How is it that straining a quart of my pureed goop only produces
four red drops in my five gallon chaudière? Can that be right?
Then there was this other simple instruction. I read it over and over
Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet. Fry the celery leaves until crisp.
Crisp? It’s moments like these when you realize that what you are read-
ing is not really English but rather half a lifetime of kitchen experience
compressed into a pearl of culinary haiku. You try it anyway—because
you have always considered yourself someone who “loves to cook,” i.e,
how hard can it be? As you lay the leaves in the oil, they instantly wilt,
curl, and tighten into inch-long chlorophyll threads like the kind you
might pop out of a buttonhole in a green cotton shirt. You look back
at the words in the newspaper and then stare into your frying pan
swimming with thread. What the—?
You refuse to be defeated, and jump in the car. A few minutes later,
you return with two new bunches of celery boasting audacious nose-
gays of fresh green leaves. Maybe the trick is that you have to lay them
carefully into the oil, nice and flat. That makes sense. Of course that’s
what it is. You’re a little annoyed that the recipe didn’t just say so. You lay them in nice and flat, and voilà!
Damn. And you think, How does that single line of instruction
even make sense? “Fry celery leaves in oil until crisp. ” That scans about as sensically as “Soak until medium rare.” But somehow your soul is
on the line here, your manhood in the kitchen. Maybe the oil should
Back in the car. Grin feebly at the same register woman. Four
bunches. Cups upon cups of leaves. Into a really hot frying pan—for
the love of Christ!—again, swimming with new threads. You read the
instruction one more time, then stare into the greening pool of oil.
A breakthrough idea: Did Breton fishermen eat crisp celery leaves? I
hardly think so. It’s a big waste of time. What was the recipe writer
thinking? Moving on. Crisp celery leaves are for silly people.
p u t t i n g f o o d o n t h e fa m i l y
The very next line reads: “Score the carrots lengthwise with a chan-
nel knife.” A channel knife? Is that just writerly pretense for a regular old knife or is this some kind of special tool that’s actually needed?
This chowder of mine occurred before the Internet, so an encounter
with the unknown couldn’t be quickly solved. Often I deal with my
own ignorance by trying to outrun it. So I read ahead: “Add the re-
maining celery root . . .” But your celery was obviously sliced off right
at the root. A vague sense that maybe “celery root” is wildly different
from “celery” passes through your head.
But really, does it matter? Who’s even heard of such a thing? Cel-
ery root. These chowder people, these chowderheads—they’re such
dainty chefs. In an effort to speed things up, you accidentally swipe a
bowl—full of forty-five minutes of something painstakingly shredded
and soaked—onto the ground in a ceramic explosion. A level of deep
frustration sets in.
Now it’s 9:00 p.m. and you look around your kitchen. Every pot is
dirty and half-full of something started and abandoned—or it’s shat-
tered and in the trash. Every bit of counter space is somehow damp,
evidence of a whole other tragedy
that we’ll just call “homemade car-
rot broth” and never speak of again.
The recessed window above the
sink is now home to a near forest of
denuded celery stalks. What recipe,
you wonder, calls for ten bunches of
celery? Bowls and spoons are every-
where, and every surface seems to
have become a magnet for carrot and potato peels. You yourself are
somehow inexplicably soaked, as if you had just stepped off a whaling
ship. Your future bride suddenly pokes her head in the door to coyly
ask, “Sugar, can I help with dinner?”
And you find yourself not quite yourself, uttering the following, re-
ally, really loudly: “Oh, yeah, well, fuck you! You’re the—I hate every-
body. You caused this catastrophe. And if you hadn’t—if only I—you.
j ac k h i t t
This shitty kitchen. How come you don’t have a goddamn channel
knife? Do you realize—chowder is stupid.”
Or sentiments to that effect. I have shortened it by four thousand
words by editing out the repetitive obscenities. Funny thing is, the
chowder tasted fine when we both sat down at the table to eat it. Of
course, dining at 1:00 a.m. with a full day of hunger behind you would
make old gum taste like pâté.
when i was a little kid, kitchens weren’t anything like what they
are today. No one had a stage for a kitchen. Quite the opposite. The
kitchen was a place of shame, always located in the back of the house.
It was usually beat looking from overuse, with sagging cabinet doors,
sunken floors, and scuffed linoleum. The kitchen was the last room in
the house anyone spent remodeling money on.
In Charleston, South Carolina, where the houses are mostly ante-
bellum, many kitchens had once been entirely separate outbuildings
(as a fire precaution) and were connected only by narrow hallways.
It’s where servants worked, maybe a wife. The door to the kitchen
signaled as much. It was a heavy wooden thing, painted white thirty
years ago, that swung in both directions, functional like a restaurant’s
door or one to the furnace room—not ornamental and oaken like
every other door in the house. The kitchen door had a chunk of plastic
instead of a handle (framed by a fan of indelible grime) so you could
push it open either way with a tray full of fresh food or dirty dishes,
depending. This door and the area it opened onto was so dreadful that
many families obscured the entrance with a folding screen, preferably
one with a soothing Chinese landscape done on rice paper, so that the
very entrance to the inferno was hidden from view.
At one friend’s house where I spent a lot of time growing up in the
early 1970s, the owner had a tiny lump in the carpet beneath his foot
at the head of the table. With a tap of his toe, he could summon a ser-
vant from the bowels of this unwanted place to serve a tureen of, say,
p u t t i n g f o o d o n t h e fa m i l y
overcooked lima beans. In those days, it was impossible to avoid the
general assumption that food was something the lower orders fetched
up for the higher orders. If you ventured into the kitchen to have a
discussion about how food got made with the black maids and carried
on in conversation about Low Country crab dishes and red rice and
okra gumbo, well, then you were considered an eccentric.
It wasn’t as if good food wasn’t appreciated, but by and large, food
was something that came from the Piggly Wiggly and was cooked.
Anything different typically meant that some of the men (and the oc-
casional Annie Oakley–style gal) had gone hunting. Then the men
might fry the venison in a mustard sauce, grill the dove breasts wrapped
in bacon, or stew the duck meat in a half-day-long concoction called
Outside of special occasions, the idea that a man might make a
salad or cook a pot of rice insinuated provocative things we did not
speak about. I would have to grow up and lose several closeted gay
friends to self-imposed exile or AIDS before we’d ever begin to talk
about such things.
But it’s not as if, despite our repressed childhoods, we didn’t experi-
ence the love of good food. That was always there; the how-to of it all,
though, just wasn’t much of a conversation. One of my favorite dishes
of all time is red rice, a Gullah dish that pulls off the neat trick of getting long-grain white rice to take up a hefty tomato sauce as it would
water or stock. When I was little, this dish was cooked all the time,
not merely in my house but throughout the city. I’m not sure there
is another dish that qualifies as more comforting comfort food for
me—maybe shrimp and grits. My mental landscape of 1970s Charles-
ton was charted in part by the landmarks of other people’s red rice.
My friend Lucas Daniels had some of the best red rice ever cooked.
Because it’s a dish that is arguably better cold than hot, his family kept
a pot of it in the refrigerator, essentially, all the time.
We ate it as a break from playing outside. Sometimes I might ring
the doorbell at his South Battery home to find out Lucas wasn’t there.
j ac k h i t t
I’d go on in anyway, eat some red rice, and then head off to find him.
Getting a bowl of red rice from someone was hardly more of a bother
than asking for a glass of water on a hot day.
But it never occurred to me to learn how to cook it. Red rice was . . .
red, and so, something of a mystery. It simply emerged from the heated
sweatshop of the kitchen, out from behind the folding screen. Why
ask? But eventually, when I was sent away to school, I did ask. I wanted
to be able to carry a few things with me, and one of them was how to
cook red rice. How did one get it to come out fluffy and not gunky?
When I asked Lucas’s cook Delores how she cooked her red rice, I got
only the universal smile of a chef: I’m not telling.
When I asked my own family cook back in those days, Annie Oli-
ver, how she cooked her red rice, she just shrugged and said, “You put
it all together.” Gullah traditions were still considered state secrets and protected knowledge, stories held and transmitted on a need-to-know
basis. Without explaining too much here, every white family I knew
growing up employed a black woman as a cook. It was the early 1970s.
She was either a young mother, like Delores, or a venerable ancient
like Annie (who’d also raised my mother). My generation’s struggle to
understand just what really underlay our relationship to those cooks is
part of the untold story of the civil rights epic—untold because it’s so
cringe inducing. And yet, without too much trouble, I could probably
tell the whole racial history of the South through my attempt to learn
how to cook really good red rice.
Of course, in those days, all recipes were considered secrets, regard-
less of race, creed, or color. People just didn’t talk about food casually.
That would come later. It was all very intimate and happened in that
secret chamber behind the swinging door. Especially the everyday
dishes. Teaching someone how to cook red rice implied a profound
level of trust and love.
All popular dishes have a couple of little tricks that always get left
out in the pointillist prose of recipes. In Charleston, the grand old
white ladies of my grandmother’s generation created a locally famous
cookbook in 1950 called Charleston Receipts. It’s an archaeological
p u t t i n g f o o d o n t h e fa m i l y
wonder. Each page is decorated, at the turning corner, with a tiny sil-
houette of a black mammy in an apron, working at the kitchen table
or presenting a tray of food. (Like I said, cringe inducing.)
Many of the recipes are accidental time capsules. The recipe for
string beans lists its top ingredient as
1 package frozen French-cut string beans
And then it suggests this handy instruction: “Cook string beans by di-
rection on package.” Others are simply inscrutable and epigrammatic.
As a result, the red rice recipe always left me with a pot of burnt red
It took me almost twenty years of talking up red rice with old soci-
ety ladies, black islanders, and a few drunken sailors to cadge enough
of the secret cheats that will yield excellent red rice. The final tip, to
do nothing at the end, came from another childhood friend, my god-
mother’s son, Thomas Barnes. Here, as a public service, is my favorite
way to cook South Carolina Low Country red rice (with no haiku and
my love to Thomas).
Cook three or four pieces of really good hickory-smoked bacon in a
cast-iron skillet. It should be smoked bacon, or what’s the point? What you really want out of the bacon is, OK, bacon, but also: the smoke.
So don’t skimp. Buy the good bacon. Fry it at a low temperature for a
while so that it slowly loses its fat and gets really crispy.
