Fast Recipe: Homemade Hash Browns

Phil made these for himself a week ago, and after he gave Max a taste, and then had to make Max his own, Max has been begging for them every day. I got the impression they are super-laborious from the way Phil wasn’t quite up for making them again, but it turns out they’re not. (It’s been hot. –Ed.) I’ve never had hash browns that didn’t come from a bag or a waitress, so I’m loving that a few potatoes and some bacon fat (you heard me) can produce so much deliciousness. We use an eight-inch omelet pan that is not non-stick. Let the bacon grease keep this from sticking.

Homemade Hash Browns

For an eight-inch omelet pan, shred three small potatoes, skin and all, with a cheese grater. Pour or (when it’s not 104 degrees outside) scoop a generous amount of bacon grease, saved from Saturday morning bacon, into the pan and let it heat up over medium heat. The hot grease is important, so give it a good three minutes, then spread the shredded potatoes in the pan, pushing down slightly. Salt and pepper if you like. Now wait, periodically lifting the bottom to check for golden brownness. Patience is the key; pour another cup of coffee, scan the headlines–you’ve got a few minutes. When you have golden brownness, use a metal spatula to loosen the whole thing and then flip it like a big pancake. Let the other side brown, and then cut it into two or four wedges. (If you prefer having smaller patties to flip, you can divide them with the spatula when you first put them in the pan.)

I probably shouldn’t wonder why obesity is on the rise in America.

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Nora Ephron’s Vinaigrette

Nora Ephron - P 2012

It was such sad news yesterday to hear that Nora Ephron had died at 71. She’s probably best know for her film scripts like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and more recently Julie & Julia. I’m completely indebted to her for Heartburn.

The novel (later a film — but not as good as the novel) tells the story of food writer Rachel Samstat and her short marriage to a philandering political writer. The story carries some remarkable similarities to Nora Ephron’s short marriage to Watergate whistle-blower Carl Bernstein and her discovery of his cheating while she was in the late stages of pregnancy with their second child. The book is peppered with Rachel’s recipes for things like Potatoes Anna and Peach Pie. The topper, however, is her Vinaigrette, a much-touted recipe she doesn’t share until the end of the story.

As a fresh-out-of-college technical writer who was largely only familiar with salad dressing that came from bottles with the words “Thousand” and “Island” on them, I was intrigued. I showed the recipe to my much-better-cook co-technical writer, but rolled my eyes at the fancypants ingredients called for.

“Red wine vinegar? Olive oil? Grey Poupon? Who keeps this stuff around?” I’d asked.

“Um, me,” he’d replied.

So I took a trip to the local market, got myself some fancypants ingredients that are now pantry staples, and made Rachel’s vinaigrette. More than 20 years later, it, or a variation, is still about the only dressing I use. Here’s how Rachel says to make it:

Mix two tablespoons Grey Poupon mustard with two tablespoons good red wine vinegar. Then, whisking constantly with a fork, slowly add six tablespoons olive oil, until the vinaigrette is thick and creamy; this makes a very strong vinaigrette that’s perfect for salad greens like arugula and watercress and endive.

Rest in peace, Nora Ephron. And thank you.

The Awkward Teenage Years

Once the ducks grew to full size, I forgot they’re really still very young. We’ve had them for just over two months, and they’re still three to five months from producing a single egg. They’re sort of like Tom Hanks in Big: appearing full-grown, but actually nowhere near mature.

So while they’ve avoided orthodontia and Clearasil, there are some tell-tale signs that their duck bodies are… changing. Their sweet and constant peeping has turned into full-on quacking, which initially scared all of them when one would let loose, unexpectedly, with a deep-throated adult quack. And lately their sleek chests, which seemed fully covered in adult feathers, have started looking mangy, as what I believe to be their underlying fluffy baby feathers have started working their way through the adult feathers and onto our lawn.

They spend an inordinate amount of time every night grooming themselves, after which our lawn looks like there was a cougar attack on a chicken ranch.

And their new favorite nesting spot under our deck during hot summer days not only has laid- and nibbled-on hostas, but enough feathers to make ourselves some down mattresses. Or at least pillows.

