Get Spark updates!

Photo by Pavlina Perry

Welcome to Pursuit of Spark!  Join us for conversations about creative approaches to the challenges, possibilities, and pleasures of everyday life and work.

Thanks to Dick Nodell and Stephanie Lyness, we have much to share with you over the next few months in Work Mysteries and American Gumbo.  If you have a question for Dick or Steph, send it to us at info (at)  We would love to have you join the conversation!

If you're in New York City, please join me at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for Spark Conversations.   You can find out more about this new series here.

We look forward to hearing from you!




Four Lessons in Creativity
Get the Book

Spark: How Creativity Works has stories from artists, musicians, writers, and directors about where they find their spark.  It's also available as an audio book.

hidden stuff

American Gumbo with Stephanie Lyness

Chef, food writer and critic Stephanie Lyness talks to people about food, memories, dreams, and recipes – the ingredients of our savory American Gumbo.



Wild summer salmon

I love wild sockeye salmon. The flavor is wonderfully meaty, its seasonality makes it special, and summer is its season. But sockeye salmon can be tricky to cook, because it easily dries out. This year, I discovered a foolproof way to avoid that pitfall so that it cooks up perfectly moist. Here’s the story.

Most of the salmon my fishmonger Mike Lukas sells at his Star Fish Market is farmed, grown in metal pens offshore, and harvested year round. “Farmed salmon is always around,” Mike says, “365 days a year.”

The wild fish live on their own schedule. Wild salmon lay eggs on river bottoms. Once hatched, the hatchlings migrate downstream to spend their lives at sea, where they build up exactly enough body fat to get them back home – sometimes hundreds of miles upriver – to spawn.

You’ve probably seen the wildlife videos of salmon fighting their way upstream to mate. They may not eat at all during their homeward journey. Once they spawn, they die; the nutrients from their decaying bodies feed the next generation. Since fat translates to flavor, the ideal time to catch wild salmon is at the beginning of its trip home.

There are five species, Mike buys two– King, also called Chinook, and sockeye. They are the most available, sockeye more than King. The season for the wild fish runs from spring to August, but “to guarantee it,” says Mike, “June to August.”

Stocks of wild Atlantic salmon were decimated years ago and there is no longer a commercial fishery. All the wild salmon sold commercially is Pacific salmon. “90 percent of the time the salmon is from Alaska,” says Mike, but his suppliers also source it from British Columbia and the west coast of “the lower 48.”

My first taste of wild salmon was King, the largest and fattiest of the five species. But King is expensive. Mike sells it for $20 to $28/pound; it’s not at all unusual to see it for more than that on the east coast. Sockeye, which is just below King in fat content, is a much smaller fish and significantly less expensive so I like to buy it.

Despite the price, Mike says many of his customers are leery of sockeye. “A lot of people don’t like the sockeye because it’s too thin; it’s not as forgiving, and inherently drier from the start. It’s got a very good flavor – cooked right, it’s perfect. King is fattier, and you can undercook or overcook it and it’s okay. Sockeye has to be spot on.”

That’s exactly the problem.

I solved it by chance one rainy night when I didn’t want to grill outdoors. I started the fillets, skin-side down, in a dry, cast iron pan on the stove. I realized I didn’t need to flip it; I could just cover the pan – a glass lid makes it easy to follow the progress of the cooking – and cook the fish on one side.

The wild Sockeye salmon fillets came out perfectly. The same method works on the grill. As a quick summer accompaniment, I made a tasty salsa with the super-sweet, yellow cherry tomatoes in the market and chopped avocado, lime, and cilantro.

Single-Side Sockeye Salmon with Tomato-Avocado Salsa

Season the fish at least 5 minutes before cooking to allow the seasoning to penetrate. Add some chopped, fresh chile to the salsa if you like heat. No time for salsa? A squeeze of lemon or lime juice, and more olive oil will do the trick.

2 (6- to 8- ounce) sockeye salmon fillets, with skin, 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 inch thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1⁄2 ripe avocado, peeled, seeded, and cut into cubes
Extra virgin olive oil
1⁄2 large lime
Small handful cilantro sprigs

1. Place a cast iron pan large enough to hold the fillets in a single layer over medium heat. Let heat for 5 to 10 minutes.  Or heat the grill.

2. Meanwhile, season the fillets on the flesh side with salt and pepper and set aside while the pan heats.

3. Combine the cherry tomatoes and avocado in a bowl. Add a healthy drizzle of oil (you want it saucy) and squeeze in the lime juice. Remove any thick cilantro stems; roughly chop the leaves and slender stems and add to the bowl. Gently stir.

