Mel’s Diner

Sharp Knives, Raw Meat and Fire



Mr. Ruhlman directed me to a story in The New York Times that warms the soul; well, the soul of people like me.  Before we get too much into it, let me just reprint one little sentence as a teaser:

“He grilled tenderloins (the muscle used for filet mignon) over charcoal, sliced them, dipped the slices in melted butter, served them on slices of white sandwich bread, added French fries on the side, and let everyone eat as much as they wanted.”

Do I need to go any further? No.  I had you at “butter”, didn’t I?

It seems a rather wonderful New York experience, a celebration from times past, thought lost forever like the Dodo or Vermont Republican, was re-discovered, living on over the river in New Jersey.   Beefsteaks,

“boisterous mass feeds featuring unlimited servings of steak, lamb chops, bacon-wrapped lamb kidneys, crabmeat, shrimp and beer, all consumed without such niceties as silverware, napkins or women.”

once a staple of New York political rallies and manly get-togethers of the 19th century, slowly faded away into obscurity and disappeared altogether by the 1960’s.  Unbeknownst to those saddened and deprived New Yorkers, just over the river in Bergen and Passaic Counties (but, only those two), New Jersey, the tradition lived on.

In an ironic twist, the happy gluttons of Jersey were equally unaware of it once being a New York tradition.  Of course, there is no cultural divide so stark in it’s proximity or embraced by both parties as the New York-New Jersey divide, so it’s not actually all THAT odd.


January 31, 2008 Posted by | Random Blather | Leave a comment


Here’s a dish I made that I’ve meant to post about for a few weeks. I was at the store when I saw a fairly nice piece of tuna, not a thick as I wanted, but, oh well. When I got home I went-a-searchin’ for a recipe and I found this one on Epicurious. It calls to be served with roasted-red pepper rice pilaf, but we had just eaten rice pilaf, so I skipped it. The sauce was so ridiculously easy and wonderful, that it’s slipped into my memory bank as a regular.



  • 1/4 cup of unsweetened coconut milk
  • 2-3 tbls. of wasabi powder
  • 2-3 tbls. of sugar

Mix together. (tough, huh?)


8 ozs. tuna

Sear until rare, 1 – 2 minutes each side. (even tougher)

This was very good.  I served the sauce on the side so everyone (Ok, there was only two of us, but S.W.M.B.O doesn’t like wasabi all that much) could use as much or as little as desired. 

BTW, I was pretty excited about serving this because I was able to use the Chinese soup spoons I had purchased a few years back for a Christmas party I had.

 Seared Tuna with Wasabi-Coconut Sauce

January 29, 2008 Posted by | Main Dish, Recipe | 1 Comment


Where Flavor Was Born

Possibly the nicest blogger who ever blogged in this bloggy world of ours, Sara, asked me to be part of a Round Table Review wherein we would each review a cookbook and cook several recipes from it.  Cooking with my friends for fun and profit, well – not profit it the Warren Buffet sense, but profit in the exposure-to-new-foods sense?  C’mon, how could I say no?

Andreas Viestad, Norwegian born culinary star, has gone way off the plantation with his latest book, Where Flavor Was Born, Recipes and Culinary Travels Along The Indian Ocean Spice Route (2007, Chronicle Books).  In it, he contends that the flavor we have in food comes from spices and spices come from the Indian Ocean Rim.  It’s hard for an American like me to dispute that fact considering that our continent was brought to Europe’s attention just over 600 years ago when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon us in a now famous trip to Penzey’s, or the 15th century reasonable facsimile thereof.

The book, richly photographed by Mette Randem, starts off with a compendium of spices.  Each one is categorized as to where it originated from, what exactly it is, what it tastes like, etc.  Probably one of the most useful resources of any kind I have come across in a very long time.  The book then follows this same layout, with each chapter a particular spice and recipes from all along the Indian Ocean that use that ingredient. 

Each recipe itself garners a whole page – most with a personal story putting a face on the recipe, perhaps how the author first tried the dish or an insight into the people who grow or gather the spices.  The writing in these vignettes is fun and enticing, giving you not only insights on the dish, but hints on adjusting spice levels to taste.

