How to Blog: My Rules

January 24th, 2013 · 104 Comments · Favorites, Uncategorized

I hear from a lot of you that what you like the most about our site is that you never know what you’re going to find from one post to the next. I love getting this note — because it confirms that a) you guys are paying attention, and b) because it allows me to write inside-baseball posts like this one and know that you will still come back tomorrow in search of the perfect tandoori burger. Correct?

Today I want to answer a question I’ve been asked a lot: How do you write this blog?  Which I’m also going to interpret as How do you write and How did you start? It’s an involved question, one I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified to answer yet, and one that, you’ll see, sends me in several different directions below. (To give you an idea, the working title of this post for the past few months had been “Everything I Learned About Blogging I Learned in Magazines” before I realized I had so much more to say.) The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing when, three years ago, GoDaddy told me that Yes! The URL dinneralovestory.com is available! But I’ve figured a few things out along the way and thought it might help those of you thinking of starting your own blog. (As for starting a career in food writing, you cannot get any better than this post by Amanda Hesser.) What I wrote below should not be mistaken for The Definitive Rules of Blogging 101. There are about eight million people out there generating eight million hits a day and maybe even making money from it — and if that’s what you are after, you should skip this post and seek their advice. I’ve accepted now that this site will most likely never be the source of a down payment on that house in Block Island overlooking Mohegan Bluffs. (Why God, Why?) But for a satisfying job that has led to unexpected places, these are the rules I’ve lived by.

Lesson 1: Shorter Isn’t Necessarily Better. Better is Better

My crash-course in blogging lasted about two weeks. I had just lost my job at Cookie, the parenting magazine where I was editing features, and a website called to see if I could help out launching a few blogs on their lifestyle vertical. I was feeling a little lost — not to mention there was not one more corner of the house to organize, which seemed to be my way of dealing with my sudden daily aimlessness — so I said yes and pretty soon was on the 8:43 commuter train again, headed to a downtown office where the staffers seemed to check every box for website start-up. (Skull caps: Check; Bright Eyes station playing on Pandora: Check; Enrollment in artisanal, fetish-y food project: Check.) Everything happens faster online (first lesson) so my supervisor did not waste anytime laying down a few crucial rules about blogging to his seemingly prehistoric new freelancer. Don’t write in long paragraphs. Don’t write long at all. Online readers like quick hits. They like lists and bullet points whenever possible! Say things that will start a conversation in the comment field. (Or better yet, incite a riot in the comment field!) Tweet everything! Post everything on facebook! And my favorite, which I think about every single day: Remember: Producing content is 10% of the job; Promoting it is 90%. Ay yi yi.

For week one I just followed orders and repeated to myself “Don’t be old.” But by week two, I was done. Here’s the thing. My supervisor was right about every single thing above. If you want more visitors  (and any blogger who tells you he or she doesn’t is lying) you can get there more readily by following all of his rules. But you could also assume a certain amount of intelligence from your reader and write the way you want to write, the way most readers want you to write, that is, honestly. The masses might not come right away, but if you take time to write something that is pure and resonant and comes with no behind-the-scenes agenda, people will respond. And you will respond to their response. I remember early on in my DALS life when my ambitions were a little grander, I called my VC friend Roger in Palo Alto for a counseling session on building the “business.” He gave me the best piece of advice — or at least the best piece of advice that I felt most comfortable with. Don’t think about anything but the content for the first year. You need to earn the trust of readers and you need to distinguish yourself. The only way to do that is by paying close attention to what you are producing every day. Roger flip-flopped the formula for me and set me back on the path I knew so well from magazines, and that had never really led me wrong before: 90% of your time should be spent thinking about content, fresh new ideas, and presenting those ideas from a fresh perspective. Your perspective. Everything else? 10%.

