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Archive for the ‘Making Life Easier’ Category

Look what we found in our yard yesterday!

Three deer

Don’t water them; they proliferate.

We have an over-abundance of suburban deer in our neighborhood. They roam the yards, eating trees and plants. Yes, they are very picturesque. And I know and understand that we humans are trespassing on THEIR land, and not the other way around. But even knowing this, and even feeling guilty/sad for the deer and their lack of forest/meadow land, I find them irritating. They eat our trees down to the bark. They eat any vegetables I dare to plant. They poop all over our yard.

My husband has taken it upon himself to chase them away whenever they take up residence in our yard. He went out to this trio last night, waving his arms, and they COMPLETELY ignored him. He must have gotten within five feet of them and they didn’t care. So he turned the hose on them. They all stood up, but that was the extent of their botherment. And rather than shooing them away, he sort of ended up watering them instead.

***

We recently spent a few days at the house of some friends. We had a wonderful time. The kids all played splendidly together, with maybe one or two small sharing issues and nothing at all beyond that. The grown ups had a delightful time, chatting and catching up and generally ignoring the kids, who were completely occupied by each other.

Our friends cooked several meals for us, which was so lovely. They are excellent cooks and they put in the kind of attention to detail that makes you (me) kind of well up with love and appreciation. For instance, they made this delicious baked brie with a completely decadent topping of honey and nuts and raisins and sultanas. And my friend made these little heart cutouts in pastry dough and put them on top of the baked brie before she baked it. It was so sweet and so lovely. I wish we lived nearer to them.

Spending time with another family in their house, you get a good sense of how differently families can run. First of all, I love that little glimpse at other people’s lives, just on a voyeuristic level. I am fascinated by how Other People Do Things. Secondly, you can get some good ideas for how you can do things better/differently. For instance, they spend almost the entire weekend outside. Instead of using that time to run errands and loaf around the house doing laundry, they go to the petting zoo and then they go hiking and then they go to the beach and then they find a parade to watch and then they go to the farmer’s market. While that is, to me, Super Expert Level Activity, I really like the idea of doing it on maybe a Beginner’s Level. I can do errands during the week and then we can all go out and have fun over the weekend. (My husband and I were better about doing that when Carla was younger, because she needed physical activity or she was bouncing off the walls. She’s more mellow these days.)

But the other thing that’s interesting is seeing what kind of household rules another family has. And, while interesting, there’s also some potential for conflict, when you are trying to reinforce family rules that might be different from your friends’.

Can we stipulate that there are all sort of things that a particular family might find important or not important? And that every family is different, and values different things? And that just because I value one thing doesn’t mean that I am secretly judging you for not prioritizing that same thing?

In general, I feel that if you are a guest at someone’s house, you follow their rules. Like… if there’s a house rule that you take your shoes off at the door, you do that, even if you think it’s ridiculous. If there’s no eating food in the living room, you don’t eat food in the living room. Right?

And that’s all well and good… but what if the other family has a VOID where your own rules are?

Here’s an example. At our house, one of the family rules is that you stay at the table until everyone is finished. But when we were at our friends’ house this weekend, they let their kids sort of wander off whenever they felt like it. So… what am I, as a parent, supposed to do? Because we’re at someone else’s house, we operate under their family rules… even if the rules go directly against what we do in our own family?

We also have a rule that you don’t start eating until the whole family is sitting at the table. So when Carla grabbed a piece of bacon off the tray and started eating it while my friends were still cooking breakfast and while my husband and I were still setting the table, I scolded her. And she was outraged, because, she pointed out, my friends’ daughter had ALSO taken a piece of bacon from the tray! She was just following her friend’s lead! And my friends (the parents) just shrugged. Oh well, they said. They’re kids. They’re hungry. We shouldn’t have put a tempting tray of bacon on the table like that. (At that point, I felt like an asshole. Like I was one-step-removed chastising their kid, and also them, for not having the same rule.)

There was a LOT of this kind of thing, over the weekend. Where Carla would do a thing that I would normally not let her get away with. Climbing on the furniture, for instance. Or eating candy at breakfast time. Or not holding a grown up’s hand in the parking lot. But when I pointed out to her that she was breaking a rule, she would get all incredulous, because she was just doing what our friends’ kids were doing!

I don’t know what to DO in that kind of situation. Part of me wants to shrug and say something like, “When in Rome.” Or, “We are on vacation, so we can relax the rules a little.” But another part of me shrieks, “Consistency!” and then I get probably a little bit self-righteous, alongside my confusion. I’m not teaching Carla anything earth-shattering.  But these are things I want Carla to learn, and want her to do even when she’s at another family’s house. Even when other kids are doing the opposite. (Right? That’s why we teach our kids things! So that when they grow up or are away from us, they still behave in the way we deem best.) And I also want her to understand that she needs to be responsible for her own behavior, even if other kids are behaving differently. At some point, it starts feeling Big and Important and Critical. Like, if I don’t crack down now on her saying “Well, I’m going to eat candy because Pearl is eating candy!” that in ten years she’ll be saying, “Well, I’m going to try cocaine because Pearl is trying cocaine!” and “Well, Isla thinks it’s okay to send nude photos to her boyfriend, so I’m doing it too!” and “You weren’t there to tell me not to rob this bank, but Emmett was robbing it, so I did it too!” and then her life is ruined.

