Thursday, March 25, 2010


I am ignoring my work. There are many words for this - lazy, slipshod, dilettante, wastrel, indolent, idle, lethargic, sluggish, slothful - and I have been all those things in my life, truly, as well as sometimes even conscientiously unemployed. (There is another word for it too: Free-lance.)

This week, however, I am on vacation. Getting my ducks in a row, as it were.

And while I am not cooking, I am eating. Boy am I. Fresh strawberries as big as a small boy's fist for breakfast, crispy grilled salmon and avocado for lunch. Hand cranked gelato for a beach break. And for dinner, crab legs and fresh Gulf shrimp, steamed at the fishery, or on the boat just out of the water. You pick it up after 2, just off the boat, put it in the fridge. Pull it out with cocktail sauce (I add extra horseradish to mine) and uncork a bottle of Chardonnay.

And enjoy the sunset.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Veal Thing

When Elaine Boland's second youngest daughter was 6, she began gaining weight at a rate so differently than her four sisters that her mother worried. Her energy waned, she had pain in her joints and headaches; some days she "shuffled like a little old man." Doctors said it was just a matter of exercise and diet; one even suggested the girl was getting into her mom's birth control pills ("C'mon. Really?" says the Catholic mother of 5).

So Boland, a farmer, took matters into her own hands. She began growing their own food on her farm, Fields of Athenry in Purcellville, VA,  feeding her family straight from the earth. "If it doesn't rot, don't eat it," became their mantra.

 "We've gotten so far removed from our food sources that we don't even recognize our food," says Boland, a tall, very present woman with a sweep of red gold hair and cowboy boots. "If we would take yesteryear's food in combination with today's medicine, much of the whole health care drama would go away. We could fix adult diabetes, a good deal of depression, sleeping patterns -- and doctors could focus on real illness."

Seven years and brain surgery later, doctors finally diagnosed Cushing's disease, an imbalance of the thyroid that creates unstable cortisol levels, which control energy. But in the meantime Boland has created a utopia of fresh, local goods which she now hopes can help others to find their way back to real food.

When you pull up to Fields of Athenry, you just might see a small lamb trying to go home with a shopper. Inside the retail space around back, goodies galore. Raw milk cheeses, Amish butter. Meat from cows, pigs and sheep raised on pasture, processed weekly to exacting standards. Fridges full of cuts of meat that fill my head with fancies.

First stop, ossobuco. The famous Italian dish made with veal shanks, so hard to come by around these parts, unless one plans ahead and orders them from the butcher (not my strong suit). But here they were, fat, juicy, local, pasture raised veal shanks, for the taking.

Oh my.

Adapted from The Best of Italy (This is one of those pretty little cookbooks that friends and mothers pick up at the register at bookstores to shove in your stocking. I have tried umpteen Ossobuco recipes, from Rao to Batali and back, and this is the most simple, most reliable I've found.)

4 lbs. veal shanks (I get one per person)
flour for dredging (I use rice flour to omit gluten)
3 teaspoons butter
3 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup minced carrots
1/2 cup minced celery
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups beef stock (I use homemade beef broth; more on this later)
1 1/2 cups canned crushed tomatoes (Try for San Marzano brand)
1 teaspoon dried basil or 1/4 cup fresh, minced
1 teaspoon dried rosemary

for the gremolata:
2 Tablespoons grated lemon rind
1/4 cup parsley
1 garlic clove

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a heavy pan or ovenproof casserole over medium heat, heat 1 teaspoon of oil and 1 teaspoon butter. 
Dredge the veal in the flour, and sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper. Brown the veal on both sides and remove to a platter. Heat another teaspoon of butter and one of oil and repeat until all shanks are browned.

Pour off the fat from the pan but leave the drippings. Add the last teaspoon of butter and one of oil and cook onion, celery, carrots and garlic over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add wine and reduce for 1 minute. Add stock, tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper. Return veal to the pot and bring to a simmer. Put in the oven and braise for about 1 1/2 - 2 hours or until tender.

For gremolata: Put lemon rind, parsley, and garlic in a mini chopper and whiz.

When veal is tender, remove shanks to a platter. Reduce the sauce over high heat until desired thickness, about 15 minutes.

To serve: Cover a shank with sauce and sprinkle with gremolata.  Risotto is delicious alongside, or cheesy polenta.(Just buy Bob's Red Mill brand and follow the instructions, corn meal, water, salt, buono!)


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When life gives you onions, carmelize them

The last thing I am good at when I am mad is cooking. Probably since I live with the fairies most of the time, when my bubble bursts I become so focused on the pin that putting the meatloaf in on time seems trivial, if I even think of it at all. The onions whiz too long in the food processor -- doesn't it feel good to pulverize something! -- and once I get it in, I cook it higher than the recipe calls for so it is mushy on the inside from the watery onions, and burned to a shell outside. I forget the potatoes absolutely, having to pop them in the microwave then throw them in the oven at the last minute, not nearly long enough to satisfactorily crisp the skins. Despite following my grandmother's recipe, which I have made hundreds of times, the pie remained runny right through to the next day.

Everything was a bit off.

This is when it is a good time to make onions. Carmelized onions make everything better. They are the ultimate comfort food. On eggs. On toast. On steak or hamburger. The sweet, baked in goodness they earn after hours over a low flame somehow soothes the soul. It takes a long time to make good carmelized onions, but all you have to do is stir them. 

My friend Phil taught me this.