Lesson 2: Define Your Mission

One of my earliest magazine jobs was at a major women’s lifestyle title. The editor at the time was a veteran magazine editor named Carrie — she had been in the industry for 25 years, wore all black along with trademark black-framed editor glasses. I didn’t know a whole lot, but I knew enough to know that I should write down every single thing she said and commit it to memory. At our Tuesday line-up meetings, she’d hold up some new book that we should be paying attention to (I one-clicked Botany of Desire as soon as she held it up saying less as a suggestion than an absolute command, “Pay attention to this guy. His name is Michael Pollan”); or of a magazine that was doing something new and exciting visually (Everyday Food! RIP! ); or simply what her latest fashion philosophy was. (“Gap Clothes, Prada Accessories!“) On the Tuesday meeting after September 11th, she told us that she had thought long and hard about our magazine and its place in the new world and decided there was going to be a revamped mission. “We are not a magazine people come to for the news” she told us. “We are a magazine that tells people how to handle the news.”  She went on to say that from that point forward the mission of the magazine could be pared down to three simple words: Comfort, Community, and Control. They became known as the three C’s, and if we had an idea we wanted to assign for the magazine, it had better fit into that description. Boy did we roll our eyes at the Three C’s! But boy did they ever work. Having a mission sharpened our focus. It helped us define who we were and why people came to us. When I moved on to my next job and oversaw a large section of the magazine, the first thing I tortured my team with was defining its mission. I also spent about six months writing the mission for this blog. I knew it would be as important for me to lay a blueprint as it would be for anyone who happened to drop by to see what the heck I was up to. This page is one of the most visited of the site. Which is another way of saying This is where I reel them in.

Lesson 3: No Harm in Making Things Pretty
If you spend a little money on a good designer, you will be ahead of 99% of the websites out there. It can take a lifetime to articulate to a designer the look you are after (I was lucky to earn my Masters in this at Conde Nast) but it helps to “pull scrap” as Carrie used to say. Bookmark anything online that you respond to — not just blogs, but websites, textures, colors. Create an inspiration board on Pinterest to stay organized. Or do it the old fashioned way, cut layouts out of magazines and pin it on an actual physical bulletin board. Fonts are incredibly important. Colors are incredibly important. I knew I didn’t have have a lot of time with online readers so I knew the visual first impression would be crucial. When I was working with my very gifted designer, Ava, I sent her photos of baby birds with their mouths wide open. (Because my dad used to say that his three kids asking to be fed and clothed and, you know, parented, conjured up this image.) (more…)

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Last-Minute Gift Guide

December 17th, 2012 · 13 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

I don’t know about you, but this is the time when I suddenly look at the calendar, and then at the list of things I’ve bought for family and friends so far, and then at the list of things I still have to buy, and think, “Rut-roh.” How’s it all gonna get done? And how did I let this happen? In an effort to help make things a little easier, I thought I’d offer up a few suggestions for last-minute gifts here. Satisfaction guaranteed! – Andy

For the teacher who is dedicating him/herself, day in and day out, to the betterment of your child: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the patient cello teacher who — in just three months — has already made your life, and your ear drums, so much happier: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the soccer coach who not only volunteers her time three times a week to guru your kid, but also — true miracle — teaches her what off-sides means: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the mother-in-law who you love dearly but who could also use a little help in the expansion of repertoire department: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the 23-year-old niece, who was weaned on The Food Network and can tell her rutabaga from her kohlrabi: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the 23-year-old nephew, who still claims to hate tomatoes, prompting you to remind him — a 23 year old, grown-ass man — that pizza sauce CONTAINS TOMATOES: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the newlyweds, who want to learn how to make breaded pork chops together: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the lover of long walks, double rainbows, and three-alarm chili: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the guy who doesn’t know what else to get his girlfriend: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the wife, who is an amazing, loving mother and who works full-time and has recently begun talking about starting her own food blog: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the husband, who’s man enough to own a book called Dinner: A Love Story and who would appreciate knowing how to make a proper Manhattan: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the clueless bachelor guy, who should know better by now: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the new mom, who will relate to the chapter on new motherhood and then feel empowered and then just go off and make the Lazy Bolognese, only to be empowered further: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the desperate parents of picky eaters, who are secretly googling “can you survive on pasta alone” after the kids go to bed: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the holiday party host, who would appreciate how much cooler a present this book is when compared to another bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz in a velvet bag: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the dog lovers, who whose faces will melt upon seeing the picture on page 51: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the person who has twenty bucks positively burning a hole in her pocket: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the Powerball winner who is looking to fill some shelf space in the new, 53-room mansion she just bought: 20 copies of Dinner: A Love Story.