Maybe what needs to happen is a Pre-Visit Conversation, where I anticipate this kind of thing. And I sit Carla down and remind her that families are different, and have different rules and values, and that we mustn’t forget to abide by the rules that are important to our own family.

But even that feels… sticky. Because some rules are just naturally not as important as others. For instance, if the other family DOES wear shoes in the house, I am fine with Carla wearing shoes in their house. Even though we have a “no shoes in the house” policy. In that case, I’m fine with going with the other family’s way of doing things. Same with… watching TV at meal times. Or eating in the living room. Or whatever.

Why do those feel different to me than the “sitting at the table until everyone is done” policy? Hmm. I suppose there are many categories of rules, and some are important and immoveable while others are more flexible.

Let’s see. The “holding hands in the parking lot” thing is a safety issue, so that’s easy enough to categorize: Don’t put yourself or others in danger. Well, it’s easy for me to categorize, although it may be much more confusing to a five-year-old.

The “don’t eat until everyone is at the table” thing seems to me a matter of manners. So maybe that’s another category: make sure you still maintain your manners at someone else’s house. Say please and thank you, even if the other kids don’t. Pick up after yourself, even if the other kids don’t. Stay at the table until everyone is done, even if the other kids don’t (well, unless the parent says specifically that you can be dismissed). And it goes the other way, too — if the other family has manners-specific rules that you don’t have, you should adhere to them too. I had an elementary school friend whose family rule was that you eat every thing on your plate at meal times, which seems like a manners issue to me. And so in cases where “manners” are involved, you defer to the “good manners” option. I’m describing this in such a clunky way. I think what I mean is, it would be considered impolite to the other family, if you didn’t clear your plate. So in that case, you do the polite thing and clear your plate, even though there’s no “clear your plate” rule in your own family. (Man, that was the WORST rule for me. You may recall that I am super picky eater. It made me never want to eat at my friend’s house.) This is probably an Intermediate Level type of rule following, because it requires the ability to infer the other family’s reaction to following or not following the rules. I mean, if you go to someone’s house and they all say grace before dinner, but that’s not part of your own belief system… I don’t think you should have to say grace out of fear that the other family will find you rude. (You do have to be still and quiet and respectful during grace, like, not grabbing a handful of bacon while grace is being said.) But that’s something that you might not know/think about when you’re ONLY FIVE. I know, I am getting way ahead of myself on some of these things. And also this whole paragraph is confusing me even though it came from MY brain and I’M writing it so I’m going to move on.

Can I say how HARD it is to talk about this, without sounding/feeling judgmental? I know we made all sorts of stipulations at the beginning of this post, but maybe you, like I, have forgotten that. Or maybe you are, like I am, feeling a little uncomfortable about spelling out all these things that other people may or may not do. I am feeling a little panicky that you might be thinking, “Oh no! I never make my kids wait until everyone is done eating before they leave the table!” and worrying that that disqualifies you from Friend Consideration. No! No no no! I cannot express how much I DO NOT CARE if your children are required to stay at the table until the meal is over. They are kids. Let them go play while the grown ups linger over wine and second helpings of zucchini. It’s not a big deal. You would think that, because it is a rule in my own home, I would have strong feelings about it. But I do not. I think we made it a rule to help encourage Carla to develop the skill of sitting and doing something she finds boring. It’s a skill that will help her in many situations, from the classroom to the line at the bank, and I think her pediatrician or a teacher recommended it some years ago, and so it has become part of the family custom.

Similarly, we have the “no shoes in the house” rule, but that’s almost purely because I do not like to wear shoes or socks and I hate the feeling of grit on my feet that comes from people wearing their shoes in the house. If you like wearing shoes in YOUR house, great! My parents wear shoes in their house, and it works for them, and I wear shoes when I visit them and all is well.

And I know I made a big deal, earlier, that “holding hands in the parking lot” is a rule that falls into the “Things That Are Dangerous” category. And so I must be thinking that you care nothing of your child’s safety if you don’t hold her hands. No! Of course not! Some of my friends have children who walk calmly and slowly next to them at all times. Some of my friends have children who are extremely cautious and point out a car coming several blocks away. My particular brand of child is able to spot a roly-poly on a leaf fifty yards away but will not see a car barreling toward her down an otherwise empty street. I also have the brand of child who is prone to dashing and leaping and twirling, with no consideration for her surroundings or the presence of motor vehicles. So for HER, the holding hands thing is really important.

