Summer’s Over, Let’s Enjoy the Cooking We Can Do in the Upcoming Season!

Dinner Diary                                                                         August 16, 2003

 

 Ah, those main courses that you sometimes get stuck in a rut with making them time and time again until your inner chef says, “Are you so brain-dead that you can only make this one dish?  If you make this again in the next nine months I’m going to instruct your knife hand to cut off your little finger.”

            And so it was with the Silver Palette’s Lemon Chicken.  It’s a wonderful dish, I’ve described it before.  For whatever reason I had made it several times in succession and even I realized that it had been served too often, hence the comment, “again”.  It’s an easy dish to make and can, should, be done ahead.  Yeah, that’s it, I didn’t have enough time!

Well that’s no excuse.  To be good at anything, to learn anything, to progress you’ve got to push yourself.  That most certainly applies to cooking.  So, if you’re tired, go ahead and make that dish for guests once or twice in succession, but promise yourself that the next dinner is going to feature a new dish and it’s going to be exceptional.

 

How To Read A Menu And Impress Your Date 

There was a period of time where Bonnie and I would journey from the hinterlands of New Jersey into the uber urban whirlwind that is New York City.  There is absolutely no place anywhere on earth like New York City, not that I’ve been to many places – but, I’ve seen pictures.  It takes us almost two hours to drive into the City.  As much as Bonnie pleads, I refuse to take the train.  Driving in is a pain in the ass, but the thought of not being able to control where I’m going and when I want to go makes me homicidal.  So I drive. One time we were running late and parked in a ‘forbidden zone’.  We came out of the theater to find that our trunk had been jimmied open and that we had gotten a parking ticket.  God, I love that City.  If they don’t screw you one way, they’ll find another way and if they can get you both ways they most certainly will.

We journeyed to the City somewhat regularly to see Broadway Shows”,  something that I can do entirely without, but that Bonnie loves – bad acting, ridiculous situations, absolutely forgettable tunes.  I’ll pass except for the fact that I love Bonnie.

Broadway Show Dialogue:

Actor #1, “Brother, our father has just died.”

Actor #2, “Well, let’s  just sing a song.”

Actors #1 and #2, “Dad is dead, Dad is dead, Dad is dead” (sung to the tune of some Methodist hymn with a Disney/Elton John twist.   Elton John what happened to you?).

Like I said, I’ll pass. We did get to go to some pretty good restaurants though – the saving grace.  At one point we were fortunate enough to get into Orso. 

No, I don’t remember everything that we had, but I do remember a fantastic carpaccio, good wine, good service, the food was good.  Good, good, good all around. 

Good except for David and the menu.  Let me give all you men out there a lesson on how to impress your date.  Pick up the menu and commence this conversation. 

DAVID,

“God, this is a great menu.  I didn’t think that they’d have this many dishes.”

“I mean look, both sides of these pages”

“Wow, the left side of the page is in Italian.”

“I’ll have to get the waiter to translate some of the dishes.”

“I won’t even know what to order until I get some translations.”

“I mean all the dishes on the right side of the menu are in English and I know what I’d order from there”

“But, the left side is in Italian and I just don’t know what some of the items are.”

BONNIE,

“Honey, the left hand page is the Italian name of the dish.”

“The right hand page is the translation.”

DAVID,

“Oh”

“Waiter, we’re ready to order.”

Great Menu!  Multilingual!

  

Dinner Diary –                                                                       September 22, 1995

  

  

Let’s look at the September 22 entry.  Yea, yea, the ‘Sun Dried Tomato Tapenade on Polenta Triangles’ is interesting and tasted good – tempered by my comments.  Polenta.  I could write love songs about polenta and maybe I will for the next entry.  But we shall discourse on the ‘Baked Oysters and Scallops’.  The recipe is inspired and comes damn close to a dish that we were served at the Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville, Pennsylvania.  Not only a Hotel, but also with a restaurant.  It’s a beautiful place, built in the 1700’s and it looks like it in a very good way.  Absolutely real.  The dining room hugs the banks of a tranquil stretch of the Delaware River and we’ve been lucky enough most times to get a table at a river view window.  Along this particular stretch of river the waters narrow between the restaurant and a small island.  The river here is often shallow, the trees crowd the banks in places and there is quietness about the place.

