The Dolly Awards

March 31st, 2014 · Uncategorized

Tis the season for waterlogged soccer fields, hoops madness, the dreaded state tests… and, let’s not forget, awards! Yes, there are the James Beard Awards, the National Magazine Awards, the Saveur Food Blog Awards (love those nominees!) but anyone who’s anyone knows that the most coveted prize of all is right here on Dinner: A Love Story. Presenting the Fourth Annual Dolly Awards, brought to you by the highly subjective, way-to0-excitable, two-person panel of DALS.

Best Jarred Sauce: Marcella Hazan’s
Given how simple it is to make, no house should ever be without a jar of Marcella Hazan’s famous three-ingredient tomato sauce (butter + tomatoes + whole onion) in the fridge. Especially my house, considering that Abby, connoisseur of all pasta with tomato sauce, would award it the hands-down Grand Prize Winner, if not a Nobel Peace Prize. The sauce is silky, luxurious, and clings to the pasta the way sauce should cling to pasta, which is I guess what happens when one of the three main ingredients is an enormous chunk of butter. Best of all, the entire recipe is basically one step: Dump everything in a pot and simmer. -Jenny

Best Kids’ Cookbook of the Moment: Fanny at Chez Panisse
It was a long winter. I’ve made a vow not to complain about it anymore. (See?) What I am going to do, though, is mention how many cold mornings I have woken up these past few weeks to the smell of something baking or frying, thanks to Phoebe’s discovery of Fanny at Chez Panisse. We’ve had this book on the shelves forever, but Phoebe has only recently discovered how simple and perfect each recipe is — not surprising given that it was written by Alice Waters’ daughter Fanny back in 1992. Among the many things Phoebe (and Fanny) have treated us to: Pooris with cucumber raita, corn bread, the buttery biscuits that you see above. Next up: 1-2-3-4 cake, so named because people used to remember the first few ingredients without writing it down (1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 teaspoons baking powder, etc.). Note: It makes a great birthday gift for a six-, seven-, eight-year-old junior chef.

Best Host Gift: Jacques Torres Warm Chocolate Chip Cookies
When our friends John and Shiv came to visit us over the holidays last year, they brought their two kids, a lot of luggage, and a cooler filled with road trip snacks, wine, and — much to my curiosity — a foil-wrapped log of…what? “Dessert,” John said. He proceeded to unwrap the foil to reveal pre-made chocolate chip cookie dough from a Jacques Torres recipe that he claimed was the best out there. I wasn’t going to argue with him. During dinner, John excused himself, sliced up the dough, baked the cookies, and we all finished the meal with a warm, gooey, perfect-cakey-to-crispy-ratioed chocolate chip cookie and milk. They will be invited back. (Photo: Crepes of Wrath.-Jenny

Best Leftover Trick: Put an Egg on It
Last year, I heard Amanda Hesser speak on a panel with Deb Perelman and Luisa Weiss (#dreamteam) and when someone in the audience asked each for their go-to dinner, Hesser’s answer was “Whatever’s leftover with an egg on it.” Sadly, I can’t fall back on this move for dinner (egg-haters, etc etc), but it’s my go-to move on for lunch at least a few times a week. Above is some leftover farro with steamed asparagus, Sriracha, and a poached egg. -Jenny [Read more →]

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This Week in Salmon

March 27th, 2014 · Quick, Seafood

I know this is likely to ruffle a few feathers, but I’m going to say it anyway. Ready for it?? Here we go: Weeknight Entertaining is the New Dinner Party.

You heard it here first, don’t forget that.

So, um, why? Why would any of us want to throw one more variable into the dinnertime scramble? One more variable who actually needs to be fed? Simple: Because the bar is so much lower. As much as I love to have people over on a weekend night, it’s a production. And that’s good. I like some theatrics on a Saturday night. That’s what Saturday night is about when you are over 40 and your idea of excitement includes a Baltimore Oriole sighting during your morning run. (Forreal!! Right at the bottom of my street!)

But the other night, our friend Kendra came over for dinner. It was Monday, kind of a last-minute plan, and since we had already decided on Salmon Salad for dinner — I’m telling you, the recipe is MVP in our house — that was going to be the meal. No special cocktail, no special meat and cheese starter, or homemade dessert. (At least no homemade dessert homemade by us; Kendra rocked our world with this little number.) Starters would be chips and salsa; the milk glasses would be set on the kitchen table (not the dining room table) by Phoebe; and Kendra would essentially be folded into family dinner. When expectations are low, you can only be a hero.

Anyway, igniting dinner party trends (just watch!) was not supposed to be point of today’s post. What I really wanted to remind you about was how amazingly easy salmon is for weeknight cooking, dinner guest or not. That Salmon Salad (page 62 of DALS) is so clutch. This time, I tweaked the technique a bit — I used yellow potatoes and tossed them in the dressing before tossing the rest of the salad, so they were like silky German-Potato-Salad potatoes. It’s the only way I’m going to make it from now on.

I’ve also been looking for an excuse to really sing the praises of this Salmon with Mustard-Brown-Sugar Glaze over at Martha. I’ve linked to this before, but I just need to say again how genius it is. With red wine vinegar and sugar in the glaze, it has the sweet-and-sour thing going, and it could not be easier to whip together. The first time I made the recipe, Abby declared it the best salmon she’d ever eaten, and seven or eight times later, she still stands by that claim.

Lastly, there’s this basic salmon teriyaki recipe that is a good compromise to have in your back-pocket when, say, the kids are begging to go to the local Japanese place for dinner instead of Not another boring chicken, pleeeease? With a side of sushi rice and some magic teriyaki onions, it tastes like the version they order in the restaurant, only it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.

