Entries from July 2010

Sorry, I Have to Catch My Train

July 30th, 2010 · 13 Comments · Rituals

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said this in the past eight years. The words probably give my coworkers the chills (or a clinical case of the eye-rolls) because unless the story I was working on was going to the printer or the magazine I was working for was breaking a big story, like, for instance, how to clean a cutting board (God I love Real Simple) I was on my beloved 5:39 train (or, latest, my 5:59) that rolled me into my suburban station at exactly 6:05 every single night. Which meant that I was weaving up the hilly streets of my neighborhood by 6:09, walking in the front door at 6:15 (with two searching little faces looking out the brightly lit front window unable to see me approaching in the dark) and in my kitchen prepping dinner 15 minutes later.

I think people at work came to know two Jennys: the relatively harmless Jenny who was around most of the day, and the post-4:30 Jenny, who made militaristic, monosyllabic decisions, who barely looked up from her work to even smile if someone decided to come and gossip (Come on! You couldn’t have told me about Katie in Legal at 3:00?), and the one who would start sweating if a meeting was called at any point between 4:30 and 5:21, the exact minute when she’d begin her sprint to Grand Central Station. (Only sometimes looking back to see coworkers, and once even a boss, glancing at their watches as she’d fly down whatever taupe-colored hall she called her office.) (more…)

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The Rule of Three

July 29th, 2010 · 17 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Grilling, Picky Eating

When it comes to family dinner, unanimity of approval is the dream. Over the past few years, we’ve developed a pretty solid rotation of meals – shrimp with feta, pork chops, grilled cheese — that achieve something close to 100% satisfaction around the table, that elicit not a squeak of protest when plate hits table. But that rotation, like the diamond-crusted roster of the New York Yankees, is in constant need of refurbishing and reinvention. Move forward or perish, right? We’re always trying to introduce new things that we can come back to again and again, things that taste a little better that what we ate last night, or are a little more heart healthy, or a little easier to make.

Here’s the problem with introducing something new: most of the time, at least one of the kids won’t touch it.

But that’s okay! We have a theory around our house: If we can achieve 75% happiness with a new meal – that is, if 3 of the 4 people at our table eat the meal without complaining, crying, or vomiting – then that meal is worth making again. And the more we make it, the more likely our li’l holdout will be to try it, and once she tries it, the more likely she will be to come around eventually to, you know, liking it. And in this way, our dinner rotation expands.

Take last Sunday, for example. It was hot and muggy and the back of my neck was getting both dirty and gritty. It felt like a burger night, only we’re trying not to eat as much beef these days and the thought of another dry, workman-like turkey burger, even dressed up with cheese, hurt my soul. So we got some ground chicken – white meat and dark — from the guy with the cooler full of farm-raised stuff at our farmer’s market, and went for something different: tandoori burgers with yogurt sauce, doctored up from an old Martha Stewart recipe. The verdict? 3 out of 4. – Andy

Tandoori Chicken Burgers

1 1/2 pounds ground chicken
4 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
Juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Salt and lots of pepper
Whole wheat hamburger buns
1 cucumber, thinly sliced

In large mixing bowl, combine chicken, scallions, ginger, lemon juice, paprika, cumin, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Cover and put in refrigerator for 45 minutes (this lets it all marinate, and also makes it easier to handle). Form into patties and grill (or fry in pan) until cooked through, about 6-7 minutes a side. (Make sure to oil the grill beforehand, as the burgers will stick.) Serve on whole wheat buns, topped with lots of crunchy cucumber slices and yogurt sauce.

For yogurt sauce: Whisk together 1 cup nonfat plain yogurt, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, couple pinches of sugar.

