Summer cooking

Cooking has always been a big part of my life. As far back as my elementary school days I would come home from school and watch Graham Kerr, the Aussie “Galloping Gourmet” on TV. But for much of the past year I have not been cooking due to travel and an inadequate kitchen. That all changed when I took an apartment with a gas stove (I really don’t like electric stoves) in downtown St. Petersburg in May. Since then I have been having a great run.

My most recent concoction was a confit of a lamb leg. The most common confit is duck but anything goes in my kitchen. To confit an item, you cook it slowly while immersed in fat. Bacteria are killed and the fat makes a lid that prohibits the entry of more bacteria, giving it a very long storage life.

I took a de-boned leg of lamb and pulled it apart along the muscle seams and removed the fat and silverskin, the tough stuff that holds meat together. The fat, silver skin, rosemary, and avocado leaves redolent of a light licorice flavor went into a pot on the stove with a pint of water. I slowly cooked it down over a few hours, adding water when needed, to render the fat into liquid. which was strained and stored in the fridge.

Meanwhile I put the lamb, now in pieces about the size of eggs, into a marinade of olive oil, garlic, salt, black pepper and more of the rosemary and pulverized avocado leaves. The lamb spent two days in the fridge.

The marinaded lamb and the rendered lamb fat went into an oven safe covered pot and baked at 250 degrees F for four or five hours. It comes out soft and tender, not oily at all. It is great to eat immediately and it is even better in other dishes. Part of this batch went into a pizza with re-hydrated dried figs, grapes that I pickled in balsamic and cloves, blue cheese, mushrooms and sautéed onion. Another part of the batch was seared on the stove top and used in tortilla rollups with veggies.

Making a confit is great because you can store cooked meat in the fridge for weeks if it remains submerged in the cooking fat. There is a layer of fat on top and another layer of the meat surrounded by a luscious thick sauce. I have also made a confit of garlic with a much shorter cooking time using olive oil resulting in an insanely soft garlic spread. Next up will be a confit of fresh veggies, probably tomatoes and I am considering a fruit confit.

The pickled grapes showed up in a few other dishes this summer, especially salads. If you don’t use them quickly, cook the alcohol off of some cheap white wine and add it to the pickling liquid to make sure the grapes are not too tangy.

My flat is a short drive to an Asian mega-market which I frequent, so variations on rice noodles have been a big part of my summer fare. I fell in with a MeetUp group this year that has had three pool parties at one member’s condo so I found an audience for my food. I had some homemade lobster stock in my freezer and made a Viet inspired rice noodle dish with spiced canned crab meet, lemongrass, ginger, galangal and veggies. The Asian ingredients also let me make a true tom kha gai, a chicken broth and coconut milk soup loaded with spices, chicken and veggies.

For a July 4th party I made the outrageously rich Oaxacan mashed potatoes. Peeled, boiled and mashed potatoes with mustard, sour cream, olives, onions, capers, diced pickled jalapenos, onions and raisins baked a second time into a creamy pile of ultra-flavorful fluff.

I made chicken vin cotto, chicken in cooked wine, for my first MeetUp party. A bottle of cheap red wine, 12 ounces of honey and a stick of cinnamon are simmered until the sauce is thick. Remove the cinnamon stick and add a pint of red wine vinegar and further cook it until the scent of vinegar is no longer present. Add slivered almonds, capers, olives and raisins or dried cranberries. Meanwhile, sear some bonless skinless chicken thighs on the stove top. Add them to the cooked wine and finish them off on the stove. I made a veggie risotto to serve them on but simple white rice would be fine also. By the way, I always brine my chicken for a day or two and usually use thighs, not breasts, to make sure the chicken is moist and tender. Mashed sweet potatoes with canned chipotles was a good side dish.

While I am not usually a dessert guy, I made a few passion fruit pies with a guava glaze, tangy and fruity, the kind of dessert that tastes great licking it from your fingers.

There was a lot of other food that passed through my kitchen this summer and more is to come. Any visitors to my place can put in their requests here.

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Lovely Florida, lovely world

I returned to Florida last Monday during a torrential storm, horrible rain and flood waters that washed over major roadways. I had to drive on sidewalks to get my car to a safe space and within walking distance of my temp home.

Florida is a lovely place. It has beautiful beaches (duh!), extraordinary biodiversity, racial diversity even if it is not always peaceful, and a strange mix of politics. It is called a swing state for a reason.

