Archive for December, 2011

I would have enough to fill my time without having to attend to the need to eat, but it just so happens I care a good deal about food, as does the rest of my family. Some folk are so driven by their work or their art that food and its preparation take a back seat. But for me, the preparation of food is a creative endeavor in and of itself. And yet, the need to feed a family several times a day, every day, can certainly seem like a chore at times. So in the hopes that it might help folks in need of meal ideas—because we all get in a rut now and then—I’ll post our Monday-through-Friday menus on occasion, with links to recipes. One caveat: thanks to our quasi-commune, we are frequently the lucky recipients of fabulous Vietnamese concoctions, often in the form of pho or other soups. I can take no credit for those, nor share the recipes, as they are a mystery to me. I know they often involve oxtail or dried squid, and virtually always fish sauce.

Here’s last week:

Monday:

Adults: Leftovers from a local Indian restaurant. I’ve found that, contrary to some expectations, it’s harder to cook on weekends than on weekdays, perhaps because I’m “on” all day on weekdays, but try to relax a bit on weekends, and spending time in the kitchen after ferrying kids to activities and doing my own extra-curriculars doesn’t qualify as relaxing. (Although K recently asked why I’m so tired often, when I have “plenty of time to rest.” Huh.) Hence there are sometimes leftovers from a weekend take-out night.

Kids: Leftover “sausage pasta,” as it’s come to be known in our house, and sauteed okra. (I use the chopped, frozen kind. Both kids like it. Says K: “I like how okra has slime in it. It gives my mouth a massage.”) One could go on a tangent about how kids should really just eat whatever the parents are eating, but I’m not going there right now. Besides, the Indian leftovers were pretty spicy.

The “sausage pasta” is a simple concoction, liked by all 8 of us (our family and Next Doors) and easily made in large quantity. For 4 people: Saute a chopped onion with two cloves of minced garlic and a sprinkling of hot pepper flakes. When the onion is translucent, add in a 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, with juices. Simmer, uncovered, until most of the liquid has evaporated, approx 20 minutes, stirring now and then. In the meantime, place 5 sweet Italian sausages in a pan and pour in a half cup of white wine. Prick the sausages with a fork first. Cook, covered, until sausages are cooked through. Make whatever quantity of pasta you need (I tend to use rotini or fusilli). Mix everything together, and sprinkle with grated Pecorino Romano. The whole thing takes about half an hour, if you have three burners going at once.

Tuesday:

Crêpes. This was a bit of an extravaganza. Delicious outcome, but I don’t recommend doing it unless you have a couple of hours to devote to it. We had friends over, which is how I justified the effort to myself. But I was beat by the end of the evening.

I made about 40 crêpes, using the basic crêpe recipe from the Joy of Cooking, and quadrupling it. (A crêpe pan is not necessary, as long as you have a good non-stick pan.) Everyone had two savory ones and two sweet ones. For the savory ones, I prepared a variety of fillings, and made them to order, as it were. Gruyère, fried eggs, ham, sauteed spinach with garlic and red peppers, and sauteed mushrooms with fresh thyme. A slight sprinkling of fleur de sel in each. Accompanied by salad for adults, and steamed broccoli for the kids, who seem to object to lettuce.

Side note: Admittedly, “crêpes” is a difficult word to pronounce if you are not a native French speaker. But hearing “crayps” is painful to me. Try saying “creppe” instead. (The “s” is silent, and the “e” is a short “e”, as in eggs.) Although then, I suppose, you run the risk of not being understood by most people.

Wednesday:

Sauteed salmon with balsamic glaze, recipe from Epicurious.com. Quick, simple and delicious. Accompanied by quinoa, and green beans steamed and then sauteed with shallots. If you organize things right, this whole meal can be made in about half an hour. A bit longer if you have a baby clinging to your leg. Consider opening a bottle of chilled Vouvray. If aforementioned baby is in the picture, consider chilling it (the wine) in time to partake of it while cooking.

