Archive for the ‘Seafood’ Category

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

Boston Pops

I like to loaf. Makes sense. I write (as often as possible) a blog about baking.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this: indeed, the kind of loafing I’m talking about involves making a body-sized dent in my sofa, the white-noise hum of my air conditioner lulling me into a sweet, drooling afternoon nap. Ahhhh, summer.

I’d like to report that I will be spending the Fourth of July Holiday swinging in a hammock on the verandah of the amazing Hamptons beachfront hedge fund mansion of my friends Bill and Judy Cantwell. I’d LIKE to report that. Alas, Bill and Judy are mere figments of my imagination…and unfortunately, so is their amazing Hamptons beachfront hedge fund mansion. Ditto the hammock and verandah. (Don’t I have a rich, detailed inner life?)

Don’t be sad for me. Last year I actually did spend the Fourth of July at the beach front home of a couple of friends. Actually, water front would be more accurate: they live in Boston, right on the “hah-buh.” It was spectacular. We watched “Old Ironsides”—the famous revolutionary war frigate U.S.S. Constitution—sail by us and fire her cannons. Having grown up in Boston, I have to say that I was moved.

Many cities have their traditional Fourth of July celebrations. Here in the Big Apple we have the Macy’s Fireworks show in New York Harbor. Last year in Boston we discussed walking over the Charles River to watch the Boston Pops Orchestra play their annual outdoor concert. It turned out to be a lucky break that we stayed home as the concert was evacuated due to the threat of severe thunderstorms. (Mother Nature stole the spotlight. Again. What a ham.) This year I’ll be plopped on the aforementioned sofa, the orchestra will be on TV, and I’ll be screening “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring Jimmy Cagney. Believe me, I’m already happy just thinking of this.

Part of planning for any really good staycation is, of course, the meals. So far the menu includes crab cakes. Let’s talk crab cakes for a moment, shall we? My recipe is (pardon the pun) a mashup of many recipes, with the most notable steal being the multi-colored diced peppers from Ina Garten. You can keep your panko breadcrumbs, by the way. A few years ago pure serendipity caused me to make my crab cakes with matzo meal, and the change has been permanent. Yes, matzo meal can be dense and gluey, but you end up getting the same binding qualities by using less. (Sadly, I still err on the side of cheaper crab meat—claw, not back fin. Hey, crab meat doesn’t grow on trees.)

Also on the menu will be the “Quintessential Chocolate Chip Cookies” Martha Rose Shulman wrote about recently in the New York Times. I have my own very proud recipe, but this one make a very good, straightforward cookie.

The thought of making Peppermint Stick Ice Cream is tempting…but I’m kind of stuck on fruit pops. I waited through a long, cold winter to road test the Zoku Popsicle maker some friends gave me as a gift, and it’s a lot of fun to use.

There are a couple of tricks to keep in mind. My Zoku makes one pop at a time, so I won’t be opening up shop any time soon. But that limitation kind of ratchets down the expectations. Instead of it being a big project, it becomes more of a little treat. Also, eliminate any fantasies of sugar-free pops. Since sugar freezes solid a lower temperature it is that ingredient that keeps the frozen pops just soft enough to slip out of the mold without too much of a fight. Leave out the sugar (as I did in one of my attempts at pop making) and your pops won’t budge. My red, white, and blue “Boston Pops” seen in the photo employed a simple lemonade recipe: fresh lemon juice, superfine sugar, and water. A drop of food coloring in the Zoku mold allowed me to indulge in the patriotic theme even though the pops were all the same tangy lemon flavor.

And yes, the red ones turned my tongue red: the sure sign of a well made Popsicle.


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Silicone for my breasts

Fast food my way

Fast food my way

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution for you: question everything you eat.

(I was going to say, “Question everything you put in your mouth,” but that sounded dirty.)