Salmon Teriyaki

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 sake
1/4 cup mirin
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 pound salmon filet

Preheat broiler. In a small saucepan, whisk together everything except the fish. Let it simmer about 10 minutes until reduced and slightly syrupy. Brush sauce on top a salmon and broil for 10-12 minutes (depending on thickness of salmon), brushing sauce on every four or five minutes to get a nice caramel-y color. Serve with sushi rice and teriyaki onions.

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Abby’s Famous Swiss Chard (with a Side of Steak)

March 24th, 2014 · Dinner, Grilling, Pork and Beef, Quick, Sides, Salads, Soup, Uncategorized

Guest-post from 10-year-old Abby:

I am so sick of kale. Good thing I taught my family to like chard with this world famous dish. Well not world famous, but famous in my house.

I love chard. The second I saw the rainbow-colored stems at farm camp growing in a garden with beautiful fluffy green leaves I knew that they would taste good. One morning I bought then at the farmers market. Later though, when we brought it home, I had no idea how to cook it. My dad started cooking the chard in a pan and putting red pepper on it. I took a taste, but it was a bit spicy, so I added some soy sauce to make it salty and to balance the spicy-ness. Then I tried it again, and it tasted really good, but it needed some sweetness. Finally I thought of the perfect solution: Rice Wine vinegar! (Mom’s note: seasoned rice wine vinegar!) I drizzled it on and sampled the chard. It was delicious! I put the whole thing into a bowl and honestly could not stop eating it. By the time it was dinnertime there was only half the amount I had cooked left in the bowl. Since that dinner, I make the recipe very often and every time it tastes even better.

And my mother (now typing) would like to add that it’s very delicious with a quick broiled (or grilled) marinated skirt steak. Here are both recipes:

Quick Broiled Skirt Steak with Abby’s Chard
Her mother would also like to let you know that this entire dinner can be made in 2o minutes, 15 if you have a 10-year-old sous chef taking over the chard. [Read more →]

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Dinner: The Playbook

March 20th, 2014 · Dinner: The Playbook, Uncategorized

Yes, that’s the cover of my new book, to be published soon, but before I go into more detail on it I want to know one thing:

Are you with me?

I need to know this because, while this book is going to be a lot of things — an adventure, a game-changer, a how-to manual for the family meal — it is first and foremost going to be a personal challenge, a commitment.

Loyal DALS readers have heard the story of The Great Dinner Rut of 2006 — that period, back when our girls were 3 and 4, when Andy and I were drowning in a sea of plain. Plain pasta, plain burger, plain chicken, plain pizza. Our once-solid dinner rotation had been reduced to what you’d find in your average minimum security prison. On any given night, we’d have a breakthrough — Flounder! Abby ate flounder! — until the next time we’d present it to the Li’l Lady of the Manor and she’d drum her fingers against the table and stare at us with cold, cold eyes, as if to say “For real? You think I’m gonna eat that?” I don’t want to go on too much here — you guys know the deal — but for two working parents who loved to cook and just wanted to end the day with a glass of wine and a meal that wasn’t beige, the situation was far from ideal.

“It’ll get better,” everyone told me. “You just have to wait out the toddler years. You’ll see!” But I didn’t want to wait out any years — years! –I wanted to eat real food again, food that I was excited about cooking and introducing to my kids. So I took control of the situation. One night, I made an announcement: We were going to embark on an adventure. (“Adventure” seemed like a key positioning strategy.) We were going to cook thirty new dinners in the next thirty days, and the only thing I asked was that they had to try a bite of every single one of them. One bite. They didn’t have to like every meal, but they did have to try every meal.

It always surprises me how game kids are in situations where you least expect it.

But not as game as Andy and I were. We got into it — scouring old cookbooks for recipes we’d always wanted to make, texting ideas back and forth on our commute, asking anyone we saw what their go-to dinners were. I’m talking about dedication I hadn’t seen since the days when we were planning our honeymoon. We came up with a  line up and got cooking.

Was a little nuts for two working parents to take this on? Yes. Did we almost give up along the way? Absolutely. Was every meal a hit? Not exactly. Abby puked up the trout (day 19) onto the dinner table and Phoebe moved her chair to the living room when we placed a bowl of gnocchi in front of her (day 16). But did it transform the way the kids (and their parents) thought about dinner?  Well… I hate to sound all gimmicky here, but yes. What we discovered was that Family Dinner is a contract. You buy in, or you don’t. This can mean lots of things to lots of different families, but for us, it meant cooking most nights and constantly looking for ways to keep it fresh. We didn’t know it then, but this project set us on our way, expanded our horizons, established dinner as a priority in our lives, and killed the chicken nugget dead once and for all.

So if my first book, Dinner: A Love Story, was a romantic yarn about the evolution of the family meal through marriage, babies and family, then Dinner: The Playbook is its nuts-and-bolts, down-and-dirty, roll-up-your-sleeves, LET’S-DO-THIS-THING companion. It tells the story of our grand experiment and everything I learned along the way, including:

  • Key shopping and organizing strategies
  • Guerrilla tactics for picky eaters and sauce-o-phobes
  • Tips for scouting new recipes that “keep the spark alive”
  • 80+ easy, kid-vetted recipes
  • Weekly meal plans that show you how to put all those recipes together over the course of 30 days — or even just seven days if that’s more your speed.

In short, it’s got everything you need to help bust you out of your own dinner rut. Even when you are working full time. Even when you would rather crawl into a dark hole than think about dinner.

Over the years, I have received so many emails from readers asking me: I am so busy and overwhelmed, and I want to put dinner on the table. How do I do it? Where do I start?

This book, I hope, provides an answer to that question.

So what do you say? Are you in? Please say yes!

Dinner: The Playbook will be out in late August — just in time for back-to-school bootcamp — but is available for pre-order with all the usual suspects: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebooks, and Ballantine.

The masterful Kristina DiMatteo designed the cover and the interior of Playbook, and it’s filled with the sweetest little details. The dedication page is one of my favorites. As is the Gina Triplett-illustrated spine on the cover. (Remember my recipe door? That’s Gina. I like to keep things in the family.)

