Entries from July 2012

Don’t Get Mad, Get Cooking

July 31st, 2012 · 29 Comments · Seafood

One day I’m going to write an in-depth post about our weekly shop — how we strategize, prepare, and, eventually attack our local Trader Joe’s like a bunch of Navy SEALs. But for now, all I’ll say is that we have it down to a pretty precise science, so when I open the fridge or pantry and can’t find what I’m looking for….well….I get mad. That’s what happened a few weeks ago when the girls were nice enough to suggest grilled shrimp tacos for dinner. (You know how much I love it when someone else dreams up the menu.) This meal is a classic go-to in our house because it’s so fast and also because the ingredients called for are all items we would never dream of leaving Trader Joe’s without: scallions, tomatoes, cilantro, limes, greens, sour cream, tortillas. All we have to do is stop by a fish market at some point to pick up some (preferably peeled) shrimp. On this particular occasion, however, I had fired up the grill, knocked back at least half my dark & stormy, whisked lime and sugar into sour cream, and skewered up the shrimp before realizing that we were all out of tortillas — in our house a crime punishable by I-thought-you-got-them-no-you-said-you-did. But I set aside the blame game for the moment in order to make some frontline decisions. I could easily abort mission and go with a southwesternish salad. Or I could channel my inner Alana Chernila and — get this — make my own tortillas from scratch. I know the last two words of that sentence strike fear into the hearts of many a new parent, and so of course, you should feel free to go ahead and click on the “Quick” category over there in the margin, while making a note to return to this page in 2019. (Please please come back!) But emboldened by my cocktail and a few willing little partners, this was the route I decided to take. And wow did our dinner taste good. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that “from scratch” can be as simple as mixing together flour and water. And also that it’s usually the simplest things that make all the difference.

Flour Tortilla Recipe
Adapted from something I found on squidoo. Makes about 6-8 eight-inch tortillas. (PS: No one is keeping score here. You should definitely skip the from-scratch version and just go with storebought if it’s going to be the thing that crushes you and your dinner spirit.)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus extra for flouring the board)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup warm water

Combine flour and salt. Add vegetable oil and mix lightly. Add the warm water and mix with a wooden spoon until you have a soft dough. Divide into equal pieces of 6-8 balls. Brush with a little vegetable oil and cover with a dish towel and let sit for 15 minutes.

Roll out each ball on a floured surface. Preheat an ungreased griddle or cast iron pan. Add tortilla and cook until it begins to puff with a few browning spots on the bottom. Flip and press down to release the air pockets. Cook for about 1 minute. Remove and keep warm on a platter under foil until ready to fill.

Grilled Shrimp Tacos

About 20-25 pieces of medium shrimp, peeled
olive oil
2 teaspoons-ish chili powder
salt & pepper
tortillas (homemade, see above; or your favorite storebought ones prepared according to package directions)

Prepare grill. Thread your shrimp on skewers and place on a platter. Drizzle a little olive oil on top, then, using your fingers, rub chili powder all over shrimp, turning them on skewers as you go. Grill for about 3-4 minutes, flipping them along the way, until they are cooked through. (You could also saute the shrimp — un-skewered in a skillet.) Remove shrimp from skewers into a bowl. Place shrimp on the table with your tortillas and other fixings such as shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, chopped scallions, lime wedges, chopped cilantro. Have everyone assemble their own.

I serve these with my usual sauce: 1/2 cup sour cream whisked with 2 tablespoons lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. You could also just do sour cream.


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Soccer Mom Conundrums, Solved

July 30th, 2012 · 4 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

You may have gathered by now that the only thing we like more than grilling up a big ol’ leg of lamb or writing about grilling that big ol’ leg of lamb is watching our daughters play soccer. I remember when they were young, other parents who had a few years on us, warned once soccer kicks in, you can kiss your weekends goodbye. The sad truth is that even though our friends are probably sick of us giving our one-word excuse for why we can’t go to the barbecue or the birthday party (“soccer”), and even though we had to cancel our Memorial Day vacation plans this year for a tournament (first place, plus a winning goal scored on a breakaway, ahem), I’m not sure what else I’d rather be doing on a Saturday than sitting in my fold-out chair, chatting with parents, and cheering for a fleet of pony-tailed girls who have come to be some of my daughters’ closest friends. (I ask you: Is there anything in the world better than a pony-tailed girl in an oversized soccer uniform?)

But sometimes I wonder if I’m a little nuts. Like when I wake up on the first Saturday of the summer without soccer in the schedule and feel bereft. Or when I go to bed at night thinking about how we can get our 50-pound center midfielder to shoot with more power. Or when I watch the US women’s Olympic team (soccer or otherwise) and think, if I ran a few more miles each week, maybe, just maybe, I could make the 2016 Games? It’s desperate times like these when I’m grateful to have Coach Andy to talk to.  Coach Andy – not to be confused with my Andy, aka First Place Loser Andy – is Andrea Montalbano, my 8-year-old’s soccer coach, and mother of two soccer stars herself.  She started playing when she was eight, went on to four years of Division 1 ball at Harvard, then, as a producer on the Today show, covered, among other things, the 1999 US Women’s National Championship. But best of all, she’s written a bunch of soccer books for girls that Phoebe loves maybe even more than her Man U T-shirt. You’ve already heard about Breakaway, and now, in time for the Olympics, comes Lily Out of Bounds, the first in her series called Soccer Sisters. (2013 Update: Volume 2, Vee Caught Offside, has been released!) In other words, Coach Andy knows a little something about soccer and soccer parents. I thought she might be able to answer a few of my burning questions.

