniscus problems but there's nothing like being immobilized by a leg brace for six weeks to make you feel like you'll never dance again.
Had someone told me that I'd have a month and a half when aside from being unable to walk, I'd be in good health with someone else taking care of everything -- shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, retrieving the daily newspapers at our door -- I'd be doing high fives and pulling out my unfinished copy of Middlemarch. But that didn't happen. Instead the most I could focus on were food magazines and the latest copy of Garden & Gun.
And I would watch television. Especially reruns of The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that was completely new to me despite it being a hit for 10 years. As my brain became as dull as the ache in my left knee, I'd binge watch reruns of a gang of adorable nerds who seem to spend most of each half-hour episode eating. They eat take-out sitting around their coffee table, sandwiches in the Cal Tech cafeteria, burgers at the Cheesecake Factory, and snacks in various science labs, bars, and cars. No one seems to cook much. And no one is overweight despite a diet of Thai food, Chinese take-out, pizza, tacos, toast, and bowls of spaghetti.
Fortunately the nerds' meals wouldn't inspire my husband, who eschews take-out as much as I do. Instead, when facing six weeks when I couldn't grocery shop or cook, he did it for both of us. Mark is very competent in many things, but aside from his making breakfasts and THE best scrambled eggs, I normally do nearly all of the cooking in our family. When he stepped into this temp kitchen job it took some planning to figure out what he should, more importantly, could do. We didn't want the daily tasks to be stressful which meant simple cooking. We eat healthy meals and so I didn't want too many bowls of pasta. Six weeks is a long time so we wanted some variety. And I wanted to have a meal plan that wouldn't create a huge grocery-shopping burden for him.
We were certainly not the first family to face such a challenge -- to abruptly have the primary cook be out of commission and have daily meals be added to the other stress that is inevitable when there's a health issue in a household. So in case it is useful to others, I thought I'd share what we did. Or more precisely, what Mark did -- both on his own, and with me sitting in my wheelchair, giving him instructions and applause.
The goal was a daily dinner that didn't require much technique or fuss meaning we stayed away from stews, braises, anything that needed assembly, and anything with a sauce (except tomato sauce). It needed to include two vegetables or a salad and a vegetable, plus protein that five days a week was either chicken or fish, and two days could be red meat (pork, beef, or lamb). We do not normally eat dessert aside from fruit. We live a few blocks from a full-service grocer, two blocks from a fish store, and about 5 blocks from a Whole Foods and Mark would shop two or three times a week.
This is what we did:
- Buy pre-washed salad. I do this anyway because it's a snap to open a bag of baby arugula, slice a red onion and some cherry tomatoes, and add a little drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice.
- Buy pre-cut vegetables. I normally don't do this because they cost more and how hard is it to slice Brussels sprouts? But for the unpracticed cook the higher price saves time and pressure on one's knife skills.
- Salad dressing: Bad knee or not, we weren't going to buy bottled dressing. Instead Mark made vinaigrette in quantities enough for three or four salads: 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 5 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, and about 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, multiplying this two or three-fold using a jar with a cover and giving it a shake. Refrigerated, it lasts a week or so.
- Rotisserie chickens. I'm normally a fan of these for quick chicken salads or to add to soups. But Mark would get one every week or so; we have half for our dinner and then two or three days later used the other half to make an entrée salad. He'd serve it with store-bought chutney or lingonberries to add a little diversity without adding work.
- Roast chicken in pieces. Buy family packs of chicken thighs on the bone at Whole Foods (we'd cook half and freeze the rest). Season with salt, pepper, and maybe a little paprika or espelette pepper and roast at 425° F for about 40 minutes. Let it rest for five minutes before serving. You can do the same with chicken breasts but cook these at 350° F for 30 to 40 minutes.
- Roasted vegetables. Fortunately I was laid up in the winter so it wasn't a problem to have the oven at 425° F every night. Mark became expert in filling sheet pans with carrots, chunks of butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and almost any vegetable that wasn't leafy.
- Combine take-out with home-cooked. This is a good tip for any cook at any skill level when you're short on time but want to eat at home. For example, Mark would buy pre-made turkey meatballs from our neighborhood market's prepared foods and add it to spaghetti he'd cook, plus add a salad, which made the whole meal taste homemade.
- Boxed soups. It's increasingly easy to buy very good pre-made boxed soups. They make a nice start to a meal, especially one that's made up of leftovers. Try different brands and flavors until you find ones you like.
- Other vegetables. Mark loves peas and carrots, which is easy using frozen peas and boiling sliced carrots until tender. The peas don't even need cooking; just give them a rinse under hot tap water and add them to the hot, cooked carrots. Other frozen vegetables, like corn, are also easy and tasty. Fresh green beans are easy to cook after you've cleaned and trimmed them; you can make them special with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.
