Entries Tagged as 'Posts by Andy'
For the first four, maybe five, years of Abby’s life, she would wake up at 5:45 in the morning, leap out of bed, throw her door open and sprint down the hall — bump, bump, bump, bump, bump — and into our bedroom. Depending on who was on Morning Duty that day, Jenny or I would hoist ourselves out of bed, take Abby by the hand, and stagger back to her room to (a) organize her Playmobil farm, (b) play Dora “Chutes and Ladders” while fighting off waves of despair, or (c) read a pile of books on the floor. In the winter months, when you had an hour and a half to fill before the sun came up, this was tough duty. I know how this will sound to all the early risers out there, but this was some existential stuff. Anyway, most of the time, I took Option C, books. The problem is, you can read a lot of kid books in an hour, and if you choose wrong — if you get pushed into the wrong groove — you can be in for a world of hurt. In particular, I remember struggling through Amelia Bedelia and a series of Backyardigans books — really, any TV show spinoff was a serious soul-killer. Cutesy books, with cutesy alliterative characters — Randy the Rooster, Francie the Fairything, Harry the… Holy Momma, those were some dark days. But they were also some good days. Because really, when you locked in on the good ones, and Abby would sit there in your lap for an hour, turning pages and listening to you read: you’d have to have a stone for a heart to complain about that. And as for what qualified as good, in the pitch dark, before coffee? The books that made us laugh (thank you, Paper Bag Princess), that were about things (The Red Balloon, which I will write about someday on this blog), books that gave kids credit for having a brain and being able to understand questions of longing and love and worry and beauty, books that explored what, even for adults, qualifies as mysterious or unknowable. And, to my mind, the writer that most consistently hit those marks? William Steig. I know, duh. We’re not breaking news here, but William Steig was one of those guys who could talk to adults and to kids at the same time, with one voice, which is a rare quality indeed. I literally wore Sylvester and the Magic Pebble out, read it so many times, it just fell apart. And, later, when the kids were in first and second grade, Steig was a favorite when we would go in and read to the class — the perfect length, a few good laughs along the way, a moment or two where a kid might think, Yup, the world is a lot bigger than I know. Anyway, here are a few of our favorites*, but I’m sure you have yours, too. I miss these books. I kind of miss the early mornings, too. – Andy
*You won’t find Shrek here, but that’s only because the movie ruined it for me.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969)
CliffsNotes version: Mama’s boy donkey named Sylvester Duncan (how great is that name?) collects pebbles. One day, he finds a magic one: when you hold it and make a wish, the wish comes true. Not being dumb, he immediately sees the potential for good in this, wants to take it home to show his parents. Sees a lion on way home and, freaked and scared of being eaten alive, wishes he was a rock. Turns into rock. Unable to touch magic pebble and wish to be a donkey again, he sits there, inert: a rock. His distraught parents go looking for him. They look for him for a year. Parents eventually go for a walk and have a picnic on him. They find the pebble, place it on the rock, and Sylvester is reborn.
Favorite little moment: “The sun was shining as if rain had never existed.”
Favorite passage: “Mr. Duncan walked aimlessly about while Mrs. Duncan set out the picnic food on the rock — alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafras salad, timothy compote. Suddenly Mr. Duncan saw the red pebble. ‘What a fantastic pebble!’ he exclaimed. ‘Sylvester would have loved it for his collection.’ He put the pebble on the rock. They sat down to eat. Sylvester was now as wide awake as a donkey that was a rock could possibly be.”
How I might describe it: A book, in some ways, about loss. But with a happy ending.
Gorky Rises (1980) (more…)
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Tags:best william steig books·books for kids·special childrens books·william steig
Do you have certain meals that you make rarely, on special occasions, and then, as soon as you’re done eating them, you say to yourself, Damn, that was good. Why don’t we eat this once a week? I do. Roast turkey with stuffing and gravy is one of those meals — so deeply satisfying, and come on, would it be any less satisfying on a Sunday night in January? Pasta with fresh clams and basil is one of those meals: why do we only make it in the summer, when we love it so much? Our New Year’s lobster is one of those meals and so, I’m not afraid to admit, is the twice-a-year kid birthday staple, Hebrew National pigs-in-blankets, with which I shall never ever dream of arguing. But the biggest heartbreaker for me is our beloved yet marginalized friend, the glazed ham. Why is it that we only eat glazed ham in mid-to-late December, at holiday-themed dinner parties? Who made up that rule? No disrespect to our entertaining stand-bys — short ribs, ragu, pork loin braised in milk — but is there really anything tastier or more dramatic looking or, honestly, easier to pull off than a crispy, sweet, salty, diamond-scored, slightly caramelized, fat-marbled, relatively inexpensive, even-better-the-next-day ham sliced up tableside (more…)
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Tags:cocktail party menu ideas·glazed ham·holiday entertaining·holiday menu ideas
For a bunch of years when I worked in magazines, I was lucky enough to have the chance to work with David Sedaris. For an editor, this was like being a baseball-loving kid and having had the chance to be the bat boy for Lou Gehrig. (Or maybe that’s not the best example here, but you get the idea. It was, as Abby would say, a priv-uh-lege.) Anyway, those years were some of the best and most fun I ever had, professionally — and personally, too, as David proved as kind and generous a person as he was talented as a writer. A few months ago, we had him over for some dinner (we made a version of our yogurt-marinated chicken) and he arrived with gifts for the kids: bottle-shaped candles, magnets that looked like leaves, chocolates, Japanese note cards, and two books: Strange Stories for Strange Kids and It Was a Dark and Stormy Night. They’re two parts of a remarkable three-part series, called Little Lit, which was edited by the great Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame) and his equally talented wife, Francoise Mouly. As much as the kids (more…)
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Tags:david sedaris·david sedaris ian falconer·dinner a love story kids books·strange stories for strange kids·summer reading series
“This looks amazing,” my friend Mike said, as we sat down to dinner. He was in town on business, and Jenny was at a work event, so it was just me, Mike, and the kids, rocking out on a Wednesday night. On the table: chicken tandoori burgers with a yogurt-mint sauce, sauteed spinach, curried carrots, and the remnants of some math homework. “Man, if we could eat like this every night…”
Mike’s one of my best friends. He’s a smart guy. He’s also an extremely talented writer with some serious — and rare — powers of observation. He’s crazy insightful. His stories, as they say, get at the deeper truths. He’d just spent the last 30 minutes, standing in our kitchen, getting his gin-and-tonic on and watching me put this dinner together. How had he not seen how unmagical this really was? What had I done that could have possibly suggested this was hard, or complicated, or beyond his skillset? In some ways, this was like watching a friend back his car out of his driveway and saying, “Holy sh*t, dude, you are amazing! How did you do that?” It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good, undeserved compliment — and oh, how we love a gracious guest — but I can’t, in good conscience, let this perception stand. I can’t let Mike get away with acting like what we’re doing is hard. The big secret here is that most of the stuff we make on any given night is simple, requires very few ingredients, very little prep time, and no expertise (which I don’t have, anyway, at least not in any real sense of the word). All it takes is will, and a little planning ahead. This was no exception.