The beautiful environment and its sense of permanence has created a political collision. Many people think it will last forever. Too many of them do not recognize that climate change will cause a rise in sea levels, flooding and salt water infiltration into their drinking water.

The Governor, Rick Scott, is a corrupt politician, convicted of the largest Medicare fraud case in US history. He is one of those queer anti-government people who become politicians. He hates the federal government but wants US taxpayers to buy conservation land in the Everglades, a program whose funding he vetoed. He hates the federal government but wants the rest of us to pay for anti-Zika virus funding that he also vetoed. He denies that climate change is a human caused problem.

Florida is a great state. It deserves better than this corrupt governor or its megalomaniac Senator Marco Rubio. And it deserves a state and national energy policy that will protect it from the otherwise inevitable rise in sea level that will flood more than half of the state.

Florida and New Orleans are ground zero for the US version of climate catastrophe, but it is coming your/our way whether through drought, flood, or pestilence (yup, invasive species are on the march). What parts of the US are not suffering from drought? Certainly not my Boston area home.

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On to Ontario

A great day traveling is priceless. I had such a day today, awaking in the warm gray weather of the Ontario lakes district after a long awaited overnight rain. The mid 70 degree temps were a welcome relief from the oppressive heat that has been following me across the continent for the past two months. Sure, cell phone coverage sucks and the internet is more a concept than a reality.

This morning I left my modest motel on a beautiful lake and drove towards Lake Ontario. I drove with the windows down and tasted different scents every few hundred yards. Barns were standing despite the laws of physics. Deep blue lakes rolled up to the edge of the skinny highway lined by pine trees that all bent in the same direction, with the centuries long prevailing winds. A bear cub bounced across the road in front of me. A bear. Really.

I arrived in Parry Sound at lunch time and had a lovely pickerel/walleye sandwich while overlooking the harbor. It was all too nice so I decided to stay for the night. WTF, I do not have a schedule so I booked a room, and then a cruise on Georgian Bay.

Parry Sound is a sweet town on Lake Ontario’s Georgian Bay, with 30,000 islands and a deep water port. The water is pure and sweet. Locals say that you can do four things with the lakes: swim, drink, boat or fish them. Houses dot the coasts, including multi million dollar places on the islands and they draw their water straight from the pure lake.

It was an unexpectedly beautiful cruise with pure blue skies. I was lucky that the two hour cruise happened during a music fest and my big boat had a killer band from Cape Bretton, sharp tunes for a lovely tour of the waters. I spent time with an extraordinary family from Mexico City, an actress/singer and her daughter, an international human rights lawyer. Life is great when you let it happen and not try to control it.

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Jim Marzilli

A former senator and state representative from Massachusetts, Jim Marzilli resigned from his Senate seat and went to Iraq with the National Democratic Institute on a democracy building project. Since his return he has continued to effect change through his contributions to several political and community-oriented organizations. In addition to supporting the Chico Mendes Project that is restoring the forests of the Guatemalan highlands and conservation projects in other places in the world, he spent the winters of 2013 and 2014 in Burma helping pro-democracy activists there. He hopes to return to Asia or Latin America and continue that work.

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I just left a live discussion between WBUR’s

I just left a live discussion between WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook and the magnificent food writer Mark Bittman. There are few people with such brilliant food technique and erudition as Bittman, and few who can draw it out like Ashbrook. It was a brilliant night.

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US focus shifts to Asia-Pacifica

US focus shifts to Asia-Pacifica

The world is paying close attention to Korea today but Asia-Pacifica became the focus point for the US two years ago, both militarily and economically. The old Atlantic alliance between the US and Europe and the more recent US obsessions in the Middle East and Islamic world are giving way to recognition that the Asia-Pacific region contains both the most political intrigue and the fastest growing economies in the world.

 The shift of military resources to address the threat from Korea has garnered the most attention in the popular media but even before the defensive buildup began the US was shifting military resources. It includes an enormous revamping of the base in Darwin, Australia for the Navy and Marines, allowing a great expansion of the US military presence in Asia-Pacifica and a reduction in the US presence in Okinawa, which is becoming increasingly problematic with the local Japanese population. By 2020 sixty percent of the Navy will be in Pacific instead of the 50-50 current balance between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Pentagon will send P-8 submarine-hunting aircraft, cruise missiles, Virginia-class submarines, coastal combat ships and F-35 fighter jets to Asian ports and bases in coming years.

