Entries Tagged as 'Rituals'

The “Do You Know?” Scale

October 16th, 2014 · 4 Comments · Dinner, Rituals

I am embarrassingly late to the party on this one, but I finally got around to reading Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy FamiliesLet me amend that, I finally got around to reading the chapter in Secrets called “The Right Way to Have Family Dinner” that so many of you have told me about. There was a lot of good stuff in there — including a great story about how New Orleans chef John Besh and his wife abandoned the idea of a 6:00 family dinner in favor of family breakfast and a post-sports-activities family dessert — but what stuck with me the most, was the “Do You Know” Scale.

The scale refers to the twenty questions developed by psychologist Marshall Duke, his wife Sara, and a colleague Robyn Fivush to determine how well kids know their family history. Questions like “”Do you know where your grandfather grew up?” and “Do you know where your parents met?” According to their research, the more kids know about their family history, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

I know what you’re thinking: This is all great, but why is this in a chapter about Family Dinner? Apparently, the family histories we tell should be filled with moments of struggle and resilience, so sharing them at a dinner table while doing something reassuring, like eating, is a logical place to do it. Though the researchers emphasize that the important thing is that you share the stories, not where you share the stories. It’s all about the “child’s sense of being part of a larger family.”

I apologize if you all read this a year ago when the book came out, but I thought it might be helpful to see what the twenty questions were. Not so you can see if you pass or fail anything (I think my kids could maybe answer about half of them) but because they should trigger some pretty entertaining conversations at the table — or elsewhere.

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The Lunchbox Note, on Steroids

September 8th, 2014 · 35 Comments · Cameos, Rituals

Ever since my friend Liz Egan told me about this lunchbox ritual a few months ago, I’ve been dying to have her write about it for you. Please welcome longtime magazine editor (currently on the books beat at Glamour), newly minted novelist (look for her first book, A Window Opens, spring 2016) and one of the more lovable ”insane moms” I know. Thanks Liz! – Jenny

I’ll begin with the obvious: packing school lunches is tedious, thankless, repetitive (but never meditative) and always a little disgusting. To this day, when I take a whiff of an empty Thermos, I experience a wave of morning sickness so strong, I forget that my final baby is not only fully gestated, she is now in her first week of second grade.

For years, my husband was the lunch chef, bringing a short-tempered, short order flair to the operation. When I gave him a year’s furlough as a gift for his 39th birthday, he acted like I had given him tickets for the Cavs season opener; meanwhile, I reminded myself of a know-it-all mom from a 1980s laundry detergent commercial. Make way for the real expert.

Two of our three kids immediately aired serious grievances about my lunches: “Daddy knows I like my roll-up with the salami on the outside” and “Mom? FYI? I prefer macaroni in the shape of Arthur.” Our youngest didn’t even bother with low ratings; her feedback came home in the most literal form: an untouched lunch. Only eight days into the gulag of matching lids to containers, locating absent water bottles and haphazardly sorting everything into the correct Built bag, I gave up. My husband returned to the cutting board, smugly slicing Granny Smiths with the fancy knife I offered as a gift in lieu of my catering services. (more…)

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Chaos Theory

August 25th, 2014 · 12 Comments · Dinner, Dinner: The Playbook, Rituals, Seafood

So back-to-school. The week that rivals New Years for clean-slating more than any other. You’re making plans, you’re making resolutions, you’re waking up at 3:00 in the morning saying “I am not going to allow math homework be my undoing this year. I’m not I’m not.” Perhaps you’re also resolving that it’s finally time to get on track with family dinner, to impose some structure into your mealtime, but then you talk yourself out of it again…maybe next month….there’s too much going on right now for all of us. I’ll start later, another week, when things calm down. I want a week when there’s no lunch-packing routine to deal with, no kid’s-been-placed-in-the-wrong-class stress, no brand-new-school drama, no soccer tournament to coordinate, no presentation for work that you’re going to be obsessing over, no activities that are going to disrupt and distract from all the planning and cooking. (more…)

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Sir Yes Sir!

August 14th, 2014 · 19 Comments · Domestic Affairs, Entertaining, Rituals, Uncategorized

You know when you go to someone’s house for dinner and you walk out of the house three hours later thinking, We might have some room for improvement, parenting-wise? That’s what happened last summer when we went to visit our friends, Will and Alaina, and their excellent kids, Eli and Bee. Will is a freshly-retired 20 year veteran of the US Navy who spent several years deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a forward air controller, and man: to borrow a vaguely military-sounding phrase I heard once, that family had their sh*t locked down tight. Their kids greeted us, smiling, at the door. Eye contact was unwavering. Conversation: superb. Engagement: total. And the most impressive thing of all? When dinner was over, the kids rose from their chairs, cleared the table, and — it never gets old — cleaned up the entire kitchen without being asked. It’s been exactly one year since that night, and Jenny and I are still talking about it, still marveling at the precision and can-do spirit of the whole operation. So we asked Cmdr. Mackin, who in addition to his military career, happens to be a supremely talented writer of fiction, to let us in on his secret. He went deep. — Andy

As I transition from a Navy career to life as a full-time writer, I’m lucky to have Andy as an editor and friend. As the editor of my forthcoming collection of short stories, he’s helped me find direction in jumbled piles of miscellaneous thoughts. As a friend, he’s imparted essential knowledge regarding the publishing world (e.g. former editors at fancy men’s magazines do not necessarily have organized closets full of beautiful Italian shoes) that would’ve otherwise taken me years to gain. I like to think I’ve returned the favor, in part, by disabusing him of certain notions regarding the military.

One of those notions is this: Andy is under the impression that my two teenage kids do the dishes because I’ve subjected them to military-style discipline. But the fact is, I’ve rarely exercised military-style discipline in the Navy, let alone at home.