Pour off the fat until you have about a tablespoon or so of chunky
bacon gunk in the pan, and in that, sauté a diced medium onion and
half a green bell pepper. When they’re soft, toss in a couple of pinches
of salt and add a large can of diced tomatoes. Skinned fresh tomatoes
are great, but only in high tomato season, late summer. Otherwise, go
with canned. Many add tomato paste here (as in Charleston Receipts), but the problem with tomato paste is that it makes everything taste
pasty. Skip that. Go with canned diced tomatoes—not whole, not
pureed—because the diced ones break down mostly but not entirely,
giving the final result the perfect (I hate this word, but what can you
j ac k h i t t
Simmer that concoction for ten more minutes; then add a cup and
a half of rice—preferably Uncle Ben’s parboiled long-grain rice. I don’t
quite understand why. There is something about how the parboiled
works at taking up the tomato concoction more easily than any other
kind of rice. Anyway, there’s about a decade’s worth of Christmas-
party chats with Mom’s friends and creekside beers with acquain-
tances of friends invested in that little tip. And it works like a charm,
so just do it and you’ll be happy.
If the result is stiff to stir, then add a splash or two of chicken broth.
Most recipes suggest that you cook thereafter on the stove top. But
don’t do that. Instead, cover the skillet with tinfoil and put it in a
375ºF oven for thirty minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven and
put it on the back of the stove. Do not peek under the foil. No one
knows what mystery is taking place under there, but it has something
to do with liquid and rice, and like the spontaneous combustion of
heavy-metal drummers, it’s best left unsolved. As Thomas told me:
“It’s best not even to look at it.” Remove the foil eventually—after ten
minutes, say—and sprinkle the rice with bacon bits. All leftovers are
better the next day, served either hot or cold, or you can fold them into
an omelet like my nephew Jim does for a brilliant breakfast.
one day, not all that long ago, my twelve-year-old daughter, Yancey,
announced that she and her friend Emma would cook dinner. I was
having some friends over and had already put together my own menu.
But no, she insisted, waving photocopies of recipes in my face. She and
Emma would do it. They had already scoped out what ingredients
were lacking in the kitchen. All I had to do was drive them to the
store. Once I got them going, they shooed me from the kitchen, and
thus began an afternoon that quickly swelled into family legend.
This production in the kitchen involved putting up a rampart of
chairs to keep out unwanted spectators. Whenever any adult’s orbit
would wing near the kitchen, a squall of girlish gestures would erupt
near the barricades, ordering him away. The entire Saturday afternoon
p u t t i n g f o o d o n t h e fa m i l y
took on that feeling of an earlier time, not that many years ago, when
the kids would seal off a room and announce they were practicing to
put on a play for the adults. Under no circumstances were we to peek.
Those plays were hilarious because the kids were trying to show off
their ability to mimic the world as they knew it—the plot of a bedtime
story or some recent event that struck them as crucial in their lives.
What made them especially entertaining was the kindly recognition
of just how bad they were at acting and writing dialogue and impro-
vising. The pleasure for the parents and the kids was always laughing
generously at the boffo display of sheer ineptitude.
Translate this comedy to a room full of fire, sharp knives, whole
chickens, and several jumbo canisters of (redundantly purchased)
Costco oregano, and you have the makings of a tragedy, if not a fiasco.
But at the beginning of the evening, the two girls brought out a
bewilderingly brilliant four-course meal, all made from scratch: gaz-
pacho salad, chicken-barley soup, pork loin, chocolate mousse. When
Yancey brought in the gazpacho salad, the room reacted to the bright
array of color nestled on the Bibb lettuce. She said proudly, “Look how
we plated it!”
We all thought: Way too much Food Network for this kid. But
actually that wasn’t it. The girls didn’t really watch the Food Net-
work. If anything, that whole Iron Chef vocabulary has simply per-
meated the culture, creating a generation with the descriptive powers
of a sommelier and an easy ability to use “savory” and “umami” in a
sentence. What accounted for the quality of the dinner was the fact
that the girls had been watching us, really studying us, the adults, as
we prepared meals.
I realized that the story of the generation raised in the postfemi-
nist era—my generation—was one that could be told as a history of a
single room, the modern kitchen.
The avoided place of my childhood had been a battleground in the
1970s, the place from which all women had to be emancipated. Now
it had been reentered by men and women alike. Its repute as a ghetto
for women’s work was as remote to these kids as the reputation of
j ac k h i t t
colonial frontiersmen for being smelly. That room had been completely
renovated—often literally, definitely metaphorically.
It had been remodeled, not only because we now admitted guests
and friends there, but because a lot more was going on in there than the
preparation of food. Today’s kitchen is to our time what, say, the front
parlor or salon was, at least in our imaginations, to the late nineteenth
century. It is more than a place where people gather; it is a place where
ideas are hatched, practiced, learned, and acted upon. It is a gathering
spot for chance encounters and the millworks of family values.
When I bought the house I currently live in, I found the old kitchen
door in the basement. It was the exact same one from my childhood
home—same plastic push guard beside the same fossilized handprint
of generational grime. The previous owner had remodeled the kitchen
and made it into one of the showcase rooms in the place. My kitchen
now boasted panoramic views of a large green backyard and partici-
pated with the rest of the house via a wide, generous, inviting hallway.
There was no door at all; rather, the space was merely another grand
architectural staging area on par with the living room.
For us, this reinvention of the kitchen was not a deliberate act. It
just sort of happened after we brought our first and then second child
home from the hospital. We ended up in the kitchen a lot. Almost
all of the first two years of child rearing involves putting food into
babies’ mouths. Sometimes that food gets thrown across the room or
splattered from beneath a slammed fist or reappears along projectile
trajectories. The kitchen is unquestionably the best place in the house
to be in when any of these amazing events occur.
As a dad who spent a lot of time with the babies—when they were
infants, my wife was in medical school and then a resident—I remem-
ber pondering one single conscious kitchen-related question: Was I
going to spend the next few years eating Annie’s mac and cheese and
hot dogs? That’s when I discovered Mark Bittman’s Minimalist col-
umn in the newspaper, and the future became clear. With only a little
more effort than it would take to produce crappy toddler crud, I could
make meals I myself wanted to eat.
p u t t i n g f o o d o n t h e fa m i l y
In other words, “I love to cook” would actually become: I love to
So the center of gravity of my little family quickly became the
kitchen. This was not a feminist pronouncement or a political deci-
sion. It had a lot more to do with easy cleanup than with anything so
noble as an idea or an intention.
But soon enough, the simplicity of our location turned into all
kinds of things. When the kids were two or three, I sat them down
and gave them instructions on how to cut up a carrot with a knife.
I showed them the secret of making grits (salt must go in before the
grits are added, or all is lost). Naturally, pancakes and waffles were
in abundant supply on a weekend morning. And precisely because
Lisa, the resident, came home exhausted, she felt compelled to cook
her mother’s comfort foods—tuna fish casserole, chicken à la king,
homemade chicken pot pie (for a Swanson refugee, the latter is a rev-
elation). Our little family menu grew. Then one summer, there was a
trip to Paris. The taste of a sidewalk crepe became a critical moment
in the life of my oldest daughter, Tarpley. It is now her own private
After we returned, she retrieved a recipe and became the house spe-
cialist. Soon thereafter, we purchased a crepe pan, and it was her crepe
pan. Later, Yancey received her own block of kitchen knives. Even the
equipment—from my ancient cast-iron skillet dating back two genera-
tions, to Lisa’s hand-thrown pots, to the kids’ stuff—became a map of
a family that lived in the kitchen and visited the other rooms in the
house when time permitted.
In the years that followed, Tarpley also figured out the buttery se-
crets of popovers. Then Yancey mixed some salad dressing, and some-
how she got our favorite mustard-vinegar ratio perfect every time.
So most nights, dinner became a big, noisy, jostling event—full of chores dictated by custom and history. Even stories of accidents became part of the epic tale. One afternoon, I grabbed a Cuisinart pot
by the handle when it was accidentally parked over a low but hot blue
flame. The kids saw Dad hold his hand under running water for an
j ac k h i t t
hour, squeezing out tears. Later, though, having the distinctive Cui-
sinart handle shape branded perfectly into my palm—including the
nonblistered hole where one would hang up the pot—was not merely
a puritan lesson in life’s dangers but pretty funny to look at.
We stumbled upon little secrets. We figured out that broccoli with
a dash of balsamic vinegar is surprisingly great. A visit to an Asian
market found us taking home some bok choy. And a lifetime of cook-
ing chicken had resulted in a foolproof method of cooking a basic but
really great whole chicken. (Several tricks: Gash a lemon twenty-five
times with a knife, stuff the chicken with a small handful of rosemary
and tarragon, then shove the lemon in and sew the cavity shut. Cook
the chicken at a blazing-hot temperature: twenty minutes at 500ºF
breast side down, fifteen minutes breast side up. Then turn the oven
down to 350ºF for thirty minutes. The insanely hot temps will seal
the skin but also evaporate the lemon juice, which will force itself out,
flavoring the meat with the herbs along the way.)
Slowly but surely, the whole family has emerged as able cooks.
Last year, I flew home from some work I was doing the day after my
birthday. I walked in to find that the two kids had cooked my favorite
childhood dinner. That was their present.
Turns out cooking a meal is pretty good practice for just about any
complex project. Planning ahead, anticipating mistakes, figuring out
the little tricks that will have vast effects down the road, and getting
to a result that can be described as beautiful is the basis of every decent meal but also the recipe for a good science-fair project, end-of-the-year
term paper, or school play. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I’m a great
believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
He could just as easily have been discussing a beautifully savory stew.
Food, it turns out, is a gateway drug to aesthetics.
The meals we cook around here end up becoming some part of the
discussion at dinner, but not in some supercilious or precious way.
There are no foodies here, but there are people who like to cook and
eat, so thoughts about how to make something better are appreciated.
p u t t i n g f o o d o n t h e fa m i l y
It’s in the kitchen that you realize how collaborative all food is.
Even when you’re alone, you’re communing with some other cook via
the recipe itself, deconstructing some other person’s haiku written
perhaps centuries ago. Some dishes—like an African American rice
recipe prepared by a curious white boy—can only be cooked by adding
a lot of honest history.