Thursday:

I was out at a meeting with my writing group. Husband had a leftover portion of boeuf bourguignon that I pulled from the freezer (recipe next time I make it) and egg noodles, with a salad. The kids had a couple of chicken drumsticks briefly marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, ground cumin and salt, with okra and egg noodles. I had a lovely evening out talking about books and writing, and eating good food with whose preparation I had nothing to do. And no, I don’t dangle my participles.

Friday:

Another good meal to feed all eight of us, with leftovers: Mark Bittman’s “anti-roast-chicken” as we call it. This is a good alternative to a roast chicken, with more going on, yet not much more effort. I’ve become a huge fan of Mark Bittman, who has the New York Times Magazine food feature now. This recipe was printed in the March 13, 2011 issue. Bittman calls it “Braised and Roasted Chicken with Vegetables.” The recipe is like so (copied here in case it disappears from online accessibility):

2 tbsp olive oil or butter (he actually calls for chicken fat, reserved from chicken-skin croutons, but good grief.)

2 skinless chicken leg-thigh quarters

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 skin-on chicken breast, split in two

3 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and chopped

4 carrots, chopped

6 celery ribs, chopped

12 to 16 oz cremini, shiitake, button or other fresh mushrooms, quartered or sliced

3 to 4 sprigs thyme or rosemary (I tend to use both.)

Chicken-wing meat (I don’t find this necessary)

Chicken stock (Bittman recommends making your own. Which is great and all, but in the interest of time, I use the boxed stuff.)

  1. Heat the oven to 350. Put the butter/olive oil/chicken fat in a roasting pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Sprinkle the leg quarters with salt and pepper and add them to the pan, flesh side down. Cook, turning and rotating the pieces as necessary, until well browned on both sides, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove, then add the breast halves, skin side down. Brown them well, then flip and cook for just 1 minute or so; remove to a separate plate.
  2. Put the leeks, carrots, celery, mushrooms, herbs and chicken-wing meat in the same pan and cook until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Nestle the leg quarters among the vegetables, meaty side up. Add enough of the stock to come about halfway up the thighs.
  4. Put the pan in the oven and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour. (Stir vegetables if they threaten to brown too much.) When the thight meat is tender, raise the heat to 400 and lay the breast halves on the vegetables, skin side up. Continue cooking until they are done, 20-30 minutes longer.

Bittman recommends transfering the vegetables to a platter, slicing the breasts and shredding the leg and thigh meat, and placing on the vegetables. I forego all this presentation, and just serve out.

Accompaniments: brussel sprouts sauteed with butter, pancetta and lemon juice, and mashed potatoes.

Bon appetit.

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I’m on the phone on a work conference call, and in the middle of it, I see an email pop up from my mother, subject line: Christmas caca. For those of you who might be linguistically challenged, that translates to “Christmas doodoo.” (My mother lives in France.) Of course I have to take a look right away, while keeping my ears focused on the call in which I’m participant and opinion-giver and note-taker and assigner of tasks. And then I have to mute the call so I can chortle freely.

My mothers’ note continues:

“No, I’m serious. Herewith verbatim from our local weekly rag reporting the 8 most popular toys/games, already out of stock! (Estimated family spending on each kid: 240 euros, or roughly $320.)

(Note—I’ve translated the rest from the original French.)