Some of this is clearly driven by a desire to harden our presence in the face of China’s dominance in the region and, increasingly, worldwide. That point is denied by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, who last year said “…our new [defense] strategy and our rebalancing to the Pacific is not intended to contain China.”

It will not and it cannot. Both nations can flex their muscles but a hard war would result in a death toll unlike any ever experienced in history. 

Combined military spending in Asia this year will exceed European military spending. Almost every nation in the region wants more ships, jets and guns. That is certainly true of the US, driven by a weapons industry that sucks the lifeblood from the US economy even while it claims to be both a jobs producer and essential for our national security.

Nuclear North Korea is high on the list of weapons building nations in the region. It exploded its third nuclear device in mid-February with a relatively small bomb. It is on a path unlike all other nuclear nations, which started with big nukes and then shrunk them down to missile deliverable devices. North Korea is aiming directly for a missile deliverable system. It seems unlikely that it will use such a device in a first strike action, which would result in the virtual anihilation of the country but it will give it a credible deterent in its paranoid fear of the US and South Korea. The various ups and downs of North Korean belligerence give minor panic to China, which fears an influx of hundreds of thousands of impoverished and ignorant immigrants flooding across its border in the event of war.

Regional conflicts

Asia-Pacifica is rife with regional conflicts, some of which lead to military dust-ups. The conflicts are mostly driven by the demand for resources and wealth. Almost every country in the Asian-Pacific region, with the large and notable exception of Japan, had economic growth rates higher than the US and the big economies of Europe in 2012.

Japan and China have a long running dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, currently controlled by Japan. The demand for oil and fish are driving factors. The most recent outbreak occurred in January when Japan said a Chinese frigate put a radar lock on a Japanese navy ship near the islands, something China disputes. More recently, Japan signed an agreement with Taiwan to allow it access to the rich fisheries around the island, angering mainland China.

China is involved in other regional disputes involving natural resources. The Philippines arrested the crew of a 500 ton Chinese fishing vessel which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, when it was illegally poaching fish in Philippine waters. The Philippines had earlier this year sought international arbitration over Chinese hostile actions in pursuit of Philippine resources.

China is claiming increasing sovereignty over international waters and even waters well within the boundaries of other nations, including the Panatag Shoal in the Philippines, using its superior numbers of fishing and military vessels.

Vietnam is currently seeking compensation from China for damages to a fishing vessel caused by military fire from a Chinese warship, the most recent manifestation of territorial disputes. The Spratly Islands are the longest running point of contention, heavily fortified by Vietnam yet claimed by China.

Numerous other regional disputes exist but the US Senate’s refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas leaves it in a position to offer no help in resolving these disputes. So we send the Navy and the Air Force with the hope that our might will give strength to China’s regional opponents even while we try to work with China on economic ties and in controlling North Korea.

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Pull out all of the stops

Friends, politics and food are a perfect triumvirate, proved again this Saturday night at a dinner for five. I pulled out all of the stops: a Middle Eastern meze table, an Asian-influenced lobster and scallop bisque, pork loin braised in milk, Brussels sprouts in yogurt and date molasses, and carrots cooked in carrot stock and butter.  I even made a dessert, a flourless chocolate-chili cake with a sweet orange glaze and a dollop of maple sour cream.

Our first round of appetizers included the typical Middle Eastern olives and flatbread (pita bread) served with two dishes less commonly seen here in the states. Za’atar (pronounced ZA-ter) is a sublime herb mix I first discovered in Jordan. Dip a bite-sized piece of bread into an extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and blot at a shallow spread of za’atar. The herbs stick to the oiled bread. Pop it into your mouth. Grassy, herbal and floral flavors flood your mouth. It is a wonder it is not common in the US.

Recipes for za’atar vary by region and even within families but I think the essential ingredient is ground sumac. Recipes are often considered secret: it has been said that some women will not share their recipe for za’atar with their daughter-in-law, for fear that the son will not come home to Mother’s house for meals.  You don’t need to ask a mother-in-law for her recipe because you can buy prepared za’atar at Penzey’s, Christina’s or the Middle Eastern shops on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown. Or make your own with the recipe at the end of this post.