This, again, is one of those ‘context’ dishes.  Bonnie and I just happened in one day got a river table and had the absolute luck to order this dish.  It was hot, creamy, buttery and with oysters and scallops how could you go wrong. Perfect for the coolness in the air that autumn day.   I often like to challenge myself with trying to replicate, approximate is a better word, dishes that we’ve had in restaurants.  I don’t expect to make a perfect copy, I don’t necessarily want to.  After all, now it’s MY dish.  In this case it was very nice.  No problem, no fuss, top notch ingredients and it did in fact bring back a perfect and unplanned surprise. 

The Black Bass was shut down for a couple of years until whatever needed to be settled was settled.  It is now up and open and garnering rave reviews for the execution of its menu.  Bonnie and I look forward to returning.

 

Black Bass Inn and Hotel

 

A Recent Dinner 

 

 

 

Dessert

One of the many things that I love about cooking is the manner by, if you’re doing it right, you’re connected to the seasons and the passage of time.  If you’re doing it right you have to cook with the seasons.  You have to be aware of what is available to you that’s fresh, that’s been grown in your little part of the world, that hasn’t been shipped halfway around the world to get to your cutting board.  If you live in the northeast you don’t use strawberries in January, you don’t use asparagus in November, you don’t use peaches in February.  You cook with the weather; more hearty meals.  You cook with what your little place on earth is providing you with at the time.  And this is good cooking, scrumptious dishes!

I prefer cooking warm, i.e. wintertime meals, to cold, i.e. summertime meals.  For whatever reason it seems to me that the cold weather meals offer more possibilities than the warm weather meals.  I’m not sure why that is, maybe it’s just me, but for whatever reason I’ve got a much larger repertoire of cold weather menus rather than hot.  And the meals are more hearty, which makes sense, as you’re trying to stay warm.   

So let us look forward to making bread.

Bread from the Oven

And Red Flannel Hash

Red Flannel Hash

And spaghetti and meatballs

Spaghetti with Red Sauce and Meatballs

 

The cooler and colder weather is coming.  Embrace it!  It’s going to be a good time to get a lot of great cooking done.

 

Tuna Overwhelmed, Burned Dog Food, Succotash and Poulet Flambe

Dinner Diary                                                                         August 21, 1993

 

 

Sometimes the meds just don’t do their job and I go a little wacky, a little extreme. 

What’s extreme here is, as I have written, the stuffed swordfish.  The salad is a classic, I’m sure that all of us loved it.  Yellow squash and leeks, how could my guests not loved it? That’s a rhetorical question.  The fact is, as written, the yellow squash with leeks was ‘not a mover’.  On occasion vegetables are sometimes a tough sell.  The swordfish steaks?  I can see them in my mind to this day.  Really, really stuffed – bulging like a tennis ball had been inserted into them.  One solid pound of stuffed fish per serving.  How could I have possibly not cooked them until they were properly done?  They were overwhelming in that the portions were ridiculously large and the seasonings were too strong; burying the taste of the fish and clams.   Poor Rick and Brenda (yes, they’re the couple that suffered through the soft shell crabs too); as the song says, “you always hurt the one(s) you love”.  A nice menu, just a little “too overwhelming”.   

The thing is that you CANNOT be afraid to try new things.  If it comes out badly, no one’s going to get hurt; no one’s going to die – usually.  And if you don’t try, you’ll never know just how great you can be. 

And by God, Bonnie made dessert, though I’m certain that I was the one that added the rum peaches with the vanilla ice cream.  How nice a dessert is that!?  Sour cream, lemon, cake, rummed peaches and vanilla ice cream – and on a summer’s day yet!  Perfection.   

I gotta’ let Bonnie cook more for the dinners.  She’s good and I’m getting old.  Excuse me, oldER.  Not dead yet!!  

 

Burned Dog Food At High Noon 

I honestly don’t mind my friends serve me hot dogs and beans.  You know that I appreciate a good hotdog.  I don’t require a four star meal to enjoy my friends company.   I do want to be served food that has good ingredients and has been properly cooked.  I’ve been served “stuff” that I can’t even label as edible.  One memorable occasion involved a gathering in a location that I consider an epicurean no man’s land.  I shall presume that living in such an area creates a culinary Bermuda Triangle.  Good food disappears leaving frozen miniature weenies wrapped in, what the manufacturer calls, dough.  The event was a ‘barbeque’ – God, how often does the actual meaning of that word get slaughtered with grilled hamburgers – store made – and bad hot dogs, absolutely forgettable green salads with bottled salad dressings, potato salad with a cup of sugar in it, Jello and marshmallow molds that set my stomach churning when I look at them and God knows what other horrors.  The matron of the house was ‘cooking something’ on the stove top when we arrived.  