“God, these carrots,” he said, taking a bite.
The tandoori burgers take all of 20 minutes. The yogurt sauce is plain yogurt spiked with a handful of chopped mint. The spinach is sauteed in olive oil for three minutes, with a clove of garlic, and then topped with a squeeze of lemon juice and some salt. And the carrots he was talking about? Our Boston Terrier, God love her peanut brain, could make them with one paw tied behind her back. Here’s how I did it: I peeled four carrots and cut them into quarter-inch rounds, and tossed them in a pot. I added 1/2 cup of water, 2 tsp of curry powder, a small pat of butter, some kosher salt, and a squeeze of honey. I simmered, covered, for 15 minutes. That’s it.
“That’s it?” M. said.
Illusion shattered. – Andy
Iris takes notes on preparation. “Yeah, I got this,” she says.
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Tags:curried cooked carrots·easy side dish·easy side dishes for kids·vegetables for kids
I want to talk a little bit, today and tomorrow, about time. More specifically, about our lack of it when it comes to dinner. About that moment when you come home from work at 7 pm and the dog is begging for a walk and your fourth grader really needs you to drill her on her social studies definitions (quick: what’s wampum mean?) for her big test tomorrow and your third grader is asking you to watch — no, Daddy, watch! — her stand on one leg and you’re still in your jacket, staring into a mostly empty refrigerator, and wondering what you’re going to make for dinner tonight. Or, more likely: what you have time to make for dinner. Jenny seems to be more resourceful than I am in these situations, but when it’s a weeknight and I’m on Dinner Duty, and I couldn’t quite get on the earlier train, and the kids are hungry, and I need to make something fast…. why is it, in moments like this, that the human mind — my human mind, at least — automatically goes to pasta with a jarred sauce? My best guess: because it’s quick, it’s healthy, and it’s convenient.
But what does convenient mean, anyway? And what exactly is quick?
This weekend, I finally decided to conduct an experiment. I say finally because I’ve been meaning to write this post for about two months now, and I could just never seem to find the… time. What I wanted to do was to time myself, from a standing start, and see what took longer: a weeknight dinner made mostly with pre-made ingredients, or a dinner made with all real stuff. For the pre-made dinner, I would make spaghetti with Old World Style Ragu, and a pre-washed mesclun salad with Ken’s Light Ranch Dressing. For the homemade dinner, I would make an old stand-by, cacio e pepe, with sliced kumato tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sea salt. I want to stress: I have nothing against jarred sauces. I spent the first three years after college, living in Brooklyn with very little money and an arrested culinary imagination: I know from jarred sauces. Had I opened a vein when I was 24 years old, Ragu Garden Style and Heineken would have poured out. The goal here is not to make some kind of Michael Pollan-y political statement or to suggest that one of these dinners is evil while the other is righteous and pure. Anyone who’s ever had Rao’s or Cucina Antica or even T. Joe’s marinara knows that’s baloney (which I also enjoy, by the way, on white bread with yellow mustard). The goal is only to suggest that, often, what we have been conditioned to think of as quick and healthy is not, in fact, any quicker or healthier (or cheaper, for that matter) than the real deal. The most important thing is to have a few of what Jenny calls “back-pocket recipes” in my repertoire, things I can go to when I’m feeling paralyzed and time is tight. Cacio e pepe is one of those recipes. And the inconvenient truth is, it tastes better, too.
Below, the results of the test. Note: I used the same amount of cold water (4 cups) and started the timer the minute the burners were turned on. No prep work was allowed. – Andy
Coming up tomorrow: What is Easy? And maybe after that: What is Cheap?
PRE-MADE DINNER: Spaghetti with Old World Style Ragu Pasta Sauce, Bagged Mesclun and Ken’s Light Ranch Dressing
21 minutes, 15.8 seconds
Pasta: Trader Joe’s spaghetti, boiled in salted water.
Sauce: Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Soybean Oil, Salt, Sugar, Dehydrated Onions, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Spices, Romano Cheese (Part-Skim Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Natural Flavor.
Salad: Pre-washed mesclun (though I washed it again because we’re paranoid like that).
Dressing: Water, Vegetable Oil (Soybean and/or Canol), Buttermilk, Distilled Vinegar, Sugar, Maltodextrin, Egg Yolk, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Contains less than 2% of Omega-3 [Fish Oil and Fish Gelatin (contains Tilapia, Sardine, and Anchovy)], Salt, Modified Food Starch, Phosphoric Acid, Garlic (Dried), Natural Flavor (Milk), Vegetable Base [Salt, Sugar, Corn Oil, Potato Flour, Onion Powder, Natural Flavor, Carrot Powder, Garlic Powder], Monosodium Glutamate, Disodium Phosphate, Titanium Dioxide, Xanthum Gum, Sorbic Acid, Spice, Carrageenan, Disodium Innosinate and Disodium Guanylate Calcium Disodium EDTA to protect flavor.