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Never Fail Banana Bread

March 17th, 2014 · Baking and Sweets

Yesterday, Phoebe came home from school with her aspiring-baker friend Abby (different Abby) and declared “We want to make bread.”

“How long is this playdate exactly?” I asked.

“Abby’s mom is picking her up at 5:30.”

“Hmmm.” I was a little concerned about their plan.

“Aw c’mon…We can make that easy bread you always make?” She was, of course, referring to Jim Lahey’s world-famous No-Knead bread, the only bread I’ve ever dared bake. (And to be honest, it works so well, I don’t really know why I’d try any other.)

“Well you’re right, that one is easy,” I said. “But it still takes time.” I thought for a second.

“How about banana bread? That’s quick and we have a bunch of bananas that are not looking so hot.” Of course, it’s a total farce that something made with that much sugar and butter is called “bread” and not “cake,” but it was Friday, and why shouldn’t there be a little banana cake lying around over the weekend? Plus, I had the world’s most surefire recipe, which I knew two 12-year-olds could handle without parental supervision.

It was decided. I opened my old recipe binder….an actual honest-to-god BINDER with tabs that look like this:

And recipes that look like this:

The whole binder system seems so quaint now, in spite of the fact that I only started it about a decade ago. But I still reach for it all the time  – even though most of my tried-and-true recipes are digitized on this blog or immortalized in my cookbook. I think that’s because a lot of the recipes in the binder are handwritten…and we all remember the rule about handwritten recipes, right? How they’re the least likely of all recipes to let you down??  

The other thing about handwritten recipes? They are way off the Google grid…and how often can you say that in this day and age?

I sifted through recipes from my mother’s mother who I never met, recipes from old co-workers, Aunt Patty-anotated New York Times recipes from 1982 until I found what I was looking for: Elizabeth Mayhew’s banana bread recipe you see above. About ten years ago Elizabeth, then an editor at Real Simple with me, now a Today Show and Washington Post contributorcame in to my office to talk about recipes for a story loosely called “One-Bowl Breads.”  This was not an unusual scene — no matter what I was working on, food stories or otherwise, my first conversation was always Elizabeth, an idea-machine who came up with some of the more memorable tips the magazine is so famous for. Thanks to Elizabeth I never feel bad about serving dinner guests meatloaf on china platters which “elevate the everyday”; and I can always easily find my bed sheet sets (they are tucked into their matching pillow case like a little kit); and, as you have gathered by now, thanks to Elizabeth I have a killer one-bowl banana bread, the recipe for which she scrawled out in my office from memory. (“It’s my mother’s and I’ve made it too many times to count.”)

Elizabeth could be ruthless, too, which I loved. Once, in my office, she asked me why I had an ugly dried-out bouquet of flowers on my desk. I told her Andy bought them to congratulate me for an Times Op-Ed I had just written. “It reminds me of my potential,” I told her, somewhat pathetically. In one swift movement, she plucked out a tiny dried rose from the bouquet, placed it in a tiny box she found on my desk, shut the top, and handed the whole thing back to me. “Here’s your potential,” she said. “Now throw out those depressing flowers.” (Kids are not the only ones who appreciate a bit of authority.)

I still have that little box. And I still have her banana bread recipe, which is what I handed Phoebe and her friend for their baking date, and which the whole family moaned and groaned over all weekend. (Not surprisingly, they opted for the “optional” chocolate chips.)

I’m not going to rekey the recipe for you like I usually do. Instead, here is a link where you can download a PDF. (Or just drag the above photo to your desktop and print.) Baking time (in a loaf pan) is 50 minutes to an hour, or whenever a knife in the center comes out clean. Let’s see how long we can keep it from Mr. Google.

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Friday Round-Up

March 14th, 2014 · Dinner, Pork and Beef, Uncategorized

If I can’t get to Tulum anytime soon, at least I can make Hartwood‘s skirt steak with roasted plantains. (You can just tell from the photo that it’s going to be easy, right?)

The Knork reminds me: it’s a fine line between ridiculous and genius.

Rebecca Lee should be more famous than Pharrell. (No offense to Pharrell.) Last week, I heard her read the title story from her short story collection Bobcat (all about a dinner party) and laughed my head off.

Adam Lanza’s father talks to Andrew Solomon.

Food Nerds Unite! Last week, I reviewed a novel for the Times.

I love Sara’s “pseudo mac and cheese situation” here.

On Wednesday, we screened the first two episodes of Eyes on the Prize – do you remember that epic 14-part series on the Civil Rights movement? The girls were as riveted as we were when we watched it back in the 80s. (Best for kids 10 and older — and even then, keep your hand on the remote, there are a few disturbing moments.)

My ten-year-old’s idea of the perfect birthday gift for her dad.

I only found out about this yesterday (thanks Momfilter!) but I’m already obsessed with Artifact Uprising, the app that lets you turn your iphone photos into beautiful little albums in minutes.

Our friends are coming over for dinner tomorrow and one of them, Jim, requested Milk-braised Pork for the main. How much do I love a guest who does the think-work for me?

From Andy:

This, because any new Truckers album is a reason to rejoice.

This, because it’s one of the best, most heartbreaking magazine stories ever written, and because it has extra poignancy this week, given recent events.

This, because we are unrepentant Pixar fans in this house, and Creativity Inc — by the founder of the company, aka hero to our children — takes you inside to tell you how they do what they do.

This, because it sounds absurdly good and, more important, practically fits into your pocket, allowing you to cook or entertain while SHREDDING HEAVILY, no matter where you are.

This, because Abby has decided white cleats are back, and I respect that.

This, because because.

Have a great weekend.

Photo credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times.


