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?

Enjoy!

*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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Spicy Pork Tacos with Peach Salsa

September 3rd, 2014 · Grilling, Pork and Beef

When you picture dinner in my house, do you imagine two starving little middle schoolers, banging utensils on the table with both hands, and rolling their eyes at their mother as she snaps photos and re-positions garnishes just so? Or me shouting “one more second” from the next room waiting for the sun to sink to just the right place, creating optimal lighting conditions? Well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. That happens — but only selectively. To think that we are making something that needs to be photographed every single night is to assume two things: 1) That we are cooking something brand new every single night and 2) That what we are making is always fit for DALS. (Believe it or not, just because it was eaten in the DALS house doesn’t mean it’s a DALS-esque meal — the super-dry chicken burgers that went unfinished by even the grown-ups come to mind, as does the sushi take-out we ordered this past Saturday night.) The truth is, we have our weeknight family favorites — most of which are bundled up and memorialized in two books now — as well as our various permutations of those favorites, and in order for a meal to qualify as “blog-worthy” there has to be a little learning involved. If I’m writing a post where the recipe is the star, the answer to the question “Is there something new to write about here?” must always be “yes.”

So there I was on Labor Day, the night before school started, eating my grilled pork tacos with peach salsa (prepared by Andy) and not even thinking about taking a photo because hey, we’ve written up tons of tacos already…heck, we’ve even written up pork with peaches. But mid-way through my dinner I realized that something magical was going on with this taco, besides the fact that every diner at the table had stopped talking in order to focus and grunt a little — the cilantro-heavy, sweet-hot, more-peach-than-tomato salsa was a revelation. And when we drizzled some Mexican crema on top of the spice-rubbed pork, well…I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from eating long enough to take a photo, even if the sun had been in the right position. For the rest of the night I was following Andy around the house asking “Why didn’t you make me take a photo of that dinner? It would’ve been perfect for the blog…” (His response: “Wow, you really blew that one.”)

So I had no choice but to recreate it for lunch the next day. That’s how much I love you. And this dinner. Here you go:

Grilled Spice-Rubbed Pork Tacos with Peach Salsa
Makes about 6 tacos (2 for 2 grown-ups, one for each kid)… [Read more →]

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Cabinet Worthy Dinners

September 2nd, 2014 · Uncategorized

Does this look familiar? It’s my friend Annie’s answer to the Tabula Rasa Dinner Dilemma, also known as The Moment You Walk in From Work, Look in Your Completely Full Fridge, but Still Draw a Total Blank on Dinner Ideas Even Though You’ve Made Dinner Roughly Thousands of Times Before This Night. (It’s an affliction most acute during the first week of school.) Annie looks at this evolving cheat sheet of a dozen or go-tos dinners to remind her what to make for her family of four. There are three categories: “Easy,” “Soups,” and “Sundays.” What qualifies? From the look of it, meals that are simple, straightforward, real — meals that everyone will eat, that don’t set off any Richter-scale-level eruptions with the kids. I’m happy to see a bunch of DALS dinners made the cut: Quinoa with Fried Eggs and Soy Sauce, Yogurt Chicken, Sesame Noodles, Dumplings, fried chickpeas.

I used to have a similar system on the inside of my cabinet door. I taped recipe clippings from newspapers and magazines, and posted stickies with ideas all over the place, until, as you know, I permanently memorialized some favorites in actual paint (see below). I’m willing to bet — even when there are approximately three zillion recipes available to us with the swipe of a touchscreen — that you have some low-tech version of this cabinet door, as well.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because when Annie was flipping through The Playbook, she awarded me one of the highest honors a family dinner blogger can receive: She said she couldn’t believe how many recipes in my book were Cabinet Worthy.

Cabinet Worthy! Is it too late to to change the name of my book? (And does Seinfeld have a patent on this phrase already?) I would like to retroactively assert that this was the litmus test every recipe in Playbook had to pass: Would it be posted inside the cabinet? Yep? Ok, it’s in.

On this first week back to school I ask: What’s Cabinet Worthy in your house?

Incidentally, Gina Triplett, who painted these recipes inside my cabinet, is the illustrator who designed the beautiful spine on PlaybookI like to keep things all in the family. Speaking of which: Great Grandma Turano’s Meatballs.

