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Parenting Woes

In response to my recent frantic posts about getting enough calcium into my daughter, you gave me so many wonderful ideas. In addition, some of the absolutely lovely people who read this blog asked some very kind and very gentle questions about whether I might be overly concerned about this issue. It really got me thinking.

Part of it, certainly, is that she is an ectomorph who eats very little. I am constantly concerned about whether she is getting adequate amounts of the foods and nutrients she needs to grow and thrive. Her pediatrician echoed my father’s suggestion about getting more calcium into her, and then he added that I need to work on getting calories into her in general. Which… is FRAUGHT, right? She’s not off the charts in terms of her weight, she’s just on the low side of average. I was very skinny (and picky) when I was a kid so perhaps it is genetic. Plus, I don’t want every meal to be more of a battle than it already is (although I try VERY HARD to make meals calm and free of battles). Plus plus, I don’t want her to lose her ability to tune in to what her body says it needs (although I freely admit that her body probably doesn’t need quite so many pickles/plates of rice/bags of candy as she thinks it does). 

But I think the bigger reason behind my calcium worries is that I am in the midst of one of those periods where I am convinced that I am failing as a parent. I am too selfish with my own time and too laissez faire with things like establishing good homework habits and too oblivious to health concerns like how much calcium my child is getting. The calcium thing is representative of my overall deficiencies as a parent and a human, so I am having an outsized response.

When my dad asked whether Carla was getting enough calcium, and I realized that no, she most definitely was NOT, it was just… proof that I am focused on the wrong things or not focusing on the right things and that I am RUINING my child’s future because I am wildly unsuited to this whole parenting gig. 

This was one of the big worries I had prior to bringing a helpless child into the world. That I was not fit for raising a kid. And listen, I am not saying that I am UNFIT. I’m not. In fact, I recognize that I am a better parent than some. Carla is loved and fed and my husband and I are, I think, meeting most of her physical and emotional needs. Not to mention that she is nine now and growing more independent and capable by the day. She is going to be fine (I think). 

But that doesn’t mean I’m doing the parenting job that I expect of myself. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. LOTS of room. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t worry about what I could be offering her but am not, out of laziness or fear or lack of ability. I worry a lot. That’s why I got so hyperfocused on the calcium thing, I think. It was a concrete thing that I had completely overlooked and that I could (try to) DO something about. So I overcorrected. 

(Carla STILL refuses to eat most things that naturally contain calcium. I avoided the calcium chews for Reasons – including the fact that our pediatrician didn’t straight out reject them as a viable option but swiftly guided me toward food sources of calcium instead – but have since given in to my desire for A Quick Fix, so at least Carla is getting some calcium each day that I remember to give it to her.)

It’s so rarely ABOUT the thing that you are panicking about, isn’t it? 

One thing I am also very, very concerned about lately is Carla’s math coursework. I keep trying to push math on her, but I’m a) inconsistent and b) Carla is deeply, stubbornly opposed to math, so… it’s not going great. Her third grade teacher said she was doing fine in math (they don’t get grades or homework at her school, so I have no quantitative measurement for what “fine” means – this is a subject/fret for another time), but that she could stand to work on her facility with multiplication facts… and we haven’t made a whole lot of progress. But the closer we get to the school year, the more I panic about it. I mean, school starts NEXT WEEK, so there’s not a whole lot more summer “studying” we can even do, but I’m in peak yikes mode. 

But am I really worrying about MATH? Yes. But I also think math is symbolic of a lot of other things I am worrying about:

  1. Will Carla be as prepared as her peers? Many of the moms I interact with have been doing private tutoring for their kids this summer. One mom has her kids’ nanny work with them on math and reading every morning. Another mom has a tutor. Another mom has her child do four pages of math worksheets every day. Carla has none of this. Is she going to be behind before she even starts fourth grade? (Please know that I am fully aware of how extremely privileged this bullet point is.) Carla already has some challenges that mean she’s not necessarily on a level field with her classmates. That’s a whole other topic that makes me feel completely out of my depth. But am I making everything so much worse by… having failed to get her a tutor? Nothing I can do about it now, I suppose. Except maybe consider a tutor during the school year??? Not that any of her teachers have ever said she NEEDS a tutor! Am I manufacturing an issue where there is No Issue? Are her classmates’ parents addressing deficits that Carla does not have? Are they merely staving off the “summer slide” and our kids will all soon be on the same level once they get back into the swing of school?
  2. Am I working hard enough at instilling good academic values in Carla? I don’t remember exactly what my parents did to make me want to do well in school, but academic success was a driving force of my childhood. I was also lucky because things came easily to me, so getting straight As was not difficult. But when the subject matter got harder – especially in high school – doing well did cause me some amount of stress, and I was able to push forward because I had that core value of Academic Achievement Is Important alongside years of practice at working toward achieving a goal. I’m not sure I am doing a whole lot to instill these values in Carla, and I honestly don’t know where to start. Plus, I have sub-concerns that keep the pendulum swinging:
    • I’ve read a lot about how you don’t want to push a kid too hard, lest they end up hating the subject you are trying to get them to excel in. Part of me thinks, sure, it would be great if Carla could just ORGANICALLY end up loving math, and the other part of me says, But that may never happen and she needs to learn it ANYWAY.
    • I also come up hard against not wanting to over-stress Carla, in a world where kids are increasingly anxious and depressed. Maybe academic prowess won’t be her thing! Maybe it won’t come easily to her, and trying to force a square peg into a math-shaped hole will never do anything but cause anxiety?
    • Plus, I recognize that Academic Achievement is NOT the be-all, end-all, and that people all over the world in all eras have found satisfaction and happiness without being straight-A students with Ivy League educations. Maybe trying to force Carla into an Academic Achievement box will suppress all the other fabulous skills and talents that are brewing inside her. Or destroy her confidence in herself. 
    • But also, I don’t want to let things slide just because I am afraid of all these things! A little stress is okay – even beneficial. Pushing a child to work outside her comfort zone, safety net firmly in place, is a good thing. Having reasonable expectations of your child is REASONABLE.
  3. Is my Math Problem just a symptom of a larger pattern of parental flailing? I don’t necessarily think I am a LAZY parent, although sometimes it ends up that way. My typical process is a) panic about something, b) research solutions and ask for advice, c) get overwhelmed, d) back off, to try to regroup, e) feel as though the research and overwhelm was work enough, f) relax back into normal life, g) panic again if and when the issue re-presents itself. HOW do I break this pattern? Does it matter if I break it? Are things okay as they are, and maybe all I really need to do is figure out how to stem the panic at point A?
  4. Am I simply using “math” or “calcium” as an stand-in for how terrifying it is to lose control as Carla continues to need me less? I mean, she obviously DOES need me; she needs me (and my husband, obviously) to provide her with shelter and food and love; she needs us herefor her, to provide her with all the intangibles that a child needs to feel confident in herself and her ability to thrive. But each day she needs me less to give her the things that are easy, and more to give her the things that are so very hard: my confidence in her ability to make her own decisions, to make mistakes and grow from them; autonomy in developing her own style of speaking and dressing and interacting with people, in identifying the things that are important to her, even if they are sometimes different from what my husband and I think should be important; letting go enough so that she has the freedom to move forward on her own, making her own choices, pursuing her own dreams in her own way, ever closer to leaving me behind. Which, of course, is the goal. We want her to survive and thrive without us. And yet it is so very hard to watch it happen, slow motion as it is.

