Friday Round-up: Halloween Edition

October 24th, 2014 · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations

Best Halloween Party Goody Bag: Candy-Stuffed Disposable Gloves. (Buzzfeed) 

Best Creepy Kids Movie: Coraline (I’d recommend 8 and up; And don’t forget the book and the graphic novel)

Best Trying-to-Be-Scary-But-Actually-Adorable Halloween Treat: Little Cupcake Monster from alllielewisclapp‘s instagram feed.

Best Vintage Halloween Picture Book: Halloween with Morris and Borris, by Bernard Wiseman [Read more →]

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Anatomy of a Thursday Night Dinner

October 20th, 2014 · Anatomy of a Weeknight Dinner, Dinner, Vegetarian

6:30 Walk in the door to an empty house. Andy is traveling. Girls have gotten rides to practice. Scan fridge. Some leftover bagged greens, a head of cauliflower, a vinaigrette I made on the weekend. The only meat we have is frozen. Not enough time to thaw. Scan the pantry. Jackpot: Two cans of chickpeas. Center-of-the-plate problem: Solved.

7:20 Pick up Daughter 1 at soccer.

7:40 Return home. Daughter 1 takes a shower. I chop cauliflower, add to a baking dish, and toss with olive oil, dash red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. Roast for about 25 minutes at 425°F, along with some foil-wrapped Trader Joe’s Naan that’s been in the freezer for who knows how long. While this is happening, I drain and dump chickpeas into a hot frying pan with olive oil, some chopped onions, cayenne, garlic powder, paprika. (I always think of my friend Todd’s advice when making these: “Cook them longer than you think you should.”) I let them get nice and crispy while I toss the leftover greens with vinaigrette and make a quick yogurt sauce for the chickpeas.

8:15 Daughter 2 returns from soccer practice in her carpool.

8:20 Cleats off, hands washed. (I think?) Dinner.

8:22 Daughter 1: “Do I have to eat chickpeas?”

8:23 Peanut butter jar is procured and spread across pita. More chickpeas for the rest of us.

The End.

Fried Chickpea Sandwiches with Yogurt Sauce

Add a generous amount of oil to a cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat. Drain, rinse and dry two 14-ounce cans of garbanzo beans. When pan is hot but not smoking, add beans (in batches, if necessary, or two pans — you want a single layer of beans on the pan’s surface). Fry about 15 minutes, tossing every 5 minutes or so. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a paper-towel-lined bowl. Once all chickpeas are fried and drained, add salt, pepper, a pinch of cayenne, a 1/2 teaspoon of both garlic salt, and paprika.

While the chickpeas fried, whisk together about 3/4 cup plain yogurt with a teaspoon garam masala, lime juice, olive oil, chopped cilantro and/or mint. Salt and pepper to taste.

Toast Naan and serve with yogurt sauce and chickpeas. Or peanut butter if that’s the way it has to be.

P.S. What are the girls eating after school, but before practice? A Sneal, naturally.

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The “Do You Know?” Scale

October 16th, 2014 · Dinner, Rituals

I am embarrassingly late to the party on this one, but I finally got around to reading Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy FamiliesLet me amend that, I finally got around to reading the chapter in Secrets called “The Right Way to Have Family Dinner” that so many of you have told me about. There was a lot of good stuff in there — including a great story about how New Orleans chef John Besh and his wife abandoned the idea of a 6:00 family dinner in favor of family breakfast and a post-sports-activities family dessert — but what stuck with me the most, was the “Do You Know” Scale.

The scale refers to the twenty questions developed by psychologist Marshall Duke, his wife Sara, and a colleague Robyn Fivush to determine how well kids know their family history. Questions like “”Do you know where your grandfather grew up?” and “Do you know where your parents met?” According to their research, the more kids know about their family history, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

I know what you’re thinking: This is all great, but why is this in a chapter about Family Dinner? Apparently, the family histories we tell should be filled with moments of struggle and resilience, so sharing them at a dinner table while doing something reassuring, like eating, is a logical place to do it. Though the researchers emphasize that the important thing is that you share the stories, not where you share the stories. It’s all about the “child’s sense of being part of a larger family.”

I apologize if you all read this a year ago when the book came out, but I thought it might be helpful to see what the twenty questions were. Not so you can see if you pass or fail anything (I think my kids could maybe answer about half of them) but because they should trigger some pretty entertaining conversations at the table — or elsewhere.

