Tortilla Soup: Delicious & Deconstructable

May 30th, 2012 · 13 Comments · Deconstructing Dinner, Dinner, Favorites


I can tell from newsletter subscriptions and my email inbox (please don’t ever stop writing me) that there are a lot of new faces stopping by DALS to check out what we’ve been doing here for the past two and a half years. So longtime loyal readers, please forgive me while I indulge the urge to do a little summary for our first-time visitors. First-time visitors: Welcome! Your pop quiz on skillet meals will not be administered until next week, but today I’d like to present to you the most fundamental of DALS Strategies for Family Dinners. It’s known around these parts as The Principle of Deconstruction and — are you paying attention, because it’s complicated – it goes like this:  If you are tired of being a short-order cook for your daughter who hates chicken but likes avocado and your son who hates avocado but likes chicken, and your toddler who only eats olives and cheese and caviar, you do not have to make three separate dinners. The key is to pick one meal that can be broken down into its individual ingredients (aka deconstructed) and reassembled the way your diners like it. That way, even though everyone is eating something different, you have only made one meal and, more important, you do not have the urge to politely excuse yourself then scream at the top of your lungs into the clothes dryer. I’ve gone on and on about deconstructing, I know, and there is a huge section in my book devoted to recipes that are conducive to this strategy, but lately I’ve been applying the Theory of Deconstruction to soups with much success. Look how I turned my 15-minute Tortilla Soup into for my soup-hating 8-year-old?

Nice right? The broth becomes a dip, and all the ingredients that she prefers…you know, dry…get placed on her plate before any offensive simmering begins. Tortilla Soup is made with shredded chicken, avocado, and hominy among other things and is insanely easy to put together.

Tortilla Soup

2 chicken boneless breasts (about 3/4 pound) rinsed and patted dry (or, you can use a storebought rotisserie chicken like I did above)
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced
salt and pepper
4 cups chicken broth
1 dried chile pepper
1 15-ounce can hominy (found in international sections of supermarkets; look for Goya)
juice from 1 lime
various toppings: tortilla chips, avocado chunks, shredded cheddar cheese

Brown the chicken in a medium saucepan, about 2 minutes on each side. (It does not have to be cooked through. If using rotisserie chicken, shred it and continue to next step.) To the same pan, add oil and saute the onion, garlic, jalapeno pepper, and salt and pepper over medium heat for about 3 minutes.

Add the broth, chile pepper, and hominy and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot and shred using two forks. Add the shreds back to the pot and simmer for another 5 minutes.

If your kids will only eat the components of this soup and not the soup, lay out the components (chicken, cheese, avocado, etc) on a plate the way they’d find it least offensive. Then ladle the soup servings into bowls, you know, the way it was meant to be served, squeeze lime into each bowl and add the toppings.

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The Importance of Routine

February 1st, 2012 · 24 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

I was having drinks with a few local friends last year when one of them, the mother of a newborn (her first), leaned across the martinis and whispered to me “How come everyone says it goes so fast? I just find it to be the EXACT opposite.” Her face was awash in guilt as soon as she sent these words out there, and quickly hedged. “Oh my God! Is that a horrible thing to think? It’s not like I feel that way all the time.” I was shocked by the statement too — not because she was confessing to what every parent thinks at one point or another, especially during the particular points when the baby is not sleeping — but because she was asking me for advice. How was I suddenly the veteran with a third and fourth grader who had advice to dispense on parenting? What the…? Damn, that went fast!

I told her what I believe to be 100% true: Everything changes when the baby, and therefore the baby’s parents are sleeping. Until then, you can’t be expected to remember where you put your car keys, let alone think straight about the great cosmic meaning of children and happiness. Then I told her my theory about sleeping which I also believe to be 100% true, but might have a harder time backing up with, you know, JAMA studies: Every parent has to deal with one of three sleep handicaps:

  • Handicap 1: The baby/toddler will torture you for hours at bedtime before finally shutting his or her eyes.
  • Handicap 2: The baby/toddler wakes up in the middle of the night for long stretches, during which time you feel like the loneliest person on earth.
  • Handicap 3: The baby/toddler rises before the sun and you are forced to function before you’ve had a cup of coffee.

