Entries Tagged as 'Kitchenlightenment'

How to Feed Kids…the News

January 21st, 2015 · 15 Comments · Kitchenlightenment

Though my morning commutes have changed over the years — from the F train to Metro-North to my walk upstairs to the home office — the morning routine has pretty much stayed the same. Every weekday starts with a cup of strong storebought coffee (medium, milk, half-sugar) and the newspaper. The paper newspaper. I have an online subscription to the New York Times, and get news from a hundred different sources via Facebook and twitter, or from NPR depending on my driving duties, but for the most part, the day starts with page A1. For those of you kids out there who think I’m referring to steak sauce, please see me after class.

Kids today! At my last job, I remember explaining to a 20-something assistant where you find the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

“It’s in the same place every day?” She asked.

“Every single day,” I said, my heart dying a little.

I realize how old I sound, and yet, I worry about the overwhelming news landscape for my own kids. I don’t worry about them getting enough news — Lord knows there are enough sources out there — it’s more that I’d like to figure out a way for them to engage with the world in a regular, meaningful way, to understand their place in it as much as possible. They’re 11 and just about 13 — old enough to know that life is not all soccer victories and selfies, that not everything can be reduced to a hashtag on instagram.

Dinner can play a role in this, naturally. (more…)

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The Confidence Question

November 10th, 2014 · 143 Comments · Kitchenlightenment, Rituals

I always hear people say “If you can read, you can cook” or “As long as you are organized, you can get dinner together.” I believe both of these maxims to a certain point, but the older I get and the more I hear from parents struggling to get dinner on the table every night, the more I feel like we’re ignoring a bigger obstacle in the kitchen. And no, I’m not talking about the two-year-old pulling on our skirts as we attempt to boil water, though that’s certainly legit. Mostly, I’m talking about confidence — or, more to the point, the lack of confidence that holds so many of us back. (more…)

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Pick a Chair, Any Chair

August 20th, 2014 · 473 Comments · Kitchenlightenment, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

So I need your help: After seven years of garden variety family wear and tear, our red dining chairs are just about on their last legs. I get so many comments about them on this blog that I thought you might have some strong opinions about what the next ones should be. We’re not exactly sure what we want yet, but we know we want them to be red, comfortable, on the modern side…and available in knock-off form (!). Based on this criteria, we’ve narrowed it down to the nine you see above. Vote for your favorite in the comment field below and I’ll choose one reader at random to receive a copy of both Dinner: A Love Story and, almost hot off the presses: Dinner: The Playbook. (When I hit the bigtime, maybe then I’ll be able to offer a full dining set as the giveaway — and maybe not even the knock-offs.) Your choices:

1. Tolix Chair 2. Globus Chair 3. Salt Chair 4. Thonet Vienna Chair 5. Wishbone Chair 6. Thonet Era Chair 7. Navy Chair 8. Saarinen Tulip Chair 9. Eames Molded Chair. 

Contest ends Thursday, 8/21 at noon ET. Good luck! UPDATE: The winner (Rosie: #384) has been notified. Thanks for playing everyone!

RIP my beautiful red chairs that are no longer available on the interweb (as far as I can tell).

Related: Click here for a massive modern chair resource.

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How to Shop Responsibly

April 4th, 2014 · 13 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment

As we are all well too aware of, having kids these days seems to be synonymous with having stuff. Especially when we are new, impressionable parents, easily bamboozled by marketing messages telling us we need everything — from wipe warmers to the developmental toy du jour — or our kids will be destined for failure. But let’s forget about our kids for a minute. How is our culture of overconsumption playing out on the global field? How can we make sure we are purchasing from the right companies and staying on the right side of things? (Besides forgoing the iPotty all together, of course. iPotties!) Here to help us along is guest-poster Christine Bader, author of the much-touted  The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil and an expert in corporate responsibility. Welcome!

I work in corporate responsibility, which means working with companies on sustainable practices that are good for people and the environment. But I often have trouble practicing what I preach, and I know others who do this work do too. We push companies to offer sustainable products, but balk if there’s a price premium when doing our own shopping. We advocate for consumers to learn and demand more, but succumb to what’s easiest to get with one-click. Take my recent experience purchasing a rug for my 18-month-old twins. Child labor is a problem in the carpet industry, so I started on the Goodweave website for brands certified child-labor-free. Once I pinpointed those brands, I looked for online retailers that sold them, then within that search, looked for options made from with natural fibers like cotton and wool. It wasn’t  easy — and I do this for a living.

So how do we cut through all the information and shop responsibly? Is local better than organic? Is “fair trade” truly fair? Does a company getting a “sustainable” or “ethical trading initiative” seal mean it’s all good?  There are no easy answers — apart from consuming less, which we all could probably do — but that shouldn’t stop us from asking the questions. Once in awhile I take stock of all the stuff I’m surrounded by at that moment, ask myself what I know about each item, where it puts me on the responsible-to-over-consumption spectrum, and give myself a grade. Here’s my latest report card: (more…)

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How Young is Too Young?

November 8th, 2013 · 21 Comments · Cameos, Kitchenlightenment

If you’ve been watching MasterChef Junior with your kids these past few weeks, I’ll bet two thoughts have crossed your mind. The first: Wow, my kid is probably a lot more capable than I give her credit for. The second: Who is that adorable nine-year-old preparing Beef Wellington and molten lava cakes, and who seems to have little to no fear of anything, including Gordon Ramsay?