It would be easy to imagine that someone who writes a blog about baking would be…uh…ample. Generously proportioned. I have at times battled the bulge, yes, but the truth is that I do not eat the stuff you see here every day, and certainly not until it has been photographed. Worse: I’m not sure that I believe in moderation. Some stuff should be indulged in only on special occasions.

Full disclosure #1: I have a sweet tooth.

Full disclosure #2: I am vain.

Full disclosure #3: My vanity often trumps my sweet tooth. And that’s saying a lot.

I’ve been working out in a gym since I was in college, yet, several years ago after a routine, yearly physical during which I aced every test, my doctor sat me down, looked me squarely in the face and asked, “So, what are you going to do to lose some weight?”

I rebelled, but saw the light one morning when I stepped out of the shower and saw myself in the mirror. “The doctor is right,” thought I, “I look kind of…dumpy.” And as if awakened from a deep sleep, my vanity (bless its heart) took over.

Like Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas, I “…had the answer all along.” I didn’t need to pay a trainer. The kitchen is the one room I can walk into and feel perfectly confident. I can do anything in the kitchen, not just bake. (Yeah, I know. That sounds dirty too.)

No, I did not invent a cookie diet. But, over a lifetime I have learned a lot about cooking and food. As surprising as this sounds (even to me), there are people who do not understand the difference between protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Are you one of them? It’s okay.

What’s not okay is to deny the role a proper diet plays in your health. I often joke that I honestly believe that chocolate has medicinal qualities. But I don’t eat it every day. Oh, by the way, that’s no joke: I do actually believe that chocolate has medicinal qualities.

Every day I eat a good, healthful, pleasurable, diet so that when the good stuff comes along—the treats, the “special” meal, the really good ice cream—I can eat them without guilt. Over the holidays I helped my friend’s three and six-year old kids bake cookies. You think I left without indulging in the Rice Krispies Treats? Think again.

I don’t believe in diets. A co-worker recently tried a liquid cleanse. Tried, but couldn’t complete. Silly. Passive. Don’t diet. Instead, change your life. Learn what works for you. Learn what makes your jeans seem to “shrink.” Fire up the internet. Find an app for your phone. Get educated.

ANYWAY. I consider myself a picky eater. But the good news is that there are a lot of foods that I enjoy that I can eat every day. I’m the guy who can make a meal out of a can of sardines. (Let’s just say I know my way around the canned fish aisle. Some of it, like good sardines, is superfood. Some of it stinks like a house guest who has exceeded the three day hospitality limit.)(Ahem: How many friends do you have who can claim they know their way around the canned fish aisle?)

Many New Yorkers never cook a meal at home. The United States Department of Agriculture recently released the results of a study that concluded that you get more calories, more saturated fat, more salt, and less fiber when you eat out. Does this mean I never eat processed food? No. It means I pick and choose carefully, based on ingredients, the nutrition label, and my needs.

I hear you thinking. “I don’t have time to cook every meal from scratch.” Neither do I, so I don’t. That’s not the point. The point is to question everything you eat. Ask what’s in it, where was it made, and how big is that portion? I recently asked a waitress the weight in ounces of the flounder on the menu. While she looked a little surprised at the question, I knew that the chef would know. I tried it in a corporate cafeteria recently. I noticed that the woman making the sandwiches had all of the meats in portions, and yes, she had weighed each one. (Four ounces.)

Speaking of flounder: isn’t that a beautiful fillet in the picture above? That thing in which it sits? Looks like a model of the cargo bay from the Space Shuttle, yes? Actually it is a Spanish-made Lékué steamer. I enjoy steam-roasting fish, usually in parchment. Fish steamed in a pot on the stove tends to be a little bland for my tastes, but wrapped in parchment and baked in the heat of a hot oven you get the best of both worlds: the moisture of steam, and the finish from the heat of roasting or baking. I found the Lékué steamer one day while trolling the aisles at Sur la Table. It is made of silicone, and, while designed for microwave cooking, it is perfectly at home in a regular oven.

