COOKING: Columns by Michael Safdiah

Volume 50, 2006

When Chefs Get Together
I love this time of year; the most perfect weather, the ferry schedule has not yet fallen over its end season cliff when suddenly getting a boat is like finding chicken lips. The sky turns the richest blue, young migratory birds are still learning to fly, the monarchs are fluttering through, the ocean has warmed up finally, the insufferable heat and Dog Days are done with, and my little garden is burgeoning with the best of its herbs: squash, tomatoes and cucumbers. But I have so much I haven’t been able to share with you, and alas, this is the last issue until next year.

Summer Night Soups
You wouldn’t think soup is a summer thing, but there are so many cooling refreshing soups made of fruits and vegetables that are perfect for a summer lunch or dinner. When food is served cold, you might need to add a bit of extra salt or seasoning to compensate. Soups need to be light, with intense flavors to excite the palate, but not too rich, because you want to feel light when you’re done. Tip: I avoid butter in any chilled soup since the texture gets grainy, and who needs all that fat when you’ve done your best to slim down?

The Salad Days of Summer
The dog days of summer are almost here, just ask my lab Blondie; she’s always ready to race to the beach to body surf. So let’s think cool and refreshing. Think salads. I want a salad to be filling, but I want to know it won’t slow me down when I feel like being active. Grilling is such an important part of my summer cooking, I try to find side dishes I can make easily to go with grilled meats.

Bring on the Gooiness!
Paula Dean, bless her Georgia country-bred heart, made her famous Gooey cake on TV with canned pumpkin and a box of cake mix, and my friends loved it. Heck, I have no problems with a shortcut as long as it tastes good. Later I had thoughts of lemon and cheesecake, so I conjured one up where ricotta takes the place of the pumpkin, and the emphasis is on lemon: FRESH lemon rind, and no cheating.

Gnocchi: Mastering Humble Bits of Heaven
I swooned over a dish of “gnudi” at the Spotted Pig a few months ago. It was beyond fabulous, so of course I tried to get the recipe. April Bloomfield, their duly famous chef isn’t telling. So, several of us West Village chefs are trying to “crack the code” —but only just for fun, to keep life stimulating; we admire April—a genius—and would never resort to stealing. Besides, the “secret” of her recipe is her own hands. Ingredients are only half of a recipe.

Chicken Soup in Mexico and So Much More
I was in Nogales, Mexico, and tasted a fantastic soup- one so good I wrote to the restaurant owner who graciously replied with her recipe. It was called “Tlalpeno,” a rich chicken soup with chipotle pepper, fresh local lime juice and Mexican rice, essentially Spanish rice. It was spicy, exotic, refreshing; I couldn't rest until I'd mastered it, which I never did because I didn't have the Mexican herbs and limes.

Your BBQ, a Great Place to Smoke Meat
If, long ago, someone hadn’t found a way to preserve food from spoiling, few of us would be here now. Back then, no one had any idea about microbes, those wonderful critters that make beer, wine and bread possible but also spoil the food we eat. Salting and pickling were some early attempts: we made hams, dried meat, confit and salt cod. Sugar—in jams and preserves—was also used with success.

Dust Off the Grill, Summer’s Here
Welcome home! Isn’t it great to be back on the island? Miraculously, despite a Nor’easter, my beloved old house is still standing, its paint clinging desperately to the weathered walls. I started a dirt garden last year by making a bed from discarded lumber and filled it with potting soil. We had fresh basil and tomatoes all summer long. My cucumbers became salads with dried mint, olive oil and Greek-style yogurt that I brewed. My zucchini bore only five pieces. so did the eggplants, but I was up to my kazoo in zucchini blossoms. I made pasta, battered, fried and stuffed ‘em with cheese, and put them in salads. By the way, you’re only supposed to cook the male flowers. The females have baby zucchinis at their base.