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Crafts: Mom’s Dirty Secret

July 28th, 2010 · 10 Comments · Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

I hope you are thinking what I am usually thinking when I see kids playing with toys handcrafted by their mom: What a good mother…I hate her guts. But here’s the thing about crafts in my house. I like doing art projects with the kids — and because I’m working part-time now I can do more of them than I used to — but I like finishing art projects a whole lot more. In other words, when I’m flipping through a book like Heather Swain’s excellent Make These Toys: 99 Clever Creations Using Everyday Items, my motive is purely selfish. This is what I’m thinking: What project can we do that requires minimum investment on the front-end, but will keep the girls occupied and out of sight for a huge chunk of time on the back-end, preferably during dinner prep hour, so I can listen to that Vampire Weekend song with the F-bomb in the first verse and enjoy my Dark & Stormy without interruption? (more…)

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5-Minute Dinner: Flatbread Pizza with Arugula & Prosciutto

July 27th, 2010 · 6 Comments · Dinner, Pork and Beef, Quick

You know how I love my Jim Lahey pizza crust. How it has revolutionized pizza night in our house. How it is so easy to make that even someone who has never baked before can figure it out in about two seconds. Well, sometimes easy doesn’t translate to quick (the crust takes two un-manned hours to rise) and sometimes, revolution has to wait until Saturday. Which is why last week, my grand plans to make an arugula and prosciutto pizza on Lahey crust got derailed when I caught a glimpse of whole wheat Naan in my freezer. Why turn the oven to 500°F for 30 minutes on a 95° day? Flatbread pizza takes five minutes and if you happen to have a 42-inch arugula-hater in the house, the meal can be easily repositioned as ham and cheese.

Flatbread Pizza with Arugula and Prosciutto

Toast or broil four pieces of flatbread (or Naan) until golden. Remove and flip over. Add a handful of shredded Italian fontina (or mozzarella) to each untoasted side and return to the toaster or broiler until cheese is bubbly, about 2-3 minutes. When the toasts are ready, top with bunches of fresh loosely packed arugula, a few pieces of thinly-sliced prosciutto, some shaved or shredded Parmesan, a few twists of freshly ground pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.

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Back-Pocket Recipe: Rigatoni with Tomatoes

July 26th, 2010 · 8 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Quick, Vegetarian

When I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with Gwyneth Paltrow. I was 25 and feeling lost career-wise when she had her first real star turn in Emma. I saw the movie opening weekend and read any profile of her that I could get my hands on. Every time I finished a story, I felt like I was in 6th grade all over again — eyeing the popular girl from afar consumed by an envy I couldn’t completely understand. If only I could find a career as creative and as fulfilling as Gwynnie’s! I still had that before-30 belief that if I just worked a little harder then maybe I’d still have a shot at being a movie star and going to the Oscars in a pink Ralph Lauren frock. (Any professional achievement that happened after 30 in my mind didn’t count. At that point it seemed expected, un-special.) The fact that I could barely give a wedding toast without panicking for weeks leading up to the big day, or that I hadn’t acted since I played Adelaide in my 6th-grade production of Guys & Dolls were small details to be worked out later. (more…)

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Screw the Star Chart

July 23rd, 2010 · 6 Comments · Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Picky Eating, Vegetarian

We were up in the Berkshires last weekend visiting contemporary art mecca Mass MoCA and while we were there stopped in the museum’s “KidSpace” to check out an exhibit called “You Are What You Eat.” We didn’t stay long — the kids weren’t with us, we were away alone for the first time in three years — but we stayed long enough to catch a few works by Luisa Caldwell, a Brooklyn-based artist who turns fruit labels into these cool looking collages (like the one above). If I remember correctly, it was some sort of commentary on food marketing but the three concepts that swirled in my head for the days that followed — Stickers, Fruit, Kids — joined forces to form another idea altogether.  For parents who are having trouble getting their kids to eat fruits and vegetables — how about using those labels for a new kind of star chart? Every time they eat a piece of fruit, they get to add the label to their column. Once they hit a certain number, they get to pick out a book or a toy at the toy store. Or, for my Northeastern bretheren, they get to go to Mass MoCA!

I faked this chart just to show you how I’d do it if my kids weren’t complete angels who need no incentive to down their five USDA-required daily servings of fruits and vegetables. And anyway there are no fruit labels in my house because everything we eat comes fresh from the farmer’s market or picked right from our backyard organic garden. The garden to the left of our Shetland pony stable and behind the servants’ quarters.

