Simple, Simple, Simple

I had very little desire to cook anything last night. That is not to say that I wasn’t hungry. So fasting was out of the question. And both of us were tired, so whatever we did for dinner wasn’t going to include going out. I went to the market, hoping that some fantastic idea would leap into my mind as I walked the aisles. It didn’t happen, but they did have chicken breasts on sale that looked very good. And spinach is always a good bet, because it’s easy (and fast) to cook, and it tastes good.

I was all set, except for the trivial detail of having no idea what I was going to do with the chicken. When in doubt, use the biggest, heaviest tool in the kitchen. Ignoring the KitchenAid mixer, I picked up my trusty mallet. And not just any mallet. This mallet has beaten dozens of abalone steaks (but that’s another story). It would have to settle for a more pedestrian dish, but it was certainly up to the task. I put a chicken breast in a heavy-duty gallon ZipLoc bag and beat the hell out of it until it was about 1/2 inch thick. I used a sliding stroke, rather than straight-up-and-down, so the meat didn’t just turn to mush. I did that twice (two half chicken breasts, two people). A light dusting of flour, a bit of salt and pepper, and into a very hot nonstick pan into which I put a bit of butter (for flavor) and a bit of canola oil. Three minutes on each side, and the chicken was done. I deglazed the pan with some white wine (the crappy stuff in the back of the refrigerator), lemon juice and some parsley, reduced the liquid by half, and poured it over the chicken. The spinach was even easier. I heated up some olive oil in a big pot, sautéed one clove of chopped garlic, and tossed in the washed spinach. A few minutes on high heat, a pinch of salt and pepper, and we were ready to eat.

I describe this simple meal not to provide ideas, although it was tasty. The point is, cooking doesn’t have to be complex, or even planned. I cooked the chicken the way I did because I knew that my wife enjoys the tartnessof lemon juice. I pounded it because thin cooks faster than thick. I sautéed the spinach because it is the simplest and fastest way to cook it. Was it a glorious meal? No, but it was tasty and quick, and we both enjoyed it. Sometimes cooking isn’t the most important thing in the world!

Marinated Tuna Steak

I realize that tuna is an expensive fish, but there is almost no waste, it tastes great, and it is full of those wonderful fatty acids that we are supposed to eat. I made this dish last night, and had I not known what I was eating, I would have sworn that it was a New York Strip steak. It went wonderfully with the sautéed tomatoes that you, hopefully, see below.

Marinated Tuna Steak


2-inch thick tuna steak, trimmed of skin and any connective tissue
oz. of good-quality extra virgin olive oil
tsp. fresh thyme leaves (don’t chop them)
tsp. fresh black pepper
tsp. lemon zest

½ tsp. kosher salt

Whisk the olive oil with the lemon zest and the thyme and pour over the tuna steak. Dredge the tuna through the oil so that it is completely covered in the oil-and-herb mixture. Cover and refrigerate for two hours. If you remember, turn the steak once or twice to ensure even marinating. Remove the steak from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before cooking.

Preheat a heavy cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat for at least five minutes. Make sure that it is well seasoned; otherwise, the fish might stick to the pan. Meanwhile, remove the tuna from the marinade and salt and pepper both sides. leave whatever thyme and lemon has adhered to the fish. Turn the heat up to high for about one minute and place the tuna steak in the middle of the skillet. Do not move it or poke it; you are looking for a nice sear, and if you are impatient, the tuna will stick to the pan and you will have to order a pizza. The house is going to get a bit smoky, so turn the exhaust fan up to hurricane setting. With a large metal spatula, turn the fish, hopefully in one motion. After another three minutes, you have a choice of removing the tuna or searing the sides, as well. Just be careful not to overcook the tuna. Let the steak rest for a minute, then slice and serve. By the way, the cooking time above is for a rare steak (the only way to have it).

Sautéed Tomatoes?

This is a recipe that my wife and I saw on Ina Garten’s TV show, barefoot contessa. It looked like fun, so we gave it a shot last night. It was more than fun — it was very, very good. The herbs are a perfect foil for the sweetness of the tomatoes. We ate them at slightly warmer than room temperature, but I think they would be great straight out of the pan (actually, I know they would be; I snagged a few while they were cooking). We served the tomatoes with marinated pan-seared tuna. I have not edited the recipe except for spelling, for obvious reasons.

Garlic and Herb Tomatoes

3 tablespoons good olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic (two cloves)
2 pints cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan large enough to hold all the tomatoes in one layer. Add the garlic to the oil and cook over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, basil, parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to lose their firm round shape. Sprinkle with a little fresh chopped basil and parsley and serve hot or at room temperature.

