What’s for Dinner?

Learning to Celebrate

This week  Brain, Child magazine ran an essay I wrote about the life I didn’t choose (a life with only one child) vs. the life that I have.

Often I imagine the life I didn’t choose. In this life I am the parent to one six-year-old boy. I sleep through the night. I spend long Saturday mornings with a book on the couch while he sits on the floor playing Legos. Some days he goes over a friend’s house and our own home is completely quiet. This imaginary life, the one I left behind, has its perks.

But I haven’t so much lost these small pleasures as I have traded them for others.

This post generated 1K+ likes on Facebook–small beans by some standards, but a nice little landmark for me.

Also this week I got to contribute to a post on one of my favorite WordPress blogs, Stories from the Belly. Even better was the topic I was invited to write about: breasts! I had fun writing the following sentence which opens my micro-essay:

Once, at a crowded farmers market, an acquaintance of mine broke from our conversation to pull one of her breasts out of the top of her sundress and nurse her infant daughter.

And I loved seeing my work on the same page as bloggers Diahann Reyes and KS.

Someone in my life who knows me well challenged me to celebrate my good week. Celebrate, as in mark a significant achievement by engaging in something joyful, pleasurable.

My immediate response was to rattle off a list of things I still haven’t done, things that would truly be worthy of celebration, you know, like 20K likes on Facebook, or a book deal, or publication in the New York Times.

This friend assured me that it was still okay to celebrate.

My next response was to feel utterly flummoxed about what kind of shape that celebration should take. Kellie, as we speak, is performing maintenance on deep cycle batteries on the Mojave Desert, so there’s no one at home to open a good bottle of wine with me.

But the more I thought the more I realized that I like food as much as wine, and I like my children’s company as much as I like anyone’s, and so I decided on sushi and cake.

Our evening wasn’t perfect. Mostly, in between bites, I tried to keep Stump from throwing sushi on the floor, and Smoke, who normally picks at his food, is very capable of devouring twenty dollars worth of sushi and then complaining that he wants more.

But the cake eating was leisurely, and I might have learned something about celebration: the preparation was 60% of the fun. Both Smoke and I spent our whole day looking forward to sushi, and in the grocery store we methodically examined every single option for dessert.  Also: I still have leftover cake which I will eat tonight, alone, after my kids have gone to bed. In other words, the celebration isn’t confined to a single moment. It spills into time, the before and after, and asks us to continue to value the thing that was marked.

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Biscuits and Gravy and Other Small Comforts

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My partner just got home this week after working in California for a month. A month is a long time—long enough that I had to try to remember what it was actually like to have her around, and that was an eerie feeling.

In general, when Kellie’s gone I revel in the space she’s left behind for the first two nights. Some of that is literal—the half of the bed she usually occupies is very useful to me when it’s empty. But also it’s sometimes nice to have one less personality since we’re a family of four strong-willed humans in a 900-square-foot house. But always, by day five, chaos descends. All of a sudden, the trash needs to go out, the chickens need water, the dogs are out of food, there are dirty dishes and crumbs on every surface, and everywhere I go I step on a Lego or trip on whatever kitchen implement the baby was playing with. Since Kellie was gone for over a month, there were at least twenty-six days like that.

When Kellie came home, she cleaned the house. She mowed the lawn. She changed the sheets on the bed. And then on Tuesday, while I was at work, she called me from the grocery store. “What do we need?” she asked, and I told her if she picked up a roll of biscuit dough I’d make biscuits and gravy. Oh, and wine. Couldn’t she stop by our local wine store on the way home and ask Jim, the owner, what was good for less than ten dollars? (As much as I would have liked a glass of wine during the month that Kellie was gone, there were no casual trips to The Wine Loft.)

That evening my son came home from preschool with a model helicopter kit, which he was intent on building immediately. I chopped mushrooms while Kellie uncorked the wine. The baby was up to his usual business of finding order and disassembling it. My son was having trouble with gluing the propeller, so he let out a whine, and Kellie immediately sat at the table with him. They finished the model together. I was amazed by how functional we were all of a sudden.

Had it been a week earlier, I would have panicked the moment my son unpacked the helicopter kit. He would have started the model, cried when he got to his sticking point, and we would have escalated from there. It would have ended with me packing up the kit while he screamed. By then, the baby would have been screaming too, and the entire kitchen would have been in disarray: floors, sink, counters. We all would have been hungry, and tired, and nowhere close to eating.

As it turned out, this particular evening wasn’t perfect. We were out of tahini, which is an essential ingredient in my mushroom gravy. I threw extra nutritional yeast in to compensate, but it wasn’t as creamy. But it didn’t matter. The biscuits were warm, the gravy was salty, and we had a ten dollar bottle of wine and a finished model helicopter.

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If you look closely, you’ll see the helicopter.

