06 December 2010

giving thanks

Prior to Thanksgiving, Sacha's teachers asked the class what they were grateful for, and the answers were documented in last week's newsletter. In a class of seventeen, sixteen answered some variant on 'my family.'

Ever the outlier, Sacha was thankful for his Kung Zhu&trade hamster.

He's never been one to mince words. At the beginning of the school year, the kids were paired with a classmate with whom they had to collaborate on a drawing, and say why they liked their partner. Jonah likes Henry because he's funny, while Eli likes playing basketball with Max; Eleni appreciates Kyra's drawing skills, and Sadie loves that Joseph is a good sharer. Meanwhile, Sacha likes Rachel because he likes her. I don't know if he likes her, or likes her, I appreciate his honest, straightforward approach.

And so when he declared his gratitude for his battle hamster, I couldn't help but feel proud of my boy, for proving once again a consistent ability to cut through the bullshit.

29 November 2010

Happy birthday, you old goat

I recently celebrated my forty-second birthday. I think that I'm aging well, but over the past few weeks, events have been conspiring to make me wonder if I am deluding myself.

The first time, we were out for dinner for Sacha's birthday. Sacha was sitting next to my mother, adorning her with kisses. A woman with a large bouffant and over sized glasses sitting at an adjacent table, leaned toward our party and said, "He sure does love his grandmother!" As my mother agreed, the woman looked to me, and added, "I see he loves to kiss both his grandmothers." My mother explained that I was his mother, not his grandmother, and we shared a laugh at her ailing vision.

The following week while I was on line at the market with Sacha, a little girl behind us struck up a conversation.

Girl: Hi; I'm three!
Me: Wow, you're very big!
Girl (nodding at Sacha): How is is he?
Me: He's almost five.
Girl: I'm three!
Me: That's just what I would have guessed!
Girl: How old are you?
Me: I'm forty-one.
Girl: Are you his grandma?
Me: No; I'm his mother.

And then, on the morning of my birthday, as I snuggled with Sacha, we had the following exchange:

Sacha: Mama, today is your birthday.
Me: Yes, it is.
Sacha: Happy birthday!
Me: Thank you!
Sacha: How old are you?
Me: I'm forty-two.
Sacha: WHAT?
Me: Forty-two.
Sacha: Whoa, whoa, WHOA! That's old!
Me: Actually, it's not really.
Sacha: No, it is. Forty-two is really, really old.
Me: How about we go brush our teeth?

12 November 2010

Insult and injury

This week Sacha has developed an unfortunate habit of waking at that dreaded unnamed hour, when the sky is just beginning to lighten around the edges. When this happens I dare not look at the clock, because it will only confirm that although my sleep has been effectively ended, it is still far from time to start my day.

I think these mid-night wakings are due to a combination of daylight savings and a few too many nights of eating a late dinner, but whatever the reason, they have resulted in a seemingly endless loop of sheet washing — perhaps some semi-secular alliance between god, the water utility and a shadow arm of the Coin Laundry Association are having a laugh at my expense. More than once this week I've stripped Sacha out of wet pajamas, and brought him up to my bed. I could change his sheets and put him back in his bed, but I am constitutionally opposed to doing laundry in the middle of the night. Hope springs eternal, and I am unwilling to risk what little chance I have of falling back to sleep for the sake of housework.

While a middle of the night snuggle with a delicious child is decent consolation for disrupted sleep, recent experience has taught me that even this innocent act is not without risk. A few weeks ago when Sacha had an accident, Gabriel was already in our bed, so I tucked Sacha into Gabriel's bed and laid down with him for a few minutes. Sometimes, it's like a French bedroom farce around here. Sacha could not get back to sleep, and several failed attempts to make my exit later, I decided the only reasonable thing to do was to slip him a mickey give him a tablet of melatonin.*

He quickly grew still, but as I tried to extricate myself from his bed he popped up once again. At this point I accepted that there was no way I was getting back to my bed, got myself a melatonin and settled back in with Sacha. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I felt a hot stream of urine hit the small of my back. Now, two beds were wet, and I was wide awake. I walked stiffly back to my room in my cold wet nightgown, changed my bedclothes, and got into my warm, dry bed. As I pulled the covers up to my chin and exhaled, David's alarm rang.

And so, with some trepidation, as I carry my son up the stairs to my bedroom, I issue a silent prayer that nothing, or no one, gets pissed on. Because if this goes on much longer, I may take to sleeping in rubber fetish gear, which would have the advantage of being both and practical and sexy.

*There are drugs that save, or vastly improve the quality of lives, and while I can't claim melatonin has done either, I still consider it a miraculous substance. Before we started giving it to Sacha at bedtime, it could take him hours to fall asleep. Although he was never loud or disruptive, he would lay quietly in wait, and every night, as I checked on him on my way up to bed, he scared the shit out of me when he popped up and gave me a hug.

02 November 2010

Behold the next generation of foul-mouthed youth

One recent evening the boys were watching television while I made dinner. Sarah, who was reading in the living room, expressed concern that the show was inappropriate.

I wasn't terribly worried, on the theory that a show airing at 6pm on Cartoon Network couldn't be too off color. But you can never be certain, and Sacha is already plenty cheeky. With two older siblings controlling the remote, his viewing habits tend to be a bit lowest common denominator. I checked in to find the boys watching Adventure Time, which I have vague recollections of as being somewhat surreal and not half bad.

