Entries from June 2012

Top of the To-Do List: Lobster Rolls

June 29th, 2012 · 8 Comments · Quick, Rituals, Seafood

We’ve just wrapped up what you might call an “unstructured” week — other than a late-afternoon soccer clinic for the kids and other than one full day of meetings in the city for me, we had nothing on the schedule for the first few days of summer vacation. And now I’m wondering why we registered them for their upcoming organized activities at all. I could get used to a schedule where we get to sleep in and not once have to hear ourselves say tie your shoes immediately or you will miss the bus and please please please don’t make me ask you again! (Happiness is the laceless summer shoe.)

This is not to say that we were sitting around watching Nick Jr and bumming at the beach. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Without even realizing it, we began checking things off the List of Things We’ve Been Meaning to Do All Year. Monday: We finally saw that documentary First Position about the Grand Prix ballet competition and the girls loved it. Tuesday: We hit Shake Shack. (It’s hard to even admit this to myself as a parent, but my poor, deprived daughters had to live eight and ten years respectively before ever sinking their teeth into a Shack Burger.) We roadtripped to Ikea in search of a “swivel stool” for Abby’s new desk and wound up stuffed to the gills with Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes. (You know, one of those nice light summer meals.) We visited a new Asian Supermarket across town which everyone keeps talking about and where we found all sorts of cool and crazy little things to try like quail eggs, mochi, and Korean melon. It was there, in the glisteningly clean seafood aisle where I spied a five-dollar cooked lobster ($5!) and remembered one other thing on the List: Make Lobster Roll! I came home from that trip, tossed the lobster meat with mayo, scallions, and the slightest sprinkling of paprika, and with one bite, officially initiated summer.

Lobster Roll
Makes one lobster roll. Recipe can be multiplied accordingly.

meat from a cooked 1-pound lobster (about 1/4 pound of cooked lobster meat), roughly chopped
1 scallion (light green and white parts only), chopped
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
squeeze fresh lemon juice
sprinkling of paprika
salt to taste
hot dog bun

Add all ingredients (except bun and butter) in a mixing bowl. Fold together gently. Toast hot dog bun then spread with a thin layer of butter. Top with lobster salad.

Don’t forget about the Mega Giveaway: Tell me your favorite part of the book (not on the comment field of this post, but through the official contest survey) and be eligible to win some pretty awesome prizes. You have until July 9 to enter so get reading!


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Tried-and-True Cobbler

June 27th, 2012 · 34 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Quick

I knew it was a good sign when my mother-in-law, Emily, started rattling off the ingredients for her go-to berry cobbler over the phone, then interrupted herself to say, This index card is so stained and old, who knows where on earth I got it from? Those of you who have read my book know about Emily’s Index Card Cache (a.k.a The Recipe Starter Kit) we inherited from her a few months after we were married. And those of you who have made her Meatloaf know that those index cards rarely disappoint. This cobbler — a flexible, non-fussy, absolutely-screams-summer kind of dessert — follows suit. My favorite thing about the recipe (besides the crunchy crumbling topping that somehow weaves all the way into the filling)  is that it doesn’t involve getting butter to the right temperature, then smushing it into the sugar and flour, which I always find to be a somewhat perilous (and messy) proposition. You simply drizzle the melted butter on top at the end, which means the whole thing comes together fast and with minimal fuss.

My other favorite thing about it? The original recipe called for that butter to be margarine.

Summer Cobbler
I assembled this particular cobbler (made with peaches and blueberries) in about 10 minutes, shoved it into the oven, drove across town for a playdate pick-up, and was back in time to pull out the bubbly goodness just about a half hour later.

3-5 cups fruit (Any combo: peeled, sliced peaches or nectarines, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries; for this one I used 8 medium peaches, peeled and sliced, and 1 1/2 pints blueberries) enough to mostly fill a 13-by-nine inch baking dish.
juice from half a lemon
1 cup flour, whisked
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 beaten egg
5 tablespoons butter, melted

Place fruit in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle on lemon juice and toss. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Add egg, tossing with fork until mixture is crumbly. (It should not be mushy.) Sprinkle flour-egg mixture over fruit then drizzle as evenly as possible with melted butter.

Bake at 375°F for 35-40 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Emily’s Index Cards. See page 15 of Dinner: A Love Story.