First off, tell me about your book. What does it mean to be a Soccer Sister and how can my daughter become one because it sounds really cool?

AM: A soccer sister is a friend who plays with you, win or lose, who always has your back, who laughs at your worst jokes, who will pick you up and dust you off. The friend who will love you just the same – even if you really blow it.  It actually doesn’t have to be soccer, but really any friend who “gets” you. In the book, 13-year-old soccer star Lily and her teammates live and play by a “Code” for Soccer Sisters and the book is about her struggling to stay true to this code.

Speaking of Codes of Conduct, how does a parent talk to their kid’s coach about getting more playing time or trying out a new position without coming off as a total creep?

AM: Well first off, I absolutely think that parents should talk to coaches but if parents are telling the coach what the players want too often, then it’s a sign that the players don’t have right relationship with their coach. But when kids are too young to speak up for themselves, I think the worst possible time to talk about that kind of thing is right before or right after the game when everyone’s emotions are unusually high. Practice is the place to do it. If you come up to me before practice and ask, “Can Abby try playing center half?” usually I’ll say “sure!” then figure out a way to take it into game plan. But if you do it before a game it’s harder. You don’t want to insert a little unhappiness into the pre- or post-game.

You started playing when you were eight. What pushed you to play competitively and keep playing competitively? Did you have Tiger parents?

AM: They were the opposite of tiger parents. They were supportive but never really had much to do with soccer. My father lived on another continent and my mother worked full time. Until I could drive, I was always reliant on other parents or teammates to drive me to practice and games. I started playing when I was 8 and things got really busy when I was 15 or 16. I was taking AP classes, sometimes playing on three teams at one time, driving an hour each way to practice (more…)

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California Dreaming

July 27th, 2012 · 10 Comments · Travel, Uncategorized

I’m sorry to say that today is my last post for Dinner: A Love Story. This is because I visited Pixar Studios yesterday (the whole family did, actually) and if you were me, and got to see where and how these people work, you would drop everything to figure out a way that you could become a Pixar employee right exactly now. So I’m outta here — blogs and books and readings and this crazy nice review be damned! There will be a lot more on why we were at Pixar later (it’s pretty cool) but for now, I’d just like you to take in the lobby of building, where, yes, we saw staffers on scooters, ate from the legendary free cereal bar  (“The idea is that we’re all just grown-up kids,” explained one staffer), and around every corner, ran into a familiar friendly face like Woody, Buzz, Mike, Sully, Remi, Merida, and Wall-E . We didn’t doubt they were real for one second. We never have, actually.

If you are in San Francisco this weekend, please stop by my reading at Omnivore Books at 3:00 on Saturday, July 28. I’d love to say hello.

Have a great weekend.

P.S. You know I’m kidding about quitting, right?

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Book Club: What to Discuss, What to Eat

July 25th, 2012 · 10 Comments · Baking and Sweets

One of the age-old literary conflicts: What food to serve at book club? Naturally, since the book you will be reading and discussing is Dinner: A Love Story, it stands to reason that you should make a DALS recipe, am I right? And I don’t know about your book clubs, but mine generally meets after dinner which means that the host is responsible for providing a simple spread: some kind of treat, maybe a little cheese, and, of course, wine. Though I haven’t tried this one out on my group, I’m guessing that the above ginger-peach galette, when served with a nice dry German Riesling, will hit the mark.

Now, more important, what to discuss! Before I answer this, I just want to thank the almost one thousand people who entered the Mega Giveaway last month. (All the winners have been alerted, so if you haven’t heard from me, thank you for playing and look out for another biggie coming up in the fall.) Not only was I honored by how many of you read Dinner: A Love Story and took time to enter the contest, but I loved your personal responses to my ridiculously broad question, “What was your favorite part of the book?” Below are the themes that came up again and again:

  • You loved “The Acknowledgments.” Apparently, there were many many tears when I thanked Andy and the girls. As any writer will tell you: Tears=major victory!
  • You loved how I gave you “permission” to not attempt family dinner until your youngest is at least 3 years old. Though a reviewer on amazon vehemently disagreed with this sentiment. (All I’d like to say in response to her review — you’ll find it — is: And you wonder why people are overwhelmed by the idea of family dinner?)
  • You loved “Two Under Two,” and the section on New Parenthood which made you feel, as many of you wrote, “not so alone” and “not so crazy.”
  • You loved that potholder! Oh man, so do I. I wish I could remember which of the girls made it for us, but instead I’ll just give  them both credit.

My favorite of your favorites was, obviously:

  • “We bought the book as an ebook and hard copy since my husband and I have both been enjoying it so much.”

In all seriousness, thank you for the feedback. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling some additional common themes into a discussion guide for your book group. And also, if your group is more than five people and has any interest in me calling in during the discussion, I’d love to say hi. (Email jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com with the subject “Book Club.”) In fact, if you decide to make the galette, I might not have any other choice but to invite myself over.

Click here to download the Dinner: A Love Story Reading Guide (+ Menu)

Click here to buy Dinner: A Love Story.

The pre-bake. Yum.