Garlic: Good And Bad

I would cheerfully eat garlic at every meal. Raw, sautéed, in sauces, roasted with oil and spread on good bread, and my favorite, cooked gently in olive oil and tossed with pasta. Yes, I know, this will sometimes make me smell like a large walking clove, but I’ll put up with the social rejection because it tastes so good. I remember making a dish of penne with garlic and cauliflower (odoriferous in its own right!) and realizing after I finished the entire batch for lunch that I would be sitting next to another human being at work for the next several hours, in a small office, training him on a new system. Ouch.

I usually buy only one bulb at a time. I haven’t found a source for really good garlic, and I dislike the typical green-cored cloves that I routinely get. The garlic isn’t particularly fresh, and it is beginning to sprout, so I will cut the clove in half and remove the green sprout. But it still leaves me with a clove that is a bit stronger, and sharper, in flavor than I would prefer. I was spoiled when I lived in California, less than 100 miles from Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world. The bulbs that I bought were dense and firm and were not dried out, and they did not have any of the browning that I find typical of garlic grown on the East Coast. The garlic itself seemed sweeter, with less of the pungency that most of us are used to. I am sure that top-quality garlic can be found, and if anyone has a source in the New York area, I will be in your debt if you would share your secret with me.

Gritty McDuff’s Original Pub Style Ale

Can you tell that I am on a beer kick? Well, this stuff might get me off it. Wait, that’s not fair, but I wasn’t tremendously impressed by Gritty’s effort. It was missing something, something like…flavor! Everything else was quite nice. The ale was a nice, medium copper color, the head was creamy, and it even smelled pretty good. But tasting it was like tasting watered-down wine, or a martini that has sat too long on the ice. There was taste, just not enough of it. I could detect some hoppiness and maybe even some fruit overtones. It was certainly pleasant — I finished the six-pack (no, not last night), but I want some intensity of flavor in my beer, and this stuff just didn’t have it. I am pretty picky when it comes to beer, and if I were marooned on a desert island with a choice of Gritty McDuff’s Original Pub Style Ale or Miller, Gritty would be getting my business. But I would still poke around for the case of Lagunitas IPA buried next to the crooked palm tree.

Pop Pop Pop

My wife has been nagging me to do a taste-test of microwave popcorn versus conventionally popped popcorn. I have a sneaking suspicion that her true motivation is to participate in the test. She likes popcorn so much that I think she goes to movies just to eat the popcorn. I find movie-house popcorn to be disgusting. Of course, I eat it, too — there isn’t anything else to eat, and I can’t sit for two hours without eating something.

I need more than one subject, so I am going to enlist our thirteen-year-old and a few of her friends. A lousy movie and several bowls of popcorn? What could be better? The problem is the brand of corn and the oil I will
use for the conventional popping. I have an old friend who claims that bacon grease is the Rolls Royce of popping fat. And I have a small quantity of rendered duck fat that is very tempting. But I think I will stick to corn oil or canola oil. Something neutral, so the test is fair. Any suggestions for the brand of popcorn? Orville Redenbacher makes both, and I am sure that a few of the big players do, too. But what about quality? Does anyone have an opinion?

Ipswich Original Ale (Mercury Brewing Company)

This was a very good “English Style Pale Ale” that didn’t taste very English to me, but nonetheless, it was a very good match with the nachos that I made for dinner last night. Nachos? Yup, because I had a small amount of beef chili and not much else in the house, so nachos was the logical choice. The ale is made by a small company (Mercury Brewing Company) in, surprise!, Ipswich, Massachusetts. I haven’t had anything else they make, which seems to include a large assortment of sodas.

The ale had a nice pale copper color, with a nice creamy head and a malty aroma that was quite appealing. It was not too carbonated, which immediately made me very happy. One of the problems with otherwise excellent American beers and ales is the excessive carbonation. If I want a glass of seltzer, I’ll drink a glass of seltzer! But this stuff was not overloaded with CO2. There was a hint of hops, but nowhere near enough to call this an “English Style Pale Ale.” And that is not a criticism. I liked the malty, roasted flavors with just a touch of bitterness. Good stuff. I’ll buy it again, and I will also try their other beers. I am impressed.

Show Tunes And Good Food

This is the first of what I hope will be a regular event — a guest blogger! Please ignore the shot she takes at New Jersey…obviously, she has never had a fried hot dog!