Like other branches of service, the Navy is made up of people from all over the country, each of whom has his or her own ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, not to mention the best way to go about “training and equipping combat-ready maritime forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas,” as the Navy’s official mission statement goes. To that end, the establishment of a baseline of acceptable behavior among individuals who must learn to trust each other with their lives strikes me as a good idea.

My first exposure to military discipline came at the hands of Gunnery Sergeant Wise, who, back in 1988, indoctrinated me into the Navy. The first thing he taught me, as I climbed off the bus from Slimesville, was how to stand at the position of attention. Next, he explained that in moving forward, one must step off with the left foot and never the right. I screwed this up over and over, not only because I was nervous, but because I never thought it made any difference. Wise corrected me: left is left, and right is right. Take your first step with one and you begin a journey of a thousand miles. Take your first step with the other, and while you suffer the pain of push-ups, mountain-climbers, and eight-counts, you cover no ground.

As a parent, whose mission statement might read “to produce good human beings,” I want my kids to do the right thing, and to do it well, and for the right reasons. Ideally, they’d have their own motivations to do so beyond fear of reprisal. As it turns out, though, self-motivation is not innate. In order to encourage its development, my wife Alaina and I have enforced time-outs and longer periods of house arrest. We’ve taken away iBots, PS720’s, and Bedazzlers. We’ve made our children scrub toilets, pull weeds, and chisel the sludge from the dark corners of the litter box. But our forays into coercion are often born of frustration. As such, they tend to be subjective, unmeasured, and worst of all, inconsistent.

***

Saturday, July 13th, 2013. 5:20 p.m. I’d been telling the kids over and over, but it hadn’t sunk in. So ten minutes before our guests were scheduled to arrive, we reviewed who they were and why they were coming: My recent story in The New Yorker had won me an agent. My agent had landed me a book contract. Andy was the editor of that book. Jenny was his wife (and also — as I’d soon find out from Jenny herself, as she stood in my kitchen, while the appetizers that my wife had left me in charge of while she showered burned on the grill — the person behind this blog).

“And writing the book is going to be your job after your retire from the Navy, right?” asked my daughter, Bee.

“Right,” I said. (more…)

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When the Cat’s Away, The Mice Will…Watch Movies The Cat Would Never Watch

August 11th, 2014 · 21 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Rituals

Both of my kids did a week of sleep-away camp this summer, different camps, during different weeks, which was wonderful for many reasons: They made new friends, they ate new foods, they learned new skills (including sitting on one end of a raft while a counselor jumped on the other, launching her fifteen feet out into the lake). But the best part, at least for me, was the time spent with the sister left behind. I didn’t plan it this way, but giving each of them a week of only child-dom meant, obviously, that we only had to cater to the interests and tastes of a single kid all week long. When Abby wanted spaghetti with pesto, we didn’t have to make a separate baguette with pesto and mozzarella for pasta-hating Phoebe. When Phoebe requested Hatch Burgers, we didn’t have to ask Abby — who has been down on red meat lately — for permission. The novelty was just as exciting when trolling around Netflix and our library’s DVD section. The girls have similar tastes in movies — Ferris BuellerThe Devil Wears Prada, School of Rock, Catch Me If You Can, and Iron Mans 1, 2, and 3 have been hits lately — but there are whole genres that I knew my 12-year-old would like more than my 10-year-old (read: Hitchcock) as well as movies that maybe weren’t quite appropriate for an almost sixth grader. So I got super into lining up Movie Week, setting up the outdoor projector (both indoors and out) and screening a new one every night of Abby’s absence. Here’s what was on the marquee.

Breaking Away (1979)
I remember seeing this during the summer when I was a kid, and cheering out loud when Moocher got on the racing bike, his legs too short to reach the pedals. Phoebe did too, which warmed my heart, and luckily the rest of the movie held up just as beautifully. (Literally beautifully — every scene seems shrouded in a golden glow.) It’s about four working-class Bloomington, Indiana kids (known as “cutters”) floundering around after high school, trying to figure out what to do next, while navigating typical social tensions with the town’s wealthier university students. The Dennis Christopher character, a romantic, cycling-obsessed Italia-phile has got to be one of the greater characters in movies, and the scenes swimming at the quarry are summer exemplified. Bonus: Wow, Dennis Quaid. Wowowow. (Where is the emoticon for fanning my face as though I’m about to faint?) Note: There’s one moment in the beginning when the boys are cruising through campus and Daniel Stern inappropriately comments on some good looking co-eds, so keep your hand on the remote if your kids are little — but the rest of it is totally clean.) (more…)

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One Thing We Did Right

June 19th, 2014 · 15 Comments · Rituals

Last year, we sent our then 11-year-old to sleepaway camp for two weeks, where she did all the things kids do at sleepaway camp — she paddle-surfed in the lake, slept in an open-air cabin, competed in color wars, roasted marshmallows in bonfires after dinner, complained about that dinner (and lunch and breakfast), and wrote her parents letters during her free time summarizing it all. Wow, were those some good letters! Though, as anyone who sends their kid away to camp knows, it doesn’t take much for a letter to qualify as “good” — regardless of the contents, it’s almost enough to just know that they are merely surviving without us, and have the wherewithal to put a pen to paper.

Anyway, as you know, I generally don’t share personal details about my kids — let alone personal letters from them — but Phoebe did grant me permission to publish one sentence, which I just re-read the other day, and which I thought you’d appreciate as much as I did:

“I eat fruit before breakfast. I seriously think that if I don’t, my brain will get confused.”