PS: Locals! Next Tuesday, September 9, I’ll be speaking/reading from Dinner: The Playbook at the fabulous “story salon” Spoken Interludes in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. Hope you can come by to say hello. It’s quite a line-up! Click here for more details.

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Friday Round-up

August 29th, 2014 · Uncategorized

A family-friendly Labor Day menu, including these ridiculously delicious spare ribs. (Warning: I’m going to make you read through an interview with Yours Truly in order to get there. #nofreelunch)

The whole CiCi Bellis circus has everyone talking about kid prodigies — but what about adult prodigies? (There’s hope for us yet!)

Six Easy Weeknight Meals that great chefs like to cook. (That marinated tofu dish is officially on the DALS line-up.)

Sam Kass: Foodmaster General, Policy Shaper, and Assistant Chef in Charge of Family Meals.

A hero for the Anti-GMO movement.

This is the coolest Friday night family ritual ever – and proves my theory that meatballs can solve almost anything. (Thanks Jenna G!)

zillion school lunch ideas from the always inspiring Weelicious.

America Needs Playtime Intervention.

Yes, Luisa, I would definitely say those fritters are family dinner material!

Attn: Greek Myth Nerds! A new post on Phoebe’s book blog. (Warning: The girl is enraged!)

Fiesta Kale Wraps: Might be my new favorite lunch.

Sure, their mother’s book was published this week, but my girls were waaaaaaaay more excited about Raina Telgemeier’s latest.

Sometimes I go back to the DALS archive and rediscover a mind-blowing gem by Andy all over again.

I’m declaring this the official Song of Summer. (In our house, at least.)

Lastly, thank you to everyone for all the Playbook love this week through instagramFacebook and my regular old email, which has been buzzing with messages from friends olds and new. Not surprisingly, it’s one of my most favorite parts of the whole book-writing enterprise. Another favorite part? When someone really gets what I am trying to achieve with a book. I don’t know who E. Johnson is, but here’s an excerpt from a review she wrote on Amazon a few days ago:

The most valuable evidence for feeding a family does not come out of test kitchens and recipes by committee. They come from actual practice and valuing that time around the table with quality food preparation and ingredients…Knowledge lessens anxiety. Having Jenny Rosenstrach’s 30 day plan can be a life-saver, and the kids will feel that and know…that it’s not been a drive by dinner….Because I am calmer, the kids may wonder what’s going on and seeing some ‘Joy’ in cooking and less of the Ordeal of the Evening Meal. [edited for clarity]

Thank you for getting it, E. Johnson. Enjoy!

Have a great holiday.
Jenny

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On Comfort Food

August 28th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Twelve years into this whole parenting thing, I know a few things for sure: The baby will need your attention at the exact moment the garlic in the pan goes from golden to blackened; bribery is a necessary evil; and—perhaps most relevant for the phase I’m in right now—mashed potatoes are crucial for surviving the middle-school years. I’m not talking about the kids’ survival here. I’m talking about my own.

Let me back up a bit. In the spring of 1983, I was probably the happiest 12-year-old who ever lived. I had the starring role of Adelaide in my elementary school’s production of Guys and Dolls; I was on the travel soccer team; I never lacked for lunchroom companions. I had my own CB windbreaker, which wasn’t a hand-me-down from my sister (a first), and I even had a requited crush (another first) on a kid named Mike, who was cool enough to pull off a shell necklace.

By the fall it was all gone. My small grade of 100 kids matriculated to the much larger middle school, where my lunchroom companions found new lunchroom companions, who were interested in makeup (I was not); snapped each other’s bras at gym (I was years away from wearing one); and made fun of me when I asked them to “play.” (“We say ‘hang out’ now, Jenny.”) Even when I said it the right way, though…

This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for September’s Real Simple. Head over to their site for the continuation.

PS: First Time Here?

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Dinner: The Playbook ON SALE TODAY!

