Not My Thing

When the Lego sets arrived by mail — gifts from the grandparents — the girls ripped open their boxes right on the doorstep and immediately ran inside to start examining the plastic packages that held the magical little blocks that would eventually turn into Harry Potter’s bus (Phoebe’s) and a summery little log cabin (Abby’s). It was a rainy weekday — a rainy weekday in June at that — and with homework and cello and piano and ballet winding down, they found themselves in the long-forgotten position of having a long stretch of hours seemingly made for perfecting their pitched roof technique. And I found myself in the long-forgotton position of wanting to maybe get down on the floor with them like the old days and help out.

“Whaddaya say, guys? How about we work on these together?”

Two little blank faces looked at me, then at each other, then back at me.

“No offense, Mom,” said my little one, “but Legos aren’t really your thing.”

(Truth: “No offense” is always followed by something offensive.)

But she so nailed me. Legos are like some kind of nightmare for me — not the free-form ones I grew up with, but the sets that come with weird diagrams, zillions of teeny tiny pieces, and (here’s the real death knell) the expectation of a precise outcome. Any project that relies on proper technique or requires reserves of patience is, in general, “not my thing.” I can’t tell you how many times this phrase has come up during my various baking misadventures.

“Guess I shouldn’t’ve cut corners with butter there,” I’ll say as I slice into a sawdusty cornbread.

“Hmmm,” says my patient husband, washing down a bite with some aggressive swigs of coffee. “Maybe baking’s not really your thing.”

Neither is something like homemade mayonnaise, which, with its drip-by-drip oil-whisking technique, requires the patience of a kindergarten teacher, and which I need to be in the perfect mindset to execute correctly. You’d think being on vacation in Paris, preparing a market-fresh sole in a picture-perfect St. Germaine apartment, might be conducive to that mindset, but there’s a reason why you don’t see it anywhere in those vacation photos. My thought process: It stands to reason that if eventually all the oil is going to be whisked into the egg, why not just dump it in all at once? Again, this kind of kitchen task: Not my thing.

Nor was that backyard soccer goal. In spite of (because of) objections from the girls (“Mom, just wait until Dad gets home!”) I put the thing together in a fit of steely resolve…only to find myself sweaty and finished (yes!), but with about 25 nuts and bolts and washers orphaned on the patio. But the goal’s ensuing wobbliness wasn’t anything a little duct tape couldn’t address.

Then there’s that Perfect Pan-Roasted Chicken Thigh recipe from Bon Appetit that we make all the time. What sold me on it initially was that a) it required three ingredients: chicken, salt, oil and b) the head note said if you followed the simple but incredibly specific (uh oh) technique it miraculously ended up tasting like bacon. Well, you know where this one ends up. Here’s the thing: I almost always need the oven to be making something else — in this case, some oven fries — and so even though Bon App was very clear about the 475°F thing I thought, Well let’s bring that heat down a little to make sure the fries don’t burn at the same time. And maybe we can just keep them in a little longer than the exact 13 minutes it spells out in the recipe. You know, let’s just duct tape this sucker a little.

So the results? Perfect Good-Enough Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs. But, in my book, still kind of a perfect family dinner.

Fries and Thighs
When you break the rules on this one, it comes together so fast. We are big Oven Fries people in our house (see page 210-212 of cookbook), but the addition of oregano and Parm was inspired by Lucinda Scala Quinn’s awesome Mad Hungry

Preheat oven to 450°F.

3 baking potatoes, cut into wedges (I get 12 wedges per potato)
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parm (or to taste)
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1⁄4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons water (For whatever reason, I find the steam this water generates in the oven makes fries crisp and fluffy.)

In a medium bowl, toss together all the ingredients.  Line a baking sheet with foil and coat it with cooking spray (crucial—fries will be hard to remove otherwise). Line up your fries in rows and bake for 25 minutes, or until they are crispy and golden. If they are burning, toss them around a bit with a spatula, and cover with foil.