Well. I certainly don’t have any answers. But I do want to thank you for gently prompting me to consider what the real issue is.

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My Favorite Phone Case

Have I told you about my iPhone case? I love it. I have had it for… years. Many years. Well, not this exact one – the reason I am thinking about it right now is because I had to order a new one. I order a new one approximately every 18 months to two years, which may seem to you like it is a piece of junk. But wait! It is not a piece of junk! That’s why I keep ordering it. 

I like it because it protects my phone. I am a DROPPER. Oh, my poor phone. I drop it all the time. All. The time. And this case protects it very nicely. The case, however, takes the brunt of the damage and sometimes its delicate parts shear off and then I need a new one. But it’s MY fault, not the fault of the phone case. 

So it is protective, which I think we will all agree is the MOST important role of a phone case. But that’s not even the top reason I like it! Oh no, the reason I like it is because it erases my need to carry a purse. Don’t get me wrong. I like a good purse. But most often, it is a HASSLE. This phone case has a little sliding door – a very secure sliding door; I have never lost a card – that slides back to reveal a space just the right size for your credit card AND your driver’s license. Both! At one time! You could probably fold up a ten-spot and slide that in on top, too. And the case is very slim, so I can shove it in my back pocket. And then bam! I’m all ready to go! No wallet. No purse. No yawning abyss into which lip balms and tissues and chewing gum and restaurant-issued mini-packs of crayons and hair ties go to die. Easy breezy. Makes me feel like a dude, all carefree and unencumbered by an extra hairbrush and some bandaids and a crumpled up receipt from the library and a book of sticker mosaics and several pens and a small container of jumbled Tylenols and Advils and maybe a granola bar or two and possibly a paperback book just in case. Nope. None of that. Just my phone. 

Anyway, this is version four (and to be fair, I had to get one of those because we upgraded our phones) but I will continue to order this because it is WELL WORTH approximately $15 to $20 every few years.  

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Wistfulness

One of my most-anticipated destinations on our Road Trip! is my hometown. I haven’t been back there since… I can’t even remember when I was there last. Was it for Christmas, just after my husband and I were married? No, no – I remember eating the top layer of our wedding cake, and that it was a year later than it should have been. (It was not good.) So that must have been 2010.

I lived in the same tiny prairie town for eighteen years. When I was three, before my memories kick in, my parents built a house in the country, on a hilltop overlooking the prairie and fields of wheat. It was the home I lived in until I went off to college, and for summers until I went off to grad school. That’s when I moved in with my now-husband – and I haven’t lived there since.

I still consider it home, though. Its desolate beauty is tattooed permanently on my brain. The sound of the ceaseless wind rushing through the tall grasses and the caragana. The buzz and crack of grasshoppers leaping from leaf to leaf. The way my still-wet hair would freeze into icicles when I ran out to the barn before school to break the skin of ice on the water tough for the horses. The creak and squeak of snow beneath my boots. The way the sun coursed, liquid and golden, through the fields. The enormous bowl of sky, sometimes white or shocking blue, sometimes roiling with thunderheads, streaked with brilliant reds and oranges at sunrise and sunset, and shot through with purples and pinks of the aurora borealis on summer nights. The way the exact same view from the exact same windows was always so comfortingly the same, and yet so vividly different, the way I imagine the sea must be from the same vantage point.

As much as I loved the prairie, I also loved my house. My bedroom was a fairytale bedroom, with a loft and vaulted ceilings and my own bathroom and my own tiny crawl space tucked in behind the closet. The family room was enormous, with soaring ceilings and an entire wall of windows overlooking the prairie and the island mountains in the distance. My father never got around to finishing the basement, and I used to roller skate with my best friend round and round and round the polished concrete floors. We had a “library,” with bookshelves and the piano and a closet full of games. We had a big country kitchen that was open to the family room and a sunken living room decorated in baby blue that we were only allowed to enter on special occasions. The walls of the powder room and dining room were hand-stenciled by my mother.

A few years ago, my parents finally sold the house and moved to the forest. I love the home they’ve built among the trees, mountain ranges standing sentry over their cozy log cabin. But it’s so different from the house, the landscape I grew up in.

