Entries Tagged as 'Posts by Andy'

Pass it On

December 11th, 2012 · 12 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

Like Santa Claus, my mom never shows up empty-handed. When she visits, the kids gather at the door, waiting to see how lucky they’ll be this time. Will it be the new Lemony Snicket book? That turtleneck Abby had circled — hint, hint — in the Land’s End catalog a few months ago? A pair of earrings for Phoebe’s recently pierced ears? If a grandmother’s job is to shower love and affection (and presents), my mom is in the running for Awesomest Grandmother of All Time. She also brings things for me, however. Not presents, exactly. Things she has saved. Things that have lived in the boxes that sit in her compulsively incredibly well-curated basement for thirty years — her version of what Jenny and I call “the treasure chest,” the stuff from your life that you can’t bear to picture in a landfill somewhere — which she is now parceling out, bit by bit. Little dolls from her childhood, my old soccer jacket with all the patches sewn on the back, the mimeographed newspaper from my elementary school containing a story I wrote, in second grade, about Arbor Day, the light blue cable-knit outfit I wore on my first birthday, photos of my eighth grade dinner dance (I wore my dad’s tie and WHITE PLEATED PANTS), my old Looney Tunes T-shirt with Tweety Bird on the back and “Rent-a-Kid-Cheap” on the front, an old Wilson A2000 baseball mitt, my freshman course guide and assorted college detritus, and once, I crap you not, an Easter bonnet I made in pre-school out of a paper plate, some plastic flowers, and a light blue ribbon. (Me: “Mom, come on, what am I going to do with this thing?” Mom, actually attempting to tie the bonnet on my head while simultaneously applying the guilt: “But you… made it.”)

As you see, there are upsides and downsides to her role as family archivist.

Not too long ago, though, she showed up at our door carrying an old cardboard box, and when I say “old,” I don’t mean, like, six months old. I don’t even mean thirty years old. I mean, the cardboard on this box had that kind of waxy sheen that truly old cardboard gets, as if it has been holding fried dough and candles for a few thousand years. Stuck to the top of it was a mailing label that had my mom’s maiden name on it, and the mailing address of the house she moved out of more than fifty years ago. And inside, she announced, was a special present for Phoebe. Inside, as Phoebe soon discovered, was my mother’s comic book collection from her childhood, preserved here, as if in amber. Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Kit Carson, Hiawatha, all in various states of parchmenty disrepair, motes of dust rising from the box, the pages literally falling apart as Phoebe turned them. Our oldest daughter is a well-documented comic book enthusiast, but man, I haven’t seen her sucked in so completely, so deeply in a long time. (“Sometimes when I’m reading them, I imagine that I’m grandma, sitting in her room when she was little,” is how she put it.) She spent a couple weeks reading and rereading them, and I joined in, too. The slightly fuzzy, saturated colors of that old ink are so satisfying and the writing — and yes, I realize I am talking about Donald Duck comic books here — is kind of amazing. Scrooge McDuck: Wait, that guy is a metaphor! There’s stuff going on here! These comics are saying something!

Given that they were written in the 40s and 50s, they occasionally veer into uncomfortable, not-very-sensitive cultural observations, but as with TinTin, you can turn that to your advantage. Think of it as an opportunity to talk about how dumb we used to be and how much we have learned and how times have changed, mostly, and for the better. Phoebe loved them so much, we secured another, more pristine shipment, each copy wrapped in plastic, and she currently keeps them all under her bed, stacked nearly in that old cardboard box. Sometimes I’ll be upstairs, on a quiet weekend afternoon, and I’ll peek in and see her there, laying on her floor, propped up on her elbows, reading them. Get to the end, put it back neatly, reach in and pick up the next one. The good news is, you don’t need to have a gift-dispensing mom who doubles as an obsessive family archivist to give this stuff a shot; old comics are practically what ebay was made for. They’re not hard to find — but even if they were, they’d be worth it. – Andy

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Chicken of the Year

December 3rd, 2012 · 21 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Posts by Andy, Quick

I’m a thigh man, though I am ashamed to admit: it was not always so. I grew up, in fact, turning my naive little nose up at dark meat. I actively avoided the stuff. I was a strict white meat guy, a fan of the Perdue boneless breast, and now that I look back on it, a person who apparently didn’t care much for how things actually taste. But then, a couple of summers ago, our tiny universe expanded. In our search for the perfect grilled chicken recipe — i.e., a grilled chicken recipe that (a) we could serve to guests and that (b) did not suck — we discovered boneless thighs. O boneless chicken thighs, where had you been all my life? This was a revelation. They took to our yogurt marinade so well. They cooked quickly and evenly. They didn’t dry out. They fit perfectly on a warm hamburger bun (with a little Hellman’s, of course). They were good for school lunches the next day. Best of all, they tasted like something. Since then, we’ve taken this well beyond the grill, too. Thighs are great with an apricot-mustard glaze (see: Jenny’s book), or baked with a little homemade barbecue sauce. They’re tasty when breaded, in the Shake ‘n Bake style. But our latest go-to move is the pan roast, a crazily simple and delicious and crispy and pleasingly-browned and crowd-pleasing way to eat chicken. Last week, in a rush to get food on the table and not having a lot of non-rotten vegetables in our refrigerator, I threw some thighs in our cast iron skillet with cremini mushrooms, fresh thyme, and some roughly chopped onions. Total hands-on time: extremely low. Flavor quotient: high. – Andy

Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs with Mushrooms

1-1.5 pounds boneless chicken thighs
1 cup cremini mushrooms
4 or five sprigs of thyme
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
Few glugs olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 475°. Season chicken with salt, pepper, and paprika. Heat oil in skillet over high heat. Add chicken to skillet, skin side down, and cook 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-high and cook another 10 or so minutes, until skin is golden brown. Flip chicken, gently toss in mushrooms, onions, and thyme so they are coated in oil, and transfer skillet to oven. Cook another another 15-17 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. Let rest a few minutes before serving.

 

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Three Things to Do Now to Make Thanksgiving Easier

November 12th, 2012 · 12 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Thanksgiving, Uncategorized

Given that I woke up yesterday at 3am worrying about how early I need to leave work on the day before Thanksgiving to make sure I get my pumpkin pie made in time for a seamless departure the next morning, now seems like the perfect time for the last installment of our series featuring Sam Sifton and his new book, Thanksgiving. As we head into the final weekend before the feast, we asked him for advice on planning ahead — more specifically, we asked him what three things he takes care of in advance to make the big day a little less stressful. In his (elegant, reassuring) words: 

Make Cranberry Sauce.

I do this on the weekend in front of Thanksgiving, usually on Saturday night, as a way to say to myself: This thing is starting now. I dump a bag of berries into a pot with some sugar and orange juice. I get that cooking and wait for the berries to start to pop and bubble. It’s the culinary equivalent of priming a pump. It gets me started. As the sauce cooks, I sit in the kitchen and make lists I should have made days and days before. I make lists of dishes, ingredients, guests, needs, wants and, crucially, jobs. By the time the sauce is done — and that, by the way, is when a goodly portion of the berries have popped and released the pectin that binds the dish together — I have a pretty good idea of what I need to get done in the next couple of days. I dump the sauce into a serving bowl, let it cool off and put it in the fridge under some aluminum foil. There’s that job, DONE. I cross cranberry sauce off my list.

Try a Brine.

Too many people come to the idea that they’re going to brine their turkey on Wednesday morning (even Thursday morning!) and that is a little late in the game. Better to make the brine on Monday night, tip the bird into it when it’s good and cool, and then remove it on Wednesday morning so you can dry it, first with paper towel and then in the cool air of the refrigerator. That way, when you do cook it on Thursday the skin of the bird is really and truly *dry*, important because then the heat of the oven won’t have to evaporate anything before it gets to work tanning and crisping the bird. Science! It’s a Thanksgiving secret weapon.

Make Some Pies.

Or ensure that someone is making them. It’s hard enough dealing with all the stress of cooking the savory side of the meal on Thursday when you’re also trying to bake sweets. That’s why pastry chefs get to work at three in the morning. The kitchen isn’t as hot as it is when the line cooks are in there, and the butter and lard in their dough doesn’t melt until it should. Make pies on Tuesday night. Make them on Wednesday. They’ll be better for your thinking ahead, and you’ll have more things crossed off your list on Thursday morning besides.

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The New Ketchup

October 15th, 2012 · 20 Comments · Grilling, Picky Eating, Posts by Andy, Quick, Uncategorized

Universal law of childhood eating, #217: Kids like to dip stuff in stuff. At least, our kids do. They dip roasted potatoes in ketchup. They dip baby carrots in ginger dressing. They dip sausages in yellow mustard, cookies in milk, and breaded chicken in ketchup. They dip salmon in Soyaki, grape tomatoes in ketchup (not sh*tting you!), burritos in salsa, apples in Nutella, bacon strips in maple syrup, Hershey’s kisses in peanut butter, ketchup in ketchup in ketchup in ketchup. I’m not sure what evolutionary quirk is playing out here re: the dipping impulse, but as long as the food goes down, it is all good in the hood, right? A couple of weeks ago, I added another one to the rotation. It was Sunday night and we had grilled a couple of tuna steaks and I was standing in the kitchen, trying to think of something to help seal the deal with the kids. Tuna is not always easy. What goes well with it? Spicy mayo! So I made one, using Hellmann’s and Sriracha. (About 1 teaspoon Sriracha to every 3 tablespoons mayo.) It had a beautiful, peachy color. It had some serious umami action, without being too spicy. It went over huge. Not only that, I’ve since discovered it’s a pretty versatile tool. It’s not just for dipping, in other words. You can use this on turkey sandwiches, in canned tuna salad, in potato salad, in slaws, and, maybe best of all, with – yeah, you heard me Henry John Heinz – Tater Tots. – Andy

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The Importance of Being Empathetic

October 2nd, 2012 · 25 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Favorites, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