I swear to God that she was cooking dog food, but she kept saying that it was something else – and – there wasn’t even enough of this dog food for everybody to have some.  She asked me to taste it because she was told that I liked to cook.  I smelled it; it was dog food – BURNED. I figured that if she had the nerve to offer me this crap than I had the nerve to take a small taste, so I did. 

With that single taste I suddenly felt as if my spirit had left my body to travel to another time and place.  The green grass, leafed trees and screaming children fading, fading, fading …………   

And so there the two of us were, the noon sun directly overhead, on a dusty main street in a frontier town, the shopkeepers, womenfolk and children, drunks and Indians peering through the store and saloon windows at the matron and I; Mano a Womano.  She asked how I liked it – I said that it was interesting (I was trying to be polite for my wife’s sake).  She asked again – I said that I had never tasted anything like it (still being polite).  

By this time the crowd in the stores and the saloon were restless and edgy.  They had caught the scent of blood on the single dying breeze.  Blood was about to flow, but whose blood?  I wasn’t restless or edgy.  I was appalled and angry at this woman’s so called cooking.   She asked again – what did I really think of it?   One of her youngins, sensing that we were about to draw pistols, tried to get the matron to move on, to let her hand fall away from the butt of the pistol, turn around, get on her horse and ride out of town.  No luck. 

She asked me yet again.  I had just eaten burned dog food, tried to be polite and wasn’t getting anywhere.  So ….. Faster than lightening, I drew my pistol, told her, “IT TASTES LIKE BURNED DOG FOOD” and fired.   There was a quick, painful and gasping, intake of breath from the crowd and then silence.  The matron sniffled a couple of times, gut shot, and, as she sank to her knees on that dusty frontier street, gasped out, “My family likes it” (the father’s dead, I can only guess the cause).  Gamely, staggering back to her feet, she turned back to the stove to continue burning the dog food.  No, I haven’t been invited back – sometimes you just get lucky.  

An aside, three worthy phrases that are a serviceable response to many situations: “it’s very interesting”, “I’ve never seen/tasted anything like this” and “My, isn’t that different”.

 

 

DRAW!

 

 Dinner Diary                                                                         September 1, 1997

 

 

Succotash is another ‘Top 5’ dish in the 50 or so dishes that make up my ‘Top 5’.  Another triumph for Mr. White.  I love this so much that I could probably keep eating it until I exploded.  Bonnie doesn’t rrreeeaaallllyyy like vegetables, no matter what she may say.  So, when I tasted this creation and she came in to the kitchen to find me rolling on the floor and speaking in tongues, she had no idea what the fuss was about.  I truly like lima beans and when you add cream, bacon and FRESH JERSEY CORN to it – I was in heaven.  This is a true Native American dish.  I have to wonder that if they were so absolutely gifted as to come up with this, and two dozen other great dishes, How the hell did they lose their paradise to some limeys that BOILED  lamb?   

 

Poulet Flambé And Rick The Cat Tries To Age Game 

I considered getting my first propane grill a really big deal.  To begin with, we had a house of our own and I did not need to hang the grill out the second floor window.  I had no concerns regarding the neighbors – well, few concerns regarding the neighbors.  How cool was this?!?!  I was going to be able to come home from work, light the propane grill and start cooking.  No longer would I have to come home, put the hardwood charcoal in the Weber, light them and wait and wait until I could begin cooking – by the light of a flashlight duct taped to the side of my head. 

Propane versus hardwood charcoal.  To me the hardwood wins hands down, because there’s nothing like cooking over something that’s real wood and a real high searing heat.  But, when I’m short for time, Hank Hill and I are on the same team.  I know, he’s a cartoon character. 

I was surprised to find that there was a learning curve involved with using the propane grill.  I’m surprised by so many things in life.  You’d have thought that the lesson sunk in way back with the first hibachi.  But I’m a little bit dense, sometimes absolutely clueless, so the inaugural propane grilled dinner found me at square one – I just didn’t know it.  That night, the first food to be propane grilled was chicken.  Can’t be hard as I’ve done it a million times before.  Fire that sucker up with a simple twist of a knob and a click of the igniter and WE’VE GOT FLAMES!  No, not burn down the house flames (am I disappointing you?), but good old grilling flames somewhere under those doohickey ‘flavorizer bars’.  Leave it for a few minutes to get hot enough and put that chicken on!  Dinner in 30 to 40 minutes.  I figured that I had enough time to go inside and make the martini, kiss the wife, get the salad fixin’s ready and go back to the grill. 