HOMEMADE DINNER: Cacio e Pepe with Kumato Tomato Salad
20 minutes, 28.6 seconds
Pasta: Trader Joe’s spaghetti, boiled in salted water.
Sauce: Olive oil, pasta water, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper.
Salad: Tomatoes, olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, sea salt.
Cacio e Pepe
Boil one package of spaghetti in salted water. In a large bowl, put 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup grated parmesan, a few pinches of salt, and lots and lots of freshly ground pepper (thus, the pepe part of cacio e pepe). I usually do about 15 or so grinds. When the pasta is done, reserve 1/3 cup of the water, and drain the rest. Take the reserved pasta water and pour into the bowl, whisking it into the ingredients as you do, until it is emulsified. Add pasta to bowl, and toss thoroughly. When you plate it, top with more ground pepper and parmesan cheese.
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Tags:cacio e pepe recipe·quick dinners for kids·quick family dinner
Every spring, growing up, my elementary school would put on a fifth grade Science Fair. They’d clear out the gym, bring in a bunch of those long cafeteria tables, and the fifth graders would file in early, groggy and grumpy, to set up their exhibits. Later that day, we’d take our places behind our posters and dioramas and baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes, as the rest of the school filtered through, pretending to be interested. My exhibit was a poster-board triptych about beach erosion, which is strange to me now, seeing as we lived nowhere near the beach and I gave not one fig about erosion.* The thing I remember most from that day, though, was not my lame poster or the sweet feeling of relief when the fair was finally over. What I remember most was an exhibit, a few doors down from mine, cheerily titled “Nuclear Winter.”
I wasn’t sure what nuclear winter was, exactly. Was it related to acid rain, that great scourge of the late 70s and early 80s? Was it the same thing as fallout? Would it require a bulkier winter coat? No, if this exhibit was to be believed, nuclear winter was something far, far worse. This was no shoebox diorama. This was, no exaggeration**, a 2×3 foot topographical model of a ravaged landscape. When nuclear winter came knocking, it announced, the world would turn the color of cigarette ash and bus exhaust. Human beings – those that survived – would be forced underground. The sun would be extinguished, winter settling in for the long haul. Here and there were shattered (painted plastic) tree trunks and a pile of rubble that was once a house. The boy who made the exhibit had strewn some white, stick-like things on the ground which, he said, were supposed to represent animal bones. Here was a simple law of nature that even a fifth grader could understand: without sun, there is no food; without food, everything dies. Call me sheltered, but this was a possibility I had not yet contemplated in life. What fifth grader does? Either this kid was the love child of Cormac McCarthy and Ingmar Bergman, or he was onto something real, in which case my family would need to be prepared. We had no stockpiles of food in our basement, only a workbench, a giant foam mattress, a pool table, and some old cans of Minwax. If nuclear winter hit and the animals died and our Safeway was reduced to a gray smudge, how would we survive? What would we do for food?
Thirty years later, I know exactly what I’d do: I’d head to my in-laws’.
Open the door to Jenny’s mother’s refrigerator, and this is – more or less – what you will see: very little that resembles what we think of as “groceries.” You will see orange juice and water, a tub of whipped cream cheese, and a smattering of condiments. But mainly, you will see endless bowls and plates and little glass dishes, all neatly covered in Saran Wrap, containing leftovers. A dessert plate with five green beans. A bowl with three flaccid strawberries. A plastic take-out container with two ounces of plain spaghetti, cooked, and another plastic take-out container with about four tablespoons of marinara sauce. One-third of a breaded chicken cutlet. Half a piece of French toast. A Chinese food carton containing a single piece of black-bean shrimp. A Ziploc bag containing one sad leaf of Boston lettuce. Enough hummus to satisfy a field mouse. A slice of honeydew melon, vintage unknown. None of this will go to waste, by the way. Not one bit of it will be thrown out. Everything here will be repurposed, over the coming days, into the brown bag lunches that Jenny’s mom has taken to work every day for the last 30 years. Think of it as leftover tapas. This is an actual picture I took at her house last weekend: (more…)
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Tags:leftover spaghetti·pantry dinner·spaghetti omelet·what to do with leftover spaghetti
When Jenny launched
Dinner: a Love Story eighteen months ago, I sent out a group email to all nine of my friends to let them know what was up, and to spread the word. She called me at work a couple of hours later, excited. “John Sullivan just registered on the site,” she said. Our first victim! John Sullivan, aka John Jeremiah Sullivan, is a writer, a funny person, a kind soul, and a former colleague of mine from the men’s magazine known as
Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Have you heard of him? You will. Just last week, he published a collection of essays, Pulphead, that has been getting some halfway decent reviews.
NPR called it “a collection that shows why Sullivan might be the best magazine writer around.” On Sunday,
The New York Times Book Review called it “the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since [David Foster] Wallace’s
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Dwight Garner, reviewing it in the
Times last week, said it “put me in mind of one of Flannery O’Connor’s indelible utterances.”
Time had this to say: “He’s not exactly a national secret — he’s already won two National Magazine Awards, among other things, and he’s not yet 40. But he’s the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” Larry McMurtry, in
Harper’s, called it “the most involving collection of essays to appear in many a year.” To which I will add: Please. The fact that you can buy this book on Amazon right now for less than I spent on swiss chard at the market this morning is one of the great bargains, and investments, to be found on this earth. It’s hard to put into words just how sublime stories like this, this and this are. (Seriously, take an hour and read some. Start with “Upon This Rock.” Afterwards, feel free to complain directly to me if you feel I have steered you wrong.) John, in addition to being a DALS charter member, was kind enough to offer up a few of his favorite kid books for us. Of his picks, I can only claim to have read
The Giant Jam Sandwich, but I’m here to say: if John Jeremiah Sullivan says these books are good and true, I’m going to believe him. I now cede the floor. — Andy
Here are four beloved books of my childhood, possibly out of print, but worth the while of parents to hunt down
, especially if their youngsters are between, say, three and six. Written by an author who has actually prepared multiple DALS recipes (greatly enjoyed by family in cases where he didn’t burn, mush them up, or accidentally serve them raw). P.S. DALS also turned me on to Don Pepino
pizza sauce in a can. It’s all I use anymore.