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Today’s Lunch, Tomorrow’s Dinner

October 14th, 2014 · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Quick, Sides, Salads, Soup, Uncategorized

“Wait you just made that now?”

That’s what Abby said about this soup when she came in from the backyard, and it was exactly what I was thinking as I ladled the noodley broth into a bowl for her lunch. Wow, that was fast. This was yesterday — a holiday — and we had been on the road at various soccer tournaments throughout the DC area for three straight days. I don’t know how much time I logged in the car, but let’s just say I’m not going to be on the receiving end of a Friend of the Environment award any time soon, and the idea of getting in the Mazda even to go grocery shopping was more than I could handle.

Instead, I did what I do best: I procrastinated. If I could just scrape something together for lunch, I could maybe buy myself another few hours watching Glee re-runs before hitting Trader Joe’s.

The fridge was looking bleak — even the peanut butter jar was scraped clean — but I found an onion, a handful of dusty looking baby carrots, and about 30 ounces of a 32-ounce chicken broth container, which was about five minutes away from expiring. There was a single fat chicken breast. Maybe it was the ingredients speaking to me, or maybe it was something more primal (with chicken noodle soup moments, you can never be so sure), but I needed soup. That was as big and obvious to me as anything.

I’m not in the habit of whipping up homemade soup for lunch – or dinner for that matter — but now I’m wondering why that is. My friend Pilar used to give me soup recipes in pictures, drawing a cross-section of the stockpot to show me each layer of flavor: aromatics, seasoning, broth, fillings. And that’s really all the instruction I needed to turn a tumbleweedy, end-of-week fridge into something pretty damn comforting. Is it going to yield a flavor that is deep and multi-dimensional and Ivan-Ramen-worthy? Uh, no. But did it get the job done? Yes. And then some: There’s a batch of it in the freezer waiting for me for tomorrow’s dinner.

Noodle-Loaded Chicken Soup
I don’t love soups that are overly brothy, but if you do, no need to include as many noodles as I did. No set rules here.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 large celery stalk, chopped
1 large carrot (or a handful of baby carrots) chopped
salt and pepper
1 32-ounce container chicken broth (about 4 cups)
1 large chicken breast, cut into thirds
angel hair, to taste (I used about a third of a 1-pound package), broken half with your hands

Add olive oil to a medium pot set over medium heat and add onions, celery, carrot, salt and pepper. Saute about 2 minutes until vegetables have slightly softened.

Add broth and bring to a boil. Add chicken, reduce heat, and simmer for about 12 minutes. Remove chicken from soup and shred with two forks. (The less artful you are the better.) Bring soup back to a boil and add pasta. When angel hair is cooked through — about two minutes — add chicken back to the post. Season to taste and serve.

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Friday Round-up

October 10th, 2014 · Uncategorized

What I’m reading this week:

What if You Just Hate to Cook Dinner?  Virginia Heffernan, mother of two, poses the question “Why is food such a big part of raising children?” then proceeds to discuss the condescending language in family cookbooks, including mine. I have a fair amount I’d like to say about this essay, but for now, I’m going to do my mom proud and save it for the burn book I keep in the back of my sock drawer. I do feel the need, however, to address two things that I simply can not let pass. FIRST: The suggestion that I have ever implied, in my books or on this blog, that family dinner should fall entirely on moms. Wow. Where do I begin with this one? Maybe with the 100+ posts my husband has written for this blog, all of which address his day-to-day dinner-making for our daughters, from the post-soccer-practice scramble, to Friday-night Stromboli to his Pork Ragu recipe that people bring up with me over and over again, including, last month, someone sitting next to me on a plane who I had never met before. (People, it’s that good.) I guess I could also point to the “Family Dinner Boot Camp” series I did for Motherlode, the theme of which could be summarized as: “All in.” From the beginning, this blog has been about a return to the kitchen that involves everyone, including the kids who may or may not remember to set the table. If you find joy in making dinner, then you should make it yourself. If you need help from others, then you should include others. If others need help from you, then you should help. If you hate cooking, then dump a can of beans on toast (Andy’s post, btw), serve with some baby carrots and call it a day. There is no one way to do this – every family is different, every situation is different, and I try my best to recognize and respect that. SECOND:  I believe deeply in the idea that nobody should be made to feel bad about the way he or she approaches family dinner — or whether they can pull it off at all. I do this blog because I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy helping people who want to make it happen. If my tone here ever makes anyone feel anxious or guilty or less-than, if I ever sound condescending, then I’m failing in what I’m trying to accomplish, and you guys need to let me know about it. I take this kind of criticism seriously, and I rely on you to keep me honest. Anyway, give it a read and let me know what you think.

