When I look back at how this month has progressed, I have to acknowledge the corn. I often feel like I didn’t give you enough. I should have provided my favorite shrimp over onions and tomatoes recipe. I should have come clean with the pulled pork recipe that people can’t believe I make at home, or my waffles from scratch that the kids take on the train everyday. Maybe it’s enchiladas you wanted. Or potato and chorizo tacos. Patatas bravas, perhaps? Buttermilk pancakes. Tacos al pastor. Maybe the glaze I used for grilled duck breasts last week. The maple pecan butter I plan to emulate from a meal I had recently. Japanese egg salad sandwiches. The huevos rancheros I made for a work breakfast. Mom’s Apple pie. There were so many good ones I didn’t get to. Maybe I should have spent more time on techniques. Or cookbooks. Or restaurants. No, not restaurants. You have to travel a lot more than I do to be an expert on amazing cuisine. Many of you have probably gone to a lot more finer places than I have. To be honest, I didn’t plan any of this ahead of time, and while I usually paid for it in the furious scribble to get it done, the recipes were pulled from whatever loose connection my brain could make to the title or story.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m no chef. Far from it. I’m probably not picky enough to be a really good one. My appetite just outweighs my level of excellence, I suppose. I’m honest about food, but I don’t completely pick apart the meals I don’t cook myself, and I’m not above eating fish sticks and Kraft mac ‘n cheese with the kiddos when the moment calls for it. But if you give me a chance or two, I can probably make you something memorable, and being in the kitchen or over the grill or tending the smoker is one of my favorite times to be me. That’s probably why I chose that theme this year. Most of our meals at home are simple. My kids are little, and getting any kind of dinner on the table that has a starch, a fresh vegetable and protein is a winner in our house. While I love to tackle difficult dishes, the fact remains that most of the time I’m grilling pork chops or chicken that’s been brined in a simple flavored solution, and we’ll eat leftovers for the next two or three meals. Or the Wife is furiously preparing something in the wok. On the weekends, on special occasions, these are the times I get to play.
In the end, I’ve become a mixture of my father’s strictness to original recipes, and my mother’s improvisation. One helps me attempt and execute a recipe, the second allows me the chance to improve it, if that’s something I’m interested in attempting. The fact of the matter is that I just love to feed people. As I’ve repeated several times, my wife’s family is rather large, and when we all come together for my kids’ birthdays, or a major holiday, cooking for an enormous group is one of my favorite things. Sure, I don’t always get to talk to the guests as much as everyone else, especially for those birthday parties where I’m often grilling for three straight hours. But in the words of Anthony Bourdain, “Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating…The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”
I love stories. Most people who know anything about me know that. And for me, there are so many stories attached to the act of cooking. Perhaps it’s my father-in-law sharing his after-dinner stories about coming to America from Hong Kong and arriving in San Francisco, how he traveled to Chicago by bus, surviving on one hotdog and one Coke each day for a week. About how he refused to use the bathrooms at the stops they made through the south because the signs only said ‘Colored’ or ‘Whites’ and he wasn’t sure which one would be less dangerous for him as a Chinese man. Perhaps it’s my grandmother telling stories after Easter dinner about the pickle barrel on her father’s farm, or stuffing Swedish sausage with a hollowed out bull’s horn when she was a kid. Or maybe it’s all the stories that are generated from the act of cooking and eating, losing a thumb tip or a tooth or burning your first grilled cheese to a crisp. Because it’s just as important to the stories when things don’t go as planned. Perhaps it’s because smell is so closely tied our memories. Olfactory memory. That summer grill conjuring up picnics with the family or a charred Spiderman toy. Cooking bacon bringing us back to forgotten memories of vacations at the family cabin and my grandmother trying to feed an army from a tiny kitchen. Whatever it is, it’s the thing that will keep me cooking, because good food brings good company, and the very best of stories.
I was struggling for a recipe this morning, so my daughter decided for me in two words.
“Rosemary Shortbread,” she said.
It’s one of her favorite desserts. Pulled from the cookbook Flour by Joanne Chang, she requests it all the time when my wife bakes. Also, if you ever get to Boston, go to her bakery/cafe. (same name as the book)..it’s wonderful. When we threw a garage sale last year, my daughter wanted to have a Bake Sale. She has a pretty amazing mind for cooking and baking for a six year old. So I did what any self-respecting father would do. I built her a Bake Sale stand out of scrap wood in the garage. She painted it herself, and made us all crazy proud when she decided that she wanted to donate half of her earnings to the charity headed by her favorite Cub, The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, which raises money for families battling cancer. It’s pretty humbling when a six year old is smarter than her daddy. Cheers to you, Emma, for letting us end with something a little sweet. Enjoy.
“Crumbly and delicate, these shortbread cookies are infused with subtle rosemary flavor. They are stealth cookies: They don’t look like much, they don’t sound fancy shmancy, and you probably don’t expect them to become your new favorite cookie. But they will sneak up on you. I find that after I eat one, I keep going back again and again to have ‘just another bite,’ and before I know it, I’ve eaten three or four. They melt in your mouth, and they are especially appealing served with espresso after an Italian dinner. They are also nice to have on hand unbaked in the freezer for when guests drop by unexpectedly.”
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
- Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a handheld mixer or a wooden spoon), cream the butter on medium speed for about 2 minutes, or until light and pale. (This step will take 3 to 4 minutes if using a handheld mixer and about 5 minutes if using a spoon.) Add the sugar and beat on medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Stop the mixer a few times and use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and the paddle to release any clinging butter or sugar. On low speed, add the egg yolk and rosemary and beat for about 1 minute, or until thoroughly combined.
- In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder. On low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture and then mix just until the flour mixture is totally incorporated and the dough is evenly mixed. Stop the mixer several times to scrape the bowl and the paddle to free any trapped flour mixture.
- Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, and wrap the dough in the plastic wrap, pressing down to form a disk about 8 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. Refrigerate the dough for about 20 minutes, or until it is firm enough to roll out.
- Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a rectangle about 12 by 10 inches and ¼ inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 12 to 15 uniform pieces-rectangles, triangles, or cookie-cutter shapes-and arrange them on a baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. (At this point, the cookies can be tightly wrapped and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Bake as directed directly from the freezer. You may need to add a few minutes to the baking time.)
- Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the cookies are medium golden brown all the way through. Let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Baker’s Bite: When I chop fresh rosemary, I use a trick I picked up from the savory side of the kitchen. I add a teaspoon of sugar to the rosemary leaves, which helps me chop them finer and prevents them from sticking to the knife.