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Six Summer Salads

July 23rd, 2012 · 17 Comments · Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

Sick of corn and tomatoes accessorizing your burgers and dogs? Of course you aren’t! But I thought I’d give some options for summery side dishes anyway. Be sure to stock up on your olive oil, lemons, salt, and pepper because this time of year, that’s pretty much all you need to lift your side acts to show-stealers.

Wheat Berry Salad with Feta, Cherries, Walnuts and Onions
I’m sick of quinoa. I know Andy has outed me before about this, and it’s not necessarily that I’m sick of eating it. It’s just that there are so many other grains worthy of the rock star status that we have bestowed upon quinoa that I feel it’s my duty to ignite a new grain frenzy going forward. Let’s start with the humble wheat berry: Firm, flavorful, nutty, hard to overcook, a delicious vehicle for any greens or summer vegetables you might want to mix in with it. For now, try tossing in lots of chopped mint, dried cherries (be generous here; you want one in every bite), chopped walnuts, squeeze of lemon, olive oil and red onions that have been sauteed in olive oil and finished with balsamic vinegar. (I set aside a small bowl without feta for a guest at our table who was pregnant and not eating feta) Basic wheat berries instructions: Combine 2 cups wheat berries, 6 cups water, and 2 teaspoons salt in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, until plump and chewy about 45 minutes to an hour. The berries should be slightly firm. Drain and set aside.

Arugula with Radishes and Mint As always, I discover some of my most favorite things when I’m challenged to cook for someone with dietary limiations. In this case I was charged with bringing a salad to my neighbor’s backyard barbecue, which shouldn’t seem like too much of a challenge, given that this time of year greens are about as good as they ever get so don’t need much by way of creative adornment. But no matter how fresh, I usually like just a little feta or Parm -(scratch that…neighbor is dairy free ) or barring that, maybe a splash of  rice vinegar or soy sauce (abort: neighbor is also gluten-free) or, since I can’t use soy sauce, at least a little bit of my new favorite ingredient, fish sauce….woops, you guessed it: he’s also vegan. So instead I tossed arugula, fresh snow peas, scallions, radishes, tons of mint and cilantro then just tossed with a vinaigrette made of equal parts rice vinegar and grapeseed oil with a squeeze of lime and a dash of hot pepper flakes. And guess what? I found myself making it last night for a decidedly more omnivorous crowd: my kids. So insanely fresh tasting and flavorful.

Tomatoes White Beans & Rosemary Phoebe’s camp incorporates cooking again this year, which means that every few days she hops in the car and tells me what we need to have for dinner. This was the inspired idea last week. So easy! So satisfying! So fast! If a bunch of ten-year-olds can make it, you can, too. We used one 15-ounce can of white beans (such as cannelini, rinsed and drained), a handful of cherry tomatoes (halved), 3 scallions (chopped), 1 tablespoon or so of rosemary (chopped), olive oil, squeeze of lemon (+ a bit of lemon zest), salt, pepper.

Shredded Kale Salad Cannot. Get. Enough Kale. I don’t know what it is. When I pick up my stash at the farmer’s market and other people on line inevitably ask what I do with it, I bestow upon them these simple words: Shred, my friend, Shred! I don’t know why it makes such a difference but when it’s presented like confetti, it has a tenderizing effect so the kids are more likely to eat it, it’s summery, easy, and with every bite, you feel like you’ve added a year onto your life. On this particular night, we tossed the kale (I like lacinato or Tuscan) with avocado, pecorino, scallions, a drizzle of good-quality olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, then salt and freshly ground pepper.

Oldie but Goodie Our friends Todd and Anne were having friends over for dinner and being the neighborly person I am I decide to stop by unannounced to drop off a few albums that Andy has been meaning to give them. Well of course I interrupted the whole beautiful dinner — everyone stopped eating and got up to say hello and I felt terrible. But not terrible enough to not notice what they were eating: some delicious looking homemade vegetarian pizzas with eggplant plus Matt & Ted Lee’s soybean and cherry tomato salad with buttermilk dressing that I made all the time two summers ago and had completely forgotten about. Well, guess what I made the very next night?

Yogurt-Dressed Salads I am so loving the yogurt dressing trend. (Or has it been a trend for a while and I just didn’t notice and now everyone’s on to tahini or something?) Anyway, this cole slaw with apple-yogurt dressing caught my eye as did David Tanis’s beet salad with yogurt-dill dressing. Haven’t made either yet, but plan to remedy this very soon. (Photo by Marcus Nilsson)

Related: Julia Moskin interviewed me and a bunch of parent cookbook authors for her New York Times story called “Raw Panic,” i.e. dealing with the summer bounty that “comes with a deadline.” Some delicious looking solutions in there.

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2nd Annual Dolly Awards: Summer Edition!

July 19th, 2012 · 35 Comments · Uncategorized

Heirloom tomatoes, fireflies, juicy peaches, baseball, blackberries bursting at the seams…this can only mean one thing: It’s time for the Second Annual Dolly Awards! Last year, we went strictly by the rule book, adhering to a rigorous awarding process that involved votes, taste tests, many many minutes of research at the local library, as well as a suited-and-tied representative from Coopers & Lybrand overseeing the balloting. This year, we are doing it a little bit differently. We are handing out awards to our favorite drinks, snacks, songs, books, TV series, sanity-savers, etc, so long as the nominee in question meets one qualification: We can’t seem to shut up about it to anyone who will listen. With no further ado, the Second Annual DALS Awards…or as kids these days like to call them….the Dollys!

