Entries from September 2012

School Year’s Resolution 3: No iPhone at the Restaurant Table

September 27th, 2012 · 41 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Dear Jenny,

Any insight on how to enjoy a restaurant meal with a three year old that doesn’t involve handing over the iPhone? The coloring book is kind of wearing off–and a few weeks ago my family went out for my bday dinner which kinda felt like a flush of $75 down the toilet because we spent most of the dinner telling her to stop standing up on the (red velvet) banquette and eavesdropping on nearby diners. I feel like if we were to hand over our phone, she would be so happily engaged, but then the seal would be broken, and she would ask for the phone all the time — not just at restaurants but anytime anywhere —  and whine for it, and then it would just become that process of saying no all the time. So in a way, I’d rather stay in or have the lame dinner with her than initiate a daily (hourly?) nagging moment, Can I play with your phone?  What do you do? What do your readers do? Is it, as I imagine, a better investment of $150 to dine out and hire a sitter than drop $75 and bring the daughter?

Love,
Rory

Dear Rory,

I feel for you. I mean, what’s the point of going out to dinner if it means either a) being ignored by your children or b) yelling at them. Unlike many claims we’ve made about parenting before we actually became parents (my favorite: “We will never be a slave to the nap”) we’ve somehow managed to stick with a No-Electronics-at-the-Restaurant policy. In large part this was because early on we discovered that the attention span for one of those little Dover sticker books seemed to correlate almost exactly to the amount of time it takes for a plate of popcorn shrimp to be prepared.  The books come in all themes — firehouse, zoo, airport, bakery — and for my daughters are almost like portable doll houses. I used to buy them by the bucket load and just kept one or two in my bag to pull out as needed. I have other friends who swear number puzzles (where kids match the number on the stickers to numbers on the grid to piece together a puzzle) do the job just as well. But either way, in my experience, the most important thing to remember when rolling out an activity in these kinds of situations is to make it a surprise. I always found that the novelty and the newness of the item is what buys us extra time. That and the imaginary goodwill I am convinced it fosters — Mom, you were so nice to get me a present that I think I’ll behave for the rest of the meal. (If anyone out there has a solution that doesn’t involve bribery, please enlighten.)

Now, I have yet to try these out on the pre-K segment of the population, but my guess is that many young diners would be thrilled to show up at the local Tex-Mex to find one of Marion Deuchars‘ placemats set before them. You know her, right? Well you probably know her even if you don’t know her. She’s the world-famous illustrator whose sketches and handwriting help give Jamie Oliver cookbooks so much of their warmth and homespun appeal. A few years ago, she delighted design nerds the world over when she entered the genre of the oversize, design-minded Doodle Books for kids. Well, anyway, we are all in luck because Deuchars’ latest book in this genre is geared towards the dining population and it’s called Let’s Make Great Placemat Art.  To get an idea of how different and cool it is (no wordsearch and mazes here), check out a few samples below. Stick the pad in your bag before you go out to dinner (you can rip one off at a time) and I’m betting all the diners at the table end up happy.

I might also add that the book costs decidedly less than a babysitter.

Love,
Jenny

And

 

PS:  Marion Deuchars was nice enough to offer a free downloadable placemat exclusively to DALS readers. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

PPS. I have some fun giveaways coming up on facebook, so be sure to follow me there if you want in on the action.

This is part of the School Year’s Resolution Series. Please click here for Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and here for Resolution 2 (Master the Weekly Shop). And feel free to request some advice about your own resolutions — jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com. If you have questions for Andy, just let me know and I will forward on to him. 

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Interesting

September 26th, 2012 · 16 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Posts by Andy, Quick, Sides, Salads, Soup, Uncategorized

Jenny’s mom is an extremely nice person. She was raised right, is how I think about it: quick with a smile, asks questions about you and compliments you on your mashed potatoes, stops and chats with virtual strangers at the stationery store in town, and most impressive of all, consistently chooses not to say anything if she has nothing nice to say at all. She was elected May Queen in college, for crying out loud — and that doesn’t happen if you’re unkind to people. Which is not to say she is not discerning or without opinions, and strong ones, of her own; it’s just that she’s monk-like in her discipline and is somehow able, when called for, to keep these opinions to herself. She’d rather know how you are than tell you how she’s feeling; seriously, the woman is incapable of complaint.

If you know her, though, and listen carefully, there are ways to determine where she really stands on things. There is a word she uses that seems innocuous, but is, in fact, devastating. It is a hammer wrapped in velvet. When you hear it, you know you’re a goner. Interesting. As in:

When opening the box containing her birthday present, a sweater-dress you sensed was a little risky, fashion-wise, but went ahead and bought for her anyway because, hey, it’s cashmere and how could someone not love a cashmere sweater-dress: “Oh, it’s a sweater. Thank you. What a lovely color.”

But do you like it?