- Bread and Cheese. If a meal doesn't seem substantial enough and maybe needs a carb, it is easy to add slices of good bread and good cheese. For example, slices of whole grain bread and English cheddar plus a big bowl of good boxed vegetable soup makes an easy and satisfying supper.
- Burgers. Buy good ground meat -- beef, pork or lamb all work -- and follow the Sam Sifton method of 8 oz. per burger, salt and pepper, and a hot cast iron pan for about three minutes a side for medium rare. It might not have the finesse of say Patricia Wells' wonderful pork burgers seasoned with sliced shallots and fish sauce, but the results were always successful because Mark made an effort to get as good quality meat as possible.
- Fish. We stayed away from white, flaky fish, e.g., snapper or cod, because these can be trickier to cook. Instead we stuck with tuna, swordfish and especially salmon. In a preheated cast iron grill pan, swordfish is broiled to perfection in 5 minutes, and on top of the stove, tuna only needs two to three minutes a side depending on how thick it is. Cooking salmon is fail-proof if you use Ina Garten's method: with skin on and a very hot preheated empty (no oil) oven-proof skillet, rub salmon pieces with oil and salt and pepper, cook it flesh side down at medium -- without moving -- for exactly two minutes, then flip each piece over to skin side down and place in a 450° F preheated oven for 5 to 7 minutes. It will be perfect.
- Shellfish. Shrimp is extra work to peel but they're quick and easy to cook needing only a little olive oil to sauté about 2 minutes a side. Scallops are equally easy to sauté. Remember to buy only wild shrimp (see further down for why) and dry scallops to be sure there are no toxins or added chemicals.
- Chops. Pork, veal and lamb chops are about the simplest thing to cook in a city kitchen. Use your broiler and put the meat on a broiler pan or on a rack that sits in a sheet pan so that the meat is about 5 inches below the heat source. Time will depend upon how thick the chops and how well you like the meat cooked but 5 to 7 minutes is a good target. As with other meats, let the chops rest for about 5 to 8 minutes before serving.
- Pasta. This is simple, of course, especially since good jarred sauces are so available. I'm partial to ones by Rao's, especially the one with artichokes and also the spicy arrabiata. There are also very good store-made pesto sauces. For a simple side dish, Mark would cook orzo and after draining it but while it was still hot, mix it in a serving bowl with some grated Parmesan cheese and lots of black pepper.
- Sushi Take-Out. We learned to not be heroes and every ten days or so would happily call our favorite Japanese restaurant for sushi, noodle soups, or fish. As Mark would always happily point out, those were the nights when he not only didn't have to cook -- there were no dirty dishes, either.
I'm happy to say that my knee is fine and I've taken back the kitchen. Dancing comes next.
In case the holidays caused you to miss this, Cuisinart has issued a recall for the steel blades in many of their food processor models. If you think that just because you've had your food processor for a long time that it doesn't affect you, think again: I had bought mine about 20 years ago (it's still fabulous and I still love it) and mine was on the list.
For more information, including how to find out if you need to register and have Cuisinart send you a new blade, go to this website: https://recall.cuisinart.com/
I'm always beating the drum about wild shrimp. I know they cost more and not every fishmonger has wild shrimp in every size. But if you needed more anecdotes as to why you should make it a rule to only buy wild -- and in my opinion, to also stop eating shrimp in restaurants -- read this recent article from Bloomberg.
NYC Area Classes
If this winter seems like a good time to up your game in wines and cocktails, and if you can wait until March, you can take advantage of a 15% early bird discount on all classes at Astor Center in Manhattan. Classes that month include Tequila Cocktail Lab, Wines of Tuscany, Brunch Cocktail Class, Whiskey Smackdown: Irish vs. Japanese, and many more. You have until January 28 to sign up and use EBMAR17 to get the discount. Or you can visit them here.
If you prefer something a bit more dangerous involving knives and blood, the splendid new butcher-cum-restaurant, April Bloomfield's White Gold Butcher is holding butchery workshops on-site at the butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue at 78th street. You can get more information here.
Here are two excellent and recently published cookbooks that you might want for yourself now that holiday gift-giving is done.
Donna Hay is a hugely popular author, magazine editor, and television host in Australia. I first discovered her cookbooks about twenty years ago, first drawn to their easy-to-use and welcoming style and her appealing ideas of what it means to cook every day. I also loved her books' stylish format and paperback bindings, and the four I own -- Modern Classics I and II, The New Cook, and Off The Shelf, are all well dog-earred and have influenced the cook I am today.
Late last year Donna Hay published in the U.S. a new volume that is very exciting, plus gorgeous, and I think perfectly timed for how our ways of cooking and eating have evolved. Life In Balance: A Fresher Approach to Eating (by Donna Hay © 2015, photography by Chris Court, William Meppem, published by Fourth Estate, a division of Harper Collins publishers, 239 pages, color photography, soft cover with ribbon, $34.99) is the kind of book that can get you back into the kitchen, and back with enthusiasm, flavor, and healthy eating. It will also help you navigate what may still be unfamiliar ingredients, such as seeds, greens, grains, and non-animal proteins.