In the same letter, there were multiple tales of her overnight adventure, camping far into the woods (glad I didn’t know about that one til it was over) and swims in the lake at sunrise, but the fruit at breakfast, sadly, was what captivated me. Ever since she started eating solid food (when is that, New Parents?? Eight months, nine months? Can you believe I forget!) we would always start her day with peeled peach chunks, or a mashed banana, or, her favorite, strawberries, chopped up into little pincer-grabbing bites, just to ensure that she got the healthy stuff in before whatever followed. As she got older, and as she was joined by her sister, we just never stopped. To this day, every morning starts with fruit. It’s an honest-to-God healthy habit that stuck. Apparently, it’s so sticky that it happens when we’re not even around to enforce it. Amazing! Something we did actually worked!

I think because Abby’s elementary school graduation (sorry, “stepping up”) is next week, I’ve been more prone to nostalgia and regret — so these kinds of ridiculously small triumphs have been making my heart swell a bit more than is probably normal. But if you are lucky enough to have a baby starting on new foods, try it out. One day, they might even write home about it.

Tomorrow’s Post: Ten Thousand Things We Did Wrong

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Clear the Afternoon, Kids! We’re Making Mole

March 10th, 2014 · 18 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Entertaining, Rituals

In my next book — which you’ll be hearing about shortly — there’s a whole section on recipes I call “Keep the Spark Alive” dinners. These meals are the opposite of what we make on, say, a Tuesday night, when efficiency and convenience are the most important ingredients. In some ways, they are the opposite of the DALS mission in general. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t every bit as important, especially when we are talking about the psychological health of a family cook. Think of it this way: If Pretzel Chicken and Beef and Broccoli stir-fries are the workhorse recipes, the ones that get me through the week day in and day out, “Spark” meals are the ones that remind me why I love to cook in the first place. They call for ingredients I’ve never used before and usually require a big chunk of luxurious time. Marcella’s Bolognese is a good example of a Spark dinner, so is Andy Ricker’s Pad Thai. And on this dreary New York morning, I’m pleased to announce, I have a new one to add to the list.

It started with Uncle Mike. At our annual Christmas Eve dinner at his house this past year, he served, among a dozen other things, the most amazing Chicken Mole.

The chicken was tender and stewy, the sauce was rich and deep, but not overpowering like some versions I’ve tasted in the past. The kids, skeptical at first, cleaned their plates. It was December, which meant by that point in the winter, I had eaten my fair share of braised short ribs at dinner parties, so part of the novelty of this meal was the fact that I was I dining on a hearty, warm-your-bones chicken-based main. Except for maybe Julia Child’s Coq au Vin, I don’t have a whole lot of those in my repertoire that would earn their keep on a holiday spread.

“How’d you make your mole?” I asked Mike. Only someone who has never made mole would broach the subject so innocently.

He gave a little knowing “Ha” before replying. Mike, an ambitious home cook who grows a dozen varieties of chile peppers in his backyard, and sends us a care package of home-dried Persimmons every November, is not one to shy away from an recipe that might call for pasillos, mulattos, piloncillo, and bolillo.  ”It’s a Diana Kennedy recipe, and it’s been days in the making.”

When I hear the name Diana Kennedy, I mentally turn the page. Diana Kennedy, as I’m sure you know, is one of our country’s foremost authorities on Mexican cooking. Because everyone has told me as much, I have a bunch of her books, and yet, whenever I crack the spine on one, determined this time to conquer at least a simple recipe, I remember: There is no such thing — and as with anything authentic and memorable, there probably shouldn’t be. The recipe Mike used was from Kennedy’s definitive Oaxacan cookbook, but a few days later, he emailed me another, slightly simpler Mole Negro, that looked similar. Mole Negro is one of dozens of versions — it’s the darker kind that incorporates chocolate — and he described it as “traditionally the most difficult.”

I looked at the recipe. Twenty-nine ingredients, half of which would require some scavenger hunting in Mexican markets around the county.  I filed it under “Another recipe, for another kind of cook.”

But damn that mole was good! It stayed with me all winter, and last week, when I was calendarizing (defined as The act of staring at your family’s schedule to see how you can squeeze some real life in between all the activities) I noticed a nice long empty weekend afternoon and evening. It was going to be our last Saturday without soccer until July, no one was coming over, and just by chance, that morning Abby had an orchestra concert a short drive away from a stretch of awesome Mexican grocers.

Mole was calling, and I needed to answer. (more…)

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Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving

November 18th, 2013 · 15 Comments · Posts by Andy, Rituals, Thanksgiving

We put a lot of stock in the idea that families — whatever form “family” might take — create meaning, and identity, through ritual. When the kids are little, that might mean reading to them in bed every night for twenty minutes, or going for long bike rides on Saturday afternoons and talking about life its ownself. It can be something as simple cranking some AC/DC (aka “pump-up” music) on our way to a soccer game, or, in what seems to be our most sacred ritual of the moment, having the exact same argument with our oldest daughter, when she comes down for breakfast in the morning, about the wisdom of wearing a short-sleeve t-shirt when it’s 38 freaking degrees outside. But the king of all rituals for us are the holidays — and in particular, that great secular celebration known as Thanksgiving.

We love Thanksgiving, and have done our best to pass that love on to our kids. Everything about the day gives comfort, a series of rituals so well-worn that the kids could probably recite the day’s slate of activities by heart: Roll out of bed. Watch some Sponge Bob. Eat Nana’s French Toast (and eat well, because there will NOT BE ANOTHER BITE OF FOOD until show time). Sit around in PJs with their cousins. As the grown-ups trim the Brussels sprouts and peel the potatoes, the kids go off and begin preparing a one-act play they will perform after dinner — one that, while often thin on plot, never fails to do an excellent job of skewering the parents in the room. Around 3:00, go for a long family walk. As final prep takes place and the grown-ups fret about whether the turkey is cooked, the kids gather upstairs and rehearse their play. When the serving plates have been warmed and all the food is laid out on the buffet, we grab our plates and pile it on, uniting the whole mess with a thick coat of gravy, and then we sit down and eat until we’re comatose. The perfect end to a perfect day.

