Our lives go in cycles of busy and not-so-busy. During the not-so-busy times, I like to try and keep my mind away from my tragic bank account and worries by calling this time “planning time” or “repair time.” Or even “down time,” whatever that means.
It’s also a time to return to some semblance of health in our family. When we are busy, and my husband is working all week at night and I work on the weekends, and the kids are going strong with sports, we devolve into takeout land. So much that we begin to crave home cooked meals. This year we even got a subscription to one of those meal boxes so we would feel like we could cook without thinking.
It’s funny how that works. When you cook all day long, it really doesn’t matter what recipe is in front of you. You just want to have a beer or glass of wine and step away from the stove. Even the thought of throwing together the ingredients given is much toomuch energy. We sometimes even break down and get takeout food delivered, which seems truly decadent.
But that meal box has been useful for one thing-- we have ingredients in house when we haven’t gone to the grocery store. And we have made a few of the dishes they recommend. Mostly we have spent time using the ingredients to make our own dinner, with a few new items brought from work or picked up on the way home.
And when we are busy, we have a few go-to meals. Tacos is a favorite. However, we have graduated from ground beef to flank steak or slightly odd “fajita meat” sold at the mexican butcher store along with either chicken or seared tuna. Queso fresco and freshcorn tortillas from the same mexican store. Sometimes the salsa they sell on the side. Peppers and onions. Avocado. Weird refried beans.
Another dish is pork fried rice. One trip to the Asian grocery and you are set. Leftover rice is best. And you can add anything. Now that my wok is good and seasoned, I struggle not to use it for everything. My key to fried rice---make sure it is really flavorful without having it end up wet and gunky. Not that easy to do in my opinion.
Today I got home late from work and made a quick meal for one of the kids---chicken breast marinated with the cajun spice blend in the meal delivery box, braised onions and peppers, and sauteed fingerling potatoes because I made pasta on the fly yesterday and we were out. I wished for basil, for already shaved garlic, for rice that wasn’t going to need to soak for 30 minutes before going into the unintelligible rice cooker. But she seemed to enjoy it and even better, actually ate it. One meal down, infinite more to go.
I feel like 60% of my conversations with my husband and/or my children involve the question “what’s for dinner?” and I really couldn’t give a shit most of the time. If I were alone, I might have cereal. A lot. But there is joy in all of us eating together every night, even if we are only eating while watching the news. Gives us some good questions like “if the president can’t be prosecuted, then what would happen if he killed someone?” or “Did anyone tell that journalist before he was interviewed that his tie was sideways?” It isn’t quite the ideal family meal, where we all sit in the uncomfortable dining room and stare at each other. But we do get a chance to talk, even if our kids just argue about who stole whose clothes.
And, as political talk has taken us back to the 70’s, I remember doing the same with my mom. We watched Walter Cronkite every night. I can still remember the day the US left Vietnam, the day Cronkite retired many years later, and lets just say the Nixon years are still vivid in my mind, even though I was 7. Must have been all that yelling at the television from my mom!!! Hope my kids end up with some of the same memories, maybe with less of the yelling --- or maybe more?
Spaghetti Carbonara (kinda)
We have made this dish so many times recently that I know we ALL need a break. We keep the ingredients in our house all the time so it is an easy dish on the fly.
chicken breast- 2pc
slab bacon - can use regular bacon
cream or creme fraiche
frozen or fresh peas
Cut the chicken breast(s) into pieces and brown on the both sides. Salt and pepper lightly. When brown and cooked some, pull out of pan. Add the diced lardons or bacon or the dices of sliced bacon and cook them almost as much as you want them. Before you are quite there with the bacon, add the onion.
Dice the onion and add it to the pan, making sure you don’t burn the onion. This one I dice fairly small, then use olive oil as needed so it doesn’t burn. Add garlic (1-2 cloves) toward the end, as garlic tends to burn.
Then add stock and put the chicken breast back in. Meanwhile you should be boiling your pasta. Add peas and spinach right near the end. I let the stock get reasonably low and then add a bit of cream. I also make sure to add an egg yolk or two at the end. Pan should be hot but not quite on the burner when you do the yolk. You can also add a bit of parmesan cheese. When my blander eating kid is gone, I also add some red chili flake.
Then dish it up!!!
As I was texting my friend and realtor today, we remarked on the sadness of saying goodbye to another of my mother’s things...this time her house. We talked about the glad/sad of it all. He remembers spending time talking to her before she put the house on the market shortly before she died. I remember sitting at her table watching the birds and enjoying the late afternoon light and her excellent company.