On the other side of the fence, I do NOT have a rule that you have to try every food that the host provides. Or even that you have to try every food on your plate. But if YOU have those rules, I get it! Those are GOOD rules! I see their value! If I could persuade Carla to try a single bite of every food without a Drawn-Out Epic Battle of Wills, I totally would institute that rule at our house. Or maybe I wouldn’t, because I am super picky and I would never want to have to try something like a stewed tomato, so I wouldn’t want to have a rule that I would be in danger of breaking.

I do not think anyone is inferior OR superior for having different rules than I do, is what I’m saying. They’re just different.

Sometimes, I worry that I have too many rules. It’s possible, I acknowledge that. But I had a lot of rules, growing up. And I turned out to be very good at following rules, which doesn’t seem like a bad thing. (And I still maintain a level of independence and creativity and ability-to-question-rules, I hasten to add!)

My parents had a Good Living Room and a Good Dining Room that we weren’t allowed in, except for special occasions. And I wasn’t allowed to have my door shut if there was a boy in my room. And I couldn’t leave anything on the stairs. And I couldn’t leave the doors open (unless there was a screen door in its place). And I had to turn the lights off any and every time I left a room. And many others. It’s kind of funny to think back, to all those rules, and think about which ones stuck and which ones I threw immediately to the wind once I moved out of my parents’ house.

These days, I shut the door to my bedroom ALL the time, even though there’s almost always a boy in here! I am so getting away with things!!!

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Do you have one of these things?

Trunk organizer

Photo from amazon.com

It’s a little fold-out container for your grocery bags. It helps keep them from falling over.

Okay, I see that the product description lists it as a “trunk organizer.” But I use it solely for grocery bags. Well, and one time I used it for seedlings that I was taking home to plant.

It falls under the category of “totally unnecessary but nice to have.” I have lived successfully without one for many decades. But my husband got one sometime last year, probably because his trunk is completely 100% empty, so things tend to slide around in there. (I do NOT have that problem.) But over time, I started getting envious of his little container, and – since I am the Primary Grocery Shopper of our household anyway – I asked him to buy me one, too.

(I could have bought it myself, you understand. But he likes to do Detailed Research on all things, which I do not care to do. Plus, he purchased the one for his car through his Amazon account, so I figured he could just re-order it. To make a boring and unnecessary aside more boring and unnecessary, the one he has was no longer offered, so he got me this one instead.)

I love it!

This is how it looks, all full:

Trunk organizer 1

There are four bags inside the trunk organizer, and then one (the big red zipped-up bag) that has to sit outside the organizer with all the other junk I have piled in my car.

Trunk organizer 2

Top view, which I see now looks like nothing but a jumble. You can also get a peek at my groceries, which included ALL THE PRODUCE.

My trunk is a mess. Someday I should clean it. To be fair, I cleaned it pretty recently. It’s just really hard to know what to do with some of the supplies I have back there. The jumper cables should stay, even though they are unwieldy and take up a lot of space. The bags have a variety of blankets and winter gear and emergency snacks and coloring books. I think there’s an old diaper bag in there, too; now that my child is FIVE perhaps I can finally get rid of that. (SOB!)

This is how it looks, without the groceries but unfolded:

Trunk organizer 3

The blue thing on the bottom right is the wing of a parrot paper bag puppet Carla made for me and insisted I keep in my car at all times. Like a talisman. That’s molting.

The trunk organizer has Velcro on the bottom, so it sticks nicely to my fuzzy trunk floor. And you can unfold only half of it, if you only need half. And there is a divider inside, if you need one large rectangle and two smaller squares, or just one or two smaller squares.

Here is how it looks, all folded up:

Trunk organizer 4

So small and compact! To allow room in the trunk for MORE JUNK!

Man, my trunk could sure use a good vacuuming. Let’s all ponder when that will happen, taking into consideration that it is fifteen years old and I cannot remember every having vacuumed it. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmm.

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We are at the glorious age where Carla wakes up on weekend mornings and trots herself down to the living room and turns on the TV all by herself. My husband and I have been sleeping in until the grand old hour of EIGHT AM. It is lovely. (IT GETS BETTER!) But then she just wants to watch TV alllllll day long. Sometimes I want to give in to this, because TV is such a good babysitter. I can cook or clean or read books or look at my phone. It’s wonderful.

But. No amount of TV is ever enough. My child is addicted to TV. She looooooves it. I love it too, so I completely empathize. But I also want her to enjoy non-TV activities, like riding her bike and playing on our backyard playset and exploring nature and building LEGO creations etc. etc. etc. And… she gets a teeny bit mean after she’s been watching shows for a while. And… TV consumption makes her want to consume MORE TV.

Listen, I am no TV detractor! There is some great programming on TV, for kids and adults alike. You can learn things from TV, from concepts about friendship and self-control, to new vocabulary words, to famous operatic scores (I’m looking at you, Bugs Bunny).