You can see I have my whole dinner in there: some peppers, a bit of buckwheat pilaf I’d made in advance, and some citrus slices to season the fish while it bakes. I come home from the gym, pop my food into the Lékué then into the oven, and it cooks while I take a shower. It cleans easily, doesn’t retain food smells, and is reusable. It’s a bit slower than parchment, but I’ve enjoyed several meals cooked in it. (No I was not compensated for this, and yes, I found the Lékué myself and paid for it out of my own pocket. No endorsement here, just a report of a happy test drive.)

Don’t feel limited to fish. Anything that might normally dry out in the oven (chicken breasts or lean beef) cooks well in a steamer. Just be sure to add some moisture like broth or light vinaigrettes to help them cook.


The Lékué steam case and other products are available at Sur la Table and on

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Welcome to the Spa.

A little

A little

Hey, how’re you doing? How’s your year going? Me? Fine, fine…although I could use a cookie right about now, thanks. At the moment though, no cookies; I am concentrating on losing the ample holiday joy that is making my pants just a little tight. I wouldn’t be surprised if the buttons and zipper in my pants sued me for hazard pay.

The bad news about the holidays ending in the dead of winter is that we are all at the peak of our “fatten-up-for winter-and-then hibernate” instinct. So, to then turn around and start trying to lose weight seems like Mother Nature is taunting us. Bears have the best technique: they sleep through several weeks’ worth of meals then emerge svelte but ravenous. I don’t recommend this for humans. Okay, maybe runway models—if they can fit the hibernation into their schedules.

I look at it this way: during the holidays I eat a lot of the stuff I make myself. Simply by changing what I make (no cookies) I have a head start on dropping my holiday heft.

As I continue my sentence at hard labor for sins of over indulgence committed at holiday time, I am looking around every proverbial corner for meals that will amuse me. Having been a waiter for a long time, I am able to adapt ideas I saw over the years in restaurants to this cause.

As it happens, my memory was jogged a few days ago during a trip through the plastic wrap and foil aisle of the supermarket. (Yes, yes I know: I hit some exciting spots, don’t I? A colleague just returned from Buenos Aires. It’s summer there. I just returned from Gristede’s. It’s winter there.)

Ah, yes, the supermarket: my eye caught a box of parchment baking bags. Long ago I had a chef teach me (or try to teach me) the elaborate crimping technique they use to create the beautiful parchment bags in which they steam and serve food. Pre-made parchment bags seemed like a convenient idea for me. Lazy? Yes. Sorry, it’s the hibernation instinct coming out. (I’m milking that excuse for all it’s worth.)

Don’t worry: I’m the first one to snore at steamed food. I’ll even throw in a “yech.” The real trick I learned from those chefs is what goes in the bag along with the beautiful fish and perfectly manicured vegetables.

Any chef worth his salt (pardon the pun) will tell you that it all starts with the best ingredients. Yeah, sure: that’s like saying that great literature is just a bunch of words. Chefs know how to “goose” the flavor in everything they cook: a little extra grilling here, a little touch of pepper there.

When it comes to parchment-bag steamed meals—which enjoyed a vogue about fifteen years ago—the magic ingredient was compound butter. Compound butter goes back – at least—to Escoffier. The concept is trés simple: soften butter, mix in colorful, flavorful ingredients, and freeze into a log. Slices of the frozen butter are then added to cooking food, or in the case of beef, melted on top as the beef is plated for service.

The gorgonzola you often see in photos relaxing alluringly on a filet mignon was likely a bit of compound butter. In the case of the about to be steamed fish in the picture above, I made a citrus compound butter. Right about now you’re asking, “Hey buddy! I thought you were on a diet. What’s up with the butter?”

My answer is that I don’t use real butter. Even on a good day I can’t eat butter. You may notice that many of my recipes mention that I use a butter substitute. To be polite, real butter is delicious, but gives my stomach…um…grief. Purists: I agree, nothing tastes like real butter. But nothing is better than a happy tummy tum tum. Aside from that, using real butter in this recipe is relatively harmless. At most you’d be using two tablespoons. I say go for it.