I want to show my childhood house to Carla. I want to point out the balcony where the cat used to stick his head through the railing and taunted the dog. I want to show her the peak of the living room ceiling and have her imagine the height of my childhood Christmas trees, so tall we had to secure them to the wall with wire. I want to show her the piece of river slate in the front hallway, shaped like my home state. I want to show her the loft where my kitchen set lived when I was small and where I slept when I was a teenager. I want to take her out to the barn and have her drink in the scent of horse sweat and hay. I want her to stand in our yard – barely distinct from the prairie – and have her listen to the wind and the insects and the distant wail of a train. I want her to sit in the middle of the family room at night while the wind dashes like a wild animal through the screen in the kitchen to the screen in the front door, swirling her in a dark bracing energy that I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

My father talked to the new owner, who kindly agreed to give us a tour when we pass through town. But it won’t be the same. It’s not my house anymore – it hasn’t been my house for more than twenty years. And it doesn’t even belong to my parents anymore. It will be full of someone else’s furniture, someone else’s scents, someone else’s memories. I’m afraid that I’ll walk in and rewrite my own memories of the house with what it has become without me. 

You can never go home again. And I’m feeling very wistful about that fact. 

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Ugh ugh ugh – dinner planning, AGAIN? What is this repetitive nonsense? I know exactly how Sisyphus feels, pushing that shopping cart up the hill, full of veggies and enthusiasm, only to find himself, a week later, back at the bottom of the hill, shopping cart once again empty but for a few limpening Brussels sprouts and some wilted Romaine. 

Okay, it has been many hours since I wrote that paragraph. And I haven’t found a SINGLE RECIPE that sounds appealing. Not even tacos. Well, I have been ogling a bunch of focaccia-making videos on Instagram. But that seems like a bit more carbs-and-trouble than I feel up to.

In this case, the best recourse is to fill the shopping cart with all-purpose foods. The khaki trousers of the produce section: zucchini and broccoli. The sensible cardigan of the dairy aisle: yogurt and shredded cheddar. And some sturdy dress-up-or-down-able meats, like pork chops and chicken breasts. Maybe, we can accessorize with some berries, if they look nice. Or a pile of gaudy green beans. The rest we’ll just make up as we go along. 

Okay, many more hours have passed. I enlisted the help of my husband, who is usually good for a meal suggestion or two. He really came through, and now I have some actual meals to prepare. Doesn’t mean they sound good, or I am eager to prepare them. But if they sound good to HIM, then that helps immensely. It’s always easier to prepare something that a family member is enthusiastically anticipating than to think of some random thing that both of us will probably choke down.

Dinners for the Week of January 25-30

  • Crockpot BBQ Pork: My husband likes to eat his pork on little Hawaiian sweet rolls, with coleslaw. I like to eat it alongside a baked potato. 
  • Reverse-Seared Steak: My husband wanted steak, and left the vegetable side up to me. So I got some pre-prepped asparagus with herb butter from my grocery store’s much-reduced prepared foods section.
  • Red Curry: This one is so much work (because I like lots of veggies), but I do love it. 
  • Crockpot Short Ribs with Steamed Broccoli: Again with the short ribs. I am not going to make the mascarpone polenta as a side. 
  • Something else, with the all-purpose ingredients I mentioned above.

Are you stuck in the meal planning doldrums as I am? I feel like I say, “Can we have cheese and crackers?” more nights than not, these days.

Onto the grocery store report.

The produce section seemed fine-ish. All the varieties of onions were back in stock. Lettuce seemed abundant. Broccoli was SIX (6) U.S. dollars per two very small stalks of broccoli, which seemed outrageous. Bananas were back in full force.

The other aisles seemed fairly fine, with just a couple of bare spots here and there that could be attributed to anything. The bread aisle had a couple of holes, but the English muffins my husband likes were back in stock. The freezer section had several boxes of frozen pancakes, though it was by no means FULL of pancakes; waffles are still proving pandemic-proof; still no French toast sticks. Frozen chicken nuggets were readily available. Pastas and beans and taco shells and rice/grains seemed fairly well stocked. The only aisle that was really concerning was the fruit drink aisle, which was nearly empty. I’ve been aware of the Gatorade shortage, but it was startling to see it represented so powerfully. 

I did notice that ALL meat was VERY EXPENSIVE. I bought a package of chicken, a package of pork chops, and a package of ground beef, and each package was very close to $10. And we’re not talking about multiple pounds of meat, here. We’re talking maybe 1.3 to 1.5 pounds. I do not buy the fancy organic meat, either. My eyebrows were very high.

My grocery store typically has a bountiful prepared-foods section, manned by a staff person. The last two times I’ve been in the store, the section has been entirely empty and dark. Perhaps this is because I am there so early; perhaps they have discontinued it. There is still a refrigerated case that has some prepared foods, but I miss the variety and the staff person (who shows me photos of her dog and asks after Carla). 

My store did have a big notice on the front door saying that they are reducing hours due to a staff shortage, which is concerning. (However, the “reduced” hours are the hours that I thought were normal for this store, so… not sure what they are reducing from.) 

I saw a new primary care doctor (I love her), and she was telling me all about this low-carb yogurt that I HAVE to try, so I got the lemon flavor. If it’s good, I will let you know. 

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I am sitting in my living room with a lovely view of the Christmas tree, lights glowing softly in the morning dim, and I am still feeling distinctly grinchy. What is my DEAL. We could easily blame my lack of spirit on the fact that I have to go to Costco today, the week before Christmas, because I have somehow allowed our toilet paper and paper towel supplies to dwindle to dangerous levels. Or perhaps we could point to the fact that my daughter’s school just informed us that winter vacation will begin a day early, so agitated are they about rising numbers of Covid cases in the system. And, worse, that the kids will be coming home with devices just in case we cannot return in January as planned, and need to remain remote for a while. Cue wailing and rending of garments. Of course of course I am glad that Carla’s school continues to take this pandemic so seriously. Of course I would rather keep her home than expose her unnecessarily. Of course I want to be a good community member. Of course we will be fine if we need to do a few days or weeks of remote learning. But. Anguished scream.  

However, even before this very unwelcome announcement from the school administration, I had been feeling distinctly dispirited.  Christmas music irritates me, unless it is a very specific and somehow highly elusive style of old-fashioned instrumental Christmas carols. I have wrapped maybe a dozen presents and am already SICK OF IT. I tried to read two separate Christmas books, both which came highly recommended by people I trust, and neither of them were a good fit for my reading style/current mood. We have NO SNOW, just wind, wind, and more wind. We finally put up the tree and the Christmas decorations, and somehow even they seem lackluster, even though they are the exact same decorations I put out every year.