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How to Get (a Rockin’) Dinner on the Table in 20 Minutes

March 13th, 2014 · Dinner, Quick, Seafood

Tuesday night:

5:30 Wrap up work in my home office — even though I meant to wrap up work before kids got home from school two hours earlier. Oh well.

5:40 Realize that Andy is out tonight and it’s Tuesday, which means everyone has their various extracurricular pursuits until almost 9:00. Make radical decision: Let’s eat dinner before practice tonight instead of after.

5:41 Realize this means I have to get dinner on the table immediately if my midfielders stand a chance at digesting in time to run around like maniacs. Remove flounder from fridge.

5:45 Place large skillet on stovetop, add a few glugs olive oil, turn heat to medium-high, set up dredging station (whisked egg, flour, panko crumbs) for flounder.

5:52 While four flounder filets brown in olive oil, slice half head of Napa Cabbage very finely, drizzle in a dressing (mayo, apple cider vinegar, celery seed, olive oil, salt, black pepper, sugar whisked in a measuring cup) and toss.

5:59 Remove four cooked flounders, tent with foil; add another two to the pan. Meanwhile, open a can of Trader Joe’s organic baked beans and dump into a small pot. Much like a cat who can recognize the sound of a tuna can opening from two rooms away, Abby arrives within seconds. “Are we having baked beans?” Got her.

6:05 Dinner. Game over.


Basic Everyday Fried Fish; Cole Slaw, Trader Joes Hit List.

Last Night’s Dinner: Pasta with Mint Pea Pesto;

Anatomy of a Monday Night Dinner: Baked Mustardy Chicken Drumsticks with Brussels Sprouts.


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Clear the Afternoon, Kids! We’re Making Mole

March 10th, 2014 · 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. [Read more →]

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What Kind of Entertainer Are You?

March 6th, 2014 · Domestic Affairs, Entertaining, Uncategorized

Do you ever wonder what your dinner guests say about you when they walk out your door? Do they marvel at your hosting abilities and wonder when they’ll get invited back? Do they praise the food but slag the company? Do they praise the company but slag the food? Do they judge your glassware? Do they climb into their car, sit for a second in the darkness, and say, Never again? That depends on what kind of entertainer you are. Take this quiz to find out… — Jenny and Andy

Your friends are coming over for dinner and you’ve made a (pretty tasting looking, if you don’t say so yourself) frittata with feta cheese, leeks, and baby asparagus. When your the guests arrive, the husband tells you he doesn’t eat feta. He’s not allergic, he just has a “thing” about it. In response, you:

a) Apologize profusely and, in a show of solidarity, toss the frittata into the garbage and start over using some good cheddar.
b) Wag your finger and say, “I guess Mr. Picky over here won’t be getting any dessert tonight!”
c) Roll your eyes, sigh audibly, and say, “Oh god, let me guess: you’re an only child?”
d) Say, “No problem! Which would you prefer: Honey Nut Cheerios or Peanut Butter and Jelly?”
e) Say: “No problem. I’ll just make you an omelet.” Think: “You are so incredibly dead to me.”

It’s 6:45 and your guests are due to arrive in 15 minutes. You hop on your computer to make a playlist, which consists of:

a) Whatever they play between those segments on that NPR show.
b) “Losing My Religion,” and the exact same thirty-seven songs you put on the mixed tape you made for your girlfriend in college.
c)  Haim, Haim, and more Haim.
d) Whatever comes up when you type “cool dinner party playlists” into the Google machine.
e) I don’t have time to make a playlist – isn’t there a Bland White Guy Pandora station on here somewhere?

You would describe your approach to menu planning as:

a) Buy fresh ingredients, and prepare them simply.
b) Three words: Short Ribs, bros!
c) Ramen. Or whatever rapo4 is hashtagging on his instagram feed.
d) Food’s not as important as the company — and besides, have you tried Trader Joes pot pies? They’re actually pretty good.
e) If it can be grilled, then I shall grill it.

Your default conversation starter when the silence borders on awkward is:

a) Okay. Edward Snowden: good guy or bad guy?
b) So, how’s your kitchen renovation going? Wolf or Viking?
c) What year is your Passat?
d) Who’s watching House of Cards?
e) What’s it all about? Life, I mean.

Your guests are raving about the braised pork, a recipe your friend Cindy made for you a few weeks ago. You: [Read more →]

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Notes from The Dinner Playbook

March 3rd, 2014 · Chicken and Turkey, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

There was a time, when the girls were two and three, that we dreamed of the day when they’d be 10 and 11, able to sit at the table and place food in their own mouths while filling us in on their days. Now that we’re finally here—avert your eyes, new parents—we realize that our dream was a mirage, that life finds a way of constantly moving the goalposts on you. Family dinner is still chaotic, only the challenges have shifted from the physical to the logistical. And March and April, for us—with the girls deeply entrenched in two spring sports—is the most chaotic time of year. As we’ve detailed more than once on this blog, practices don’t end until 7:30, which means that, most nights, dinner doesn’t happen until the (very European) hour of 8:30. When you’re dealing with an overstuffed activities schedule, it’s crucial to have a few strategies that make a solid dinner possible. Here are three we will be relying on all season long:

Strategy 1: The Before-Work Play
When the cook is on carpool duty—i.e., it’s not just the athlete coming home late—the key is to prepare something in that 15-minute window before you head to work in the morning. We love soba noodle salad with a simple rice vinegar dressing and greens—spinach, kale, chard—tossed right into the pasta water in the last minute of cooking. Refrigerate till you get home, toss on the dressing, and, if you have time, add some shredded chicken for the win.