Except for one thing: We could never figure out a way to say thanks.

It wasn’t that we didn’t try. One of the adults would usually raise a glass and express how lucky and grateful he or she felt to be here, in this room, with this group of people — but the problem was, the kids were starving and talking (ages 5-11, remember) and everyone was slightly distracted and Grandma, as per usual, was telling everyone to hurry before it gets cold, and so it never really ended up feeling like we had that moment. I know this is gonna sound a little righteous, but that moment — along with the 20-pound turkey — is what makes Thanksgiving different from any other Thursday night dinner, or any other holiday for that matter. That moment is what this is all about! I describe it to the kids as the difference between saying thank you and being thankful.

So last year, we decided to institutionalize — okay, enforce — the giving of thanks. The goal was to make this something the kids would actually consent to doing, i.e. to make it a little fun, to keep it from feeling solemn or dutiful. We made a Thanksgiving Mad-Libs, printed one out for everyone, kids and adults, and handed them out before dinner with a stipulation: Everyone had to go off by themselves and fill them out, and not only that, they had to put some thought into it. They had to care. When we sat down, obscenely full plates before us, we took turns reading them aloud. And just because this was largely done with kids in mind does not mean that grown-ups got away with sitting by and watching: Everyone filled one out, and everyone gave thanks. Even Papa Ivan, the chocolate-loving patriarch, whose love for his children and grandchildren (see above), was plain for all to see — and for which we are thankful. — Andy

Click here to download a copy of a 2013 Mad Lib for your own table.

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Thanksgiving Eve 2013

November 15th, 2013 · 21 Comments · Rituals, Seafood, Thanksgiving

By the time Thanksgiving week rolls around, the game plan, for the most part will be fully mapped out. The menu will have been tweaked and retweaked to reflect just the right amount of tradition (Grandma Jody’s herb-roasted turkey, mashed potatoes) and adventure (maple buttermilk custard pie!); the duties will have been divvied up among aunts and uncles. Anything that can be done in advance—grocery shopping, pie crust making, bourbon stocking—will be done in advance. When we wake up on the last Thursday in November, we will be totally, 100 percent ready to rock.

And then we remember the last Wednesday in November—also known as Thanksgiving Eve, also known as Oh, Sh-t, We Have 14 People Standing Around the Kitchen, Half of Them Starving Kids, and We Forgot We’re Responsible for Feeding Them.

On Thanksgiving Eve, we at least know what we don’t want to make. We don’t want to make poultry. We don’t want to make anything that requires a bunch of pots and pans or taps into the precious reserve of psychic energy we need for Thanksgiving. We don’t want to order pizza, which just feels wrong. And above all, we don’t want something heavy. That’s what the next day is all about.

It’s like this: On the night before a championship bout, did Muhammad Ali go out and pick a bar fight? The night before performing in The Marriage of Figaro, does the diva practice her primal screams? The night before the food-lover’s Olympics, do we make a 20-ingredient paella? No. We rest, we get our heads together, we create optimum conditions for the main event.

So this year we’re doing salmon en papillote, which only sounds complicated. Here, everyone can customize what vegetables go into her parchment paper–wrapped fish packet (Kale? Spinach? Thinly sliced potatoes?) before drizzling (or not) the horseradish dill sauce on top after the whole thing has cooked. It’s fresh and light, and best of all, there is minimal cleanup—only a baking sheet or two. For that, we give thanks.

This is our “Providers” column for the November issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their site for the salmon in parchment paper recipe.

Related: Thanksgiving Eve 2012

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Marcella Hazan 1924-2013

September 30th, 2013 · 25 Comments · Pork and Beef, Rituals

Marcella Hazan, who changed the way Americans think about Italian cooking, and who feels like family in our house even though we knew her only through recipes, died yesterday. She was 89.

Here is a beautiful obituary in The New York Times.

Here is a tribute I wrote this morning for Bon Appetit.

Here is her famous Bolognese.

Here is her famous Tomato Sauce that calls for three ingredients: tomatoes, onion, butter.

Here is her famous Milk-braised Pork. (I think it might’ve been of the first post Andy ever wrote for this blog.)

Here is proof of how important she has been in our kitchen, from the moment I first heard her name in 1993.

Here is the cookbook you should buy in her honor, and cook from for the rest of your life.

Thank you, Marcella.

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Dinner and a Movie

September 10th, 2013 · 16 Comments · Dinner, Rituals, Vegetarian

The night: Friday
The scene: Two friends, ages 9 and 11, coming over for dinner and a movie.
The movie: Forrest Gump
The issue: Very little in the fridge — except the most beautiful CSA Tuscan kale and peak-season tomatoes — but not ordering in and not going shopping again, no way, no how.
The other issue: Is it point-blank unfair to serve kale to kids who were just hoping for pizza and popcorn?
The other other issue: Will 9- and 11-year-olds understand any historical references in Gump?
The kale solution: Add some avocado to the kale. Maybe a little pickled something if I can get away with it.
The main course solution: Pizza. Always pizza! Homemade whole wheat crust, homemade pizza sauce, last strands of shredded mozzarella (including a few wayward string cheeses), fresh tomato slices, basil.
The review: Could’ve done without a few inappropriate scenes in Gump (and should’ve checked Kids-in-Mind!) but with a little help from the fast-forward button: it worked.
The menu review: Kale: Let’s just say it might’ve been the Ishtar of side dishes for kids. The pizza? Four thumbs up.