I have always enjoyed real barbecue. Slow-cooking a whole pig on
a low-temp fire for twenty-four hours is magical not only because the
meat tastes so good but because for a whole day, people can’t help but
stop by and pitch in with the best of intentions and often amazing
advice. After I read Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Near a Thousand
Tables, though, I learned that Nestor slow-cooks some beef barbecue in the Odyssey. That’s the other conversation that’s always happening with older dishes and ancient methods—one with the very roots of
Mostly, though, the food in our kitchen happens in the present tense,
in the here and now. Even when someone makes a mediocre dish—
Lisa recently tried some fish thing in a tomato sauce and it ended up
being merely OK—the criticisms aren’t so hard to hear. They come
from a different place than most disapproval, a place where we all
know it could have been us there at the stove. Sometimes the alchemy
just doesn’t happen and you’re stuck with a lump of lead. But each
critique also comes with the sense that food is a common experience
that needs group participation. So criticism comes couched in more
helpful terms, empathetic terms, because in the kitchen it’s easier to
express dissent in the helpful language of cooking. Somehow in the
kitchen, “This sucks” more often comes out as “Could have used more
oregano in the sauce. What do you think?” So far, translating that
more gracious conversational gambit to the other rooms of the house
hasn’t always worked out. But if that style of interaction makes the
leap, it will be leaping from the kitchen.
The kitchen teaches us that the only way to make something better
is to tweak it, talk about it, find some new trick, edit and rewrite, and
j ac k h i t t
call upon one’s own ever-expanding experience. So often we’ve found
that what’s needed to boost something from merely OK to truly beau-
tiful is just some small touch that really changes the dynamic par-
ticipation of all the other elements of the dish and elevates the entire
sense of the meal. It might be some little thing born of experience long
ago, something that happens in the moment of cooking and easily
gets lost when translated into the stenography of a recipe. Like crispy
“When did our relationship move from the bedroom to the kitchen?”
Really Good Chicken
For years, chicken was a sometime thing for me. Maybe the meat was fully cooked. Maybe the skin was tasty. Maybe the meat was moist. Here’s what you get after half a lifetime of trial and error.
1. Get a kosher chicken or brine a nonkosher chicken. (A lot of folks
now mock brining—ignore them. It’s a basic thing, like marinat-
ing lamb chops in red wine to get rid of the gamy odor.) Preheat
the oven to 500˚F. Meanwhile, pat the chicken dry. Then push
½ teaspoon of butter (or garlic butter or rosemary butter) under
the skin over each breast. Then mash it around with a spoon.
2. Take a lemon or a lime. Stab a bunch of holes in it with a knife,
3. Stick some rosemary in the holes if you can. If not, stuff the
chicken cavity with a generous mix of rosemary, tarragon, and
marjoram. And anything else you might like: garlic paste,
chopped-up onions. (The idea is that once the high tempera-
ture hits the goods in the cavity, the lemon juice will evaporate,
taking the flavors around it directly into the flesh of the bird; so
whatever you stuff around the lemon or lime will become a slight
flavoring in the meat.) Sew the cavity shut with butcher’s string;
otherwise the flavors fly out into the oven.
4. Place the chicken on a roasting pan, breast side down, and put in
the 500˚F oven for 20 minutes.
5. Turn it over, breast side up, and return to 500˚F oven for 10 minutes.
6. Lower the temperature to 350˚F for 30 minutes (10 minutes longer
if the bird is huge) or until that little white thing pops up (an
instant-read thermometer inserted in the thigh should read 165˚F).
7. Let cool for 10 minutes before attempting to slice.
On the Shelf
Near a Thousand Tables, Felipe Fernández-Armesto. A wild man
who’s a blast to read.
American Fried; Alice, Let’s Eat; and Third Helpings, Calvin Trillin.
No one can write about what we eat and somehow answer why we
do better than Trillin.
The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer. My first cookbook, and I still
use it. Her occasional remarks scattered among her endless recipes
are genius. (“A pig resembles a saint in that he is more honored after
death than during life.”)
i n th e tr ench es
Glen Payne lives in Hermosa Beach, California. A forty-one-year-old high-yield debt trader, he’s out of the house by 4:00 a.m. each day to prepare for the opening of the markets in New York City. He’s back at home by 4:30 in the afternoon to cook for his wife and two daughters, ages five and one.
if you segment the two hemispheres of the brain, you might say
one is creative and the other is analytic; I don’t know if that’s necessar-
ily true, but just suppose it is. The work I do is extremely analytic. It’s an intense environment where you’re constantly negotiating and dealing with large sums of money. But in the kitchen I get to put together
whatever my creativity can dream up.
I grew up on a fifteen-thousand-acre cattle ranch in New Mexico,
and I inherited a love of eating and cooking from my mother and grand-
mother, who were constantly preparing food and planning for the ap-
petites of the men (mostly me and my brothers) who worked on the
ranch. From eating the unique cuisine of New Mexican chefs (definitely
not your run-of-the-mill Mexican food, and worth the trip to New
Mexico if you haven’t visited), I also developed a craving for all things
spicy, which doesn’t work particularly well for either my wife or my kids,
though I still try to incorporate spiciness into my day-to-day cooking.
My oldest daughter is one of the more finicky eaters I’ve ever found.
After she was born, I eagerly awaited the day that she would start eat-
ing baby food, and I jumped right into making my own baby food. She
rejected all of it. And that was just an early sign of what kind of eater
she would be. Now that she’s older, she helps me cook, and I find that
when she does, she tends to experiment more and tends to eat more.
So if I can, I involve her in the meals.
Before kids, my wife worked, and we had schedules where I would
shop for the meal as I came home. I’d stop at the local butcher or
the local fish market, and I’d put an entire kind of multicourse meal
g l e n pay n e
together before my wife got home. Now that we’re parents, it’s more
about rushing home to have food ready for the kids, and possibly even
for us, if we’re going to eat together by 5:30 or 6:00 and do some other
things around the house. One thing that’s changed with kids is that I
do tend to do more cooking ahead of time. I definitely prepare some-
thing one day and then freeze it or maybe eat it over the course of a
couple of days if I don’t freeze it.
If you’re just starting to cook, the best advice I have is to be patient, recognize that you’ll make mistakes, and know that not every
dish will turn out the way you want it to. In fact, many of mine don’t
turn out the way I want them to. So I keep experimenting. Most im-
portantly, get involved with cooking if you want an alternative to the
everyday meals that you’re going to see, whether they’re in restaurants
or from the food counter at a grocery store or from a takeout. Do it
because you want to get in touch with what you’re eating. Know what
the ingredients are. Know what you’re putting into your body. Know
why you’re doing it. Control the portions. Control the different things
that go into it so that you yourself are creating the taste. At a very
important level that I think we tend to forget in this society, you’re
controlling your health through your food.
There’s something else about cooking that my wife and I have
talked about between ourselves and with other friends who are of a
similar age. The women were raised by moms who were coming out of
the fifties and left the home—many for the first time in generations—
to start working. These moms didn’t pass along to their daughters,
who are my wife’s age, knowledge about cooking. So my wife and
many of her friends never learned how to cook, and frankly they don’t
have a passion for it.
I’m hoping that by involving my daughters in cooking, they’ll have
a passion for preparation, they’ll have a passion for food in general, a
passion for pairing foods with other foods, or foods with wines. And
I just think food is so much about enjoyment of life. And hopefully,
they pick that up. Maybe, if nothing else, they pick up an element of
creativity from it.
This recipe is adapted from one by Nobu Matsuhisa.
2 pounds black cod fillets (salmon can work as a substitute,
but regular cod cannot)
1 cup sake
½ cup mirin
1½ cups miso paste (white)
2 tablespoons sugar
Wash and dry the cod fillets and cut into ½-pound portions.
In a small saucepan, bring the sake to a quick boil, then add the
mirin and the miso paste until dissolved.
Add the sugar, stirring until dissolved.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature
(the refrigerator works well to speed up the cooling).
In a plastic bag, add the miso mixture to the cod, and allow to
marinate for 2 hours minimum, up to 24 hours. If marinating longer
than 2 hours, then put it in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 425˚F.
Remove the fish from the miso mixture and arrange the fish, skin
side down, in a baking pan or dish, then place in the preheated oven
for 12 to 15 min, until the top surface of the fish is a caramel brown
and the fish begins to visibly flake (do not turn over or flip the fish
Serve with coconut rice, garnished with sesame seeds.
g l e n pay n e
New Mexico Chili and Beans
This recipe is adapted from the recipes of my mother and grandmother.
2 white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups pinto beans (sorted and soaked for at least 2 hours,
or overnight, which is better)
1 russet potato, peeled and quartered
2 pounds ground turkey (or ground pork or beef)
2 tablespoons red New Mexico chili, ground or powder (see note)
1 16-oz can stewed tomatoes
½ cup flour
Sauté the onion and two cloves of the chopped garlic in a sauce pot,
preferably cast iron, sufficiently large to hold the beans and their
After the onions become translucent (about 10 minutes), add the
beans and the potatoes (which, I’ve been told, help to reduce intesti-
nal gas) and 4 cups of water, or enough to cover the beans.
Bring to a rapid boil and then reduce to a simmer until beans are
soft, about 2 hours.
Meanwhile, in another stove-top pot—also ideally cast iron—sauté
the remaining onion and garlic until the onion turns translucent.
Add the ground turkey and continue to cook until it browns
Mix in the chili powder to coat the meat mixture thoroughly.
Add the tomatoes and 4 cups of water, bring to a boil, and then
reduce to a simmer.
Once the chili mixture has simmered for about 1 hour, place the
flour in a small sauté pan and heat it gradually, stirring constantly,
until it browns (do not overcook).
i n t h e t r e n c h e s
Once the flour is a caramel-brown color, remove it from the heat and
add it to the chili mixture 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture is
To serve, place the beans in a bowl and then cover with the chili.
Note: New Mexico red chili powder can be found at Whole Foods
in the spice area or at Web sites such as www.hatch-chile.com and
www.nmchili.com. As an alternative, you can grind dried chili pods into a powder.
m a n n y howa r d
Manny Howard, a James Beard Foundation Award–winning
writer and a former senior editor and former contributing editor at
Gourmet magazine, is the author of My Empire of Dirt: How
One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm;
A Cautionary Tale, published by Scribner.
to secure the love of a beautiful woman, I loaded a dead pig into
the back of my late-model Chevy Blazer. It was August 2001. I pressed
my buddy Malachi into service, purchased four fronds from a banana
tree, a yard of chicken wire, and two yards of burlap. I liberated two
dozen granite cobblestones from behind the flimsy fencing of a mu-
nicipal landscaping project and drove the Blazer one hundred miles
east, straight out to sea and the tip of Long Island. I had a promise to
keep. It mattered little that I had only the vaguest notion about how
to deliver on it.