Her name is Sarah Lane, and I’m happy to report that today’s post on DALS is a conversation between Sarah’s mom, Stephanie, and Times columnist, Ron Lieber. Ron is father of a 7-year-old daughter, and working on a book called The Opposite of Spoiled, about parenting, money and values. Like most of us, he was captivated by Sarah’s savvy with a chef’s knife, but his curiosity went deeper. As Ron reports his book, he couldn’t help but wonder What’s her story? What kind of parents turned a kid that young loose with live fire and sharp knives? And perhaps more to the point, Should we be doing the same? He goes straight to the source for the answers…

Ron: Can you fill us in on some of the back story? Where did Sarah grow up?

Stephanie: We moved to Los Angeles three-and-a-half years ago but we’re from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  It’s always been just the two of us. I’ve been a single parent since Sarah was born and I put her to work as early as I could. She would help with dishes, pulling out knives and spoons.

And where did she learn to really cook?

I grew up and lived in Lancaster until Sarah was in kindergarten. Lancaster was a place where lots of kids worked with their families. My mom owns a restaurant, so I waitressed there, and Sarah came to work with me every day, starting from when she was 2 weeks old. She always wanted to be part of the action. She was in Lancaster just this past summer to visit her grandparents by herself and spent a good bit of time helping at the restaurant and waiting on tables. She really knows what a restaurant looks like from the inside.

Most of us worry about letting our kids use knives. How old was Sarah the first time she used one?
She was probably four or five. We started with a peeler, then moved up. I’m still a bit scared of the knife thing and will often turn my head. But I think there are people who live happy and full lives with nine fingers or less, so I’m not that concerned. (more…)

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Friday Links

April 12th, 2013 · 16 Comments · Kitchenlightenment

A DIY Dessert Dish Clock: How is it possible that people this creative exist in the world?

Is gussied-up bacon having a moment? Ina Garten included those maple-y carmelized bacon bits in her last book and I just came across Chocolate (!) Bacon (!) on Susan Spungen’s blog. Wow. Just wow.

Speaking of Susan Spungen (aka Martha Stewart Living’s onetime seminal food director), check out her entertaining manifesto What’s a Hostess to Do? which I’ve already practically memorized.

This. It’s not a want, it’s a need.

I could not be more excited to read Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Interestings. (If it’s even only half as good as The Wife, I’ll be way psyched.)

Be prepared to weep: My friend Laurie Sandell (from the “Loserati” chapter in my book) wrote a Modern Love essay for the Times about motherhood that will knock you out. And she’s not even a mother. Yet.

I think this lunch packing app has the potential to change your life as you know it.

For those of you who know me personally, make sure you are sitting down for this declaration: I’ve seen Matilda and it’s about 8,000 times better than Annie. Call TicketMaster NOW.

A big huge thank you to Linda M. and her book club of over a decade: Karen, Gina, Jennifer, Jenny, Emily, Denise, little Margaux (!) and the others I didn’t get a chance to talk to directly. Linda was nice enough to a) Select Dinner: A Love Story for their book club pick and b) let me call in to talk about it. If you are reading DALS for your book club, get in touch! In case you can’t tell, I never get tired of talking about this stuff.

Seared Steak Fajitas from the ridiculously likable Sarah Carey. (“Let’s not call it burnt, let’s just call it a reallyreallyreally nice char.”)

For those of you who are like me and enjoy discussing dinner over morning coffee, I’m speaking here on April 18.

We finally bought a wine refrigerator.

A perennial source of stress in my house: Food in the Car.

My Bon Appetit editor Carla is writing a new column for BA called Cooking Without Recipes. It’s gonna be good, trust me.

Lastly, some very exciting news: As of right this very moment, you can head over to Design My Meals where my two pals out in Silicon Valley Cara & Carla (different Carla) have archived over 200 DALS recipes (and thousands of others from the blogosphere and beyond) so that you can be more organized about your shopping for the week. (Isn’t that nice of them?) Among a million other things, DMM lets you search for a recipe by course, by special diet, by blogger, by what’s in your CSA box, etc. and drag those recipes onto a your own customized calendar. Then (sound the trumpets!) based on your lineup, the system generates a shopping list for you. Ready to join? Here’s where to sign up.

From Andy:

If you have an e-reader and you like George Saunders, beautiful illustrations, and fables narrated by animals, then check out the story Fox 8, which will cost you only 99 cents and which our eleven year old read and devoured and when I asked her tell me what she wanted to say about it, she just said: “There are no words to describe it. It’s funny, but sad. It kind of has a weird vibe, since it’s told from a fox’s point of view.” She means “weird” in the best possible way.

A pretty stunning piece about music and teachers — and life, really — in last week’s New Yorker. (Also, kudos to the person who came up with this title.)

This incredibly well-reported piece, by Mark Mazzetti, about one of the more compelling, Jason Bourne-ish news stories in recent memory. I will be buying his book about the CIA, The Way of the Knife.

As a dog owner and lover of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s writing, this piece about animal consciousness.