I feel a certain level of frustration (with myself) over this lack of holiday spirit. Also, woe. I LOVE Christmastime, and I feel it slipping away from me, and I’m concerned that this is the last Christmas that will be Magical for Carla, which makes me want to swaddle myself in Holiday Joy that is on a high, dark shelf somewhere I cannot reach. Fretting about it does not help, of course; I cannot GUILT-TRIP Christmas spirit upon myself. I thought I could coax it to me with gentleness and patience, like getting a skittish cat to come up from under the couch, but so far that hasn’t worked either.  

The only Coping Thought that is working for me (currently) is that Christmas Spirit isn’t MANDATORY. There’s no law. I have done my best to do the things that will make Christmas happy for my loved ones and I can finish the last tasks I need to do but there is no law that I have to be cheery or feel awed by the season or cherish every moment. It’s disappointing, but trying to FORCE spirit upon myself is not working, so I am trying to let go. Maybe it will find me if I stop looking so hard.

In the meantime, here are a few utterly mundane updates on a variety of things. 

Christmas Tree Skirt: I ordered the Christmas tree skirt I loved from my recent post and it has since arrived. I like it even more in person than online. The fabric is kind of stiff and heavier than I anticipated, which I quite like; I don’t think presents are going to crumple it or displace it. (It did get some stubborn folds in it during shipping, but I think time and gift gravity will smooth those out.) I LOVE the red version, but I kind of wish I had the burlap one, too. Maybe someday I will be the type of person with two trees and I can get the burlap one as well.

Holiday To-Do List: Just two weeks ago, I was in a bit of a panic over all I had yet to complete. Here is a list of what I had yet to do:

I can make a nice tidy list of things we have yet to complete:

Address and mail holiday cards

Finalize purchases for Carla’s “rilly big box full of all craft stuf”

Wrap and mail gifts for sister-in-law and niece

Mail caramels to my brother and sister-in-law whenever they get here

Buy the final gift for my mother

Buy the final gift for my father

Buy all gifts for my mother-in-law

Buy all gifts for my father-in-law (including birthday gifts)

Buy all gifts for my aunt-in-law

And now, I have completed every single item on that list. Plus, I have wraps all the gifts and packed them in boxes and put them in the mail. All that’s left is to wrap gifts for my family (and on behalf of Santa). A good reminder that there is usually plenty of time to do what needs to be done. Also that panicking publicly on one’s blog is quite useful for stimulating action.

Box Office Breakdown: When last I showed you a photo of my office, it was cram-jammed with boxes. I was saving the boxes so that I had The Perfect Size for the gifts I needed to send to relatives. This was kind of ridiculous, considering I only needed four boxes. But they are gone now! Broken down (by my husband!!!) and recycled! 

My office is usable once again. Hooray!

Coffee Experiment: I ended my experimentation with drinking coffee after two days of drinking coffee. Coffee is not for me. Instead, I have been making matcha lattes with occasional forays into Christmas tea, which is a very gentle, fragrant way to enable the Christmas spirit to enter my soul should it choose to. 

I just ordered a box of Stash Christmas in Paris tea to try in addition to the Twinings. “Luxurious chocolatey flavor paired with lavender and mint”? Yes, please!

Anniversary Dinner: My husband and I decided that we just weren’t comfortable eating in a restaurant quite yet, so we got “fancy takeout” (this means I ordered short ribs and my husband ordered chicken Milanese and we also each got an appetizer, instead of getting our usual pizza/Indian food/Thai food takeout) and took it back to our house where we watched football while Carla was at a birthday party. It was a surprisingly fun, lovely way to spend our anniversary. Plus, we got (“got”) to wait in the lobby of the restaurant for a few minutes while the kitchen prepared our order, and observed all the unmasked people coming in to dine there, and listened to how snarky and unpleasant the three (three!) hostesses were, and witnessed a disgruntled diner gripe to one of the hostesses about how he’d been waiting at a table for fifteen minutes and no one had come to serve him yet, even though someone had waited on a table that was just seated. It gave me just enough taste of Being In A Restaurant to realize that I have no desire to be in a restaurant perhaps ever again. 

Also, I got flowers!!! (And chocolates. They are both from my mother-in-law, but that doesn’t dampen their beauty.)

Dog Gifting: Carla would like to make special holiday treats for all her neighborhood dog friends. I have googled “homemade dog treats” several times, which turns up lots of recipes, many of which include peanut butter. But then some websites say that dogs can be allergic to peanut butter. Or gluten. I feel like we would KNOW if any of the dogs on our gift list had special needs. That seems like the kind of information that comes up, when you are a dog person. Right? But maybe not? I don’t know. My best guess is that we should just pick a recipe, make it, distribute the dog treats, and then the owners will decide if they want to feed it to their dogs or throw them away. It definitely seems like the perfect “It’s the thought that counts” kind of situation. But I don’t know! I’m not a dog owner!

If you are a dog owner/expert, would you allow your dog to eat a treat containing peanut butter? Perhaps I should stick to a different “flavoring.” But the other flavors include things like banana and sweet potato. Do dogs like bananas and sweet potatoes? Am I overthinking this? I am overthinking this. 

Awkwardness: Thank you for your support and kindness in response to my post about being the most awkward human on the planet. I am mostly over it. I have since spoken to several of the moms involved in my big foot-in-mouth incident the other day, and they seemed friendly and normal and the subject never even came up. 

What are you up to, this last weekend before Christmas? If you also have to brave Costco, you have my solidarity and sympathy.

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You will wonder, in a moment, why I am calling this “My Take on the TikTok Baked Feta Pasta” when my version has neither feta nor tomatoes in it – two crucial ingredients in the original aforementioned TikTok pasta, the third and fourth being “pasta” and “olive oil.” 

You will likely wonder why I even glanced toward the TikTok Baked Feta Pasta, when I neither have TikTok nor can I stand tomatoes nor do I particularly care for feta. 