Most Unncessary Essential: Q Tonic
You know something’s gone seriously wrong when you find yourself paying as much for a bottle of tonic as you do for a bottle of decent wine or two gallons of gasoline. It’s shameful, really. And yet: We keep buying this stuff. Problem is, once you know what real tonic tastes like, you also know that Schweppes and Canada Dry are not real tonic. All you taste is the sugar — or, more accurately, the glucose and fructose. Q Tonic is almost like club soda in its lightness, with just a hint of that weird, herbal, tonic-y taste. It is completely unnecessary and absolutely essential. Damn you, Q Tonic, for costing so much! — Andy

Best Thank-You Gift that’s Not Flowers: Good Steaks
When someone does something nice for you — like, for instance, hosts a party to celebrate a book you have just written –  you could send them a nice little arrangement of roses and peonies. But then, the peonies will wither and die and there will be nothing but the little dots of pollen on the counter to remember your generosity by. You could also send the do-gooders a few pounds of the best steak money can buy — say, a few porterhouses or ribeyes from NY’s Lobel’s – which will pretty much guarantee a thank-you email in all caps saying “OMG! SO MUCH COOLER THAN FLOWERS!” Not to mention the high likelihood that the receiver will feel obligated to share the bounty of happiness with…the giver. –Jenny

Best Album to Cook to: Heartless Bastards, “Arrow”
There are soundtracks to every phase of my life. Because I have (possibly pathological) obsessive tendencies, this means that I listen to one album – or even one song – for months at a time, while I work, when I run, in the car, in my head, and when I cook. It’s not normal. Anway, the soundtrack of this summer is ”Arrow” by the Heartless Bastards.  The only thing worse than bad food writing is bad music writing, so I will refrain from going too deep on why I am in love with lead singer Erika Wennerstrom’s voice or why I think ”Skin and Bone” is pretty much the perfect song or why music like this is like reading a really beautifully written book: it’s a much-needed reminder of how super-talented people can be, which in turn, gives me hope. Instead, I’ll just say: Put this on, outside, the next time you have people over for a cookout, and you will not be sorry. – Andy

Best Tiger Mother Accessory: Size One Soccer Ball
Our girls like to play soccer. They spend at least an hour a day outside, kicking a ball against the low wall that surrounds our patio. It must drive our neighbors crazy — thumpthump, thumpthump, thumpthump – often starting at 8:00 am. This is undoubtedly good for developing ball skills, but if you want to take things to another level, buy a size one ball, which is about the size of a large grapefruit. Every move with one of these bad boys is a little more difficult and requires just a little more concentration, which in turn makes them a little more confident with a regulation-size ball. Which makes them more likely to crush the competition, win the game, win the tournament, get named tournament MVP, get into Harvard, become a concert violinist, speak seven languages, start an NGO in Guatemala, become a CEO, and live happily ever after. Or else! – Andy

Best TV Series Since The Wire: Breaking Bad
I once wrote here about Jenny’s refusal to watch what I consider to be the greatest television show ever made, The Wire. Years later, I have a hard time finding room in my heart to forgive this. This summer, however, she took a crucial first step on the road to redemption by joining me as we – five years late, of course – finally tore through the first four seasons of Breaking Bad. This season’s premiere was just last Sunday, so it’s not too late if you’re not on board already. I know we’re all busy and we don’t exactly have the time to add a new show to our lives – let alone a show about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher turned possibly sociopathic meth cook. I won’t lie: watching this is like getting punched in the face every night. I sleep less because of it. It’s not light fare, but neither was The Wire – or any seriously worthwhile art for that matter. It drives me crazy when people complain about movies/books/shows/etc. being “too dark.” Remember Crime and Punishment, my bros? –Andy

Best Starter: Fried Pickles with Spicy Mayo
I know I said these were things we couldn’t shut up about, but do I really need to say more than…fried pickles with spicy mayo? Well, if you must know, we ordered them at the Ashby Inn in lovely Paris, Virginia last week and have not (more…)

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Summer Stew

July 18th, 2012 · 20 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Deconstructing Dinner, Picky Eating, Pork and Beef

I should probably be stripped of my food blogging rights for telling you to do anything with summer corn besides eat it on the cob with a little salt and butter, but you know I can’t resist the urge to share the discovery of a new deconstructible dinner. Last week was not the first time we’ve eaten this corn, chicken and sausage stew — not by a longshot, we ate a version of it almost every August weekend one summer in the 90s. But since then, we’ve had to think a bit more strategically about dinner, which, of course, is another way of saying, we’ve become parents. I was happy to discover last week, that the family classic joins the ranks of the tortilla soup, the salmon salad, and the other dinners on page 158-163 of my book that can be broken down into their individual components so that they can be more palatable to the kids, and less headache-inducing for the cook. It’s a goodie.

Summer Stew with Chicken, Corn, and Sausage
Adapted from Gourmet

3 links chorizo sausage (I used chicken), sliced into coins
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 or 7 boneless chicken thighs, salted and peppered
1/2 medium onion, chopped
red pepper flakes (optional)
2 to 3 cups corn, cut off the cob
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
basil, chopped

In a Dutch oven or large pot, brown sausage in olive oil over medium heat until crispy. Remove.  Raise heat to medium-high and brown chicken (in batches if necessary) on both sides until mostly cooked through. Remove. Turn down heat to medium-low, add onion, salt, pepper, pepper flakes, and a little more oil if necessary. Stir until slightly wilted. Add corn and tomatoes and stir until vegetables release their juices.