Two things, courtesy of my excellent work friends, Kendra and Kaela:

  1. The graphic novel, Hilda and the Bird Parade, which I promptly went out and bought for the kids and which they both devoured and which has amazing artwork and a girl heroine with blue hair and a sidekick named Twig who is a baby fox with antlers.
  2. Dorothy Parker gin, from New York Distilling Company. This was a birthday gift that I’m pretty sure I was supposed to savor. One week later, it is disturbingly close to empty.

A pair of these, which Abby forced me to buy, and which, I have to admit, make me happy when I put them on.

Have a good weekend.

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How to Talk to Kids About Healthy Eating

April 8th, 2013 · 20 Comments · Cameos, Kitchenlightenment

Last month, I got an email from reader Robyn:

My son is an amazing, precocious, active kid who has a love for all things sweet.  He has always been on the higher end of the weight range but at this year’s annual visit things were more alarming and I realized that it’s time to start reigning things in.  I am trying to figure out how to have age-appropriate conversations with him about eating healthy. My husband and I have struggled with our weight all our lives and don’t want to pass that along, but it also makes me question my own ability to address the topic with my son appropriately. I’m hoping you may have advice.

This is a great question, one that I’m not in any position to answer expertly, so I thought I’d call upon my friend Dr. Joanna Steinglass, a clinical researcher at Columbia Center for Eating Disorders. CCED focuses their research on eating behavior across the spectrum, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating, pediatric and adult obesity and Joanna was nice enough to join us today to address Robyn’s question as well as a few others.

DALS: Welcome Joanna! Let’s start with some elementals. Say you have a new baby — a complete blank slate. What’s the ideal way to talk about food with this child from the start? What is the blueprint for fostering a healthy relationship with food and body image?

JS: First, there is no one “ideal” and no specific blueprint, so take a deep breath and relax. There are lots of ways to raise a healthy kid. It’s also important to remember that your baby is not really a blank slate and will bring his or her own temperament and personality, which will be a factor in how you go about nurturing a healthy relationship with food and body. Having said that, there are some core concepts that may be helpful. You can tell them “People come in all shapes and sizes. No one shape or size is better than another.” There is a nice children’s book called, Shapesville by Andy Mills and Becky Osborn that illustrates this point for kids in the 2 to 5 range. It’s also important that parents set an example for kids in the way they treat other people. If your kids learn that you don’t judge others based on their size, they’ll be more likely to internalize that. It’s worth making this point out loud whenever the opportunity arises by saying things like, “People can be healthy at any size” or “I like people in lots of different shapes and sizes.”

DALS: What if you have a kid who has gotten into some bad eating habits and you want to re-route him. How do you talk to him or her about this without making him/her feel bad about himself/herself?

JS: Focus on health not weight. And emphasize function over form. Remind your son that a healthy body is what allows you to do all that you do in the world. Think of something your child likes to do – whether that is a sport or otherwise – and point out how it’s his body that does that. If your child is an athlete, he or she probably gets a lot of reinforcement for this idea. But even if what your child most likes to do is to sit quietly and read or draw, you can reinforce the concept. You can say, “Your body is what allows you to do [fill in your child’s favorite activity]” to foster your child feeling good about his body’s capability. (more…)

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Divinity Not Machines

March 28th, 2013 · 17 Comments · Kitchenlightenment

Read this quote yesterday in a book you will soon be hearing a lot about. The man speaking is named Ambrosio, legendary Spanish cheesemaker, modern-day El Cid, man of the fields.

Consider the chicken. Today we have industrialized animals. A chicken needs to be cheap to be competitive in the marketplace. So the industrial chicken has a life that lasts forty-two days between its hatching and its sacrifice. They flood the chicken with twenty-three hours of light a day so that the chicken constantly feeds, and then they give it one hour of rest. They do this for six weeks, then the chickens are put on a conveyor belt and either gassed or have their heads chopped off and are immediately dumped in scalding water, after which the dead body is sent to market.

On the other hand, the traditional chicken used to take one and a half years from hatching to sacrifice. You would see the chicken every day and speak to her, and you would share with her certain aspects of your own life. The chicken was your friend; she understood you. You loved each other. She knew she was going to have a happy life and tried to give you her best while you gave her yours. She knew her destiny, that eventually she would make a gift of her life to feed your family. But you honored each other. The chicken lived at home with you, and you ate her at home. It was divinity, not machines.

–from The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, by Michael Paterniti

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100 Rules of Dinner

March 26th, 2013 · 100 Comments · Domestic Affairs, Favorites, Kitchenlightenment, Rules

Want to learn how to cook but don’t know where to start? Miss the last 600 posts on Dinner: A Love Story and don’t know how to catch up? Looking for something to read while anxiously awaiting dispatches from the Supreme Court? Look no further. Herewith, a list of one hundred definitively DALSian (which is to say totally unofficial, ridiculously subjective) rules of dinner.

1. “Acid” is usually the answer when you taste a dish and wonder “What’s missing?”

2. Always cook more spinach than you think you’ll need.

3. The quickest way to enrage me is to start eating before the cook has sat down. Even if I’m not the one cooking.

4. The juiciest limes are the small ones with thin, smooth skin.

5. Being cooked for in someone’s home is one of the finer pleasures in life.

6. But I’m pretty sure I’d skip that invitation if someone offered to take me to ABC Kitchen instead.

7. There is nothing sadder than a piece of warm pie without ice cream.

8. Improvising with herbs or vinegars? Yes. Improvising with baking soda or baking powder? No.

9. There are very few problems in a kid’s life that aren’t momentarily solved by a stack of chocolate chip pancakes on Saturday morning.