I can’t keep another aging house functioning while I frequently ask Jeremy questions like “What’s that gushing sound?” and “Is that sunlight I see through that wall?”. I am glad another family will enjoy the quiet and sweetness of my mother’s little house, even if I know they are going to change everything and make it their own. As I made cuttings today of the three plants she loved from her house -- her figs, her camelia, and her gardenia -- I looked around and felt relieved that I would not have to hassle anymore with the house. But the loss of another place where she was and where I could still feel her presence, is rough.
This really is the season of glad/sad. Yesterday my kid ended her soccer season with a great coach and a fantastic group of girls. And she sobbed and sobbed on the way home. Today she is decidedly glum. These girls have been her sisters this year. And some she will hardly see as time passes.
For my part, I find it isn’t easy to find sideline pals who you truly enjoy and don’t feel simply obligated to be nice to. Our group this year was fun and I even found a few who I could whisper to about politics. And there was not one parent who was consistently “that parent”, who made you text each other on the sideline going “OMG”. I don’t have time for friends who I don’t work with generally. Precious down time is mostly spent with family. So these sideline parents have an important role for me. Each time we shuffle up teams I wonder if this is the last year I’ll find myself comfortable with the parents around me.
This year probably marks the end of my being a truly active part of my kid’s soccer. She will head off to a team where less parent participation is required or even encouraged. Aside from what will undoubtedly be long hours to practice and back, I may not get as many chances to have nice dinners together alone like I did the other night, talking about how we handled stress and some advice on what we could improve on. And just getting quiet time to laugh and hang out while we enjoyed hotel life.
Of course, there is the looming saddest glad of all. My eldest will be choosing colleges and leaving for one before too long. I will be so proud and so sad not to see her every day. I am not worried about her doing fine, because she will. I am not worried about her making friends, because she will. I am not worried about her smarts or her humor or her responsibility. I am worried about what I will do without the few moments these days when i get to mother her and even get to chat.
But this is how it goes. And would I be happier if I woke up and looked around 10 years from now and she was still at home in her room? I doubt it. Our job as parents is to work all the time to foster our kids leaving us and going out on their own. Kind of. My mom and me, and her mom and her, and my cousins and their moms, have maintained a kind of close/not closeness I hope I can replicate with my daughter. As best I can name it, all the mothers in my family have remained very active in their children’s lives while also encouraging those kids to do what makes them happy. And all I can do is hope and pray I get the same chance with my daughter. I think I’ll manage not talking to her every day, but more than a few days and I will get antsy. I just hope she will feel the same way about me.
Many of you know that my second job is as a soccer/field hockey mom. I drive carpools to hideous locations, I spend weekends in fantastic weather, and some not so fantastic. I spend hours and hours with other parents. Some years the parents can be a real trial, which makes it painful. I am positive parents would agree that I can be painful as well. Such is the life of the sport parent....sometimes you navigate it well as a parent, and sometimes you just put on your crazy pants and let it all fly.
It is quite hard not to get over involved in the process of the sport. For elite soccer, some manner of involvement is expected and you are not looked upon kindly for many absences. But it is so easy to dip into the zone of too much. And there are pitfalls everywhere-- maddening tryouts where there is no feedback, odd decisions that one doesn’t understand about team selection, whether to do this extra sport thing or not. I say this as a partially recovering crazy mom. I am working on the phrase “Have fun,” because, at the end of the day, it ought to be fun. And I am trying not to analyze my kids’ play except inside my head. My new phrase is “did you have fun?,” because my kids get enough analysis from their coaches, which is how it should be.
Some of the time, I feel like my entire life is snack retrieval and emails from coaches and parents organizing this or that. I make sure the kids have the correct gear. And I figure out what time to get to the field for practices and games in wherever-ville. Sounds straight forward, right? Snack, that’s not hard, right? Orange slices or apple or granola, right? I wish.
One of my kids is so easy about most snack that I generally fear she just isn’t bothering to eat much. My other kid is so fussy, it is a challenge for us all not to get wrapped up in her quest for the perfect today snack and dinner, which, of course, will be completely different tomorrow. I know my mother would have and did do these things for me. But I don’t know how she did it as a single mom. Without both my husband and myself on it, our kids would hardly make it to school let alone sports with full bellies and the correct shin guards.
And there is that nagging little problem of my job. I have one that I should be doing. And I hate missing any of it. I want to be at the restaurant, I want to be in the office, I want to be home gardening, I want to be watching my kids play sport. And the issue with small business is that, although my schedule is sort of flexible, my ability to pay bills is really dependent on the effort I am able to put forth in my work.