“Well,” folding it neatly back into the box, “it’s…innnteresting.”

After watching you toss a handful of red pepper flakes into the pot that will soon hold the sauce for the pasta: ”What is that you’re adding there?”

Red pepper flakes. Just a few.

Innnteresting.”

After going to see Pulp Fiction, which you’d just seen and had been kind of blown away by and talked about to the point that she finally decided to go see it for herself: “I found the director’s style very…innnteresting.”

Her use of interesting had achieved the level of Family Lore long before I entered the picture. It was, apparently, a cherished Christmas morning ritual, the response to every new bathrobe or attempted slipper upgrade. Say it out loud at any family gathering, even today, and everyone cracks up: it has achieved that kind of shorthand power. Jenny had warned me about it before our first holiday we spent together, telling me to keep an eye on her mom as she unwrapped the latest set of pajamas her dad had picked out at Lord and Taylor, thinking that maybe, somehow, this would be the year when he would succeed, when his gift would not be deemed…innnnteresting.

The first time I encountered it for myself, though, was in 1994, in the kitchen of the brick row house I shared with three roommates in Brooklyn. I was a 22 year-old editorial assistant who wore pleated pants and spent a shameful amount of time watching the Yankees and drinking Heineken. Thinking maybe it was time to act like a grown-up, I invited Jenny and her parents to dine one Saturday night in my grime-encrusted living room as a thank you, I suppose, for being nice to me. Looking back on it now, this must have been the first time I’d ever entertained. I mopped and Dust-Bustered and lit candles, but when it came to planning a meal, my cupboard was pretty bare. I knew what my own mom did in these situations, and I had a shaky grasp on three or four meals, so I decided to approximate a dinner she might have put together at home: I’d start with cheese and some fancy water crackers, maybe a bunch of green grapes. For the main course, I decided to do a chicken barley soup, a salad dressed by Paul Newman, and a loaf of bread from the local Italian bakery. For dessert: rice pudding (with raisins) from The New York Times Cookbook.

We were sitting on the cratered couch, eating the cheese and crackers, when Jenny’s mom asked me what was on the menu.

“Chicken barley soup,” I said.

“Soup for dinner,” she said. “Innnteresting.”

Oooooof, that hurt. And, okay, so she was right. Soup at a dinner party is maybe not the best call, but I was 22 and it was either that or chili, so I went with what seemed the more sophisticated option. Plus, in my defense: the presence of barley raises this, Chunky-style, from a soup to a meal — or, at least that’s what I told myself. I ended up marrying Jenny, of course, so it couldn’t have been that bad. – Andy

Chicken Barley Soup

Few glugs olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme
4 cups homemade chicken stock (if you have the book, see page 289) or store-bought chicken broth, plus more as needed
3-4 boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup uncooked barley
Handful fresh parsley, for serving

In a large stockpot, warm olive oil and red pepper flakes over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the onion, carrots, celery, salt and pepper and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until onion is soft. Add the stock, bay leaf, and thyme, and bring to a boil. Add the uncooked chicken and simmer, over medium-low heat, for 15-20 minutes. Remove chicken from pot and, using two forks, shred it. Return chicken back to pot, add barley, and simmer on low, covered, for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until barley is tender but not mushy. Add more stock, if necessary. Serve with parsley and a fat slice of good bread.

 

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Small Triumphs

September 24th, 2012 · 19 Comments · Baking and Sweets

There’s this meal — it comes every single day whether I like it or not and it is a continuing source of stress for me. At this meal, my kids turn their noses up at anything new; we’re always in a rush because we are pressed for time, and I am perenially un-inspired to come up with new things to make for them. The meal? Breakfast. Both Andy and I have gone on record declaring it the Hate Story to our house’s Dinner’s Love Story. Somehow, when the girls show up at the evening table, they show up with minds open, tastebuds flexing. They will eat oysters and duck curry and on occasion have been known to fight me for the last piece of Hamachi crudo. But at breakfast? Forget it. If it’s not one of the SuperStarches of the Morning Table (French Toast, Pancakes, Bagels) they’re not interested.

Until now. I’m almost afraid to type this for fear of jinxing things, but we seem to be in a good place — thanks to Abby’s sudden affection for the overpriced, oversweetened Starbucks parfaits, and Mom’s polite suggestion to maybe just maybe have one at a different time of day? Like say…Breakfast? Phoebe got on board as soon as I told her we could make the granola and she could customize the batch however she liked it.

And we were off.

The backbone: I start with a simplified version of the one I loved in the Times last yearOats, brown sugar, coconut, syrup, oil, salt, and cinnamon.

Then we add the Variables: Pistachios, sunflower seeds, sliced almonds, raisins, dried cherries, cardamom. Not shown: pepitas, hazelnuts, chopped walnuts, flaxseed, sesame, millet, dried pineapple, apricots, or apples.