Part of the joy of working with writers who are smarter and more knowledgable than you is that you learn stuff. They do the research and make sense of the material and then you get to absorb it, process it, and then go to dinner parties and act like you know what you’re talking about. I’ve just finished editing a book about bullying by the amazing journalist and Slate gabfest fixture Emily Bazelon – and, obviously, being the parents of two girls, this is a topic Jenny and I spend time thinking about. Emily’s book – Sticks and Stones, out in February — is about the phenomenon in general, how it works and why it happens and what can be done to alleviate it. One of the words that comes up in the book over and over again is empathy, in that it is a crucial trait for kids to possess – or learn, as the case may be – if we are to make strides in making kids less mean, and more forgiving. Since October is officially “Bullying Prevention Month,” and since our kids, for some reason, have been reading in and around this subject area a lot lately, I thought we’d highilght three books that help instill some empathy and might lead to some fruitful dinner table discussions on the idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes — always a good thing to think about. Apart from the subject matter, they also happen to be really excellent books. I now hand the mic to Abby and Phoebe. — Andy

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What it’s about: ”A boy named August (they call him Auggie) who has a deformity on his face. I know that doesn’t sound nice, but his ears look like tiny fists and his eyes are too low and he has no eyebrows or eyelashes. I don’t know how to explain him. Auggie has been home-schooled until his parents decide that it’s time to send him to a real school, Beecher Prep, and Auggie is resistant at first. He’s afraid. But when his parents tell him that the principal’s name is Mr. Tushman, Auggie laughs and decides to go. The rest of the book is about his year at school and how he manages to survive bullies, ‘the plague’ — which is a mean game, kind of like cooties — and a jerk named Julian.”

The moment that hurts the heart: “When Auggie overhears his friend Jack saying bad things about him. Jack tells Julian that he had pretended to be friends with Auggie, and Auggie didn’t know that. Auggie overhears this and goes on the staircase and just starts crying. He trusted Jack and thought that he didn’t care about how he looked. When you read it, you can feel how sad he must be.”

The lesson it teaches: “Looks can be deceiving.”

Phoebe score: 10. “One of the best books I’ve ever read.”

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

What it’s about: “A girl named Melody who has cerebral palsy and is incredibly smart. I think she’s twelve. The thing is, she can’t speak because of the cerebral palsy, and so people misjudge her. A lot. She has one friend, beside her aide, named Rose. Rose believes in her and one day, Melody gets a special computer that allows her to finally communicate. When she types in a word, the computer says it out loud, so it’s like she can talk. This helps her prove that may be different, but she’s not stupid. This book is enough to make people cry.”

The moment that hurts the heart: “Melody’s school has a team of these super smart kids who go to compete against other schools in a trivia game that is on tv. Melody is on this team. One time, the team had to go to Washington to compete and Melody was a little bit late and they left her behind. One student thought that she wasn’t as important as the others. This made her realize again that, no matter what, people would always think of her as different.”

The lesson it teaches: After Phoebe read this book, she sent Sharon Draper an email. This is what it said:

Dear Ms.Draper, 

I read Out Of My Mind on Thanksgiving weekend. I think that if everybody had a copy of that book, it would change the world. It completely changed the way I looked at people that have cerebral palsy and autism. Do you know any body with cerebral palsy? Did you write the book to make people look at people with cerebral palsy and autism differently?

That night, Sharon wrote back, and this is what she said:

Dear Phoebe, 

Thanks so much for your kind letter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed Out of my Mind.  That book is very special to me. I tried very hard to capture the essence of what it means to be different. Melody is a song to me that will forever sing. Yes, I know lots of people with disabilities, and I hope the book helps people see them as real people.

Phoebe score: 9. “Soooo close to a 10, but not quite as good as Wonder. Still, a great book for people who want to look inside somebody’s mind.”

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff

What it’s about: ”It’s about a boy named Georgie who has something called dwarfism, and what happens in his life. It’s not a book that has a lot of action, but it still makes you want to read on and read on and read on. A lot of the chapters end on cliffhangers and it makes you really think about how different people are in this world. This book is about friendship, too — and how it’s hard for kids like Georgie to find friends because people make fun of him for his height and the way he looks.”

The moment that hurts the heart: ”When you hear about all the times people stare at Georgie and make fun of him just because of how he looks. One time, he’s knocking on a door and a car drives past and the man in the car stares — like, eyes wide open — and I can imagine how hard it would be to deal with that every single day.”

The lesson it teaches: ”Everyone, no matter how they look or how they act, is always the same as you on the inside.”

Abby score: 10. “Ten. Ten!”

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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

Please see Dinner: The Playbook for Andy’s Chicken and Barley Soup recipe.