10. There are very few problems in my life that I can’t momentarily forget about when I’m cooking dinner with Andy.

11. No need to sift. Whisking is just as effective.

12. Herbs in the salad.

13. Horseradish in the mashed potatoes.

14. Cinnamon in the chili.

15. Resist the urge to apologize when you’re cooking for people. Most of the time your dinner guests won’t notice anything is wrong until you bring it up.

16. There is no more fun question to put forth at the dinner table than “What would you do if you won this week’s Powerball?”

17. Dessert should be cake.

18. Kitchen chairs should be red. Or at least fun.

19. The term “100% All-Natural” when it appears on food packages: 100% meaningless.

20. If you have to unwrap it, it’s not going to be good for you.

21. It’s not wise to store your drinking glasses in the shelf above the dishwasher, the shelf that won’t be accessible until you shut the dishwasher.

22. Two words for those of you who haven’t switched from (iodized, metallic-tasting) table salt to (easy-to-handle, clean-tasting) kosher salt: Why the f not?

23. If my house were burning down and I could only save one thing from the kitchen, it would be my Master Copy of Dinner: A Love Story that I’ve had event planners, bookstore owners, morning show hosts, party guests, guest-posters, and family members sign as if it’s my high school yearbook.

24. Or maybe my Dutch Oven.

25. Slice a baguette on its side instead of right side up. That way you don’t end up smushing the loaf with your hand and knife.

26. Freeze soups and stews in flat bags so they thaw more quickly under running water. I know I’ve told you this one a thousand times, but it bears repeating.

27. The best way to seed a cucumber: Peel, halve horizontally, then use a spoon to scrape out the seeds.

28. The best way to get the conversation going at the table is by saying “Which kid got in trouble at school today?”

29. The best way to prepare scrambled eggs is with freshly grated Parm and snipped chives.

30. The best way to prevent tearing when chopping an onion is to wear contact lenses.

31. As far as I can tell, instructing your children to “please, dear Lord, please use your napkins” every night for ten straight years is not the best way to get your children to use napkins.

32. Learning how to Deconstruct my family dinners saved my family dinners.

33. It’s counterintuitive, but the sharpest knife is the safest knife.

34. When entertaining: Bo Ssam for the Boss; Short Ribs for the Neighbors; Minestrone for the Vegetarians.

35. When entertaining: Chicken is kind of a bummer.

36. When you use a knife to scrape food off a cutting board, use the dull side so you don’t ruin your blade.

37. When someone says they drink “one to two” glasses of wine a night, you can pretty much assume it’s two.

38. If you have to ask “lime or lemon?” when making me a gin and tonic…I’ll make my own gin and tonic.

39. My new Holy Trinity: Rice Wine Vinegar, Fish Sauce, Grapeseed Oil.

40. When you throw shrimp into lightly boiling water, it takes exactly three minutes to cook.

41. If you’re gonna use storebought pizza sauce, Don Pepino is the one to buy.

42. There is no such thing as owning too many little bowls.

43. Without some crunch (nuts, celery, snap peas, radishes), salads can only reach half their potential.

44. An immersion blender is just not as life-changing as everyone promises it will be.

45. Everybody should know how to properly chop an onion.

46. Most everybody should know how to roast a chicken.

47. Establishing a post-dinner alternating lunch-packing schedule goes down as the smartest thing we’ve ever done as parents.

48. Great Grandma Turano’s meatballs are better the next day.

49. It’s not chaos. It’s richness.

50. You end the day with family dinner.

51. When making pasta, be sure to salt the water.

52. The proper cocktail construction: First ice, then booze, then mixer.

53. Nobody uses enough ice.

54. You very rarely feel worse about yourself after cooking dinner.

55. You very often feel worse about yourself after going out and spending $68 for four soggy pepper jack quesadillas, some rice and beans, and a couple of Shirley Temples.

56. The simpler the recipe, the more likely I am to cook it.

57. People who say bribery is not a good way to get kids to eat have never had kids.

58. When eating grilled stuff outside in the summer, there is no shame in cold, pink wine.

59. When cooking steak on the grill, get a nice char over hot coals and then move it to a less hot part of the grill — i.e. over indirect heat. Test for doneness by pressing down on the meat with your finger. When it’s ready, it will have the consistency of the flesh at the base of your thumb. Once it’s firm, you have overcooked it.

60. The best grilling steak is a well-marbled ribeye.

61. The least healthy grilling steak is a well-marbled ribeye, which tells you something re the relationship between fat and flavor.

62. As Julia Child once said, “There is nothing worse than grilled vegetables.”

63. Clean as you go. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough.

64. Eggs can become difficult to eat if you think too hard about them.

65. We never invested in a decent blender, and I rue that sh*t to this day.

66. We did invest in a big, expensive Le Creuset Dutch Oven and, 300 pork ragus later, I am so happy we did.

67. When roasting potatoes – or any vegetable, really – cook five minutes longer than the recipe says. And then cook five minutes more.

68. If you want to get something crispy, the pan needs to be hot. And so does the oil.

69. The ideal weeknight side: Baby carrots simmered for 15-20 minutes in a little water, a squeeze of honey, a couple of sprigs of thyme, salt, and curry powder.