He knows a lot of things, like the words to every Beatles song,  and  Yankees' stats from before his time. When you are complicating something he is apt to mutter something about Rube Goldberg. And after producing "Made In Spain," a PBS special with Jose Andres, ( he knows from cooking.

Sunday mornings at Phil's have always been a treat. First off, there is the Sunday New York Times. Now, where we live, the New York Times doesn't show up until late morning, and you have to drive 15 minutes to fetch it, at that. You have to really want it. But if we spend the weekend with Phil, the New York Times is dropped off by the New York Times Fairy at 0'dark-thirty, and is there when you crack open the door to the day. You can get it in your slippers. (Actually, we can get it in our town in slippers too, but people nearly always point and talk.) And there is an entire Room for Building Trains, which is separate from the Coffee Drinking and Newspaper Reading Room. This makes Sunday morning way different from at our house, where all of these activities coexist. (Sans paper.)

And since Jose there is the omelet, with pancetta and carmelized onions, one of the nicest gifts I have ever received. It is firm outside and fluffy in, with flecks of salty pancetta and sweet onions floating about.

When I saw these sweet little organic red onions, I knew I had to Phil them. They are like little personal onions, just enough for a salad, or an omelet for two. Phil makes mass quantities each weekend, liking to have them at the ready for mini Philly cheese steaks (couldn't you just have guessed!) or for dabbing on roast meat or a slab of cheese. When I called to ask his onion secrets, the conversation went just like what you would imagine when you are dealing with real people's cooking methods.

ME: So how do you make those yummy onions?
P: Very simple. You put a bunch of oil in the pan...
ME: How much?
P: A little more than you think...
ME: How much?
P: Hmm. Four tablespoons. Over low heat.  
ME: How low?
P: Low. 
ME: So low you can't see the flame?
P: That would be too low. Lowest possible flame before it goes out. You cut up an onion. I do two, two gigantic onions, they shrink down so much.Toss the onions in the pan with the oil.

ME: I have an electric cooktop. Can I do it?
P: I forgot you do electric. [sighs] OK. If after ten minutes the oil bubbles and they brown, it is too high. If after 20 minutes nothing is happening it's too low. You cook them forever. 
ME: Forever?
P: An hour. I've forgotten about them for over one and a half hours. I get up on Saturday, put on the onions, we make breakfast, read the paper, whoever walks by stirs them. Then suddenly we have onions for the weekend. It's not at all an exact science. It's very forgiving.



Phil's Onions

2 gigantic yellow onions
4 Tablespoons olive oil

Slice onions thinly. Put a large heavy skillet over low heat (see above) and add oil. Toss onions with the oil and let carmelize, stirring occasionally (also see above), for about an hour until golden.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sweet veggies

Starting babies on real food is easy. They love the color that sweet potato becomes when it splats on the floor, the gush of a green pea being smushed. But getting big kids to eat real? More of an issue.
I had a child who heartily chowed colored food - wore it proudly, as it were - until he was 4. Now he prefers white food: mac and cheese, pizza, bagel and cream cheese. I am constantly pushing his nutritional envelope, swirling peas into whole grain pasta, hand-making tomato sauce, putting strips of crunchy red pepper in his lunch.

So when I heard of a recipe that involved cauliflower and broccoli, which kids were clamoring for, I had to check it out. Ana is from Bella Vista, in Jalisco, Mexico. Her mother has a bakery there, so Ana grew up with flour on her hands and the sweet smell of Belle Vista's sugar mill in her nostrils. I have not been there but I have a vision of a light-dappled town draped in bogainvillea and  smelling faintly of caramel all the time, a sweetness that surely permeates its inhabitants if sunny Ana is any indication.

(Just as an aside, here is a scary indicator of America's sweet tooth: According to Domino, of 100 pounds of sugar cane, 88 pounds become white "extra fine" or table sugar, and 3.5 to 4 pounds become three types of brown sugar: dark, light, and a medium that is sold only commercially. Two pounds becomes liquid sugar and two pounds is powdered. One and a half pounds of blackstrap molasses, a byproduct of the refining process, are also produced. Another byproduct, bagasse, which is what is left after the cane is all pressed out of the stalks, is being converted to fuel by some savvy entrepreneurs.)

Growing up, Ana made this with the vegetables that grow plentifully and are sold at the outdoor market there; we used organic substitutes from the local market and it was still yummy, strangely sweet though there is no added sugar.  Or "jummy" as Ana says it, "jummy in my tummy." Imagine how sweet it will be when we get our own local produce. 


Cauliflower and Broccoli En Salsa

olive oil, 1 teaspoon plus two tablespoons
1/2 a small onion
clove of garlic
pinch oregano
5 small tomatos
1 cauliflower, separated into florets
1 broccoli, separated into florets
3 eggs, separated
salt to taste

Slice onion lengthwise and saute in one teaspoon oil in a medium pan, until translucent. Meanwhile, boil a pot of water and blanch tomatoes so their skins slide off easily. Put tomatoes and garlic into blender and whiz to puree. Add to onion with pinch of oregano and let cook on low while you prepare the cauliflower and broccoli: this is the salsa.

Separate the egg. Beat whites until high and stiff. Fold in beaten yolks. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan. Dip florets in egg batter and fry until golden. Remove to a paper towel to cool. Repeat until all are done.

Season the salsa to taste with sea salt. Put the vegetables in the salsa and cook ten minutes; sauce will thicken and permeate the veggies.