But, because she truly seems addicted, and because she gets a little mean, and because she needs to occasionally do other things – like move her body and flex her brain – we limit her TV consumption. During the school year, there is no TV on school days. There are exceptions, of course. If we go out to dinner, we bring an ipad and she can watch TV after we order food. If we go on a car trip that’s longer than an hour, we bring the ipad. If it’s a vacation day or a weekend day, we limit TV to an hour or two, depending on various factors. This works for us. Other people have found other PERFECTLY REASONABLE media-consumption strategies. I do not care if your kids watch hours of TV a day if it works for your family.

Anyway, I have gotten off track from my original point. Which is that my kid and I both like TV. Yet I cannot stand most of the TV shows she likes. My Little Pony, yuck.Daniel Tiger, yawn. Puppy Dog Pals, eye glaze. Barbie, more like barf-y. And I am not going to settle in to watch Real Housewives of New York Cityor Stranger Things or even old episodes of Friends with Carla.

But I have found something that we can watch together! MasterChef Junior.

We picked a season at random on YouTube (season 6, I think), and watched the whole thing together, episode by episode, over a number of weeks. We had such a good time!

It’s about kids, so it’s geared toward kids. Which means there’s none of the yelling and cursing I associate with other Gordon Ramsey programs (he’s the host and one of the judges of MasterChef Junior). The premise, like all other competition reality shows on TV, is that you get a big group of contestants and then give them challenges, whittling the group down until you have one winner.

But all the contestants are age 8 to 13! Which makes them relatable to Carla. And they are all SO TALENTED. And, even better, they are all super articulate and kind and gracious. So even when they lose and get booted off the show, they have these really sweet, grateful things to say. Like, “I’m super sad to be going home, but I really learned so much while I was here! And I made so many friends! And I am just so lucky that I had this wonderful opportunity!” Seriously, they are more gracious losers than I’ve seen on ANY OTHER competition reality program.

The other thing I love about this show is that it has Life Lessons that Carla and I can talk about while and after watching. In one episode, a little girl gets overwhelmed and starts crying. The judges step in and help her recover her equilibrium, and she calms down and gets back to cooking. So Carla and I can discuss how awful it is to feel overwhelmed, and how it happens to everyone, and then we can talk through some strategies for recovering from that feeling and doing what you have to do.

And we can talk about losing, and how upsetting it is, but how there are really good things that come from trying your best at something, even if you don’t win. And how to behave in a gracious and sportspersonlike way, rather than allowing our hurt feelings to bubble over into anger and pouting and kicking things on the way out the door.

And we can talk about hard work, and putting in your very best effort. And how it takes really focused energy and a LOT of practice to become really good at something.

I like to think that these conversations have a decent chance of sticking, when she can apply them to what we’re watching.

Anyway, watching Season 6 together was a lot of fun. I think Carla got a little bit bored by the end (I think there were 14 episodes), so we haven’t started a new season. But maybe we’ll do so in the future. And I’m trying to think of other similar shows that we might try instead. I think she’d like So You Think You Can Dance or maybe evenProject Runway, but neither of those shows is geared toward kids, so I’d worry about adult topics or nasty language. (I loved the Christian Siriano season of Project Runway, but some of the very sassy trash talk that made him so charming is not really what I want to model for my five-year-old.) I’d also like a show where the contestants are as gracious about losing as the kids are on MasterChef Junior. But that may be a fool’s errand.

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Internet, I am so sick of all food and have no idea what to cook and yet I STILL feel obligated to feed my family.

Yes, I have been here before. But this rut ravine crevasse feels especially deep and wide and insurmountable.

Let’s list all the things that are contributing to these dark feelings:

  1. My grill is broken, so none of my summery “throw some meat and veg on the grill” options are available to me
  2. My in-laws are here, which means I feel (self-applied, only) extra pressure to cook Things That Are Special
  3. I have still not gotten accustomed to our summer schedule, so I feel off-kilter in general
  4. It’s hot and I don’t have any extra energy for cooking
  5. I used up every last store of Cooking Enthusiasm in June, when I baked two cakes and countless cupcakes and hosted my in-laws for multiple Special Meals

First, I tried to make meal planning more interesting by adding two or three Brand New Recipes to the weekly list of dinners. But that requires research and energy, and I am fresh out of both. Okay, I am not “fresh out” of research. I am fresh out of PATIENCE for research. DESIRE to research. And patience and desire for this line of sentencing.

Next, we have been eating lot of meals outside the home, which takes all the planning and cooking weight off of me. But eating out all the time is expensive and time consuming. And I tend not to make the healthiest choices when I go out to eat (if I’m going to spend money on a meal, it better be tasty and fancier than a SALAD is my line of thinking).

Finally, I have turned to cooking super easy things, like Crockpot BBQ Pork or Tacos or Burritos. But my husband is growing weary of all of those things, and they aren’t really the lightest fare, either. I love to eat foods that are smothered in cheese and sour cream, but there’s only so much of that you can eat before you start to feel like YOU are smothered in cheese and sour cream.