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Jarred Pasta Sauce: A Taste Test

June 25th, 2012 · 50 Comments · Pasta

Sometimes I wonder if I’m channeling my culinary energies in the proper direction. Because when the kids come home from school (or camp, or whatever is ending at 3:00 these days) they sit down at the kitchen table and eat their after-school snack the way Mr. Fox does in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Which is to say, like wild beasts. Phoebe’s order is pretty typical, and simple enough for her to put together on her own: popcorn and fruit, cheese and crackers, apples with peanut butter. Abby, on the other hand, expects more. She expects nothing less than a big bowl of pasta, prepared a very specific way — with a pat of butter, a sprinkling of sea salt, and just a spoonful or two of tomato sauce mixed around until the whole thing looks “pink.”  This little tradition started about two years ago, right after I lost my job and realized that I had a much better shot of getting her to clean her plate at 3:00 than I did at dinnertime. Often Abby stands over me as I stir the sauce into her spaghetti or orrechiette or cavatelli, monitoring the progression in color until it’s just right. I’m not going to go into detail about why I have no problem giving her what calorically ends up being a fourth meal — all I’ll say is that it’s sorta doctor’s orders — but what I do have a problem with is whipping up a homemade pasta sauce for a snack, i.e. the meal that is supposed to merely tie one over until dinner a few hours later. And so this is how we’ve become jarred sauce afficionados — always on the lookout for a new kind to try from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, Stop & Shop or the local Italian Market. Once, at Stew Leonards, Abby spied a jar of marked-down Rao’s marinara, and you would’ve thought she had spotted the Pope himself. “Mom! It’s $3.99 for RAO’s. You can’t NOT buy a jar at that price!”

This is also how we found ourselves coordinating a blind taste test at the kitchen table on Saturday to determine which jarred sauce out there is the best. Or, to put it another way, which jarred pasta sauce is least likely to incur some kind of curse from the grave of my childrens’ two Italian Great Grandmothers. We spent a morning tracking down all the sauces that are readily available to us (including a pizza sauce from Trader Joe’s that Abby insists is the best) then, after dusting off my old Real Simple road test skills, I typed up a questionnaire for Abby, Phoebe, and their father. Each of the 10 sauces (including one quick-and-dirty homemade one I put together in 10 minutes, the time it takes to heat a prepared sauce) was spooned into its own Dixie Cup and served at room temperature. (No one knew which sauce was in which cup except for me.) The three judges were given ten small pieces of bread each, one to dip in each cup, and tested the same sauces at the same time, in between tastes, cleansing their palates with a sip of seltzer made with our brand new seltzer maker.

After each taste, the judges recorded some notes, gave the sauce a grade between 1 and 5, with 5 being the best, and 1 being the worst, then had to decide if the sauce should “go to Vegas” — which is So-You-Think-You-Can-Dance parlance for “go to the next round” and which, in the end, didn’t really mean anything but was still good for a laugh. We did conduct a Vegas round, but ultimately the winner was determined by adding up the point scores.

Above, the judges in action. Amazing how much you can get done on a Saturday afternoon when there are no organized sports to race off to.

The Results

The winner did not shock me — in my experience, Rao’s consistently trumps the competition in these kinds of contests. And amazingly, it can accomplish this without the massive amounts of sugars that helped  the two runners-up (Don Pepino and Newman’s Own) snag their victories. But what really surprised me here were the supposed gourmet brands that ended up being absolute doozies.  Take Whole Food’s Organic Classic Pasta Sauce, for example. Some of the words used by our judges to describe it? “Plasticky” and “artificial.” (Is this what you’d expect from their popular organic 365 line?) But at least that one was on the more affordable end of the spectrum  – the one that really made me mad was Mario Batali’s Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce, which I picked up at a specialty kitchen store for TEN DOLLARS. (Business expense, I told myself.) What did our judges have to say about this one? “Horrible. Spat in garbage” and “As if it was made in a test tube, designed by people who have never tasted actual tomatoes.” Even though the lowest point score one could dispense was 1, Abby decided nothing short of a negative 100 grade would express her disgust sufficiently.

As for my homemade sauce, which came in sixth — behind Ragu for chrissakes! — I’m just going to tell myself it’s a relief: Unless I have time to make it the real way, it’s not going to be good, so what’s the point?  Anyway, here are the full results of the test, in order from best to worst.