Each handicap carries its own particular set of tortures, but in my experience, it seems rare that a parent has to deal with two or three at once. (I can already hear the emails of dissent pinging in my inbox.) As we’ve mentioned several million times on this blog, our sleep handicap was always the morning. No matter what we did, for the longest time, we could not figure out a way to get Abby to sleep past 5:30. (How I dreamed of the sevens!) But then we’d go to a friend’s house for dinner and we’d all be eating dessert at 10:00 while their 3-year-old would dart in and of the bedroom every 15 minutes, burying his sleepy bedhead in mom’s lap, until finally his parents, through gritted teeth, would just give up and invite him to join us for a piece of pie.

Our first pediatrician told me that kids crave routines. I like to think this is a fact that one might even find in JAMA. I also like to think that we were so Draconian about our evening routine early on that this is what made it impossible for our daughters to suffer from handicap number 1. Even though we weren’t necessarily eating dinner with them when they were that little, we were always sitting with them. There was always some form of after-dinner event (as full-time working parents, this was the half hour when we attempted to cram in all the “quality time” we felt we missed during the day), then bath, bedtime story, and finally, lights out. On the weekends, we’d let them “watch a movie” (a 10-minute Pixar short; today it’s more like The Danish Poet*, above) because what’s the point of having a routine if you can’t break it every now and then?

As for how to solve handicaps 2 and 3? What do you think I’m some sort of veteran? How should I know?

*Which contains the immortal line: “Kaspar became living proof that some poets are better off happy than sad.”

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September 9th, 2011 · 53 Comments · Dinner, Rituals, Rules

In my next life, I want to be Brooke Reynolds, creator not just of the inspired family blog inchmark, but of the kind of life where kids have hand-sewed mongrammed ballet and book bags; where families have color-coordinated reunions (and seem to genuinely like each other); and where there is no such thing as a detail that is too small to be made special. Brooke, a former designer at Martha Stewart Living, is a big believer in eating dinner with her brood (her husband and three kids) and here she guest-posts about a few rules laid down for the family table. And yes, she is responsible for the beautiful artwork as well. See what I mean about simple made special? –Jenny

We love family dinner at our house, I’ve got three children ages 1 to 7 and that moment when we all sit down together to eat a good meal…it really is my favorite moment of the day. I’ve been loving all the recipes and great tips I’ve learned from DALS, and I’m happy to share our Rules of Dinner — some ideas that have helped my family enjoy our dinners together.  (more…)

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If You Cook it, They Will Come

March 25th, 2011 · 24 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Kitchenlightenment, Pasta, Rituals

I’d like to interrupt the relentless roll-out of pizzas and stews for an important — maybe even obvious — message. A few nights ago I was reading yet another article regurgitating what we probably all know by now about family dinner. This just in: All kinds of great things will happen if you just sit down with your kids to eat dinner. They will bring home straight As, they will be less likely to suffer from depression or eating disorders. They will beg for second helpings of spinach. And, right on cue, the article ended with this line (I’m paraphrasing): “Don’t worry about making a homemade dinner. Have a bowl of healthy whole grain cereal if you have to. It’s not the food that’s important, it’s being together.”

Let me first just say that I of course totally agree with most of this statement. The being-together part, after all, is the whole reason I launched this site. DALS is as much a response to all of us wanting to connect more with our children as it is about those succulent, beautiful eight-minute lamb chops.  But if that is all it is about, then there would only be as many posts here as there are brands of nutritious cereal. (Or Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas!) And also, I’m pretty sure we would’ve stopped caring about dinner (cooking it and writing about it) a while ago since a bowl of cereal for dinner is kind of fun if it’s Cereal for Dinner Night. But after too many Cereal For Dinner Nights, it’s just…cereal.

The goal (at least in my house) is to make dinner a ritual, and putting together something that you want to eat — that you are excited to eat — is going to do more for establishing that ritual than just about anything else. If you cook good food, it will build on itself. Your family will look forward to it. You will look forward to it. You will get addicted to eating well and watching your family eat well. (Is it me or do I sound exactly like Amy Chua justifying the self-esteem cycle that results from making your children practice their instruments for three hours a day? You force them to practice, they get better. The better they get the more they want to practice…) Is it essential that you braise an Osso Bucco on a Tuesday night? Of course not! There are all kinds of quick easy recipes on this site that qualify as special. But my point is, I don’t want to dismiss the role of caring about what you cook in this whole equation. The more you care, the more you’ll cook, and the more you cook, the more firmly the family dinner ritual will take hold. It’s probably going to be a long time before my kids recognize in a conscious way that eating a meal with someone who loves them satisfies some deep psychological need. But for now I’m pretty sure they’re psyched to show up just for the noodles.  And I don’t have any problem with that.