Basic Granola

In a large bowl, mix together:

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup maple syrup or honey (have not tried agave, but I will very soon)
1/2 cup oil (I like olive oil, but anything works)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Then mix in your pre-bake extras (any or all of the following):

1 1/2 cups nuts (such as pistachios, sunflower seeds, sliced almonds, pepitas, hazelnuts, chopped walnuts)
1/2 cup coconut flakes (unsweetened)
1/4 cup of variables (such as millet, sesame seeds)

Spread mixture on a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer and bake at 300°F for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer granola to a large bowl and let cool.

Finish by tossing in some post-bake extras.
handful of M&Ms, chocolate chips, carobs
handful of dried fruit such as: dried cherries, apricots, raisins, pineapples, apples.

Store in an easily accessible jar. To make parfaits, layer plain yogurt, granola, honey, and fresh fruit (such as jarred Morello cherries from Trader Joe’s — pictured — or pomegranate seeds, strawberries, blueberries) in the most fun glass you can find.

Note: Phoebe picked the basic formula plus coconut flakes plus pistachios and almonds. She likes hers with no fresh fruit. Abby takes hers with cherries and pomegranate seeds.

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School Year’s Resolution 2: Master the Weekly Shop

September 20th, 2012 · 33 Comments · Favorites, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

Now that we are three weeks into the school year, I am assuming you have all mastered School Year’s Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and we are free to move on to a very popular cry for help among the DALS readership: I don’t know how to shop efficiently for dinner. This is a little tricky because how and what you pick up at the grocery store is inextricably linked to how you eat, so no two shopping lists for the Piggly Wiggly or Wegman’s or your local Farmer’s Market or Trader Joe’s (where we go) are ever going to look the same. So what I’ve tried to do here is outline a few rules and strategies that we shop by that can hopefully be universally applied. This list also assumes we all want to at least try to have a sit-down dinner at least four times between Sunday and Friday.

Rule 1: Put it in Writing Those of you who have read my book, know that I began this whole dinner ritual by sitting down on Sunday with my dinner diary, writing down the meals I wanted to make in the upcoming week, then shopping for everything we needed to make that happen. This strategy helped kickstart the ritual in a few ways: It got the momentum going; it eliminated those odious late-afternoon back-and-forths (What do you want to eat tonight? I don’t know, what do you want? I don’t know what do you?); and later, when we had school-aged kids, it helped lessen, if only a little bit, the existential dread of lunch-packing. (It’s so much easier to do the first pack of the week with a full fridge than with a fridge that’s been run dry.) Ultimately, the goal here is to take the daily thinkwork out of dinner. If you come up with a plan for the week, you just freed up all that psychic energy to direct towards more exciting pursuits, like watching, dissecting, and ruminating over all four seasons of Breaking Bad.

Rule 2: Squeeze in a Sexy Shop Another reason we hit Trader Joe’s on Sunday is because our farmer’s market is open on Saturdays. Unlike the dutiful, checklisty supermarket shop, this is where we can let the food (as opposed to the list) inform the shop. So we pick up what looks good — almost always fish that was swimming off Hampton Bays just hours earlier and a bundle of Tuscan kale, sorrel, summer spinach, or any other beautiful greens that last us the week and allow us to skip their mediocre bagged counterparts at Trader Joe’s. And there we have Meal 1: Grilled Fish with some kind of greens.  I’m not saying your Meal One has to be this. It might be a bolognese made from some good grass-fed beef, or pasta with fresh butternut squash or a kale and feta quiche made with the eggs from your favorite farmstand. The point is: We almost always earmark our Sunday dinners to be market-inspired. (And please don’t tell anyone I just called kale-shopping sexy.)

Rule 3: Make a Realistic Line-up Now, for that dutiful, checklisty shop. It’s crucial to keep it simple — save the Nathan Myrhvold Foamy Broth Number for Saturday night. The loose formula that I sometimes use when dreaming up my line-up is the following: (more…)

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My Top 10 Skillet Dinners

September 18th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Dinner, Quick

Even before I was given a shiny new 12-inch All-Clad stainless skillet for my birthday last year, which makes me sigh in apprecation every time I pull it out of the pot drawer, there was always a special place in my heart for the Skillet Dinner. Once I got the formula down for it…

[Add fat to pan; brown meat; remove meat; add onions and other vegetables; return meat to pan with liquid; simmer til meat is cooked]

…there seemed to be no end to the combinations I could churn out for a quick one-pot family dinner that was made for improvising. Here are my top 10 favorites. I’m always looking for more, so feel free to suggest your own.

1. Chicken with Artichokes (Pictured above) A classic. It’s the first dinner I think of when I spy my bag of frozen artichokes in the freezer. It’s on the line-up this week.

2. Fried Rice with Pork or Shrimp - You need leftover rice for this one (and the next) or you just need to pick up the pre-cooked rice in the freezer section of Trader Joe’s.