Nestle chicken and sausage back in the vegetables, cover and simmer another 5-10 minutes until chicken is cooked through. Serve with basil and crusty bread in bowls, or separate into individual components for the kid who doesn’t like things “mixed” and serve on a plate.

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The Summer of Self-Sufficiency

July 16th, 2012 · 44 Comments · Baking and Sweets

I know I’m susceptible to these kinds of stories, but there’s no getting around it: I’ve been haunted by a six-year-old for weeks now. Did you guys read the Elizabeth Kolbert article in The New Yorker last month — the one about how spoiled American children are, especially when we compare them to children in other cultures? I was only two paragraphs in before I was reading about a girl from a tribe in the Peruvian Amazon who tagged along on a leaf-gathering trip and pretty soon figured out a way to make herself useful to everyone…by fishing for crustaceans, then cleaning and cooking for everyone in the group. Did you hear me tell you that she is six years old?  By paragraph six, the one describing an American kid’s refusal to untie his own shoes, I had to take a few Lamaze breaths to calm myself down.

I’m exaggerating a little — but not by much. A few weeks ago, a mother-of-two at one of my readings asked me how much I let my kids help out in the kitchen. I answered the way I always do: “I let them make a salad or set the table. Occasionally they’ll make pancakes…but I need to be better about not hovering…It’s a problem I have in general.” Andy, who was sitting in the front row turned around and asked the questioner, “How deep do you want to go?”

If the mark of successful parenting is, as Michael Thompson wrote in his convincing manifesto about sending kids to sleepaway camp Homesick and Happy, “to raise our kids to not need us,” then sometimes I think we may be getting Fs. Well, in the kitchen at least. Soon after I read Kolbert and Thompson I realized that when I was my oldest daughter’s age (10), I was baking from box mixes on my own whenever I wanted to. I was cracking eggs and picking out the shards that inevitably resulted from my shoddy technique; I was scraping the “butter flavor packet” from the Duncan Hines box into the batter all by myself; I was operating an electric mixer and cleaning up the explosion of batter all over the counter; I was even reaching into a hot oven with nary a grown-up in sight.

So I stocked up on box mixes of muffins, breads, cookies and brownies, and issued a mandate to the girls. This is the Summer of Self-Sufficiency, I decreed. From here on out, you may bake any of these desserts whenever the spirit moves you. You are not required to ask my permission. I do not even need to be in the kitchen when you do it. The only rule was that they try to figure out everything on their own. Pretend I’m not here, I told them. Before you ask me where the measuring cups are, try to find them yourself. I trust you, I told them. And I convinced myself this was true.

Needless to say, they immediately embraced the challenge and Abby dived right in with a batch of Arrowhead Mills Bake-With-Me Brownies. I was working at the kitchen table doing my best to ignore her as she cracked her eggs, spilled the powdery batter all over the dog, pulled her little stool all around the kitchen to reach measuring cups and mixers and set timers. I wasn’t even looking when she reached into the 350° oven to pull out the pan of brownies and realized that only one of her hands was covered with an oven mitt.


Her shriek was Bugs Bunny with an unmistakable hint of fright. I filled a plastic bag with ice and gave it to her.

Guess what? She burned her finger. Just like I did the week before when I reached for the baking dish that I didn’t realize was still hot. Just like I’ve done a million times in my life beginning when I was a kid teaching myself how to bake. True, if I had been supervising, it wouldn’t have happened. But if this little experiment is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, my guess is that next time she reaches into an oven, she won’t make the mistake again.

The Mixes

So far they’ve tried Arrowhead Mills Brownie Mix, two from Dr. Oetker (apple cinnamon muffins which I’d give a B+ and their chocolate chip cookies, which was more like a C+), and the cornbread from Trader Joe’s (not my fave, sorry TJoe). I like the Arrowhead Mills Bake-With-Me line because they are designed for kids (as opposed to Dr. Oetker which instructed my 1o-year-old to “mix together butter and sugar” without going into any details about creaming. Hence the C+). Have you guys had good luck with baking mixes that are kid-friendly? Let me know so I can stock up.


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Why a Dinner Diary?

July 16th, 2012 · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

I’ve never met a diary I didn’t like. I can still picture my very first one–my dad bought it for me. It was fake crimson leather with gold piping, about the size of a postcard, and clamped shut with a lock and key that was completely ineffective when it came to warding off nosy siblings. Over the years I’ve kept journals for just about every corner of my life. In the throes of an obsession with my first crush I recorded the date of every interaction with him and what I was wearing. Before I digitized my calendar, I’d buy planner books that doubled as running journals and I’d draw a little “R” icon with a circle around it on every day I logged a few miles on the trail. And, perhaps in my most bizarre display of obsessive journaling, every night since February 22, 1998, which was a few months after I got married, I’ve recorded what I’ve cooked or eaten for dinner in a blank book.