Volume 49, 2005
Is It That Time Already?
There have been a few truly memorable fish dishes in my life. Marcello visited me from Italy and we grilled a whole red snapper over wood from my yard, slashing and stuffing it with fresh herbs, then slatheribng it with extra virgin olive oil. He was from Sardinia, on the Italian Olympic football team; we met on a long flight traveling from Milan to JFK many years ago. We shared Chianti wine, cheese, Tuscan bread and boar sausages; when I told him about Fire Island he just had to see for himself. I filleted striped bass freshly caught off this beach, and kissed the flesh with some Dijon mustard, olive oil and pesto; fish that good and that fresh was not to be messed up with additional flavors. I grilled it over real charcoal, but the perfectly poached filet of turbot which was served to me at Le Bernadin in Paris has got to be the ultimate.

Kentucky Smoked Pork Barbecue
Doug was here at Happy House visiting from Louisville, and decided to teach me how to make his wonderful pork barbeque. His virgo-esque attention to detail and his caring manner when he lovingly makes this dish makes it one of the best things I've ever eaten. That and his smoked turkey. This dish is perfectly suited to doing at the beach house since the smoking is out of doors, and it's perfect casual summer eating. Doug supervised, and jokingly kept calling me “boy” in his rich Kentucky accent; I knew we were in for a good old time. I love assisting a master chef at whatever he is doing. Get a Boston pork butt, really a shoulder bone in, and score it deeply with a knife.

Using Your Garden's Bounty
I enjoyed some beautiful East End asparagus last weekend. The farm stand on Lakeland in Sayville always finds wonderful Long Island produce. As a city boy I miss tasting real food until I get out here. It tasted like asparagus, not that bland, whitish stuff so highly prized by my European colleagues. It was good enough to parboil and finish off on the grill topped with a hard boiled egg and lemon vinaigrette dressing. It was delicious, but what got me really excited were the beautiful reddish green stalks of that misunderstood vegetable we usually have a love-hate relationship with: Rhubarb. I love it. It is already growing and being harvested now.

Rhubarb – It’s Not an Argument
I enjoyed some beautiful East End asparagus last weekend. The farm stand on Lakeland in Sayville always finds wonderful Long Island produce. As a city boy I miss tasting real food until I get out here. It tasted like asparagus, not that bland, whitish stuff so highly prized by my European colleagues. It was good enough to parboil and finish off on the grill topped with a hard boiled egg and lemon vinaigrette dressing. It was delicious, but what got me really excited were the beautiful reddish green stalks of that misunderstood vegetable we usually have a love-hate relationship with: Rhubarb. I love it. It is already growing and being harvested now.

Hanger Steaks or the Belly of the Beast
We all love the familiar beef cuts from the round, the loin and the chuck (neck-shoulder), but the belly cuts–more fatty, and richer in flavor –are delicious and up to recently cheap, but now highly sought after. Recently in-the-know diners have been paying attention to a small little known steak called 'Onglet' in French, and “hanger” in English. I'm particularly lucky that Eddie, our Pines butcher, stocks them. There is only one to each animal, and usually the butcher takes it home for his family, which is why it is also called “butcher's steak.” It is little publicized or understood, but it helps to know where it comes from, since the adjoining muscles have similar qualities. They are rich in fat and connective tissue. They are excitingly tasty and require a different treatment from the 'top' (of the animal) cuts. They don't like to be overcooked as they get tough. The fat inside the muscles makes them ideal for long slow cooking such as baking or braising as for brisket, or faster high temp shorter grilling as for skirt steaks, flank steaks or hangers. The latter three have a pronounced 'beefy' flavor, and are used in dishes like fajitas, or Philadelphia steaks. They may want to be pounded briskly, and then grilled.

Strawberry Orgy
Just yesterday, my favorite farm stand on Lakeland Avenue in Sayville was creaking under the weight of a shipment of freshly picked strawberries from 'out east'. Their perfume is impossible to describe. Of course I nicked one, well actually a few. I was in heaven again. It's a once a year crop that grows in this area and that [because of their fragility,] has no chance of ever making it to the markets in places even as close as New York City. They are truly a local phenomenon. The big red Driscolls, which grow in Watsonville, California, the strawberry capital of the world, look great, but since they need to travel and still look pretty, they are bred to be bulletproof. Cute but dumb. I'm proud of our local berries, even with their short season. I wait all year for them to appear, and when they do, I have my own orgy, eating them every which way. Don't just sit there. Go out and buy a mess of them if you still can. Buy more than you think you can use; you'll end up freezing them and enjoying them all through summer. You'll never think of a strawberry again without dreaming of these beauties.