“To help you make the right choice, here is a selection of the most popular toys:

  1. “Toutou Rista: this toy is a smash hit with the younger set. Toutou Rista, a plastic dog, swallows Play-Doh, then expels it through its bottom. The object of the game is to pick up the greatest number of turds in a given time. Price: 20 euros ($30). (Note: Turns out this originated in Germany, under the much better name Kackel Dackel, and apparently the following video of it went viral. Amazing how much I miss out on by not having spare time on my hands.)   
  2. Monster High: these new horror dolls, along the lines of Barbie, are inspired from classic monster movies, such as Dracula. Several models, such as Abbey Bominable. (Note: I looked these up on Amazon and found the following other names: Dead Tired Ghoulia Yelps Doll and Spectra Vondergeist Doll with Pet Ferret. Apparently these are hot here in the US as well. I must be living under a rock.) 
  3. (For boys) Beyblade Tops: little boys are tearing these warrior tops away from each other. The basic idea: plastic tops shaped like miniature tanks battle in an arena, and the first to stop is eliminated. Euros 70 for two tops and an arena. (Sez my mother: I suppose that could cover two kids. Figure the profit margin on this no doubt China manufactured diversion…)

Following this, my mother asks: Is it only France that’s obsessed with a) body functions, b) “tendance” (i.e. knowing what’s been deemed popular will guide you to making the right choice, like a robot, without thinking), and c) strict separation by gender?

The answer is a) well, the French do take it to an extreme, that’s for sure; b) nope, that’s flourishing on this side of the ocean, too, and c)… huh. Yes, there are of course the gender stereotypes, and the lists of toys/games for boys and toys/games for girls. And most kids think certain things are for boys and others for girls. But I was pleasantly surprised when I checked out the top list by gender on Amazon, the go-to site for shopping. (I mean, do you even bother going to stores in December? I have a handful of independent, quirky stores I still frequent, but for the bulk of the purchases I make in December, most of which are for the various children incorporated into our lives, Amazon is it. And apparently this year Cyber Monday—the first Monday after Thanksgiving, for the first time outstripped Black Friday for the most dollars spent.) Seven of the top ten in each list are identical. The differences: girls get a portable karaoke machine, “Baby Alive Crib Life Twins” and Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows DVD, while boys get Spynet Stealth Video Glasses, LEGO Mindstorms and Matchbox Smokey the Fire Truck. On Amazon’s French sister site, the ratio is reversed, and there are only three items in common between the two lists.

So what is the point I’m trying to make? I guess I expected to share my mother’s outrage about the shopping options being presented to those who are in the market for gifts for children, but ultimately, it doesn’t seem that bad to me, from where I sit in New England. Sure, there are horrendous things out there whose very existence as a product one could spend money on and actually present to a child is abhorrent, such as Justin Bieber nailpolish or American Girl Cootie Catcher Kits, but all in all, I don’t feel bombarded with insistent messages about the poop-scooping, gender-specific popular toys I need to be buying for my children. At first I thought: maybe that’s because I rarely watch television and when I do, it’s pre-recorded, so I never actually see commercials. But my parents don’t have a TV (gasp!) so that can’t be it, if I’m to compare with her experience.  And then I saw this: “No Hit Toy to Brighten Retailers’ Christmas” on today’s New York Times. It seems that this year is singularly lacking in must-have items, as retailers have cut down on toys overall, fearful of ending up with too much unsold inventory. As a result, “classics” are in, and shorter supply is leading to higher prices. Not a bad retail move.

Anyhow, enough musing. Here’s some of what I did end up purchasing for the various children in my life (and there seem to be many, although only two biologically related to me), all between the ages of 14 months and 10 years this holiday season. Perhaps this will be of help to some of you late shoppers out there.

Harriet the Spy, one of my all time favorite books from my childhood, by Louise Fitzhugh;

Milles Bornes, the French classic road race card game;

Sleds, because, after all, we are in New England;

Water bottles from Crocodile Creek (indestructible and highly functional and cute);

Dresses from the Tea Collection, delightfully on serious sale for one day only;

Tech Deck mini-skateboards and ramps;

Silly slippers from Garnet Hill, half off on the day of my purchase;

Guidebooks for an upcoming trip to Mexico;

Snorkel set, also for Mexico;

Art supplies, for a future art teacher;

Tintin, the original series in French;

Tintin in English translation;

Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings, a fun fold-out book with textures, for babies/toddlers;

Earlyears Farm Animals Bowling set, a set of plush animal bowling pins and soft ball.