Strategy 2: The Pan-Fried Pizza Move
By the time our li’l midfielders stagger through the door, they’re like a couple of feral dogs: They don’t even bother to take off their shin guards before inhaling whatever is put in front of them. A piece of fish on a night like this? Ain’t. Gonna. Cut. It. Individual pan-fried pizzas with whole wheat crust? That’s more like it. Just brown your rolled-out dough in a cast-iron pan with some olive oil, flip, add sauce and toppings, then finish under the broiler. Abby likes a classic Margherita; Phoebe goes for ham and pineapple. (Book owners: Please see page 281 for the official recipe.)

Strategy 3: The Freezer Plan
When there’s so little time on the clock, it’s tempting to fall back on takeout or frozen pot pies. But we’d rather walk through the door, reach into our freezer, and pull out something homemade—like a batch of bake-ahead turkey and spinach meatballs. Think of it as the utility man of the family dinner: ever reliable, can play both protein and vegetable, goes on a bun (meatball subs!) or over pasta, and will crush its store-bought competition any night of the week. Pro tip: Freeze them in single-serving batches, so you can thaw and deploy as needed. Victory.

This is our “Providers” column for the March 2014 issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their site for the spinach-and-turkey meatball recipe. Photo by Matt Duckor (meatballs) for Bon Appetit.

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Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

February 27th, 2014 · Domestic Affairs

About a decade ago, when the girls were 6 months and almost 2, I showed up to the lobby of my office building just as I had every morning for five years and started rooting around my bag for the I.D. that would grant me access through the turnstiles. It was probably about 9:30, which meant I had likely been up four hours, and the caffeine hit from the single cup of coffee I allowed myself (breastfeeding, pumping, etc.) had long worn off. I seemed to find everything else in that bag — wallet, yellow-capped Medela bottles, Disney figurines — but not my I.D.  Watching everyone else glide through to the elevator bank was too much for my sleep-deprived state — so I stood there and wept. Surely this was the worst thing that could ever happen to any human. Where the hell was my I.D.? Why couldn’t it be right where it always was? What was wrong with me?

Had I read Jennifer Senior’s new book All Joy and No Fun I would’ve probably had the same outsized reaction, but I’m guessing I would’ve been a little more forgiving of myself. Because among the many things I learned in her meticulously reported book on the complex state of modern parenthood (based on her widely discussed 2010 New York magazine cover story), I learned that there wasn’t much I could do about my reaction — it turns out that the way we handle sleep deprivation is a fixed trait, with most of us fitting into one of three major groups: “Those who handle it fairly well, those of us who sort of fall apart, and those who respond catastrophically.”

This tidbit seems small and almost obvious, but as with most things, to understand the science, to read the hard research on why our houses have become messier than any time in history; why a three-year-old is biologically incapable of responding to logic; why I loved — craved — going to work when my kids were little (when I remembered my I.D.); why moments of unbridled parental euphoria are so hard to capture in the day-to-day life with kids…to drill down deep on all this stuff is both instructive and comforting. Especially when the reporting is interspersed with personal stories from parents across the country. All in all, I’d say that reading Senior’s book felt like one big exercise in what the medical folks might call normalizing.

All Joy is also a fascinating chronicle of the many paradoxes of modern parenthood including, but not limited to:

  • What’s great about America (your kids can grow up to be anything! There is no script) is also what’s so terrifying (there is no script!)
  • We’ve never been in greater contact with each other — digitally — and yet, compared to our parents’ generation where neighbors were in and out of our houses, and kids were playing kickball in the cul-de-sac, we’ve never been so alone, so on our own.
  • The more stuff children have, the more useless they become.
  • The very same empowering skills parents encourage in their children (particularly in middle class families) lead those children to challenge and reject parental authority.
  • Since after World War II — at which point the child’s status started shifting from “useful” to “protected,” — children have become “our crowning achievements,” and yet they have never been less equipped to live their own lives.

The most interesting paradox for me, though, was the fact that All Joy is really much more of an anthropological look at parenting than it is a parenting guide — Senior says this right away in her introduction — and is fundamentally based on the fact that raising happy children is harder and more elusive than it has been for any previous generation. And yet I came away the opposite of scared. Did I recognize myself in the story about the woman from Texas signing her kids up for tutors and football and softball without really knowing what the end game was? Yes. Did I freak a little when I read how a Brooklyn mom described her role in her teenage daughter’s life as “the pit crew?” (“I change all her tires, polish up the car, and get out of the way…then she peels out.”) Did the entire section on adolescence and its corresponding downward spiral effect on parental happiness scare the daylights out of me? Well, yes. But, oddly, when I closed the book, the more overwhelming feeling I experienced was that we were all in this together, struggling with the same (mostly unanswerable) questions — and even having a rough guide to the territory makes me feel just a little more mentally equipped to take the trip.

We’ll see how I feel about this theory in a few years.

Related: Jennifer Senior on Fresh Air. Also: a few cool giveaways coming up on facebook and instagram this month, so make sure you’re checking in.

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On the Plus Side of Winter

February 24th, 2014 · Entertaining, Uncategorized

Two Thursdays ago, my friend Sonya emailed me:

Hey! You guys around this weekend? We have the urge to make a big pot of stew and drink wine with someone.  Please say yes!!!

I could not have replied fast enough. Yes! Yes! Yes! Is tomorrow too soon? Or how about now? Can I come over right now? It was another single-digit temperature week up here in New York and most of my day was spent holed up in my (old, drafty) house, dressed like Shaun White, and listening to 1010 WINS for any breaking news on the next storm rolling in.

I know what you’re thinking right now — another winter whinefest from Jenny, right? Right about now, the entire population Minnesota is rolling their eyes at me.

Not so fast. Believe it or not, today I’d like to focus on the upshot to the cold weather snap in New York (though it seems to have tapered off for the time being) namely the dinner invitations coming in left and right from people like Sonya — people who want to make a big pot of stew and drink wine. With us!