4.   Drizzle the flesh side of the fillets very lightly with olive oil and place, skin side down, in the pan or on the grill. Cover. Reduce the heat to medium low if using a pan and cook until the salmon is medium-rare and still translucent at the center when you cut into the fish with a small knife, 5 minutes for ½- to ¾- inch-thick fillets, 6 minutes for ¾- to 1- inch-thick fillets.

5. Remove to plates with a spatula. Taste the salsa for seasoning and spoon it over the fish.


Havdalah in a Pot

Culinary traditions evolve in weird and wonderful ways, often from a collision of necessity and circumstance. Here’s a story from the kitchen of my friend and Pursuit of Spark colleague, Julie Burstein.

The story begins with Julie’s longtime tradition of making beef broth whenever anyone gets sick. How does she make it? She asks her butcher for 3 or 4 beef shank bones (organic) with some meat left on them, roasts them with vegetables until everything is nice and brown, dumps it all into a soup pot, covers with water and cooks it “forever,” which means “2 hours or 6 hours, whatever’s convenient -- I can do it all day!”

Why beef instead of chicken? Beef feels more nourishing, Julie says, and the kids demonstrate their approbation by yelling “Soup!” when they smell the broth. They don’t yell for chicken soup.

Recently, Julie’s elder son, Zeke, confided that the soup was good but it was also boring. So Julie said, no problem, why don’t you look through a cookbook and see what sounds good. Zeke has always been an incredibly adventurous eater; he loves anything spicy and is particularly fond of all things Asian. He was, therefore, very excited to come across a Vietnamese-style beef noodle soup called Hanoi Noodle Soup flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and fresh ginger. The next time Julie made soup, Zeke experimented.

Hanoi Noodle soup was delicious. Zeke was pleased.

Meanwhile, Zeke’s younger brother, Micah, just turned 13. He and his friends are all having bar mitzvahs, and Julie needed to come up with a lot of gifts. Another consequence of the bar mitzvahs was that she found herself exploring Jewish traditions to which she hadn’t previously paid much attention.

She was particularly taken with a ceremony called havdalah, which, she explained, marks the transition from any sacred holiday to the everyday. (Research revealed that havdalah is the Hebrew word for “separation.”) Julie describes it as a “bittersweet” ceremony. “Shabbat can be a lovely peaceful day of rest. Havdalah signals the transition to the hecticness of the rest of the week."

As part of the havdalah ceremony, you light a braided candle, drink some wine, and smell some wonderful, sweet spices. So Julie, who loves working with clay, hit on the idea of making havdalah spice boxes for bar mitzvah gifts. She threw a bunch of clay containers, punched holes in the top, and filled each of them with a mixture of spices she found in her kitchen cupboards: star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

One of these spice boxes went to Micah’s friend, Matt, who lives next door.

The story ends one day this past winter when Julie was in the kitchen making Zeke’s new and improved beef soup. Matt walked into the kitchen and said, “Oh my God, this smells like Havdalah in a Pot!” Which was amusing to Julie at the time, but even more so when Matt’s mother called the next day to ask, “How do you make this Havdalah in a Pot? Matt wants to make it here!”

A few days later, Matt reported that he had successfully made up the soup himself. Julie still calls it Hanoi Beef Noodle Soup but, at Matt’s house, the soup will forever be known as Havdalah in a Pot.

The recipe, adapted from Hanoi Noodle Soup in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, is below. It’s a good recipe for kids because there’s very little knife work. The original Hanoi Noodle Soup recipe calls for the addition of thin-sliced chicken or meat but Julie omits that step: instead, she rescues the beef from the broth, cuts it into pieces, and serves it in the soup. 



Serves 6 as a main course

Julie has fresh thyme growing on her windowsill so she puts it into the soup but don’t bother if it means an extra trip to the supermarket. She reserves this recipe for weekends because, though much of the cooking time is untended, it takes several hours to make. 

For the Broth

3 or 4 pounds meaty beef bones such as shank, shin, or short ribs

2 onions, peeled, and cut in half

5 or 6 carrots, trimmed, rinsed, and halved lengthwise

4 or 5 stalks celery, trimmed and halved lengthwise

10 sprigs fresh parsley

Several sprigs fresh thyme (optional)

3 or 4 cloves

10 peppercorns


For the Soup

3 star anise

1 cinnamon stick

4 cloves

1 (1-inch) chunk peeled fresh ginger

1 onion, rinsed and quartered

1/2 pound rice vermicelli

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lots of chopped cilantro

Lime wedges

1 fresh jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded, and chopped


1.  For the beef broth, preheat the oven to 475˚F. Put the beef bones, onions, carrots, and celery in a large roasting pan, put the pan in the oven and roast, shaking the pan occasionally and turning the ingredients once or twice with a spatula, until everything is nicely browned, about 30 minutes.

2. Use a big spoon to transfer everything to a large soup pot. Add 4 quarts water, the parsley, thyme, if using, cloves, and peppercorns. Bring to a simmer over high heat.