3. Crispy Rice Omelet with Soy Sauce - Good vegetarian option and takes 10 minutes.

4. Chicken with Lemon-Butter-Wine Sauce - The full dinner is not cooked all at once, but just add some  spinach or kale to the pan after you’ve finished with the chicken and wine and butter and you’ve got yourself a meal.

5. Pan-fried Scallops I’ve heard from so many of you on this one — you seem to especially love it when served with the corn-bacon hash. This is why it lives both on the blog and in the book.

6. Pork Chops with Tomatoes and Kale - A quickened Bugiali recipe that I really need to make more often. So simple and the kale turns out silky and sweet — which is just right for my kids.

7. Beef with Broccoli - A recipe developed by my friend and former Gourmet kitchen staffer Melissa Roberts. Good all year long, but great when broccoli is in season.

8. Cornmeal-crusted Chicken with Soy-Lime Sauce OK, fine, this isn’t all done in one skillet, but it’s so quick and satisfying that tossing together a salad on the side will not feel like extra work.

9. Chicken with Spinach and Warm Bacon Vinaigrette How could this be bad? And you don’t have to feel so guilty about the bacon because remember, a little goes a looong way.

10. Shrimp with Feta - We made this once a week in the early days of parenting. My daughters are currently in an anti-feta phase which makes things difficult, but I’m thinking they need to just suck it up and deal.

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Bringing Home the Bread

September 14th, 2012 · 21 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Rituals

The First Best Thing my father ever came home with after work was, by far, a Ford Granada. It was powder blue, four doors, with a white vinyl top, and when I hopped on the kitchen counter to peek out the window that overlooked our driveway, I remember saying to myself, Is this real? Did my father just pull into our home with a new car? No matter that the Granada epitomized the darkest days of late-70s American car design. This sedan was ours, it was new, it beat the hell out of our rickety old white Pontiac wagon, and in the big huge world of two siblings, two parents, and my kindergarten class, news didn’t get much more monumental than that.

The Second Best Thing that my father ever came home with after work was the soundtrack to Grease. My sister and I were playing in a back room with some of the neighborhood kids and I knew we were in for a treat when I saw the Sam Goody bag tucked under his arm. We had already seen the movie and knew the words to all the songs but there was jumping and shrieking when he made the dramatic reveal.  The fact that I was seven years old and obsessed with a movie where pregnancy and sex are routinely discussed, and that now, as a mom, I can’t imagine screening it for my 8- and 10-year-old, well, see above re: late 70s.

The Third Best Thing that my father came home with after work (which is another way of saying “for dinner” because he was always home in time to eat) was a freshly baked challah. Unlike the First and Second Best Thing, this was a gift I could look forward to fairly regularly. On his one-mile walk home from the Larchmont train station, Dad would swing by our local bakery – the one with the display case of chocolate éclairs and Napoleons and a roll of baker’s twine hanging from the ceiling –  and pick up a loaf. On most nights the challah was of the plain braided variety. But on special nights, it was a challah that had been studded with plump golden raisins. As soon as Dad handed me the loaf in the waxy bag, I’d slice up a still-slightly-warm piece, spread a schmear of Breakstone’s whipped salted butter on top, and let the happiness wash over me. Life was about as good as it could get for a girl wearing a velour warm-up suit.

Much as I like to think my delight was the main reason he brought home the bread every night (remember: my Dad was the philosopher who coined the famous food-happiness concept of “Absolute Value”) the ritual had actually been in place long before John Travolta was in style. Every Sunday morning as a teenager, my dad and his father, Phillip (who is pictured above with his brothers at his family table and who, like all my grandparents, died before I was born), would walk north from their 165th Street apartment in the Bronx to their local bakery on 167th Street. During the week, my grandfather was up and out the door before anyone was awake – he worked as a furrier in the Garment District – but on Sundays, he and my Dad would head out to do the Crucial Sunday Morning Job of selecting breads and danishes for the family breakfast. They’d talk about the normal stuff — school, my grandfather’s job — but the one-on-one bread-gathering mission was a reason to look forward to Sunday. As my dad recalls, it was the first time he felt like a grown-up.