A small town (Itching Down) is infested by wasps, to the point that folks can’t deal. The townspeople have a meeting, where it’s decided that they will build an enormous, field-sized jam sandwich, to trap all the wasps. Watching them do this, page after page… I can still feel the child excitement. They turn a swimming pool into a mixing bowl. They turn the town’s biggest building into a giant brick oven. The pictures are bright but also detailed and subtle. If your kid loves books, it’s a minor crime not to read him/her this one.
Shaggy Fur Face by Virgil Franklin Partch
A dog has a good master–and mistress, a little girl–but they’re poor, and they can’t keep him. They sell him, for the cost of ”ditch-digging britches,” to (more…)
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Tags:books for kids·John Jeremiah Sullivan·Pulphead
There’s this thing Abby and I do, before every soccer game. She’s usually sitting on the wooden bench by our door, in her too-big uniform, and even though she’s in third grade, I’m enabling…I mean, tying her cleats. When I’m done, I give her a pat on the knee and look into her eyes.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. The affect couldn’t be more flat. She has heard this before.
“You gonna be tough out there today?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Good,” I say, “because if you lose, don’t bother coming home.”
She rolls her eyes.
So when I was loading my stock pot full of chili into the back of our car at 8:30 last Saturday morning, on my way to deliver it unto the judges of our town’s first annual Chili-Off, Abby saw her opening.
“Hey, Dad,” she said.
“If you lose today, don’t bother coming home.”
You know where this is going, right?
We’d signed up for this Chili-Off — which would take place at the Pumpkin Fair, which raises money for our town’s elementary school — a few weeks ago, and Abby wasn’t the only one having fun at my expense. Jenny, too, had been gleefully applying the pressure, getting all up in my mug about it. (“Remember that venison chili Francine made for us like ten years ago?” she asked a few days beforehand, out of nowhere, which I took as challenge — brazen in its passiveness — to my manhood. “Mmmm, that was so good.” Damn, I thought. Should I be using venison?). The night before the contest, she’d been watching me like a hawk as I got my mis en place going, hovering, looking skeptical, asking me if I was nervous, if I knew anything about “the competition,” if I had a secret ingredient up my sleeve (meaning: you might need one), if I’d be able to show my face at the coffee shop if we lost. But I had waited until 9:00 on the night before the contest to start cooking, and I didn’t have the time or bandwith for new recipes or special ingredients. Go with what you know, as they say, and so I did. I’m not about to abandon the chili I love because there might be someone out there building a better, prettier one. It’s called loyalty, people.
Besides, I only know how to make one chili by heart. It’s quick and easy, about thirty minutes of hands-on time, and is a regular in the family rotation. Every Halloween, actually, we make a batch of it for friends and neighbors, who stop in before they go trick or treating, or while they’re out trick or treating, sort an open house kind of deal. It’s a dinner party in a pot. We stick a ladle in the Le Creuset, put some paper bowls and fixings on the counter — sour cream, cheese, cilantro, avocado, chips — and everybody stands around with a glass of red wine and serves themselves. It’s become something of a tradition, and nobody has ever complained about the food. To my face, at least.
The chili itself is a pretty straightforward base with lots of possible variations, but for the First Annual Chili-Off, I decided to go classic (beef), with a slight twist (chorizo). The chorizo adds some subtle heat and smokiness and, in general, just really good depth of flavor. I mean, it’s sausage, for chrissakes; it’s not going to make it worse. By 10 pm, the stock pot was in the refrigerator, marking its time until Judgment Day.
We showed up at the fair at 12:30, having completely missed the Chili-Off, not to mention the panel of seven judges who apparently tasted all fourteen entries with the seriousness of the dead. The day was beautiful, sunny and windy, the leaves just beginning to turn. High clouds were blowing through in long formations. A soccer kind of day. One of Phoebe’s friends ran right up to us as we walked in. “You guys came in second place!” she said. “Phoebe, your dad almost won!”
Almost. Hey, I tried, right?
Jenny looked at me. She smiled. “Second place, wow,” she said, throwing an arm around my shoulder. “Not bad, not bad. But you know what George Steinbrenner said: Second place is really first place loser. I’m just saying.”
Ouch. I don’t the name of the guy who won first place, but I have two things to say to him: Congratulations, your chili rules. And: Stay away from my wife. – Andy
Second Place Chili
Serves 12 to 15 (more…)
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Tags:chili·easy chili recipe·entertaining families·family entertaining ideas·halloween entertaining
If you come to our house for a grown-up dinner party, there’s a good chance it’ll be just after 8:00, and our two kids will greet you at the door. If all has gone according to plan, they’ll be bathed and pajama’d, their teeth will be brushed, and with a little luck they’ll be in bed, out of sight, 30 minutes later.
It’s not that we worry about the girls being un-presentable or that we fear they’ll pillage the crostini plate before our guests have taken their coats off. (OK, maybe we do worry about the crostini thing. It’s a problem.) It’s that usually the people we have over for dinner are parents, too. Parents who have already spent the waking part of their day doing what parents do – suffering through another Wa Wa Wubbzy marathon, doling out snacks, pretending to lose at Uno – and probably, if they’re being honest, don’t feel a real powerful need to spend valuable babysitting hours doing the same with someone else’s kids.
In our experience, what our guests are looking for is a cocktail with plenty of ice, some tasty food, and a conversation that does not begin with the words, “I am counting to three…” So usually, after our kids make their Dinner Party Cameo – the key with kids, like food, is to leave your guests wanting more — one of us will take them upstairs and shepherd them through their bedtime paces, while the other sets the table and puts the finishing touch on whatever has been braising away all afternoon in the Dutch Oven.