Why? It’s a valid question. And one I’ve been asked a lot since my book, based on that dinner journal, has just been published. I think it has something to do with the fact that I’m one of those sad (perhaps deluded) people who believes that when I write things down, I have more control over my life. This strategy doesn’t always work (that first crush of mine moved on to a girl named Michelle who had a gap between her teeth and shared his fondness for Jethro Tull), but in the case of my diary, I have to say, I think I might have stumbled onto something. Initially, I started writing down what I was making for dinner because I wanted to organize myself. My husband and I loved to cook, but back then in our twenties, working long hours to prove ourselves to demanding bosses, and with no babysitter to relieve, we had a hard time figuring out how to make a home-cooked dinner happen with any kind of regularity. After a particularly grueling 5:00 p.m. back-and-forth email (What should we do for dinner? I don’t know, what do you think? I don’t know what do you feel like? I don’t know, how about you? etc. etc.), I decided to turn things around. On Sundays, we would decide what we wanted to make, write it down in this dedicated “Dinner Diary” as it came to be known, go shopping for everything we needed, and see what happens.Fourteen years, two kids, one Boston Terrier, and 4,500 dinners later, we’re still at it. Through weeknight dinners, vacation dinners, engagement dinners, new parenthood dinners, picky eater dinners, ski house dinners, regular Tuesday-night-after-soccer-practice dinners. My diary turned into this blog, which turned into that book Dinner: A Love Story. (I will go on record to say that never in the history of cookbooks has it been so easy to pick a line-up of recipes that were destined to become keepers: I just looked at the ones that showed up month after month.) After all these years, we are more adept at improvising with what’s on hand so we no longer have to use the diary to plan for the upcoming week. Instead, I usually record what we’ve eaten after the fact, because I can’t quite break the habit, and also because taken together, all these meals tell a story that would otherwise be lost.

And ultimately, that’s why I keep any diary, dinner or otherwise.

Related: My Dinner Diary’s 15-Minutes of Fame in the New York Times.

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From the Mailbox

July 13th, 2012 · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

From Whitney Brown:

Your book has accomplished the task of making me want to be a better mom while simultaneously making me realize I’m not doing such a bad job anyway. Thank you for the self esteem boost and for lighting a fire to keep me improving. The book and blog are perfect.

From Kim Rogers:

Thanks for writing such a wonderful book and sharing it with all your readers.  [Above] is a photo of my daughter Meggie that I would like to share with you.  Wanted you to know that your book is a hit among all ages.  She has decided to make 1 of your recipes each week and your book is her go to book. Thanks for being an inspiration to many!

From Noellen P:

I’ve never emailed a blog writer (sorry BOOK writer) but I recently *finished Dinner: A Love Story and wanted to thank you.  This is the first cookbook I’ve ever READ and not just skimmed through to look at the recipes.  I’ve been a blog reader since 2010 when I first had my son, and even then your writing and recipes spoke to me.  You truly have one of the nicest, most honest voices out there.  Not just when it comes to cooking, but also as it relates to parenting, relationships, working wife/mother, friend, neighbor, etc. I hope one day I can command my kitchen with the same ease, flair and heart as you do.

Thanks to everyone for all the thoughtful feedback. Keep it coming!

PS: Monday is the deadline for the Mega GiveawayTell me your favorite part of my book (not on the comment field of this post, but through the official contest survey) and be eligible to win some pretty awesome prizes.

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Eating Chicken, Solving Problems

July 12th, 2012 · 24 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Grilling, Kitchenlightenment

After a rambling conversation this morning on the way to camp that began with how digital media is taking over print, and how — according to Abby — maybe this means that trees are being saved, but how — according to Phoebe — discarded electronics account for a massive percentage of the waste in landfills, and then, naturally, to Wall-E, there was a pause. I knew the wheels were turning.

Then, from Abby, heavy with the weight of realization: “There’s so much in this world that needs to be fixed.”

You don’t have to be an 8-year-old to be overwhelmed by all that needs fixing or to be weighed down by the guilt of not doing enough to help with the fixing. And I think that’s why I was so happy with the interview I did on Wired’s Superbug with Maryn McKenna. Not the part where I’m talking, which is the same old stuff you hear me mouth off about all the time, but the introduction where McKenna unloads this theory:

I have a small private belief — for which, despite being a science writer, I can produce no data — that much of the complex difficulty of the American food system would vanish if people knew how to cook…If people trusted they could feed themselves, without much effort or advance planning, they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to the lure of fast and processed food. And if sales of those diminished, the market for the cheap products of industrial agriculture would diminish too. This I believe.

To this theory I will add my own small private beliefs: If you know how to cook, or even if you just decide to sit down to dinner regularly, you might just wind up fixing these things, too:

The Budget Problem Cooking for yourself is a lot cheaper than ordering in or going out. Especially once you get into the rhythm of doing it regularly and building from leftovers, instead of starting from scratch every single night.

The Working Late Problem If you know you have to get home to cook (or even if you know you just have to be home to eat), you will work more efficiently to get out of the office at a decent hour. I also believe that you will be twice as efficient if, before you left the house in the morning, you had the good sense to get the momentum going on dinner by marinating a pork loin in rice wine vinegar, ginger, and soy sauce. (See: How to Plan Family Dinner which includes a weekly meal plan to help with this.)

The Obesity Problem It’s not breaking news that a third of children in this country are clinically obese and that this number is expected to rise. To cook your own food is to know what’s going into your own food, and to have control over your food instead of the other way around. Not to mention dinner provides an organic opportunity to actually talk about what’s on your plate, which ingredients were combined to make what’s on your plate, and where those ingredients came from. This will hopefully lead to healthy eating outside our sheltered little world when the girls are charged with making their own choices.