Leaving work at 3:30pm on an average afternoon to find snack so that I can meet my kid and/or the carpool doesn’t help me do my job. It leaves me guilty. Guilty for not being a good enough parent when I roll up without snack or late. Guilty for being a negligent chef for not being present to lead and at least answer questions on a truly daily basis. Guilty for not being a better catering manager for not being present at all events and for being tardy submitting menus and such.
People ask me often how I can manage to get away from work to be with my kids. And there is no good answer. “I am burdening my staff because someone needs to be here for my kids.” “We are one person down and they are just sucking it up.” “My husband was supposed to do today but he was so overwhelmed with work that I had to give up my shift at the restaurant in order to get here at all.” I usually say something benign but I often think “It is hard. I should be there instead of here. And if I were there, I would feel like I should be here.”
There is a never ending supply of torture devices if one goes there. I am trying to give myself a little break from time to time from feeling like I am never in the right place or doing enough in any arena of my life. But, as with soccer parenting, it is a process. Some days I feel like i have threading the needle just right. Some days I feel like it’s fine if I am not perfect and I’m doing the best I can. But I struggle a lot. And I know many others feel this way....pushed and pulled in so many directions, it feels impossible to fully accomplish anything.
And what’s the solution? Simplifying? Outsourcing? I think a work towards acceptance is the path for me. But it is totally going to be a lifetime project.
Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
(because what is better when you feel stressed out)
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1 c granulated sugar
1 c brown sugar
1/2 TBS vanilla extract
1/8 c milk
2 3/4 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 c rolled oats
1 c raisins or currants
Cream butter and sugar. Combine dry ingredients in separate bowl. Add liquid ingredients and dry ingredients to butter mix, alternating. Don’t over-mix.
We like to scoop the cookies out. Put them on a baking sheet and freeze them. When they are frozen, put them in a Ziploc bag and take them out as needed.
Bake at 325 for 8-10 minutes - until center is JUST done.
photos by Lizzie Kerman
When I was about 25, I went to Paris to cooking school. My uncle had a contact that had found me an apartment in the 15th arrondisement and I moved in in September.
Those first weeks were terrible. The apartment was new, kind of tacky and lame. Not at all that dream I had of living in someone’s 17th century attic in the heart of Paris. I remember feeling completely out of my element as far as language as well. As my mom always said, I was like my long-departed (for New England) dad. I never wanted to talk to anyone in a foreign language until I wasn’t going to look like a fool.
Even though I had spent a summer in France in high school and taken some college French, my head was filled with Serbian and German. I have always felt that the problem with learning more than one foreign language is how to keep them all up front in your head at the same time. When I was speaking mostly French, that’s what was in my head. Once I spent time learning Serbian and traveling the then Yugoslavia, I had trouble finding the French.
So those first days in France were rough...incidents of opening my hand with random coins and having sweet cashiers collecting what they needed from my palm. Having the most unspeakably rude experiences at the post office. And being taken in hand by Parisian grannies. If you stand still for more than a few minutes in most parts of Paris, there is always a lovely older lady ready to give you a hand and wait patiently while you butcher their language.
When I first arrived, I took a French class to get my sea legs again. And I practiced thinking in French and not translating conversations with people I spoke to on the street into English before getting the meaning. That is a real trick. You kind of have to turn off your inner translator and be willing to absorb without having everything be perfectly clear.
I started walking. Partially because I was often lost at the beginning. And I was shy about the metro and bus. I walked and walked and walked. All over the city. I went miles and miles. I had a journal-- post college for diary. I found this recently as I was cleaning out our house to make room for my mom’s things and it was appalling. I know we should feel nostalgic for those 20’s, but I am so grateful to have let some of that angst go in the ensuing years.
I also cooked. First I went to cooking school and worked as an intern (stagiare) for the school. Then I worked as a private chef in the British Embassy.
I didn’t have a kitchen of my own, but especially at cooking school, I was able to make truly delicious food from supreme ingredients. I’ll never forget my final exam from school---I had to make a recipe from a basket of ingredients. I was so anxious. The chef told me the recipe in advance but told me “now there is no margin for error. Everything must be perfect.” Pan seared turbot with a puree of artichokes with beurre blanc.
My favorite dish from cooking school is probably tarte tatin. I love it partially because my beloved Chef Fernand Chambrette taught me, partially because it is a recipe he taught me without many measures written down.