I’ll tell you something else about these people: They know their way around a kitchen. To determine this, one need look no further than the cast iron pans and Dutch Ovens sitting atop their stoves. Each one seemed to boast the kind of patina that you just can’t fake, as though it has been handed down by the cook’s great-grandmother. Inside the pot? These days, there’s a 99% chance it’s some kind of stewy beef. Not just something like our back-pocket Belgian Beef Stew that we are used to scaring up in under an hour on a weeknight. I’m talking meat that has spent some quality time in the oven, braising and reducing to deep concentrated deliciousness, making the house smell like the only place you want to be. Check these out…

Braisy Beefy Stewy Dinners Fit for Cold-Weather Entertaining

Carbonnade of Beef with Prunes served with big fat noodles, simple roast carrots, crusty bread. Perfect. Cooked for us by Sonya and Pierre.

Beef Bourguignon (above, photo credit: Food Network) at Todd and Anne’s house. Should also be noted that they served the kids homemade mac and cheese, too, which ended up being decimated by the grown-ups.

Braised Short Ribs with Dijon at our friends Reagan and Scott’s house. The beef literally melted off the bones.

Moroccan Beef Stew (shown way up top, photo by Brian Leatart for Bon Appetit) made with golden raisins and served with couscous by our neighbors Rebecca and David, who have two kids under two. (A better person might have felt more guilty about this. Like maybe I should’ve been the one cooking for them?)

Thai Beef Stew with Lemongrass and Noodles OK fine, no one has actually made this for us yet, but how good does that look? Currently accepting invitations….

Stay warm!

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I’ll Let You Handle That

February 13th, 2014 · Domestic Affairs, Vegetarian

Jenny called me at work a couple of weeks ago, on one of those gray afternoons when the temperature never rises much above 10 degrees and the dog refuses to go outside.

“I’m freezing,” she said. “How do I turn up the heat?”

“In the house, you mean?”

We’d lived in this house for ten years. This was not our first winter there.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Okay, do you see that box on the wall? The one in the living room, near the fireplace? It has digital numbers on it. That’s the thermostat.”

“I see it,” she said. “Now what?”

I’ll spare you the rest, but let me ask: Does this seem weird to you?

I could tell you how weird it seemed to me, too — how do you not know where the thermostat is?! – but I’d be lying. The truth is, it wasn’t that weird at all. I have to believe that most families have these random-seeming divisions of labor which, if you really step back and look at them — or write about them publicly on a blog — do seem pretty weird. Our house, and our marriage, is full of them. It’s practically built on them. Some of this is probably evolutionary (we have only so much bandwith, so we pool resources to survive, etc.), and some of it is probably just being happy to let someone else deal. Here are some other things that Jenny never does in our house: Replace light bulbs, pay bills, sweep the kitchen floor, cut the kids’ toenails, change the filters on our air conditioner, realize that our air conditioner has filters (and that they need changing), clean the tank of Abby’s beta fish. And here are some things I never do: Braid hair, iron anything, realize that anything needs ironing, organize closets, manage our calendar, feed the dog, sort the recycling on Wednesday mornings, hang up coats that get piled on the chair next to our front door, turn on the dreaded Sonos system.

This ad-hoc division of labor applies to our lives in the kitchen, as well. There are certain things we just close our eyes and rely on the other person to execute. (Q: And what if that other person isn’t around to execute it? A: We buy it.) For me, the idea of making, baking, and frosting a cake: unh-uh. Same goes for latkes — and for deep frying, in general. Have never done it, don’t know how to do it, don’t intend to learn. Jenny, on the other hand? She doesn’t make coffee. “Can you make some of your coffee?” she ask me on Sunday morning, as though “my coffee” is some rare, magical potion and not a matter of pouring some hot water over ground beans. How strange does all this get? Consider this: Jenny’s favorite breakfast of all time is a bowl of steel-cut McCann’s oatmeal with a little cream and fruit, AND SHE HAS NEVER MADE IT IN HER LIFE. Or, she tried once and wasn’t happy with the result and gave up forever, ceding all future oatmeal duties to me. Oatmeal is not hard to make. There is no real art to it. I am pretty sure she could (a) figure it out in about five seconds, if she tried, and (b) become a thousand times better at it than I am. But that’s not how it works, when it comes to the division of labor. Oatmeal is my thing. Mud cake is her thing. And as long as we stay in our lanes, we keep moving forward. – Andy

Andy’s Oatmeal Instructions
The only downside of steel-cut, real deal oatmeal is that it takes a while. If you’re trying to get it on the table on a Tuesday morning, as the kids are packing their backpacks and the dog needs to go out and orchestra practice starts in 25 minutes, this will not make you happy. On a Saturday morning, however, with the kids watching some SpongeBob and a cup of good coffee in your hand, and a rare “nothing day” stretching out in front of you: Yes. This humble little grain will do you right. Note: As much as I love oatmeal, I also believe that it’s all about the toppings. There must always be fruit — strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, bananas — or, if you’re in a pinch, dried cherries or cranberries work well, too. There must always be something sweet, as well, and here are my go-tos, in descending order of favoriteness: Maple cream, maple sugar, high-test maple syrup, dark brown sugar, agave. Jenny likes a few chopped almonds or pecans. Some people like a sprinkle of cinnamon. I am not one of those people.

1 cup steel cut McCann’s Irish oatmeal
3 cups water, plus another cup in reserve
1 pinch salt

In a medium saucepan, add 3 cups of water and a pinch of salt. When water is boiling, add 1 cup of oatmeal and stir. Reduce heat to the lowest simmer and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally and scraping along the sides of the pot with a rubber spatula, for 25-30 minutes. If it looks like the oatmeal is getting too thick, add a little more water and stir. I like it to be almost like porridge: thick but not too thick. Top with a drizzle of milk or cream, and the toppings of your choice.

Related: You Make it, You Own it.

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That Chicken

February 10th, 2014 · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Grilling

My sister called me the other morning. We were both in our cars — bluetoothing and dropping off our various charges — and figuring out a possible cousin sleepover when she said, with some urgency, “Oh! Did you get my message?”