Thai Chicken with Noodles from Martha Stewart: Killer. Illustration up top is by M. Hafner, from the March 1960 issue of Good Housekeeping.

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My Real Food Movement

October 8th, 2010 · 17 Comments · Kitchenlightenment

I think it’s so awesome when readers come up to me and say “I love your blog. You sound like you have the greatest life.” This conclusion is based on the fact that I regularly…eat porcupine meatballs? That’s a joke, but it’s also kind of serious.

I need to back up for a second. My first job out of college was at a financial consulting firm. The people in my office were very nice (especially my friend Han who called me over to his Sun computer one morning to show me this cool new thing called “The Net”) but I had no idea what I was doing and kept my phone on the “direct-to-voicemail” function all day because I was too nervous to talk to clients. It is a miracle I lasted 14 months there — I hated it. But since I was raised in a certain way (aka TriState Ashkenazi) I was programmed to think of these kinds of jobs (law, medicine, business) as the real jobs. And when you are in a real job, you aren’t necessarily happy all the time. “That’s why it’s called a job,” said one jerky associate (Dartmouth ’92) when I made the mistake of saying that I wasn’t 100% fulfilled compiling Strategic Action Reports for Lazard Freres. (At least I think that’s what I was doing.) I will always remember that conversation, as well as the “informational interview” I had later that year with the mother of a friend of mine who was like the Don Draper of the 80′s. She asked me what made me happy. A lot of things made me happy, but I had just put together a recipe book for my best friend for her birthday (crafted from stolen office supplies!) so I answered “Food.” Ha ha ha. (more…)

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Sorry, I Have to Catch My Train

July 30th, 2010 · 13 Comments · Rituals

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said this in the past eight years. The words probably give my coworkers the chills (or a clinical case of the eye-rolls) because unless the story I was working on was going to the printer or the magazine I was working for was breaking a big story, like, for instance, how to clean a cutting board (God I love Real Simple) I was on my beloved 5:39 train (or, latest, my 5:59) that rolled me into my suburban station at exactly 6:05 every single night. Which meant that I was weaving up the hilly streets of my neighborhood by 6:09, walking in the front door at 6:15 (with two searching little faces looking out the brightly lit front window unable to see me approaching in the dark) and in my kitchen prepping dinner 15 minutes later.

I think people at work came to know two Jennys: the relatively harmless Jenny who was around most of the day, and the post-4:30 Jenny, who made militaristic, monosyllabic decisions, who barely looked up from her work to even smile if someone decided to come and gossip (Come on! You couldn’t have told me about Katie in Legal at 3:00?), and the one who would start sweating if a meeting was called at any point between 4:30 and 5:21, the exact minute when she’d begin her sprint to Grand Central Station. (Only sometimes looking back to see coworkers, and once even a boss, glancing at their watches as she’d fly down whatever taupe-colored hall she called her office.) (more…)

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Family Dinner Pep Talk, #428

July 9th, 2010 · 6 Comments · Kitchenlightenment, Rituals, Uncategorized, Vegetarian

I’ve been a runner for over two decades now. That doesn’t mean I’ve been a runner consistently for two decades. Or that I’ve run marathons or get up early to run the Central Park loop every morning like my best friend and mother of three (including twins) has done for most of her adult life. Since I was a teenager, I have gone in and out of intense phases of jogging addiction — when I was 16, I remember deciding I would run four miles every day for the entire month of August. (Perhaps because my Central Park Loop friend had done it for the entire month of July.) The problem with that kind of regimen, of course, is that it’s not psychologically sustainable. Even for my younger psychologically-robust self. I can’t remember exactly, but it’s likely I didn’t lace up my Nikes for six months after reaching that July goal.