70. Let us stop for a minute and consider the taste of a fresh ear of corn, rolled in butter, sprinkled with salt.

71. Performance enhancing drugs are to sports as butter is to cooking. Which is not to say that butter is evil. But it is cheating.

72. I can’t think of a single meat or fish that does not taste better on the grill.

73. Salt the water again.

74. Raw spinach does nothing for me.

75. If someone cooks dinner for you and that dinner is delicious, and you enjoy eating it, say so. Say, “Oh my god, this is so good. This is INSANE.”

76. If someone cooks dinner for you and that dinner is maybe not the best thing you’ve ever eaten in your life, but still, it clearly required thought and time and work and, yes, love, say, “Oh my god, this is so good. This is INSANE.”

77. If you cook dinner for someone, and that person is not super forthcoming with his or her expressions of happiness or gratitude, you must (a) fight every urge to ask them if they like it, and (b) think twice about cooking for that person again.

78. Cooking is to baking as pleasure reading is to chemistry homework.

79. Salted butter for toast and bagels, unsalted butter for everything else.

80. Season your meat generously before you cook it, and then season it again while it’s cooking.

81. Everything in moderation, but particularly garlic.

82. I have a lot of regrets, but one of them is not substituting boneless chicken thighs for boneless chicken breasts in a recipe.

83. Three secret weapons of salad dressing: Teaspoon of sugar, dash of Sriracha, chives.

84. When making a hamburger, pack it loosely, and use lots of salt and pepper. And never ever ever ever press down on it with your spatula, for crying out loud. That is, unless your goal is to make it taste less good.

85. I serve turkey burgers. I know turkey burgers. Turkey burgers are a friend of mine. Turkey burgers, on your best day, you are no hamburgers.

86. Anything + Broccoli = A meal you can feel pretty good about.

87. If you care about what other people think about you and your parenting abilities, it is important that your kids only ask for their water “on the rocks” at home.

88. My ideal summer lunch: An open-faced heirloom tomato sandwich, on white toast smeared with mayonnaise and sprinkled with sea salt.

89. If I could keep only one cookbook, it would be Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Italian Cooking, followed by How to Cook Everything.

90. After Dinner: A Love Story, I mean.

91. The only acceptable mayonnaise brands are Hellman’s and Duke’s. It is a testament to how much I love my father that I can still accept him even though he puts LOW FAT MIRACLE WHIP on his sandwiches.

92. When I was a kid, my favorite meal was breaded pork chops that had been marinated in white vinegar. My mom would make them for my birthday, when the report cards arrived, and when I came home – with forty pounds of dirty laundry (and a gold hoop earring!) — from college. That smell, of the vinegary pork chops coated in Progresso Italian breadcrumbs, browning in olive oil in the Sunbeam electric frying pan, is burned so deep into my brain that, if you did the deathbed montage of my life, it’d be in there, right near the beginning. Not sure what that says about me, but it’s true.

93. More vinegar, less oil.

94. The ideal summer dinner: Fresh clams with pasta and a raw kale salad with pecorino romano and red onion.

95. Egg salad is a perfect food that is made even more perfect by the addition of dill, a handful of chopped pickles, and a dash of Dijon mustard.

96. The older I get, the less I like beer.

97. My ideal dessert: Jenny’s Mexican chocolate icebox cookies with cinnamon or vanilla ice cream. Or a fresh Mallomar, eaten in total quietude, so as to fully appreciate the sound of teeth cracking pristine chocolate shell.

98. Dredging the chicken or flounder before frying is an excellent task for a kid who is eager to help. Peeling a beet with a sharp knife is not.

99. Make friends with the fish guy at your farmer’s market.

100. Salt the water again.

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How to Read a Label

February 26th, 2013 · 36 Comments · Cameos, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

If you’ve picked up a newspaper in the past decade, you might be aware of a few basic strategies for shopping smarter in the grocery store. Most of us, for instance, likely know that:

♦ It’s wise to stick to the perimeter of the store — produce, dairy, meat — where the fresh products are sold. (Interior aisles are filled, floor-to-ceiling, with processed foods.)

♦ Everything is positioned where it is for a reason — i.e., the most alluring items didn’t end up directly in your line of vision (and, more diabolically, your kids’ line of vision) by accident. To find the healthy stuff, you need to look up high and down low. (To see what we mean, check out the photo above.)

♦ It pays to read the label. I know that a quick scan of the nutrition facts panel will give me a sense of when something is high in fat or calories. And thanks to recent campaigns waged largely by enraged parents, I know to avoid trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, horse meat, pink slime, etc. I also know that it’s not a good sign when an ingredient list is so long, you need a magnifying glass to read it. (Unless it’s a birthday party or a barbecue; in our house, it’s never a birthday or a barbecue without the Reddi Whip or some S’Mores made from Hershey bars.)