One of the most difficult
decisions I have to make when going to the theater in
New York City is where to eat. Do we eat before the theater and
rush through dinner, or do we eat a ridiculously late dinner? Do we try a new,
trendy place certain to disappoint? Unfortunately, in the
Times Square area, the pickings are slim…unusual for a New York neighborhood. I suspect that is because Times Square caters predominantly to tourists and natives from
New Jersey who don’t know better. I have had many a mediocre
meal at crowded Italian, French, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants in the area.

This problem was solved
on Sunday when I discovered Tagine, which serves the best Moroccan food I’ve had
New York. With lots of friendly advice from the charming executive chef and co-owner,
Hamid, and his magnificent wife and co-owner, Toni, we were served an assortment of cold mezze (kale, eggplant and olive dishes), followed
by the sublime bastilla as appetizers. The bastilla was certainly the best I
have ever tried, made with pheasant (not pigeon.) Bastilla is a fillo pie
stuffed with stewed pheasant in saffron broth and glazed with almond and
cinnamon. As a main course, we shared a vegetable couscous stewed in chick pea
broth, lamb tagine with prunes and almonds, and chicken tagine with preserved
lemon and olives. And for dessert, we had a fruit platter, on the house.

The service was extremely
friendly, the Moroccan wine was excellent (believe it or not), and the ambience
was exactly how I imagine a traditional restaurant in
Fez. Even more wonderful, the bill was reasonable. I
understand belly dancing begins at
9:30 p.m., which my sons would have loved to watch but we
had to go home to finish homework. The kitchen at Tagine stays open until
2:00 a.m., but the bar serves until 4:00 a.m. on the weekends. The restaurant is located at 537 9th Avenue at 40th Street. Why
’t I found it before? Because, even though they request a listing each
year, they have never been listed in Zagats. This restaurant is a real sleeper — rustic and warm, with superb food.

Incidentally, when I
described my find to a friend, she said Sushi by Gari is also opening in the
Theater District.

Banana Bread

This is a fairly rich bread, so don’t be fooled into thinking that you can eat four slices for breakfast and keep your trim figure. But it’s probably healthier than cake, and every kid who has come through my kitchen has seemed to like it. It is also a way to use those bananas that no one will eat because they are completely brown.

Banana Bread

4-5 over-ripe bananas
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

6 ounces (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda (mix into flour)
½ teaspoon salt (mix into flour)

Preheat oven to 350°

Butter a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan.

With an electric mixer, or even better, a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip the bananas and sugar together for a few minutes on the highest speed that won’t splatter banana on your ceiling; the goal is to blend the sugar thoroughly into the bananas and get some loft into the mixture.

Slow the speed to medium-low and add the eggs and vanilla; mix for 30 seconds or so and then slowly (especially if you didn’t have time to allow it to cool) add the butter. Mix in the dry ingredients at low speed for a few seconds, just until you can’t see any dry flour. Using a spatula, scrape the sides and bottom down and finish mixing by hand. Pour the batter into the buttered loaf pan. Whack the pan on the counter and then give it a bit of a shake until the batter is level.

Place the pan on a baking sheet to catch any overflow and bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes. About is the important word here. After about an hour take a quick peek at the loaf. If it looks wet at the top then bake it for a few more minutes. Just make sure not to overcook it. I actually don’t like banana bread very much, but it is positively awful when it’s overcooked and dry. I make this for the little brats, who seem to devour it, especially when it is slightly underdone. They like banana bread more than they like raw bananas, so every time I buy bananas they carefully do not eat the last four, hoping that I will make this crap. It works. I hate being manipulated by children.

Oh, one more thing. This works fantastically as a muffin batter (Bake for about 32-34 minutes).

Dehlinger “Goldridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir 1998

I am not sure that reviewing this wine is of any use, other than possibly demonstrating that I am a pompous ass. It is almost impossible to find any of it, and I bought it from the mailing list when it was released. But, damn it was good!

I’ll give you the downside first. The wine lost a lot after being open for less than one hour. The upside is that we were just about finished with it by then. If I had to use one word to describe this wine, it would be “elegant.” It wasn’t particularly powerful, but everything came together in a gentle, seamless way. It had a lovely nose, without any astringency or blast of alcohol. It also had plenty of fruit, which surprised me, although it was tough to identify any particular flavor. But it was also a substantial wine, with plenty of thickness and texture. I realize that I am using phrases that may seem contradictory, but I am having a tough time describing the wine. Everything worked well, so nothing stood out. What pleased me most of all was the absence of a certain “bright cherry” flavor that I find to be boring, and which is common in too many California pinot noirs.

If you can find some, and feel like spending a fair bit of money, give it a shot. But make sure that your bottle was stored correctly. I don’t think that this wine would survive to this age without impeccable storage conditions.