The story of this ritual has taken on a misti-ness over the years, especially as I grow older and realize how valuable these select memories are and how crucial it is to keep the rituals associated with them alive. We do not have regular Friday night Shabbat dinner in my house like my father did, and in truth, if my sister didn’t organize Rosh Hashana (and Yom Kippur and Passover and Channukah) dinners every year, I’m not so sure I’d get them in the calendar myself. But on the days of the year that do not qualify as High Holy Ones, I somehow manage to feel connected to something bigger than myself. Like when I braid my first homemade challah with Abby using my second cousin Ronnie’s recipe (that’s my maiden attempt up there); or when I use a knife to peel an apple in one long strip, just like my mom told me her father used to do. Or when I secure the recipe to my Aunt Selma’s famous sweet-and-sour meatballs that she served at every family gathering growing up. Or back in 1994 when Andy and I had just moved to New York, and we’d meet after work at the corner of Smith and President Street in his up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. I can still see him walking up the block wearing his pleated khakis and Joseph Aboud tie, carrying his messenger bag and, yes, a loaf of crusty Italian bread from Caputo’s on Court Street. We’d head another two blocks west to Andy’s Hoyt street rental – a four-story brownstone with full garden, eat-in kitchen, all of which cost him and each of his three roommates $400 a month — and that bread would be the start of dinner.

Please head over to my second cousin Ronnie Fein’s website for the incredibly clear Challah recipe as well as a photograph of the challah without a weird bulge in the middle. It was my first attempt — cut me some slack! If I had read her braiding tips first, perhaps this wouldn’t have been a problem. (Also: forgive me that my bread is not round for the holidays.) Ronnie is also the author of Hip Kosher: 175 Easy Recipes to Prepare for Today’s Kosher Cook. Happy New Year everyone.


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Tumultuous Tuesdays

September 12th, 2012 · 21 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

If you opened my refrigerator on a Tuesday afternoon, there’s a good chance you’d find my green Dansk pot sitting on the bottom shelf filled with dinner. I try to limit any scheduled work events that day because the way after-school activities have shaken down for the past year, is that from 2:45 until almost 7:30, the house is pulled in 40 different directions. So much so that we’ve taken to calling it “Tumultuous Tuesdays.” I’ve come to believe that complicated family activity logistics are the very definition of First World Pain (and sort of resemble dreams – they’re boring to everyone except the people directly involved in them) so I won’t say more than this: Boy do I appreciate a meal ready-to-go when we all walk in the door. I’ve called the dinner table many things in my career as a blogger (“magic guilt eraser”, “7:00 magnetic north,” “a god@#m% freaking warzone”) but on these kinds of nights there’s one word that’s top of brain: recalibration. It goes against reason (and sanity) that on the busiest days, during the busiest times of the year, I crave a sit-down session with the family the most.

That’s why the pot is in the fridge. At some point during the day, I try to carve out a half hour from my 8:00 to 2:30 workday to get dinner ready. It can be a pot of turkey chili. Or a quick bolognese. Or this chicken stew.  Anything that looks good in my green Dansk which fits neatly on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator. (Skillet meals need not apply.) If I were more organized, or someone without the flexibility to cook dinner during lunchtime, I might put it together on the weekend and freeze in a flat bag. (And, yes, Slow-Cooker Evangelists, I think you know what to get me for my birthday.) But there’s something extremely satisfying about walking in the door, opening the fridge, transferring the pot to the burner and serving up dinner 10 minutes later. Almost as though I’ve convinced myself that no way, dude, my children are not over-scheduled. I have it all under control. Recalibration? Self-Delusion? All I know is that next Tuesday feels like a lifetime away.

Chicken Stew and Biscuits
This recipe is based on my normal chicken pot pie filling, but for this version, I prefer it stewier so there’s plenty of juice to sop up with the biscuits. When you don’t have leftover cooked chicken on hand, poach 2 chicken breasts in simmering salted water for 15 minutes, while the vegetables are simmering the other pot.

storebought buttermilk biscuits (we like Trader Joe’s frozen)
1 to 1 1 /2 cups chicken broth (cookbook owners, I had some homemade stock, page 289 in the freezer which elevated this to pretty insane levels of deliciousness.)
2 red or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
handful chopped carrots
1/2 medium onion, chopped
leaves from 1 sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup milk whisked with 2 tablespoons flour
1 cup cooked chicken (shredded or cubed; storebought rotisserie is ideal)
handful of asparagus or peas or green beans or all three
Parmesan to taste (I add about 1/4 cup; sharp cheddar or Jack would be good, too)

If you are baking biscuits, preheat oven and follow package instructions. Bring broth to a boil in a medium-size pot like the one shown above. Add the potatoes, carrots, onions, thyme, and bay leaf, and simmer the mixture for 15 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Drizzle the milk-flour mixture slowly into the vegetables and simmer, stirring until it is slightly thickened. (Or to taste. Remember: you want some sopping liquid for the biscuits.) Remove the pan from heat, stir in chicken and asparagus and cheese. (If making this ahead of time, allow to cool, cover, and place in fridge*. When ready to serve, reheat uncovered over low heat.) Place a biscuit on each plate and top with stew as shown.

*Note: I’m sure there’s some rule for how long you’re allowed to keep a pot in the refrigerator before its contents start to take on a metallic taste. I’ve never done it for more than a 6 to 8 hour stretch, though, and it’s worked out just fine.