Dinner and a Movie Menu
Whole Wheat Pizza with Fresh Tomatoes
Kale & Avocado Salad

Pizza Crust (adapted from Jim Lahey’s My Bread)

2 3⁄4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 1⁄2 teaspoons instant or other active dry yeast
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/3 cups water, room temperature
Olive oil, for greasing

In a large bowl, stir together the flours, yeast, salt, and sugar. Add water and mix until blended, at least 30 seconds. The dough will be stiff, not wet and sticky. Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature until the dough has more than doubled in volume, about 2 hours. Divide the dough in two and shape each section into flattened balls. If you are only making one pizza, freeze the other ball in a freezer storage bag. (If you rub a little olive oil on your fingers and on the ball of dough before bagging, it will be less sticky to negotiate when you  need it later.) Now, make the sauce… (more…)

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Date Night Lamb Chops

September 9th, 2013 · 6 Comments · Dinner, Rituals

The day after we had our first baby, a friend with kids visited us in the hospital to meet the new addition. He held Phoebe, we took some pictures, and before he left, he delivered some advice: “Make sure to get a date night every once in a while,” he said. “Alone time is important, and it can get lost.”

Lost? On us? Never!

As if to prove our point, we headed out for our first post-kid dinner six weeks later—an early-bird special in downtown Manhattan. We put our daughter to bed, handed the babysitter many pages of insane instructions, and ran out the door. But the alone time we’d carved out didn’t feel so…alone. We checked our phones. We called the sitter. We ate like cavemen and skipped dessert, telling ourselves we were too full (we weren’t). When we got home, it was still light out. Was this how it was gonna be? Like, forever?

For a while, yes. Forever, no. At some point, the clouds parted. Our one kid turned into two kids, who miraculously learned to place food into their own mouths and go to sleep without us. And so we embraced dinner out in a big, existential way. Even when the girls were finally old enough to tag along, we kept the reservation capped at two. Going to a good restaurant became the easiest way to remind us that there was a world out there beyond Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and “Kidz” menus.

Nowadays, we do not mess around with these nights. We book the sitter within minutes of booking the reservation. We hand the girls their favorite take-out menus and tell them to make a night of it themselves. We meet at a bar for a cocktail. We wear shoes that are not waterproof. We order dessert.

Last month, we hit Lafayette, Andrew Carmellini’s new downtown brasserie, a leather-boothed place that felt like a New York institution the minute it opened its doors. We sat down for dinner at 8:30—when we used to aim to be home by—and 
started to feast: leaves of butter lettuce served with Roquefort and country ham; short-rib ravioli; market-fresh peas tossed with mint pesto and ricotta salata. We took particular pleasure in ordering things the kids would never allow in their airspace: buttery, sweet scallops, a pickled-blueberry sorbet. The stars of the night? Moroccan-spiced lamb chops that we could have eaten by the dozen. “Man, the kids would love these,” we said as we ate them. “We should bring them here.” On second thought, no, we shouldn’t. But if they’re lucky, we might make them at home.

This is our “Providers” column for the September issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their site for Lafayette’s Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Chops recipe. Photo by Christopher Testani for Bon Appetit.

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Vacation Dinner Highlight Reel

August 21st, 2013 · 12 Comments · Dinner, Grilling, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals, Sides, Salads, Soup, Travel

I can’t promise you this will be a very usable guide to exciting eating. As you know, on vacation, you can toast a pop tart for dinner and it will make you as happy as a four-course meal at Cafe Boulud. (In fact, maybe we’ll try that tonight.) But, as you can imagine, we are getting seriously into our South Carolina vacation dining, doing our best to adhere to the 50 Rules, outlined so dutifully last week so we don’t lose total control. Herewith our top six dinner moments this side of the Mason-Dixon line…

1. Shrimp Cocktail. I once read that if you’re not going to eat shrimp right off the boat in Southeastern US, you might as well always buy it in the freezer aisle — there’s pretty much no such thing as fresh, flavorful shrimp outside of this region. I think that’s why whenever we are down here, we eat shrimp like we’re never going to eat shrimp again. The run-up so far: Shrimp cocktail before dinner as often as possible (chilled with cocktail sauce, natch), grilled shrimp in salads at lunch; shrimp salad rolls for dinner.

2. Oyster Sliders at The Ordinary. We’ve gone out to dinner a few nice places, but so far the winner has been The Ordinary — perhaps a tip-off was the fact that Bon Appetit nominated it for one of the country’s 50 best new restaurants this year. Or perhaps it was the oyster sliders with the crazy coconut action that Abby ordered and which put the rest of our meal to shame. And that’s saying something because the rest of the meal — lobster rolls, pickled shrimp, John Dory schnitzel — was pretty damn tasty.

3. Beet & Carrot Slaw Our CSA pick-up was the day before driving from New York to South Carolina, so what were we going to do, give our neighbor that week’s share? I don’t think so. Not when, among other things, heirloom tomatoes and cylindra beets were in the box. We packed all our produce in a cooler and tended to the bundle like it was a third child. The love and care paid off because on our first night cooking we made some flounder and, not wanting to turn on the oven (Rule 45!), I shredded those beets on a box grater with some carrots, tossed in rice wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, cilantro and mint. (Full disclosure: There was no mint, but there should’ve been.)

4. Phoebe’s Crostini You’re looking at grilled tuna (that Andy had spackled in mayo before throwing on the Weber) a very JV succotash made with butter beans, corn, red peppers, onion, sauteed in a little bacon fat (apologies to real southerners) and Phoebe’s crostini. At camp, Phoebe learned that if you toss chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh peaches, corn kernels, a drizzle of balsamic and some Parm, and put the whole thing on baguette toasts, then very delicious things ensue. “It’s like summer in a bowl,” she announced when she put together the topping. I’ll take it!