For the committed Buddhist who, while not needing much in the way of material possessions, could still use a copy of this book, for real: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the new homeowner who’s definitely not a Buddhist and is looking for an excuse to fire up her huge, practically virgin, seventeen burner Viking: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the lover of fine food photography: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the cookbook collector: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the principled supporter of the book industry, who holds a special place in our hearts: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the outdoorsman: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the indoorsman: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the ombudsman: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the person who has resolved to stop stuffing face with jalapeno poppers when drunk: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the amateur sleuth: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the tool-and-die man, whatever that is: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the person who, as our 9-year-old just said, “draws pictures of turtles eating tomatoes”: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the person who reads the following sentence — “This book is for anyone interested in learning how to execute a meal to be shared with someone they love and discovering how so many good, happy things can trickle down from doing so” — and thinks, Dang, dogg, that hits me right where I live: Dinner: A Love Story.

For the thoughtful gift-giver who wants to buy a book and then have the author — like, I don’t know, Jenny Rosenstrach — sign a bookplate for said book and then give it to a good friend or relative and say, “Look, I got you a signed book for Christmas!”: Dinner: A Love Story. (Email her TODAY jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com with subject line “Bookplate Request”; after 12/20, she can’t guarantee they’ll be sent in time for Christmas.)

For our slightly less ridiculous Gift Guide, click here.


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Dinner: A Love Story Events (First Stop: L.A.)

October 23rd, 2012 · 18 Comments · Dinner: A Love Story, the Book

 

OK so I am going rogue with this book of mine. I’m determined to get it in the hands of as many new cooks, new parents, new home-owners, newly on-their-own types as possible as we amp up for the holidays. When I asked you guys (via my newsletter) a few weeks ago for help arranging appearances I got some of the nicest invitations, and I wanted to be sure to update you on where I’ll be signing, reading, selling, chatting in the next few months.

First stop this week in Los Angeles!

Friday, October 26
Thyme Cafe & Market
Santa Monica, CA
“Ten Recipes, Ten Strategies: A Coffee Talk” @10AM

Friday, October 26
Chevalier’s Books
Los Angeles, CA @3PM (signing only)

Saturday, November 3
Hastings Farmer’s Market
Hastings-on-Hudson, NY @10AM

Thursday, December 6
Stamford Jewish Community Center
Stamford, CT @7:30 (online registration requested)

Sunday, December 9
Barnes & Noble City Center
White Plains, NY @4PM

Thursday, December 13
6:30 reception, 7:00 program.
Katonah Museum of Art
Katonah, NY

If you have an event in your neighborhood that might benefit from a dinner talk, please feel free to get in touch. I’ll bet we could figure out a way to make it work. (See: Rogue) Jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com.

Left, me preparing for my reading in Boston; Right, Abby’s introductory remarks at the Darien Public Library. My favorite part of the speech is how she started writing “happy” then edited herself and changed it to “thrilled.”

 

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Chicken Parm Meatballs

October 10th, 2012 · 85 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Favorites