And yet, here we are, with me sharing a recipe (“recipe”) for my own version of a recipe I have neither tried nor wanted to try nor followed. 

Perhaps – you might think, trying to wrap your mind around my motives and this post – what appealed to me about the TTBFP is its simplicity. You put a few ingredients in a dish. You toss them in some olive oil. You throw the whole thing in an oven and then, 20 minutes later, stir in some pasta and voila! you have a meal. 

Well, you could be right, except that I went and made the TTBFP much more complicated, eliminating its simplicity right from the get go. 

I think it’s time to stop trying to understand me; I sure don’t, and I’ve lived with me for 40 years. Let’s get to the recipe. (“Recipe.”)

Baked Mushroom & Goat Cheese Pasta

Servings

Approximately three, if each serving takes up about half a soup bowl.

Ingredients:

  • 12 oz mushrooms, rinsed and sliced
  • 1/2 red onion, chopped
  • 4 oz plain goat cheese
  • 1 head of garlic (optional)
  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic glaze
  • Pasta of your choice (I used cellentani because it is pretty and fun to say)
  • Arugula (optional)

Directions:

  • Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Spray a 9 x 13 baking pan with vegetable spray, just because you distrust olive oil’s food-sticking-prevention abilities.
  • Throw your chopped onions and sliced mushrooms into the baking pan. Add salt, pepper, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil and mix it all together with your hands. 
  • Make a small space in the center of the veggies. Nestle your goat cheese right in there. It’s okay if the veggies want to snuggle right up to the goat cheese. 
Wouldn’t you like to snuggle up to a nice goat cheese pillow?
  • If you are using garlic, slice across the top of the whole head of garlic with a sharp knife, exposing some of the cloves. Nestle the entire head of decapitated garlic (how can a head itself be decapitated? I trust you understand.) into a corner of the pan.
  • Drizzle everything with another tablespoon or two of olive oil.
  • Drizzle everything with a teaspoon or so of balsamic glaze. Who’s kidding who here. I did not measure. Just drizzle until you feel like you’re done. I did some sloppy crisscrosses and called it good. 
Glazey crisscrosses!

  • Shove the pan into the oven and set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • Boil some salted water. I don’t know how much; however much you need to cover however much pasta you use. I used half a box of pasta which turned out to be FAR too much pasta, because I forgot how dramatic mushrooms are. They get very hysterical about being baked and shrink to almost nothing. I would say a quarter of a box of pasta would suffice, if you like your pasta nice and sauce-y.
  • Add your pasta to the boiling water and cook it for two minutes under whatever duration the box recommends.
  • When your pasta is done, drain your pasta BUT RESERVE SOME PASTA WATER. I always reserve way more pasta water than I need, just in case. 
  • Check on your pan at the 25-minute mark. If the mushrooms and onions are starting to brown and your goat cheese is resembling a puddle, it’s probably done. I had to cook mine longer than I thought, but I also accidentally turned off the timer at some point and have no idea how long it actually baked. It could have been 20 minutes, it could have been 30. I considered, at one point, turning the heat up to 450 F for a while, to see if I could caramelize the onions a bit more. But I was concerned about how those little drama queens (mushrooms) might react (burning into charcoal).
The goat cheese looked much more melty in person. Also, the mushrooms are being deceptive here. They still seem plentiful. But they are NOT.
Different view of those now much diminished mushrooms.
  • Remove your pan from the oven and marvel in an irritated way at how drastically your mushrooms have shrunk. 
  • Remove the garlic. Use the tip of a sharp knife to dislodge some of the cloves from their papery outfits and add them back to the pan. I used about 1/5 of the garlic, I’d say, because it seemed like an appropriate amount of garlic for the quantity of mushrooms remaining. Plus, I am going to use roasted garlic in some focaccia this week – I have been saying I would make focaccia for a year and I have NOT DONE IT YET, despite wanting to and planning to and even putting it on my meal plan twice, but THIS IS THE WEEK, it is happening – so I saved the rest of the garlic for that purpose. 
  • Stir everything together. Add some reserved pasta water to achieve the sauce consistency you prefer. 
The goat cheese stirs up so nicely. Far better than FETA, I’m sure.
  • Add some pasta to your pan and stir some more. Add more reserved pasta water if you like. 
Are you beginning, now, to see just how FEW mushrooms remain? It’s like half of them took the day off.
This is it. Even with the pasta, it takes up less than half of the pan. Also, it’s not the most photogenic meal.
  • Put your mixed pasta into a dish. If you are so inclined, add a handful of arugula. 
Now it’s pasta salad! No, just kidding. I do think the arugula adds a nice peppery contrast to the richness of the pasta.
  • Drizzle the bowl with more balsamic glaze. Enjoy!

Will I make this again? I can’t honestly say, at this point. It was tasty! And it was filling! The goat cheese makes it super rich and creamy, so one serving was plenty. It was easy! (Though the mushrooms, all on their own, the prima donnas, make it time consuming.) But on the side of NOT making it again, it is so disheartening to spend eight hours washing and peeling and slicing mushrooms only to have them minify in the oven. How is minify an actual word? I seriously thought I was just being lazy, but it has a dictionary entry and everything. I also wish the onions had had a chance to caramelize a bit more. 

If I made it again, maybe I would have to use EVEN MORE mushrooms. And maybe I would cut them into larger chunks. Using more would increase the amount of prep time… but it might also increase my enjoyment? Hard to say until we try. And we may never try. After all, have we learned nothing from the focaccia intentions?

In all, it was fun to try. It was yummy. And now the recipe has been recorded for posterity. 

The end.

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The original subject line of this post was simply “Chores,” but adding “Chat” really takes it from drudgey to cheerful doesn’t it? No? Just me?

It is a dreary, chilly morning, which feels like a betrayal after the sunny warmth of the past few days. I was awake off and on during the night due to horrible nightmares involving my loved ones. I have to go renew my driver’s license, which is on the Top Five list of Things I Enjoy Only Slightly More Than Dental Work. Plus, I have postponed Bathroom Cleaning Monday for no reason at all beyond my absolute gut-twisting hatred of cleaning the shower, and it can be postponed no more.