August 26th, 2014 · Dinner: The Playbook, Uncategorized

We’ve been on vacation for the past week, a sort of calm-before-the-storm deal. From the moment we made our reservations a few months ago, I began thinking of it as our “Week Before” vacation: The week before school starts, the week before reality descends again, before work gets crazy again, before life morphs, as it seems to do every September, into a series of carpools and soccer practices and cello lessons, and — most important, at least in this house — the week before Jenny’s new book, Dinner: The Playbook, comes out. Today is the big day, in fact, and as much as Jenny loves writing about family dinner and doing this blog and spreading the word about the transformative powers of chicken parm meatballs, she still worries about wearing out her welcome, book-wise, with you guys. Which is why I want to take this opportunity, on the day of publication, to tell you a few things about her book that she isn’t going to tell you herself. –Andy

1. Dinner: The Playbook is the physical manifestation of her list-making, organizing, lift-you-up-and-get-it-done personality. If Jenny’s first book was part cookbook, part memoir, this book is straight-up battle plan: If you want to turn family dinner into a regular — and edifying — part of your day, The Playbook will show you how. I am here to tell you that it works, and that I am grateful for it every day of my life.

2. The recipes are all good, and I can say this because we eat them ALL THE TIME. These are not recipes that Jenny dreamed up for some book about family dinner. These are our go-to meals, they are simple and tasty and time-tested, and except for the Crispy Rice Omelet (our kids still loathe eggs with a scary intensity) and the Zucchini Fritters (you know how I feel about zucchini), we stand behind all of them, 100%.

3. The recipes are all good, but the shrimp rolls are the best. Sweet Jesu Christo, are they good. (And even better when you butter the rolls.)

4. It’s a deal. Twenty bucks (sometimes less) for 80 recipes, 60 color photos, 220 pages, countless tips and fun little hand-drawn design-y things throughout? Considering that I dropped 30 bucks yesterday at lunch on a basket of mini corn-dogs, two Shirley Temples, and a flaccid chicken wrap, I consider this money well spent.

5. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Deb Perelman, of Smitten Kitchen, who knows a thing or two about food: “This book is for anyone who loves the promise of a home-cooked dinner but gets bogged down by the day-to-day reality of it. Which is to say that this book is for me, me, me. And I bet it’s for you, too.” Or no less than Ruth Reichl, who stares hyperbole square in the eyes and says, “This is the most sensible advice on cooking for kids I’ve ever seen.” Ever, people! Ever!!!

6. It’s lovable. That’s not my word, in case you were wondering. A friend of ours who had just opened an advance copy described it that way — “OH EM GEE, it’s so lovable!!!!!!!!!” was her actual quote — and I have to say, she’s right. I know I’m biased, but it’s a freakin’ delight: pint-sized and warm and colorful and beautifully designed. We’ve been living with a copy of it on our counter for a solid month now, and — in what I take as a very good sign — I feel happy every time I see it. (See above, re: bias, but still.)

6.  Lovable does not mean cheesy. I spend a scary amount of my life staring at books, and I just love the way this one looks, love how much care and thought and quality-control went into its creation. Over the course of the past year, Jenny enlisted a bunch of talented friends to help make this book true to the DALS brand, from the illustration on the spine by the awesome Gina Triplett, to the cover and unusual and inspired interior design by Kristina DiMatteo, to the editing by longtime colleague Jennifer Tung, to the interior photos by, yes, Jenny Rosenstrach. Every word, every sentence, every picture, every Weekly Meal Plan, every Dinner Report Card waiting to be filled out by you, every hand-drawn border and color choice in this book, was made, by Jenny, for a reason.

7. It’s dedicated to YOU. This book, this blog, would simply not exist were it not for you — as readers, commenters, supporters, book-buyers, word-spreaders, recipe testers, dinner cookers, and friends. So, a million times: thank you.

Don’t you already feel more organized and prepared just looking at this grid of ridiculously easy dinners? I have eaten them all, and they are good.

And aren’t you dying to know what the heck this means?

Dinner: The Playbook is available from AmazonBarnes & NobleIndiebooks, and Ballantine.

P.S. First Time Here? Come on in!