Unless I’m out to dinner, or unless there’s a birthday to celebrate, there’s not much room in my life right now for high-concept food. I love the idea of mashed potato ghosts for Halloween, and the artisanal Mallomars that came with the check at last weekend’s anniversary dinner was definitely good for a giggle. Even if it hadn’t been recorded in my dinner diary, the “ice cream cone” starter I had at the French Laundry in 1998 — a masterfully tiny homemade wafer cone filled with creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare “sprinkles” — will stay with me for a long time. But you guys know us by now. You know that, for the most part, our default mode is simple, un-fussy meals that are fresh, can be put together fast, and don’t require any winking when served. (Any one getting flashbacks here of Charles Grodin and his “honest” dinner in The Heartbreak Kid?) But every now and then, an idea presents itself that I’d be crazy not to try. Last week Phoebe reminded me that I had been promising meatballs on the family dinner table and had somehow failed to deliver. At the same time, in the same breath, Abby reminded me that I had been promising Chicken Parm (page 148 in my book) on the family dinner table and had somehow failed to deliver. In an attempt to remedy my staggeringly deprived children as well as cut off any sibling tussling at the pass, I decided to please them both with a single high-concept, low-maintenance meatball meal. “It’s like Chicken Parm married Meatballs and had a baby,” I told them, before wondering why on earth I would ever open up such a weird concept with an 8- and 10-year-old. Well, either way, King Solomon would’ve been proud.

Chicken Parm Meatballs

This makes 12 large-ish meatballs. My best self would’ve let the meatballs freeze at this point you see above (after initial 15-minute bake) then frozen them for future Tumultuous Tuesday use, on which day, my best self would’ve transferred the frozen meatballs to the fridge in the morning, then heated them up in a 350°F oven for 15 minutes (before proceeding with broiling) upon her return later that night. While she was at it, my best self would’ve also ordered all the Halloween costumes and thrown away the sad, dried-out mums in the backyard that have been there since last fall and that perennially remind her of her worst self.

1 1/4 pounds ground chicken
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/2 cup Pecorino (or Parm)
salt to taste
pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 egg, whisked
zest of half a lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 14-ounce can storebought pizza sauce (such as Don Pepino’s)
about 4 ounces fresh mozzarella (a dozen thin slices; to pile on the cheese would be to cancel out the fact that you were virtuous enough to replace fatty beef with lean chicken)

Preheat oven to 400°F, setting rack to upper third part of oven. In a large bowl, using your hands, gently mix together first 11 ingredients. Shape into lacrosse-ball size balls (that would be somewhere between golf and tennis) and place a few inches from each other on a foil-lined baking sheet. In a small bowl, mix one spoonful of your pizza sauce with olive oil. Brush this mixture on top of each meatball. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove meatballs from oven, spoon some sauce on top of each meatball, and cover each with a slice of cheese. Broil another 3 to 5 minutes until cheese is bubbly and golden.  Heat remaining sauce in a small saucepan. Serve meatballs with a dollop of sauce and a raw Tuscan kale salad that has been shredded and tossed with shallots, Pecornio, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Meanwhile, how much do I love this review of Dinner: A Love Story from Food52? My favorite quote: “Rosenstrach’s book and blog are something very rare in the genre of family dinner: they inspire neither homicidal nor suicidal impulses.”

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So What is Your Book About Exactly?

November 4th, 2011 · 8 Comments · Dinner: A Love Story, the Book

…I get this question all the time. Followed by: Will there be new recipes or is it only the recipes already on the blog? Does it have anything to do with the dinner diary you’ve kept since 1998? Is it a book about you and Andy? Will it provide any more variations on that yogurt-marinated grilled chicken I love so much? Is it also for people who don’t have kids? Loyal readers who remember the book announcement back in January sometimes ask “Is it a cookbook devoted entirely to meatballs?”

For the most part, the answers to all these questions (except the meatball one) is yes. I will get into more detail as I approach the June publication date (believe me, I will!), but for now I wanted to share the above photo with you which might help clarify things a bit.  What you’re looking at is an excerpt of the “Style Sheet” that the copyeditor sent along with my marked-up manuscript. A Style Sheet shows how certain words that frequently come up in the book need to be written — whether they should be capitalized, written in contractions, what the preferred spellings are, etc. The words are listed alphabetically so it’s easy to refer back to them.