Tomatoes, Potatoes and Shortcuts
Shortcuts: perhaps I'm mellowing out, but please don't think for a second I'm dropping my standards. Preparing good wholesome food need not take time, and sometimes you do really need to take shortcuts. As long as you can do as well or better with something frozen or out of a can, then go girl. After years of loving and collecting wines, I realized there exists one special creature to be avoided at all costs: the wine snob. Wine, being a food, should be fun, and taste good. You don't need to have an encyclopedia thrown at you every time you lift a glass. Takes all the fun out. There are also food snobs; yes really they do exist! He will turn up his nose at anything prepared in favor of doing the hard and old fashioned way. Take it from me: the final result -- and that you enjoy doing it -- is what matters.

Politics-Free Grilling
This is the season to consider that old and likely neglected gas grill you have been using. Take a few minutes to inspect it, making sure it remains sturdy, not wobbly and in danger of falling over when it’s operating. Also be sure your burners are clean, and the flame is blue and not bright orange and sooty, which will mean your air jets are clogged. Take a closer look at the burners and clean them. Now the grates, or grill surfaces, will need attention. The best are ceramic coated and just need a good scouring or brushing. Do it once at the start of your season and you’ll be rewarded by trouble free grill cooking.

Anchovies – You Gotta Love ‘em
I’d just moved into my very first New York apartment in Greenwich Village, a life long dream. It was on West Tenth Street near the corner of Bleeker, very gay, even in those days. It was a four story walk up, rent controlled, with windows in every room, including the large kitchen which looked onto a courtyard and overlooked a church steeple. Back in those mid-sixties days there were still plenty of Italian families living in the neighborhood, and the smells in the hallways and courtyard — those incredible, wonderful aromas –– are probably what accounted for my love of good Italian food. Every day as I passed apartment 12, I would swoon as Mrs. Minnetti, her door ajar, was cooking up some mouthwatering meal for her family. One day I had the guts to ask her what she was cooking that particular morning. "Artichokes" says she. Not at all satisfied, I beg her for details, because artichokes just don’t smell like that. Sometimes she stuffed them, and other times she just cut them up and cooked them "plain.”

Volume 48, 2004
Julia and Some Autumn Harvest Recipes
She good-naturedly lit up a Marlboro, and showed us all how "Julia" ought to be done, and had us in stitches. It was Julia doing Julia; I'll never forget that. She knew to never take herself too seriously. She took cooking seriously, however, and was a wonderful teacher and a great humanitarian. Her mission was all Americans should be able to feed themselves well.

A Crash Course on Fish
Too few people eat it and even less know how to cook it. I’d love to give you an education all about fish that took me years to learn. Forgive me. That’s a dumb remark, I promise to do my best to give you the crash course.

At Bocuse, When I Was Just Learning…
I made my way from my ratty old hotel in Lyons in a taxi to Collonges. All I needed to say was “Bocuse” because everybody knows. Most Lyons hotels are old and filled with un-hospitality. Funny, everyone says that Lyons is such a beautiful ciy., Well it is, actually, but my luck with Lyonnais hotels sucked.

Argentine Inspirations for Beef
I rarely plan meals before I’m actually in the market and see something I feel like cooking. Chef Paul Bocuse taught me that the decision of what to cook must always be made in the market. There was a package of beef cubes, the kind of tender cuts from the sirloin or the filet, but too small for steaks.

A Passion For Lobsters
Lobsters are crustaceans, like shrimp, and crayfish. They come from as far north as Canada, and as far south as the Carolinas, but the best are said to be from Maine, which is why lots of Canada produce is shipped through Maine, and then sold as Maine lobsters. There are also spiny lobsters from Europe and Africa. Like all arthropods, they molt, so there are soft-shell ones too. Pass them up, they have flavorless and mushy texture. Maybe I have a bias, being a New England boy, but our North American lobster has them all beat, and they all know it. Ha.


Fair Harbor
Robins Rest
Ocean Beach
Point O'Woods