Lisa and I met one night in the dead of winter. If her affection
for her “summerhouse friends” wasn’t the first topic of conversation,
it was the second. It became very clear very quickly that if I didn’t
win their approval, Lisa and I were going to have a problem. This was
going to be trouble if I fell hard for this hard-charging beauty from
Spring came quickly; summer, too. A reckoning was upon us both.
No stranger to the grand gesture, early one Wednesday morning, over
coffee, I announced that the coming weekend I would prepare a spe-
cial feast for her summerhouse friends. I would roast a whole pig.
The declaration had the desired effect. I received an e-mail from
Lisa shortly before lunchtime notifying me that the entire house had
s t u n t f o o d way s
been made aware of my plan and everyone was excited by the prospect
of a roast pig for dinner on Saturday night. As an aside, Lisa inquired
where I intended to roast this pig.
On the beach, of course, was my confident reply.
“Have you ever roasted a whole pig anywhere before?” asked
Malachi after I described the caper, a fever dream revealing itself to
me as I spoke.
“How hard can it be?” I replied, incredulous.
Malachi said that he thought roasting a whole pig might be quite
difficult, never mind enormously time consuming. “How about
I explained that the whole point was to put the residents of the
summerhouse on their heels. Get them watching the food. Take the
focus off me. Everybody loves burgers, but this was too big a job for
burgers. Lisa had told me that her friends were enormously curious
about this new boyfriend named Manny. She said that more than one
of the guys (protective of her in a brotherly sort of way, she preempted)
had inquired about my lineage.
Malachi and I arrived on Friday evening; Lisa met us in the drive-
way and made the introductions. I barely retained a single name. To
my surprise, there were nearly two dozen residents of the summer-
house. The alarming numbers had nothing to do with my inability to
engage socially, however. The pig was all I cared about. We needed to
dig a deep pit in the sand, as well as prepare
a fire and superheat those granite bricks, all
before breakfast the next day.
That night, with help from Lisa’s protec-
tive brotherly types, we dug the pit. Just after
dawn, while the cobbles baked, Malachi
and I stuffed the pig with papaya, jalapeños, limes, and other bright
fruits. We wrapped the critter in banana fronds, sealed the leaves with
soaked burlap, and encased the package in wire. Finally, we lowered
the ungainly cocoon onto the granite bed and covered it with four feet
of sand. Everything was going just the way I had planned.
m a n n y h o wa r d
I spent the intervening hours trying to learn everyone’s name and
attempting to limit my beer intake. We unearthed the pig. It was hot
and fully cooked, but to my horror it looked like an East River floater.
The beast wasn’t roasted. I had steamed it in the sand. At best you
could call it poached. Whatever it was called, dinner was a wrinkly
abomination—not the least bit appetizing.
The assembled crowd had doubled in size, but no one in it under-
stood what had happened. They were all drinking, and they were get-
ting hungry. We only had moments to make it right. The sun was
setting and the women were rooting around in beach bags for sweaters
Malachi delivered a clearheaded appraisal: “We’re fucked.”
Not yet, I thought. The meat might have been ugly, but it was
cooked. To make it attractive and that much tastier, we just needed to
hack the carcass up into grill-size hunks and caramelize it. I retreated
inland to buy as much charcoal as I could find in town. Malachi took
up a surreptitious collection of kettle grills from neighboring decks.
We finished off the pork on an assembly of flaming taiko drums set at odd angles in the sand. Their orange glow was the only light to eat by.
this instinct for the culinary high-wire act has manifested itself
regularly since Lisa and I married and started a family. I’ve shucked
hundreds of oysters for a driveway crammed with parents in order to
celebrate our daughter’s second birthday (and I’ve found numerous,
similarly flimsy excuses to repeat the effort). I have tempted the fates
by preparing paella for fifty, cooked outdoors on the grill. “This is the
traditional way paella is prepared,” I boasted to any guest who dared
approach their host, the dervish at the grill. Nobody needed to know
I’d never made the dish before.
I can trace the source of this unwieldy urge to overreach directly
to my father, a trained chemist from England who worked here as a
rocket scientist on the Mercury rocket mission for NASA. He made
a mythical, breathtakingly spicy curry whenever he entertained at
s t u n t f o o d way s
home. In fairness, though, my impulse for stunt cooking is a danger-
ous mutation of his much more benign intentions.
I can recall sitting cross-legged in my footy pajamas under my par-
ents’ kitchen table, the bare bulb at the ceiling casting a harsh light
over the mayhem beyond the table’s unvarnished maple legs. Every
time my father assembled his friends, he served a curry. I marveled at
his ability to single-handedly prepare a massive pot of fiery food while
presiding over a riot of 1970s booze- and dope-fueled, shaggy manli-
ness. It was a meal he encouraged me to share, always with the same
disastrous, and apparently hilarious, results.
I know now that this vindaloo was less the orthodox hot-and-sour
stew, with its uniquely Goan amalgam of the Portuguese colonial in-
fluence married to the region’s countless culinary traditions, and more
the Brick Lane pot of fire. But like most things my father bothers
doing, this curry was imbued with potent storybook origins. Accord-
ing to Dad (though, mind you, he had me convinced that he was a
Spitfire pilot during the War, and I believed him right up to the mo-
ment I could do enough math to suss that when the conflict ended,
he was not yet eight years old), his recipe came to our kitchen directly
from a much grander one half a world away in Africa.
One evening long ago, while he was completing his postdoc at Impe-
rial College in London, Dad succeeded, after many failed attempts, to
convince his roommate, Amir “Johnny” Tar Mohammed, to phone his
mother, originally from India, at home in a wealthy suburb of Entebbe,
in Uganda. Dad wanted the recipe for a proper Indian curry. The two
of them squeezed into a public phone box, and Dad fed coins into the
slot to keep the line open while Johnny interrogated his mum. “And you
know, old Johnny had never once been in the kitchen of his own house,”
he’d remark with equal incredulity whenever he retold the story.
When Mom and Dad immigrated to America, Dad carried his
curry with him. In Brooklyn, he measured the single tablespoon of
red chili flakes, counted out six green cardamom pods, leveled a table-
spoon of dried celery seeds, and measured one teaspoon of turmeric
with masterly precision, brushing excess grains of the impossibly
m a n n y h o wa r d
yellow powder from the spoon back into the plastic bag. Resealing
it with a red paper-covered wire twist tie, he’d return the bag to its
place in the cupboard. And though much of Dad’s work was done
with a steadily emptying glass of Johnnie Walker Red in one hand,
his fidelity to that recipe, scribbled into a laboratory ledger and deliv-
ered across thousands of miles all those years ago, served as his keel.
It drew Dad and his posse—Peter, Richard, Mark, and their wives
and girlfriends—together as they free-poured drinks, cracked endless
quarts of Rheingold, and fired up yet another joint. I sat spellbound,
uniquely privy to the secret rituals of grown-up joy.
Years later, bound for college and committed to the recreation of
the social magic conjured by that vindaloo, I hectored Dad for the
recipe. By then, it had been at least a decade since Dad had made a
vindaloo. He and Mom split when I was eleven, and adventurous,
time-consuming, boozy curries had been replaced by dutiful dinners
that sacrificed ambition on the altar of practicality. (The rotation was
as follows: a consistently medium-rare roast top round, rubbed with
salt and diced garlic, served with steamed broccoli and what was then,
in the eighties, called wild rice but came out of a cardboard box; a
sautéed quartered chicken served on top of a large helping of Uncle
Ben’s white rice and covered with a tomato ragout, next to steamed
green beans; spaghetti accompanied by a sauce of tomato and ground
meat, seasoned primarily with bay—or on occasion, fresh clam sauce
with a side of steamed cauliflower.) Dinner was served promptly at
7:30 every evening that my sister, Bevin, and I spent at his apartment.
We were latchkey kids, free to do whatever we wished until then, but
attendance at dinner was an immutable rule.
He got no argument from us. The ritual was a balm; his studied
resolve, a legitimate anchor. Raising children takes determination,
dedication, and, most of all maybe, a keen sense of timing. If dinner
had not been ready for the table as Bevin and I tumbled through the
front door every evening, the delicate table fellowship he worked so
hard to build would not have stood a chance.
What I could not know then was that Dad was locked in what he
s t u n t f o o d way s
believed was a life-and-death battle with entropic collapse. As best I
can tell, for those first few years, the failure of his marriage was the
epicenter of an emotional disaster, the shock waves from which threat-
ened his status as our father.
My birthright, that curry, my demand for its secret, signaled the
end of his battle for family coherence and the age of the family dinner.
When I asked him for the recipe, he balked at first and insisted that
he’d forgotten all about it. But I pressed and he succumbed, quietly
pleased, I hope, by my plan to carry his vindaloo into the future. And
so, from memory, he recited the recipe while I scratched it in black ink
onto the unlined pages of a black composition notebook. And in time,
his vindaloo in my hands achieved minor celebrity status on campus.
with the family dinner a thing of the past, Dad and I occasion-
ally teamed up for a cooking adventure. Easter was the occasion for
one of our most desperate acts. In a moment of perverse revelry we
conspired to cook a rabbit. “The Easter Bunny! Brilliant!” we chortled
as we drove to a live market in Sunset Park, one of the few places in
the city where a rabbit could reliably be found back before the dawn
of all this culinary to-do. We used a cookbook as our guide, but we
must have gone terribly off course along the way because the result was
a soggy, pallid sop.
In stunt foodways, success is always preferable, and an at-the-buzzer
save is a delight, but it is not a necessary outcome. Carrying the plas-
tic shopping bag with our still-hot, skinned rabbit across the street
from the urban slaughterhouse to the car was its own discreet victory.
While Easter supper lay in ruins on the plates before us, we were, of
course, horrified, confounded by the unpalatable pulp, but the yuks
and sniggers that dish has generated in the decades since puts stewed
Easter Bunny solidly in the win column. Effort is its own reward.