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How to Nurture Talent (Without Being a Psycho Parent)

September 10th, 2012 · 19 Comments · Cameos, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

There’s a certain kind of writer that brings an inordinate amout of joy to an editor’s life. They’re a rare and beautiful species. I call them “total pros,” and they share four essential characteristics: (1) They do the work, by which I mean they go out and perform the (sometimes tedious, sometimes unpleasant) job of reporting, making the calls and reading the studies and boarding the flights and prepping for the interviews and transcribing the tapes; (2) They are able to take all that reporting, digest it, organize it, and then turn that vast swamp of ideas and information into a neatly-tended, clear and thoughtful draft; (3) They then take the editor’s inevitable, annoying notes on that draft, and perform the brutal task of opening that file up again and diving back into their story, pulling it apart and reworking it, turning it into something that is even better than the original, where every sentence is worried-over and cared-for; and (4) They are nice people. 

Dan Coyle is a total pro.

Five years ago, Dan started visiting “talent hotbeds” all over the world to do research for a book called The Talent Code, which was published in 2009. He visited a tennis academy in Moscow that was turning out a scary number of Top 20 players, a music school in the Adirondacks where kids were absorbing a year’s worth of lessons in two months, an inner-city charter school whose kids were suddenly making a habit of acing the state tests, and so on. Along the way, and with help from leading neuroscientists and psychologists, Dan produced an inspiring exploration of how talent works, and how it can be nurtured. Now, three years later, he has published an elegant companion guide to that project called The Little Book of Talent. (You know Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules? Picture that, but instead of telling you how to eat, this is a little workbook that tells you how to get better at stuff.) Inside are 52 simple rules that parents and kids can use to improve their skills in music, sports, art, writing, or school. It’s The Talent Code, distilled. (It has also been sitting on The New York Times bestseller list for the past two weeks, so big ups to Dan, who is undoubtedly spawning a new generation of Yo-Yo Mas and Agassis.) There’s a solid foundation of science and research underlying these rules, but Abby and Phoebe have both read it, and they didn’t have any trouble at all taking it in. We’ve also given it to our kids’ soccer coaches and our music teachers, so beware: you’re up next. Dan was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to share a few of those rules with us here. If you have any doubt re. their efficacy, check out this video of Dan putting them into action, which I’ve watched like twenty times. Like I said: a total pro.

PS: Dan has actually published two books in the last two weeks. The other is The Secret Race, which he wrote with Tyler Hamilton and which, if you are at all interested in the sport of cycling, is a must-read. This one has been blowin’ UP on the internets!  – Andy

———–

I am not the first to point this out, but let me say it anyway: when it comes to nurturing our kids’ talents, today’s parents today have it tough. Not because we know too little, but because we know too much. Way, way too much.

Nurturing talent used to be a fairly simple process, because it was mostly passive. Parents sat back and waited for the talent to show itself.

Now, parental talent-nurturing is an official industry, like organic food. Soccer, violin, chess, math, art — they all provide us with nicely constructed funnels down which we can pour endless amounts of money and time as we try to help our kids become their best selves. Tiger Mothers and Fathers stalk the landscape, carrying their superstar cubs in their mouths. Science has given us terrifyingly concrete concepts, like Critical Learning Periods, where if your kid doesn’t learn something by age X, the door of opportunity slams shut — forever!  Being a parent has gone from feeling like a laid-back observer to feeling like a frantic gardener, racing around, trying to find the best way to help talent grow.

All of which creates a question: what’s the best way to navigate this new world?

I’ve spent the last five years visiting and studying talent hotbeds, and also being the dad of four kids (10-17). So over the last few years my wife Jen and I have done our best to navigate this, and have come up with a simple list of rules that have helped us around your house, a few of which I’d like to share.

Don’t: Praise kids for their abilities.

Do: Praise kids for their efforts.

Why: When you praise kids for their abilities, you diminish their willingness to take risk — after all, we’re status-oriented creatures, and why would anyone who’s been labeled “talented” risk their status?

When you praise kids for their efforts, on the other hand, you increase their willingness to take risk, to fail, and thus to learn. One useful phrase to use in praising kids is to say well done. It conveys appreciation, without calling anybody a genius.

Don’t: Fall for the Prodigy Myth.

Do: Reframe struggle as positive.

Why: Yes, different kids learn at different rates. Yes, some kids take off like rockets; others linger in the belly of the bell curve. The thing to remember: this isn’t a sprint.The majority of prodigies flame out, and the majority of successful people come from the anonymous ranks of average Joes and Josephines.

What helps is to understand that the moments of intense struggle are really the moments when learning happens fastest. Those moments aren’t pretty — it’s when a kid is reaching toward something new and missing — but they’re fantastically productive because it’s when the brain is making and honing new connections. Your job is to find ways to celebrate those moments of struggle.

Don’t: Pay attention to what you kid says

Do: Pay attention to what your kid stares at.