Very often in our house, it’s short ribs. We love braised short ribs for three reasons: one, they’re unstoppably, almost obscenely good; two, they’re impossible to screw up; and three, they require no hands-on time once the guests arrive. Entertaining, for us, is all about not having to start from zero once the kids are in bed, chopping and blanching and reducing – and sweating — while our guests stand in the kitchen, hungry, with one eye on the clock. It’s about having a glass of Barbera and diving into a dinner that is ready to go, but that also feels simultaneously casual and special. And when everything goes right, you can almost forget — for a few hours, at least — that there’s a Thomas the Train track running through the living room, and that you have to be awake at 5:30 the next morning to perform a sock puppet show. – Jenny & Andy
This story appears in the current issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their website for the Short Ribs recipe, which is a simplified version of an old Balthazar favorite. Photo by Christopher Testani for Bon Appetit.
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Tags:braised beef·entertaining families·one pot meal
I spent fifteen years after high school pretending Led Zeppelin sucked. I was apparently too cool for Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Something happened to me when I went off to college – well, a lot of things happened to me when I went off to college, but the most egregious was that I stopped rocking my a*s off. Not that I was ever in a band or anything. The closest I came to actual shredding was air-guitaring to “Whole Lotta Rosie” with my Arthur Ashe tennis racket in the paneled family room of our house in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. But college messed me up. Suddenly, music, like the books I pretended to read (waddup, Günter Grass?!) under trees on the quad, had become social currency, a signifier of intellectual heft. Suddenly, I was into the Cure and the Cocteau Twins, 10,000 Maniacs, and a moody Scottish troubador who called himself Lloyd Cole. I took long hangover naps to the gentle strains of Talk Talk. I DJ’d a radio show and inflicted Jesus Jones on the poor souls of Western Massachusetts, whose only crime was turning on their radios on Saturday morning, hoping to hear music. By the time I graduated, I was afloat in a warm bath of ambience and interesting lyrics.
A brief history of my descent, from there: In the late nineties, Jenny and I got married, and in the inevitable process of accommodation and compromise, my musical tastes changed again — Lucinda Williams, Matthew Sweet, Norah (gulp) Jones, Sheryl (double gulp) Crow, Ryan Adams, and many others I’ve no doubt repressed – and the soundtrack of my life down-shifted into what I call Music Couples Can Cook To. Then came kids, and I’ll spare you the grisly account of how my iPod was violated over the five year period that my kids were becoming sentient beings, but let’s just say that I know a few songs by Laurie Berkner. If we ventured outside of kid music during these years, it was into territory that felt family-friendly and safe yet still adult, that – if deployed in a car traveling at 60 mph – could lull a cranky child to sleep. In other words, we’d moved into the Music That Won’t Ruin Dinner Parties phase of life. This was thoughtful, smart stuff, sung by dudes in skinny jeans; this was literature set to music. And I participated, suffering through Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Andrew Bird, Jenny Lewis, Jeff Tweedy (solo), Neko Case, Elvis Perkins, and…holy crap, I nearly fell asleep just typing that list.
Then, in 2006, I was saved.
One day at work, a friend handed me a copy of the newly-remastered Live at the Fillmore East by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I put it on at my desk, and in the course of the COMPLETELY BRAIN-MELTING SIXTEEN MINUTE AND NINE SECOND VERSION of “Cowgirl in the Sand” that ensued, something powerful rose up from the depths. It was like having spent ten years watching decent high schoolers play pepper, and then going to batting practice at Yankee Stadium. Oh, right. So THIS is how it’s done. The shock of recognition, the glimpse of your old, pre-kid, pre-married, less Starbucks-y self: that stuff is for real. I don’t want to overstate things, but something awoke within me that day, some long-lost part of the old me who enjoyed a gratuitous guitar solo and didn’t feel like wearing a scarf or being bummed out. Interesting lyrics are interesting, but I’m borderline middle-aged, with a full-time job and two daughters and a gray crossover vehicle, and I could use something more than interesting. Down the rabbit hole I went, digging up old CDs, trolling youtube for jams, burning tons of Stones and James Brown and Led Zeppelin , ditching the singer-songwriters and diving deep into anything that sounded good loud, from the three-guitar onslaught of The Drive-By Truckers to Jack White to “Check Your Head”-era Beasties to My Morning Jacket to The Jam to, yes, Duane F’ing Allman. And here’s the thing: For the most part, the kids came right along with me. I started playing this stuff in the car, on the way to soccer games and playdates – and with rare exceptions (see: Burma, Mission Of), I heard very few complaints. Instead, I heard, when the song ended: “Again.” Instead, I saw, in the rear view mirror, during those first thirty seconds of “Custard Pie”: Abby, her window down and her hair blowing back, doing her guitar face. She couldn’t have looked happier. Because kids, instinctively, know what feels good. Don’t believe me? Put on some Mason Jennings, and then put on “Hotel Yorba,” and turn it up. See what sticks. – Andy
Rock & Roll Illustration by Phoebe.
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It’s hard to know who was more excited when the Amazon box landed with a thunk on our doorstep last week, Phoebe or her parents. We knew from the heft what was inside: All 640 pages of Brian Selznick’s new book, Wonderstruck. We’ve spent many dinners and car rides and bedtimes discussing Brian Selznick. His last book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for me, was one of those books where you just think, Wow, that’s amazing. I guess I’ll never write a children’s book! I mean that in the nicest possible way: it’s hard to imagine even attempting to create something that transporting and beautiful, let alone succeeding at it. If you gave me a different brain and some artistic talent and a million peaceful years to make it happen, no. But that’s just me. For Phoebe, our resident dreamer and book critic, Brian Selznick is something different: he’s a writer who has taken her beloved graphic novel form and turned into something bigger and better. Phoebe just seems to love the added layer that imagery adds to a story, the way she can keep going back and getting more out of it. This is not to say that she doesn’t like chapter books, but if you asked Phoebe to pick her ten favorite books, a hundred bucks says all ten would be graphic novels. I kind of hope that never changes. Wonderstruck is not a graphic novel, just to be clear. I don’t know what to call it. It’s a chapter book with hundreds of luminous, moody, full-bleed illustrations, which unspool in these amazing ten, twenty, thirty page stretches, like the greatest flip book ever created. As Phoebe says, when asked why she loves it so: “He makes you feel it.”