The bottom line is, you can assume I agree with Luisa and Katie.

Onward! What else:

Abby, my almost 11-year-old, is absolutely tearing through this book right now.

100 Rules of Dinner Re-posting. Just cause.

Is there anything better than when Catherine Newman “thinks out loud?

“Inside the Biggest Ever Hedge Fund Scandal” A profile of Steven A. Cohen that reads like a John Grisham novel.

Locals: Stone Barns Center still has a few slots open in their Little Cooks and Gardener’s Program. My girls did one of these a while ago and we’ve been dining out on the buttermilk ranch dressing they learned to make there ever since.

Masterchef Junior Season 2 The DVR is already set.

Grain Bowls: I could eat like this every day.

How do you raise kids who are The Opposite of Spoiled? I intend to find out.

Cooking Fast and Slow: A conversation between Mark Bittman and Mario Batali at the 92nd St Y this Sunday. Tickets are still available.

Ice Cream Hacks I can’t believe how much I love this. (Meanwhile: The ice cream sandwich cake reminded me of another classic cheat: ravioli lasagna.)

Another smart birthday party idea.

I’m a year late on this one, but these Fashion Icon Halloween costumes for kids cracked me up. (Anna Wintour!)

OMG, Malala!

Lastly, I had the great pleasure of hearing Lena Dunham read from her new book Not That Kind of Girl in Boston last week. At the end, when she and Mary Karr, who was interviewing her, took questions from the audience, someone asked, “I’m a second grade teacher and was wondering if you had any advice for inspiring girls, and for teaching them to be confident.” I can’t remember the first part of her answer, but eventually Dunham emphasized the need for girls, and women, to have each other’s backs, and demanded we go home and google “Shine Theory.” I did what I was told. Please read it if you haven’t already. It’s a good reminder for everyone, not just second-grade girls.

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Boo Cake

October 8th, 2014 · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations

Do you guys remember when Martha Stewart published the spin-off, Kids? It launched just as I became a mother, and was the magazine I would pick up during breastfeeding, and think “Some day Phoebe and I will fashion water bottles into adorable little piggy banks!” and “Someday I will have a ‘Backwards Party’ for Abby and serve a ‘Spaghetti and Meatballs’ Cake with ice cream that had been shredded through a food mill.” I still have the clipping of Mashed Potato Ghosts, which had been shaped into cones with a piping bag, then studded with black sesame seeds for eyeballs. I still hold out hope that we will get to all of this.

Kids has since closed, but the woman behind it, Jodi Levine — whose editor’s note I would pour over every month — is as active and creative as ever. She runs the blog Supermakeit and has just published Candy Aisle Crafts, which, in our house, was essentially greeted with the same enthusiasm as a Jonathan Franzen novel might’ve in others. Last week, before I went to pick up the girls at school, I planted a copy of the book in our backseat and did a countdown from three to see how long it would take my ten-year-old to demand we make something from it. (I got to two.) There are so many amazingly clever ideas in here — Monster S’Mores, Cookie Castle Cakes, Marshmall0w-Monogrammed Hot Chocolate (!) — and none of them require materials beyond what you’d find in the supermarket. (Get it? Supermarket? Supermakeit?) Jodi was nice enough to share one of the projects with DALS readers, these Boo Cake Toppers that will definitely be gracing something on the Halloween spread this year. Thanks Jodi!

BOO Cake Topper
From Candy Aisle Crafts: Create Fun Projects with Supermarket Sweets, by Jodi Levine 

Forming candy sticks into letters takes a little practice. It’s a good idea to have a few extra candy sticks on hand in case one cracks. [Read more →]

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“Chicken-Again?” Wraps

October 6th, 2014 · Chicken and Turkey

Growing up, true to the cliche, you’d find my sister, my twin brother, and me whining “chicken again?” as soon as my mom walked in the door after work and unpacked her two pounds of shrink-wrapped breasts from the Grand Union bag. Dinner: A Love Story readers know all about Grandma Jody’s classic breaded cutlets, but my mother’s poultry repertoire ran deeper than that. There were her roasted game hens; her baked pieces dredged in flour and Parm then finished with lemon and a drizzle of cream; her “hot chicken sandwiches,” white meat slices laid on thick cut bread and smothered with gravy; her chicken pot pie…oh wait, maybe that was from Stouffer’s repertoire?