Chef Chambrette’s Tarte Tatin
one tarte tatin pan or a largish heavy cake pan
Granny Smith apples (Chambrette used golden delicious but I have found that the ones I can get don’t hold up to cooking and keeping their form)
Put thick slices of unsalted butter along the bottom of the pan. Then put enough sugar in the pan to go to the bottom of your fingernail once you stick it in the sugar.
Then peel, core, and cut the apples in half and very tightly pack the apples on top. I like to pack them straight up for more appleness but many folks like to put them upside down so there is a lovely round apple top. I like to make sure they are packed tight enough that they are still full once they have melted some.
I start this on the stove. I cook it on the stove until the sugar and butter begin to pretty evenly caramelize. You will need to jostle the pan so that the hot spots don’t leave you with burnt sugar.
I cook it until there is caramel beginning to soak into the apples. I have been known to pull one apple out so that I can see what’s happening.
I then let it cook slightly and roll a piece of pie dough on top. Put it in the oven for 30-45 min. I do peek to see what is happening under that shell.
Then take it out of the oven. Let it cool some but not so much that it won’t un-mold. Then turn it over onto a plate. If you have some apples stick, just carefully scrape it onto the top and it should be fine.
My pie dough recipe, for what it’s worth:
9 oz flour
6 oz unsalted butter--- you could do 2 oz lard, 2 oz butter, 2 oz crisco
1/4 cup ice cold water
I put the flour and cold butter in the food processor and make sandy. Then add the water and mix til it just forms a ball. You might need more or less water depending on the weather and the type of flour you use
A couple of years ago, I got really sick. So sick. And I never really get not-working sick. If it had not been for my mother and her pretty constant nagging, I probably would have died.
I thought I had a kidney stone. I was coming home from speaking on a panel on local food and I suddenly felt just awful. Thought I initially was getting one of those fast stomach things. And then, in the middle of the night, I had pain. So bad it was worse than labor (although memories of labor are shaky).
Now there are several points during this journey that I look back as moments I could have certainly made different choices. For example, if the pain is so bad you wonder if you are dying, this is a time you could call an ambulance. Or, if you were me, have your husband drive you 2 minutes to the emergency room.
Yeah, so that’s not what I did. It passed so I felt better in the morning. My mother hounded me into going to the doctor. They told me I looked like hell. Gave me meds for a kidney stone, shot for pain, sent me home.
Fast forward to me three days later, still sick. Fever maybe getting worse. Looking green. My mom sat in my bedroom and told me I was going to the emergency room. And, again, I made a different choice. Wasted time by calling the attending on call at the hospital. Asked him what the criteria should be that would send me to the hospital vs. waiting it out at home.
In the end, my mom MADE me go to the emergency room. She would not hear of no. And she made my husband drive me. And she saved my life.
And this often reminds me that life is more fragile than we think it is. At the ER, I was baffled when the resident looked so relieved to tell me that my organs were functioning. It never occurred to me that I was really sick.
And I would love to say that that sickness taught me to live better, worry less, and make every day count.
But I am still me. I fret like crazy, usually at 3am about things I cannot change immediately and certainly not change in the middle of the night. I spend too much time engaged with my children in arguments about socks and what’s for dinner. I forget what I enjoy besides work.
And I worry that I did not nag my mother enough like she did for me. I am sad I didn’t push to have mom in the ICU or realize she was ill. She was so stoic, she seemed fine to me. And maybe that’s just what she wanted.
I wish I had kissed my mom goodbye when I left to take one of my kids to sports. I didn’t want to give her my kids’ colds. I wish I had gone to have dinner with her more before she died. Most of all, I wish she were here, even for a second, to know how much we loved her and how we are doing okay without her so she shouldn’t fret.
Grandmother’s Brunswick Stew
Get a pot big enough to boil a chicken. Chop (not fancy or fine) 2 carrots, 1 onion, 2 stalks celery, and fresh thyme. Put a bit of butter or oil in the bottom of the pot and sweat the vegetables. (Sweat generally means cooking them some without really browning, until translucent)
Add a chicken and 8-10 cups of water or chicken stock (depending on the size of your pot). Cook til the chicken juices run clear. I often under cook the chicken just a shade (cooked but pink-ish) since I am going to add it to the stew. However, do what works for you.
I use a pair of tongs and a kitchen fork to remove the chicken from the pot. As soon as it’s cool enough, I pull the chicken off the bone, taking care to get all the gristle and skin. Leave the chicken in large pieces and set aside.
Continue to reduce the stock in the pot. Add the bones (but not the skin from the chicken) to this. My mother always added a couple of bouillon cubes as well.