 

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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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Getting to Know You :) :)

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

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Bringing it All Back Home

August 9th, 2012 · 13 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy

Every time we visit my parents, my mom begs me to go through the boxes of my old junk that are cluttering up her (immaculate) basement. She’s entering that phase of life, I guess, when things are cast off and simplified, when you have to get a little brutal about all your stuff — what’s essential and what’s not. ”What am I going to do with this?” is the question she keeps asking and for which I have no good answer. Last time we visited, in July, I finally gave in. I took an hour and sifted through the old books, making piles of what could be tossed, what could be donated to the library, and what would come back home with me, to molder in my own (not immaculate) basement until the cycle repeated itself somewhere down the line. One thing, however, became clear as I went: my mom wasn’t quite as ready to let go as she’d led me to believe. Turns out, stuff is more than just stuff, and it’s not so easy to kiss it goodbye. A sample exchange:

Giants in the Earth?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t want that one?”

“Nope.”

“Awwwww, really? You loved that book.”

“Yeah, but — ”

Actually removing the book from of the donate bag, and setting it aside: “Maybe I’ll keep it, just in case. You’ll want it one day.”

After the books, I moved on to the other pile she wanted me to deal with: records. At one point, my mulleted and guitar-playing older brother and I had a fairly massive amount of records but, gradually, as we purged over the years, that collection had been boiled down to the 100 or so albums that now sat on her plastic shelving unit, to the right of the sump pump and just behind the treadmill. I started digging through. Books are great and all, and they served me well, but this is the stuff that will kill you dead. Lot of memories come swirling up out of this mess, wow. Some Girls. Free to Be You and Me. Harvest. Live at Leeds. Greetings from Asbury Park. Loudon Wainwright III. The Smiths. The Muppet Movie. Songs in the Key of Life. Blonde on Blonde. The Police. Pleased to Meet Me. Briging it All Back Home. Simon and (Ugh) Garfunkel. The Cars. The Del Fuegos (?). Loverboy (!). The White Album. The Clash. Judas F’n Priest (who, by the way, I saw live at the Capital Center in 1985). And Elton John. God, so much Elton John. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh: To this day, I will argue the greatness of early Elton John — Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Honkey Chateau, Captain Fantastic. It was all there, in extremely poor condition, scarred by the hasty needle drops of impatient eleven year old boys. I’m not the first one to say it, but these days — when music is a literal abstraction, hovering somewhere above our house within a cloud I can never figure out how to access without Jenny’s help – there’s something deeply pleasing about vinyl. Most of these albums, I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. It’s enough to make a man nostalgic, and to make a nostalgic man even more nostalgic than his usual nostalgic self. I set aside a stack of about twenty I wanted for myself, and left the rest for my brother to grapple with later.

There was a problem: The last time I owned a turntable, I hadn’t shaved yet. In fact, my buddy Todd (he of the minty pea dip, a DALS classic) had been on me for months to man up and buy one already, as he’d bought one for himself and had been touting its restorative powers. And it was true, one had to admit: it did sound good. It took you back. When we got home from my parents’ — our trunk loaded with our new-old stuff – I went on amazon and bought a beautiful little portable turntable, which arrived three days later, and which has spent the last month perched on the edge of our kitchen counter, rocking us through our dinner preparations. The kids have picked up right where I left off — doing wince-inducing damage with their horrific needlework — and we’ve torn through all the old favorites. And, yes, Abby has fallen for “Crocodile Rock,” just like I did when I was her age. Not my favorite, but just for the sound of that crackle when the needle hits the vinyl, it’s worth it. That’s a pain I can endure. – Andy

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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 Dadoo Special

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

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

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

“Dad?” I said.

“Yes?”

“Is Santa Claus real?”

He paused.

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

He looked at me.

“Nope,” he said.

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

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

“What’s in it?” I would ask.

“That’s a secret.”

“Seriously, dad.”

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

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

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

The Dadoo Special

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

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

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Guest Post Contest!

May 9th, 2012 · 49 Comments · Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Posts by Andy, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

That’s one handsome-looking bowl of quinoa, isn’t it? Looks pretty tasty, right? It’s really healthy, too. And so versatile. Have you heard about the extraordinary nutritional properties of quinoa? Amazing stuff. Packed with protein. The Incas survived on it! Now try writing 500 words about this bowl of quinoa, but it can’t be too similar to the 500-word post you wrote about the magic of (sigh) barley a few weeks ago, and it definitely can’t be like the other quinoa post you did about six months ago, the one in which you… extolled its extraordinary nutritional properties (protein, Incas, etc.) and its versatility (feta, pesto, etc.) and the way it goes so well with zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. We want to be clear here: we are not complaining. We love cooking and we love doing this blog, and we’d happily do it for free. (Wait, we already do it for free!) All we’re saying is, posting three or four or five times a week for two and a half years — about things like quinoa — isn’t always easy. There have been nights when Jenny, sitting there in bed with her laptop and trying to write about the raw kale salad we just had for dinner, has turned to me with a look of true despair and said, “I got nothing.” It’s rare, but it happens. I figure you can handle the truth.