I cannot begin to tell you how beautiful this book is to look at.  The layout is colorful and eye-catching and the photographs!!  As a poor sap with the second-rate digital camera trying to author a food blog, I am rendered speechless every time I come across Randem’s pictures.  They leap out at you and grab you by the eyeballs (in a good way), freezing your attention to the page.  There’s a picture on page 101 of peanuts, garlic and chiles that saddens me with jealousy.

But, this is a cookbook and a cookbook is judged by it’s recipes.  We made six different recipes from the book and I was pleased to varying degrees by each one.  Some were wonderful, some were, “Eh, take it or leave it” and some were good but, only by the grace of God.

The first recipe came from the cumin chapter and was a Fresh Yogurt-Cucumber Soup.  Simple to make, it not only had the obvious ingredients of cucumbers, yogurt and cumin it also had cilantro and tomato.  It tasted bitter immediately after I was done, but after resting for an hour the flavors melded and mellowed.  The combination of the cumin, which warmed the mouth and cilantro which alternately cooled it was very nice, but I don’t believe I would serve it on it’s own – it just didn’t do it for me.  But, the soup was recommended as an accompaniment to spicy foods and I could see that as an absolute winner.

One of the better dishes we tried was a simple desert from the cardamom chapter, Bananas With Coconut and Cardamom.  I’ve known about cardamom for twenty years because it’s a key ingredient in my Christmas Glogg, but that’s the ONLY thing I had ever used it in before this book.  Anywhoo, this recipe is so stinkin’ simple and so stinkin’ good, it’s a crime I keep using the word stinkin’ in reference to it.  Slightly under-ripe bananas are poached gently in a spiced coconut milk bath.  Oh, my.  I used baby bananas for this and I have a feeling that we have those on this earth specifically for this dish.  Seriously. (Want the recipe?  It’s here)


You can’t have a book about spices that centers itself around the Indian Ocean and not talk curries.  I made two curry recipes, the both again using the ubiquitious coconut.  Fish in Coconut Curry was a spice cavalcade, with cardamom, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, chiles and pepper.  The first four are toasted in a pan, filling the house with the most beautiful, incredible, heady, (insert synonyms here) aroma, then added to coconut milk with tomato, lime, onion and of course, fish that had been rubbed with turmeric and ginger.  Definitely a go-to dish in the future, if only to toast those spices again.(Want the recipe?  It’s here)

Fish in Coconut Curry

The second curry was a cake.  Yes, a cake.  The curry mixture this time are the typical spice cake spices with a few, but not outrageous, additions.  Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg have star anise and cardamom join the party in this, sorry to say, uninspired cake.  Though it’s called Coconut Curry Cake, it has a paltry 3 tablespoons of grated coconut in it – I couldn’t taste it.  Now, to be fair, I do live in New Hampshire and it’s January, so running out to the back yard and getting a fresh coconut from the tree isn’t an option.  Maybe if I was using fresh coconut, it would have come through, but with the bagged stuff I can get now, not so much.

Coconut Curry Cake

The Tamarind Chapter led us to a recipe I was salivating over – Entrecote With Onion, Ginger and Tamarind.  I was also to discover that America is a big country and in it, some things are bigger.  The recipe, for two, mind you, calls for SIX onions, sliced and cooked.  After I had sliced three, I gazed at the huge pile and called it a day, somewhat confused by this apparent disparity.  It was only later, going through my new Nigella cookbook I saw she refers to an average onion as 1/4 of a pound.  My three onions weighed in at over 1 1/4 pounds, nearly the 1 1/2 pounds (if onions in Europe are 1/4 pound each) the recipe calls for. 

Onions on Scale 

I also discovered something else.  Tamarind paste, called for in the recipe, is not the same as tamarind concentrate, the only thing I could find.  You see, tamarind concentrate needs to be diluted 1:1 with water to make what you would have if using tamarind paste.  I found this out the hard way, making a dish I call Tamarind Hell, which is Entrecote With Onion, Ginger and Tamarind using full bore tamarind concentrate in place of tamarind paste.  After the exorcism, I tried it again with the correct tamarind and found it to be as good as I expected.  The tamarind was just right – the onions had a sweetness and sourness that complimented the steak just right.  I can only imagine how wonderful this would be if the steak had cracked black peppercorns pressed into it before cooking. (Want the recipe?  It’s here)


The last recipe was the one I wanted to try since I opened the book – Stuffed Onions With Ginger And Lamb.  Strange that I should want to do this, considering I haven’t liked lamb my whole life but just the idea of stuffing onions with meat and all the flavors – I knew I needed to smash through my self-imposed boundaries and go for it.