PS: If you are headed to the Berkshires this summer, don’t go without first checking the area’s must-read website, Rural Intelligence. I used it to plan my entire weekend. It covers the goings-on in Berkshire, Columbia, Litchfield and Duchess counties.

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Put Down the Book, or No Dessert Tonight

July 22nd, 2010 · 28 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals

There’s a girl, all 42 inches of her stretched out on the family room couch, reading a comic book. There’s a dad or a mom, standing over her, failing to get her get her attention.


No response.


Not a muscle moves.

“Phoebe. Come on. It’s time for dinner.”


“Phoebe! Put the book down. Time to eat!”

The comic book is slowly, reluctantly lowered to her chest, and the face of an eight year old girl is revealed. “Do I have to?” says Phoebe. “Just a few more minutes.”

Some variation on this scene has played out pretty much every night before dinner in our house for the past two years, with one of us trying to pry Phoebe away from her book as dinner sits on the table, growing colder, and Phoebe so deep into her world of comic book heroes that her ears seemingly cease to function. It’s the good kind of problem, but still: it’s a problem.

And it all started with Jules Feiffer.

In the summer before first grade, Phoebe discovered a book at our local library called Meanwhile… by the great Jules Feiffer, which is about a boy who loves comic books – loves them so much that he dreams he is living inside of one, fighting pirates and running from mountain lions and floating weightless through outer space. From there, it was a short trip to Phoebe trying to draw her own comic books (called “Mini Man,” which drew, um, heavily from Feiffer), and then from there, onto The Adventures of Tintin. We bought her all six volumes, eighteen stories in all, and she read them non-stop for the next few months, over and over and over again, until she practically had them memorized. When that phase ended, she looked around like, “So anyway, that was fun. What’s next?” We needed some new material. Not knowing where to turn, I asked my much smarter and comic-savvy former colleagues at GQ, Alex P and Raha, for some cool suggestions – comics that were girl-friendly but not princessy, challenging but not too adult, not likely to cause nightmares. Raha actually (more…)

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Tabula Rasa

July 21st, 2010 · 13 Comments · Dinner, Pork and Beef, Time for Dinner: The Cookbook

Let’s say you just went shopping at Trader Joe’s so your refrigerator is stocked with staples like pork and chicken and onions and olive oil as well as some fun little extras like prosciutto and Whole Wheat Naan. Let’s also say that on your way home from your weekend in the Berkshires, you picked up some fresh corn and tomatoes and blueberries at a roadside farm stand. So you’re set in the Fresh department, too. And then, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that you have spent the last decade working on the food team at two major magazines, write a daily food blog, and in fact have even co-written The Book on family dinner.

If all this was in fact the case, you probably don’t imagine that you would ever find yourself in the position I was in last night. Staring at my full fridge at 6:20 with not a single idea of what to feed my family. Zero. When I was working at Cookie, I used to regularly get 6:20 emails my friend (and co-author) Pilar who found herself in the same predicament. Tabula Rasa, she’d write. Complete Tabula Rasa.

Since Tabula Rasa strikes more often than one might think, I’ve trained my brain to default to one of three settings: The Omelet Setting, The Risotto Setting, and the Taco Setting. Any one of them would have made good use of the staples in the pantry as well as my roadside score. Last night I went with Pork Tacos.

Pork Tacos
Warning: This is not a throw-it-together tabula rasa meal like an omelet might be. It requires about 45 minutes of hands-on time. And if you like to pan-fry your tortillas (instead of heating in oven) it ends up being a three-pot meal. But, delicious, delicious. And worth the investment for us because both kids will generally eat some variation of it, which means we are rewarded by a nag-free meal.