The other special appetizer was muhammarah, also known as mujadarah. Typically it is a rough paste of pomegranate molasses and walnuts served on flatbread. I use almonds instead of walnuts so it is a little less earthy than the authentic. Almonds, pomegranate molasses and spices blend into a crazy good spread. It is a brilliant and easy dish that my dinner partners devoured. Last night I took it over the top and substituted some extraordinary argan oil for the more typical EVOO. Argan oil has a nutty round flavor that is beyond description.

< geek alert> Argan oil is one of the rarest edible oils on earth, coming from an endangered species of tree that has been exterminated everywhere in Africa except in southern Morocco. Fortunately, its rarity is now causing area residents to protect it, with assistance from UNESCO – you know, the UN organization that the US will no longer fund because it admitted Palestine as a member last week. A local women’s cooperative sells the oil from the nuts, halting the cutting of the trees for firewood. You would protect the trees too if you could sell the oil on Amazon for $100 per liter. Rest assured I paid a lot less in Morocco for mine. <end geek alert>

Good food calls for good drink. We sipped on wine and a cocktail I invented for the evening: vodka, clementine-infused vodka, fresh orange juice, Cointreau and more pomegranate molasses. I like nuanced drinks that reveal themselves over time.

We settled into the dining room for the next course, a riff on lobster bisque with Asian influences.  Rich lobster stock, local Cape scallops, amontillado sherry, cream and the saffron I harvested earlier in the day were more or less traditional. Wide sticky Thai rice noodles, nam pla (fish sauce) and tobiko (flying fish roe) were not.  I wanted a smooth mouth feel in the bisque, thicker than the broth and cream would create. The starch from the rice noodles, plus a tablespoon of finely ground arborio rice, delivered that smooth feel.

The Mediterranean inspired the main courses.  Pork loin braised in milk is a classic dish from Bologna, moist and tender pork with a rich nut-brown sauce from milk that was slowly reduced while braising the pork. I sprinkled thick slices of it with pomegranate seeds for a sharp contrast in texture, tang and color.

Brussels sprouts, briefly marinated in oil, were oven roasted under high heat and served atop a puddle of Greek yogurt and date molasses.  The date molasses were drizzled on the whipped yogurt, not blended, so every bite would have a different ratio of earthy to sultry sweet to tangy.  Carrots cooked on the stove at a low temp in carrot stock and butter for almost two hours were the purest essence of carrot flavor.

It was a beautiful and delicious plate, the pork with bright red pomegranate seeds, the green brussels sprouts on a bed of white and black sauce, the burnt orange of the carrots. I have finally learned “to plate” a meal, not just for flavor but appearance also. Miss Suzee appreciates the visuals.

I knew that I wanted a dessert that matched the dinner, lots of big flavors and contrasts. Since I rarely bake but am trying to cook outside of my comfort zone, I sweated this issue more than any other in the two weeks before dinner. After toying with a few dessert ideas I found a recipe for a flourless chocolate cake and played with it, including adding a few teaspoons of chili powder and toning down the sugar. What flavors go well with bitter chocolate and chilis? How about sweet, tangy, orange and maple? I whipped up an easy orange glaze, and sour cream with maple syrup. The dessert stood up on its own, thankfully, because I had a treasure to go with it.

Eight years ago I bought a special wine in Paris, a 2003 Sauternes that was expected to be one of the great dessert wines of the decade if I could only wait until 2011 to drink it. I did wait. We drank. I wish my wines were always so good. Life should be so sweet.


1 tablespoon of ground sumac

2 tablespoons thyme

1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds

2 tablespoons marjoram

2 tablespoons oregano

1 teaspoon coarse salt

Grind or crush the sesame seeds and toss all of the ingredients together. Simple, no? Of course most people don’t have ground sumac in their homes and will have to go to one of the aforementioned shops to buy it, so pick up a prepared mix and then experiment with your own version later.


1 cup of skinless almonds

2 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon of dried red chili pepper (not a chili mix!)

¼ cup of dried bread crumbs

¼ cup of good EVOO

½ teaspoon of cumin

Pinch of allspice

Pinch of salt

I used skinless almonds instead of the traditional walnuts. Grind everything together. It will probably be easier to do the grinding in small batches in a spiced grinder than a blender or food processor, unless you are making a large batch. Don’t turn it into a smooth puree: let it maintain some rough texture. Taste it as you grind and adjust the spices. Don’t be afraid to add more pomegranate molasses if you are not tasting pomegranate love. Ditto for the ground chili.

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