Kale’s Opposite: In Praise of Pigs in Blankets

ImageI live in a community where, at any given potluck, you can count on finding no less than three varieties of quinoa salad along with several dishes that feature kale. We take our kale seriously, and did so even before it was fashionable. We know the difference between Lacinato Kale, Red Russian Kale, and the more common Curly Kale; we know which kind works best for a kale salad, and can identify on sight whether our kale has been locally grown or shipped from California. Though I am always happy to pile my plate with these healthy offerings, I will sheepishly admit that, for me, part of the fun of a potluck is trying to get away with something. I prepare for a potluck with two goals in mind: 1. To bring something my kids might actually eat. 2. To put less effort into the potluck dish than I would into a regular evening’s dinner.

As it turns out, my favorite solution is an hors d’oeuvre that is as far from kale as possible: pigs in blankets. Though this food seems to make many adults wax nostalgic, they were not a feature of my childhood. We were deviled egg people. I didn’t discover pigs in blankets until a few years ago when a friend of mine brought them to a party and all of the guests wolfed them down before they’d even had a chance to cool properly. I will share with you now her method.

1. Mix some mustard with some honey.

2. You will need two packages of crescent roll dough and one package of refrigerator mini-sausages. My friend uses li’l smokies. Those are good. I like Aidell’s chicken sausages, mainly because when I say “pigs in blankets” I want my “pigs” to be figurative, not literal.

3. Lay out the dough and cut each triangle in half. Each piece of dough gets a nice little spot of honey mustard and one mini sausage. Toddlers and preschoolers are really good at rolling them up.

4. Bake them before you leave, or, if you can cook them off at the potluck that adds to the dramatic effect and anticipation.

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As an example of how ubiquitously loved they are, I offer you this: I have a good friend who swears by her organic whole foods diet. Her skin is radiant. She bikes everywhere and drinks kale smoothies. She’s fifty-two, but if you just met her you’d probably guess she’s thirty-six. In general, if anyone offers her food, she wants to know what’s in it and where it came from. More than half of the time, she’ll politely decline. But let me tell you something: she will eat my pigs in blankets. She does not ask me what is in them. The reason is pretty obvious, I think. Who knows what’s in those crescent rolls? She knows that if she knew, she would not eat them and they are too good not to eat.

So it goes with the rest of my community. My pigs-in-blankets offering sits happily on nearly every plate between the quinoa, the kale, and the beets. No one asks me what’s in them or looks at me askance. I like to think they’re all secretly happy to eat something with zero grams of dietary fiber. Oh, and one more thing: by the end of the evening, the pigs are always gone.

Image credit, actual pig in blanket: cutepicturesite.com

Like Christmas in January: Four Day Enchiladas

When I was a pre-teen, my mother once suggested that we should celebrate Christmas in early January. We could grab a tree from someone’s trash and buy all of our gifts on sale. At the time I must have given her a look like she was deranged, but as an adult, I think she was onto something.

One of my favorite things in the world is when I am rewarded for my own laziness, like when a friend returns my favorite scarf a week after I left it at her house. I may have had vague notions that it was missing but hadn’t taken the trouble to look for it yet, and now here it is, returned before I’ve bothered to worry. This is so much better than the alternative, which is also possible in my world: tearing apart my entire house looking for the scarf, driving myself crazy and checking every place multiple times.

My laziness was again rewarded this week when I planned to make enchiladas but wound up, due to my own lack of motivation, with a series of dinners that progressively led to enchiladas and fed my family for three nights, with enchiladas to spare for future lunches.

Day 1: Soaked beans. Went shopping for chicken thighs, tortillas, and canned enchilada sauce. Ate sandwiches for dinner.

Day 2: Put beans in slow cooker in the morning. By afternoon, decided I was too tired to deal with chicken—all that rinsing and dealing with a wet and stinky package. Resorted to standby meal: beans wrapped in a flour tortilla with sour cream. Bonus: the five-year-old was willing to eat that.

Day 3: Put off dealing with chicken until the end of the day. At 5:30 pm, realized that we could just eat chicken for dinner. Threw a few pre-cut veggies in the pan for good measure and made some white rice.

Day 4: Finally, enchiladas. Assembly took twenty minutes because all ingredients were ready. Remembered a lazy and useful trick: layer tortillas with the other ingredients rather than rolling them into individual enchiladas. Voila: enchilada casserole.

ImageIf I were ever to write a cookbook, I would title it “Put an Egg on it” because that’s pretty much my cooking philosophy. Most dishes are improved when topped with a fried egg.

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In the case of this enchilada casserole, once it comes out of the oven you’ve got ten minutes to kill and if you’re like me you’re antsy, so you might as well fry an egg.

ImageTo be honest, these weren’t the best enchiladas ever. But consider how disappointing that would have been if I had slaved away on them for an entire day. By now, the enchilada casserole had become a fancy way of serving leftovers, and on those terms it was a success.