In a small Dutch oven or a medium, straight-sided pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add a salted-and-peppered pork tenderloin (about 1 1/4 pounds; the standard size) and brown on all sides. (It does not have to cook through.) Once it’s browned, remove from heat and to the same pot, add 1/2 onion (chopped), 1 clove garlic (minced), a dash of red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cook until onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Add one 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 bay leaf, and a few hefty shakes of dried oregano. Stir to combine, then add pork tenderloin back to pot, nestling it in the liquid. Bring to a boil, then cover pot and simmer for about 30 minutes. (If you have to go pick up your spouse at the train because you forgot to tell him you took the car home from the station yourself, well, now is the time to do it.)

While pork simmers away, make a corn salad with cooked kernels, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, scallions, olive oil, a squeeze of lime. Warm 4-6 whole wheat tortillas (wrapped in foil) in a 350°F oven.

When pork has cooked, remove from pot and, using two forks, shred it into pieces as shown above. (There is no art to this; in fact the less artfully done, the better.) Add shreds back to the sauce, stir everything together, then assemble tacos as shown. Top with sour cream.

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Family Dinner: What’s Your Number?

July 21st, 2010 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

How many times a week do you have dinner with your family? If you have a second, head over to The Family Kitchen to answer or just comment. I’m taking a poll.

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Happiness Is…

July 20th, 2010 · 14 Comments · Dinner, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

…playing tennis in a bathing suit.

…watching my daughters perform in two incredibly absurd camp skits, laughing their faces off the entire time.

…having homemade salad dressing in the refrigerator.

My sister was the one who told me to write about this last one. She reminded me that even if you have just-picked, French Laundry-worthy vegetables in the salad bowl, they can be completely annihilated by a splash of the wrong bottled vinaigrette. I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t buy salad dressing — there are some good ones out there* and if the dinner-crunch makes you choose between homemade and meltdown vs. bottle and angelic…well, obviously, go with the bottle. All I’m saying is that if on Sunday, you plan ahead and make a bottle of good, all-purpose vinaigrette, which will be a guaranteed bright spot on the plate even if your veggies are only Green Giant-worthy, you will be as happy as a 6-year-old playing tennis in a bathing suit when that jar is waiting for you on Wednesday.

*I like Trader Joe’s red wine vinaigrette and Jo’s ginger dressing is a major VIP on the carrot dipping circuit in our house.

Money in the Bank Vinaigrette

Add the following ingredients to an old jar*:

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar or a squeeze of honey
squeeze of lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper
Chopped herbs (chives, parsley, dill, thyme, whatever you’ve got)
1/2 cup good olive oil

Shake vigorously and drizzle on green and grain salads, cold asparagus, warm potatoes.

Related: Money in the Bank pie crust, chicken stock, pizza crust.

*I find an old bottle of TJoe’s Cornichons is just right

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10 Reasons to Go Open-Face for Dinner

July 19th, 2010 · 3 Comments · Dinner, Picky Eating, Quick, Rituals, Vegetarian

1. Because it’s arguably easier and faster than cooking up another pot of Annie’s Mac & Cheese.

2. Because the afternoon birthday party served pizza at 4:00. (What is up with these parties? Will someone please enlighten?)

3. Because the clock is ticking and the kids won’t be awake by the time your dreamy white wine sauce has reduced.

4. Because you live in Dallas, I mean New York, where the hot-and-humid and over-90 degree heat has been oppressive for two weeks straight. Nothing appeals to you – least of all the act of turning on an oven.

5. Because you’re going away for the weekend, there are only scraps in the fridge, and you can’t deal with breaking out pots and pans and baking dishes.

6. Because you’re back from your weekend away, there are only scraps in the fridge, and you can’t deal with breaking out pots and pans and baking dishes.

7. Because you have lettuce that is about to liquefy, beautiful fresh summer zucchini that sits there taunting your lack of culinary imagination, and a loaf of bread that will be mistaken for your son’s baseball bat if you don’t rescue it soon.

8. Because the house was just cleaned and you would like to freeze the kitchen in its rare state of cleanliness for as long as possible.

9. Because it’s an easy-to-assemble, legitimate dinner that can be customized for a wide range of picky palates and a wide range of unpredictable schedules, i.e. if one parent is coming home later than the kid’s dinnertime, the serve-yourself toppings will save the cook from another round of cooking.