Looking at the “S” section the other day I had the realization that those six words, when taken together, might capture the spirit of the book better than any 500-word post. For those of you with newborns wondering if the book is for you, “Snap ‘N Go” should answer that. For those of you with toddlers whose idea of dinner is one chicken nugget, two potatoes, and nothing green, see: “survival mode.” For those of you who stay up at night trying to solve your own personal work-life-balance equation, you will find plenty of “soul-searching” And for those of you just interested in what quick side to throw on the family dinner plate after a long day of work “Swiss Chard” should do the trick. As for “Spoonula,” I’ll keep that one to myself, but let me just say that it has become a revolutionary tool in the scrambled-egg department. If only my kids ate eggs. (See D: “downward spiral.”)

Have a great weekend.

P.S. Next week: The Cover! I couldn’t be more excited to unveil it and hear what you guys think.

P.P.S Next month: A bunch of awesome giveaways. Remember, to be eligible, you need to subscribe to our newsletter.

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My First Book Party

September 19th, 2011 · 10 Comments · Dinner, Dinner: A Love Story, the Book

On Friday night at 6:00, we decided to invite two families (total: six grown-ups, six kids) to our house for an impromptu dinner party. Since we only had a little time to prepare, the menu was a no-brainer for us. This is what we served: Meatball sandwiches, grilled steak, salmon salad, chicken pot pie, chicken soup, pasta with a ragu, braised pork loin with cabbage, a 10-minute baked chicken number, homemade rosemary focaccia, some corn and tomatoes, buttered haricot verts, and for dessert, a log of chocolate cookie dough, cut into slices right on the dining room table and served without even being baked.

What?

I’m serious! That was the menu. And it was impromptu. And we didn’t know we were having the party until 6:00, which was right about the time I turned to Andy and said, “I don’t think I am going to eat again until 2012.”

Last week, I’m proud to say, was the photo shoot for the DALS Book. Among other things, this meant having 20 pounds of meat in my basement refrigerator, cooking about 35 dinners in four days (I wish I took a picture of Andy grilling steak at 8:00 AM while drinking his morning coffee), returning from a grocery shop with a receipt that was almost as tall as Abby (I know I don’t have giants for kids, but still), and every night looking at the saran-wrapped results of what we shot and deciding who should partake in the feasting.

There was a small team of people helping out — you’ll officially meet them later — but the shoot took place in my house in between soccer drop-offs and cello rentals and it rocked. I’ve been on many food shoots in my magazine career, but I never get tired of hearing myself say things like “Do you think the green bean is at the wrong angle?” or “Do we need more pork grease on the platter?” But by Friday, I think we were all ready to swear off food for the year — even though we had a veritable hotel buffet in our refrigerator waiting to be devoured. And lucky for us, we have friends who were up to the task. (more…)

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Dinner: A Love Story, The Book!

January 21st, 2011 · 48 Comments · Dinner, Dinner: A Love Story, the Book

But before we get to that news, a little wind-up.

About five or six years ago, when Andy and I were still in the toddler trenches — hovering, floor-timing, being awake a full four hours before “starting” our workdays in the office — I asked my coworker Tom, a father of two middle-school aged kids, if I was going to be this tired for the rest of my life. No, he told me. It all turns around at about age 6, when they can make their own breakfast. When you don’t have to wake up with them to pour the juice and toast their bagels. When they can scroll through the DVR offerings and select Sponge Bob for themselves. This was an unimaginable concept to me and one I wasn’t entirely sure was in the cards for us. I had the same thought that I had a few years earlier, when Phoebe hadn’t hit her “pincer grasp” milestone: Am I going to be the one parent in the history of child-rearing that doesn’t figure all this stuff out? (It’s a fine line between exhaustion and paranoia.)

Not long after this conversation I hit a more memorable milestone than the one Tom described. It was one of my Fridays off and I was playing with the girls (who were just about 3 and 4) in Abby’s room. The two of them had locked into a pretend game with their new pirate ship and I had a radical thought: What if I left the room, went (more…)

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Letter of Agreement

September 7th, 2010 · 51 Comments · Domestic Affairs, Favorites, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Posts by Andy, Rituals

What to do when packing the dreaded school lunch threatens to pull apart your marriage? Draw up a contract.