The Connection Problem I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can spend all day with my kids and yet not have one meaningful interaction with them until I sit down at the dinner table. (On the other hand, I can spend half a day ignoring them as I experiment with an Asian barbecue sauce, only to watch them scarf down the sweet-and-sour chicken at the table in two minutes before asking Can we go back to playing lacrosse now?)

The Parental Guilt Problem I used to call family dinner “My Magic Guilt Eraser” because being able to make a meal for them every night went a long way towards making me feel better about being away from them all day. But more recently I’ve also discovered that dinner also has the power to erase the guilt that naturally builds due to any of the following reasons: Forgot Crazy Hat Day; Missed the baseball game when (of course) your kid scored winning run; Kept promising kids to see PiratesBand of Misfits in the theater yet never quite got around to it; Can’t quite get your 8-year-old to love Holes as much as you do, so stopped reading it halfway through, and now can’t bring oneself to either continue book or start on new one, resulting in no bedtime reading for waaaay too long a stretch of time.

Seriously, can you name any other scenario where an Asian-Style Barbecue Chicken is working that hard for you…solving all these problems for your family and (bonus!) the world? I’m telling you, it’s not an accident that the subtitle of my book is what it is: It all begins at the family table. This I believe.

Asian-Style Barbecue Chicken
Adapted from about five different recipes. I just threw a bunch of sh*t in there and, lo and behold, it worked.

6 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/8 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 garlic clove, halved
1/2 medium onion, in large chunks
2 tablespoons rice vinegar)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey
1 dried chile pepper
hot pepper paste or a squeeze of Sriracha (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
4-5 lime wedges

In a small saucepan, whisk all ingredients, except for chicken and lime, over low heat and heat until everything has dissolved, about 10 minutes. Remove from stovetop and let cool. (You can keep the onions and garlic in there.) Once it’s cool, pour into a small bowl. (Any extra keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator.)

Prepare grill. Drizzle chicken pieces with a little oil (canola is fine) salt, and pepper. When the grill is hot, grill the chicken (no sauce yet) for a total of 8 to 10 minutes, turning all the while. Brush the chicken with the barbecue sauce and cook another 3 minutes, basting with the sauce the entire time, and turning pieces frequently so they don’t burn. Serve with lime wedges.

We served this with basic sushi rice and a shredded kale salad that had been tossed with tarragon vinegar, olive oil, avocado, and scallions.

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And All I Got Was This Lousy Bean Dip

July 10th, 2012 · 7 Comments · Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

I finally got around to downloading photos from the mini vacation we just enjoyed at my sister’s beach house. There were about 400 shots, each one screaming summer louder than the next, and I’m somewhat alarmed to report that only about 20 of them contained the presence of an actual human. Though I’m unable to prove it in pixels, I swear we did normal things that normal vacationing families do: We bodysurfed in the Atlantic, worked out the kinks in our backhands (some of us, at least…mine is forever ruined), did the whole Breakfast at Wimbledon thing, never bothered to change out of our bathing suits, engulfed crime novels and graphic novels, went on bike rides and runs along redwing-blackbird studded beach roads. But from the look of this download, you’d think it was all dinner all the time: corn and tomatoes, summer fruit galettes, soft-shelled crabs, Dark & Stormies, grilled fish tacos, bright slaws, and the beautiful minty pecorino’d fava beans you are looking at above, which are in season for approximately six more minutes, so use them immediately. I’m already depressed about how fast summer is going — so anyway, who has time to take pictures?

Fava Bean, Mint, and Pecorino Crostini

Remove fava beans from pods. (I used about four handfuls of pods.) Boil beans in water for about 3 to 4 minutes, then immediately plunge in ice bath. Remove each bean from its casing (this is a big pain, be forewarned) and add to a medium bowl. Add a tablespoon olive oil, frehsly grated Pecorino a small squeeze of lemon, 1 sprig of mint (chopped) salt and pepper. Mix and mash with a fork until it reaches desired consistency. Serve with baguette slices.

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A Tale of Two Nightstands

July 9th, 2012 · 14 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

Seven or eight years ago, I resolved to be better about my non-work reading. I made a list of books I either (a) felt ashamed I’d never read, or (b) hadn’t read once, so long ago, they were practically lost to me now. Books like Don Quixote, The Idiot, Jude the Obscure, Dead Souls, Herzog, My Antonia, The Sound and the Fury. I bought them all and stacked them, neatly, on my nightstand. That was one ambitious pile of paper, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I could almost feel my brain expanding. It’s not worth making excuses here — though, okay, if you insist: work, kids, life, that second glass of wine, this effing blog — but I ended up reading only one of those books, The Sound and the Fury. The rest of the stack sat there untouched for what seemed like forever, accumulating dust, menacing me every night before bed, reminding me of my failure. I finally relegated it to a box in the basement. Pathetic, I know. I didn’t used to be this way. I used to be better. I used to find time for pleasure reading. I used to be more like my kids. I can’t tell you how much vicarious happiness I get now from watching them burn through books, how I envy their undistracted minds. Jenny emailed me the above picture last week of Abby, folded into her little red rocking chair, reading Coraline — which she’d been eyeing nervously for a couple of years, not sure if she was ready for it, having been warned of its deep freakiness by her older sister. Well, she finally took the plunge and knocked it out in one afternoon and then spent the next two days telling me, at great length, every detail of its plot and why it was so good. (Her full review is below.) Phoebe, too: when school ends, a switch is thrown and she goes into overdrive. The week after school ended and before camp started — a rare stretch of five totally unscheduled days — she sat on her floor and read for five hours straight, stopping only because, as she told Jenny after staggering downstairs, she couldn’t “stop her eyes from moving from left to right.” Last weekend, when Phoebe and I were out on one of our long Saturday runs/bike rides, we hit the four mile mark, made the turn to head back, paused for a second, and drank some of her juice box. “Okay,” I said, “we’re half-way there. Homeward bound.” And she said, “Yup, there’s no place like home. Except for maybe the library.” I loved, and envied, that. — Andy