3. Meanwhile, pour off the fat from the roasting pan. Put the pan over high heat. Fill a 4-cup measure with water and add enough to the pan to cover the bottom. Bring the water to a boil and cook, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Pour that mixture into the soup pot along with any water that’s left in your 4-cup measure.

4. Bring the contents of the soup pot almost to a boil. Partially cover and adjust the heat so that the contents of the pot simmers very slowly. Cook until the meat falls off the bones, at least 2 hours.

5. When the broth is cooked, ladle 8 cups into a large, clean pot; strain and freeze the remaining broth for another use. Remove the meat and vegetables to a cutting board; discard the bones and parsley. Cut meat and vegetables into large chunks and add to the pot. Add the dry spices, ginger, and quartered onion. Bring to a simmer and cook at least 20 minutes (if it goes longer, that’s fine too).

6. While the soup cooks, put the rice noodles in a bowl. Add hot water (from the tap is fine) to cover and soak until softened, 15 to 30 minutes. Rinse under cold water, drain, and add to the soup pot. Add the soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste, and chopped cilantro.

7.  Ladle into soup bowls and serve with the lime wedges and chopped chile. Fish out the spices as you go.






Fear of Fish -- Part 1

A lot of people worry about preparing fish. “I don’t know how to cook it,” they say. “Fish is expensive! And how do we know it’s fresh?”

Many of us want to eat more fish because everything we read suggests that it’s good for us. So I went by Star Fish Market in Guilford, Connecticut to speak to my resident seafood expert, Mike Lukas, who owns the store with his wife Colette. What do most people ask him?

Mike described two very different sorts of customers, with different sets of questions: “Your Tuesday-to-Thursday client is just trying to get dinner on the table in half an hour and get to the other side. Your Friday-to-Saturday clients are looking for something a little more special. Maybe they’re entertaining, or maybe they have more time to try something new. They’re buying completely different fish – the higher end varieties.”

The weekday crowd is working hard to introduce fish into their family meals. They may not particularly like the taste of fish. And they’re certainly on to the fact that their kids would prefer a burger. So Mike has developed a routine for these folks.

“These are your white fish people. I start them out on less expensive, milder tasting fish such as tilapia, cod, flounder, and grey sole. From there, we move on to other varieties. And I tell people, if you want to get the kids to eat it, I hate to say it, but add a little sweetness. Something natural, like a little reduction of orange juice.”

What if a recipe calls for cod, but it’s sold out? Substitute, Mike says. “You can use hake or haddock – something in the same family as cod – or any white, flaky fish like fluke. On the west coast, it would be Pacific cod or black cod; it will all cook up the same.”

And how about frozen fish? Mike doesn’t deal with it but he assured me that, with the advances in freezing technology, frozen fish can be very good. “You can buy frozen cod already portioned at the grocery store,” he said. “The most important thing is to thaw it slowly; so put it in the fridge before you go to work.”

Wild Alaskan King salmon, definitely a Friday-to-Saturday fish, is coming into season now. It will become affordable within a few weeks, and I’ll hit Mike up for a recipe.

In the meantime, if you suffer from Fear of Fish, or would just like to make something your kids will like, here’s a dead simple Tuesday-to-Thursday recipe from Mike for Orange-Baked Cod.


Mike’s Tuesday-to-Thursday Orange-Baked Cod

Serves 4

Take the fish out of the refrigerator about 10 minutes before you cook it, just to take the chill off. And if you drizzle the finished dish with a good quality olive oil and sprinkle with a flourish of parsley, I think it might make the grade as a Friday-to-Saturday dish.

1 teaspoon cooking oil or butter for the baking dish

2/3 cup orange juice (fresh or from concentrate)

Grated zest of 1/2 orange (optional)

1 1/2 pounds boneless cod, haddock, fluke, Pacific cod, or black cod fillet, about 1 inch thick

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Grease the bottom of a baking dish large enough to hold the fillets in a single layer with the oil or butter.
  2. In a small saucepan, simmer the orange juice over medium heat until reduced by about one-half. Remove from the heat and add the orange zest, if using.
  3. Place the fish in the baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with about half of the reduced orange juice. Bake until the fish flakes, 10 to 12 minutes.
  4. Serve drizzled with the remaining orange juice.



Learning the rules, then breaking them

I’m a French-trained cook. And I love France. The two years I spent at cooking school in Paris were the most crazy-fun of my life. I fell in love with the city for its history, its beauty, and the glorious elegance of its architecture. Twenty something years old and desperate to reinvent myself, I was comforted by the culture’s resolute formality; its obligatory salutations, and its passion for order.

