Pantry and Equipment


I learned to arm wrestle really, really well working at the Olive Garden.  It had almost nothing to do with being a hostess there, but the arm wrestling champion of Butte, Montana taught me herself.  Her name was Mary, and she was a great teacher.

The key to winning at arm wrestling, according to Mary, is two-fold.  Getting the knot of forearms, hands, and elbows into a configuration that allows you to pull with your bicep is of paramount importance.  Getting there quickly, to the abject shock of your opponent, is equally critical.  Done correctly, you’ll leave them painfully mumbling in your dust as you swagger away, heady with the pride of your win.  Though the expression is woefully time-worn, it really is all in the wrist.

For two summers and a winter break in college, I was part of the front of the house “A team” at the Olive Garden in Billings.  I had applied for work at several restaurants in town, and the Olive Garden was one of my last stops because it was the furthest strip mall from my house.  It shared a parking lot with Red Lobster, where I failed the 300-question personality test prior to my interview.  By the time I received a Dear Bria letter informing me that my immediate future did not include reciting pithy witticisms about a menu filled with shellfish, it was the OG or nothing.


My arm wrestling lesson came around the same time gnocchi were added to the menu, during my second summer. New additions to the menu meant team meetings at the restaurant on Saturday mornings, where we put the “know your food” OG principal into practice (the other four principals being hot food hot, cold food cold, money to the bank, and clean restrooms).  I don’t remember anything else from the tasting that day, nor do I really remember whether or not the gnocchi were any good.  I can only recall the moment that marked what would prove to be a weeks-long process in fighting about the pronunciation of “gnocchi.”  It was not, as I emphatically argued, acceptable to refer to it as “nookie.”

It’s a good thing none of us are 19 for more than, say, a year.  It’s just so difficult to know Everything and struggle to communicate it to the rest of the world given a paltry allotment of only 24 hours per day.  I believe Mary was neutral on the pronunciation debate, but favored some sort of object lesson that would shut me up for the sake of keeping the peace.   Somewhere between hearing her credentials and that first, brutal loss, I managed to forget about the pedantry of the matter.

Today, I don’t care if you call them gnocchi, nookie, or Wondrous Pillows of Carbtastic Splendor.  Just make them, and soon.

The ricotta quantity is stated in ounces, rather than cups.  If you buy your ricotta, it should make a difference to you as 15 to 16 oz is a standard size.  If you made whole-milk ricotta with me and are staring at a giant wad of cheese, wondering how much to use, get thee to the store and pick up a food scale.  It’s an excellent way to maintain consistency and accuracy in the kitchen.  Fundamental recipes are ratios based on weight, not volume, and you will open many doors for yourself with the ability to scale recipes up or down based on weight.  Get one.

Regarding the bread crumbs: I cheat.  If you happen to have a few slices of white sandwich bread laying around, remove the crusts and blitz them in a food processor.  Toast the resulting crumbs in a 300 degree oven for 10 minutes until they are golden and use them here.  Despite my bread-making proclivities, honey-oat whole wheat bread is the only kind we (almost) always have readily on hand.  It doesn’t make for very good bread crumbs, so I cheat with the kind in the little cardboard can.

(Keep reading Ricotta Gnocchi…)

This Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of  The Flavor Bible, a book that should hold a prominent place in any curious cook’s library.  I’ve previously mentioned it here and here.

Recipes are lovely, and I can’t possible buy or read enough traditional cookbooks in this lifetime.  But there is another side to cooking that I think is just as important for cooks, especially home cooks, to explore.  It’s the improvisational side.  The process that starts with a blank slate of a clean kitchen and comes to life with one or two ingredients - something that looked particularly good at the store that week, a memory of a favorite dish, a scene from a movie, a song, a mood.


To make something edible out of this process, it’s important to have a basic grasp of cooking fundamentals - how to saute, how to poach, how to steam, how to broil, etc.  But it’s also critically important to have a way to get your hungry head around the flavors before you begin, lest you waste perfectly good chocolate chip cookies by sullying them with mint (hypothetically, of course).   Authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg help guide this process by providing (though what can only have been a Herculean effort) an index of ingredients and the flavors that best compliment them.  Need a hand figuring out what to do with the basket of figs that called out to you at the farmers’ market?  Turn to page 162 and see the 70+ flavors that will best compliment them (personal favorite: goat cheese).