4. Roast Carrots with Garam-Masala Yogurt Sauce. OK, so fine, I confess: we turned on the oven once. Or twice. But the cause was a noble one — carrots, cut on the bias, tossed with a little chopped onion, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted at 425°F for about 30 minutes (keep an eye on them). While they roasted, I whisked together about 3/4 cup plain yogurt with a teaspoon garam masala, lime juice, olive oil, chopped cilantro and mint. I’m not going to go so far to say it was the best thing on the plate — that’s an impossible honor when a grilled burger with special sauce is in the mix — but it was a clear leader in the side dish department this summer.

6. Beach Picnic The homemade pizza with fresh tomatoes was pretty good. So was the asparagus that Andy quickly sauteed in olive oil, salt, and pepper during the 30 minute stretch that the girls were totally, absolutely, relentlessly begging for a beach picnic. You promised! It’s so easy! I’ll help pack everything! Come on it’s vacation! Be fun! What parents know but kids don’t yet is that beach picnics are one of those things that always sound really fun, but are actually kind of a nightmare. Especially if you don’t have any of the right gear (see baking pan cum nonbreakable tray above) and especially if you try to take photos showing how ideal the night is (full moon, clear sky, silky calm ocean, etc), then get sand in your fancy camera making things a thousand times more stressful. So why is this even on my highlight reel? Because after dinner was over, we all jumped in the ocean. And there’s very little that beats a post-dinner sunset swim.

For more real-time dinner highlights, follow us on instagram: andyward15 and dinneralovestory.

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Only on Vacation: Salsa Fresca

August 14th, 2013 · 20 Comments · Rituals, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

Far and away, the most beloved pre-dinner snack in our house is chips-and-salsa. Every night, while the grown-ups are do-si-do-ing around each other assembling something that resembles a meal, the kids are generally popping into the kitchen to dunk a chip into a bowl of decanted Trader Joe’s salsa (and ask, yet again, dinner almost ready? Mom? Dinner almost ready? Dad?) It would never occur to me to make that salsa from scratch. Even if the tomatoes were in season all year long, even if I had more time than the usual turbo-charged weeknight affords.

But when I’m on vacation, as I am now, it’s a different story. For as long as I can remember — pre-book, pre-blog, maybe even pre-diary — one of the first things we ever started experimenting with was fresh salsa. Even when the tomatoes weren’t perfect like they are right now, even when we had a perfectly acceptable jar of prepared stuff in the fridge, we’d make a point to chop up a few heirlooms, toss in some onion, play around with hot sauce and tomato paste and cilantro before striking the right formula. It’s so easy, in fact, that every time we make it, as we did last night, we wonder why we never make it back home. Of course as soon as we ask the question, we answer it immediately: Some things just belong on vacation.

Salsa Fresca

There’s definitely no official recipe for this, which is another way of saying that you should have some spare chips by your side so you can taste and correct as you concoct. (Chef’s privilege!) But the basic idea is this: Chop up 1 or 2 of the freshest tomatoes you can find — heirlooms are best, but really any good summer tomatoes will do. (And chop them into smaller pieces than you see above.) For every cup of chopped tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons cilantro, 1 tablespoon finely diced red onion, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, dash of hot sauce, salt and pepper. That’s your baseline salsa fresca, but even that is flexible depending on how juicy the tomatoes are (and how juicy you like your salsa). Once you have your base, you can add whatever you’d like: corn, chopped yellow peppers, chopped peaches, pineapple. If your tomatoes aren’t quite as flavorful as you’d like them to be, whisk a little tomato paste into the red wine vinegar before tossing with tomatoes. Serve with chips.