10. Because it’s Monday…Why the hell not? (more…)

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Green French Fries

July 16th, 2010 · 16 Comments · Picky Eating, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

When her daughters were little, my friend Frances somehow convinced them that green beans were related to French fries. She called them Green Fries. I was so jealous — my kids had been to too many restaurants with Kidz menus by that point to be suckered by what seemed like unbelievably JV kitchen trickery to me. If my kids (and most kids I imagine) were going to eat a healthy vegetable disguised as a French fry, the recipe would have to be kicked up to varsity levels. These crispy, golden Zucchini fries fit the bill.

One thing: I advise making them on the weekend or on a weeknight where you’re not up against the clock. (Stop laughing.) I don’t mind the laborious dredging-and-dipping process on a weeknight if it’s for the main part of the meal (like chicken fingers, for instance). But I find it kind of a drag for just a side dish. You might feel differently, in which case ignore.

Zucchini Fries

Preheat oven to 400° F. Cut and slice 3 zucchinis into sticks as shown. In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs, a dash of cayenne, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place 1 cup flour in another medium bowl and 2 beaten eggs in a smaller bowl. Dip the zucchini sticks first in the flour until lightly coated, then in the eggs. Roll them in the bread-crumb mixture until well covered. Transfer the zucchini pieces to a baking sheet lined with foil and bake until they look crispy and golden, about 20 minutes. (Sometimes I give them a quick shot of cooking spray at the end if they aren’t browning to my liking) Serve with ketchup.

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Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

July 16th, 2010 · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

I wanted to make sure I sent out a big thank-you to everyone who directly emailed me with congratulations on the Times piece that ran earlier this week. It might me take me a few days to get back to you, but I promise I will. In the meantime, please know how much I appreciate the support — from new readers and especially from my longtime loyal circle of MVP commentors: Amanda, Bianca, Jan, Trish O, 654carroll, Paige, Cindy, to name a few. Happy weekend.

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It is So On

July 14th, 2010 · 19 Comments · Dinner, Posts by Andy, Quick, Vegetarian

The best thing we eat this summer will take us three minutes to minutes to make. It will involve only five ingredients, a serrated knife, and not a single charcoal briquette. I’m talking about the tomato sandwich. Not the bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich; not the grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich; not the tomato-mozzarella-and-basil sandwich: the tomato sandwich. Period. It is a thing of simple, summery, kid-friendly beauty: After enduring ten depressing months of the color-enhanced Styrofoam junk that passes for tomatoes at the Stop ‘N Shop, it’s like, from out of nowhere, the wind suddenly kicks up and the dark clouds part…and thank you Jesus, blue sky punches through. Tomatoes! Real tomatoes! Flavor! Texture! Sweetness! Over the course of the next eight weeks or so — between now and, say, mid-September, when tomatoes are at their meaty, juicy peak and the heirloom bin at the farmers’ market is positively en fuego – we’ll inhale as many of these as we can. Last weekend, we ate them  for lunch on Friday and Saturday, then as a quick dinner after a long day of driving on Sunday. And we ate them greedily, too, as though the supply was finite and they were about to run out—which, actually, they are. So we scarf what we can (always stopping to ask the kids as we devour them, “How good is this?”) and then suffer through the gray, mealy, tasteless months ahead…until we can do it all again. -- Andy

The Tomato Sandwich

-Country white bread
-Hellmann’s mayonnaise (yes, Hellmann’s; no other mayo will do)
-Tomatoes of various colors and varieties, sliced
-Sea salt and pepper

Take a few slices of a hearty white bread. (We like something with a little gravitas to it. We use something called, appropriately enough, Canadian White, which is available at T. Joe’s.) Toast them. Lightly coat each slice with mayo, but—this is crucial—be sure to do this while the toast is still warm. You want the mayo to get melty, you want to get the oil going, but you don’t want to mess with the awesomeness of the fruit. Now: arrange two or three slices of tomato on top of the toast. Let the kids pick the colors, mixing red, yellow and green, heirloom and non, Jersey and beefsteak, whatever. Sprinkle generously with salt and a couple of grinds of pepper. Some people also add some fresh basil here, but why risk destabilizing the atom? Why mess with perfection?