My own improvisational process has benefited greatly from The Flavor Bible, and I’m happy to help Page and Dornenburg celebrate the anniversary of this wonderful text.


Do you know what I have spent the past several weeks doing? I mean, aside from working and traveling and playing with my iPhone. I have been dealing with the fact that the dumbest of our three cats (which, really, is a dubious distinction) has a new-found and insatiable attraction to all power cords. As in, he wants to chew through them.

In some ways, this discovery has been a relief. I now know that I wasn’t crazy to think that the phone on my nightstand was just plain dead. Only instead of the rigor that eventually seizes all things with rechargeable batteries, this was the kind of deadness that comes when someone chews clean through the phone line to its base. Same for the keyboard on my desk. And the Kindle charger. Make that two Kindle chargers.

We have sprayed everything with Bitter Apple. We have replaced some cords and patched others with electrical tape. And we have embarked on an extended campaign of terror with respect to Charlie and these damned cords. The goal is to get him to think that cords are bad and scary and yucky and not interesting to chew. Sometimes, this campaign involves spraying him with water. Sometimes it involves waving a cord around and yelling in a menacing way. Sometimes it involves bringing him near a cord he has just chewed and smacking the cord whilst shouting BAD BAD BAD BAD. And sometimes – like, say, this afternoon – it involves all of the above.


He’s a fundamentally sweet cat, and he’s impossibly cute (see above - the perpetrator at rest), so it’s hard to stay mad at him. I would just appreciate it if he could postpone indefinitely his efforts towards a self-induced electrocution so I could spend more of my scarce free time in the kitchen and less of it crawling around spraying all of our cords with foul-tasting substances. (If you ever think you don’t have much in the way of electronics in your home, try coating the length of every cord with something wet and messy – you will be amazed).

One of the things I try to do with this site is provide a real-world glimpse into one approach to balancing a hairy schedule with a pattern of regular cooking. And it is, indeed, a pattern. A habit, even. I’ve become so entrenched in my preference for cooking dinner at home that I gravitate toward my kitchen even on nights when dinner doesn’t show up on the radar until after 9. Of course, I’m human and not a cooking automaton. Sometimes I’m just plain tired and hungry. Sometimes I need dinner to come together in a matter of minutes. And sometimes I need it to be an act of mixing rather than actual cooking.

Here is a trio of salads that, when put together as an ensemble, make a truly lovely dinner with absolutely minimal effort. Everything here, save the produce, are pantry/fridge staples in our house. If they aren’t staples in your kitchen, they should be. The first recipe comes from the lovely Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. The second is a variation on that theme. The third is a bit of a grownup’s approach to the mayonnaise-and-pickle-relish tuna salad we all know and love. The quantities here will handsomely feed two ravenous adults, or four with more demure appetites. All of it can be easily doubled, as well as tweaked and augmented to suit your taste. Think of these recipes as guidelines rather than strict prescriptions.
(Keep reading A Trio of Salads…)


I confess that I do not always feel extremely excited about cooking when I get home late.  But late or not, I’m usually excited about eating.  I always keep some kind of pasta – fresh or dried – on hand because it makes a fast, filling meal in a pinch (and, to be fair, my dad’s family is Italian and I will always think of pasta as comfort food).  There are more or less 15 minutes built in to every pasta preparation, between readying the water and cooking the pasta itself.  Recently, I started marking the prep time for other parts of the meal in relation to the time it takes the pasta to cook.  That is, I know I’ve got something really fast in my sights when I can safely say “you can make [whatever it is] before the pasta it goes with has had a chance to cook!”

You can make this artichoke pesto before the pasta it goes with has had a chance to cook!  See?  Neat.

Honest to goodness, I threw together this little saucey wonder a few weeks ago after getting home sometime north of 9 p.m., weary and belly a’growling.  It was absolutely delicious, especially when garnished with a few sliced campari tomatoes.  Artichoke recipes generally garner favor with me, but this one brings something special to the table (oh, ouch, that one even hurts to type).

Kindly note, this type of pesto is not cooked or heated before it is added to the pasta.  The residual heat from the noodles will warm it up just fine.  I suppose, if you want to get technical, this isn’t so much cooking as mixing.