But what I didn’t know until I had the opportunity to work with Michael Moss on his book, Salt Sugar Fat, was the degree to which processed food companies have formulated their products to not only get us to eat them, but to eat more and more of them. I didn’t know about the “bliss point,” or “mouthfeel,” or the high-stakes race for “stomach share.” I didn’t know that sodium was not the same thing as salt. I didn’t know that the average American now eats 33 pounds of cheese a year, that the most die-hard Coke drinkers — known within Coca-Cola as “heavy users” — drink up to 1,000 cans a year, or that the processed food industry accounts for $1 trillion dollars a year. Michael is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, and it shows: If you’re interested in the inside story of how the food giants have hooked a nation, if you believe that knowledge is power, if you want to know the marketing strategies that are behind those “convenient” items so many of us are feeding our children, this book might be a life-changer — or at the very least, a family dinner-changer. (You may have seen Moss’s book excerpted in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday.) We asked Michael to annotate the labels of a few of the country’s most popular, kid-friendly supermarket items to illustrate just how bad it is, and what we’re up against. He was kind enough to oblige. – Andy

  1. Hot Pockets is owned by Nestle, the Swiss-based food giant. In 2002, it paid $2.6 billion for this microwavable snack, and now counts it among its “billionaire brands” — with annual sales in excesses of $1,000,000,000.
  2. At a mere 4.5 ounces per sandwich, who wouldn’t be tempted to eat them both? But doing so could get you up to 12 grams of saturated fat (3/4 of a day’s max for most adults), 1,180 milligrams sodium (more than 2/3 of a day’s max), 5 teaspoons of sugar, and 700 calories.
  3. No trans fats? Well, yes, thanks largely to the fierce pressure consumers put on the manufacturers when the deleterious health effects of these fats became more widely known. But beware of any brag like this on the front of processed food labels. The fine print on the back usually reveals a host of items just as problematic for one’s health.


  1. Nutrition advocates have a simple rule of thumb when it comes to ingredients: avoid anything you can’t pronounce. Laden with chemical preservatives, emulsions and conditioners, this would not be a label for them. (Seriously, try counting the number of ingredients in there — if you can even read the microscopic type.)
  2. This label is actually a fascinating study on food processing. Consider the chicken alone, represented here as both “ground and formed,” whatever that means. And note the numerous mentions of salt, sugar, and cheese, including imitation.

  1. The FDA bears responsibility for failing to update its serving sizes, which grossly underestimates the power of salt/sugar/fat-heavy processed foods to compel overeating. But the food giants reap the benefit. A “serving” of these gushers weighs less than an ounce, which helps keep the numbers in the nutrition facts panel from looking too scary – 3 teaspoons of sugar per tiny pouch, versus 17 teaspoons per box. The problem is, lots of kids can’t stop at one pouch.
  2. First launched by General Mills, these “fruit” snacks have exploded in popularity and now have their own stretch of the grocery store, a million miles from the real fruit aisle. The reason for the growth: a huge, fruit-centered marketing ploy is driving sales. These sugar-bombs convey the illusion of health.
  3. Real Fruit? Not really. In truth, real processed fruit. Companies add these fruit derivatives to foods and drinks, sometimes in miniscule amounts, which allows them to splash the word fruit on the front of the label.

  1. Is table sugar worse than corn syrup? Nutritionists say they are indistinguishable, bearing the same number of empty calories.
  2. Pears and grapes are the most commonly used fruits in processed foods because they are cheapest to buy. The processing typically “strips” them of the fiber and the filling water that makes fresh fruit so wholesome. The result is just another form of sugar (often known as fruit sugar or stripped fruit).
  3. In this small of an amount, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil likely has negligible effects on your health. But nutritionists say there are far better choices to look for, like canola.

  1. Each year, the dairy industry spends tens of millions of dollars trying to get Americans to eat more cheese through a marketing scheme overseen by none other than the USDA, and it’s a boon for the food giants. Average consumption has tripled to 33 pounds a person a year, thanks to new products like this all over the grocery store that use cheese as an alluring, fattening ingredient. Cheese used to be something we ate on occasion, when friends were over, before dinner. Now it’s in everything.
  2. The more cheese, the better: it’s an industry mantra. And companies are vying to outdo one another with the types of cheese they can pack into one can or box.

  1. With more than half of the calories coming from fat, it’s no surprise that oil is the largest ingredient after potatoes. Companies use these four oils — corn, cottonseed, soybean, and sunflower — and others interchangeably, depending on market supply and cost. Oil and fat are what give processed foods their sought-after “mouthfeel,” as industry types call it, which is a crucial part of a product’s allure.
  2. These Pringles have moderate loads for salty snacks… if you stick to a single, one-ounce serving. But let your child eat the whole can over two days, and they’ll get more than a full day’s max of saturated fat, two-thirds a day’s sodium, and a teaspoon of sugar thrown in for good measure. (Not to mention 2,000 calories.)
  3. People trying to limit their sodium have a lot to worry about when it comes to processed foods. These Pringles have four sodium compounds, including MSG, along with salt (added by itself and in each of the four cheeses).

Tune in to Fresh Air today, Tuesday, February 26, to hear Michael Moss talk more about Salt, Sugar, Fat

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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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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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Away We Go

August 19th, 2012 · 18 Comments · Domestic Affairs, Kitchenlightenment, Travel

This picture was taken in Shek O, off the southeastern coast of Hong Kong Island where we’ve been visiting Andy’s brother and family for the past seven days. That’s Phoebe, jumping — after much prodding and negotiation — off the roof of a junk, and plunging into the South China Sea. A good reminder of how big and beautiful this world is, and how full of things to see. We hope you’re doing some of that, too, this summer.

See you in a week or so.