Anyway. Wouldn’t you think, based on the way I moaned and groaned about all this, that things in my house would be a little different?

Apparently not. Apparently, along with my mother’s inability to sit still and her affinity for minuscule portions, I also inherited whatever gene it is that sets “chicken” as the default mode for dinner. (Based on how many of you guys out there click on the Chicken category over there in the side rail, I know I’m not alone.) And as if that’s not enough, lately I’ve been into making extra, so we can build the girls’ school lunches on whatever’s left over — just one extra breast stretches into two basic wraps like the ones you see above. Phoebe likes hers with a smear of mustard, Abby prefers mayo. They both get a leaf or two from the CSA bag, tomatoes if we have them, salt, and a few grinds of pepper. I love a dinner that pays off in lunch dividends. No complaining here.

Archive Dig! A Few Chicken Dinners to mix things up (Clockwise from top left): Pretzel ChickenCurried Chicken with Apples on Pita; Indonesian Chicken Salad with Spicy Peanut Sauce; Andy’s Homemade Shake n Bake Chicken (speaking of the 80s)

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Easy Vanilla Pudding

October 2nd, 2014 · Uncategorized

A guest post by 10-year-old Abby:

Unlike most people, lunch and breakfast is not when I really feel a need to eat desperately. The part of the day when I am ready to feast is after school. I know that sounds weird, but it is 100% true. (You can ask my mom). After school is when I like to have a big bowl of pasta, leftover chicken pot pie, or even a slice of pizza.  The best after school snacks are by far when my mom has been testing a recipe during the day, and is using me as her little tester. She likes this testing system and so do I. :) An example was a nice bowl of vanilla pudding sitting at the table waiting for me recently. I had never tried vanilla pudding before (trust me, I had DEFINITELY tried chocolate pudding and loved it) but it was soooooooooo good!!! It might have been even better than chocolate pudding if you can imagine. (!) I highly recommend this recipe, but there is only one catch. If you make a batch, eat it quickly because, trust me, if other people discover the pudding it will be gone in less than a second. That means you, Phoebe!!

-Abby ♥

And now for the boring part:

Easy Vanilla Pudding
Based on a recipe my mom edited at Real Simple.

1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch salt

Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan. Pour 1/4 cup of the milk into the sugar mixture, stirring to form a smooth paste. Whisk in the remaining milk and the egg yolks. Cook the pudding mixture over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until thickened, about 15 minutes. Do not allow it to boil. Remove from heat and stir in the butter and vanilla. Scrape the pudding into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the surface to make an airtight seal. Refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour, or less if your after-schooler is starving.

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10 Commandments for the At-Home Birthday Party

September 29th, 2014 · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations

There’s a reason why at-home birthday parties are going the way of the white rhinoceros: They are stressful! And why bother when the local laser tag place does it all for almost the same price? Well, 1) because I find, no matter how chaotic it is, your kids (and you) will get a special kind of high from doing it under your own roof and 2) Take it from me, you’ll forget all about that chaos the first time your almost 11-year-old requests “Nothing organized, Mom. Let’s just watch a movie.” (Translation: “I am no longer a little kid” and/or ” You are old.”) Herewith, the DALS ten commandments for throwing a minimum-stress, maximum-fun (for the kids anyway) at-home birthday party.

1. Thou Shalt Not freak out officially until two weeks before the party. If you’re like me, I get very ambitious about birthday parties months and months before we have to actually throw one. Eventually I find myself in the danger zone – the three or four weeks before the birthday when you know you have to start mobilizing, but you just don’t know where to start – and then panic. Over the years, though, I’ve figured out that if I can get two things checked off the list (send out invitation, order party favors online) two weeks before the date, then I can go back to pretending it’s not happening for at least another week.

2. Thou Shalt Not invite parents starting from age 5 and up. Parents need to be entertained, too, and having them around just adds unwanted stress, and more people asking for more glasses of water as far as I’m concerned. Plus, as much as they enjoy watching your kid pin the tail on the donkey’s nose while small-talking with all the parents they just saw at the earlier birthday party, most parents (me included) would rather use the two-hour free-babysitting time block for hitting the gym, running errands, reading the paper for the first time in a month, or just general chilling out.