Of course, I’m guessing that they’re just molting during their awkward teenage years. My duck books say nothing about this teenage molting. Just like the books made no mention of why, when their wing feathers were coming in, both Sophia and Diamond bled from their feather tips down their sides in a Walking Dead display that made me, for the first time, question the wisdom of backyard ducks.

I’m bracing myself for them to ask for the car keys.

Five Things I Do with Leftover Coffee

(Besides pouring it down the drain.)

Compost It. If you compost — and seriously, why wouldn’t you? — just pour the coffee on the compost pile, which needs moisture in order to turn your kitchen scraps to rich garden soil. I also sometimes, lazily, pour the coffee straight into garden beds, like our starter blueberries, which need more acidic soil. But don’t tell any real gardeners. (And if you compost, throw the coffee grounds, filter and all, in the compost.)

Make Coffee Ice Cubes. Oldest trick in the book, but just freeze leftover coffee in an ice-cube tray. These are great when an occasional recipe calls for coffee, and also great in iced coffee because they won’t dilute the drink. Which leads me to…

Make Iced Coffee. Just put the leftover coffee in a pitcher in the fridge and drink it later. Preferably sitting outside with a book, mingling with the ducks.

Marinate Meat. My favorite pot roast recipe is browning a 3-pound roast in a dutch oven, then putting a sliced onion under it and a sliced onion above it, and pouring on a marinade of 1 cup coffee, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 2 crumbled bay leaves, 1 minced garlic clove, and 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano. Bake this, covered, in a preheated 300-degree oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. The coffee helps open up and tenderize the meat while it cooks, and that simple marinade makes it super-delicious.

Bake with It. I often substitute a tablespoon or two of coffee for liquids in brownies or chocolate cake. It adds a rich flavor without being overwhelming. A coffee ice cube, by the way, is typically 2 tablespoons of liquid, so you can just throw one of those in with the liquid.

One more coffee-related tip I found on Pinterest, my new favorite time-suck: You can make your own vanilla coffee creamer, without all the unpronounceable ingredients, by heating up in a small saucepan 1 can of sweetened condensed milk and 1-1/2 cups half and half, then whisking in 1 teaspoon vanilla creamer, and, if you want, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. When it cools, just store it in a jar in the fridge and use it, smugly, like you would Cremora.

Phil and Mark Bittman’s Super-Quick Gazpacho

Last week, inspired by a Mark Bittman article on cold soups in The New York Times Magazine, Phil whipped up some gazpacho. And I mean whipped; it was quick and crazy delicious. The kids weren’t into trying it, which left more for us while they ate their quesadillas. The next day, I took leftovers for lunch and was honked. off. to come home and find that Phil also ate it for lunch and it was gone. We’ll be having more.

The secret on this one, I think, was adding bread, which gave it a lot of body and more substance than some gazpachos. Phil used some sourdough bread we had around that was starting to get day-old tasting. I cannot WAIT for the garden tomatoes to come in and make an appearance in this soup. And really, any fresh vegetable would be fantastic. I think we might need to make this soup again tonight, come to think of it.

Phil and Mark’s Super-Quick Gazpacho

3 cans (about 14 ounces) diced tomatoes (or, obviously, 2-4 ripe tomatoes)
2 cucumbers, with skin partially removed (taken off in strips, but leaving every other strip), cut into chunks
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped roughly
2 slices day-old bread, cut into chunks
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

Just mix everything together, then process in a blender until it’s a nice consistency. Phil’s was still a tiny bit chunky. Depending on the size of your blender, you might have to do this in batches. Chill it in the fridge or serve it right away, drizzled with good olive oil and maybe some balsamic vinegar. Maybe some parmesan. Really, you can’t mess it up.

Yep. We liked it…

Duck Rustlin’

The ducks have been in their outdoor coop for about two weeks now. The coop sits in a 10 X 15 fenced enclosure, covered with hawk netting, to keep them safe during the day. Still, much of the reason we got ducks was because they make great pets and because they are such great garden helpers, eating up the things that might feast on garden plants. So last night, we finally let them out of the enclosure.

They were tentative leaving at first, but after we opened the door and left them alone for about five minutes, the first one got the idea that she could walk out, and the other three quickly followed.