Why: Let’s do this one in the form of a scene, in which a kid returns from first soccer/piano/karate practice.

PARENT: So how was it? How did it go? Did you like your teacher? What did you do?

KID: Ummmmm.

PARENT: Was it fun? Were you good at it? Do you think you’ll do it next week?

KID: Ummmmm.

The point is, most kids are reliably inept at expressing their inner feelings. So don’t put pressure on them to express them, because it tends to speedily diminish whatever interest they might’ve felt.

Instead, pay attention to what they stare at. Staring is the most profound act of communication that kids perform. Staring is like a neon sign saying I LOVE THIS. Watch for the stare, and follow where it leads. One of our daughters got interested in violin because we went to a performance of a teenage bluegrass band. She stared. We didn’t say much. We bought her a violin, and took her to a lesson, and she was into it. That was five years ago; she’s still playing.

Don’t: Seek a coach or teacher who’s like a courteous waiter.

Do: Seek coaches and teachers who scare you a little.

Why: It’s easy to confuse pleasure and comfort with actual learning. But truly good coaches and teachers are about challenging you to get to the edge of your abilities, time and time again. Seek out coaches who are authoritative. Who know their stuff, and who take charge. A little scary is good.

Don’t: Celebrate victories.

Do: Celebrate repetition.

Why: Too many kids (and parents) judge their progress by the scoreboard, instead of by the amount they’ve learned. Victories are their own reward. They do not need any extra emphasis.

Celebrating repetition, on the other hand, is not done often enough, because repetition has a bad reputation. We frequently connote it with drudgery. In fact, repetition is awesome. It’s the single most powerful way the brain builds new skill circuits. So make it cool. Doing a hard task ten times in a row is great. Doing it a hundred times in a row is freaking heroic. So treat it that way.

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Picky Eater Paradise: Tapas

September 7th, 2012 · 5 Comments · Dinner, Posts by Andy, Vegetarian

On a freakishly warm night this past spring, we dragged the family (our ten-year-old, our Samba-wearing eight-year-old, and our vegetable-hating five-year-old nephew) to Boqueria, a tapas restaurant in Soho. The reservation was at the Chuck E. Cheese-ish hour of 6:00 p.m., but the place, thank God, was full–and not with a bunch of other families, either. Our host took us to a high table with high stools on one side and a banquette on the other. He asked if we wanted menus, or if we were interested in sitting back and taking our chances. Since we like to think we’re past the phase where one of us has to escort a kid to the bathroom or take a tantrum-quelling walk around the block, we took our chances.

An open kitchen let the kids watch the staff crank out dish after dish until almost 20 little plates were vying for space on our long, happy table. Caught up in the energy, the drama, and the sense of surprise, our gang would’ve tried anything that night. In fact, they pretty much did: squid, Idiazûbal cheese, two kinds of ham, crisp potatoes with a smoky sauce and garlic mayo, fluke crudo with hazelnuts and grapefruit, rabbit (gulp) paella, lamb toasts with salsa verde, flatbread pizzas with mushrooms, and something with ramp pesto that we can’t remember because by the time it arrived our brains were officially overloaded.

True, our nephew eyed the crudo as if it might hurt him, and the Spanish tortilla barely got the shot it deserved, but one look at all the adventurous little fingers sampling whatever landed in front of us, and we claimed victory over boring kid dinners everywhere. These new flavors were embraced, free of parental nagging or pressure (the veggie-phobe even scarfed down a mushroom pizza). Something tells me there’s a lesson in there we can take home. –Andy & Jenny

This post appeared in Bon Appetit’s October Issue (The Restaurant Issue). Andy and I write a bi-monthly column for BA called “The Providers.” Head over to their site for the Spanish Tortilla recipe shown in the photo. Or click here for an archive of all our Providers columns and recipes.

Photo for Bon Appetit by Christina Holmes.

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It’s All in the Marketing

September 6th, 2012 · 13 Comments · Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Picky Eating, Pork and Beef, Uncategorized

From the mailbox:

Dear Jenny,

About a month ago we were having chili for dinner. Our son hates chili. All types. Tomato, white bean chicken, we have battled over it all. I have pushed, he has pursed (his lips tightly). I have threatened (which I know is not the way to promote healthy attitudes toward food), he has cried (I’m not proud of this). Anyway, he asked what we were having for dinner  this night and I said, “Chili.” But instantly I recalled these words which I had read only hours before, “It’s all about marketing.” and so I quickly changed the title. “Actually, I mean, it’s soup. Two bean, ground beef, tomato soup…on a potato.” “Oh. It really looks like chilli.” he replied. “I know, crazy huh?”  He then proceed to eat the. whole. bowl, asked for more and did not complain about it once.  Yes, it really is all about marketing.