When we are feeling so dreary, what better topic to tip us right over the edge cheer us is housecleaning?

I scrubbed the floors yesterday, which is a very satisfying chore. My back hurts a bit, though, and I think I once again have chemical burns on my fingers from the bleach, will I ever learn, which is both painful and also somehow apt. “Satisfying” is, of course, a far cry from “enjoyable.” I am trying to think about whether there are any chores I ENJOY. (Are there any chores YOU enjoy?) I suppose I enjoy the results when I clean the kitchen: The gleaming expanse of freshly-scrubbed counters. The shiny reflective surfaces of the stainless steel appliances. Everything ready and waiting for another meal to be made. Which will inevitably upend everything into disaster once again.

My mother was telling me recently about her own mother’s cleaning schedule. Every month they would deep clean the kitchen, which involved emptying out all the cupboards and drawers and scouring them with Murphy’s Oil Soap. EVERY MONTH. I do this… quarterly, maybe, on a good year? Is that horrifying? How often do you do EMPTY your cabinets and wipe them down, inside and out? While we’re at it, how often do you empty your refrigerator and scrub the inside of THAT? I do it far less frequently than I should, even though I have no idea what the Ideal Refrigerator Cleaning Frequency even is. There is possibly some sort of checklist available online, that would tell me exactly what to do when, but I don’t care to be bossed. I will instead remain fretful and slovenly, thank you very much.

Everything I know about cleaning, I learned from my mother. Well, that’s not entirely fair: I learned about dish washing from my father. And about scouring the sink with Soft Scrub. But everything else was my mother’s domain. She was much better about sticking to a strict housecleaning schedule than I am; see above RE: the bathroom cleansing delay. We cleaned the whole house every Saturday. I remember being awakened by the sound of the vacuum. My job was a) cleaning my room and b) dusting. (I also did most of the dishes on the daily, and did my own laundry and ironing. I REFUSE to iron as an adult, but as a middle schooler I ironed my Z-Cavaricci jeans. The heart wants what it wants.)

At some point, I did learn how to scrub a bathroom as well, so I’m sure I helped with that on Cleaning Saturdays. I don’t mind cleaning a toilet, really. And there’s nothing difficult or daunting about wiping down a counter (for me, I recognize and support those for whom it is either or both). By the way, my very best (only?) cleaning tip is to keep a toilet scrubber in EVERY BATHROOM. And if your bathrooms have cabinets, keep a container of toilet cleaner, 409, and a roll of paper towels in each bathroom as well. That way, even if your cleaning supplies are all the way in the laundry room, or you aren’t in the mood to do a Full Cleaning, you can do a quick spot clean and still feel accomplished and virtuous. Hot tips like this keep you coming back, I just know it.

My mother used Endust on a rag to do her dusting, so I also use Endust on a rag to do my own dusting. Swiffer dusters were not available back then, and, frankly, are hugely wasteful although I do still use them on occasion.  I have a Swiffer-style sweeper with reusable pads for the floors. We had hardwood floors in the kitchen, so my mother never scrubbed the grout (no grout to be had). But she did use some sort of Pledge-type liquid to mop the floors until they shone. I use Mr. Clean on my hardwood floors because a housekeeper requested it specifically, and then I kept buying it whenever it was on sale, and now we have more Mr. Clean than any one person should. Bleach is my best friend in the bathrooms, and when it comes to cleaning the grout. I like vinegar and baking soda – or baking soda and Dawn – when it comes to cleaning my sinks. I love 409 for counter tops. Who knew adulthood would mean amassing so many Preferred Cleaning Items?

I suppose How to Properly Clean a House is an important life lesson for a child, and sometimes I fret (because I will literally fret about anything) about whether I am On Track in teaching Carla how to keep a house. What kinds of cleaning chores do your kids do? Or, if you don’t have kids, what were your housecleaning responsibilities as a child? 

Carla’s main jobs are tidying: She must make her bed every morning. She must clean her room once a week. She must pick up any toys she leaves out, although this is a moving target; right now, for instance, there is a bunch of play-doh and various play-doh tools out on the kitchen table, which shows you both how good I am at enforcing her tidying responsibilities and how often we eat together at the table. 

I also have Carla zoop the floors on occasion. Most of the kitchen debris comes from her (at what age do children stop shedding crumbs?), so it seems only fair that she help dispose of it. She also has to clear, rinse, and place her breakfast and dinner dishes. And, if we eat together, she clears, rinses, and places ALL the dishes. This is a very pleasing improvement in her Skills and Abilities, now that she is seven. She is responsible for putting away her folded laundry. Sometimes, if she is in The Right Mood, she will help me dust. I especially appreciate her dusting skills when it comes to wiping down the banister and stairwell baseboards.

When I was a kid, I also had to clean out the barn. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed that chore. I would crank up the country radio station and get out a big, stiff-bristled broom, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, and remove all the manure from the barn to the shelter belt. Talk about a satisfying chore. You had the pleasure of not only seeing something go from filthy to clean, but also the satisfaction of pleasingly sore muscles. And it was nice to be out in the fresh air and sunshine. The horses did not enjoy it as much, sometimes nudging over the wheelbarrow in defiance or pushing past me to dirty the newly cleaned floor with an abundance of scorn. 

My husband does most of the vacuuming, and he takes care of the bathroom floors. (He can vacuum the entire house and clean all the bathroom floors before I finish cleaning the kitchen.) (I suspect that he does not move the furniture to vacuum under it, but one can only ask for so much.) (He will vacuum under the couch cushions if I remind him.) He also does the VAST MAJORITY of the laundry folding, for which I am deeply grateful. I excel at washing clothes, and sometimes even putting them in the dryer, and sometimes even moving the clean, dry clothes up to the laundry room guest room. But unless I am VIGILANT about folding the clothes immediately, I grow overwhelmed and dizzy and choose to shut the door on the ever-growing pile until it threatens to take over the house or my daughter runs out of underwear, whichever comes first. My husband, on the other hand, is never daunted by a mountainous tangle of clothes. He LIKES to fold, and listens to music while doing so, and it takes him SUCH a short time I think he is a magician every time he does it. He is also very good at the mechanics of folding: his shirts are always creased just so and identical in size, a feat I have never been able to master. 