WINNER: Rao’s Homemade Tomato Basil
Overall Point Score: 12 1/2
Sugars: 3 grams
Sodium: 340 mg
“Best sauce ever. Fresh not too sweet — great flavor.”
“Tastes fairly real, nice texture.” (more…)

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A Weekly Meal Plan for YOU

June 21st, 2012 · 36 Comments · Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

Ok guys — didn’t I say right there on page 2 of the book that in order to kickstart the dinner habit, you are not in any way whatsoever required to start writing down what you are cooking and eating in a dedicated diary? So what is up with all the emails* telling me that you are starting your own books and filling them with chilled soups and grilled fish tacos and other simple, delicious-sounding summer dinners? Do you not know you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of obsessiveness and ridicule and…simple, delicious-sounding summer dinners?

Well anyway, I was thinking this morning that since I was the one who got you into this whole mess, the least I could do is help you kickstart some weekly planning. So book owners, you are welcome to download a PDF of the line-up that I intend to scribble into my own diary next week. It’s been hot in New York the past few days and this menu (including shopping list) was designed with that in mind. And, also, with the Really?-Dinner-is-Here-Again? cook in mind. All you have to do to access the plan is click here and type in the secret code, i.e. the last word on page 137. (Or, for Kindle readers: location 39% – 2151 of 5506, the word right above “November.”)

And non-book owners, what are you waiting for? Now that I’ve put my diary-inspired mania out there, and you have access to the meals that have seen me through fourteen years of first jobs and working late and eating in shifts and witching hours and picky eaters and two cursed egg-haters and dinners at the beach and in front of the World Cup and the Olympics and American Idol — well, now that all of this is out there, I’m going to be presenting these book-based meal plans as bonus features and I don’t want to feel guilty about leaving you behind! It’s bad enough that I’ve sent all these poor unsuspecting souls down the diary road. So, as Andy would say, let’s do this thing!

*If you have not heard back from me yet, please forgive the delay. Please do not mistake this delinquency for ungraciousness or apathy. I’ve read (and sometimes re-read) every note and will eventually repsond to every single one.

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The Mix

June 20th, 2012 · 12 Comments · Dinner, Grilling, Travel

Along with gum wrappers and a zillion pennies, there is a pile of about twenty CDs in the armrest compartment of our family car.  Each one has been labeled by Andy with a black Sharpie using maddeningly unrevealing titles, like “November 2011″ or “Maine” or “Chatham” or “July 08″ so I never know exactly what I’m going to get when I slip one in the CD player. But they’re always curated with listeners big and small in mind, which is why we can go from the Drive-by Truckers’ Zip City (we have been strategically coughing over the s-bomb in the first stanza for almost two years now) right after a Miley Cyrus cover by Lauren Alaina, last year’s American Idol runner-up.  Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Lauren Alaina (I’m still mad she didn’t beat Scotty McCreery) and the kids have no problem with the Truckers (they know their dad would disown them if they did), but when I was road-tripping yesterday to my reading in Boston, trying to figure out what I was going to talk about, it occurred to me that our mixes are a lot like our dinners. As I mentioned to the nice people of Brookline (thank you again Sara, Amy, Ingrid, Essie, Katharine, Sharon, Kelly, Carrie!), we made the most rockin’ dinner last weekend. I brought home a Hudson Valley duck breast from the farmer’s market which Andy grilled to perfection (see above photo). By chance, I had dried cherries macerating in red wine (I know, who writes a sentence like that with a straight face?) which I boiled down with peaches to serve on top of the duck; then we broke out the mandoline for our stand-by apple-fennel slaw. It was the first time we had ever served duck at our dinner table — though definitely not the first time the girls had eaten it; Devika, their first babysitter made a mean duck curry which they’d inhale — but when presented this simply, it wasn’t a hard sell. (Plus we had dinner rolls: The Great Equalizer.) Anyway, if that was our Drive-by Truckers dinner, the next night was our LMFAO dinner: Baked beans on toast, from the can. And just like with the “kids’” Adele song, I went back for seconds.

Grilled Duck Breast with Cherry-Peach Relish

Salt and pepper both sides of a 1 1/2 pound duck breast.

Make your fire. Put coals on one side of the grill and let them burn down to medium heat. Then cook the duck, skin side up for first 10 minutes, not directly over the coals, so you render some of the fat and it drips right off. (There is so much fat on the skin that you have to be careful it doesn’t start a fire and burn the duck to a crisp.) Then grill it skin-side down (again, not over the coals — over indirect heat, right next to the fire. You have to really stand over it and watch it. You do not want big flames) then keep flipping it, skin-side down, skin-side up, until it has a nice burnished (not burned) color on skin side. A total of 15 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes.