“No, what message.”

“I left you a voice-mail with a lot of questions, but I really want to tell you about the chicken.”

“What chicken?”

“My friend Trish had a bunch of moms over for lunch recently, and she served the most delicious chicken.”

Now this was unusual. I get a lot of post-game calls about recipes, but not many of them are about poultry.

“Tell me about it,” I told her, negotiating a huge snow bank so I could park the car in front of my coffee shop.

“Well, it was served on a large platter, kind of like one that you would have, and it was room-temperature, but she served it with tiny potatoes and green beans on top of lettuce, a ton of fresh vegetables, and a vinaigrette on the side.”

Deconstructed lunch! I thought to myself.

“Someone said, ‘Oh it’s a deconstructed lunch!’ She also had some salmon, but the chicken was the star. It was so healthy and flavorful, not bland like most chicken in salad is, and it was all ready to go when we got there because she made it ahead of time.”

Maybe it was just that the night before I had a ginormous bowl of Pappardelle with Pork Ragu, and the night before that, a hearty Moroccan beef stew…or maybe it was just that we were steeling ourselves for another snowstorm that would come with more buttery, stewy richness, but when she was describing this to me I was longing for a sign of spring, even if it was in dinner-form. And man, did something light surrounded by fresh vegetables sound like the ideal antidote to this relentless winter.

“How’d she make it?”

“She marinated some breasts overnight in mayo, a little olive oil, mustard, salt, pepper, garlic, and a little agave. Some fresh herbs I think. Then she grilled it.”

“On a real charcoal grill outside or in a grill pan on the stove?”


Wow! Who was this Trish woman? We’re not winter grillers, especially these days, when our Weber looks like this:

But I still had to make it. The next day was a school-day, which is another way of saying a snow day, and it was clear that no work was going to get done no matter how many Sam & Cat episodes I bribed the girls with. But that chicken would get done so help me! Before I was even out of my pajamas, there were four pounded breasts steeping in a some version of Trish’s marinade. And later that night I broke out my cast iron stovetop grill. No charcoal, no charcoal chimney, no char anywhere to be found. And I obviously served it hot instead of chilled or at room temperature like Trish did. And I went with the winter vegetables I had in my fridge. But the whole process managed to thaw a few dreams of spring nonetheless.

And the chicken! I understand why it merited a next-day call from my sister. (The true mark of a successful dish in my book.) Tender, flavorful, and the leftovers were even better the next day.

Trish’s Marinated Chicken
2 tablespoons mayo
1/4 cup olive oil
squeeze of agave (or honey)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt & pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
squeeze of lemon
fresh rosemary, thyme or torn basil leaves
Four medium size chicken breasts, pounded thin

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients and, along with chicken, add to a ziploc. Marinade eight hours or overnight, flipping in the fridge at some point if you can. When you are ready to cook, heat a stovetop grill to medium-high, and brush with a tiny bit of olive oil. Grill chicken pieces about four minutes a side (let excess marinade drip off before you place on grill) or until chicken is firm but not rock hard. Serve with Kale-Brussel hash below.

Kale-Brussels Hash

Add a small piece of smoky bacon to a skillet set over medium heat. Once fat has rendered, add a little olive oil and cook a few tablespoons of onions or shallots (chopped) until soft. Add salt and pepper, maybe a few red pepper flakes if you are so inclined, then a few healthy handfuls of shredded kale and shaved brussels sprouts. Cook until just barely wilted (and still bright green) and add to a serving bowl. Drizzle with a little cider vinegar (or red wine vinegar) to taste. You can chop the bacon into small pieces if you feel like it, or just eat the chunk yourself before the kids fight over it.

 I have one of those cast iron reversible grill pans that stretches across two burners. The flip side is a griddle, but I never use it.

Related: I Want to Marry Marinating.

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Top 10 Deconstructed Dinners

February 4th, 2014 · Deconstructing Dinner, Dinner

So I got this nice note from a reader the other day:

I have to tell you I did my first real deconstructed meal the other night where I was not catering to the kids. It was so easy, such an epiphany! My husband and I made Chicken Tikka Masala with browned cauliflower and frozen peas in it. Before adding the (jarred) sauce, I loaded up plates with juicy sauteed chicken chunks and browned cauliflower and added some grapes and they Gobbled. It. Up. I had hot dogs at the ready but was feeling very sad about it. So this was amazing!! Thank you! — Jennie T.

Chicken Tikka Masala! That is some brave new territory, and it made me think that we’ve covered the DALS Top 10 Quick MealsTop 10 Side DishesTop 10 Ways to Use a Rotisserie Chicken, and even Abby’s Top 10 Reads last summer — so I think it’s high time we rounded up our favorite Deconstructed Dinners for the family table. Break it down now:

1. Tortilla Soup (Which also has a nice definition of Deconstructed Dinner for those of you completely in the dark here)

2. Chinese Chicken and Broccoli (like Jennie T., just save a few of the unsauced chicken chunks for kids who might object to the hoisin)

3. Chili-Rubbed Chicken with Mexican Salad, shown above (related: Burrito Bowl)

4.  Steakhouse Steak Salad with (or without!) Horseradish Dressing

5. Fish in Parchment Paper (Part 1 and Part 2) to be filed under “Oldie but Goodie.”

6. Orrechiette with Sausage and Broccoli (the classic)

7. Kale Cobb Salad (hold the Easter egg dye)

8. Chicken Orzo Soup, shown above, page 290 Dinner: A Love Story  (When Abby was a soup-o-thrope, I used to pluck the tender shredded chicken from this and lightly pat it with a paper towel before serving it to her with lightly dried carrots and a mound of orzo. What can I say? I really wanted her to like my favorite soup.)