I use Earth Balance because its mix of oils mimics the healthy profile of olive oil. (There are several excellent products like this.) This makes it perfect for the Butter Flour Eggs spa menu. Besides: it’s the flavors in the compound butter that do the heavy lifting. The butter is mostly there for moral support.

The citrus compound butter recipe is simple: allow a quarter pound of butter to soften. With a fork, mash in the grated rind of three oranges, and one lime. Feeling ambitious? Throw the butter in a blender with the grated citrus rinds, a half teaspoon of salt, and a tablespoon of orange juice. (I find the blender version delicious but hate cleaning the blender.)

Roll the butter into a parchment-wrapped log and freeze. When it is time for dinner, cut the log into silver dollar-sized slices, place in the parchment bag with the other ingredients, salt and pepper, and bake.

To be honest, the flounder shown in the photo above is not ideal for this technique. Use a slightly thicker fish like halibut, salmon, or the ubiquitous sea bass. I added julienne strips of carrot, red pepper, and fingerling potato. Yes, potato on a diet. One. Sue me.

Again, it’s about the technique. Anything you add to the bag should be cut to approximately the same size so that everything cooks evenly. Green beans? Perfect too.

Keep this technique in your back pocket for summertime. A little gorgonzola butter on your burgers anyone? How about melting some of the citrus butter on your corn on the cob?

As I write this it is 27˚ outside and the weatherman is predicting snow. Mmmmm. Summer. I’ll be thin by then.

Won’t I?


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Old School

Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

In a previous century I worked as a waiter for one of New York’s well known chefs. I will not mention any names here – not because I have any juicy gossip on the guy – but because the anonymity will give me freedom from the fear that if any of this ever got back to him his reaction would be, “Michael who??

To say that I never bonded with the guy would be a tremendous understatement, although I think it is a safe assumption that chefs, as a rule, don’t bond with the wait staff. More accurate would be to say that in the better establishments they view the wait staff as the only socially accepted conduit to get the food to the table. A necessary evil. I’m not evil, I’m just clumsy.

Unconfirmed legend around the restaurant had it that Chef enjoyed Cuban cigars – strictly illegal mind you – so he only smoked them in the privacy of his office. One day when I had been asked to deliver a phone message to Chef in his office, I opened the door and was greeted by a fog of cigar smoke. I thought, “I will not cough, I will not cough, I will not cough…” and stumbled my way through the windpipe-constricting mist to where he was sitting. Delivering the folded paper containing the message, I politely queried, “Is someone burning old tires?”

Understand: I had, indeed still have, no idea where that came from, except of course that his Coroña Grande did indeed smell like burning tires.

He glowered at me, but in his eyes I recognized one resolute thought: “I will not laugh, I will not laugh, I will not laugh…”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the extent of our bonding.

You’ll be relieved to know that in the intervening years I have sharpened my self-censoring skills. To his credit, I think Chef appreciated the fact that I trusted him enough to make an attempt at joking banter, lame as it was.

When I think back on my career as a waiter I think of two things: sore feet, and tableside service. I have no idea how many hundreds of Caesar salads I made tableside, but here’s where I have poor Martha Stewart beat. Some years ago on her show I watched her teach an actress how to make a Caesar salad – incorrectly. Drove me nuts.

For a waiter the fun thing about tableside service is that you and the folks at the table have a few minutes to bond. If you are able to bring a little obvious skill to the task – a bit of show biz – it is an opportunity to earn a little respect as more than just an order-taking drone. There’s also the remaining fork-full or two of salad that somehow didn’t make it onto the plate.

Whole Dover sole, filleted tableside, was a staple item on Chef’s menu. Filleting, or “de-boning” as some folks called it, was one task I actually enjoyed. It looked like it required a bit of skill, but the truth is that a chimp could do it with two sticks. The only snag was when large groups ordered the sole. On those occasions the business of the restaurant would pause as most of the staff stood quietly de-boning the fish.