 

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In follow-up to my last post, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of our “commune.” I put this in quotes, because it is not REALLY the nature of the arrangement I’m about to describe, but the term that our friends use in jest, and also I suspect, for some, in mild jealousy.

You see, one of the key things that enables me to do anything, including (and perhaps especially) maintain my sanity, is the symbiotic relationship my family has developed with another family. (And this is no hyperbole. When my book is published, they will be among the first to be acknowledged.) Because four adults raising four children is collectively far, far easier than two adults raising two children and, completely separately, two other adults raising two other children. Now lest you think this is something it’s not, or that you’re going to get some voyeuristic glimpse into other people’s bizarre behavior, I’ll point out that our two households maintain a strong degree of separation. There is no mixing of finances, no swapping of spouses, no juicy stuff like that. We don’t even know intimate secrets about each other, although we do know things like what brand of toilet paper the other family uses, because we routinely do each other’s shopping errands.

What makes our arrangement of shared child chare and shared meal preparation and shared errands so functional is the very fact that we did not set about to do this on purpose. We were not good friends who decided to try to mesh our lives because we thought we made for a perfect match. It’s a relationship that grew out of convenience and necessity (and the tantalizing aromas of massive vats of Vietnamese pho traveling up the HVAC system of our previous home), and it was possible because—and here’s the incredibly lucky part—it just so happens that we have eerily similar values when it comes to our homes, our children, our use of money and time, and our food.

The other family, whom we refer to as “Next Doors” (and who were “Downstairs” in our previous home), happens to have two children, L and E, of about the same ages as ours, happens to have attended the same college (although we did not know each other at the time), happens to have uncannily aligned interests, and happens to have similar personalities, i.e. Ms. Next Doors is very similar to me, and Mr. Next Doors to my husband. Ms. ND and I are able to have entire conversations around logistics by uttering only a few, incomplete sentences, while other folks look on in bewilderment.

“Oh, it’s an early release day, so could you…”

“Yeah, sure, but the baby…”

“No problem, I’ll ask the sitter…”

“Oh then bring them over here…”

“Won’t that mean…”

“Right, ok, why don’t you do it then…”

“Perfect.”

All this compatibility was complete coincidence, and discovered over the course of a couple of years after they moved in to the apartment below ours over ten years ago. (Now we live in two side-by-side homes with a shared yard and trundle beds in the older kids’ rooms for easy sleepovers.) In this, we were all supremely lucky, and I am reminded of this daily, when Next Doors takes my children for the half hour gap between my departure for a writing group meeting and the return of my husband from work, or when there is someone to stay with my youngest so I don’t have to wake her from her nap to go pick up the oldest and thus am spared a cranky baby, or when I can spend the two hours of quiet time when one child is asleep and the other at an after-school class doing some writing because I know that Next Doors will be providing us all with a fabulous meal and I don’t have to think about making dinner.

While our circumstances are particularly fortuitous, it is within anyone’s power to make the effort to help build a community, a neighborhood, a little ecosystem of co-assistance. Everyone can cultivate other people and families with whom there can be exchanges of favors, shared errand-running, car-pools and child-minding. Everyone can go the extra step now and then to lend a favor, a helping hand, and what better feeling than to know that there will be a resource to draw from when one is in need? An extra 5% effort on the part of one person can mean a savings of 95% effort for the other. It’s no skin off my back to double a recipe and feed an extra household when I’m cooking anyway, and it saves Next Doors a lot of effort.

We live in a world of fences, fragmentation, wariness of others. We are off-grid, wireless, disconnected in the name of greater connectivity. We upload to the Cloud and work remotely. But the human-to-human connection, the physical sharing of goods and services, meals and bulk rolls of paper towel, the in-person network to which one gives when it is easy to do so and from which one takes when it is necessary, are the connections that make so many of the daily details manageable, and so many of the greater achievements even conceivable.

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