3. Thou Shall let the kids make the invitation. I’ve been accused of micromanaging just about everything that happens under my roof, but generating the birthday party invitation is not one of them. I will certainly make sure it includes all the vitals (date, place, drop off and pick-up time – especially pick-up time! etc.) but the design and manufacturing of the invitation is totally up to the kids. When the girls were younger, they’d hand-write all the information in rainbow colored markers — maybe a heart or two around the border — and that was enough. But as they’ve gotten older they’ve drawn cartoons (for Phoebe’s pizza-movie party, she drew a slice of pizza watching a movie) and enlisted picmonkey (the world’s most imbecile-proof photo editing website) to add words on top of a favorite photo. Whatever they do, the best part is that it’s a) personal and b) one less thing for the parents to worry about. I usually scan and email the invitation, but there’s nothing wrong with mailing it the old fashioned way. A Sort-of Bonus: You can save the invitations as keepsakes so that later on they will make you weep.

4. Thou Shalt Not serve juice. Yes, juice-boxes are so easy to distribute, but they are sugar time bombs that might just tip the party over the fine line from fun to nightmare. Not to mention, you’ve probably got the sugar food-group covered already. Serve water instead.

5. Thou Shall set the party the day before (or earlier) It gets everyone excited for the party and is one huge check mark on the to-do list. (Click here for more information on the psychological benefits of this practice.) [Read more →]

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Top 10 Fall Favorites

September 23rd, 2014 · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Pasta, Pork and Beef, Seafood, Vegetarian

All right, guys, the open-toed shoes are getting packed away, the leaves are going all gold on us, and soccer season is starting to actually feel like soccer season. In other words, fall is here, which means we can justify a dive back into the archive to find some of my heartier favorites.

1. Pomegranate-Braised Pork Loin with Cabbage (pictured)
Good for: Entertaining (as long as it’s not Rosh Hashana dinner) and weeknights if you are working from home and the smell of pork wafting through the air increases your productivity the way it increases mine.

2.  Dinner: Red-Wine Braised Short Ribs
Good for: 
Rosh Hashana dinner (pair with this killer kale-apple-walnut salad, plus Ronnie’s challah and pomegranate molasses-glazed carrots) or entertaining families.

3. Roast Salmon with Brussels Sprouts and Ginger-Scallion Sauce
Good for: Fast weeknight dinner when you just. can’t. handle. another. big. clean-up.

4. Dinner: Spaghetti Carbonara
Good for:  Nights when you are thisclose to ordering take-out — it’s a five-star recipe that will save you bucks and taste better than anything you’ll order in a restaurant.

5. Dinner: Bittman’s Cornmeal-Crusted Chicken with Soy & Lime
Good for: Weeknights when you are staring at your raw chicken breasts for the hundredth time this week thinking “If only there was something new to do to these that doesn’t involve a lot of brainpower.”

6. Dinner: Butternut Squash Soup
Good for: Weeknights. Serve with a big chunk of crusty bread and topped with chopped walnuts, sour cream, and chives. (By the way, I think it’s illegal to do a fall food round-up and not include some version of this soup.)

7. Dinner: Arroz con Pollo (page 52 Dinner: A Love Story)
Good for: Friday or Saturday night family dinner, when the clock isn’t ticking. Book owners: This recipe has no photograph and is somewhat lost among its other much-regaled neighbors (it’s right next to Black Bean Burritos and Salmon Salad), but please do yourself a favor and make it soon. It’s one of my all-time favorites — the kind of meal I eat and think “Why don’t I make this once a week” — and it kills me to think it’s not getting the love it deserves.

8. Dinner: Soba Noodles with Greens and Crispy Tofu (page 186, Dinner: The Playbook)
Good for: Nights when you want substance without the meat.

9. Dinner: Minestrone
Good for: 
Sunday Dinner — I take the extra and freeze in single-serve portions to thaw as I need for late-coming soccer players, or mix into pasta for Ribollita.

10. Dinner: Cider-Braised Pork Meatballs
Good for: Putting your farmer’s market apple cider to good use.

Dinner #4, Carbonara, in all it’s artery-clogging glory.