So here’s a question: how would you like to guest post on DALS? If you’re interested, here’s what we need from you, by midnight, May 14:

  • A presentable photo of something you’ve cooked.
  • A story (not more than 500 words) about that something you cooked.
  • A recipe that works.*

Once all the entries are in, we’ll pick a winner and you (or your food blog, if you have one) will be a featured – and tweeted-about, and commented-upon — guest poster on a day, tbd, in June. Not only that, there’s a prize in it for you, too: the winner gets a free, personally inscribed copy of Jenny’s book when it is published a few weeks from now OR a call-in from both of us for your book club if you select Dinner: A Love Story as your group’s next pick. Up to you. Essie, mek, Amanda, Julia, Kendra, Cecilia, Carolyn, Melissa, June, Caitlin, Jan, Minty Pea Todd, Torie, MommyLisa, Auntie, 654Carroll, A Plum By Any Other Name, the Russian Guy Who’s Always Spamming Us About Cheap Cialis: I’m talkin’ to you, people! Start writing. Help us out. Win a book. – Andy

* And to be clear, the post doesn’t have to be about quinoa. Send all entries to: jenny AT dinneralovestory.com with the subject “Guest Post Contest.” Many of you have asked if you can still submit something if it’s not your own recipe. This contest is going to be focused more on the writing and the story than the recipe. You can still submit with someone else’s recipe, but please credit the source and embed the link to that source in the post. If it’s a recipe from a cookbook, please send us a link to the cookbook.

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Reading List: Shaun Tan

May 3rd, 2012 · 11 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

I was driving Phoebe to school on Wednesday morning – she had to be at her desk by 7:30 for a field trip to Ellis Island or else – when I told her that Shaun Tan had sent us a guest post about his formative books for kids. What do you want me to tell people about Shaun’s books, I asked her. What should they know?

His pictures have a lot of feeling, she said.

Okay, I said. But what do they make you feel?

I think about them when I’m daydreaming, she said. Can you stop asking me questions now?

If you got a copy of 121 Books last week — the little book that Jenny and I gave away here last week — you might have seen Shaun’s book, Tales From Outer Suburbia, sitting there at #91. What you didn’t see was what the book actually looks like. I’ll start with the cover, which is as evocative and alluring an image as I can recall on the cover of a book. I remember seeing a review of this one in the New York Times Book Review a few years ago and looking at that cover, and thinking: I want to climb inside that book. And once you do, a similarly strange, exquisite, odd, absurd, whimsical, mysterious world awaits. Tales From Outer Suburbia is a collection of stories about, well, about a lot of things, including: a stoic water buffalo who lives in a vacant lot; a tiny stick figure-ish, possibly alien foreign exchange student who sleeps in a teacup and asks to be called, perfectly, Eric; two brothers who argue over whether the earth simply ends at the edge of the map, and then set out on a journey to find out who’s right; and a story with the stunningly great title, “Broken Toys,” that contains the following two stunningly great sentences: “Well, we’d certainly seen crazy people before — ‘shell-shocked by life’ as you once put it. But something pretty strange must have happened to this guy to make him wander about in a spacesuit on a dead-quiet public holiday.” How do you not want to read that?

Anyway, if you want to see what Phoebe was talking about re: the emotional punch — the feeling — of Shaun’s art, check out some of his work. He did a wordless book, The Arrival, whose soulful beauty kind of defies description. He did a picture book, The Lost Thing, which he then turned into a fifteen minute short film, which then won a little known prize called AN ACADEMY FREAKING AWARD. (You can see it here.) The pleasure of having someone this talented on Dinner: A Love Story never gets old — for us, at least — and I hope you enjoy Shaun’s recommendations. What I love, in particular, is that Shaun – being an Australian, and an artist — has so many books below that I’d never heard of, and have now ordered. That, and I also love his use of the word “carnage.” Enjoy. — Andy

I should begin this list with an early “mistake” made by my mother when it came to bedtime reading. She herself did not grow up in a literary household: in fact, as a kid, I was fascinated by the sheer absence of books, or even paper and pencils, in my grandparents’ house – books just weren’t part of their world. Perhaps for this reason, our Mum felt her own children should be exposed to as many books as possible, but at the same time was not guided by (a) experience, or (b) the kinds of lists you find on websites like this. If it looked vaguely interesting, Mum would read it to my brother and me at bedtime. One such title, read to us when I was 7 or 8, was an apparently charming fairytale by some guy named George Orwell: “Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes…”

We were all hooked (and, frankly, a bit unsettled) from the outset, so there was no turning back. My brother and I looked forward to each progressively disturbing chapter: conniving pigs, brainwashed sheep, a horse carted off to something called a “knackers” – poor Mum, having to field all of our questions. I asked her recently about this, and she remembers being increasingly anxious about how the story “might affect your young minds” – yet we voted to keep going (bedtime reading should always be democratic). Of course, the book ends with the pigs celebrating their triumphant depravity, and Mum was very worried about that. As for me, I just thought it was terrific. And it was no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school every day, with our occasionally cruel kids and less-than-perfect teachers – I thought Orwell was right on the money. I’d never thought about a story so much after it was read. From then on, I began to appreciate unresolved endings, and to grow tired of the less-convincing, moralizing stuff that kids were being fed in suburban Australia, where I grew up. I realized books weren’t just for entertainment, that they could say something. Animal Farm – along with Watership Down and Gulliver’s Travels –profoundly influenced my development as an author and illustrator. Most specifically, The Rabbits, an allegory about colonization written by John Marsden and illustrated by me. That was quite a controversial book when it was published — and was even banned in some Australian schools – yet very young children seem to enjoy and understand it quite deeply; they grasp, somehow, the hidden optimism that adults often miss. That continues to surprise and delight me, the ability of children to find silver linings in grim stories.