When my Grandmother made this, she used the creamed corn that she and her cousins “put up” in the summer and froze. I like to use fresh white corn.
8-10 ears white corn, taken off the cob (also be sure to get the milk off the cob and add it to your stock)*
2 pkgs butter beans (about 4 cups)---I get these from Brinkley Farm and use either butter beans or cream peas
2 cans whole peeled tomatoes or 12-14 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
fresh cayenne pepper or red chili flake
2 onions finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
In a smaller pot, sweat your onions and garlic. Add the tomatoes and butter beans. Add stock from your chicken pot to cook the beans. Cook 20 min or so, until the beans are cooked. Add chicken pieces of a size that suits you. Add the corn. Cook for 10-15 min for everything to marry. Add more stock if needed. Season with salt, pepper, Tabasco, Red pepper flake or fresh cayenne.
I often marvel at how this is a perfect stew for winter, but is best made either in the late spring or summer.
* some people like to add the cobs to the stock for 20 or so minutes to help with flavor. I worry about them making things bitter before I remember to pull them out. I use the flat side of a knife and run it along the side of the cob, getting any juice/milk from the cob along with any extra meat hidden in pockets
How do I remember my grandmother? She lived in a small town in Eastern North Carolina, in a house on Church Street that backed up to a big garden. As with many things in my life, some of my best memories of her include food.
I remember her crying when her pecan pie didn’t set. I remember her chicken salad sandwiches (crusts cut off) with fresh tomatoes and her bread and butter pickles. I remember that my mother loved her braised cabbage with peppery pork tenderloin.
Every family gathering to this day is filled with both wonderful food and adult beverages of all kinds. We have evolved from bourbon and water drunk at the sink to beers to, thanks to my cousin Chrish, wine of all kinds.
My grandmother was my favorite growing up. After I turned 5, she deemed me old enough to learn to play cards. Gin rummy, obviously. We would play together against my mother. My grandmother always won. In the afternoons, when it was too hot to do much else, we would sit at the table and eat blister peanuts and play cards. Sometimes, my grandmother would have her ladies over for lunch to play actual penny-ante poker.
If she liked the ladies, she would make shrimp salad in lettuce leaves with a side of cucumbers in vinegar or lovely Better Boy tomatoes. Or maybe her really delicious Brunswick stew with a little tiny diced fresh cayenne pepper on the side.
Does everybody have a family like mine? Food obsessed, prone to excess of all kinds, full of storytellers and odd ducks. Loud and messy and funny.
I have an idea of writing a blog about my life, through food and stories. My stab at seeing whether I could write a book or not. I’ll share recipes, stories that I hope won’t mortify my family members or call them out, but will remind us of where we came from and offer some food on the side.
What has been most on my mind lately is my mom’s passing. I’m finally getting around to selling her house and it has brought a lot back from her funeral a little over a year ago. What would I say about my mom’s funeral? The most I have cried and the most I have laughed in a long time.
Service where I was sitting in the front row. Bad deal since I suck at such things. I was basically the one supposed to stand and sit like I “knew” how to do. But a combination of general shock and my lack of attendance at church meant those behind me were stuck. Do what they knew to be right or try and not make me look ridiculous? A true Southern dilemma. Kind of funny if you think about it.
Barbecue lunch with the family and all the lovely folks who cared about my mother. I hesitate to say “sweet” mother. Because she could be sweet, but only if you deserved it. And she could be equally cutting and snide if that was called for as well.
Drinking and snacks at my cousin’s house. The last time I will be at that wonderful house next door to where my mother and Uncle Joel grew up. And taking the teenagers for a quick “driving lesson” in the cemetery, where we laughed so hard and drank wine in the back seat while they maneuvered our cars around. We took the flowers from the service and took them around the decorate the graves of our various family members.
Ending with oysters at the Sunnyside oyster bar. I remember eating there when I was little. The hot sauce poured out in coffee pitchers. The oysters shucked and dumped into little side bowls. Our kids did what many of my cousins’ did; they ate chicken in the lounge with the pinball machines and the bar. The only thing missing was my mother, who would have loved it. And maybe my grandmother.
My Grandmother’s chicken salad--
(forgive me as she never used a recipe for this)
chicken breast and thighs, boiled not to death, with ALL the skin and gristle removed
4 stalks of celery, cut lengthwise and then diced in an organized fashion
salt and pepper
shot of Tabasco
Mix to your taste but remember that moderation is a good thing. And you can’t take
something OUT but you can add more. That goes especially for mayo, salt, and lemon.