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50 Rules of Vacation

August 13th, 2013 · 38 Comments · Rituals, Rules, Travel

  1. You can never, ever pack too many bathing suits.
  2. Make a pot of really good coffee before bed, pour immediately into glass pitcher, put said pitcher into the refrigerator, and — voila —  you have a steady supply of high-test iced coffee for the next morning. This could not be more crucial in re vacation happiness.
  3. Exercise first thing in the morning, and shower at night.
  4. Jumping in the pool counts as a shower.
  5. Dudes over forty should do everyone a favor and run with a shirt on.
  6. Everything tastes better on vacation.
  7. Always assume the worst about the beach rental’s utensil drawer. BYO knives.
  8. Fifty-one weeks of the year: ballet pink for the pedicure. This week: Neon tangerine.
  9. Fifty-one weeks of the year: milk or water with lunch. This week: Ice cold Coke.
  10. Fifty-one weeks of the year: Cocktail hour at 6:00. This week: Cocktail hour at 6:00.
  11. (It’s the one thing keeping us from spiraling into total chaos.)
  12. If key lime pie is local, order the key lime pie. If key lime pie isn’t local, order the key lime pie.
  13. Never drive by the farmer’s market without stopping to see what’s local.
  14. Unless that farmer’s market is located just off route 95, in North Carolina, and is selling “local peach wine” — in which case, drive the f*ck on!
  15. Don’t wait for the last fifteen minutes of an 800-mile drive to discover that the AC/DC Pandora station is the one you should’ve been listening to all along.
  16. Best road-trip movies for kids (or at least the ones in our back seat right now): Monsters Inc, Life of PiTootsie*, The Lovebug (original, non-Lohan version), Ironman, Coraline, Dumb and DumberThe Incredibles. (*there is light sex talk, and a bunch of s-bombs, but when Sydney Pollak is saying them it almost doesn’t matter.)
  17. Burn a copy of the Johnny Cash children’s album for the drive, and you will never be sorry.
  18. Ice cream, in some form, every day.
  19. Good Humor bars, in descending order of deliciousness: toasted almond, strawberry shortcake, chocolate eclair.
  20. Sunscreen before the beach.
  21. Better yet, Roxy surf shirts.
  22. And speaking of swimwear, dads can (and should) get away with these, from Olasul.
  23. There is nothing as nasty, when you really think about it, as the fully-loaded swimmy diaper.
  24. We have been vacationing in the same house for many years and in this house is an unironic boom box with an actual, functioning cassette player. Next to this cassette player is a tray of old cassette tapes, featuring Kenny Loggins, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, late-vinatage Neville Brothers, Steve Winwood, the sountrack to Working Girl… and Darkness on the Edge of Town. It could be that it’s the only gem among sad old rocks, but is there a better album to cook to on vacation than Darkness on the Edge of Town?
  25. The post-beach nap is best taken on a screened porch, or face down — bathing suit still on, flip-fops hanging off — on the guest room bed.
  26. The gin and tonic is King of Vacation Cocktails.
  27. If you’re roadtripping, and if your kids in any way resemble our chip-eating, juice-spilling, crumb-shedding children, remember a garbage bag for the backseat.
  28. The minute you arrive, you must throw out the grocery shopping rule book. First thing in the cart for us: Cinnamon Pop-Tarts.
  29. If you have to eat out every single meal, it stops being special. Which is why we always try to stay in a place with a kitchen.
  30. But having a kitchen doesn’t mean skip the restaurant. Pick one or two spots you want to hit and book your reservations before you leave. (This was our most recent choice.)
  31. One night, burgers with potato salad. One night, grilled fish with salsa verde. One night, yogurt marinated something with a good, fresh slaw.
  32. Every night: cobbler.
  33. On the night you have burgers, you shall have them on Martin’s potato rolls, with crunchy lettuce, fresh tomato, American cheese, and MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: special sauce.
  34. As much as we like you, we don’t care about your golf round.
  35. Book a house with a washer-dryer. It means less luggage, and it means your bathing suit will always be dry.
  36. If you’re a dad, this is your one chance to grow a mustache. Use it wisely.
  37. Be flexible about the kids’ bedtime. Unless Breaking Bad is on, in which case, get them in bed as soon as dinner is done.
  38. Two words for a hungry person on the road: Waffle House.
  39. For the first three days of vacation, the fact that this will all soon come to an end might be felt, but it must never be acknowledged.
  40. For the last three days of vacation, pass the hemlock.
  41. Start your own Polar Bear Club. Set an alarm one morning and do a sunrise swim with the kids in the nearest lake, ocean, swimming pool.
  42. Learning to ride a bike for the first time is twice as nice when it happens on vacation — and twice as easy.
  43. Carve out an hour or two of post-lunch quiet time every day. Make it sacred.
  44. What “quiet time” actually means: Everybody’s free to do whatever activity they want, as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else. And doesn’t require parental supervision.
  45. The oven should never be set higher than zero degrees. Vacations are what grills are for.
  46. Non-vacation food emergency: No ketchup in the fridge. Vacation food emergency: No sugar cones, charcoal, Gatorade.
  47. Non-vacation to-do list: Dry-cleaner, tires fixed, post office. Vacation to-do list:_______.
  48. If there is a choice between coming home on Saturday or Sunday, suck it up and choose Saturday so you have that 24-hour buffer zone between vacation and pool-less, beach-less, happiness-destroying reality.
  49. It’s OK to take it out on the rental car.

50. There are fewer more noble pursuits than perfecting a handstand on the beach.
Jenny & Andy

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¡Viva Family Dinner!

July 31st, 2013 · 7 Comments · Cameos, Dinner, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

I’m a *little* worried this is going to sound like a wedding toast.

I have basically been following Mike Paterniti around for the past twelve years. When I worked at Esquire — as a kid, practically — Mike was the star writer who would come into town, from Portland, Maine, with his Patagonia backpack and his good vibes, and be nice to all the peons, and then fly off to crazy places and bring back stories like this and this, stories that would make 25 year-old assistant editors like me say, Damn, it would be nice to work with a writer like that someday. Then, when I went to GQ in 2002, I went — in large part — because Mike was there and, by taking the job, I would finally become his full-time editor and have the chance to work on stories like this. Then, a few years ago, I moved on to Random House — in large part — to work with Mike again, on a book he’d been obsessing over for the better part of a decade. That book, The Telling Room, was published yesterday, and the easy thing to say about it is that it’s a slow food fable about a cheesemaker, named — proof that there is a god? — Ambrosio, who lives in a tiny village (pop. 80) in Spain and makes his cheese, according to an ancient family recipe, from the milk of sheep that graze on chamomile and sage. But that’s not really what the book is about. This book is about the heartbreaking story of Ambrosio’s world-class cheese, yes, but it’s also about Spain and the ghosts of Civil War, about friendship and betrayal, about love and memory and forgiveness, and, most important, about stories. The stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

Do I love this book? Yes.

Did I warn you this was going to sound like a wedding toast? Yes.

In the course of writing and reporting his book, Mike spent a lot of time in Spain. He estimates he made 15 to 20 trips to Guzman, in fact, during which he learned a lot about Ambrosio and his magical cheese (it was said to conjure memories), but also about family dinner. Given that this is a blog dedicated to that very subject, we asked Mike to tell us how they do in the Castilian highlands. He did, and we’re glad. Congrats, Mike! — Andy

Of all Spanish institutions, family dinner ranks as one of my favorites. Why? Because it happens to be Spanish chaos theory at its best—and the Spaniards are good at chaos. After all, what other nation runs with its bulls… or holds a massive tomato-pelting event, in which citizens throw over 90,000 pounds of tomatoes at each other… or has an annual, mandatory, four-day, wine-soaked party—known as the fiesta—in every village of its great, sun-scorched land?