How in the world do you climb out of such a deep and overwhelming food chasm?

Probably what I need most is some fresh ideas. Which is difficult to ask for because a) I have a HUGE list of recipes I haven’t tried and b) I am super picky and so 90% of recipes people suggest never sound that great. Really makes you want to help me, doesn’t it?

What are your go-to meals, when you want something easy and delicious? Bonus points if you would serve it to guests.

(Where does this come from, this need to do Something Special for guests? If a food is good enough to serve to my family, why doesn’t that make it good enough to serve to other people? And yet there are MANY things that my husband and I eat all the time – and LOVE! – that I have never thought twice about serving to others. Some of them are pretty spicy, so maybe that’s part of it… we like a spice level that wouldn’t be comfortable to many other people. Some of them seem… plain, I guess? Like the Crockpot BBQ Pork, which is just a pork tenderloin and an onion dumped into the crock pot with some BBQ sauce [and sriracha]. I usually eat it with a baked potato and some green beans. I LOVE it. But I wouldn’t consider serving it to friends because… I don’t know! It seems too homely somehow? It seems like a B-Team Meal, and when you have people over, it seems like you should be serving them only A-Team foods? It’s too easy to make, and you should put in Real Effort when you entertain? I have no idea. Is this Foods-Suitable-for-Guests thing unique to me and my husband?)

In exchange, I will give you my FAVORITE recipe of late. It is so good. So good that I refrain from making it too often, lest I get sick of it.

(And I cook the chicken in the oven – 425F for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is 165F – so it doesn’t matter that our grill is broken.)

It’s called Honey Chipotle Chicken Bowls from How Sweet Eats but I think of it as a big, delicious salad. I use lots of mixed greens for the base, and I cut some fresh corn and bell peppers and carrots and avocado and add those to the salad. And then I top everything with a mixture of the lime dressing the recipe recommends and a generous drizzle of the cooked marinade from the chicken.  I was really suspicious of putting quinoa on a salad, but it adds a very pleasant texture that I love. We served this to my in-laws recently, and they loved it.

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Thank you all for your kind words on my last post. It’s so easy for that feeling of discomfort and awkwardness to spread until it’s stained every bit of me with self-loathing. I seriously never thought to consider my attempts to be friendly as… progress. I will try to do so from now on.

In the month since I wrote it, well. Life has gone on. Some of it good, some of it bad, some of it heartbreaking, the regular amalgam of living. And, listen, I don’t really want to talk about any of the reasons I might have needed comfort during that time period. (It’s nothing serious, although it felt like it was. In any event, everything is fine.) Today, I just want to talk about the comfort part.

What I turn to, when I need comfort, are distractions (reading, writing, TV) and comforting food. And the food is what I’m most interested in today, because I find it fascinating (and soothing, in itself) to learn what kinds of food people turn to in times of stress or grief.

Sure, food is primarily for sustenance. But it can also carry so much emotional weight. (No moral weight, though; I feel strongly about that.) (Unless you are killing endangered species because their XYZ is a delicacy. Then I’d have a moral objection.)  For instance, my first helping instinct is often related to food. When a neighbor lost her husband earlier this year, I immediately wanted to give her a meal. That just seemed the most useful, reasonable thing I could do, to provide some modicum of comfort to a person I know but don’t know well, a person who was likely reeling with shock and heartache and visitors and logistics and grief.

I looked online, as one does, and was surprised – probably naively so – to see what a wide variety of options people recommended. I always thought a casserole was the appropriate thing to give. A nice, hearty macaroni casserole. Or a lasagna. Something like that: easy to heat, carb-heavy. But the recommendations spanned everything from veggies and dip to cookies to fried chicken to stew.

(I ended up making a stew. It was delicious, and hearty. The death happened in the winter, and I thought it would be good for freezing or ladling out to visitors.)

Lately, after needing some comfort myself, and then remembering that stew, I got to thinking about Food As Comfort in general, and how my idea of Comfort Food might be totally different from yours.

When I am in need of comfort, I turn to the carb-heavy stuff. Chicken paprikas is my go-to favorite. It’s creamy and noodle-y and spicy, and it just makes me feel warm and cared for. It’s kind of weird that it should be my top favorite comfort food, I think, because I didn’t grow up eating it. Instead, it’s something my husband and I started making together back when I was in grad school. Well, maybe that’s the reason: I associate it with him, with cozy dinners at home together with the one person who comforts me more than anyone else.

Sometimes, though, the comfort I need is more primal – a bear returning to its cave to weather the icy winds, a newborn nuzzling up to its mother to nurse, a caterpillar spinning itself a chrysalis. I want to retreat to childhood, which was safe and loving, during which I was free from the horrors of the world. And there are many foods from my childhood that surround me with that kind of basic, fundamental warmth.

One comforting favorite is spaghetti with meat sauce. That’s the first meal I learned to make for my family, back when I was a kid. It reminds me of my childhood and of my own self-sufficiency.