The time for the family dinner has come for Lisa, the kids, and me.
But I have not given up on stunt cookery. I spend a portion of each day
dreaming up the evening’s meal. Along the route from work, I gather
m a n n y h o wa r d
ingredients at a dead run. Arriving home, I blow through the front
door, march to the back of the house, and plunk the groceries on that
same maple kitchen table of my youth. I fire up the stove. The patter of
public radio news is the only companion I can abide. There are onions
to dice and wilt, wine to reduce, greens to blanch, and marginal meat
to braise. Each evening I set out, fully intending to make every family
dinner an adventure. And just about every evening I fail.
My daughter, always an unwilling participant, refuses to eat any-
thing that isn’t whiter than she is. My son is as eager to please as I
once was, and just as sensitive to some of the more outlandish ingredi-
ents and preparations. Lisa is appreciative, but she has her limits. This
never ends well, she reminds me, and it is just dinner.
There is no such thing.
Every time dinner is dismissed as an event designed to simply deliver
the day’s final load of calories and nutrients, an opportunity for adven-
ture and fellowship is lost. So I persist. If I possessed an operative sense of myself in time, I might stand a chance. Usually, though, dinner, in all
its inventive glory, is served late. The kids are exhausted. And because of my repeated, unrealistic insistence that unlike its predecessors this meal
will be on time, Lisa has been forced to feed the kids stopgap cheese and
crackers. They are usually not the least bit hungry.
Lisa shuttles the kids off to bed. There is no fellowship at my table,
and the only adventure is cooling in the kitchen. When I reported
these misadventures and my frustration back to Dad, he’d grin widely
and clap his hands together enthusiastically, just twice, then grip them
together firmly. “That’s very, very funny, E-boy,” he’d pronounce
Recently, Dad was suddenly taken grievously ill. The ferocious
disease has visited numerous indignities upon him. Cruelest among
these, though, is that it has robbed him of both clear speech and appe-
tite. And so, while puzzling over what I can feed Dad that will nour-
ish him and deliver him even the most fleeting enjoyment, I am more
s t u n t f o o d way s
convinced of dinner’s dual purpose; and yes, suddenly I’m painfully
aware that a man has only so many dinners in front of him.
He has no interest in the blandest of food now. My response, more
a reflex, may prove to be stunt cookery’s finest hour, or its undoing.
I reach for that now-battered black composition book—a return to
origins, of a sort. There, his curry recipes, scratched onto its rotting,
sauce-streaked pages in the ambitious if impatient scrawl of a devoted,
much younger son, are now crowded in among other recipes that I
have collected along the way. I set the book open on the counter and
place four yellow onions on the cutting board: garlic, two to three
cloves, chopped rough; garam masala, three tablespoons; tumeric, one
tablespoon; green cardamom pods, one tablespoon; celery seeds, one
tablespoon; red chilies, one-half to one tablespoon (to taste). I conjure
a curry and deliver it to him sitting on the couch in the apartment
I grew up in. It proves strong medicine, our curry, and for a time it
rekindles in him what burns in us both.
Jos’s Curry, or The Old Man’s Shiva Curry
Spices (mixed together):
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons garam masala
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 tablespoon green cardamom pods
1 tablespoon celery seeds
½ to 1 tablespoon red chilies (to taste), crushed
½ cup vegetable oil
4 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
2 pounds meat (chicken or beef), cubed to uniform size
1 16-ounce can chicken or beef broth
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
Heat the oil in a pan, add the onions, and sauté until wilted.
Add the spice mix and cook briefly (2 to 5 minutes), taking care not
Cook the meat with the onion and spices for 10 to 15 minutes, stir-
ring regularly, taking care not to burn the onions.
Add the broth and crushed tomatoes and cover, stirring occasionally
Add the garlic after the meat is tender.
Cook until the garlic is integrated into the stew, about 30 minutes.
Serve over rice. To mitigate the curry’s heat, serve with plain yogurt
mixed with seeded, diced cucumber.
s t u n t f o o d way s
Dum Aha (Fried-Potato Curry)
1 pound potatoes
⅔ pint mustard oil
2 ounces ghee or peanut oil
½ teaspoon red chili flakes
¾ teaspoon ground coriander seeds
½ pint water
½ ounce diced fresh ginger
½ teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon dried ginger
1 tablespoon fresh coriander
Preheat the oven to 200˚F.
Peel the potatoes, parboil, slice, cool, and reserve.
To an ovenproof sauté pan, add the mustard oil and ghee (or peanut
oil) sufficient to deep-fry the potatoes, heat to the smoking point,
and cook the potatoes until golden. Remove the potatoes from the
pan and reserve.
Remove all but 2 ounces of the oil from the pan, remove the pan
from the heat, and add the red chili flakes and ground coriander
until fragrant. Add water, stirring regularly, taking care to loosen the
caramelized potato from the bottom of the pan. Simmer for 2 to
Return the potatoes to the pan and cook until tender, then remove
from the fire.
Stir in the garam masala, ginger, and fresh coriander and place in the
preheated oven for 30 minutes.
On the Shelf
The River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Typi-
cally if by page 133 of a cookbook the author is still busy defining
subcategories of free range for poultry, I hurl the book across the
room, curse bitterly, and wait a full week before dropping it in the
trash. Fearnley-Whittingstall has got my ear, and my full respect,
however. This is probably because, only thirty-eight pages after his
pious jobation about poultry joie, this erudite chef-butcher describes proper technique when skinning a rabbit. I’m willing to overlook
the time Fearnley-Whittingstall spends in the same prissy corner
of the tradition as Christopher Kimball because when he comes to
his senses, he applies the same eager diligence while providing the
secrets for deviled lamb’s kidneys, black pudding wontons, breast of
lamb Sainte-Ménéhould, and the like.
How to Roast a Lamb, Michael Psilakis. Michael Sand, executive editor of the imprint that published this volume, sent me Chef Psilakis’s
book with a gracious note attached: “You’re one of the few people I
could envision trying the recipe on page 208,” it said. The recipe is
for olokliro arni stin souvla, or whole spit-roasted lamb. I don’t intend to let either Michael down.
Craig Claiborne’s Southern Cooking, Craig Claiborne. This is the
first cookbook I ever bought. I was inspired by the blackened redfish
craze that depleted the Gulf Coast fishery back in the mid-1980s.
But rather than pull one of Paul Prudhomme’s cookbooks off the
shelf, I was drawn to the sophisticated gentility and great story-
telling in Claiborne’s paean to his origins. The recipes with pages
most spattered by ingredients are those for smothered chicken with
mushrooms, Kentucky burgoo, and hoppin’ John.
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Elizabeth David. A sense of time
and place, one both meditative and humane, is the great gift of all
s t u n t f o o d way s
David’s work. I am drawn to the tranquil determination of the title
essay, but I usually return to my thoroughly throttled paperback edi-
tion by flipping it open at random.
La Terra Fortunata, Fred Plotkin. I traveled to Friuli–Venezia Giulia (sort of the Maine of Italy, but with a much richer culinary tradition and no proper lobsters) with my friend Fred in the winter of
2000. The intellectual curiosity through which he expresses a love
of all Italian foodways is inspiring, but his exploration of this often
overlooked but complex region makes this my favorite of his many
books. Fred and I share a love for paparot, a garlic-infused spinach and polenta soup.
Unmentionable Cuisine, Calvin W. Schwabe. If this cookbook were
ever turned into a movie, it would not be Scott Rudin, Nora Ephron,
and the rest of the clever clogs who brought you Julie and Julia. No, this culinary romp would be presented on the silver screen by Peter
Block, James Wan, and the crew behind the shockingly gruesome
Saw franchise. The recipe for battered trotters is exactly six lines long, and nowhere in this book can one find an ingredient list.
But if you’re in the mood for hon tsao go zo, gedörrtes hundefleisch,
or any of nine other preparations for dog, this is as good a starting
point as I’ve found. Schwabe provides similar inspiration for palm
worms, goose necks, winkles, and field mice (try souris à la crème,
mice in cream).
Roger Vergé’s Vegetables in the French Style, Roger Vergé. This is the only cookbook dedicated solely to vegetables that I have ever
purchased. I never saw the utility in such a text. I don’t know if I do
now, but I opened the tabloid-size volume and instantly fell in love
with the photography within. I first cooked lettuce following Vergé’s
instructions for laitues braisées à la sarriette, braised lettuce with fresh savory. And who else but the venerated proprietor of Moulin
de Mougins could lend the moral fortitude to serve crémée de carottes
à la ciboulette (eight carrots served atop two tablespoons of butter,
m a n n y h o wa r d
one teaspoon each of sugar and salt, and two tablespoons heavy
cream, along with “a small bunch of chives” and a pinch of nutmeg)?
The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson. Alan Davidson is
not the first person I’d invite to dinner, but he’s the first guy I’d con-
sult to find out whether the tuber galangal is a stolon or a rhizome.
Mrs. Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery, Mrs. Balbir Singh. I spirited this 1961 ghee-spattered cookbook off my father’s bookshelf a decade or
so ago. It remains my most treasured hand-me-down. I have used the
vindaloo recipe as a jumping-off point and I’m proud to report that I
have very nearly mastered a proper Goan pork curry.
i n th e tr ench es
Fifty-year-old Jack Schatz, a professional trombonist, spends his nights in the orchestra pit of a Broadway show and his days cooking and caring for his family. He lives in suburban New Jersey with his wife, a violist for the New York Philharmonic, and their three children, the oldest of whom
is in college and the youngest in elementary school.
during the first part of my life, in East Flatbush, my grand-
mother lived downstairs from me. It seemed like everyone was cook-
ing all day long. It was incredible. My parents were both survivors
of the Holocaust, and my grandmother was our only living relative.
Anytime I had off from school, I’d spend the week with her. She’d
schlep me all around, shopping. We would go to a huge space, like a
garage, with floor-to-ceiling cages of geese and chickens. It was deaf-
ening. There the shohet, a rabbi schooled in the art of butchering,
would take a chicken in his fingers, draw back its head, utter a prayer,
and slice its neck. The chicken was put upside down in a metal cone
so the blood could drain out. When the feet stopped twitching, the
chicken was dead.