So, in closing, I’m so glad Amazon recommended your book and I’m so glad to have been introduced to your blog through it (aaaand  books we love??! Oh man your blog was really made for me!) I love it.

Sincerely a very happy reader,
Katie Leonard

Thanks Katie! PS: Here’s the “two-bean, ground beef, tomato soup” that works in our house. And, incidentally fits right into my More Freezer Dinner School Year Resolution Plan. PPS: The photo above is from my book, which has a whole chapter devoted to my personal experience with my very own (recovered) picky eater. Do you have a marketing plan?

PLUS: Help for Lunch-Packing Dreaders! (To my knowledge, that includes all parents of all school-age children?)  A back-to-school interview I did with Epicurious.

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School Year’s Resolution 1: More Freezer Dinners

September 5th, 2012 · 38 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

You should see The List right now. In addition to the usual suspects (book doctor appointments, contact accountant, hire business partner!!!, “garage sale!!!!!”) there are all those tasks that have the distinct whiff of self-betterment, the kinds of things usually reserved for New Years. Does this happen to you? Do you get the Clean Slate feeling every September? Do you find yourself making silent resolutions to yourself in the Starbucks line like “Make More Freezable Dinners” or “Eliminate All White Foods” or “Call More, Text Less” or “Stop giving so much money to Starbucks.” Well, apparently a good number of you do, because upon my return from vacation, my DALS inbox was filled with requests for posts like these: (I’m paraphrasing)

How do I shop more efficiently?
How do I squeeze in exercise when I have kids, a job, and the need to sit down at some point during the course of my 18-hour day?
How do I cook with sustainable fish without mortgaging my life?
How do I serve more vegetable-based dinners without alienating the meat-eaters at my table?
How can I help you sell as many Dinner: A Love Story books as possible?

OK, so maybe that last request I might have made up. But the other issues are very very real so in the next week or so I’ll be addressing them and any other back-to-school resolutions you may want to discuss here on DALS. Well, except for resolutions about fondant. I will not be able to provide any assistance with fondant.

You can either email me those requests directly or comment below. In the meantime, here’s one answer to my Make-More-Freezer-Dinners Resolution. I made a big old pot of this pulled BBQ chicken for Andy’s birthday dinner party last spring (alongside some pulled pork, quick-pickled onions and jalapenos, and lots of slaws). In addition to being an excellent Make-Ahead Menu, I happened to notice that the pulled chicken froze exceptionally well. So my resolution this week is to make a pot of it on Saturday, freeze in small, thawable stashes (flat ziplocs!), and then be prepared for any dinner situation this school year decides to throw my way — late trains, babysitter cancellations, ridiculous amounts of extracurriculars and all! Warning: Freezer Dinner Ambition Subject to Waning.

Pulled Chicken Sandwiches

1 cup barbecue sauce (bonus points for homemade, which takes 15-20 minutes, page 238 Dinner: A Love Story)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 chipotle pepper in adobo (not adobo sauce, just a single saucy pepper)
6 to 8 boneless chicken breasts (2 pounds-ish), halved if they are large, salted and peppered
Potato Rolls (slider or sandwich)
pickled onions and jalapenos (optional)

In a large heavy pot, mix together barbecue sauce, cider vinegar, onion, garlic, bay leaf, and chipotle. Add chicken and enough water to cover (about 2 cups), whisking water with barbecue mixture until it’s blended. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot and shred with two forks. Bring the sauce to a boil until it thickens and reduces, another 10 minutes. Once it reaches desired consistency (should not be as liquidy as show in photo above — I was losing my light! I had to act fast!) stir in chicken. (If you want to freeze for a later use, allow to cool at this point, then spoon into zip-top bags and flatten slightly so they are easier to thaw.) Otherwise, serve chicken on potato rolls (sliders are always fun) with pickled vegetables (or jarred pickles), your favorite slaw, or shredded sharp cheddar.

For the super-ambitious, here’s how to quick-pickle some onions with jalapenos: Bring 2 cups water, 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, and a heavy pinch of salt to a boil in a saucepan. Add red onion slices and cross-sectioned jalapenos and simmer, uncovered about 3 minutes. Drain and cool to room temp. Serve on top of pulled chicken sandwiches. I don’t want to overstate things, but…Killer.

And Just for the Heck of it…A Basic Cole Slaw

In a large bowl, whisk together 1/3 cup cider vinegar, dash of Sriracha, 3 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise, ½ teaspoon celery seed, 1 tablespoon sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Shred half a head of green or red cabbage (5 cups) as thinly as possible. (With a mandoline or the shredding disk of a food processor.) Add to the dressing and toss to combine. Toss in a little chopped cilantro. Serve right away.

PS: If I knew anything about slow-cookers, I might suggest adapting the chicken for that use, too.

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Getting to Know You :) :)

September 4th, 2012 · 31 Comments · Domestic Affairs, Posts by Andy

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