Related: The Blame Game

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Back Pocket Quiche

August 17th, 2010 · 10 Comments · Dinner, Vegetarian

When my childhood best friend Jeni got married ten years ago, my mom and I threw her a shower in our house. I still remember the menu. Probably because I wrote it down in my Dinner Diary but also because it was so perfect if I do say so myself! There was a baked goods and pastry spread, a smoked salmon and bagels station, and my mom and I each baked a quiche — one vegetarian and one classic ham and gruyere. I hadn’t ever made one before and couldn’t believe how simple it was (totally back-pocket-worthy). The only problem I had was with the frozen pie crust I bought. It came in one of those ugly aluminum pie plates so I attempted to transfer it to a prettier, more shower-appropriate one…and ended up cracking the dough. So I smushed the crust into a ball, spread it out again with a rolling pin, and placed it in my nice dish. Later, when Jeni’s mom (who also happens to be Rosa, one of my kitchen heroes) was deciding which quiche to eat, she pointed to mine and said “You know that one is going to be better because the crust is homemade.” I laughed a little uneasily — but because she was one of my kitchen heroes, and because I was secretly proud that my crust did indeed look all artisanal and rustic, I didn’t confess to my crime. And I’m embarrassed to admit that in the decade since, I have become a repeat offender.

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Tabula Rasa

July 21st, 2010 · 13 Comments · Dinner, Pork and Beef, Time for Dinner: The Cookbook

Let’s say you just went shopping at Trader Joe’s so your refrigerator is stocked with staples like pork and chicken and onions and olive oil as well as some fun little extras like prosciutto and Whole Wheat Naan. Let’s also say that on your way home from your weekend in the Berkshires, you picked up some fresh corn and tomatoes and blueberries at a roadside farm stand. So you’re set in the Fresh department, too. And then, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that you have spent the last decade working on the food team at two major magazines, write a daily food blog, and in fact have even co-written The Book on family dinner.

If all this was in fact the case, you probably don’t imagine that you would ever find yourself in the position I was in last night. Staring at my full fridge at 6:20 with not a single idea of what to feed my family. Zero. When I was working at Cookie, I used to regularly get 6:20 emails my friend (and co-author) Pilar who found herself in the same predicament. Tabula Rasa, she’d write. Complete Tabula Rasa.

Since Tabula Rasa strikes more often than one might think, I’ve trained my brain to default to one of three settings: The Omelet Setting, The Risotto Setting, and the Taco Setting. Any one of them would have made good use of the staples in the pantry as well as my roadside score. Last night I went with Pork Tacos.

Pork Tacos
Warning: This is not a throw-it-together tabula rasa meal like an omelet might be. It requires about 45 minutes of hands-on time. And if you like to pan-fry your tortillas (instead of heating in oven) it ends up being a three-pot meal. But, delicious, delicious. And worth the investment for us because both kids will generally eat some variation of it, which means we are rewarded by a nag-free meal.

In a small Dutch oven or a medium, straight-sided pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add a salted-and-peppered pork tenderloin (about 1 1/4 pounds; the standard size) and brown on all sides. (It does not have to cook through.) Once it’s browned, remove from heat and to the same pot, add 1/2 onion (chopped), 1 clove garlic (minced), a dash of red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cook until onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Add one 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 bay leaf, and a few hefty shakes of dried oregano. Stir to combine, then add pork tenderloin back to pot, nestling it in the liquid. Bring to a boil, then cover pot and simmer for about 30 minutes. (If you have to go pick up your spouse at the train because you forgot to tell him you took the car home from the station yourself, well, now is the time to do it.)

While pork simmers away, make a corn salad with cooked kernels, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, scallions, olive oil, a squeeze of lime. Warm 4-6 whole wheat tortillas (wrapped in foil) in a 350°F oven.

When pork has cooked, remove from pot and, using two forks, shred it into pieces as shown above. (There is no art to this; in fact the less artfully done, the better.) Add shreds back to the sauce, stir everything together, then assemble tacos as shown. Top with sour cream.

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