I don’t have children, and don’t specifically write/paint for them. Maybe that’s why kids like my work! I just think of them as smallish people who are smart and creative, and honest in their opinions. So when I think about what makes a great children’s book, I tend to think of books that achieve universality, the widest possible readership – books that appeal to us, from toddlers to geriatrics, in a primal way, and can be understood on many different levels. Picture books are particularly great for this, because they’re concise and easily re-read; they often invent their own narrative grammar, as if you are learning how to read all over again.

My interest in picture books only came about later, as an adult artist, as I was moving from painting into commercial illustration and looking for interesting work. The book that really got me interested in picture books — professionally, I mean, in that “Hmmm, I’d really love to do something like that one day” kind of way –was A Fish in the Sky, written by George Mendoza and illustrated by Milton Glaser. (Even if you don’t know Glaser’s work, you almost certainly do. He’s a legendary (more…)

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And Now for the Exciting News: A Free Book!

April 24th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

And by free we mean, um, sort of free. Here’s the deal: We like dinner. We also like books. And while Jenny’s upcoming book, on its every (“masterful,” says her husband) page, honors the meals we’ve made together for the past fifteen years, there is not a single word in it devoted to books — our love for them, or they way they inform our daily lives. What better way to fix that than to produce another book, devoted solely to the things we read and write about so frequently on this site. In some ways, we’ve spent the past two weeks months years pulling this project together*, and it was only a matter of time. We finally decided to turn it into a proper book of its own because we realized not long ago that (a) we’d already written more than 20,000 words’ worth of reviews since DALS was born, and (b) a big list of great, enduring books (for kids ages 0 to 10) might be something parents — as well as aunts, uncles, friends of pregnant people, husbands looking for point-scoring Mother’s Day presents, and good readers everywhere — could really use.

And now, for the fine print: If you pre-order Dinner: A Love Story, we’ll send you our new book of kid books FOR FREE. It only exists for now as a pdf, which means it’s easily forwarded and shared and copied, but we know you guys are decent, upstanding people and we trust you so deeply and know you would never send this around, all indiscriminately, since we spent so much time and effort putting it together FOR FREE.  If you want one, all you have to do is email thebook@dinneralovestory.com, tell us you ordered a copy of Dinner: A Love Story, and we’ll send you all 25 pages of our book, in beautiful color, FOR FREE. Jenny’s whizbangy technical consultant has figured out a way to prompt every fifth email with a one-step request for proof of purchase. And yes, we know this means there’s an 80% chance you can lie and get this book without pre-ordering, but, well…see above re: decent, upstanding people.

One last thing: This offer is only good through Thursday, April 26 at midnight. So let’s do this thing. – Andy

*A huge, huge thank you to the supremely talented Chelsea Cardinal – magazine genius, illustrator, book cover designer, clothing designer (for real), seriously solid person — who turned our pile of disjointed text into something that makes us so happy to look at. We are convinced Chelsea will be famous one day, and we are grateful to have worked with her. 

UPDATE: This offer has now expired. Thank you to everyone for the nice response and the even nicer notes that came along with the pre-orders. There’s a chance the offer might resurface on Facebook in the next few weeks, so if you missed it, be sure to follow DALS there.

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I Got This

April 16th, 2012 · 20 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Domestic Affairs, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

We have a bowl on our counter. It’s a wooden salad bowl that we have turned into a fruit bowl. I’m not a chemist, so I can’t tell you why this is, but this bowl has a strange and unpleasant effect on the produce we (stupidly) put inside it: it accelerates the ripening process. It possesses mysterious transformative properties. It’s like some kind of primitive oxygen deprivation chamber, a Destroyer of Life. Put a plum in there and, two days later, it’s a prune. Put a potato in it and, one week later, it has been colonized by these creepy, blooming nodules. It turns limes yellow, and lemons brown. Put a bunch of green bananas in it, blink three times, and they’ve been turned into the wizened, leathery fingers of a prehistoric animal. We end up throwing most of this stuff away. You’d think, given all this, we’d figure out a solution to the problem – like, I don’t know, use a different bowl? – but we’re people who have had a broken, leaning lamppost in our front yard for eight years, and have never quite mustered the energy to get it fixed. We’re people who bought four huge plastic storage bins to organize our family shame basement a few months ago, and have yet to move them the ten feet from the garage into the basement, let alone fill them. It can take me weeks to change a light bulb – to the point that the act of finally replacing them feels like a victory. Inertia is our default mode – or, at least, it sure can feel that way sometimes.

The bowl, though: God, it bums me out. I resent it for reminding me of my powerlessness. So, last Saturday morning, when I looked over and saw three blackened, old-before-their-time bananas sitting there, on the cusp of total putrefaction, I decided to act. I would save them from the trash.