We thought we’d use this book’s arrival as an excuse to round up our latest favorite graphic novels for 8- to 12-year-olds. And, like always, I’m going to turn the mic over to the reader herself. – Andy
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick: “If you liked The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you’ll like this book. I can’t really explain it, because this author makes his books really complicated, but it’s about a deaf boy and a deaf girl. It makes you think about how hard it must be to be deaf. It’s half pictures and half words; the girl’s story is pictures and the boy’s story is words. He puts so much feeling into his stories. And there’s a surprise at the end, which is always good.”
Phoebe rating: 9*
Parent note: Why not a 10? Because Phoebe said it wasn’t quite as good as Hugo Cabret.
Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman: “This is one of my favorites. I read it like three times on vacation. It’s about a school in space and it’s cool: they have anti-gravity drills and time-bending watches and things like that. Everything that’s impossible on earth is possible there, pretty much. It’s funny and adventure-y. My favorite character is Miyumi San because she has a watch that lets her travel in time and because she acts tough. She’s like a tomboy.”
Phoebe rating: Half 9, half 10*
* Parent note: I assume this means 9.5.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword* by Barry Deutsch: “Okay, this is a tale of knitting and pig-chasing. Weird, right? It’s the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl named Mirka who has nine brothers and sisters and she’s always wanted to fight dragons and trolls. I know all this sounds really strange, but if you read it, it’ll make sense. This is a good book for people who like adventure. It makes you want to go grab your own sword and start fighting some trolls!” (more…)
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Tags:best comic books for kids·comic books·comic books for kids·creative gifts for kids·graphic novels for girls·graphic novels for kids
At what point do I stop feeling that pit in my stomach, that gnawing sense of dread, when summer ends? Is it me, or was last week officially the longest four-day week in history? Okay, maybe that’s overstating things, but still: I was hurting, in a real back-to-school way, and I’m a grown-ass man. Back behind my desk, staring at the screen. School lunches to be packed. Bills to be paid, rising anxieties to be tamped down, alarm clocks to be set, soggy basements to be dried, soccer and piano schedules to coordinate, times tables to be memorized, reality to be reckoned with and, most crushing of all, vacation officially over. We did a little posting from our trip in August, but in case it didn’t come across: we had fun, and were extremely fortunate to have had it, and were unbelievably bummed to be back. We had so much fun, we kept looking for ways to relive our trip once we were home — inflicting our pictures on polite friends (“hold on, you gotta see the sandwiches we made for that picnic in Place des Vosges”), making epic photo albums, leaving our souvenirs around, in prominent places, to remind us of where we’d been, replaying our favorite moments (walking up the Eiffel Tower, hiking the South Downs, napping on trains, watching a clueless, jet-lagged dad try to pay for a crepe in Paris with a ten dollar bill) with the kids around the dinner table.
If you were to call this a form of denial, you wouldn’t be wrong. Two weeks after coming home, we’re still denying, still holding on. This weekend, in homage to the few days we spent in England on the way home from Paris, we had a fry up — cardiologists and vegetarians, avert your eyes — and kicked off our Sunday with an absurd plate of runny eggs, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, baked beans, and toast. Of all the unhealthy things we ate in England — to name a few: rock cake, apple tart, banoffee pie, Cadbury bars, clotted cream, rose and chocolate eclairs, scones, currant scones, cheese scones, lamb shoulder, beef roasts, fish and chips, Victoria sponge cake, summer pudding, maple pecan ice cream, etc etc etc — none was more bald in its unhealthiness, or more satisfying, than the fry-up. It’s one unapologetic, greasy, bursting plate of deliciousness. We’d like to live long enough to see our kids reach their teenage years, so we’re not making a habit of this, but man (blimey?): the Brits know from breakfast. I love this, particularly with the beans. I love vacation, particularly with the kids. Can it be summer again? – Andy (more…)
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Tags:breakfast entertaining·breakfast party·british breakfast·fry up breakfast
I remember, as a kid, thinking that food tasted better on vacation. I don’t mean this in the figurative sense, either. I mean that when my brother and I would come back to the house after four hours on the beach in South Carolina — my tawny brother coated in Coppertone Deep Tanning oil, with his Terminator glasses perched on his head, and me, with my zinc-ed nose and plaid Jams — we would have lunch on the screened porch, under a whirring ceiling fan, and marvel, as much as boys marvel, at the beauty of it all. This Boar’s Head turkey and Swiss: it was different, right? The Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread, toasted, the Utz potato chips: just a little fresher, a little more crisp. A tall glass, filled with tons of ice and a fizzy Coke: why didn’t soda taste this good at home? Not that we would have ever put it like this, but it was like our senses were heightened when we were away from home, and every Cheet-o, every Pecan Sandie, every drop of French’s mustard, every bread-and-butter pickle was that much more tasty, that much more special. This was discussed as an actual phenomenon, nothing imagined about it: it was different on vacation. We knew this to be true.
Turns out, we were just hungry. Food is food, of course, and it only tasted better because we were kids and we imagined that potato chips could somehow sense when we were on vacation and, in response, decide to make themselves just a little more delicious.
Yet another example, for the record, of the way adulthood sometimes seems to exist to crush dreams.