Wonderland by Tommy Kovac, illustrated by Sonny Liew

In a nutshell: “This one is based on Alice in Wonderland. It’s about a girl who is a housemaid for the White Rabbit. Her name is Mary Ann. Her master rabbit is falsely accused of being, like, what’s that word for becoming an ally? Like, joining forces? [Conspiring?] Yeah, the rabbit is accused of conspiring with Alice to overthrow the Queen of Hearts. I don’t want to give the rest away.”

For people who like: “Ummm, books that are, like, a little different from the original. It’s an old story, told in a new way, with a character you’ve never met. She’s cool.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “The artwork. Every page is so beautiful to look at. It’s by the same artists who did the Wizard of Oz graphic novels, so it has that sketchy, kind of spooky feel to it.”

The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

In a nutshell: ”In the beginning, a narrator is speaking about how he sees this bat, always hanging on his house. Then the bat leaves his family to be a poet and the story, interestingly, switches the narrator to the bat’s voice. Every night, the bat listens to a mockingbird sing poetry and he likes the idea of that. So he starts writing his own poetry that he can sing. He shows it to the mockingbird and the mockingbird approves of it, but gives him a couple suggestions. Soon he meets a chipmunk and the chipmunk is much nicer. Every time the bat writes a poem, he reads it to the chipmunk. This story is simple, not action-packed, but heartfelt.”

For people who like: ”Books that don’t have a big problem or a fancy plot, such as The Mouse of Amherst, The Islander, or Cat Wings.”

The thing Abby loves best about it: ”Two things: First of all, the pictures are exceptional. We all know that Maurice Sendak will be a legend forever. Second thing is that the book, you don’t just read words. You image every single simile and sentence, even every word you can see in your head.”

The Baby-Sitters Club (Nos. 1-3), graphic adaptations by Raina Telgemeier

In a nutshell: “This series is about a group of friends with really different personalities that form a babyistting club together. While they’re babysitting, crazy things always happen. Like, a girl catches a fever of 104 and no neighbors answer when the babysitter goes looking for help. Then another group of kids copies their idea for a club, but they turn out to be horrible babysitters who don’t show up for their jobs and things like that, and the real babysitter’s club has to stop them.”

For people who like:Smile, which another one of Raina Telgemeier’s books, and the original Babysitter’s Club chapter books. Basically, these books are way more interesting than they sound. They’re about kids with average, everyday lives, and that can be fun to read about.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “How they always seem to conquer their problems, no matter how tricky. I also love that these are graphic versions of the original books, because graphic novels are my favorite things to read.”

The Great Cheese Conspiracy by Jean Van Leeuwen*

In a nutshell: “This book is about three mice, all different. These mice are frantic for cheese, like every other mouse in the world. They live in a movie theater, and they get bored of eating only popcorn. So soon, a new store called The Cheese Barrel opens up in town. It sells three things: cheese, cheese, and cheese. This is just a mouse’s most favorite destined dream. They go undercover to break into the store and steal the cheese. If you want to know more, read it.” (more…)

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The Mega Giveaway: An Update

July 9th, 2012 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

I have extended the Mega Giveaway Contest deadline for one more week, so remember: pick up a copy of Dinner: A Love Story (at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, your local library, your best friend’s house, wherever!) then answer one question to be eligible  to win one of a dozen really excellent gifts. Click here for more details.

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Happy Fourth

July 1st, 2012 · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

We are taking a little vacation — where there will no doubt be Aunt Patty‘s flag cake* — but instead of allowing DALS to go dark, we thought we’d spend a week sifting through our old faves. We’ve written almost 500 posts since this thing started, and the weird thing about a blog is the way it sometimes feels, once a post falls off the home page, like it’s gone forever. Since there are a few new readers here since the book came out, and since we barely remember writing some of these posts ourselves, we’re going to dip into the archives and replay a few oldies. Hope you enjoy, and Happy Fourth.

Aunt Patty’s Flag Cake: On a cookie sheet or large platter, arrange thick slices of pound cake (we prefer Entenmann’s and you’ll need two of them) in a rectangular, sheet-cake size shape. (You do not need a sheet cake pan.) In a mixing bowl, whip 2 pints of heavy cream with a teaspoon vanilla extract and a teaspoon or two of powdered sugar until thick and creamy. Spread cream on top of pound cake. Design flag as shown with blueberries and strawberries or raspberries.

Update: We have cleared greatest hits from the home page to make room for original posts. 

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