Most recently, I turned to bagels. Another longterm favorite, my mom used to toast Lender’s bagels for me when I was a kid. Dripping with butter, they taste both decadent and simple, life’s complications reduced to its elemental truth: Warm bread. Melted butter. Sometimes honey, making its way in sticky rivulets down my wrist. When I was pregnant with Carla – and horribly sick for twenty-five weeks (I first typed “months” and yes, that’s how it felt) – I subsisted on bagels and pizza. The bagels would stay in my stomach when nothing else would.

Grilled cheese holds a special place in my heart. It was my mother’s go-to Miserable Wintry Day food. A crust of butter on each slice of bread. A thick molten heart of Velveeta. A glass of classic Coke on the side. The unbeatable combination of gooeyness and crunch.

And I’ll always have fond memories of Lipton noodle soup. My mom swears by chicken noodle soup; Lipton did the job just fine, and (a plus for me), has no unappealing chunks of white Styrofoam masquerading as chicken. I tore open many a paper packet and watched the tiny freeze-dried noodles plump up in a swirl of boiling water.

The comfort may not be permanent. But it does help.

What are your go-to comfort foods?

 

Chicken Paprikas 3

This is a ridiculous photo, but it’s the only one I have. I never eat this little. I eat a FULL BOWL, primarily full of sauce, which is the best part of any meal. 

Chicken Paprikas (adapted from Joy of Cooking)

Ingredients:

Approximately 6 servings

1 to 1½ pounds of boneless skinless chicken breast, chopped into bite sized pieces (pre-cooked is ideal; I’ve included a modification below in case you want to use raw chicken breast)

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 white onion, chopped roughly

1 Idaho potato, chopped roughly

1 to 3 Tbsp paprika

1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

½ to 1 tsp salt

4 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 8-oz container sour cream (I use the fat free sour cream from Trader Joe’s)

3 to 4 Tbsp flour or cornstarch

1 package egg noodles

Directions:

  1. Heat vegetable oil in a stock pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion and paprika (and optional cayenne) to vegetable oil, stirring occasionally, until dark red and glossy.
  3. Add salt, chopped chicken breast, and chicken stock. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the chopped potato. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until you can stick a fork into the potato chunks and they slide off easily. I don’t know how to say this a better way; make sure the potato is cooked.

* If you have raw chicken breast pieces, you can do this step slightly differently. Add the raw chicken together with the salt and stock. Then, once it comes to a boil, simmer everything for 15 minutes until cooked through. Then add the potato and cook for another 15 minutes.

  1. Whisk flour/cornstarch and sour cream together in a small bowl.
  2. Add a ladle full of the stock mixture to the sour cream mixture and whisk until incorporated. Do this three times.
  3. Add the tempered sour cream mixture to the pot. Stir.
  4. Serve over egg noodles.

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A new market opened up in our neighborhood, so close that I can easily walk to it. Which I did, a few days ago. I can’t tell you (and probably shouldn’t; it’s embarrassing) (when has that ever stopped me before?) (carry on) how much… pride? No, that’s definitely not the word; happiness? Hmmm, not quite right either… I can’t tell you how much satisfaction I felt, braving the snowy day, trekking to the market to buy a bag full of fruit to bring home to my family like some sort of pioneer. Forget that my strawberries are packaged in plastic and that my avocados are really more of a fashion statement than a source of sustenance, at least these days (I use them to decorate my nachos.) and that absolutely ZERO of my day-to-day experience has any relation to pioneer life.

I don’t know WHY it should feel so satisfying. The snow was meager to begin with and in any case it had melted, if I’m being honest with you. And it’s not like I had to travel any real distance; I was disappointed to learn it was under 3,000 steps, according to my Fitbit, which I am beginning to suspect is a dirty dirty liar. And even though I felt very I Can Totally Survive without Modern Conveniences Like Transportation!, and I didn’t even use a credit card, I did have my phone on me. And I was wearing the aforementioned Fitbit, a device that would surely make Laura Ingalls Wilder sigh at the dissolution of societal values (we would keep the phone from her entirely; at least it has some utility in an emergency – I mean, what if another Kardashian gave birth?).

So it would have perhaps been even MORE satisfying if I’d gone outside and harvested the fruit from my very own fruit trees, which I’d planted and nurtured and tended to maturity. Or if the market had been a milliner and I had purchased a skein of wool out of which I produced clothing and linens for my entire family. (I’m not advocating woolen bed sheets; I simply like the word “skein.”)

The last time I clearly remember feeling this type of satisfaction was going on six years ago when I completed a minor repair on my new-to-me washing machine. The hot and cold water valves – if that’s even the correct term – were backwards; I switched them. I felt so pleased with myself after I’d made the repair. And I’d done it all with my father on the phone, walking me through the entire process; it’s not like I did it myself of even did any research.