“I’m making banana bread,” I said.

Jenny was at the table, reading. “You’re weird,” she said.

I went over to the shelf and pulled a few stalwart cookbooks down – Bittman, Gourmet, New York Times, Ina Garten — and starting scanning indexes.

“I have a banana bread recipe,” Jenny said. “It’s in the blue binder, under desserts.” I knew the one she was referring to: it was from her friend Elizabeth, handwritten on a Real Simple notecard, and we’d been eating it for years.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’m good. I think I’m gonna try the Bittman.”

“Why? You love that recipe.”

“Do we have any coconut?” I asked.

“Coconut?”

“Yeah, Bittman calls for shredded coconut. Do we have any?”

“You’re really annoying.”

Jenny was all uppity about it, too. She couldn’t believe I was stepping out like this, looking elsewhere for inspiration. Was this a referendum on her banana bread? No, it was not. Did this mean I loved her any less? No, it did not. The truth is, she does the same thing to me all the time. I have a perfectly good stir-fry recipe, one we’d made happily together for ten years, but she had to go and improve it by adding rice wine vinegar and hoisin sauce. Partly, this constant off-roading and experimenting is due to having a food blog and always needing new things to write about; but partly, it’s about, well, you know what it’s about. It’s about showing your spouse that you are still capable of discovering something new, all by yourself. It’s about keeping that (flickering) flame of your old identity — the one that exists outside of the “we” of marriage, the one with free will – alive in some small way. So, with Phoebe’s help, I put our stand-by aside and tried a new banana bread. Was it better? Who’s to say? But was it mine? Yes.

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread
This is great for school lunches and, toasted, for breakfast. I added a handful of chocolate chips, and subbed out some white sugar for brown, but otherwise, this is the Bittman recipe from the original How to Cook Everything.

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 cups flour (any combination of whole wheat and all-purpose)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
3 ripe bananas, mashed with a fork
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease a loaf pan.

Mix together the dry ingredients. Cream the butter and beat in the eggs. Stir this mixture into the dry ingredients, being careful not to overmix. Stir in vanilla, nuts, coconut, and chocolate.

Pour the batter into your greased pan and bake for 50-60 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes.

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From Scratch

March 21st, 2012 · 28 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

For my grandmother’s 80th birthday, her best and oldest friend in the world, Midge — fellow bridge clubber, golf partner, drinking buddy, all-around Golden Girl — hosted a dinner party, on the Wedgwood china, in her big brick house on Forest Avenue. Jenny and I were in attendance, as were my father, two widows — Mary and Shep, both in their mid-eighties — and a couple of cranky daschunds named Maxi and Mini. These ladies were as old-school as they come, and though the most basic motions of life had grown difficult and their social universe had pretty much been reduced to the people at this table, they all had that twinkle in their eyes that said: We might be past our prime, but don’t be fooled, sonny. We could crush you in our day. Every woman there had raised kids, spoiled grandchildren, and all but one had lost husbands; all, including my grandmother, have since passed away. But that night, Midge turned back the clock. At 5 pm sharp, out came the Scotch. (These women couldn’t be bothered with wine — unless the Scotch ran dry, at which point: watch the f*ck out.) Then came the little bowls of mixed nuts, cheese waffles, and Bugles. By 6, we were feeling good, seated at the long, formal dining room table, and my dad was toasting my grandmother, whose chair was decorated with balloons. I don’t remember exactly what Midge made for the main course, but let’s say it was a foil-tipped crown roast with cooked-to-oblivion asparagus and instant mashed potatoes — and if it wasn’t, it might as well have been. For dessert, one of my grandmother’s all-time favorites: angel food cake.

My grandmother, it should be noted, was the daughter of German bakers. The woman knew from dessert. I don’t think she had a tooth in her head that hadn’t been violated by a dentist over the years, but that didn’t hold her back. She actually had a little silver dish by her front door that was filled, year round, as if by a benevolent god — I never did figure out where she kept her stash — with York mints and peanut M&Ms, jelly beans and mini-Almond Joys. When I think of her kitchen in the house my dad grew up in on Lincoln Street — before she moved into a one-story place later in life, as my grandfather grew frail — I picture two things clearly: the side-by-side freezer with two or three white-and-blue gallons of Schrafft’s ice cream, and an angel food cake, cooling upside down in its pan on the counter, impaled on the neck of a Dewar’s bottle. She’d serve this to me with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of Hershey’s chocolate sauce, and god, the way that slab of cake absorbed the ice cream, and held it there until fully saturated, kind of like a sponge? Please. Let me rephrase that: Please.

It made sense, then, that we’d have angel food cake for her 80th. The cake, this night, had been supplied by Mary who, at 84 or 85, still knew how to make some noise in the baking department, still knew the value of cake and ice cream on a birthday. This had just the right amount of toasty crunch on the outside, and just the right fluffiness on the inside. Jenny, who also loves a dessert, was impressed.

“Mmmmmmmmmmmmm,” she said. Maybe this was just the Scotch talking. “Oh my god, Mary. This cake is a-mazing.”