I love to follow fashions in food the way some follow hemlines in the rag trade. Last year Short Ribs were everywhere. Every time I turned on the TV some chef was extolling their virtues and how tender and meaty they are when cooked “just so.” But I knew they were really thinking, “Short Ribs are dirt cheap and I can still charge $18.95.”

Lately it seems as though these chefs’ attentions have migrated to roasting whole Branzino. Branzino are delicate little Sea Bass that are rapidly becoming every menu’s “must have” item. While not as friendly to the chefs’ bottom line as other fish, they have a European cachet. They abound in the Mediterranean, and have been on the menu over there for years. I would guess that individual whole fish require less Sous Chef attention too.

I realized that nature was offering some help to me for January, my month of virtuous eating. Small whole fish are perfect portions; just enough, very healthy, and a good dose of protein. While I have filleted hundreds of Dover soles, I have never roasted a whole fish at home. My month of virtue seemed like the perfect time to try.

I ran to my fish market and, voila: no Branzino! My choice that day was Porgy, but Porgies have a mouth that appears permanently fixed in a frown. There’s something about my potential dinner frowning at me that I found unsettling. I’d be frowning too if I were on his plate.

I could preach to you now about not being squeamish about food that looks back at you. Most of the folks who ordered Whole Dover Sole asked me to remove the head. Yet, I’m just as guilty as the next guy; this is something I wrestle with constantly. A few years ago I roasted a chicken. Delicious. That night as my head hit the pillow a thought flashed in my mind: “There’s a dead bird in my refrigerator.” (I still slept just fine.) Some months later I had no problem plopping a live lobster into a steaming pot. No thoughts haunted me that night. I think this is a symptom of being a bit disconnected from the true source of my food. We all try to operate under the illusion that our food was born wrapped in plastic.

Anyway, I was about to leave the fish counter empty handed when I spied some happy little Sardines sitting in the chopped ice. I remembered Chef serving fresh Sardines as an appetizer. Up ‘till then I thought Sardines were something you got from a can, but he served them delicately roasted, and topped with something I couldn’t entirely remember –I just remember it was unobtrusive and tomato.

While I was convinced that I could come close to replicating my Sardine memory, I also wanted to experiment a bit. So I filleted one of the Sardines before cooking, and the other two I roasted whole with just a few sprigs of dill in the cavity where the fish had been “cleaned.”

I filled the bottom of my roasting pan with a layer of salt. Salt allows a gentler, more even heating of the fish. I placed the fish on the salt and roasted them at 350˚F for twelve minutes. Larger fish require closer to twenty minutes.

If I hadn’t filleted one of the fish, dinner would have been ready in less than twenty minutes. Rachael Ray would be proud.

The result was simple, clean, and so totally unlike the denizens of the tin cans that you may think they are different animals. I enjoyed the one I filleted before cooking the best, but the preference was one of convenience. I was starving and could eat it sooner.

On top of the fish I tried two simple toppings. The first was a simple Tomato Oil I made by lightly sautéing a couple of chopped cloves of garlic in some olive oil then adding diced tomato and warming just until the tomato was warmed through and the oil was stained by the tomato.

The other was a Mango, Jicama, and Pineapple salad that I bought at the market. Which one did I enjoy more? The answer, admittedly a dodge, was that I enjoyed most whichever was in my mouth at the time.

While roasting whole fish is an appealing addition to my month of virtuous eating, the process of shopping for the fish and preparing them is so much fun, and the final result so gratifying, that they have officially been added to my year ‘round repertoire.

Except Porgy. I can’t deal with that frown.


Saveur CoverThe kind folks at Saveur Magazine found my August 31st, 2009 posting about Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas and asked me to distill it for inclusion in their readers’ 2010 Top 100 list. You’ll find it in the Jan / Feb 2010 issue of the magazine, now on newsstands everywhere. Take a look and let me know what you think!


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