I soaked a half cup of dried pitted cherries (such as Montmorency cherries which they sell at Trader Joe’s for about half the price at Whole Foods) in just enough red wine to cover for a few days, but I don’t think you need to do it for more than 8 to 10 hours. Then I simmered the cherries in their wine with 2 peaches (peeled and chopped up), a little more than 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, 2 teaspoons sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, 1/4 cup water over low heat until liquid was thick and mostly gone. In total, it took about 12-15 minutes.

Fennel-Apple Slaw, please see page 243, Dinner: A Love Story.  The bread is Trader Joe’s par-baked dinner rolls, which Andy baked on a covered grill for about 8 minutes.

Summer Road Trip Mix
If I were to make a mix culled from Andy’s mixes, this is what it would look like. A little something for everybody.

It Ain’t Me Babe, Johnny Cash
Zip City, Drive-by Truckers (remember: he uses the word s#@t in first stanza)
Passenger Side, Jeff Tweedy
Someone Like You, Adele (cannot believe how fun this is to sing)
Edge of Glory, Lady Gaga
Wonderful World, Sam Cooke
You and I, Lady Gaga
Frankie’s Gun, Felice Brothers
Parted Ways, Heartless Bastards
Outta My System, My Morning Jacket
Boy Named Sue, Johnny Cash
The Waiting, Tom Petty
I Think I Lost it, Lucinda Williams
Long May You Run, Neil Young

Reminder: Tell me your favorite part of the book (not on the comment field of this post, but through the official contest survey) and be eligible to win some pretty awesome prizes. You have until July 9 to enter so get reading!

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Not My Thing

June 18th, 2012 · 16 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Sides, Salads, Soup

When the Lego sets arrived by mail — gifts from the grandparents — the girls ripped open their boxes right on the doorstep and immediately ran inside to start examining the plastic packages that held the magical little blocks that would eventually turn into Harry Potter’s bus (Phoebe’s) and a summery little log cabin (Abby’s). It was a rainy weekday — a rainy weekday in June at that — and with homework and cello and piano and ballet winding down, they found themselves in the long-forgotten position of having a long stretch of hours seemingly made for perfecting their pitched roof technique. And I found myself in the long-forgotton position of wanting to maybe get down on the floor with them like the old days and help out.

“Whaddaya say, guys? How about we work on these together?”

Two little blank faces looked at me, then at each other, then back at me.

“No offense, Mom,” said my little one, “but Legos aren’t really your thing.”

(Truth: “No offense” is always followed by something offensive.)

But she so nailed me. Legos are like some kind of nightmare for me — not the free-form ones I grew up with, but the sets that come with weird diagrams, zillions of teeny tiny pieces, and (here’s the real death knell) the expectation of a precise outcome. Any project that relies on proper technique or requires reserves of patience is, in general, “not my thing.” I can’t tell you how many times this phrase has come up during my various baking misadventures.

“Guess I shouldn’t've cut corners with butter there,” I’ll say as I slice into a sawdusty cornbread.

“Hmmm,” says my patient husband, washing down a bite with some aggressive swigs of coffee. “Maybe baking’s not really your thing.”

Neither is something like homemade mayonnaise, which, with its drip-by-drip oil-whisking technique, requires the patience of a kindergarten teacher, and which I need to be in the perfect mindset to execute correctly. You’d think being on vacation in Paris, preparing a market-fresh sole in a picture-perfect St. Germaine apartment, might be conducive to that mindset, but there’s a reason why you don’t see it anywhere in those vacation photos. My thought process: It stands to reason that if eventually all the oil is going to be whisked into the egg, why not just dump it in all at once? Again, this kind of kitchen task: Not my thing.

Nor was that backyard soccer goal. In spite of (because of) objections from the girls (“Mom, just wait until Dad gets home!”) I put the thing together in a fit of steely resolve…only to find myself sweaty and finished (yes!), but with about 25 nuts and bolts and washers orphaned on the patio. But the goal’s ensuing wobbliness wasn’t anything a little duct tape couldn’t address.

Then there’s that Perfect Pan-Roasted Chicken Thigh recipe from Bon Appetit that we make all the time. What sold me on it initially was that a) it required three ingredients: chicken, salt, oil and b) the head note said if you followed the simple but incredibly specific (uh oh) technique it miraculously ended up tasting like bacon. Well, you know where this one ends up. Here’s the thing: I almost always need the oven to be making something else — in this case, some oven fries — and so even though Bon App was very clear about the 475°F thing I thought, Well let’s bring that heat down a little to make sure the fries don’t burn at the same time. And maybe we can just keep them in a little longer than the exact 13 minutes it spells out in the recipe. You know, let’s just duct tape this sucker a little.