I fell in love with French cuisine for all the same reasons. Codified in the 17th century, it’s a definitive art. There is a right way to do things and many wrong ways. The cuisine is built on a series of cooking techniques. You start with the basics – knife skills, stocks, basic sauces, sauté. As you advance, you learn to extend and elaborate those techniques. The schooling was linear and precise. It trained me to think in terms of rules, categories, and hierarchical organization. 

A few years ago, the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan (now the International Culinary Center) decided to break new ground and launch an Italian cooking program. I landed the job of writing the curriculum. For years, I’d been quietly peeved by America’s snubbing of France in favor of Italian cuisine, and I was keen to see what all the hubbub was about.

I knew nothing about Italian food and that was the idea. My job was to be a translator. I was to stand at the stove next to Cesare Casella -- a very fine Italian chef, restaurant owner and cookbook author, now the new Culinary Director of the nascent program -- and write down the recipes as he cooked. We both understood that my lack of expertise and my questions – why do you do that? What are you looking for? Is this dish from a particular region? – would produce precisely the information required to teach other cooks who were, like me, innocent of the secrets of Italian cuisine.

Naively, I had assumed that Italian cuisine would be not-so-different than French. Different ingredients, okay. But European. And so, during the first two or three weeks of work with Cesare, I attempted to impose my French training on the food. One day I thought for sure I’d worked it out. Pasta sauces. Oh good… categories! There were tomato sauces, and cream sauces, and broth-based sauces; couldn’t we teach them like that?

I approached Cesare with my idea, and received a thunderous look and a succinct “no.” Though his English was far better than my Italian, little discussion of subtleties was possible between us. I realized that this was going to be more complicated than I had thought.

It went on like that until we got to bean soups. I’m not sure why the light dawned that day. The French certainly make bean soups. But as Cesare dumped cooked chickpeas into the pot in which he’d cooked his soffritto – that inevitable Italian assembly of vegetables, olive oil, and herbs – I got it. Italian food wasn’t like French food. It wasn’t much about rules at all. Cooking Italian was intuitive and personal. Unlike French food, Italian cuisine has never been codified. In fact, the 20 regions that make up modern Italy had only managed to organize themselves into a unified country 150 years ago. There are few agreed upon rules and there is no right way. (Which doesn’t mean Italians are not adamant about their habits. Italian cooks all make things differently and swear it’s the only way.) 

And so I began cooking Italian. And it was wonderful. In retrospect, it seems to me that the purpose of my French training had been to shape me into someone who followed rules. Which was great for a kid who was looking for a new life. If I just followed these rules, I thought, I could become someone else. 30 years later, I realized that living by the rules had made me afraid. They got in the way of creativity. Now when I cook, I have an easier relationship with those rules. If Italian cooks don’t worry, well, I won’t either.

Here’s a Southern Italian summer pasta recipe from Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family, which I wrote with Anna Boiardi. Feel free to substitute the rigatoni with any tubular pasta, including penne and penne rigate.


Serves 4

This can be made ahead of time and served at room temperature; taste it for seasoning before you serve. Or, you can bake the vegetables, cover with foil and set them aside at room temperature until you’re ready to eat; the heat of the just-cooked pasta will rewarm the vegetables.

1/4 cup plus 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Vidalia (or other sweet) onion, finely sliced

9 to 10 fresh plum tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press, or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 1/2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

2 1/2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino cheese

1 pound rigatoni

 Preheat the oven to 400˚F and center a rack in the oven.

  1. Spread the bottom of a 13-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheet with 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Scatter the onion slices evenly over the baking sheet in a single layer. Slice the tomatoes crosswise about 1/3 inch thick, and arrange the slices side by side over the onions so that the entire baking sheet is evenly covered. Push the slices right up against each other without overlapping them. Sprinkle with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. If you’re using fresh garlic, squeeze it through a press onto the cutting board (not directly onto the tomatoes – you don’t want it all to land on one lone tomato). Sprinkle the pressed garlic or garlic salt, if you’re using that, evenly over the tomatoes. Sprinkle the Parmesan so that each tomato slice gets a light covering and then do the same with the pecorino. Drizzle all over with 2 more tablespoons of the olive oil.
  2. Roast until the edges of the tomatoes are shriveled (some will begin to brown) but the tomato slices themselves have not yet begun to brown, 50 to 60 minutes.
  3. For the rigatoni, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt until the water tastes salty (about 1/4 cup). (I know this sounds like a lot but in Italy, cooks want the pasta to absorb and be flavored by the salt. Use less if you like.) Set a colander in the sink. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain in the colander. Return the rigatoni to the pot. Scrape in the tomato-onion mixture, add the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, and stir well. Divide it among shallow bowls or deep pasta plates. Add a little pepper to each, and serve with more Parmesan cheese.



Coming soon!

Photo by Joy Yagid