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Are We Glorifying the Home-Cooked Meal?

September 22nd, 2014 · Uncategorized

The week before last, I must’ve gotten a hundred emails about the “Joy of Cooking?” study that was making its way around the news last week. (Thanks, guys!) In the study, for those of you who missed it, sociologists challenged Michael Pollan’s theory that reforming the food system starts with the home cook, concluding that it’s an elitist concept that disregards financial realities and time pressures, and places unrealistic demands on parents, particularly women. I encourage you to read the study, then head over to the Room for Debate page at the New York Times to hear a bunch of us weigh in on one of the issues raised, namely: Are we glorifying the home-cooked meal? What do you think?

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Soy and Mirin Glazed Roast Chicken

September 18th, 2014 · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Dinner: The Playbook

It took me a little while to find my go-to roast chicken, but once I did, there was no going back. Those of you who have happened upon the recipe (page 287, Dinner: A Love Story) know why: It’s low on ingredients, forgiving if you miss a few of those ingredients, and doesn’t require changing oven temps or flipping the bird over and back again. It’s about as straightforward as they come, which is probably — no definitely — the reason why I always go back to it. Every now and then, when I’m about to brush the melted butter on top, I’ll think to myself I should try something new here, before thinking, Nah. If it ain’t broke...

Then again, I just wrote an entire book on busting out of a dinner rut. A cornerstone of the book’s philosophy? If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway. I’ve always found that introducing new things  – new techniques, new ingredients – to my dinner routine as often as possible is the best way to keep things interesting. And when things stay interesting, I stay motivated. So I hunted around for some options and came up with just the slightest twist on my chicken, a salty, silky mirin glaze that stopped the conversation at the dinner table (always a good sign).  It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough. [Read more →]

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The Best Way to Study (It’s Not What You Think)

September 15th, 2014 · Uncategorized

A few months ago, at dinner, I told the kids about a book I was working on by Benedict Carey, a science reporter at The New York Times. The book is called How We Learn, and it’s about all the sneaky, counterintuitive ways we learn — in other words, the ways we learn outside of the school environment. I told Phoebe about one section of the book that takes on — and takes down — the idea of the dedicated study environment. That one place you go to study every night, at a certain time, with no distractions. (That was me, in college.) In fact, I told her, studies show that something as simple as changing where you study can lead to a 20% improvement in retention. Why? Because doing so increases the number of environmental cues the brain attaches to each piece of information being studied — each passage of writing, each problem set — making it easier to call it up when the time comes. Different desks, different songs playing in the background (yes, music is good), different times of day: All evidence shows that variation deepens and strengthens memory and retention. One thing about Phoebe: the girl takes things to heart. Ever since that conversation, she has been our little homework vagabond. She’s upstairs, doing math at her desk, with her headphones on. She’s reclined on the couch, reading The Westing Game, with the Premier League droning on in the background. She’s downstairs at the kitchen table, head down, working on some fractions. She’s standing at the kitchen counter, poring over a French vocab list. Will it work? We’ll report back. But Ben’s book is full of these kinds of ideas — how sleep factors into learning, why flunking tests can be good for you, why distraction is not always a bad thing. It’s a message that lowers the blood pressure a bit, and it happens to be backed up by science. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his research here. — Andy

Q: So, how important is routine when it comes to learning? For example, is it important to have a dedicated study area at home? A dedicated time of day?

Ben Carey: Not at all. Most people do better over time by varying their study or practice locations. The more environments in which you rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes – and less strongly linked to one “comfort zone.” That is, knowledge becomes increasingly independent of surroundings the more changes you make – taking your laptop onto the porch, to a café, on the plane. The goal, after all, is to be able to perform well in any conditions. Changing locations is not the only way to take advantage of the so-called context effect on learning, however. Altering the time of day you study also helps, as does changing how you engage the material, by reading or discussing, typing or writing by hand, sitting or standing up, studying in silence or while listening to music: each counts as a different learning “environment” in which you store the material in a different way.

Q: Is there an optimal amount of time to study or practice?

BC: More important than how long you study is how you distribute the study time you have. Breaking up study time – dividing it into two or three sessions, instead of one – is far more effective than concentrating it. If you’ve allotted two hours total to mastering some Spanish vocabulary, for example, you’ll remember more if you do an hour today and an hour tomorrow, or – even better – an hour today and an hour two days from now. That split forces you to re-engage the material, dig up what you already know, and then re-store it – an active mental step that reliably improves memory. Three sessions is better still, as long as you’re giving yourself enough time to dive into the material or the skills each time.