Follow Bon App‘s instructions for Perfect Pan-Fried Chicken Thighs, placing them in the oven with the fries and keeping oven temp at 450°F (even though the chicken recipe says 475°F). While you wait for everything to finish, assemble your salad. The one above is Bibb lettuce, leftover haricot verts, scallions, tomatoes, and a creamy dressing. Why does it just feel wrong not to have a Bibb lettuce salad without a creamy dressing? I usually just dollop a tablespoon of mayo into my all-purpose vinaigrette.

FYI: To My Boston Bretheren — I’ll be reading at Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard St, Brookline, MA) tonight. Come say hi if you are in the neighborhood. Click here for upcoming events.

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You may be onto something with the baking/Lego connection. I love both because of the precision. My husband is much better suited to the on-the-fly nature of the saute station and games based on imaginary (and incredibly silly) characters.

Wish I could get down to Boston. Couldn’t you come just a couple of hours farther north? We have some nice bookstores up here.

The Wholesome Hedonist

You are speaking my language, woman. I am the Queen of cutting corners (though I like to refer to it as ‘creatively improvising’ and ‘adapting.’) After all, shouldn’t every cook want to make a recipe ‘their own’, even if ‘your own’ means jacking up the heat so the chicken is done by the time the kids get home? That’s why I like recipes that are forgiving 🙂 I was just looking for a roast chicken recipe, I’ll try it this afternoon!

Melissa@Julia's Bookbag

Hey Miss Jenny! can’t remember if I mentioned this before, but slowly adding oil in a steady thin stream into the other ingredients in a food processor has always worked miraculously well for me, have you tried that?


I hear you on the baking and mayonnaise…I just don’t have the patient. I need recipes where I can cut corners, improvise a bit! We are a total oven fry family and make them all the time…I recently tossed them with my Real Simple lemon parm vinaigrette and they were awesome! P.S. We’ve made the bourbon pork tenderloin two Sundays in a row…total hit in my house! Thanks!

lori h

You could be writing about me here. I am not a baker due to my avoidance of precise directions or ingredients. my husband is diabetic so that’s my excuse for not baking :). I am a little too free with my ingredient substitutions and frequently second-guess recipe instructions. It’s a wonder anything turns out well! thanks for the chuckle this morning!

Laura M.

Right there with ya. I have patience for the legos but I am always throwing something together that I made up in my head from whatever we had on hand at 8pm when we are both starving.
The Man says I choose the wrong time to experiment. Ah well.
I think I have read/watched to many fictional stories in the 17 and 1800’s of women with such extensive kitchen knowledge that they could feed 30 from just some bacon fat, a little corn meal and what ever they gather in the woods. I feel like I should be able to do that in my kitchen. It makes for some strange meals.
Also, I ruthlessly substitute. Sometimes I want to make a recipe so bad that I will sub whatever for whatever. Doesn’t everyone do that? ;D


Speaking of cutting corners (and not following recipes), can I just use a thin layer of vegetable oil on the foil? Cooking spray freaks me out!


Too weird–I have been devouring your cookbook (literally and figuratively) since I got it, and just made Lucinda Scala Quinn’s fries last night for dinner! I am digging this union of two of my favorite cooking gurus…

Carlinne @ Cook With 2 Chicks

I am so with you on the “no offense” being followed by something offensive. Also, Mad Hungry is one of my favorite books/cooking shows. It’s no surprise that you find Lucinda Scala Quinn awesome too!


Who wants their chicken to taste like bacon anyway? This looks wonderful and those fries look killer … and it would have ruined them to cook at 475. 🙂

Michelle Ludwig

Oh boo, I used to live right in Coolidge Corner in Brookline. Love the bookstore you are reading at. I have gotten so many books from there. You should eat at zaftigs down the street. Now we are in California but too far away from San Fran to come see you:-(


Love the post — though what resonated most with me was the Truth about “No offense.” A classic, that I have heard a few (too many) times out of my kids’ mouths!

Merrill Skipworth

Can’t wait to try this- one question. Does the chicken go in at the same time as fries and cook 25 min? I am more of a baker- in need of precise directions!!