Jenny & Andy

PPS: Ten Things to Hold You Over Until We’re Back

1. Chicken-Apricot Skewers This one for me is all about that drizzling sauce with coconut milk and peanut butter. (From Bon Appetit)

2. Steamed Clams with Shallots and Wine. Serve with crusty bread and a fresh green salad for a 15-minute dinner. And secure the freshest clams you can find.

3. Baby Back Ribs with Mustardy-Potato Salad and Fennel Slaw. A perfect summer menu, best enjoyed wearing flip-flops.

4. Grilled Shrimp Tacos With or without homemade tortillas.


5. Green Papaya Salad with Shrimp (above) which we ate for dinner beachside in Koh Samui, watching a sunset, Chang beer in hand, toes wiggling in the sand. I don’t hold out hope I’ll be replicating a night like this again any time soon, but I can at least try to replicate the dish. I think I’ll start here.

6. Grilled Fish Tacos with Pineapple Salsa (page 236, Dinner: A Love Story)

7. Lamb Sliders (p. 206, Dinner: A Love Story) with Chick Pea Fries (p. 210) Bon Appetit served the fries as hors d’oeuvres at the DALS book party and they rocked. I’m resolved to serve them in my house with marinara instead of ketchup this year.

8. Cold “Peanut Butter Noodles” (page 261, Dinner: A Love Story) This is such a good one for easy entertaining. Can be made a day in advance — then all you have to do is set out toppings.

9. Summer Ginger-Peach Galette If you’ve chosen Dinner: A Love Story for your next book club selection, or even if you haven’t actually, there’s a reading guide (plus a recipe for this beautiful galette to serve if you are hosting) right here.

10. Tomato Caprese Salad You shouldn’t go a day without this on your table in some form between now and Labor Day.

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Eating Chicken, Solving Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Can I Bring? How About an App?

March 28th, 2012 · 7 Comments · Kitchenlightenment

Before I was a mother, I remember being completely tongue-tied when my colleagues would bring their kids to work and swing by my office for an introduction.  How do I engage a toddler? I always wondered. What do I say to a kindergartener?  Is it sending the wrong message to tell a six-year-old that I like the head-to-toe hot pink ensemble she’s got going on? My default line ended up being something like “What are you going to be for Halloween?” Even if it was the middle of spring, this usually proved to be endless fodder for conversation. Imagine how much easier it would’ve been if I could’ve just opened up my Action Hero app! Not that he wasn’t already their friend for life, but when our pal Jim showed the girls how to make their own movies with blockbuster effects — see Abby’s directorial debut above, missle-ing her parents while they innocently hang out in Grandma’s kitchen — he instantly became their favorite friend for life. And that’s tough, because a lot of our dinner guests lately have been coming over not with wine or dessert, but with some exciting new iTunes discovery, which I’m embarrassed to say, was way more appreciated than the Sancerre. Here are the latest:

Action Hero According to Apple it’s the number one downloaded free entertainment app on iTunes right now, so you probably already own it. (Begging the question: Why didn’t you guys tell me about it???) It was created by J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame and you get to overlay selected special effects — missiles, falling cars, tornados, choppers, demolition rocks — on your home videos. All weekend long, wherever we went — my parents’ house, restaurants, Dick’s Sporting Goods – we couldn’t help create catastrophic scenarios. PS: Obviously, please use your judgment on age here. Probably a little too much for kids under 5 or 6 who are just now getting used to the big scary shark in Nemo.

La Di Da My friend Kate introduced this one to us. You make up a song — literally any kind of song, the sillier the words the better — then punch a bunch of buttons and you have all the makings of a hit single. (Which, according to John Seabrook, is apparently not that much different from how they make Top 40 songs these days.)

Morfo Kids get to take pictures of themselves or their friends then morph the image with crazy eyes, lips, hairdos. I like to use it to imagine myself with shorter or longer hair, but, of course, the girls just add as many crazy features — nose rings, pink wigs, huge freaky eyes, disco moves — as they possibly can.

Rising Card Magic Trick By far my favorite of the group. Our neighbor Seth first performed the trick in front of the girls resulting in all four of us — not just the kids — screaming What The…How The…?? Like a true magician, he didn’t reveal the way it works (so I won’t here), but as soon as he left we downloaded the app and committed the act to memory. It’s so satisfying to get the exact same astonished reaction from whatever poor soul has agreed to participate. I’m not going to say anymore except that I promise you, it will be your new favorite party trick.

I’m almost afraid to ask, but if you have any good suggestions, I — I mean my kids — would love to hear about them.

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My How We’ve Grown!

March 16th, 2012 · 10 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Kitchenlightenment, Rituals

Related posts: Pork RaguGeorge Saunders Kid Book PicksAndy’s First Cocktail PostSchool Lunch-Packing Contract (our first post to go viral),  Salmon Teriyaki, Quinoa, NY Times Puts DALS on the Map.

And if you are looking for a way to say Happy Birthday, a pre-order would definitely do the trick.

Have a good weekend.

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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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Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Cooking

October 3rd, 2011 · 48 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Dinner, Kitchenlightenment, Quick, Rituals

I wasn’t sure I heard her right.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“What’s up with the flat bags?”