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Chaos Theory

August 25th, 2014 · Dinner, Dinner: The Playbook, Rituals, Seafood

So back-to-school. The week that rivals New Years for clean-slating more than any other. You’re making plans, you’re making resolutions, you’re waking up at 3:00 in the morning saying “I am not going to allow math homework be my undoing this year. I’m not I’m not.” Perhaps you’re also resolving that it’s finally time to get on track with family dinner, to impose some structure into your mealtime, but then you talk yourself out of it again…maybe next month….there’s too much going on right now for all of us. I’ll start later, another week, when things calm down. I want a week when there’s no lunch-packing routine to deal with, no kid’s-been-placed-in-the-wrong-class stress, no brand-new-school drama, no soccer tournament to coordinate, no presentation for work that you’re going to be obsessing over, no activities that are going to disrupt and distract from all the planning and cooking. [Read more →]

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Seven Summer Favorites

August 22nd, 2014 · Uncategorized

There’s still a week left to go before school starts, but already the back-t0-the-grind jitters are creeping into our last few vacations days at the beach. The girls’ class schedules arrived yesterday by email — this is when I long for the days of snail mail notification — and now, when I close my eyes, all I seem to see on the back of my eyelids are calendars and meetings, sports schedules and to-do lists. It’s all good — there’s richness in the chaos, etc etc — but I’d be lying if I said we weren’t all sleeping a little more restlessly. As usual, to deal with this, I turn to the age-old “Distract-Don’t-React” strategy (also known as denial): We asked the girls to pick their most favorite dinners to ride out the rest of the season. Here’s what we’ll be weeping into/dining on as we head into the final week of summer.

Saturday: Salad Pizza (or Taco Pizza, which is in the new book — stay tuned!) Why? “It’s fun because it’s a mix of two things that normally don’t go together — salad and pizza and tacos and pizza.” –Abby. (Plus, you can grill the dough on the Weber — just grill one side, flip over, add toppings and cover with the grill lid.)

Sunday: Tomato Sandwiches on Grilled Bread with Fennel & Apple Slaw Why? “It’s August and we need to eat as many tomatoes as possible before they run out.” -Phoebe

Monday: Shrimp Rolls (in the new book — my pick as well) “It’s my favorite. Plus, we always have it in South Carolina because the shrimp is really fresh down here.” -Abby

Tuesday: Tony’s Steak with Double Mustard Potato Salad and Something with Beets Why? In Abby’s words ‘I don’t even need to give you a quote.’” (I think she means that steak speaks for itself; see my instagram feed last night.)

Wednesday: Picnic Chicken with Crispy Chick Peas Why? “They are so much more appetizing than regular chick peas. And the chicken is soooo good for lunch the next day.” -Phoebe

Thursday: Grilled Tuna Sandwiches with Salsa Fresca (or, for Abby, with a side of sushi rice) “I like it because it’s not fully cooked so it reminds me of going out for sushi.”

Friday: Salmon Salad WhyMe: “We have this one so much, though.” Phoebe: “Well, do it again.” (This is in my first book, but there’s a version here.)

SaturdayGrilled Duck with Macerated Cherries (What can I say, the girl has taste — and she’s lucky we have a farmer’s market that sells the good stuff.) Why: “Just kind of melts in your mouth.”

PS: **CASTING CALL*** Who needs a little hand-holding when it comes to back-to-school dinners?? I’m teaming up with K.J. Dell’Antonia over at New York Times’ excellent Motherlode blog to help a family through a week of new meals using recipes from Dinner: The Playbook, the Times, and Bon Appetit. Head over there to read my piece and enter.

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Pick a Chair, Any Chair

August 20th, 2014 · Kitchenlightenment, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

So I need your help: After seven years of garden variety family wear and tear, our red dining chairs are just about on their last legs. I get so many comments about them on this blog that I thought you might have some strong opinions about what the next ones should be. We’re not exactly sure what we want yet, but we know we want them to be red, comfortable, on the modern side…and available in knock-off form (!). Based on this criteria, we’ve narrowed it down to the nine you see above. Vote for your favorite in the comment field below and I’ll choose one reader at random to receive a copy of both Dinner: A Love Story and, almost hot off the presses: Dinner: The Playbook. (When I hit the bigtime, maybe then I’ll be able to offer a full dining set as the giveaway — and maybe not even the knock-offs.) Your choices:

1. Tolix Chair 2. Globus Chair 3. Salt Chair 4. Thonet Vienna Chair 5. Wishbone Chair 6. Thonet Era Chair 7. Navy Chair 8. Saarinen Tulip Chair 9. Eames Molded Chair. 

Contest ends Thursday, 8/21 at noon ET. Good luck! UPDATE: The winner (Rosie: #384) has been notified. Thanks for playing everyone!

RIP my beautiful red chairs that are no longer available on the interweb (as far as I can tell).

Related: Click here for a massive modern chair resource.

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