Q: Is cramming a bad idea?

BC: Not always, no. Cramming works fine as a last resort, a way to ramp up for an exam if you’re behind and have no choice. The downside is that, after the test, you won’t remember much of what you “learned” – if you remember any at all. That reason is that the brain, ironically, can sharpen a memory only after some forgetting has occurred. In this way, memory is like a muscle: a little “breakdown” allows it to subsequently build greater strength. Cramming, by definition, prevents this from happening.

Q: How much does quizzing oneself, like with flashcards, help?

BC: A lot, actually. Self-testing is one of strongest study techniques there is. Old-fashioned flash cards work fine; so does a friend, colleague, or classmate putting you through the paces. The best self-quizzes do two things: [Read more →]

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In Celebration

September 12th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Those of you who know me, know that if I had to tell you the most important things in my life after my family and my PicMonkey ”Royale” membership, high up on the list would most likely be my 5 1/2 quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven, presented to us as a wedding gift 17 years ago this month. So given our anniversary, given that we’re closing in on braising season, and given that a few of my favorite meals in Playbook involve a Dutch Oven, I’m offering that giveaway I promised way back in the decidedly non-braising season of August. One lucky Playbook reader will be the recipient of a free 5 1/2 quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven (your choice of color). All you have to do to be eligible to win is answer this question: What’s your favorite recipe, trick, tip, detail, or piece of advice in the book? Whatever your answer is, head to the Playbook page, and hashtag it #DinnerPlaybookLC so I can find you. Good luck! (One commenter will be chosen at random; Contest ends Friday, September 19, 12:00 ET.)

Recipes shown are all my old friends: Sunday Minestrone, Braised Short Ribs, Pork Ragu with Pappardelle, Pulled BBQ Chicken.

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The Accidental Broccoli

September 10th, 2014 · Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

We have no one to blame but ourselves, but Tuesday nights are hell. I’ll spare you the numbing logistical details, but all that’s relevant here is that a few times a month, by the time I pull into the driveway with the girls in the backseat, it’s almost 8:30 at night. We stagger through the door, shedding soccer bags, shin guards and rancid socks, the girls head upstairs to shower… and we start dinner. It’s late on a school night, and everyone is starving. The goal here, to be clear, is not a Michelin star. The goal is to get something on the table in 25 minutes, and then get the kids to bed. This means a no-fuss main (say, sweet Italian chicken sausage fried with some roughly sliced onions), a starch that will satisfy the hunger of a post-soccer-practicing hyena tween (bread fried in olive oil, or some quick potatoes), and a vegetable that does not require any washing, chopping, peeling, mandolin-ing, or de-stemming. One recent Tuesday night, I went with broccoli. I tossed it in the baking dish with a bunch of olive oil, salt, and pepper, cranked the oven to 450, and threw it in.

Fifteen minutes later, Abby came downstairs. She’s always the first to come down, dressed in her white nightgown with the little green flowers on it, running a brush through her still-wet hair. She walked into the kitchen, and stopped. She crinkled up her nose.

“What’s that smell?” she said.

“Really, Abby? Is that a nice thing to say to the person who’s making your dinner?”

“No,” she said. “I think something’s burning.”

Oh, right. The broccoli. The broccoli was burning! I opened the oven door to find a baking dish filled with a tangle of smoldering black twigs, what looked to be evidence from a forest fire investigation. But it was late, and we were hungry, so sucked it up and we went to town on that burned broccoli. I don’t know what it says about our vegetable-preparing skills in general, but something happened that night that has never happened before in all the dinners we have eaten together as a family over the last ten years: The kids went nuts over broccoli. It’s not like they are broccoli haters. They’ve always eaten it without complaint, but it’s not like they go out of their way to eat it. This was different. This was crispy and salty and way more flavorful and intense than the soggy, steamed stuff they were used to, the stuff Abby would unapologetically DIP IN KETCHUP before placing in her mouth.