In classic Spanish fashion, then, family dinner is a microcosm of this craziness and big joy. And of course, there’s a fair amount of confusion about when dinner really is. Is it the big meal in the middle of the day, known as the comida? Or is it the late-evening, smaller meal known as cena? (The Spaniards love their food so much they have five designated grazing times a day: desayuno, or breakfast; almuerzo, the late-morning snack; comida in the early afternoon; and then the latter meals of the day: merienda, or late afternoon snack; and cena, dinner.)

Cena is the best—and in summer begins anywhere between 10 and midnight. In the plazas of the cities, you’ll see families seated at outdoor restaurant tables, telling animated stories, wine, chorizo, and grilled pimientos on the table, a simple green salad and some lomo on the way, the kids sprinting madly over cobblestones, playing soccer, chasing birds, when suddenly someone walks by on stilts, or an orchestra begins to play, or some impromptu marching band comes banging through the square. The voices get louder. Now the gambas sizzling in olive oil are put on the table, the laughter echoes, the kids shriek with joy as they come and go, grabbing tidbits from the table.

In the little Castilian village of Guzmán, where I moved my family one summer as I wrote my book, we often found ourselves with an invite to my friend Ambrosio’s telling room for cena. A telling room is a little hobbit hole dug into the hill on the north boundary of town, most of them equipped with a simple wood-plank table, a fireplace full of dried grapevines, which gives the grilled lamb a sweet taste, and a porron—a glass, decanter-like vessel with a spout—sloshing with homemade red wine. In Ambrosio’s telling room, the shutters were thrown open so we could look out over the picturesque village with its palacio and impressive church as we ate and drank. In fact, I’d often look up from the table, tricked by the illusion that I was gazing upon some ever-changing painting on the wall that just happened to be the village of Guzmán itself. (more…)

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Post-Vacation Guilt Eraser

June 24th, 2013 · 20 Comments · Rituals

In our family, few things say vacation like a box of Pop-Tarts. We like the frosted kind with the vaguely cinnamony filling, the ones that make that whispery sound when you break them in half. Within an hour of dumping our luggage, we’re at the supermarket, stocking up on all the staples that sustain a family–milk, pasta, fruit–as well as a few that definitely don’t: ice cream bars, Frosted Flakes, those Pop-Tarts.

Why? Because it feels good to take a break from saying no all the time, because we believe that vacation is a time to indulge every vice, to let our food ids run wild. We wash down our post-beach white-bread grilled cheeses with Coke; we finish the Key lime pie; we top off the Gin and Tonic with another Gin and Tonic. Each day begins with a bowl of Apple Jacks and ends with a “smush-in,” which is what the kids call those marble slab ice cream places where we let them smush gummy bears into their cotton candy-flavored ice cream. If the mark of a successful trip is forgetting your everyday life, then we’ve gotten pretty good at vacation.

When we return, though, the earth assumes its normal rotation, and our old selves reemerge. We make food amends. Our first dinner is usually Redemption Salad: chicken tossed into a mound of Asian-style, nutrient-dense, guilt-erasing shredded red cabbage and spinach. It’s our way of saying, Okay, that was fun, but now it’s time to get back to business. If it’s possible for a meal to make you feel healthy–to actually undo seven days of poor habits–this is the one. It also happens to taste good, which softens the landing a bit. But only a bit.

This is our Providers column for the June issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their site for this recipe and for the entire Providers archivePhoto by Danny Kim for Bon Appetit.

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36-Hour Austin Whirlwind

June 17th, 2013 · 18 Comments · Rituals, Travel

A few years ago, when I was working full-time and the girls were 3 and 4, a dad-friend of ours invited Andy, Phoebe, and Abby up north to his ski-house for some winter wonderlanding. Just dads and kids. No moms. I should’ve been offended, but I wasn’t. Almost as soon as Andy told me about the invitation I started making a mental map of all of the ways in which I would abuse my roughly 36 hours of alone time. There would be late sleep-ins, and long newspaper reading sessions by the fire, maybe an afternoon nap, maybe, if I was feeling ambitious, a really girly movie — get this — in an actual movie theater. In short, do nothing and embrace doing nothing. I was about 37, and 37 years are a lot of years in which one might get to know oneself and remember that…I’m not so good at doing nothing. I am almost too embarrassed to tell you (almost) how much got packed into those 36 hours, but let me just say that out-of-state zip codes were involved, the freezer was packed with different portion sizes of Chicken and Orzo soup (page 290, my book), and at midnight I was sipping a bourbon while assembling a newly-purchased Ikea chair. Every minute I wasn’t taking advantage of  the fact that a kid was not climbing on top of me, brought on a wave of guilt.

Aren’t you glad you’re not married to me?

I bring this up because I was in total 36-hour-whirlwind-mode last week when I flew to Austin to speak at BlogherFood. I knew I’d be hanging around the conference for at least a good part of Friday morning, and then after that — I’d be free to explore if I wanted to. In fact, it looked like I had enough time for two dinners, one lunch, one breakfast, and a pretty solid chunk of afternoon time in there, too. Even better, I had convinced an old friend to tag along with me — Lia, my Time for Dinner editor and, as luck would have it, we picked up a new friend/old hero of mine along the way — Molly, one of the originals, creator of Orangette. Molly spoke on my panel (topic: storytelling) and won my heart (again) when she said about food-writing, “This is my first trip away from my 9-month-old daughter, and to me, sitting at a bar alone with a margarita, and how that feels is so much more interesting to me than whatever food I’m going to be eating.”

That doesn’t mean we didn’t eat good food. We were in Austin for crying out loud, and oh my goodness, I must say, we did right by Texas. My plan (more…)

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