This past week, though, we’re beginning to reconsider the cold logic of…reality. We spent eight unreal days in Paris, and we cooked in five of those nights* and while I’m aware of how this will sound, each of those meals was better than anything (more…)
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Psssst. Don’t tell my bosses, but I was doing a little pleasure reading at my desk today. More specifically, I was reading an old piece from GQ* by the food writer Alan Richman. Here is a sentence from that story, which I was going to try to build a whole dessert post around, but then gave up when I realized there was nothing I could add that could possibly make it better, or more true:
Show me a man who believes his favorite desserts are those he has eaten as an adult, and I’ll show you a man who has had an unhappy childhood.
Mine is either the snickerdoodle or the s’more, too close to call. Jenny’s is Jell-O chocolate pudding pie, with real whipped cream and a graham cracker crust. Discuss.
*And, okay, I was reading this, too. How good?
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“Ask me a question.”
Every Saturday afternoon, I go for a long run, and Phoebe bikes alongside me, and this is what she says to me the minute we hit the trail. “Ask me a question.” Which is really her way of saying: Ask me a question about a book I am currently reading, and I will summarize the plot for you while you run, which will distract you from the agony of exercising. Some of these summaries are quick, easily dispatched. Family lives on prairie, endures terrible storms, long winters, and much suffering, but survives. Girl deals with embarrassing dental issues, gets braces, endures much teasing, but survives. Handsome man has superpowers, saves world. The past few weekends, though, things have gotten a little more involved. “Tell me about this Pseudonymous Bosch guy,” I say to Phoebe, as we set out. “What are those books about, exactly?” Phoebe pedals for a bit, thinking. “Hmmmm,” she says. “That’s hard.” “Try,” I say. “Well,” she says, “they’re basically about the five senses: smell, sight, feel, hearing, and taste. There’s a lot of chocolate in the third book. And there’s this group of evil guys called the Midnight Sun, who are trying to figure out The Secret, which I think is about immortality. The main characters are named Cass and Max-Ernest and… it’s hard to explain.” She’s often still explaining when we stop, forty-five minutes later.
I first encountered the Pseudonymous Bosch books two and a half years ago, on one of those gray winter days when the town library is closed and you’re sitting in your house, dying of claustrophobia and getting on each other’s nerves and it’s too cold to do anything outside, so you end up — jail break! — camping out in the kids’ section at Barnes and Noble, trying to avoid spending money on Care Bear sticker books. The kids wandered off, and I did, too. I found a book and picked it up based entirely on the title (The Name of This Book is Secret) and the beauty of its cover. God, was this a nice looking, well thought-out, creative book. I flipped to the back flap, to see who was behind it: based on the author bio alone, I wanted to have it. Then I opened it up, and here’s what I saw on the third page:
Okay, now I REALLY wanted this book. Or, better, I couldn’t wait until our kids were old enough to read a book this weird and fun. Two and half years later, we find ourselves in the summer of Pseudonymous Bosch. Phoebe is obsessed. (Jenny and I wish she’d be a little less obsessed, to be honest, as it feels like we never see her anymore.) She’s knocked off all four since school ended, and is awaiting the fifth, You Have to Stop This. (Memo to P. Bosch fom Phoebe: Hurry the heck up already!) Unfortunately, that next installment is going to be a little bit later than it otherwise might have been, as Pseudonymous himself was kind enough to take precious writing time to contribute the next installment of our Summer Reading Series, a roundup of his favorite mysteries for kids. To be a nine year old again…
As my readers well know, I am a secretive author, desperately afraid not just of the public spotlight but even the smallest penlight. (It’s the batteries—I have trouble replacing them in my remote location.) Nonetheless, I occasionally find myself making appearances at glamorous venues such as elementary school cafeterias and the backs of chain bookstores, most of which seem to close permanently a few days later. Why a phobic character such as myself should choose to expose himself like that is a question best left to my psychiatrist. (I mean, my publicist). I have, however, learned to come armed with certain provisions to protect myself against the prying public. They are, in no particular order: large scratch-proof sunglasses, emergency chocolate rations, a discrete handheld sound-effects machine (sirens, gunfire, broken glass, farts, etc.), and book recommendations.
Why book recommendations? Because What books do you recommend? is almost always the one hundredth question I get (the first ninety-nine being What is your real name?). Because my books are meant to be mysteries, I usually recommend mystery books. And because my audience is meant to be younger, I usually recommend adult mysteries. I figure somebody else has already recommended The Hardy Boys or Harriet the Spy, so instead I mention Edgar Allan Poe or Dashiell Hammet or Dorothy Sayers (the latter author being a particular favorite of mine when I was a kid). But I fear that you—the reader of this blog—are most likely an adult. Thus, out of sheer perversity, and also because it was requested, I am going to recommend a few children’s titles that have lately held my interest. One thing that is wonderful about young readers is that they still retain the power to be mystified. As an adult, I find that children’s books help restore my sense of mystery. Hopefully, these books will do that for you, too. And if you have an actual child by your side, all the better.
The Circus in the Mist by Bruno Munari (only available used)
This almost wordless book was one of my favorites when I was very young and I still love to look at it. Written and illustrated—perhaps the best word is created—by the Italian designer and book-magician Bruno Munari, The Circus in the Mist takes the reader on a journey into a “mist,” which is represented by translucent vellum pages. Spare yet playful, each page teases you into turning to the next. In the middle of the book, you are rewarded with a circus, and all its fun and familiar acts, but at the end you are returned to the mist, as if to say that the mysteriousness of the mist itself—not the circus it hides—is the true wonder. (more…)
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Tags:pseudonymous bosch·secret series·summer book club·summer reading for kids·summer reading series
Something rare and wonderful happened about a month ago: both — BOTH — of our daughters were invited to a birthday party, on Saturday night from 6:00-8:00. That’s two hours. On a Saturday night. Which was on Saturday. Which is the day that immediately follows Friday, which is also a good day, but not nearly as good as the one that follows it. Saturday! Can I tell you how much I love whichever kind, compassionate person in the birthday house was responsible for that decision? Because of them, we found ourselves on an early summer night with two full hours to enjoy a grown-up dinner with our friends Todd and Anne. Two hours isn’t enough time to go to a restaurant and be back in time for the kids, maybe, but it’s plenty enough time to cook up something good at home, and eat in peace.