I heard her right. The question came from the photographer’s assistant during the DALS Book photo shoot a few weeks ago. She was in her twenties, hailed from Williamsburg. I didn’t get a peek at her iPod, but I feel certain it would be loaded with songs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the New Pornographers. In other words, bands I’d never heard before. She was referring to the bags of chilis and soups in my freezer — I always freeze dinners in flattened Ziplocs. When you do it that way, you save time (by thawing whatever is frozen under running water for 60 seconds) and you save space. (After your soup or stew is frozen, you can file the bag in your freezer like a book in a bookshelf.) How did she not know this?

Most likely because she hadn’t spent six years of her life at Real Simple or four years editing the food pages of Cookie. I need to remember that not everyone is a former magazine editor walking around with a mental catalog of time-saving, money-saving, energy-saving, sanity-saving, life-saving, surefire, guilt-free, guaranteed fool-proof, plan-ahead, stress-free, problem-solving shortcuts, tips and tricks. (And yes, in case you are wondering, all those words consistently scored the highest with the focus groups.) I need to remember that not everyone out there feels comfortable with recipe-writing language that calls for a “handful of beans” or a “pinch of cayenne.” (Don’t literally pinch cayenne, especially if you are using those same pinchers to remove contact lenses an hour later.) I need to remember that calling for lemongrass in a recipe is a potential deal-breaker and that calling for a  ”large” can of whole tomatoes is going to elicit this comment from my book editor, Lee: “Ounces please! Lord, define large!” This is why she is so awesome. Not only because I can hear her southern drawl through the most miniscule of notes, but because she yells at me now so you won’t have to later.

Anyway, in honor of all of you out there who don’t know to store your folded garbage bags inside the garbage can (so you can conveniently grab a replacement as soon as you discard the full one –classic Real Simple tip ) or that adding skim milk to boiling liquid is going to result in curdling (classic Jenny screw-up), here are a list of things I wish someone told me fifteen years ago, when I was the one with the loaded iPod (Sony Walkman?) who did not understand the kind of happiness that a quick-thaw might someday bring me.

1. Don’t ever make recipes (or trust cookbooks) that have overly cutesy recipe titles like “Struttin’ Chicken.” These kinds of dishes rarely have the kind of staying power that a good simple Roast Chicken will. (Grilled Chicken for People Who Hate Grilled Chicken is the obvious exception.)

2. Buy  yourself a pair of kitchen scissors. You will use them to snip herbs. You will use them to chop canned whole peeled tomatoes that have been dumped and contained in a 4-cup Pyrex. You will use them to snip spinach right in the skillet as the spinach wilts. Spinach! As long as we’re on the subject: always make more of it than you think you need. This way you will not find yourself in the position of having one cupcake-sized mound of sesame spinach for your whole family of four to share.

3. Some Type-A behaviors worth stealing: Do everything you can in advance when you are having people over for dinner. No matter how easy and tossed-off the task  may be. No matter how many times your partner-in-crime says, Why don’t we just do that later? Filling a sippy cup takes 30 seconds! If you forgo this advice and do nothing in advance, at least make sure you start off the evening with an empty dishwasher. You will thank yourself a few hours and a few cocktails later when staring at the mountain of greasy plates in the sink. Lastly, if at all possible, go to sleep with a fresh trash bag in the kitchen garbage can. I find it somewhat soul-crushing to see last night’s dinner scraps piled up before I’ve had my morning coffee. And I sleep better when I know it’s empty. (See: Type A.)

4. Brushing dough with a quick egg-wash is the secret to getting that shiny, lacquered, I’m-worth-something-after-all glow to your pies, breads, and cherry galettes (pictured above). This comes in especially handy when trying to pass off storebought crust as homemade. Whisk one egg with a fork, then use a pastry brush to cover every inch of the exposed crust before baking.

5. Meat will never brown properly if you add it to the pan when it’s freezing cold and wet. (And browning properly is where you’re going to get most of your flavor.) It should be patted dry and room temperature. Unless you have just walked in the door, it’s 7:30, the kids are screaming and the instruction to “bring it to room temperature” is the instruction that will make you swear off family dinner forever.

6. Add acid. A drizzle of vinegar, a spoonful of tangy buttermilk, a simple squeeze of lemon or lime will always add brightness to an otherwise boring and flat dish. I’ll never forget an interview I read with Mario Batali that reconfirmed this: He said the easiest way to pretend you know what you’re doing in the kitchen is to talk about the “acidity” level of a dish.

7. Never use the phrase “pun intended” or “no pun intended.” Oh sorry! That’s from my “Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Writing” list.

8. Learn the correct way to slice and dice an avocado. You will not only save time, energy, sanity [insert up to 4 more Real Simple focus group words here] by doing this, but you will find yourself giving tutorials to awed, in-the-dark observers every time you make guacamole in front of them.

9. Ice in the cocktails, people. Don’t be stingy. Nothing worse than a lukewarm Gin and Tonic.

10. You won’t get arrested if you leave out an ingredient or replace it with something that’s not called for. That doesn’t mean leave the shrimp out of the shrimp and grits, but if you don’t have scallions for the chopped salad, or if you don’t have red wine called for in the braised pork, take a look around and see what else might stand in for what’s missing. Every time you do this and it works, you’ll be a little more confident in the kitchen. And every time you do this and it doesn’t work, you have one more good story to tell.

Flattened freezer bag photo by Jennifer Causey for DALS.

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