So the results? Perfect Good-Enough Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs. But, in my book, still kind of a perfect family dinner.

Fries and Thighs
When you break the rules on this one, it comes together so fast. We are big Oven Fries people in our house (see page 210-212 of cookbook), but the addition of oregano and Parm was inspired by Lucinda Scala Quinn’s awesome Mad Hungry

Preheat oven to 450°F.

3 baking potatoes, cut into wedges (I get 12 wedges per potato)
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parm (or to taste)
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1⁄4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons water (For whatever reason, I find the steam this water generates in the oven makes fries crisp and fluffy.)

In a medium bowl, toss together all the ingredients.  Line a baking sheet with foil and coat it with cooking spray (crucial—fries will be hard to remove otherwise). Line up your fries in rows and bake for 25 minutes, or until they are crispy and golden. If they are burning, toss them around a bit with a spatula, and cover with foil.

Follow Bon App‘s instructions for Perfect Pan-Fried Chicken Thighs, placing them in the oven with the fries and keeping oven temp at 450°F (even though the chicken recipe says 475°F). While you wait for everything to finish, assemble your salad. The one above is Bibb lettuce, leftover haricot verts, scallions, tomatoes, and a creamy dressing. Why does it just feel wrong not to have a Bibb lettuce salad without a creamy dressing? I usually just dollop a tablespoon of mayo into my all-purpose vinaigrette.

FYI: To My Boston Bretheren — I’ll be reading at Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard St, Brookline, MA) tonight. Come say hi if you are in the neighborhood. Click here for upcoming events.

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The Dadoo Special

June 15th, 2012 · 14 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Dinner, Grilling, Pork and Beef, Posts by Andy, Quick, Uncategorized

I remember this vividly. When I was six years old, I was in the basement of our house on Aldenham Lane, playing with my dad. Our basement was the kind of basement I feel bad that my kids don’t have today – a concrete floor, an old wooden workbench, high metal shelves sagging with caulk and stains and Maxwell House cans filled with screws, a queen-sized foam mattress, a pool table (with ivory inlays and broken slate), and a paint-splattered station where my older brother would lose entire afternoons building these intricate models of Spitfires and Messerschmitts. The kind of basement, in other words, where you could dismember GI Joe dolls in relative peace.

Anyway, we were sitting on the floor, building something with my Erector Set.

“Dad?” I said.


“Is Santa Claus real?”

He paused.

(A parent now, I know what he was thinking.)

He looked at me.

“Nope,” he said.

Cue sound of bowling ball crashing through giant pane of glass. The bracing, ammoniac sting of honesty like that! Wow. Damn! I still, to this day, give him grief for this. (Me: I can’t believe you just came out and said it. Dad: Well, what was I gonna do, lie?) This could be the adult in me talking, but I feel like I remember the room going all wobbly, like the staircase shot in Vertigo. Clearly, my dad did not believe in secrets.

Except when it came to his cooking. And by cooking, I mean the one meal he was responsible for making all by himself, from start to finish. His lone specialty was known around the house as The Dadoo Special, a name which, it’s true, does have a certain grandeur to it, but which – no offense, Dad — also sounds a lot like something a dude with zero chops in the kitchen would name the one dish he figured out how to make on his own. I loved the Dadoo Special. Partly because I loved my dad, but also because it did, in fact, feel special. It tasted really good, and appeared only in the warm summer months, when school was out and the Weber was up and running and the grown-ups enjoyed their grown-up drinks outside, in the woodchipped area out back, behind the azeleas, where my dad had set up – this was the seventies, after all, the era of lawn sports, mandals, and non-ironic mustaches – a freakin’ horseshoe pit. Looking back, the Dadoo Special was nothing more than a souped-up burger – a little sweet, a little spicy – that, amazingly, required no ketchup at all. I would tell you exactly how my dad made it…if he had ever let me watch him make it. The Dadoo Special, you see, was always prepared in private, behind closed doors, on a need-to-know basis only. And I, apparently, did not need to know.

“What’s in it?” I would ask.

“That’s a secret.”

“Seriously, dad.”

“Get out of the kitchen,” he’d say, and to stay and risk not having Dadoo Specials for dinner always seemed a risk not worth taking.