And I’m glad I did.  I really liked it, but making this was a chore.  The recipe was only marginally helpful with the mechanics of making this.  The first step is to “peel the onions and cut out the root ends” and simmer the onions for 15 minutes in turmeric-laced water to soften them up. After that’s done and they have cooled a bit, we are to “cut a slit in the bottom of each onion and press out the layers“.  What is the “bottom” end?  Wouldn’t that be the root end that we cut out previously?  Through trial and error, I found the “bottom” is actually the stem end; the stem stubbornly holds onto the onion layers and cutting a slit releases the layers.  And using a fork to pull them out from the root end works MUCH better than pushing them out.  Oh, and turmeric stains like the Dickens!  I dumped the water in my white sink and turned the whole thing yellow!  I had to bleach it to get it clean.

The recipe also calls for the onion “guts” to be cooked with two pounds of lamb, dried apricots (?), ginger, almonds, red pepper, cumin, garlic…all kinds of happiness.  But, I think two problems reared their ugly head here – the onion issue from the Entrecote and no testing of the recipe.  I only used about half of the onions to mix with the lamb and such and still ended up with nearly TWICE the amount of stuffing needed.  And if my onion hypothosis holds true and European onions are smaller, it would have been that much more left over.  I have to believe no one not connected to the recipe was ever asked to make it as written.

Onions 1

Ok, no more Mister negative!  For all it’s faults, I loved it!  I served it to friends who were up for dinner and they loved it!  I was so unsure about the apricots, but like a good good soldier, I followed orders and put them in, only to find their subtle, wouldn’t-know-what-it-was-if-I-didn’t-put-it-in flavor incredible!  I can’t wait to make these for my parents, who love lamb.  Definitely my favorite recipe from the book.  BTW, as a test I used four yellow onions and two Vidalia onions and there was no noticeable difference in taste.   

Onions 2

So, what’s my overall impression of the book?  I like it a lot!  I think you will need a good spice collection and be comfortable in the kitchen to use it to it’s fullest.  That being said, there are a lot more recipes in the book I intend to make (Cubeb Pepper Figs jumps to mind) and whenever I’m looking to get out of my comfort zone and make something different, I know I’ll be going to Where Flavor Was Born.

And a special thanks to all my fellow members of the That Cookbook Thing:

January 27, 2008 Posted by | Cookbooks/Books | 3 Comments


Presto Past Night – what that means to me is cook it fast, cook it well and use what you have – no running to the store.  So, this morning, as I thought about dinner, I looked at what I had and picked out a whole, frozen chicken breast and a can or artichokes.  I knew I had some small shells, parmesan and half and half.  So, off to work!

When I got home, I tossed the chicken into a 375 degree oven and got a pot of water boiling on the stove.  I added two tablespoons of butter to a pan and a small, diced onion. After the onion was cooked, two tablespoons of flour went into the pan and cooked to a pale roux.  2 1/2 cups of half and half goes in and cook slowly until thickened.  Meanwhile, the chicken comes out, taken off the bone and diced.  I added three whole artichoke hearts quartered, a pinch of nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne, salt & pepper and a cup of grated parmesan cheese to the sauce.  The pasta went in the pot and cooked until done.  Finding the sauce too thick, I added a splash or two of pasta water and drained the pasta.  Pasta in the bowl, chicken on top, followed by sauce.


Chicken & Artichoke Pasta

January 24, 2008 Posted by | Presto Pasta Night | 1 Comment


Please excuse the title of this entry, I in no way compare myself, favorably or not, with the great WFB.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I went down to Massachusetts on a little shipping trip and ended up at Whole Paycheck.  In general, the people who shop at Whole Foods are on the wealthier side of the tax code and probably more liberal.  And as we have also been told, ad nauseum, the Left are more caring, more tolerant and over all, just better people because they care so much.  What I found at the store was something very different.  It was a Saturday afternoon and the store in affluent Cambridge, MA was crowded.  And these people had no regard for the other shoppers.  They would move along the aisles, in the way and if some dully colored, fully recycled, Earth-friendly package caught their eye, they would just stop and block the aisle as they checked for whatever interested them at that moment.  We would wait interminably (but, patiently) until it either met with approval or not and then go on, easing our way around the roadblock, only to be met by another around the corner.  And never did we hear an, “Oh, sorry” or “Excuse me” from any of the shiny, happy (but, Earth conscious) people.