9. Spicy Peanut Noodles (it’s just “plain pasta with a side of crispy snow peas” to the kids if you serve the peanut sauce on the side), page 261 Dinner: A Love Story

10. Quinoa with Spinach, Egg, & Sriracha (No matter how much I deconstruct and disguise this, my kids will not touch, but you might have better luck.)

Don’t see your favorite? What is it?

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Friday Round-Up

January 31st, 2014 · Uncategorized

Hey, look at what book showed up on Food 52′s Provisions in time for Valentine’s Day! (Be warned: Once you click over there, you will be swallowed up in the beautiful things vortex.)

The battery-operated twirling spaghetti fork: So ridiculous. So endlessly entertaining.

It’s been too long, Chicken Kiev! This week, we reunite.

When elite parents dominate volunteering, it’s the children who lose.

Phoebe wrote a new post on her reading blog, Nerd Alert, about the book that sealed a really cool friendship. I think it might be her best post yet. {“Mom! You always say that.”}

Speaking of reading, the James Baldwin quote half-way through this Op-Ed says it all.

A fun way to enlist your kids in the lunch-packing grind.

These chocolate chip cookies look divine (as does the new blog where they live).

Always go to the funeral.

Remember my neighbor who left her job as a high-power corporate attorney to open a gluten-free bakery? She just opened up her second By the Way Bakery on Broadway between 90th and 91st. New Yorkers, please stop by!

Marinara Worth Mastering. Which just reminds me that sometimes the simpler the recipe, the more detail-oriented you need to be.

A Mommy Blogger’s Lament

Oh my goodness, Catherine, those chicken wings! Totally, 100% happening for Super Bowl Sunday.

Know anyone? Dinner: A Love Story is hiring!

Have a good weekend.

Photos by James Ransom for Food52. 

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Heart Cake

January 29th, 2014 · Baking and Sweets, Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations

It’s been well documented on this site that whatever limited talent I have for say, spinning a lone onion into dinner, that this talent has somehow never translated to the baking side of my brain. The most recent evidence to support this being that cornbread I baked for our friends John and Shiv over the holidays — the one that was going to be served alongside Andy’s chili, until I tasted it and realized that I had forgotten the cornmeal. The sad thing is, it doesn’t mean I don’t like baking. I actually love it. I’m just no good at it.

But anyway, there was this cake I used to make Phoebe when she was little. Her birthday is right around Valentine’s Day so her parties were always heart-themed. For this particular birthday — held at a local dance studio — I planned the entire thing from my office at Real Simple, where I was working full-time. I booked the space, organized the pizza delivery, ordered various pink and red heart-shaped off-gassing plastic junk from the Evil but Life-Saving Oriental Trading. We liked to have birthday parties at home (or maybe I should say, we liked having parties at home after they were over) but it had been a crazy month. I was transitioning into a new role at the magazine, Andy was starting a new job, and Abby seemed to be sick the entire winter. It seemed absurd to take on a home party when outsourcing it at the local gym was going to save precious sanity reserves.

But I wanted something to be homemade — See: Birthday Parties and Maternal Self-Worth: Case Study 1 and Case Study 2 – and all that was left for me to do was the cake. I had it in my head that I would do something really fabulous — maybe in the shape of a shark or something because that was one thing about four-year-0ld Nemo-loving Phoebe…she knew her Sand Tigers from her Black Tips. But of course, it was the day before and I didn’t have any idea how to make a shark cake or anything fun for that matter. Or, at least fun in a way that was doable, given my limited chops. If I had thought ahead and bought a heart mold, I could just do a heart cake, I thought. But I hadn’t thought ahead and so instead found myself at the office googling “heart cake.” What came up was a sketch that looked a lot like this:

It turns out, if you have a standard 9-inch square baking pan (I did!) and a standard 9-inch circle baking pan (I had that, too!), you can very easily make a cake in the shape of a heart. You just slice the round one in half, and affix each of those halves to two adjacent sides of the square cake. Easy! Even for beginners. After baking (I used Rosa’s Mud Cake, naturally, but you can use your own favorite recipe) and frosting everything, Phoebe decided she wanted to stud the rim with pink and red M&Ms…so who was I to stop her? And nine years later, even though I’ve had plenty of time to order that mold, I still consider my jerry-rigged method the only way to make a real heart cake.

P.S. Speaking of hearts and birthdays — today Dinner: A  Story turns 700 posts old!

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Pizza Kit Giveaway!

January 27th, 2014 · Uncategorized

OK so how’s this for awesome: Applegate, maker of high-quality natural and organic meats is offering Dinner: A Love Story readers an exclusive giveaway. And it’s not just because they got wind of the fact that my 10-year-old sausage lover and my 11-year-old roast turkey sandwich addict have, I’m pretty sure, kept them in business for the past decade. Turns out they’ve been doing a little family dinner research that you guys might not find too surprising — 89% of parents they surveyed felt it was important to share a meal together, but nearly half of those same parents cited lack of time, inspiration, and picky eating as major snags. Hence: their Take Back Meal Time mission, and hence a full-on Pizza Making Kit giveaway that dovetails nicely with my mission, aka There is No Dinner Dilemma That Can’t Be Solved By Pizza. The pizza kit includes Appletgate Mini Turkey Pepperoni, Applegate Provolone Cheese, a jar of Jersey-fresh tomato sauce, King Arthur Flour Pizza Crust Mix, a wood-handled pizza cutter, an illustrated pizza tea towel, and a sweet little recipe and information booklet that tells you all you need to know. Not bad, right? One commenter will be chosen at random and must live in the US. Contest ends on Tuesday, January 28 at 8pm ET. Good luck!

Toppings: tomatoes, red onions, peppers, mushrooms, black olives, basil, artichokes and turkey pepperoni.

 I am totally feeling the turkey pepperoni.

Update: The winner is Anne (#386). Thank you to everyone who participated!

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