Lying in bed in the morning as a kid, I would smell onions cooking
and know that my mother was making chopped liver. I love chopped
liver and I make a mean one today. My mother browned the onions in
oil or chicken fat and added the liver to the pan to brown that, too. She
then put it all in a big wooden bowl with about a dozen hard-boiled
eggs. For the next hour, all I would hear is chop, chop, chop, scrape—chop, chop, chop, scrape. I used to sit in the kitchen and watch my mother and grandmother. By the time I left home, I knew how to cook.
I got married more than twenty years ago, and I started cooking
80 percent of the time. Of course, back in those days we’d go out to
eat three times a week; you could get a whole meal for fourteen dollars,
j ac k s c h at z
My oldest son, Brian, started his life as the worst eater imaginable.
He was on the white and tan diet: waffles, pancakes, milk, grilled
cheese, french fries, and the occasional banana. The only way I could
get him to eat was by making up a story and withholding the plot
until he took another bite. When Brian turned ten, it was like in The
Wizard of Oz when the film goes from black and white to color: he
started eating everything.
Dinnertime is sacred. It’s the only time we all get to sit down to-
gether and talk about the day. It takes planning. The other day, Brian,
who’s now in college, was home from school, so I knew I needed to
cook something big. I went food shopping in the morning and bought
a pot roast. I had to take the dog to the vet. I had to take my other son
to the eye doctor. I had to go to the eye doctor, too. My daughter had
ballet at five and Brian had tae kwon do at seven thirty. It was a crazy
day. I started the pot roast, along with potatoes, carrots, kale, and gar-
lic, in a slow cooker in the morning and let it cook all day. After six
hours, the meat was so tender it flaked like pastry.
Sometimes I think that my wife takes my efforts for granted. Every
once in a while I’d like her to volunteer to make dinner. Instead I have
to announce “The chef is off tonight” to get her to cook. Different
people have different vices; some drink, and some do drugs. I don’t
want to call food a vice, but it has always been my comfort.
Applesauce Meat Loaf
This recipe has been in my family for years and has varied over time. For instance, my mother used to bake a meat loaf with hard-boiled eggs strategically placed throughout the meat loaf. It was delicious. When I cook meat loaf, I always make two: one with and one without onions (because my son doesn’t like them). I might use cinnamon applesauce instead of apricot. So you can change it.
And it goes well with mashed potatoes. What’s not to like about that?
2 pounds ground beef, or a mixture of beef, lamb, and turkey
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1 cup organic apricot applesauce
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
A pinch of black pepper
¼ cup commercial orange-peach-mango juice
2 tablespoons chili sauce or ketchup
Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
In a large bowl, thoroughly mix all the ingredients except for the
chili sauce. Place the mixture in a greased loaf pan and bake for
Spread the chili sauce or ketchup over the top of the loaf; return it
to the oven and bake for an additional 45 minutes.
j ac k s c h at z
My kids like this chicken dish because the taste is sweet and inviting. It is colorful to look at, which interests them. I like it because it’s easy to make. This recipe serves two and can easily be doubled, which is what I often do.
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut crosswise into
Salt and pepper
4 teaspoons paprika
1½ tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped, about ½ cup
1 large plum tomato, chopped
1 cup chicken broth
¼ cup reduced-fat sour cream
Season the chicken with salt and pepper and 1 teaspoon of the
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high
Add the chicken and sauté until just cooked through, about 3 to
Transfer the chicken to a plate.
Add the remaining butter to the same skillet.
Add the onion and sauté until it starts to soften, about 3 minutes.
Add the remaining paprika and stir for 10 seconds.
Add the tomato and stir until it softens, about 1 minute.
Add the broth, increase the heat to high, and boil until the sauce
thickens enough to coat a spoon thinly, about 5 minutes.
Mix in the chicken and any collected juices.
i n t h e t r e n c h e s
Reduce the heat to low.
Add the sour cream and stir until just heated through (do not boil).
Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve on a bed of thick egg
1 head broccoli, trimmed of the stalk and cut into small pieces
½ cup bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, minced
Take a whole head of broccoli, rinse it well in cold water, and cut off
the florets, making sure they’re not too big—kids like small things
to eat. Dip the broccoli in some bread crumbs and garlic and stir-fry
them over high heat. The bread crumbs make the tips get a little
crisp and give them some extra flavor. It’s very tasty. I put it down on
the table and it goes in a snap. The kids can’t get enough of it.
steph en k i ng
Stephen King has written more than forty novels and two hundred short
stories. He is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the Canadian Book-sellers Association Libris Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2007 he was inducted as a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. Among
his most recent best sellers are Full Dark, No Stars and Under the Dome.
He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, the novelist Tabitha King.
first, my wife’s a better cook than I am. That’s straight up, OK?
And she should be. Raised in a Catholic family during the fifties, she
was one of eight children, six of them girls. These girls were “kitchen
raised,” as the saying used to be, by their mother and grandmother,
both fine country cooks. My wife has an excellent command of meats,
poultry, vegetables, quick breads, and desserts. She keeps a deep store of
recipes in her head. If she has a specialty, it’s what I call “everything-in-the-pot soup,” which usually starts with a chicken carcass and goes on
from there. It’s good the first time, and—like the best country cook-
ing, which specializes in plain food often prepared sans directions—
even better the second time.
But in the late 1970s, something strange began to happen to my
wife (perhaps because she was raised in a mill town in central Maine
back in the days when environmental protection meant little more
than pouring used engine oil at least five hundred yards from the near-
est well): she began to lose her senses of taste and smell. By the turn
of the twenty-first century, both were almost gone. Over those years,
her interest in both cooking and eating have declined. There was a
time when my major contributions in the kitchen were making break-
fast for the kids and washing dishes. I do more of the cooking now
o n c o o k i n g
because, left to her own devices, my wife is apt to eat little but cold
cereal or sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and a little olive oil.
Other than baking bread, which used to fulfill me (a thing I rarely
do since a Cuisinart bread machine came into our lives), I have never
cared much for cooking, and like my mother before me—a good
provider and a wonderful person, but not much of a chef—my weapon
of choice is the frying pan. Susan Straub, wife of my sometime col-
laborator Peter Straub, once said, “Give Steve a frypan and a hunk of
butter, and he can cook anything.” It’s an exaggeration, but not a huge
one. I like to broil whitefish in the oven, and I’ve discovered a wonder-
ful gadget called the George Foreman grill (cleaning it, however, is a
pain in the ass), but for the most part I enjoy frying. You can call it
sautéing if it makes you feel better—but it’s really just educated frying.
Turning down the heat is always a wonderful idea, I think. Whether
I’m frying hamburgers, making breakfast omelets, or doing pancakes
for a pickup supper, the best rule is to be gentle. Frying gets a bad
name because people get enthusiastic and fry the shit out of stuff. The
grease splatters; the smoke billows; the smoke detectors go off. No, no,
no. Show a little patience. Engage in culinary foreplay.
If you feel the urge to turn a stove-top burner any higher than a little
past med, suppress it. You are better served by getting your stuff out of
the fridge—your pork chops, your lamb chops, even your chicken, if
you’re frying that—and letting it warm up to something approximat-
ing room temperature. I’m not talking leaving it out until it rots and
draws flies, but if a steak sits on the counter for twenty minutes or so
before cooking, it’s not going to give you the belly gripes unless it was
spunky to begin with. If you start frying something fresh out of the
fridge, it’s maybe thirty-seven degrees. It’s going to cool off your pan
before you even start to cook. Why would you do that?
Be gentle is the rule I try to follow. I can respect the food even if I’m
not especially crazy about cooking it (mostly because I can never find
the right goddamn pan or pot, and even if I can find the pot, I can’t
find the goddamn cover, and where the hell did those olives go—they
were right on the bottom shelf in a Tupperware, goddamn it).
Want to make a really good omelet? Heat a tablespoon of butter in
s t e p h e n k i n g
your frypan (on a burner that’s turned a little past med). Wait until
the butter melts and starts to bubble just a little. Then go on and sauté
your mushrooms, onions, green peppers, or whatever. All this time,
you’ve got let’s say five eggs all cracked and floating in a bowl. Put
in three tablespoons of milk (if your
mother told you one tablespoon for
every egg, she was wrong, especially
when it comes to omelets) and then
beat it like crazy. Get some air in that honey. Let it sit for a while,
then beat it some more. When that’s done, you can go on and pour it
in with your sautéed stuff. Stir it all around a little bit, then let it sit.
When the eggs start to get a little bit solid around the edges, lift an
edge with your spatch and tip the frypan so the liquid egg runs under-
neath. Wait until the eggs start to show a few blisterlike bubbles. Add
some grated cheese if you want. Then use your spatula to fold over
the most solid part of the omelet. If you want to flip it, you’re either
an acrobat or an idiot.
All on med heat, plus a little more. The omelet is happy, not even
brown on the bottom, let alone charred. A five-egg omelet will serve
two hungry people, three “I just want to nibble” people, or ten super-
models. And the principle of gentle cooking holds for everything you
do on the stove top. If your definition of sautéing is “gentle cooking,”
I’m fine with that. You say tomato, I say to- mah-to.
I also love the microwave . . . and if you’re sneering, it’s because
you think the only things you can do with the microwave are make
popcorn and nuke the living shit out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners. Not
true. I don’t do recipes, but before I go cook some lamb chops, let me
pass on a great fish dish that’s beautiful in the microwave. Simple to
make, and a dream to clean up.
Start with a pound or so of salmon or trout fillets. Squeeze a lemon
on them, then add a cap or two of olive oil. Mush it all around with
your fingertips. If you like other stuff, like basil, sprinkle some on, by all means, but in both cooking and life my motto is KISS: Keep it simple,
stupid. Anyway, wrap your fish up in soaked paper towels—just one
thickness, no need to bury the fish alive. You should still be able to see
o n c o o k i n g
the color through the paper towels. Put the package on a microwave-
safe plate and then cook it for six minutes. But—this is the important
part— don’t nuke the shit out of it! Cook it at 70 percent power. If you don’t know how to use the power function on your microwave (don’t
laugh, for years I didn’t), cook it on high for three minutes and no more.
If you cook a pound of salmon for much more than three minutes, it
will explode in there and you’ll have a mess to clean up.
When you take the fish out of the microwave (use an oven glove,
and don’t lean in too close when you open the paper towels or you’re
apt to get a steam burn), it’s going to be a perfect flaky pink unless the
fillets are very thick. If that’s the case, use a fork to cut off everything that’s done and cook the remainder—very gently—for ninety seconds
at 60 percent power. But you probably won’t need to do this. People
will rave, and all the mess is in the paper towels. Cleaning up is, as
they say, a breeze.
