It’s true.  Last night I made what I consider to be a tomato sauce that was ‘watery’.  I was looking for ‘thinish’ I was not looking to have tomato water in the bottom of the plate.  I felt the ghost of my Dad as a vapor behind me; ready to chastise me for the watery sauce and urging me to throw it at the wall in rage.  While I did not throw it at the wall, or yell at Bonnie for an error that she had absolutely nothing to do with, I was very disappointed in the sauce that I had produced.  I did go a bit crazier than the situation merited; gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and cutting of hair.  I do not like to make mistakes and I certainly do not like to make mistakes twice.  I’m compelled to tell you this tale so that you know the reality of the chef that I am – less than perfect.   

As with so many things I had started out with the best of intentions.  Those intentions being mussels in a red sauce served over pasta.  At our house blue mussels (Mytilus edulis Linnaeus – that’s what book learnin can do for ya) hold an honored place on the pantheon of foods.  They are inexpensive, tasty and extremely versatile as a menu component.  I’ve placed them in sauces, stuffed other seafood with them, fried them, used them in soups, stews and chowders and eaten them all on their lonesome.   




Blue mussels can be found from the southern artic down to North Carolina and the Mediterranean.  They are also cultivated, aqua-farmed, and that’s where most of ours come from these days.  As with any shellfish the appearance and flavor vary with the location where the mussel is raised.  So some are larger, some are smaller, most are that beautiful blue-black color and some have a tinge of brown.  Mussels weren’t served at our kitchen table when I was a kid.  That’s a little surprising since Dad did like shellfish.  I’ll attribute it to the presumption that while shrimp and ‘clams on the half shell’ may have been acceptable to 1950’s America mussels were considered ‘foreign’, a little too exotic and racy.  That whole French thing.  The cultures of the Mediterranean have enjoyed these as a culinary staple for eons, but it took a while to get to that Polish Roman Catholic kid from central Connecticut.

So, back to the watery tomato sauce.  I know how it happened.  It happened because I didn’t follow my own rules.  All that I had to do to turn this around would have been to let the tomatoes, whole peeled, drain rather than just squeezing them in my hands into small pieces over the cooking pan.  The result – too much liquid.  I could have simmered it for a long time and gotten rid of some of the liquid, but I made the second mistake of being rushed for time.  The third mistake was miscalculating how much liquid the mussels would release as they cooked in the tomato sauce.  Again, reserve the liquid and add it as you need it.

The sauce tasted very good.  That’s a zinger isn’t it?  More watery than I had wanted, actually I hadn’t wanted watery at all, but it had a good flavor.  It was seasoned with a little shallots and garlic sautéed in olive oil, salt, just enough Cayenne Pepper for some heat, bay leaf and fresh thyme and the liquor from the mussels as they cooked.  So a lesson relearned.  Not the last lesson to be relearned, which leaves me wondering what the next one will be.  Let’s hope that it’s as harmless as another watery sauce.



The Mother Of All Paella Pans

The Italian Market in Philly is wonderful not only for the fact that it offers so many wonderful foods, but also because of the kitchen supply store that’s located in its midst – Fante’s Kitchen Wares Shop. The store has everything that you’d ever want or need in your culinary world.  Walking in the door the first time was one of those unexpected pleasures, the surprise present.  Despite the fact that the store has been around a long time I didn’t have the culinary chops at the time to be aware of its presence.  In finding it I just got lucky.  It’s gotten a little upscale from when I first poked my head in the door and was certain that I had found cooking ware heaven, but it still has everything.  Fante’s first opened its doors in 1906.  It remained in the Fante family until 1981.  How’s that for a family hanging together?  The family retired from the store passing ownership to the general manager – the proverbial tree did not let the apple go very far.  I’ve bought, or wanted to buy, larding needles, varieties of coffee makers, barware, dozens of different pastry and basting brushes ranging from boar bristle to silicone to barbecue sauce mops – I’ve got to stop here or go on forever – I’ll stop here.  No, wait, one more.  How many places can you find a Malloreddus Pasta Board?  What’s it used for you ask?  It’s used for making Sardinian malloreddus, a pasta that looks like small gnocchi, but is made only with semolina flour, water  and sometimes saffron.  I’ve got to try that.  This is one of those stores of which it can truly be said, “If we don’t have it you don’t need it.”  But my favorite buy is an aluminum paella pan. 

We’re not talking just a paella pan here.  Actually, we’re not talking about a paella pan in the true sense of the word.  The normal paella pan is about 16 inches or so in diameter and about an inch and one half deep.  My pan is a paella pan on steroids.  We’re talking here about the MOTHER of all paella pans.  A pan that’s 20 inches in diameter and 4 inches deep!  We’re talking 2 burners on the stove top!  This pan has held paella for twenty or so friends and neighbors.  Pounds of rice, quarts of chicken stock, several cut up chickens, dozens of mussels, clams and shrimp and several links of chorizo or Linguica.  The pan easily swallows pounds of beans and good tomatoes, bags of onions, many cloves of garlic, a slab of bacon, sides of beef and/or pork (sometimes I grill the meat and shred it into the dish, sometimes it’s just ground) so as to yield the most mouthwatering of chili con carne .