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Corn for the Dentally Challenged

July 13th, 2010 · 16 Comments · Pasta, Pork and Beef

In my mind, it’s pretty much sacrilegious to suggest doing a single thing to sweet, fresh, summer corn besides enjoy it on the cob, slathered in butter with a little salt and pepper. But when one is sharing a house with a first and second grader whose grins periodically resemble Leon Spinks’, it can be challenging to be a purist on this point. Concessions must be made.

A tooth-fairy-approved fall-back plan (that is, if you want to do more than simply shave the kernels off the cob and hand the kid a spoon) is this simple dish, which calls for 3 to 4 pieces of bacon, but you could go with two and it will still be as delicious. The best part? You don’t need teeth to eat it.

Pasta with Corn and Bacon

Cook 1 pound of spaghetti, fettucini, or angel hair as directed. When drained, toss with a little bit of olive oil to prevent noodles from sticking. Meanwhile, in a deep skillet, fry 3 to 4 pieces of bacon (country ham is pictured) over medium heat. Remove when crisp and chop after they’ve cooled. Wipe up some of the bacon grease in the pan with a paper towel, then add 1/2 large onion (chopped) and the raw scraped-off kernels from 4 ears of fresh corn. Fry in the fat until onions are cooked through and corn is cooked and slightly crispy. Add a hefty dose of shredded Parmesan and stir again. Divide your cooked pasta between four bowls, add corn-onion mixture, bacon crumbles, more Parmesan, freshly ground pepper, and some chopped basil. Depending on the bacon you use, you might have to add some salt at the table.

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July 13th, 2010 · 15 Comments · Uncategorized

Delighted that my slightly obsessive-compulsive side appears in today’s New York Times.

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Chicken and Arugula Epiphany

July 12th, 2010 · 4 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner

I have been trying to make this dinner since July 1993. I know that sounds ridiculous — chicken with arugula and tomatoes seems almost too basic to be named something let alone to have been stuck in my brain for that long, especially since my brain has seen stickier days. (I forgot to photocopy the immunization forms for camp, again!…Again!) The thing about this dish is that the first and only time I had ever eaten it happened to have been in Florence on my first and only trip to Italy. I shared it with Andy, who was studying art there for the (very hot) summer, and it was seminal in its simplicity. Not a single extraneous anything — just the highest quality chicken, arugula, and tomatoes and some sort of bright dressing that enhanced instead of distracted from the main event. Even though I was (am) half Italian, it was probably the first time the most fundamental rule of cooking hit me: The best shortcut in the kitchen is to start with ingredients that need no help from the cook.

Of course, I was 22 in 1993 — I had no real use for shortcuts in the kitchen. Fast forward seventeen Julys — it’s 93° at 6:30, I have two hungry kids and no plan for dinner. What I do have is a bag of beautiful, fresh arugula that instantly pulls up my Florentine epiphany. And 20 minutes later, I have dinner.

Warm Chicken and Arugula Salad

In a large skillet over medium-low heat, saute 1/2 medium onion (chopped) and 1 clove garlic (minced) in olive oil about 5 minutes. Turn heat to medium, add 2 boneless chicken breasts (cut into 1-inch pieces as shown) and cook through about 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile, clean one large bunch arugula and the freshest tomatoes (chopped) you can find, and toss with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, salt and freshly ground pepper. Add chicken to salad and toss allowing arugula to wilt slightly.

Serve warm with freshly grated Parmesan. Deconstruct it for the kids and add a dollop of ketchup if you think it will make it an easier sell. (The Italians may not approve, but this Half-Italian one certainly does.)

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What Better Place to Be?

July 10th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Rituals

…than behind a stained-glass window of Fla-Vor-Ice tubes? That’s Abby peeking out from between the lime and the orange, both of which she made quick work of in one afternoon during last week’s heat wave.

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