Folding laundry is one thing. But my most hated chore, by far, is cleaning the shower. It requires scrubbing, which is physically draining. Plus, since it’s a small shower with a sliding glass door, it requires some bodily contortions that I don’t love. Plus, rinsing the shower always results in my shirt and socks becoming completely sodden. Plus, it is impossible to get every single bit of either the doors or the track on which they slide fully clean. PLUS I cannot handle hair in a drain. I JUST CANNOT HANDLE IT. Hair on a head, fine. Hair anywhere else, I will pass out or throw up or both.

Well, I had hoped that talking about chores would get me all fired up to go do some cleaning. It has not had that effect. Perhaps you will share what your favorite/most hated chores are, and/or what the breakdown of chores is in your househould, and/or your Hot Tips for cleaning. In the meantime, I am going to trudge up to the bathroom anyway and see if I can clean the shower without getting totally soaked.

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We are somehow nearly halfway through January and I feel simultaneously as though the month has FLOWN by and also that it has lasted six million years. Much of it – at least the past week – has been extremely dreary and fretful, both for external reasons (what is HAPPENING with our democracy) and internal ones. But even though I am feeling down and worried and unsettled, I feel like my complaints are so small and insignificant that they aren’t worth sharing. There is SO MUCH going on in the world right now, my dumb complaints sound even more out-of-touch than normal. 

Like for instance how my return key does not work unless I press down on it with all my weight. Or how I am FINALLY getting to clean my oven (with the self-clean function) and so my house is filled with the acrid scent of imminent doom and also a soupçon of pizza essence. Or how I had to wait for more than an hour in the gynecologist’s crowded waiting room yesterday which a) I am SURE was the reason my blood pressure reading was much higher than normal and b) is making me Very Anxious about the likely unrelated fact that I have a scratchy throat today. Or how I have been working extra hard on revising my book and the whole thing is stupid and I am wasting my life. I really need to suck it up and stop wallowing.

I hope YOU and your loved ones are doing okay. And, honestly, if you had a small, insignificant gripe to share with me, it would make me feel better. Or not, that’s fine too. If you just want to scroll listlessly through my dinner options, trying valiantly to get up the motivation to think about making Yet Another Meal, that is a-okay with me.

Dinners for the Week of January 12-18

Over the weekend, I tried these Sheet Pan Cuban Chicken and Black Bean Rice Bowls (which Ernie mentioned recently), and they were delicious and a 100% keeper. They got me in a mango mood, so I have a bowl of mangoes ripening on the counter which is one good thing to look forward to, I suppose.

  • Sweet and Fiery Pork Tenderloin with Mango Salsa: Speaking of mangoes, this is what we’re eating tonight. I have made it several times in the past and have always found the pork to be a little… weak in flavor. Today, I threw all the ingredients in the crockpot, added a bit of soy sauce and some minced ginger and garlic, and we’ll see if that does anything. 
  •  Fish Taco Bowls 
  • Fire Fry 
  • Chicken Shawarma with Steamed Broccoli
  • Tacos: The regular ground beef kind, per Carla’s request. I am going to have her make them, since she has been voicing some disappointment about the meals on offer lately. She seemed pretty pleased at the thought.

I also have some zucchini and asparagus in the crisper, for spur-of-the-moment stir fries or protein-and-a-veggie-side options.

What are you most looking forward to eating this week?

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For future Hanukkahs, this is my experience with making sufganiyot.

First let me say that I have never had sufganiyot before, so I had nothing against which to measure my results. I read somewhere that they are somewhere between a beignet and a donut, but I have never had a beignet, so in my head I translated “beignet” to “fritter,” which is denser than a donut. (They are also, according to Smitten Kitchen, like Polish pączki or Russian ponchiki or Italian bombolini, none of which I have had either. Clearly I need to expand my donut eating habits.)

Because I don’t like oil spattering all over my kitchen, I sought out an air fryer version. (There is still oil involved in the air fryer recipe, so it seems like it still adheres to Hanukkah tradition.)

The Spruce Eats had a recipe for air fryer sufganiyot, but the recipe didn’t work for me. Not only did it require me to scald milk (an instruction that had no additional details; I had to look up what scalding meant and then look up what temperature the milk would need to be to not kill my yeast), it also had a couple of confusing directions (do you roll the dough out to 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch thick, because the recipe stated both). Unsurprisingly, the dough refused to rise. I still air fried a few, for practice, and they LOOKED adorable but were unpleasantly dense and kind of bitter. They reminded me more of biscuits or scones (neither of which I like) than donuts. This is all to say I DO NOT recommend the Spruce recipe.

I tried a second recipe, from Tori Avey, that worked MUCH better. First of all, NO SCALDED MILK which made me feel scammed by the whole scalding milk nonsense earlier. Secondly, it has vodka in it, which I found appealing simply for its novelty. (WHY is it there? I am sure there is some reason; in fact, I’ve heard of adding vodka to pie crust to make it flakier? Like it evaporates more quickly than water and lightens the dough? I am quite possibly making this up.) Third, the dough rose very nicely; it’s possible that it could have risen more if I had left it to proof longer, but by that point I was up against the clock — I still had to make the fish and green beans and latkes. (Remember, by “make the latkes” I mean removing them from the Trader Joe’s box and baking them.)

I used a glass to cut the rounds. I might experiment, in future years, with making them slightly larger. They are very small — between two and three inches in diameter.

I used the air frying instructions from the Spruce article (except that I pre-heated the air fryer for three minutes and sprayed the inside generously with cooking spray): I put four of the dough circles into the basket, brushed them with oil, fried them for 2.5 minutes at 350 degrees, then flipped them, oiled them, and fried them for 2.5 additional minutes.