I still don’t know exactly what was in the things, and – since my dad probably hasn’t made one in thirty years – I doubt he does, either. But I do remember the taste, and the slight crunch of the onion, and feel fairly confident that I can recreate it – heck, maybe even improve upon it — here. We’ll be making these on Father’s Day, in honor of my dad, and in the spirit of openness. No more secrets, not in this house. – Andy

P.S. Re the photo above: Yeah, that’s a puka shell necklace I’m wearing. And yeah, that’s zinc oxide on my nose. And yeah, I’m wearing plaid JAMS. The thing on my dad’s upper lip? That would be a mustache. Viva los 70s!

The Dadoo Special

Okay, so the Dadoo is basically meatloaf on a bun. Pretty sure my dad used Heinz barbecue sauce, but the homemade stuff is better. (See our recipe for that on page 238 of Jenny’s book.) In a large bowl, combine 1 ½ pounds ground beef, 1/3 cup barbecue sauce, ½ cup of finely chopped Vidalia onion, a couple dashes of Worcestershire, and lots of salt and freshly ground pepper. Combine gently, as you want to preserve some of that loose texture of the meat. Grill over medium high heat for about 3-4 minutes per side.

Reminder: Tell me your favorite part of the book (not on the comment field of this post, but through the official contest survey) and be eligible to win some pretty awesome prizes. You have until July 9 to enter so get reading!

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Dinner: A Morning Show Story

June 14th, 2012 · 19 Comments · Deconstructing Dinner, Favorites, Picky Eating, Seafood, Sides, Salads, Soup

So I went on the Today Show yesterday to talk about some themes you know well by now — deconstructing meals, picky eaters, my Trickle-Down Theory of Dinner (see page 10!) and of course, the book itself. I’ve known about this segment for about three months now — my publisher called me with the news while I was watching soccer practice — and if I were a certain kind of person I suppose I would have been broadcasting this news all over the world, posting it on my events page and facebook, tweeting from the green room and all that, but the truth is: I was kinda terrified about the whole Live TV thing. To the point where over the past few months I’ve been dividing my life into two distinct eras:   (more…)

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My Family Kitchen

June 12th, 2012 · 24 Comments · Uncategorized

I’ve been using a humongous plastic storage bin as my bedroom nightstand for six months — it’s standing in for the old ratty one which I sold on Craigs List because I thought this act might force me to actually make the effort to, you know, find something nicer to replace it with.  There’s a table in the TV room that Andy and I have been meaning to upgrade since 1996, when we moved into our first apartment together. There’s the Tintin mural I keep promising I’ll finish for Phoebe, and the corkboard wall I promise I’ll look into for Abby so she has a place in her room to pin photos of Drogba, and her pals, and the US Women’s Olympic soccer team.  But the kitchen…oh the kitchen! That’s another story entirely! It’s my office. It’s command central. It’s homework station. It’s where school backpacks explode their bulletins and artwork and worksheets and where fights explode over who packed lunch last night. It’s where all the chaos — I mean – magic happens! And as such, there is no decorative detail to small to obsess over to make sure it’s exactly the way I want it. I thought I’d give you a recap of my favorites.

The Red Chairs. My feeling has always been: If you have a chance to add color, why wouldn’t you? The dining chairs above are from the DWR Warehouse (and hard to find online), but Ikea has an affordable knockoff called the Bojnes that can be painted any old color you’d like. Some other options: My sister bought one of these Jake Chairs from Room & Board for a pop of color at her kitchen desk, and I love them. (I keep meaning to buy one for Abby’s bedroom desk.) One of these from hivemodern is bound to work. (Warning: Do not click that link if you plan on being productive in the next few hours.)

The Fairy Lights. A lot of you asked about those lights hanging over the patio doors after watching the Dinner: A Love Story video. They’re just your standard issue fairy lights purchased at holiday time for about $3.99 at our local hardware store. I meant to take them down after the holidays were over…but that was three years ago. Now they get illuminated for special occasions — like half birthdays, student government triumphs, soccer game victories, the first juicy apricot of the season. You know, the real family holidays.

The Cabinet Dollhouse. As you may or may not know by now, my 8-year-old is obsessed with dollhouses. There is literally nothing she can’t turn into characters to create an imaginary world  – binder clips, restaurant sugar packets, sprinkle jars. When she was younger, I started making these makeshift dollhouses for her inside the kitchen cabinets so she could be underfoot while I cooked dinner. She picked photographs of rooms she found in shelter and design magazines, then we created a composite house out of these pictures, using blue tape around each room to give it some structure. My favorite thing about it?  No clean up required: You shut the door and it’s gone. One warning: Putting them together, though, is always a little bit crushing: All I can ever think about is the day when she grows out of it and I’m going to have to take it down. OK, woo boy….onward.