Tonight, I saw a commercial for a Bisquick pancake mix.  All you need to do is add watter to the handy bottle it comes in, shake and presto! – pancakes.  Oh, the humanity!  How far have we come from the reception of the first box cake mixes.  When they were first introduced, all you needed to do was add water and oil and presto! – instant cake.  And they flopped.  I mean flopped bad-like.  It seems the housewives at that time felt guilty about it being so far removed from homemade, they refused to buy them.  So, the manufacturers removed the eggs from the mix so the housewives (no husband was cooking in the kitchen at that point) felt they we actually making something.  Now, we are falling farther and farther away from that ethic, ironically led by the very same company that had to remove the powdered egg from the cake mixes – Betty Crocker.  Is it OK that we are?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s sad.

January 22, 2008 Posted by | Opinion | Leave a comment


Anyone who has spent five minutes reading this blog knows of my almost inappropriate love of Michael Pollan and especially of his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Here is an almost hour long video of a speech he gave about that book.  Grab a snack and link back to the YouTube page so you can view it full screen.

January 20, 2008 Posted by | Cookbooks/Books, Grass fed | Leave a comment


Squeaking in again, here’s my recipe for the Weekend Cookbook Challenge.  This month’s edition is hosted by the effervescent Sara and the theme is Veggin’ Out.  Now, I’m not a huge vegetable fan, I’m not going to lie to you.  My food of choice has been and always will be High Fructose Corn Syrup, no, wait… I mean meat.  I prefer my food to have once roamed the earth and to have mooed or a future in bacon.  That being said, I can and do enjoy non-meat items, though I tend make them as meat-like as possible.  Along those lines is my recipe choice, Vegetable Stock. 

This wonderful recipe comes from the Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden and I can’t say enough good about it.

Moosewood Garden

Moosewood Vegetable Stock

2 large potatoes, thickly sliced

2 – 3 onions, quartered

3 – 4 carrots, thickly sliced

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 apple quartered

1 or 2 bay leaves

6 peppercorns

10 cups (2 1/2 quarts) water

Add all ingredients to a stockpot.

Veggie Stock 

Bring to a boil.  Simmer for an hour or more.  Strain stock, pressing the vegetables to get as much liquid as possible out.

That’s it.  As Jamie Oliver would say, easy-peasy.  Oh, don’t skip the apple.  The first time I made this, I thought it would make it sweet, so I only put in 1/2 of an apple and pulled it out early.  Lo and behold, the stock was a tad bitter. 

January 20, 2008 Posted by | Vegetables, Weekend Cookbook Challenge | 4 Comments


From Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations:

“Once your reputation is ruined, you can pretty much live the way you want”

(Tony didn’t say this, a German friend/co-eater said it at a biergarten)

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Opinion, Random Blather | Leave a comment


How many of us have spices dating back decades?  I bet most of us have at least ONE that goes back more than ten years.  We’ve moved it a few times, always saying, “I’ll need that someday”.  And everyone of us has a spice at least five or six years old.  I bet a few of us have herbs that old.  I know I did.

Today, I went with a good friend to a Penzey’s store to restock.  Boy, was that great!  They have open jars of each spice (almost) so you can smell it.  That’s what lead me to Ceylon Cinnamon.  Oh, my! 

I came home with bunch of spices!


I cleaned out my spice cabinet, tossing a bunch of stuff that was old, replaced or I knew I was never going to use.  After I was done, I gazed upon my newly cleaned (you would be surprised how many spilled spices and herbs collect on the shelf) and arranged spices.  I was so impressed, I took a picture, because deep down I know chaos will reign in here within a few days. 


January 12, 2008 Posted by | Random Blather | 3 Comments


I know, a new look already.  I really liked the fork and I spent quite a long time searching it out and cropping it to where I liked it.  Unfortunately, the rest of the blog was just OK and I really like this template.

So, the New New Diner, I guess.

January 11, 2008 Posted by | Random Blather | Leave a comment