On the mixing – you will notice that I recommend a food processor.  After owning one for a few years, I must say that it’s one of two kitchen electrics I deem critical to a well-functioning kitchen (the other being some form of electric mixer).  There are many, many things, this sauce included, that you can throw together with the most minimal effort if you can get your hands on a food processor.  Honestly, there are things I make now that I never bothered with in my pre-food processor days because they are simply too much trouble.  Anything that involves cutting fat into flour (biscuits, pastry dough, pie crust, etc.) is a great example – takes several minutes by hand versus a few seconds by processor.  I have a fantastic 7-cup model by Cuisinart, which I think is worth every penny (currently $99.95  at Amazon), and there are even less expensive models out there.  Hands down, it’s the kitchen electric I use most.

In addition to pasta, this sauce tastes fantastic on toasted artisan bread or crackers.  I also pulled off a lovely cold salad for lunch one day by mixing a few heaping spoonfuls of the pesto into a can of tuna and topping with avocados and tomatoes.  The brightness of the artichoke and the tang of the lemon-garlic flavors complemented the tuna nicely.

(Keep reading Easy Artichoke Pesto…)

I have to tell you about a love affair I have with a spatula.  It would be criminal of me to share my recipes and cooking insights with you without sharing the good news about the Norpro Silicone Spatula.  Sinful, in fact – a sin of omission.

spatulaMy mom gave me a set of these when I was moving into my first apartment and setting up my first kitchen.  The spatula and the spoonula are an invaluable pair, and every time you see me refer to a silicone spatula, I’m talking about one of them.  Perfectly shaped and sized, they are durable, flexible, gentle on non-stick surfaces, and tough enough to handle tough deglazing.  In short, they are perfect.  And you should go order one.

Even in this modern world of non-stick everything (hell, I have non-stick pants, which is a story for another time), it is often helpful to have some sort of oil in a sprayable form to keep everything slipping and sliding in all the right ways. Yeah, I’m essentially talking about food lube, but let’s keep our eyes on the ball.

I am a former Pam devotee. It’s readily available at any grocery store, it’s inexpensive, and it requires exactly zero futzing in order to make it work. Pam is fine for many things, and if that’s what you happen to have on hand, it will totally suffice for much of your lubing needs when it comes to my recipes.


The problem with Pam and its ilk is a function of the delivery method. In order to make that nifty aerosol action work properly, the cooking oil we want is accompanied by propellants we don’t. Please understand, this is not a fussy I Don’t Eat That stance; my objection to propellants is purely from an equipment maintenance position. The propellants in cooking sprays aren’t separable from the spray output. While this does nothing to the taste and texture of your food, they get all the hell over whatever cookware you are trying to lubricate. Do you have a cookie sheet that has become increasingly coated with golden brown crud? Do your silicone baking pieces have inexplicable sticky, gunky bits all over the edges? That’s baked propellant, amigo, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That shit just loves to land on your bakeware and singe itself into molten, messy poop, and any amount of scrubbing that would remove it will also remove half of the host. Propellant crud is, for practical purposes, forever.

So what to do? I use a Misto*. Actually, I use two. It charms me to no end that John and I both came to this marriage with a Misto in hand. We use one for olive oil and one for vegetable oil. I believe they come with labels upon purchase, but those are long gone, so I tell them apart by smell; John tells them apart by lucky guessing, as his sense of smell is, um, retarded.

One benefit of Pam and the like is the absolutely even, whisper light spray of oil that it reliably delivers. Conversely, while you can learn to control the output of the Misto to be as light or heavy as you like, the uninitiated can also end up with a sloppy squirt of oil where you intended a light mist. I can live with the tradeoff, but I am also fastidious about my silicone bakeware and love olive oil, so the occasional unintended heavy squirt doesn’t bother me.

And I must now go quietly die in a corner, as the temptation to run amok with all the squirty imagery in this post is just about killing me.

*I swear up and down, six ways to Tuesday that this product used to be called Mr. Misto. However, upon a foiled attempt to find anything productive or useful when Googling “Mr. Misto”, I discovered that the official product’s name is, in fact, Misto. But the website also includes the prominent tagline “DISCOVER THE MAGIC!” so I think anything is possible here.