That afternoon, Jenny and I raced around shopping and spent way too much money on two gratuitous steaks, a bunch of fava beans, a baguette, and a big bag of assorted, odd-looking mushrooms. By 5:45, the grill had been lit, and the favas had been peeled, boiled, smashed, and smeared on toasts. Todd and Anne got a babysitter and came over at 6:00 sharp, and we had a drink like adults, without having to shout over The Penguins of Madagascar. We sat outside. We drank good wine. We threw a cast iron skillet on the grill, and cooked the mushrooms with some olive oil, salt, thyme, and garlic. We sliced the baguette and brushed it with olive oil, and grilled it, too. We cooked two beautiful steaks, and drove the dog crazy. We sat down to eat at the kitchen table, and there may have even been candle, napkins (a true rarity in our house), and matching plates involved. I love our kids, I really do, but this? This was nice. The food turned out pretty well, but the entree was the star. Turns out, a couple of thick, marbled steaks, doused with tons of salt and cracked peppercorns, cooked over a hot fire, are absurdly tasty. And easy. And when cooked right, with a slight crunch on the outside — and a juicy, medium rare in the middle — are just about as good as anything you’ll find in a restaurant. So who wants to host the next birthday party? – Andy (more…)
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Tags:easy steak dinner·grilled steak·summer grilling menu
You should have seen the look on Phoebe’s face when I told her that Daniel Handler was going to contribute a Summer Reading List for DALS. It’s how I imagine my own face would have looked if, back in 1981, my dad had walked through the door and said, “Hi everyone, yeah, long day at work. I’m just gonna go upstairs and put my bathrobe on. Oh, and Andy: the Rolling Stones are going to play at your birthday party this year.” Daniel Handler — and how many people, other than close relatives, can you say this about — has had a genuine, rock star-like impact on our oldest daughter’s life. The thirteen mind-blowing books he wrote, under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, are the books Phoebe might well remember most when she’s old and forty. First of all, she read them all in about two weeks, curled up on the corner of our family room couch, and we basically didn’t see or hear from her until she was done. We’re talking serious, deep transportation. Second of all, these books give you faith in the human imagination. They’re so beautifully, joyously done. In some ways, they’re the books that opened her up to the value of darkness in a story, and of the way good and evil, and life and death, can coexist. “Imagine lemonade,” Phoebe said, when I asked her to describe what the books are like. “Only with barely any sugar.” Which is exactly how I would have put it, happy as I was to discover these books, too, after so many years of unrelenting cheeriness and pointless plot-iness and overweening cutesiness and, as Phoebe suggests, way too much sugar. (I’m not naming names.) You can never accuse Daniel Handler of ever using too much sugar. That goes for his adult books as well, and, we presume, for Why We Broke Up, the young adult book he is publishing this fall with the illustrator, Maira Kalman, with whom he has partnered before, to gorgeous results. (This is a go-to gift book for us.) We are huge Daniel Handler fans here at DALS, and we’re honored to have him tell us about his favorite picture books. (Plus one not-so-picture book that he couldn’t resist throwing in. See: Darkness, above.) Without further ado, Daniel Handler on what your kids should be reading this summer…
Dillweed’s Revenge by Florence Parry Heide
This one was written a long time ago, and Edward Gorey was supposed to illustrate it, but he pulled a jerk move and died. It’s really remarkable, the story of a young man with terrible parents who evntually finds ways to deal with them — through monstrous acts of witchraft and menace. It was finally illustrated by the amazing Carson Ellis, who’s probably best known for the album covers she does for her husband’s band, The Decemberists. The art has this kind of abstract, Rothko-y, wet quality to it. It’s old-fashioned Victorian meets the dark unplummable depths of the human soul. For kids!
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (note: this is coming out in September, but you can pre-order now) (more…)
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Tags:daniel handler·daniel handler maira kalman·lemony snicket·summer book club·summer reading series
Let me put your minds at ease, right here at the top: No, our kids do not love clams. They’re kids, first of all, and clams are kind of freaky. The most I can say, while maintaining journalistic integrity, is that our kids and clams are in the process of learning to coexist. They’re getting to know one another. They’ll eat one or two, at most — warily, and with some prodding — before they move on to the safety of chips and guac. But learning to coexist is important, and exposure, as we have argued here before, is half the battle. And, this summer, we’re not having any trouble in the exposure department. This summer, we are all about clams.
At the risk of sounding predictable, Jenny and I are sticking to a script these days when it comes to entertaining – and, more specifically, when it comes to appetizers. There will be no elaborate cheese platters, no overly-produced dips, no bruschetta. (Okay, maybe some bruschetta.) Whenever we have people over, and even when we don’t, we do up a bowl of littlenecks from The Fish Guy at the farmer’s market, slice a fresh, crusty loaf of bread, set out some napkins and forks, and let that be our appetizer plate. We find that even if the kids won’t touch the clams, they’ll gladly take a hunk of that bread and dip it into that deep, salty broth. Which, as my parents always used to say, just means more good stuff for us grown-ups. There are endless variations to this dish — spicy, not spicy; garlicky, not garlicky; wine, no wine; basil, or tarragon — but it’s easy and fast, it only dirties up one pot, and clams are, on the farmer’s market spectrum, a relative bargain. Plus, there’s just something festive (and yes, I just used the word festive) about sitting outside with some friends on a summer night, as dinner sizzles on the grill, burning through a bowl of clams and a loaf of bread and tossing the shells — clank, clank, clank — back into the bowl. That’s living. – Andy
Steamed Little Necks
Maybe the best part: there’s no stress about overcooking or undercooking when it comes to clams; these things literally open their mouths and tell you when they’re done. (more…)
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Tags:easy appetizer·easy starter course·steamed clams·summer appetizer