The Family Chalkboard. I started this calendar so the girls could have a handle on their schedules — it took them a long time to remember things like pottery’s on Wednesday and ballet’s on Thursday — but now, when we write up the week’s lineup it’s more like a reminder of how freaking fun it is to be a kid. Andy and I are constantly looking at the schedule saying How lucky are you? Class trip to the Bronx Zoo? Pottery camp? Playdate with Jenna? You can imagine how sick of this routine they get. My chalkboard decal is no longer available but I like the look of this if you are in the market for one.

The Recipe Door. I think the best feedback from the book so far has been from new mothers, along these lines:  ”It just helps to know that I’m going through this with someone who understands.” It does, doesn’t it? I’m not just appreciative that Andy is my partner in this whole family dinner enterprise, (more…)

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The Week in Review

June 8th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Uncategorized

On Wednesday night, Day 2 of Publication, my 8-year-old was sitting at the dinner table waiting for her chicken with biscuits (recipe on the way) when she  said, “Mom, you weren’t here for dinner Monday or Tuesday night.”

“Yeah?” I said.

“That’s so unlike you.”

“I know,” I told her. “Remember, my book is out this week. There’s a lot going on. It’s going to be a little hectic. You want to hear what’s going on?”

“Nah. Oh, I forgot to tell you about the finals of the KenKen competition.”

I’m sorry if you feel a little like my kids right now, and I promise that we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon, but I’ve been so overwhelmed by emails and instragrams and facebook posts and reviews that it just doesn’t feel right not to acknowledge how grateful I am for all the feedback. (Do not mistake this for complaining.) I just wanted to share a few of of the highlights, beginning with the photo below of my friend Kirsten and her adorable daughter Billie, who apparently thinks the skillet of meatballs (or Andy’s head?) is scratch-and-sniff.

The photo on the left was sent by reader Betsy, who I think should be a prop stylist in her spare time. (Eight books, by the way. Now there’s a loyal supporter.) On the right  is me signing books at BEA, a book convention in NYC and first on line was Hallie (not shown), who I lived next door to for the first 18 years (more…)

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Behind-the-Scenes Writing a Family Cookbook

June 7th, 2012 · 11 Comments · Uncategorized

Andy and I write a bi-monthly column for Bon Appetit called “The Providers,” and the following story (and recipe for Tony’s steak, above, shot by Marcus Nilsson) is what appeared in the June issue. 

By the end of last September, even Abby — my pie-loving 7-year-old — was sick of my apple galette. There was a week-long stretch there where she was having a slice (with ice cream) after dinner, a slice (no ice cream) for breakfast, and would come home from school to find another still-warm golden-crusted lovely sitting on the counter. At first, she couldn’t believe her luck – “You’re the best mom ever!” – but then, by the end of the week, as she picked at the still-too-cinnamony apple filling in the backseat on the way to ballet, her voice had taken on that tone usually reserved for long road trips: “Mom, are you done with this cookbook yet?”

I wasn’t almost done. In fact, I was just beginning the recipe-testing phase for Dinner: A Love Story. But I didn’t want to break the news to her and her 9-year-old sister that this was only the beginning. Once I nailed the apple galette we would be spending the next few months beating over 50 family favorites into submission, too: Spicy oven fries, chicken pot pie, old fashioned cole slaw, fish tacos, lamb burgers, crispy fish cakes, salmon salad, and Tony’s sweet-and-salty grilled flank steak, named after my brother-in-law whose recipe converted my then-picky-eating daughter into a dedicated steak lover.

Which of course begs the question: If these recipes are family favorites and you’ve been making them for so long, why do you even need to test them? Here’s why: Because when I tell Andy — husband, fellow Provider, and resident outdoor-cooker — to give me the recipe for Tony’s steak, this is how he replies: “You just throw a bunch of s#@t in a bag and then grill it.” For almost a decade this system has worked out great for scrambling working parents just trying to get a meal on the table. But I’m not so sure our readers would find it very helpful.

Sure, there are people who test recipes as a profession – and I certainly took advantage of them for about half of the 120 dishes in my book — but because this project was so personal and essentially a history of our family dinners over the past 14 years, I double-tested, triple-tested, and – in the case of the old-fashioned cole slaw — quintuple-tested in my own house, too. These were the meals that have defined my kids’ dinner table, aka their childhoods, for the past decade. And in the end, it was their sign-off that mattered the most.