“Isn’t she just the best cook?” my grandmother said.

“She really is,” said Midge.

“Truly,” said Shep, who was wearing an awful lot of gold. “Always was.”

“Oh, stop,” said Mary, waving them away. These women were not limelight-seekers. “But Jenny, if you give me your address, I’d be happy to send you my recipe.”

About a week later, a letter from Mary arrived at our apartment in Brooklyn, addressed — of course — not to Jenny, but to Mrs. Andrew Ward. Inside was written, in slightly shaky hand, the secret recipe for this angel food cake. “Take one box Duncan Hines angel food cake mix,” it began…

For women of my grandmother’s generation — or, I should say, the women of my grandmother’s generation that hung around with my grandmother — from scratch meant something very different from what it means today. It meant: I didn’t buy this in a store. It meant: I cooked this in my own oven. It did not mean: I defied convenience and combined several real ingredients together to make this cake. Was it worse? Better? They didn’t care. To be honest, I didn’t get any of this “from scratch” stuff until pretty late in life, either, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend Duncan Hines doesn’t make a solid angel food cake mix. But there is a from-scratch version of this that we make for the kids that even I — a terrible baker — can pull off. It, too, goes great with ice cream. We never tried it out on Doris, Mary, or Shep, but something tells me they would have been impressed. – Andy

 

Angel Food Cake, from Scratch
From Cakewalk, by Kate Moses

1 1/2 cups sifted confectioners’s sugar
1 cup sifted cake flour (or unbleached all-purpose flour)
1 1/2 cups egg whites, at room temperature (about 12 large egg whites)
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup granulated sugar

Move the oven rack to the lowest setting, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Bring the egg whites to room temperature about an hour before baking.

Combine the sifted confectioners’ sugar and flour and sift three times. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the whip attachment, beat the egg whites on low until foamy, then add the cream of tartar, salt, and vanilla and increase the speed to medium. Whip just until soft peaks form, then, beating on medium speed, gradually add the granulated sugar a tablespoon at a time, beating until the whites form soft peaks but are not stiff.

Sift one quarter of the flour mixture over the whites and fold in lightly by hand using a rubber spatula, and repeat with the remaining flour in quarters. Turn the batter gently into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan.

Bake about 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean and the top springs back when touched lightly. Invert the cake onto the neck of a bottle of Dewar’s (or a wine bottle) and allow to cool completely, 2 or 3 hours, before moving from the pan.

Serve with spring strawberries or with chocolate sauce and ice cream.

Photos courtesy of family archivists Earl Johnson and Douglas Ward.

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Kicking the Dessert Habit

March 6th, 2012 · 114 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Cameos, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

You want to know what’s fun about being an editor? You get to live vicariously through people who are smarter, better traveled, and more interesting than you. Charles Duhigg is one of those people. Charles is an investigative reporter at The New York Times — if you haven’t been following his series on Apple, it’s really worth your time — as well as the author of a book I worked on, just published last week by Random House, called The Power of Habit. I know I’m not an objective source on this — I’m probably closer to a cheerleader — but the book was a total blast to work on and is full of ideas and stories and case studies that make you think about your life — including the way you eat, exercise, shop — in a different way. More than 40% of what we do in the course of any given day, it turns out, is not the product of rational decision-making; it’s habit. And that’s scary. Charles was kind enough to take a moment from his all-out media blitz to guest-post for us today about a particular DALS weakness, dessert. Tell us how to be better, Charles…

Let me be completely honest with you: I like dessert.

Not just a little bit. A lot. Basically, I would rather eat dessert than dinner. In fact, I have often had dessert for dinner. I’ve become accustomed — scarily so — to dessert every night. And it turns out I’m not alone.

This wasn’t a big problem before I had kids. Now, however, I have a 3-year-old (or, as he points out, a three-and-three-quarters-year-old). And guess what? He loves dessert, too! And not just a little bit. A lot. What a coincidence! We once went to Costa Rica so that he could see some monkeys and a white sand beach, and all he remembers is the chocolate I let him have after dinner each night. I am not kidding: if you ask him about Costa Rica today, he will tell you it’s a place where you can eat chocolate every night.

That isn’t good.

So, a few years ago when I started researching the science of habits for my book, one of my goals was to figure out how get a handle on my dessert habit (and my son’s). Not to go all Official Book Summary on you here, but in the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. In particular, we’ve learned that every habit has three components: a cue, which is like a trigger for an automatic behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward. Scientists refer to this as the “habit loop.”

When we’re talking about dessert, the habit is pretty obvious: There’s a cue (“dinner is over!”) a routine (“ice cream time!”) and a reward (“oh my god, this chocolate chip crunch tastes good, oh my oh my god”). What neurologists have learned is that habits are powered by cravings. In fact, if we could stick electrodes in my brain (which I wouldn’t recommend – very messy), we would see that as soon as dinner is over, my brain starts anticipating – which is another way of saying craving - that chocolate chip crunch. And if the ice cream doesn’t arrive? My brain gets unhappy, and starts giving off patterns that look a lot like anger — or even depression. (more…)

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