I’ve learned a few other little things over my years as a cook (always
shock the pasta in cold water before removing it from the colander, test
steaks for doneness with the ball of your thumb while they’re still on
the grill, let the griddle rest if you’re planning on cooking more than
a dozen pancakes, don’t ever set the kitchen on fire), but the only real secret I have to impart is be gentle. You can cook stuff people love to eat (always assuming they have a sense of taste) without loving to cook.
“We must be getting close.”
Pretty Good Cake
I found this recipe, by Scottosman, on the Internet at allrecipes.com and adapted it. It’s simple and it works.
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter
3 teaspoons vanilla
¼ cup milk
1 cup white flour (or a little more: check your batter)
1 stick melted chocolate (don’t expect a chocolate cake, you just get
a hint of flavor)
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1. Preheat the over to 350˚F while you’re getting ready.
2. Grease a 9 ⫻ 9-inch pan with lard or Crisco. I use my fingers.
3. Mix the sugar, butter, and chocolate into a nice sweet soup.
4. Beat the eggs, add the vanilla, then add these ingredients to the
sweet soup. Start adding the flour and the milk. If you need to
add extra flour or milk, do so. Your objective is the kind of batter
that made you say “Can I lick the bowl?” when you were a kid.
5. Put in the baking powder last. Keep mixing, but don’t overdo it.
6. Bake it for 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center
comes out clean.
7. Frosting? You can find lots of recipes for that, both on the Net
and in Betty Cooker’s Crockbook, but why not buy a can? It’s just
as tasty. Don’t do it until the cake cools.
i n th e tr ench es
Josh Lomask, a forty-one-year-old firefighter, lives in a rambling Victorian house in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. He cooks most nights of the week for his wife, an administrator at a private school, and their twin eleven-year-old boys and ten-year-old boy. Josh’s house has been under renovation since they moved in more than a decade ago, and all he has at his disposal is a single
Broil King burner and an old convection oven.
cooking is like building a house. It’s a manual process. But unlike
a house, which might take months to build, cooking takes one night,
and that gives me a great sense of satisfaction. I’ve read stories that
the kitchen staff in restaurants is full of ex-cons. There’s definitely
something about cooking that appeals to the masculine side of things.
I really started cooking when I joined the fire department. Some-
body in the station has to do it. You don’t want to be a bully, but I tend
to always be involved. I’ll tell a new guy not to stir the rice, or I’ll keep someone from cutting his finger off while chopping an onion. Some
guys have no clue. I guess I was that way when I started out.
I learned by trial and error. Friends who were serious about cooking
would have us over for dinner. I’d sit in the kitchen, watching, getting
enthused about it, and then go off and try something on my own. I
throw myself into things. I have seven carbon-steel knives I bought on
eBay over two or three months. It goes in cycles. Lately I’m into air-
drying steak for a week in the refrigerator. I guess I just threw myself
into the kitchen and never came out of it.
My parents divorced when I was young, and I was raised by my dad.
We lived in a place that didn’t have hot water. This was the seventies,
and there were still cold-water flats. The kitchen was barely equipped.
It had a toaster oven and at one point a camping stove. I cooked for
myself a fair amount, but it wasn’t cooking. It was making egg noodles
or opening a Campbell’s soup can. Swanson Hungry-Man dinners
j o s h l o m a s k
were a big part of growing up. I met my wife in high school. We’re
basically both type B personalities, though when I’m cooking I can
be type A.
My Farberware convection oven is a pretty serious gizmo. It is not a
homeowner’s model. It’s professional. I got it from a friend, the former
headmaster of my high school, who is a serious baker. It cooks faster
than a normal oven and sometimes drier, which is not always a con-
venience. My equipment may be primitive, but it goes to show that
you don’t need to be too sophisticated to do a fairly good job. We’ve
had Thanksgiving for nine here.
Sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach. I’ll go to the
butcher, to Fairway, and to some other stores and end up with four
different types of meat. And then I get jammed up, with life or with
work or with something, and I don’t get the time in the kitchen. I find
a chicken I was supposed to cook five days ago, sitting there. I hate to
throw out a whole chicken. If I am too busy, my wife will do the whole
spaghetti and jar-sauce thing. Or we’ll eat egg noodles. I always have
about four bags of egg noodles on hand, ready to go, just in case.
With both parents working, there’s been a whole generation of
neglect in the kitchen. Guys are going to have to learn what fifties
housewives must all have known—how to plan a menu and feed a
family week by week.
I first learned of this dish in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It is unbelievably simple and good. Anthony Bourdain also has a nice variation in his cookbook. I prefer to use the Boston butt as Hazan recommends (she likes the vein of fat that runs through it), but I often use a pork loin. This dish always goes over well with roasted potatoes, and if you prefer not to simply reheat leftovers, combining the pork and the potatoes and frying them up in a hash with the gravy on top is terrific.
1 3- to 4-pound rib roast of pork, Boston butt, or pork loin
Salt and pepper
3 cups milk
½ cup water
Season the meat with salt and pepper and brown in a heavy roasting
pan over medium heat on the stove top.
Brown the meat as much as possible without burning it.
Turn the heat down to medium low, add 1 cup of milk, and braise on
the stove top, flipping the meat occasionally, until the milk reduces
and starts to break down.
Add another cup of milk and repeat. This can be repeated once,
twice, or even three times. The meat should cook for 2 to 3 hours,
depending on the size of the cut. An ideal internal temperature is
145˚F to 150˚F.
The milk will reduce and become a rich, brown gravy.
Remove the meat and let it rest 10 minutes, then slice.
j o s h l o m a s k
Skim some fat from the gravy, add ½ cup water, boil for about
3 minutes, then serve with the sliced pork.
Anthony Bourdain’s recipe adds diced carrot, onion, garlic, leek, a
bouquet garni. He also suggests straining the gravy and pureeing
it before serving. I’ve tried it and it is great, but nothing beats the
simplicity of Hazan’s recipe.
Double-Crispy Roast Chicken
I can’t narrow down where I got the idea for flipping the chicken. There are so many different variations. Some recommend starting it on its side and flipping it three times, a quarter turn each time; some say to start breast side up; some say keep it upside down the whole time. I’ve found that, for my oven at least, starting it upside down and flipping it breast side up works best. As for how long to cook it, this is what I’ve found works best in my oven (a small convection one). There is no end to recommendations about how to cook the perfect bird. Just find out what works best for your oven.
½ stick butter
Salt and pepper
Herbes de Provence
1 3- to 4-pound chicken
2 onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup water
Milk or half-and-half (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425˚F.
Melt the butter, pour it into a bowl, and combine it with salt, pepper,
i n t h e t r e n c h e s
Using your fingers, slather the mixture all over the chicken and
under the skin.
Loosely stuff some of the onion and celery inside the cavity.
In a roasting pan, place the rest of the celery and onion and enough
water to cover the bottom of the pan.
Put the chicken on a roasting rack, breast side down. Make sure the
rack keeps the chicken above the water and allows heat to get all
around the chicken.
Roast the chicken until the skin on top begins to brown and crisp,
about 45 minutes.
Remove the pan and flip the bird (the chicken shouldn’t stick much
because of the butter on the skin, but if you like, wipe some oil onto
the rack before putting the chicken on it). Return the chicken to
the oven and cook until the skin is nicely browned and crisped all
around and the internal temperature of the thigh is 165˚F, about
Carefully upend the chicken so that any juice that has collected in
the cavity drains into the roasting pan.
Lift the chicken and place it on a cutting board. Let it rest for
15 minutes, then cut up and serve.
To make the gravy, remove and set aside as much of the celery and
onion as you can.
Spoon off most of the fat.
Place the roasting pan on a stove top over low heat.
Sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of flour and stir to blend the flour and fat.
Press out any lumps of flour with a spoon, or mix with a whisk.
Add 1 cup water to deglaze, stirring and scraping up all the remain-
ing browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
j o s h l o m a s k
For added richness, you can add a bit of milk or even half-and-half
to the gravy.
Note: Herbes de Provence is a classic mixture of dried herbs from
the south of France. It is readily available in the spice aisle of large
When coating the bird with the herb-butter mixture, for com-
plete coverage there’s no substitute for fingers. This is a bit of a messy
process, but it ensures that the butter and seasoning get all over the
Also, a bunch of sliced potatoes placed beneath the chicken
makes for a greasy yet popular side dish with the chicken. But it
makes it impossible to make gravy from the drippings.
After serving the chicken, there is inevitably a lot of meat left on
the carcass. Use your fingers to strip it off and make chicken salad.
What’s left of the carcass can be frozen to make stock at a later date.
pau l gr een berg
Paul Greenberg is the author most recently of Four Fish: The
Future of the Last Wild Food and a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, National Geographic,
Vogue, and many other publications. A National Endowment for the
Arts Literature Fellow as well as a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Food
and Society Policy Fellow, he lives and works in New York City
and Lake Placid, New York.
my current family food budget is governed by the convergence
of two troubling and important phenomena:
1. The global decline of oceanic fisheries
2. The rapid and imprudent spending of my book advance
For the past three years I have been writing a book about the global
decline of oceanic fisheries. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars
uncovering the truth but have been sent back to the drawing board by
my editors no less than four times, rewriting, researching, respending
more and more money that I don’t have. It is all my fault. I should have
read my contract. Before I can get the second half of my book advance,
the editors must vet. The lawyers must vet. The proofreaders must vet.
Everyone must vet. But with a family to feed, I can’t offer up “vetting”
as an excuse for not putting food on the table.
Which is why I ended up having to contribute directly to the global
decline of oceanic fisheries.
On a bone-chilling day in February around 3:00 a.m., I stepped
aboard the party fishing boat Sea Otter out of Montauk, New York,
with the idea of trying to catch some cod. Cod, in case you’re not
pau l g r e e n b e r g
aware of it, used to be the most astoundingly bountiful source of
wild food in the world. Jesus, there were a lot of cod. Those stories
of colonists lowering buckets over the rails and pulling up fish? Cod.