They loved foraging around the yard; pickings had gotten pretty slim in their enclosure, and they were mainly eating their commercial duck food and whatever greens we brought them from the garden.

They practiced running and flapping their still-forming wings. For those who have asked, “Won’t they just fly away?,” we are going to clip their wings. And for those who have asked me, “Isn’t that cruel?,” thinking this is an operation like bobbing a Great Dane’s tail, clipping wings just involves trimming the mature outer feathers on one wing; it’s like a hair cut. And because they molt their wings annually, it’s not permanent.

After they were out for a bit and we remembered baths and homework and bedtime, we started the rather arduous process of teaching them to get back in their coop, which was a long lesson this first time. Eventually, Tommy and his best buddy from down the street herded three into the coop, after a lot of Three Stooges-type moves, and I picked up Anais and deposited her in the coop, since she was, of course, outside the coop but desperately wanting to get back to her friends.

That evening, when I came to lock them in their coop at night, there was no fanfare. They saw me, and they filed into the coop. It had been a very busy day.

Knitting Life Lessons


While recently at my dad’s house, I came across my eighth grade yearbook that included this snapshot of me in the second sweater I ever knit. You can’t tell from the black and white photo, but the front and back alternated thick cream, red, and blue stripes, and the sleeves featured slimmer cream and red stripes. With my junior high fashion sense, I used cream yarn, eschewing the white called for in the printed pattern, as I felt a red, white, and blue color combination would be a little too You’re a Grand Ole Flag. As you can see, I enjoyed accessorizing my masterpiece with a Foxmoor denim jumper, dark knee socks, and a clarinet.

Here’s what’s important about that Family Circle-featured, plastic-yarn sweater. After the Seventeen magazine twisted stitches fail, a crafty friend showed me what I was doing wrong with my knitting, and I made this sweater correctly — not twisting the stitches, and even switching the yarn color between stripes with little incident. I got halfway up the back when I noticed something: several inches down, I had a little strip of maybe six twisted stitches. I debated. Do I rip it out (something I wasn’t advanced enough to do)? Do I put a flag decal over the error? Do I stuff the half-knit sweater in a bag and forget about it for five years (a technique I perfected several years later)?

I was visiting my grandma in the nursing home where she lived, and showed her my sweater in progress and the mistake I’d found. Grandma was the one who’d originally taught me to knit in first grade, a skill I’d abandoned and mostly forgotten for several years. My mom’s mom, she was the only grandparent I’d ever known. She seemed omnipresent, always willing to babysit my brother, sister, and me when we were younger, and even moving in when my mom was out for a couple of weeks with surgery. She was born in 1902, and her penniless family had emigrated, with the help of a kind uncle, from England to Canada when she was very young. She’d had eight kids and several miscarriages. She had seen an adult son die too young, and had been married for decades to an alcoholic who worked only sporadically, providing little for their large family. She talked with me for hours about her childhood. I adored her.

I painfully brought my mistake to her in her small shared room, and my only grandparent, my beloved grandma, rolled her eyes and pshaw’d me.

“It’s at the bottom of the sweater and no one’s going to see it,” she’d said.

I showed her how, if you stretched that spot, you could see the six twisted stitches.

She grew more impatient, stretching the spot as I had. “No one’s going to stretch your sweater down here and notice those stitches,” she’d said.

I started protesting again, and she strongly implied I needed to Let. It. Go.

Because when you’ve lived with an alcoholic and often not had two nickels to rub together and had to hold your large family together single-handedly, an inch of twisted stitches is really not worth crying over. Grandma’s been gone for more than 25 years, but her perspective and practicality live on, in my knitting, my weedy yard, my chaotic kitchen. It’s probably why I let my kids — all three of them — wear whatever young-kid getups they chose, knowing that sometimes it’s not worth the fight if four-year-old Tommy insists on wearing Power Ranger pajamas to daycare three days in a row. Often when I’m helping a newer knitter with something, I channel Grandma and tell them not to sweat the tiny mistakes that are plaguing them. Because so much of knitting and life is figuring out what is and isn’t important and keeping an eye on the big picture.

See, Grandma? I was listening.