I wish we could say we meant to do it. — Andy

Accidental Broccoli 

1 bunch broccoli (about 4 cups), cut into small florets. (the smaller the florets, the crispier the experience)
1/4 olive oil, maybe a little more
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450°F. In a baking dish, toss the broccoli with olive oil and salt. The goal is for every little mini broccoli bud to be glistening but not drenched, so monitor the oil drizzling process carefully. Roast for 15 minutes, tossing if you think to, until broccoli is slightly sizzling and the tips are browned, but not black. (It can be a fine line between crispy and charred to the core.) It would definitely not be the worst thing to toss with a drop or two of Sriracha, or the dressing from David Chang’s famous brussels sprouts recipe*, but you’ll see, each broccoli stalk is like a little piece of salty popcorn. They’ll be gone before you can do any dressing up at all.

*other suggestions from Facebook commenters that sound reaaaally good: finish with a squeeze of lemon or grated Parmesan; toss in a little sugar before roasting for extra caramelizing. (Thanks Andrea, Krista Anne, Johanna)

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The Lunchbox Note, on Steroids

September 8th, 2014 · Cameos, Rituals

Ever since my friend Liz Egan told me about this lunchbox ritual a few months ago, I’ve been dying to have her write about it for you. Please welcome longtime magazine editor (currently on the books beat at Glamour), newly minted novelist (look for her first book, A Window Opens, spring 2016) and one of the more lovable ”insane moms” I know. Thanks Liz! – Jenny

I’ll begin with the obvious: packing school lunches is tedious, thankless, repetitive (but never meditative) and always a little disgusting. To this day, when I take a whiff of an empty Thermos, I experience a wave of morning sickness so strong, I forget that my final baby is not only fully gestated, she is now in her first week of second grade.

For years, my husband was the lunch chef, bringing a short-tempered, short order flair to the operation. When I gave him a year’s furlough as a gift for his 39th birthday, he acted like I had given him tickets for the Cavs season opener; meanwhile, I reminded myself of a know-it-all mom from a 1980s laundry detergent commercial. Make way for the real expert.

Two of our three kids immediately aired serious grievances about my lunches: “Daddy knows I like my roll-up with the salami on the outside” and “Mom? FYI? I prefer macaroni in the shape of Arthur.” Our youngest didn’t even bother with low ratings; her feedback came home in the most literal form: an untouched lunch. Only eight days into the gulag of matching lids to containers, locating absent water bottles and haphazardly sorting everything into the correct Built bag, I gave up. My husband returned to the cutting board, smugly slicing Granny Smiths with the fancy knife I offered as a gift in lieu of my catering services. [Read more →]

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Next Week’s Meal Plan: Done

September 5th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Seems like everyone’s in meal-planning mode this week!

  • Head over to Motherlode today to hear about the Goldsteins, a family of four, who are in need of a little dinner boot camp. Using recipes from Playbook, Bon Appetit, and DALS, I’ll be coaching her through a week of family meals all week long, starting this Sunday, September 7. (The plan includes a shopping list — woo hoo!)
  • I also put together a super-delicous, super-easy, one-size-fits-all* weekly game plan for you over at Bon Appetit – the companion to our “Providers” column this month. In addition to telling you what to cook, it also attempts to explain why you should pick certain meals on certain nights of the week. It’s a good line-up.
  • And I just found this meal plan (plus shopping list) that I put together for you guys last September — during this same last-chance-for-corn-and-tomatoes time of year. Shall we call it the Last Gasp of Summer Plan?


*I admit it, this was cheap — there ain’t no such thing.

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Dinner: The Playbook is a Bestseller!

September 4th, 2014 · Uncategorized

I should probably say that I am “deeply humbled” to announce this — but it’s more like I am freaking PSYCHED beyond beyond: Dinner: The Playbook comes in at #17 on next week’s New York Times Bestseller List. Big props to the whole village that made it possible: Jennie Tung, Sharon Propson, Gina Centrello, Elyse Cheney, Maggie Oberrender, Kristina DiMatteo, Carole Lowenstein, Evan Camfield, Richard Callison, Mark McGuire, Andy, Phoebe, Abby, Iris, Mom, Dad, Emily, Steve, and every single DALS reader who has ever cooked one of my recipes, shared one of my posts with a friend, tagged me on one of your ever expanding social media platforms, blogged about DALS, bought one of my books, commented on a post, sent me a personal note telling me exactly how you feel — you can’t imagine the gratitude. I could not have done it without you guys — thank you so much. Now get back to cooking.

{Check out Playbook at AmazonBarnes & NobleIndiebooks, or Ballantine.}

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