The same feast-or-famine scenario played out year after year until 1994 when my then-boyfriend, now-husband told me that he was going to come up with a realistic exercise plan for himself — to run every other day. Trying to do it every day was just setting himself up for failure. I remember the exact corner of Brooklyn where we were standing when he said this — Carroll and Smith Streets — probably because it was so unlike the pep talks I was reading in Mademoiselle (1994, remember?) about sticking with a fitness plan (“Grab a running buddy!” “Sleep in your sports bra so you’re ready to go first thing in the morning!”) that didn’t seem to address the bigger problem: How am I going to keep this up for the rest of my life? Andy’s strategy was the first to feel like real advice. It required no cockamamie scheming. No fancy head games or running partners or special gear. Like most of the best strategies, it was simple. And in the 15 years since — with the exception of two pregnancies — I’ve managed to (mostly) stick with the plan.

You know where I’m going, right? Take the pressure off. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Think about the long-term. No fancy gear or trickery. Sounds a lot like…hey, how about that?…Family Dinner. Simplify the routine and simplify the psychology behind the routine. It’s summer. With camp and later bedtimes and Tivo’d World Cup semis that demand your entire family’s presence in the TV room instead of the dinner table, allow yourself some nights off from the grind. Allow yourself to order in a pizza tonight if it means later in the week you’ll be excited to spin those vegetables into gold. Allow yourself a night where your son’s vegetable serving is the oregano on the Trader Joe’s frozen pizza. Chances are you’ll be more likely to stay in the race and go the distance.

Related pep talks: How to Have Family Dinner, Ingalls-Style Family Dinner

BTW: Photo courtesy of DALS reader Cory J. of Brooklyn. The family dinner they are eating here is Curried chickpeas with spinach, a vegetarian adaptation of a DALS favorite. Thanks, Cory. Hope the kids enjoyed it!

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Family Dinner: Book It!

April 23rd, 2010 · 1 Comment · Dinner, Kitchenlightenment, Rituals

Short of actually feeding you and your family a meal at my kitchen table, I can’t imagine there is anything more satisfying than hearing about the successes you’ve all had using recipes and advice from DALS. Last night my neighbor Bonnie left a message for me — there was unmistakable triumph in her voice as she described the dredging stations she had set up for Homemade Chicken Fingers that she planned on serving her kids. (“No chicken nuggets for us tonight!”) At an event honoring my mother-in-law in Virginia last week, I sat next to the nicest woman named Courtney who told me her husband was at home making Buttermilk Oven-Fried Chicken for her daughters. Kiera, a friend from high school who I haven’t seen or talked to in two decades let me know via facebook that Todd’s Minty Peas were a huge hit at her house. (Btw, based on the traffic report from that post, I’m thinking the keywords “minty peas” might be more poplular than “tiger woods affair.” Thanks Todd!!!)

The other thing I’m hearing a lot these days is this: Do you actually, truly, for real sit down with your family every night for dinner?

The answer is yes — for the most part. But… Do I sit down to a fresh-from-the-farmer’s market meal every night? No. Do my kids eat the same things that we do every night? No. Are both you and Andy home from work in time for dinner every night? No.

You may remember my “two out of three” rule for family dinner. It’s incredibly rare for everything to work out perfectly — and the way around this, I’ve found, is to: 1) lower your standards and 2) plow ahead anyway. Sometimes, it even means deciding on the night a few days ahead of time and then actually writing it in the calendar (or the chalkboard in my case) to give it as much weight as the soccer practice or the 6:00 (more…)

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Spread the Word, Nicely

March 19th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Dinner

You know what drives me crazy? The way the conversation about Family Dinner can insidiously slip in the Family Values direction. The scaremongery tone of all those studies telling parents that our kids are headed down paths of drugs and destruction if we don’t eat together, does nothing to help the cause. (And sounds remarkably similar to Rick Santorum telling me I’m a bad person if I have a gay uncle.) It’s why I made this bumper sticker, and why, with springtime arriving this weekend, I feel the need to remind you: Every season, every week, every night is a new season/week/night to start over. Next week, check in with DALS for a slew of Family Dinner Starter Kits meals (including sloppy joes, fish for kids, and a genius slap-it-together dinner you could probably make right this second with your empty Friday Fridge.) And read up on some strategies that will hopefully motivate you — not make you feel bad about yourself.

But, you know what — it’s Friday, so don’t make anything tonight. Have a glass of wine instead and order in. That’s what we’ll be doing.

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