Hay is an advocate for moderation, or she puts it, "…embracing the flavour and richness of whole foods, but leaving plenty of room for life's little indulgences." In this volume she has over 115 recipes that offer satisfaction and pleasure, enriched both in terms of flavor as well as nutrition from what she calls nature's superfoods. So while you'll find appealing ways to cook meats, make dessert, have banana pancakes, savory tarts, and be comforted with recipes like Thai Crispy Chicken Soup, Whipped Ricotta Soufflé, and Ras el Hanout Grilled Lamb, many of the conventional ingredients have been swapped out with whole grains, spice mixes, seeds and nuts, and what she calls power proteins, such as her recipes for Cauliflower and Goat's Cheese Whole-Wheat Tart, Dukkah-Crusted Salmon, and Peach and Coconut Chia Snacks. We've published two recipes: Watercress, Broccoli and Roasted Garlic Pesto (great for mid-winter when fresh basil is scarce) and Crispy Chia Tofu. See our links.
If you don't know Donna Hay, this book is a perfect introduction. And if you've made New Year resolutions about eating better, Life In Balance will make that promise much easier to keep.
So will a new volume from the folks at America's Test Kitchen called The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook: 500 Vibrant, Kitchen-Tested Recipes For Living and Eating Well Every Day (© 2016 By The Editors At America's Test Kitchen, Paperback, 440 pages, color photography, $29.95). This compilation is based upon what is known as the "Mediterranean diet," which includes fresh vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, more seafood and less red meat, and olive oil -- the way so many of us eat today.
The 500 recipes are influenced by the cuisines of France, North Africa, Spain, Greece, Italy and other areas that rim the Mediterranean Sea. ATK prides itself on creating appealing dishes that use supermarket ingredients so this is a volume that can be not just healthy and flavorful but also budget-friendly. As in many of the region's cuisines, there is no butter in any recipe; only heart-healthy olive oil. As an example, see our link to their recipe for Olive Oil-Yogurt Cake in which whole milk yogurt gives the cake and its lemon glaze tang and richness.
- After emerging from bankruptcy last July, Fairway is back on its feet and opening a new store, its second in Brooklyn. This one is in Bergen Beach at 2149 Ralph Avenue. At 40,000 square feet, this new Fairway is replacing a Waldbaum's in the Georgetown Shopping Center. The store opened this week.
- Want to make your own beer? Keurig Green Mountain and Anheuser-Busch are working together to create an alcohol brewing system built using Keurig's KOLD system. The product is being developed for the North American market but no word yet when it will be available.
- Whole Foods' latest NYC store opens on Saturday, January 28 at Bryant Park in Manhattan. The 36,000 square foot store is located at 1095 Sixth Avenue, at W. 42nd Street. Much of that acreage will feature prepared foods, which makes sense given the office building/tourist nature of that neighborhood.
- Whole Foods has also announced that it will open one of its new lower-priced 365 stores in Brooklyn, in a new 35-story condominium tower next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not far from the Barclays Center. The store, with 43,000 square feet on two levels, is expected to open in early 2018.
- Trader Joe's is also opening new NYC stores. Seems that rumor has turned to fact that the popular grocery chain will open at Columbus Avenue at 92nd Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. No hard date yet but the plan is to open before this summer.
- Amazon has launched its latest private label snack line called Wickedly Prime. It was launched in December and includes popcorn, almonds and tortilla chips. This line has Amazon's name and Prime brand all over it, unlike its Happy Belly nut and trail mix product. A 16 oz. bag of Wickedly Prime Soft Shell Almonds costs $7.99. I mention this because Amazon continues to enter the food business and I think it merits watching what they do and how they do it. They are the 800-pound gorilla in all things retail so if they are in food, it will impact us.
- Love lobster? The relatively bargain prices of the past few years are creeping up thanks to demands from the Chinese market, especially for Chinese New Year celebrations. What had been $9 - $11 a pound is now $13 a pound. The good news is that lobstermen, most of whom work in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, say that supply isn't a problem and that some of the price rise has been due to bad weather making it harder to harvest the traps. So you will still be able to have your lobster roll but it may cost you more.
In researching recipes for Bolognese sauce (although I'm sticking with Marcella Hazan's classic), I came upon a charming and useful blog by American food and travel writer Elizabeth Minchilli who lives in Rome (she also gives food and other tours plus cooking classes there). Give it a visit if you're planning a trip to Italy, or want some new ideas about making pasta, or maybe are simply craving some dolci ricordi. Sweet memories.
Happy New Year everyone.