BACK TO THE GRILL – from whence are issuing billows of black smoke (thoughts of Philly) from the edges of the grill cover. OPEN the grill cover and find – Poulet Flambé!   I had done it!  Another authentic French dish!  You should have seen them blazing in all their glory, each individual piece of chicken ablaze like the torches that they’re carrying in the Frankenstein movie when they go to hunt the monster down.  These were not Tiki Torch flames. 

These were full on we-can-go-through-the-cave-with-this-and-keep-back-the- monsters flames.  I gingerly picked up one of the chicken torches with a pair of tongs, brought it to the back door and rang the doorbell to summon Bonnie for the viewing.  Bonnie came to the door, looked only a bit surprised, started laughing and closed the door.

Moderation in all things serves one well, especially in regard to grilling temperatures for chicken, and kids – never leave the grill untended.

One of our cats of the moment, Rick, also took a liking to the grill.  Enough so that he attempted to exclude me entirely and make it his own.  The weather hadn’t been favorable for grilling, Bonnie and I went out for dinners for whatever reason and I just hadn’t used the grill for about a week.  Very unusual for me at anytime of year – including winter.  So the grill had been unused for a while, just sitting there with the grill cover on to protect the stains of spilled bar-b-q sauce and various food fats from the weather.  The dinner came where it was time for me to put the grill back in action again.  I lifted the grill cover off – and promptly threw up many, many, many times. 

Oh that rascally cat!  In an attempt to emulate the culinary skills of his provider, Rick had decided that the best place that he could age the meat that he was catching (rabbits, squirrels and mice) was on the floor of the grill, nicely guarded from prying eyes, competitors and the elements by the grill cover.  All that nice wild meat aging away and picking up that hint of ‘gaminess’ that I cherish.  Rick had much to learn about aging meat as evidenced by the fact that most of his victuals had ‘aged’ to the point that they had liquefied.  Eventually I had to hit the grill with the power washer.  Oh, did I tell you that this took place in August?  Hot, hot August.  Rick’s gone now, but will never be forgotten.

Dessert  –  Labor Day

William Grimes is a writer for the New York Times.  To define him in those few words is an injustice to the scope of Mr. Grime’s literary talents.  He has written for many departments of the newspaper including, currently, the obituaries, and as restaurant critic.  On September 2 of 1994 he wrote a short missive for the weekend section of the paper.  The missive presents his thoughts regarding Labor Day.  I have always made a point of reading it on Labor Day and I have always enjoyed.  May you enjoy it also, Happy Labor Day!

SUMMER’S LAST HURRAH

Labor Day pulls you in two directions.  The unmistakable whiff of cooler weather – yes, it’s out there even if the thermometer lies and reads 90 – is a preview of coming attractions, a teaser for full-tilt fall, when leaves die but New York City comes to life.  At the same time, shorter days and longer shadows cast a melancholy spell, and put me in an elegiac mood.

Either way, the summer-ending three-day weekend demands a response.  Who can blame America for scrambling to snatch the last morsel of pleasure from the season’s closing jaws?  This is it.  The party is over.  Summer is gone.  We shall not see its likes again for nine long months.

Three days is cruelly brief, but time enough for a last-chance family outing.  Fall and winter will be work, work and more work.  On Labor Day weekend, there is no excuse not to have fun, fun, fun.  Mindless fun is best, simple pleasures the most reliable.  Ride a roller coaster.  Grill hot dogs.  Drink beer.  Take in a country fair.  Check out a music festival.  Stroll along the boardwalk.  Inhale deeply and savor the air.  Don’t think too hard.

If the season’s end seems tinged with sadness, indulge the mood.  There’s nothing like a walk along the beach for the philosophically inclined.  The sharp contrast between Memorial Day and Labor Day offers ample food for thought.  Suggested topics include the transience of human joys, the mysterious poignancy in the passage of time, the vanity of human wishes.

The endless procession of waves serves as a reminder that nothing endures, yet everything returns.  Summer goes, summer will come around again.  The beach will be waiting.

 

SEPTEMBER, CAPE COD BAY