For breakfast frittatas it has consumed dozens of eggs, pounds of cheeses, a heavenly host of chopped onions and red and green peppers, sometimes links of sausages and sometimes slabs of bacon and sometimes both of these together.  Get the pan good and hot in the oven (425°F hot, hot, hot – turn the heat down to 375°F after a few minutes), the butter nutty brown and smoking swirled all over the pan surface.  Pour in the ingredients from that huge bowl that you’ve mixed them in.  Close the oven door and begin to breathe again, wonder awaits those with patience.


The Mother of All Paella Pans


When I saw it hanging on the wall in the store it was love at first sight.  I had to buy this pan.  My God, the amount of food that I could put into this!  The number of people that I could feed from it!  Bonnie was with me and we hadn’t been a couple all that long of a time.  Knowing me for the short time that she had she didn’t fully comprehend what a store, and a pan, like this did to me.  She saw that my lusty gaze was riveted to this pan and the slightest bit of drool was leaking from one corner of my mouth.  She knew me well enough to know that, at that moment, nothing else existed in my world but that pan.   I could sense her backing away from me, slowly as one would from a crazed beast or an insane person.   Needless to say, but just to confirm, I bought the pan.

On the ride home she sat tight to the passenger door, hand just resting on the door handle, her eyes on me for the whole ride, ready to jump from a moving car in an instant, waiting for the pan lust to abate and hoping that I wasn’t going to drive down any unmarked urban side streets to do her in and cut up her body so that it fit in the pan.  Silly girl, I like a much thicker pan when I’m cooking meat, a good roasting pan.

This pan is my equivalent of the biblical ‘loaves and fishes’ – whatever dish is prepared in this wonder of a paella pan there is always enough; a seemingly limitless amount, to feed all of those wonderful people that partake.  I’m still working on the water to wine thing.  I need to find the mother of all wine carafes.  Another trip to Fante’s.


Dinner Diary                                      January 1, 1987


Happy New Year!  Another “nice and simple” little dinner, probably put together at the last minute for an unexpected visit from Bonnie’s old housemate and friend Eleanor (Eleanor of the impossibly long gorgeous legs, wild Stevie Nicks hair and a brain rivaling Einstein’s). Eleanor whose name I misspelled in the diary entry.   

OK, so the APPLE stuffed pork and the cabbage and APPLES are redundant.  Maybe I had a surplus of apples.  And yes, the rice should not have been rice, but should have been small roasted potatoes or spaetzle, even buttered egg noodles.  Cabbage and apples are always good – braise the cabbage (red or green), use a nice  wine for the braising with good chicken stock,  add the apples, a little brown sugar, a little cider vinegar, some toasted caraway seed, taste, maybe (what maybe – use the butter!) and finish it with a little butter – always gooood.  Poor pork these days.  Unless you purchase it from a local farm, like Ely’s, that raises it properly – not a factory farm – you’re going to get a meat that has very little fat and thus very little flavor.  A cut like a loin is easy enough to overcook, especially so when it has no fat.  My advice to you is to hunt around a bit.  Chances are good that there’s a local farm that you can get to that has real meat that’s worth cooking.  As for the rest of the meal where is it?  Where were the appetizers, where’s the salad and where the hell is the dessert?  Come on, Dave!  This sloppiness is unacceptable.  And what pork cut was this?   

Except for the fact that Eleanor was such a good friend of Bonnie’s, I’m a little surprised to see her with us on New Years Day.  Bonnie and I have gone through several iterations of the first day of the New Year that ranged from full bore parties to just the two of us – we prefer just the two of us.   

There were several years where about 8 or 10 of us would gather at our neighbors’ house for New Years Eve.  Lots of good food (are you beginning to detect a pattern with any event or incident that I’m involved with?), guitars, one or two bottles of wine.  Musical entertainment was provided by that renowned band, ‘The Bull Run Road Boys and Wasp Women From Outer Space’.     We would have talent contests.  One of us relearned playing the trombone, another could make a knot in a cherry stem – while inside his mouth, another could do Mark Spitz (you don’t know that name?) swimming impressions using one of those two handled wine bottle openers, and others were simply dumbfounded that they were sitting there watching these things when they could be watching Dick Clark.  Yes, Dick Clark solo, not with that little kid by his side.  May old acquaintance be forgot?  Never.     


Next Week:  More Dinner Diaries and Revisiting Some Old Dinner Diary Recipes



  1. Ed Schenk Says:

    Lots of perspective!

  2. Aimster Says:

    Wow! We are so HONORED to have made the blog!!! Just for that, we’ll have to set you up with a mini martini shaker or 2…

    Keep the stories comin’ We love them!!!

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