Reminder: Tell me your favorite part of the book (not on this page, but through the official contest survey) and be eligible to win some pretty awesome prizes. You have one month to enter so get reading!


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A Very Big Day

June 5th, 2012 · 59 Comments · Dinner

So, in case you haven’t heard, today is the day Dinner: A Love Story is officially on sale.  When you pick up your copy, the first thing I’d like you to do is turn to The Acknowledgments on page 299. There are a lot of people mentioned in those pages — as my editor said when she received my first draft of the section, “This should be it’s own book!” — because there were a lot of people who helped make this happen in both small ways (picking up my kids at school when I was in the middle of shooting a pork chop: Annie!) and huge (producing a masterful Dinner: A Love Story Book Trailer: Ed!) But you will see that the very first thank-you goes out to you guys, my loyal dinner-making, book-reading, thoughtful-comment-writing Dinner: A Love Story readers. It’s hard to overstate how much your support these past few years has meant to me and how much I appreciate all those heartfelt emails I receive on a daily basis — the ones that Andy mentioned last week and which, half the time, come with the subject head “Thank you.”

Well, now it’s time for me to say thank you.  Over the last few months I’ve been collecting gifts that fit with the general philosophy of this blog — pots and pans and cooking classes and a week of free dinners and kids’ books and crazy cool lunchboxes and some of the most delicious chocolates you will ever eat. So it’s only fair that today, the day Dinner: A Love Story is published, you guys get the chance to win them. All you have to do is click here to check out the prizes, answer one simple question (what part of the book resonated with you the most?), and follow the instructions on that page for how to proceed. (Please do not leave your “resonant moment” in this comment field. Again, go here!)

You have until July 6 to enter. Good luck!

And: Thank you.

Jenny, Andy, Phoebe & Abby

Split-personality pizzas: Everyone goes home happy. Pizza recipes begin on page 266.

My Dinner Diary in early 2005, when the girls were 2 and 1. Notice all the freezer and takeout dinners.

All photos above by Jennifer Causey for Dinner: A Love Story. Cover design by Allison Saltzman.

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One Meal, Three Ways

June 4th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Deconstructing Dinner, Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Pasta, Picky Eating, Quick, Vegetarian

If you asked 8-year-old Abby to list her favorite foods, I have a feeling the following would show up in the top ten: penne, fettucini, rigatoni, farfalle, gnocchi, orechiette, and (as of last week), cavatelli. I don’t know how much of this love affair is because she’s defining herself in opposition to her sister, a world class pasta hater,  but I do know that because of Phoebe’s refusal to touch the stuff, Abby doesn’t get a nice bowl of spaghetti and meatballs nearly as often as she’d like to. I also know that eliminating pasta from our dinner repertoire is not an option given how much Andy and I love it, and given how much the girls’ Great Grandmothers are named Turano and Catrino. So while the rest of us might get a nice bowl of cavatelli with spring asparagus, tomatoes, ricotta, and lemon, Phoebe would get something that looks like this:

Not bad, right? I might call this ricotta and tomatoes on baguette a first cousin of the real dinner.

And maybe I’d call this one a second cousin, which I might serve a toddler (or a pincer-grasping baby) who prefers his food equal but separate.

Pasta with Asparagus, Tomatoes, Ricotta & Lemon
This recipe has you tossing the aspargus in with the boiling pasta water which saves you a pot to clean. (You’re welcome!) For Version 2 dinner: toast a baguette, top with ricotta and tomatoes as shown. Drizzle with olive oil and some good sea salt. Serve asparagus on the side. For Version 3: I think you got that one.

Cook 1 pound pasta according to package directions. (We used cavatelli, but any kind will do.) While pasta is cooking, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Swirl a halved garlic clove in the oil just for a quick flavor hit, then remove. Add 1 1/2 cups chopped grape tomatoes (yellow or red), salt, pepper and cook until tomatoes are wilted.

During last three minutes that the pasta is cooking, toss in 1 bunch asparagus spears (chopped) to the pot. Drain pasta and asparagus together and immediately toss in with tomatoes, cooking until pasta is coated with tomato juice.

Remove from heat and toss in 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of ricotta (or to taste), 2 teaspoons lemon zest, salt, and pepper. (If it’s too hard to toss in the skillet, you can do  this in a large bowl.)

Serve with chopped fresh basil.

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