I used seedless raspberry jam for the filling. I have a little plastic squeeze bottle that was ideal for filling the donuts. I used a shish kebab skewer to puncture each little sufganiyah and then filled each one with jelly until I could feel the jelly pushing back against me; a couple of times, the jam erupted through a weakness in the meridian of the donuts, but this happened rarely. After they were filled, I sprinkled the tops with powdered sugar.

The Tory Avey batch was much lighter than the Spruce version. I really liked the texture — still a little more dense than a traditional yeasted donut, but lighter and fluffier than a scone or a fritter. The dough was slightly sweeter than the first recipe I tried, too.

I do wonder if they would have been lighter and airier if I had allowed the dough to proof a little longer? The one “issue” I had was that the jelly didn’t really FILL the inside — it made more of a little well in the center. And if the air pockets in the dough were bigger, I think that would allow for more jelly filling.

AFTER I’d made both batches, I saw recipes for sufganiyot on Smitten Kitchen and The Kitchn that are WILDLY different from what I tried, so it might be fun to give those a go in future years.

These are the perfect size for eating like three or four in a sitting.

Perhaps the BEST part of the sufganiyot experiment is that we had too many for the three of us to eat (they are better eaten when warm), so we made up a plate and took them across the street to a neighbor. Please do not mistake this easy breezy sentence for an easy breezy decision: I fretted EXTENSIVELY about it. What if the sufganiyot weren’t very good? I mean, they were good compared to the first batch, but I had never tried the real thing and maybe they were a very poor attempt. And what if my neighbor didn’t want to eat something prepared in a home kitchen during a pandemic? And what if she wasn’t Jewish? Something she said to me in the past — the exact nature of which has since exited my memory — left me with the impression that she was Jewish, but I could have misapprehended what she’d said or misremembered the conversation. Or what if she is Jewish but can’t eat gluten or sugar or is allergic to raspberries? What if she was eating dinner and we interrupted her? Ugh. So many reasons NOT to do it. But a generous impulse should be embraced and followed through!

Our neighbor is this absolutely lovely woman who has a dog Carla loves and who is sweet and patient with Carla and very friendly to me. She’s had a really hard go of it during the pandemic and yet she is supervising remote learning for her grandkids AND working full time and I just wish I could help her more. (She has nearby family, so she has not once taken me up on my offers to help.) We took over a plate and at first it went HORRIBLY. We could see lights on in the house and could hear talking, but no one answered the doorbell. I even knocked, just in case the doorbell wasn’t audible, but — despite Carla’s dismay — we decided to leave. I felt super uncomfortable: maybe they were all eating dinner together! maybe they didn’t want to answer the door during a pandemic! maybe they were purposely ignoring us! So we went back across the street.

But then, just as we were about to go into our house, we heard people leave the neighbor’s house. Carla, who was carrying the plate of donuts, rushed back over with me training awkwardly behind, my glasses suddenly COMPLETELY fogged over at that exact moment even though I had been wearing them and my mask the entire time. I felt So Awkward.

But Carla asked for our neighbor, and her family called into the house and asked her to come out. Carla handed her the plate and told her we had sufganiyot to share and asked if she celebrates Hanukkah and when our neighbor said yes, Carla said that she did, too, and our neighbor just seemed so surprised and delighted. The neighbor’s daughter told us a charming anecdote about visiting Israel during Hanukkah and seeing sufganiyot in storefronts everywhere. The grownups seemed thoroughly unbothered by our presence and our little offering, which helped me feel less awkward. (Although it would have definitely helped if I could SEE.) Carla got to pet the neighbor’s dog AND the neighbor’s daughter’s dog, which made HER day. And then we said goodby and left.

Later, our neighbor called and left me a VERY sweet voicemail, saying thank you, and assuring me the donuts were good, and expressing shock and pleasure that she wasn’t the only Jewish inhabitant of our neighborhood. The whole experience made me feel very glad I’d fought through my frets and gone ahead with the generous impulse.

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We are almost out of paprika, which is one of my Household Staples, and it makes me feel VERY NERVOUS to be so low. (“So low” means I bought a medium sized bottle of paprika at the grocery store last week.) (That’s TOO LOW.) So I hopped over to the Penzey’s website to order more; we have a Penzey’s locally, and they are doing contact-free pickup of spices.

Anyway, since I already there on the website, I poked around. Clicking on menu links is a poor replacement for in-store browsing, but it’s what we have. And I discovered that they are selling little “trial size” bags of some of their spices and spice mixes for around the $2.50-$4.00 mark. And a) that is a price point that seems very appropriate for stocking stuffers and b) who doesn’t love trying new spices?!?! I often get my parents a little box of herbs and spices when we go visit them, and it’s a great hostess/housewarming gift, so why not a stocking stuffer?

This works wonderfully if you have a Penzey’s in your area (FREE PICKUP). Although then, of course, you are limited by what the store has in stock. BUT if you are also out of paprika or cumin or whatever herbs/spices YOU cannot live without, you can order online and have everything shipped to you! (I mean, you could ship the little trial bags by themselves, but I think you get free shipping with a $39.95 purchase. And honestly, if you simply buy one single bottle of vanilla extract you will be almost there.)

I think my dad would like the BBQ 3000, since he and my mom grill steaks every Sunday.

Photo from Penzeys.com

And this Mural of Flavor mix sounds really fun to try — we make a lot of chicken and pork, so I could see many uses for it.

Photo from Penzeys.com

One of my parents’ favorites is this Northwoods Seasoning.

Photo from Penzeys.com

They also love the Chicago Steak Seasoning.

Photo from Penzeys.com

And I personally love this Sandwich Sprinkle, which does, indeed, add a nice herby punch to a salami hoagie.

Photo from Penzeys.com

Each little bag is less than an ounce, but that’s enough to get a sense of whether it’s worth buying a bigger bottle. Plus, they are CUTE and therefore FUN.

I wish I had spotted this in time to add it to my list of stocking stuffer ideas, but better late than never!

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