It doesn’t take much to make me feel Laura Ingalls Wilderian, I guess is what I’m saying. And it’s a good feeling. A feeling of capability. Of ingenuity. Of I-Can-Deal-with-Whatever-Life-Throws-at-Me. A feeling I honestly wish I had more of (and, let’s be honest, more right to).

The very opposite of that feeling is sitting on the couch, watching a DVRed episode of Real Housewives of New York City while texting your horrified reactions to your friend in another state.

What an utter feeling of uselessness, watching in mute horror as a woman with countless piles of money asks an artist – whom she’d invited to bring some of his own artwork to her house so that she could choose which paintings should adorn her walls – to move furniture for her. And yet, I cannot look away!

I see that the winds of societal/televised decay have blown me off course.

Ahem.

For me, another feeling directly opposite to the Laura Ingalls Wilder glow of satisfied resourcefulness is taking your car to the service station. Which I have to do.

I need an oil change, and I want someone to look at the tread on my tires and tell me when I need to replace them, is the real reason. But my car is old and it tends to always need Additional Somethings whenever I go, and that’s frustrating. I don’t know anything about cars (my poor father; his life’s work – thwarted) (I mean, he TAUGHT ME how to change my own oil and I have forgotten/don’t want to) and so I always feel ornery and suspicious when the service station people tell me in their earnest, automotive-terminology-speckled way what’s wrong and what they recommend I should do.

Usually, I leave the service station with a very light wallet and a renewed vow to find a Basic Car Mechanics class and just learn! So that I can talk about cams and transmissions and axles and I have already exhausted my knowledge of car terms with the best of them! So that when they tell me what the problem is, I understand it! And can understand the solution! Or, better yet, I can anticipate a problem before I even take the car in!

Isn’t that a good idea? A way to better myself? To infuse a regularly uncomfortable situation with an ongoing sense of Laura Ingalls Wilderian competence and practicality?

The problem is that I am so bored by the car stuff.

Listen, it’s not inherently boring; it’s just that I personally have no interest in it, and the thought of spending any time at all learning about how my car works makes me want to crawl under the nearest vehicle and allow it to run over me. My father, who rebuilds cars, sends me lovely charming emails about his car-rebuilding adventures and I understand maybe every third word. And even though I love him and want to share in his car-rebuilding joy, my brain reacts as though he’s spoken in some long-forgotten language. Sometimes, in a fit of daughterly love, I ask him to expand on what he’s saying, because I genuinely wish I could be enthusiastic about something he finds such delight in. Sometimes, I get angry with myself at my complete lack of curiosity about the subject; this is something I know NOTHING about; shouldn’t I want to correct that????

But man, even those two, powerful motivating factors are not enough to make me turn off my RHONY and subscribe to Popular Mechanics.

Okay, I have spoken to my father and now have developed a compromise plan. I am going to order a new air filter for my car and change it myself. And then I plan to gloat over it. A lot.

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I woke up at five this morning after dreaming something ridiculous that I won’t go into here. (It wasn’t salacious, sadly. Just odd.) The key part was that my husband was somehow melded into my high school boyfriend in that weird way of dreams. So that when I woke up my brain decided to replay in gory detail how awful I was to said boyfriend when I went away to college. There’s nothing I can do about it now, and also I don’t think it was really THAT bad, and also we were friendly years afterwards so I don’t think there are lasting scars on his end, plus we are both married and I haven’t thought about him in countless months. But thank you, brain, for steeping me in shame at so early an hour so I can bask in it all day long.

Last night I made an excellent recipe for zucchini noodles. Let me state for the record here that I have no patience for foods masquerading as other foods. I love zucchini, and therefore I enjoy zucchini noodles (although in their noodleishness they are difficult to eat). But I’m not going to try to convince you that they are a good or even fair approximation of noodles themselves. I’m not going to replace them in my recipe for spaghetti and meat sauce, for instance. I am not going to dress them with cheese and pretend they bear any resemblance to macaroni and cheese. They are not noodles. They are zucchini in noodle form. If you don’t like zucchini, you will probably not enjoy them. I discovered this the hard way, by trying cauliflower rice a few years ago. NEVER AGAIN, Internet. Never again. I don’t like cauliflower and spending nearly an hour rasping it against a box grater and getting cauliflower shards all over my kitchen did not change that in the least. I keep hearing about cauliflower mashed potatoes and cauliflower pizza crust and while I am intrigued, I am NOT going to fall for it. STOP PRETENDING, cauliflower. Just be who you are.

ANYWAY. The recipe I tried last night is really good, but it is good in a zucchini way. If you like zucchini you should try it: Easy 10 Minute Asian Zucchini Noodles from Gimme Delicious.

What do you do when you find a recipe you like, and you want to try it again? I’m really curious, by the way. Do you have a list on your phone? A folder on your desktop? A physical file folder into which you stow printed recipes?

I really want to know, because I haven’t found a good system.