But like me, humanity blew its advance. If humans had just had a
little restraint and caught the majority of the cod every year instead of
building the biggest boats ever made and then catching almost all the
cod, we and the codfish would be in much better shape. Seriously, if
you go to a fishing ground and catch 60 percent of the cod and leave
40 percent of the cod in the water, generally you’ll have enough cod for
next year, because your average cod lays millions of eggs and the popu-
lation can replace itself pretty quickly. But humans didn’t do that. In
Atlantic Canada, for example, they caught 95 percent of the cod, and
now the cod that are left are runts compared to the behemoths that
used to dominate. Humans have artificially selected a whole new race
of minicod by catching and eating all the big ones. As a result of all
this bad behavior, a pound of cod, which used to cost a few bucks, now
retails in New York supermarkets at around fourteen dollars—way
out of the ballpark for my food budget.
But in some places, humanity may have started to learn its lesson.
In U.S. waters, some cod breeding grounds have been closed to fishing
for nearly twenty years. And slowly cod have started trickling back
south, down the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and finally
within range of Montauk, Long Island. A cod-fishing trip on the Sea
Otter costs $140. I reasoned that if the cod really had returned and I could scrape together a decent catch, I could put fish back on my table
without taking out another advance on my credit card.
The Sea Otter was cheaper than the other Montauk boats and it
showed—there were no tables, no seats to speak of, just two long, nar-
row benches girding the cabin. But despite the discomfort and the fact
that it was a Wednesday—a day when the usual working-class clien-
tele of a party fishing boat should be otherwise engaged—word had
gotten out that “the cod were back,” and the boat was “railed,” that
is, so full that the rails were going to be packed shoulder to shoulder
when we finally got around to fishing. I settled down on the narrow
h e a d s u p !
prisoner’s bench on the boat’s port side and eventually nodded off on
the shoulder of a large plumber from Lindenhurst. Two hours later,
the engines slowed and the plumber sprang up, leaving my head to
slam onto the bench. Zombielike, I put on my rubber coveralls and
Glacier Gloves and stumbled out to the rail in the predawn gloaming.
There, ten miles from Block Island, wedged into a stretch of water
that was maybe a single square mile, was the entirety of the Montauk
fishing fleet. I knew all the boats from my childhood fishing days: the
small black Vivienne, the trim white Montauk, and the massive Viking Starship. It was like a return of old friends. And yet enemies, too.
Because when there are this many boats crammed into such a small
space of water, one or two boats will often get lucky while the rest will
go home fishless.
But as we got closer to the Viking Starship, I came to see one, two, four, ten rods bent under the weight of serious fish. When I finally
got my gob of clams to the bottom, within seconds my rod was bent
double. I reeled three cranks, and snap, my line broke when the big cod below made a lunge bottomward. I quickly retied and sent my hook
down again. Wham! Another big cod on. This one made it to the
surface and into my milk crate. Meanwhile the Lindenhurst plumber
to my left already had four codfish. He seemed to have some kind of
special method. He would flip out his line at a forty-five-degree angle
from the stern of the boat, let it drift around, and then, watching the
tip of his pole twitch with the first tastings of a codfish, mutter to
himself, “C’mon, you motherfucker. C’mon, you son of a bitch. Take
it, you fucker.” And then, rearing back on his heels and setting the
hook, his pole bending deeply, he’d exclaim with the full capacity of
his lungs, “have a nice day!”
The “bite” continued all morning, although, thanks to bad tech-
nique and faulty equipment, I dropped 75 percent of the fish I hooked.
The Lindenhurst plumber meanwhile accrued codfish after codfish.
“have a nice fucking day, you motherfucker!” he screamed
again and again, setting the hook on more and more cod—savagely,
terribly, with a rising chaos of blood thirst in his voice. I was using a
pau l g r e e n b e r g
medium-size plastic milk crate to keep my fish, but the plumber had
brought along a garbage can four times its size, and it was brimming
with the tails of dying fish. “have a nice day, you stupid cock-
sucker!” Fish after fish. A second garbage can. The beginning of a
In the course of my twelve hours at sea I caught about a dozen five-
to-seven-pound cod, giving me a total take-home “round weight” of
about seventy pounds. I paid $140 for the fishing trip, which meant
that all of my delicious fresh cod cost only two dollars per pound. A
tremendous savings! The only problem is that cod have a low “fillet
yield,” meaning that a lot of their body is devoted to their huge heads
and not to the pearly white boneless fillets that extends from pectoral
to the caudal fin. So I really only had thirty-five pounds of fillets. That meant something like a four-dollar-per-pound cost. In order to bring
the price back down again, I would have to resort to more drastic cost-
saving measures . . .
First, though, I dealt with the fillets. Thirty-five pounds of cod
meat will last my family about ten weeks, which means almost all the
meat had to be packed for the freezer. If I hadn’t blown my book
advance, I might have had the $85.00 to buy a professional
vacuum packer. But since I had blown my advance, I did
some research and discovered on a fishing Web site a way
to vacuum-pack that involved a pot of water ($0) and a
box of Ziploc bags ($2.99). Here’s how it’s done: Fill the
biggest pot you have with cold water. Put your codfish
fillet in a Ziploc bag. Close the bag, leaving just one
little dime-width gap open at the corner. Submerse
almost the entire bag in the pot, with just the open
corner of the Ziploc seal protruding above the surface. The water pres-
sure will force all the air out of the bag, and this is good, since the less air you have touching your cod, the longer your cod will last. If you
are a stickler for a tight seal (as I am), you can suck the remaining air
out of the corner of the Ziploc seal in one fishy inhale and then pinch
the corner closed.
h e a d s u p !
This is what I did with my thirty-five pounds of cod fillets, and
I was happy to see that as I stacked them, layer after layer, like cord-
wood, they would exactly fit the lower berth of my freezer. It felt like
putting money in a bank account. Even better. For unlike freelance-
writing income, which is forever subject to deductions in the form of
Social Security tax, tuition, and other nuisances, I had full, inalienable
title to my cod. I don’t generally align myself with Libertarians, but
just let the government try to take my fish away from me and see what
With my fillets safely packed up, I turned my attention to my new
idea of stretching out my cod-fishing dollar. This idea came to me
while I was standing next to the Lindenhurst plumber by a pile of
guts at the back of the boat after the mate had filleted our catches.
“Hey, you know,” he said, looking around at the carnage, “there’s a
lot of good meat on those heads!” Even though the plumber’s remark
was more apostrophe than prescription, I followed his suggestion and
shoved twenty codfish heads into my cooler.
With the fillets packed away, I finally got to all that “good meat” on
the heads. I found there were two ways of doing this. The less efficient
is to take a paring knife and work out the flesh just behind the brain
casement as well as the circular scallop-shaped piece of muscle above
the gill plate, which opens and closes a codfish’s mouth and gills. This
I did with about half the heads, until my wrists started to ache. In all,
I was able to dig out a gallon-size Ziploc bag full. This meat I froze for
later use as cod cakes, cod chowder, and cod popsicles for my son (just
kidding on that last one).
It was, however, the second use of the head that turned out to the
pièce de résistance of codfish penny pinching: cod-head spaghetti
Flipping through Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian
Cooking, I found a recipe for fish-head sauce, and I set about following it. I fried some onions and garlic in olive oil in the widest pan I
had. When everything goldened up nicely, I laid the cod heads right in
the hot oil. I sautéed the heads on one side, flipped them, and sautéed
pau l g r e e n b e r g
them on the other. I then took them out and let them cool. The big
pieces, that “good meat” that’s readily noticeable on the shoulders
and gill plates that I would have had to dig out with a paring knife
if the heads were raw, slid right out when the heads were cooked. Per
Marcella’s advice, I put those big chunks aside for later so they
wouldn’t overcook in the main body of the sauce.
The horror show (and the savings!) is what happened with the rest.
After sautéing them, I found that the cod heads became rather gelati-
nous and everything of integrity in them started to come apart—the
lips, the tongue, the brain, even the eyes. This gloppy, bony heap turns
out to be the ambrosia of cod-head spaghetti sauce. To make use of
it, you remove the bigger bones by hand and then put the remaining
mess through a hand-cranked food mill. Out of the other side comes
a purplish mass that no one who eats this sauce needs to know about.
Combined with already simmered tomatoes, parsley, and white wine,
the sauce became savory red and delicious. After I mixed in the big
chunks of cheek and shoulder meat, it was downright hearty.
The fishing, the head-meat paring, the head frying, the cleanup—it
all left me feeling a little like a juiced-out piece of fruit. Indeed, if I were a person accustomed to being paid by the hour, it would be hard
to say that there was any real savings in this cod trip. Exhausted, I laid
out my spaghetti and fish-head sauce on a massive platter in front of
my family. Joining us that night was a sophisticated and well-traveled
Washington Post food writer who had been downsized during the
Post’s recent cutbacks. She herself was considering becoming a freelance writer. My two-year-old son knew nothing of the cheek meat
and brain pulp that had gone into the meal, and he tucked in to his
bowl of pasta with relish. So as not to disturb his forward progress, I
whispered the fish-head spaghetti sauce recipe to the former Washing-
ton Post food writer when she asked for it.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “That’s la cucina povera!” The cuisine of the
Maybe so. Or maybe you could just call it “fruit of the freelancer.”
h e a d s u p !
“You can stop the pain, Marcel. Just show us how to crust a sea bass.”
Southeast Asian Catfish
Taking on Asian cuisine is always a little daunting at first, but there are usually a few key ingredients that unlock a lot of the mystery. When it comes to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, the particular taste we associate with it comes mostly from something known in English as fish sauce. Fish sauce is a heavily salted, slightly fermented liquid derived from small fish (often anchovies). In spite of its name, it doesn’t taste fishy. It just tastes, for lack of a better description, Southeast Asiany.
The great thing about fish sauce is that once you buy a bottle of it, you can keep it around for a year or more. It’s cheap and widely available at Asian grocery stores, and it adds a breath of the sea to whatever you’re cooking.
Lately I’ve been using it to make cheaper freshwater fish like tilapia and catfish taste a little more flavorful. Freshwater fish sometimes have a muddy taste (“off flavor,” it’s called in the industry), and a strong sauce, like this one, gives the fish a whole new life.
I adapted this recipe after writing a New York Times Magazine story on Vietnamese catfish. You can use any white, flaky fish, but in Vietnam today, the most common fish is pangasius catfish, also known on the market as basa or tra.
American catfish works great for this, too.