Friday, November 12, 2010

Dinner Lovesong

Tonight, as every night, Karen and I will share a home-cooked dinner.

Tonight, I will eat chicken. Of 365 dinners a year, I eat chicken about 350 times. Roast whole chicken. Grilled chicken legs. Roast chicken breast. Tonight, I eat roast half chicken.

On any given night, Karen might eat chicken for dinner, yet she might eat something else. Macadamia-crusted tilapia. White beans simmered with a Parmigiana rind. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass. Spaghetti. The "Florence" pizza from Arpeggios. Tonight, though, Karen will eat braised chickpeas.

Tonight, we will share mashed potatoes. Of 365 dinners, I eat potatoes about 180 times. Roasted red potatoes. Boiled fingerlings with herbs and olive oil. Mashed potatoes. Karen shares the potato habit, adding her own flourishes: she adorns roasted potatoes with thin slices of butter; to mashed potatoes, she adds a pat of butter.

On alternate nights, we eat sweet potatoes. Baked sweets. Mashed sweets. Roasted sweets.

Karen might eat rice. As I said, she might eat pasta, or pizza.

But for me, that's it--potatoes or sweet potatoes, every single night of my life. I enjoy eating the same things day after day, with small variances, and that's what vegetables and wine are for.

Tonight, we share coconut braised greens. Living seasonally, we experience variety in vegetables. Still, we eat coconut braised greens about 3 times a week. We eat steamed broccoli 3 times a week. Of course, I feel obliged to hand toss the warm broccoli with salt, fresh ground pepper, and olive oil. This is how you treat broccoli--with love. Summertime, I might pan-sear zucchini. Springtime, I might steam peas or asparagus. Autumn, I might split one acorn squash in half, dab the flesh with oil, and roast. Perhaps, feeling nostalgic for July, I'll pan-sear zucchini.

Most nights, we drink wine. Of 365 dinners, we drink wine 335 times. Weekdays call for something like Coppola Rosso. Weekends call for Coppola Claret or Rosenblum Syrah.

I'm finicky about food, refusing to eat what I deem to be lowly ingredients, but I remain a willfully oblivious wine-drinker. I simply cannot afford a refined wine palate.

As it is, I find most cheap red wines benefit from a jaunt in the fridge. I like wine nearly chilled. Karen likes wine room temperature. Nightly, we play the same game: I put the wine in the fridge, she takes it out. I put it in, she takes it out.

Each week, once a week, my wife jubilantly orders a small Florence pizza from Arpeggios. Sharing the festive mood, I'll make myself something special: chicken, maybe, and potatoes.

We've shared this small, strange life for 15 years. To me, marriage is not about growing old together. Marriage is about growing weird together.

The view from my seat: Karen and her pizza.

We invite others to share our weirdness. Friends and family come over all the time. Cogan, fresh from traffic, full of anxiety on a Tuesday. Charlie, cool and early, with a bottle, on a Friday. JJ, stoned and feast-ready, on a Saturday. My mom, decked in one of her immaculate coats, inquisitive and calm on a Sunday.

I place the wine, red or white in the fridge. I assign small tasks. I toss what seems like an excessive plume of salt into the greens. Then I'll throw open the oven, squint into the bellowing smoke, and jab a thermometer into the chicken. Friends have just come to accept: an invitation to my place means chicken.

I eat the same thing every night, and yet I look forward to dinner all day. To me, dinner is the point. Dinner absolves the day's hassles. Dinner redeems the day's failures. Without dinner, the day has no structure, no purpose. Dinner is not only food--it is communion, with others, with ourselves. Immersed in our daytime ambitions and jobs and twitter accounts, we might lose sight of those we love; we might lose sight of ourselves. Dinner saves us. When we sit down to dinner, we settle back into ourselves; we become human again.

Roast Half Chicken for One

My wife refuses to eat chicken every night, so often I enjoy roasting a half chicken for myself. This recipe accounts for two successive nights of half roast chicken.

6 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar
One 3-4 pound organic or free-range chicken
2 teaspoons olive oil
Fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme

To make the brine: dissolve the kosher salt, sugar, and 4 cups water in a gallon bag. Place the chicken in the bag and brine for 2 hours (can be brined up to 8 hours).

Take the bird out of the brine, rinse, and pat dry. For crispier skin, allow the bird to air-dry after brining for at least 4-8 hours and up to two days.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place one of your oven racks one the bottom rung.

Working with kitchen shears, split the chicken in half. (Here's a nice tutorial). Save the other half for a successive dinner.

Rub the chicken skin with the olive oil. Sprinkle fresh ground pepper and dried thyme over the skin.

Place the chicken skin-side down in a grill pan and roast on the bottom rack of the oven for 20 minutes. Flip the chicken and continue roasting, skin-side up for 8-10 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the breast registers 160 degrees.

Let the chicken rest for 5-10 minutes on a cutting board.

Cut it up, into pieces: legs, wings, breasts.

Serves 1.

Pan-Seared Summer Squash with Basil and Lemon Vinaigrette

I originally developed this recipe for Whole Foods Market. Thick rounds of summer squash seared in a piping hot pan — cast iron is best — until just blackened, then tossed with a fragrant fresh basil and lemon vinaigrette. This is a summer recipe that adapts easily to most seasons. In Philly, we get local zukes (hothouse) throughout the fall, even into the winter. 

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large green zucchini

For the vinaigrette, in a small bowl, mix together olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, fresh basil and salt.

For the zucchini, slice zucchini into large rounds. Warm a 10-inch skillet (cast iron is best) until very hot. Place zucchini in pan and sear over high heat, until blackened, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip onto other side and sear additional 2 to 3 minutes, until both sides are blackened.

Place zucchini on a large platter. Spoon vinaigrette over zucchini. Serve warm.

Serves 4.