As pretty much sole cook for our household, this is the kind of boring thing I spend a lot of time thinking about. As I’ve mentioned previously, we eat a lot of meals that look like Chicken + Vegetable. That is a combination that gets boring realllllllllly quickly, so I am always on the lookout for new, delicious ways to shake up the boring. But there are three problems I’ve run into:

  1. What is the best way to keep track of recipes that look good but I haven’t tried?
  2. What is the best way to separately track recipes that I have tried and want to use again?
  3. What is the best way to avoid re-making a recipe that I have tried and was terrible?

Okay, maybe they are three variations on the same problem. What it comes down to is that I need some sort of filing system. One that is more efficient and comprehensive and located in one, easy-to-access spot than what I currently use.

What I do now is a combination of things. First, I have a folder on my laptop where I bookmark recipes that I want to try. Since I follow a bunch of food blogs on Feedly, it’s really easy for me to put things into my Recipes folder.

But it’s super unwieldy. I have SO MANY recipes. And there’s no rhyme or reason to them, either. Chicken dishes and veggie sides and frosting recipes and how-to posts for making rainbow layer cakes and the best marinades for steak are all jumbled together in the same folder, and many of those are recipes I’ve tried and either liked or NOT.

Meal planning 3

This blog post is chock FULL of really boring, really poorly lit and off-kilter photos! I know my photography skillz keep you coming back!

You may be thinking, Why not just go in and set up some additional folders? And you would be smart for thinking that, and also I tried that and it isn’t working. First, I had been collecting recipes for about a year before I went in and tried to organize them, so it was already a jumbled mess. Second, the organization tools at my disposal are not particularly user friendly. I can’t easily grab a recipe or ten and drag and drop them into the Veggie Sides folder, for instance. Getting things into the appropriate folder involves a lot of scrolling and it is tedious and time consuming. Third, I still run into the issue of what to do with things I’ve already tried. Sure, I could set up a sub-folder in each category for Make Again and Don’t Make Again… but that gets to be even more unwieldy and also I am kind of lazy.

Meal planning 4

To the left is an example of what’s inside one of my folders. Supposedly, this contains favorite recipes that I should return to again and again. This is the first time I’ve opened this folder in many months, so it’s not really working as planned. Also, you may notice that I occasionally (okay, more often than reasonable) bookmark something I’ve already bookmarked. I REALLY need a better system.

PLUS, I am not always on my computer doing stuff. I do a lot of recipe finding on my phone. So I have a folder of recipes on my phone, too… and getting them to my computer is not simple. I really need a system that works across devices.

The best part of my system is my weekly dinner plan email. Each week before I go grocery shopping, I create an email to myself that lists all the meals and includes links to online recipes. Sometimes I’ll open the email a few days in advance, if I already know that I’ll be making something specific, or if it’s a week where I’m feeding people beyond my own immediate family. I always reply to the previous week’s dinner email, so there’s a single record of everything I’ve ever planned to eat since March of 2017 when I started it.

Then, after the week’s meals, I try to write notes to myself about what worked and what didn’t. So after last night’s zucchini noodles success, I responded the email and wrote, DELICIOUS! MAKE AGAIN.

This email is also really useful for any modifications I do to a recipe. For instance, last year I found this Martha Stewart recipe for crockpot garlic chicken that sounded so good, but wasn’t. But instead of giving up on it, I kept tinkering with it until I got it right. And I put those notes to myself in my dinner planning email. If I get any feedback on the recipe from my husband, I put those in the notes. So it’s all there in one place.

Meal Planning 2

I first tried the Martha Stewart recipe in May of 2017. My reaction was that it was too sweet. Hot tip: “More lemon juice” can solve most of the world’s ills. At least foodwise.

Dinner Planning Email 1

Here is where I recorded the modifications that made the Martha Stewart recipe not only edible but delicious. Ah memories. This is also the day when I discovered my husband — whom I’ve known for SEVENTEEN YEARS — doesn’t really like soup.

(Sometimes, when I have the wherewithal, I post the modified recipe here. Like with the “chicken tikka masala” recipe I revamped to suit my own needs. It got to be too annoying to look at the original recipe and try to remember what I changed each time I made it.)

So my meal planning email is the best part of my meal planning system. But it’s not perfect. Sometimes I have to scroll and scroll through old emails to find what I’m looking for. And, because I haven’t mastered the art of organizing what I haven’t tried, I tend to go back to the same things over and over.

I’ve contemplated doing a weekly meal plan blog post. Many bloggers do this, and I always enjoy reading them. And I could always add notes to myself in the comments. But again, this does nothing for the stacks and stacks of recipes I have yet to try.

There’s got to be an app that handles this, right? But I don’t want to look for and evaluate and try a bunch of them. And honestly, thinking about moving all my carefully curated but as-yet-untried recipes to a new place sounds exhausting. But I WANT something better and I suppose I am willing to do a certain amount of work to make it happen.

How do YOU keep track of what you’re cooking? What’s working and what isn’t? Have you come across a magic app that does it all? If you have a meal planning and tracking system you love, I am HERE FOR IT.

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