This was not the response Sarah was looking for, because she followed me back to the kitchen to suggest I put on a different show. I allowed this line of inquiry to continue by asking for examples of objectionable language, but she demurred.

Me: Are they using curse words?
Sarah: Not exactly.
Me: Then what kinds of words are they?
Sarah: More like pre-curses.
Me: Pre-curses! Precursor curses. Like...dodo?
Sarah: No.
Me: Doofus?
Sarah: No. Like...stupid.
Me: Ah.
Sarah: Or jerk.
Me: Well, that's nothing he hasn't heard before.
Sarah: Or, 'This is jacked up.'
Me: Actually, it might be pretty funny to hear Sacha say that.
Sarah: Yeah, but sometimes they say things like, 'Go to hell.'
Me: That wouldn't be good.

Some of Sacha's most amusing utterances have been appropriated from television dialogue. I've seen him shake his fist and shout 'Curse you!' at offending inanimate objects, and he favors 'I have no i-clue,' an amalgam of 'I have no idea' and 'I don't have a clue.'  Last week while taking a bath he told me that karate takes skill, and practice, which I especially like because although it was lifted from a delightful book, it sounds like something overheard on a late night infomercial. 

And thus we devised a litmus test for appropriate television content — would this amuse or embarrass coming from Sacha's mouth? It could make a good drinking game; play at your own risk.

21 October 2010

Heat wars

Here on the east coast we are enjoying a gorgeous, temperate fall. Last year by this time I was deep in the heat game, donning my makeshift burka and doing wind sprints up and down the stairs. But with the exception of a few rainy days earlier in the month, I haven't yet been tempted to turn the heat on.

Sarah disagrees, appearing every morning for breakfast with her shoulders hunched, shivering in her coat. "It's freezing!" she declares, and asks for a cup of tea. I am happy to make tea, but as someone whose hands and nose are perpetually cold, I am categorically certain that it's quite comfortable in the house.

Until this week, the thermostat has read sixty-eight degrees during the day, which is one degree warmer than we keep the house in the winter. When I mentioned this to Sarah, she shivered in disdain, whimpered and wrapped her hands tightly around her hot mug.

And so I was surprised when David mentioned he was contemplating setting the heat to go on from 5-7:30 so it's warm when we come downstairs in the morning. He less susceptible to cold than I, so I knew what he meant by we was Sarah.

Sarah has a flair for high drama, and is very comfortable ordering people around — sometimes I find myself listening to her before remembering that I am the one in charge, and just this week, when I didn't give her a check for a school function as quickly as she wanted, she offered to write it for me to sign. But as her parents, I like to think we are not so readily fooled.

I was momentarily surprised to see how easily snookered David was, until I remembered that when it comes to daughters, a father is reduced to a pat of butter in a hot pan. Mothers, of course, are made of stronger stuff, especially when it comes to their sons.

19 October 2010

Brother can you spare a blue skirt?

Sarah is going to be a rainbow for Halloween this year. Her plan is to layer her clothing in Roy G Biv order, with her outfit unfolding: red headband, orange necklace, yellow shirt, green shirt, blue skirt, indigo and indigo and/or violet leggings. She is mightily into layering as of late. I'm not sure how she plans to handle the legs, but I'm hoping we can strike a compromise with purple.

I asked her to take an inventory of what items she already had, so I could get a handle on what we needed to purchase. Her answer was everything.

I suggested an alternate route; since she already owns orange leggings and yellow shorts, perhaps she could work from the ground up. She disagreed, asserting that the concept will not work if people have to scan bottom to top, because a rainbow is not Vib G Yor, and so she most definitely needs a blue skirt.

At this point I realized her mission is two-fold; not only had she come up with a clever DIY costume that does not require sewing, but had done so in such a way as to maximize the number of new clothing purchases that can continue to be worn well past Halloween. Win-win; I was powerless to disagree. She did throw me a bone by agreeing to wear her grey sneakers.

13 October 2010

Meet the porcelain god

One night last week Sarah complained about the state of our powder room toilet. I couldn't argue with her assessment; I've been busy lately.  While I did scrub the sink recently, I didn't bother with the toilet, and was looking slightly unsavory, with an unappealing dark halo at the waterline.

I decided it was time for Sarah to learn how to clean a toilet. She is extremely competent in every respect; a crack babysitter, she can get Sacha fed, bathed and to bed and still have time to read before we get home. I don't intend for my children to leave this house without knowing how to change a light bulb, or make ice.

And so over the weekend we had a date with the porcelain god, during which I introduced her to the rudiments of scrubbing and swishing. Now, Sarah is ready to host a dinner party, where her guests will be assured a delicious meal, and a sparkling bathroom.

And next time, she will think twice before criticizing my housekeeping skills.

12 October 2010

Crowd surfing optional

This year we went to synagogue for Simchat Torah. I'd never been to this service before, but the class of new Hebrew school students, of which Gabriel is a member, were being consecrated. While I'm not against the idea of going to synagogue, I do find it fairly boring, but on Simchat Torah I had the best time I've ever had in a synagogue.

It was partly due to the joyous nature of the holiday, which celebrates the end of the annual cycle of Torah reading, and culminates in a ceremony where the congregation forms a circle around the children and unfurls the entire Torah scroll. I'd always thought touching the Torah was verboten, but apparently not, at least if this is to be believed.

There was a relatively short service accompanied by a klezmer duo, and many families with small children were present, signifying a behavioral bar set low enough for limbo. During call and response readings, Sacha repeated things, fortissimo, half a beat after the congregation. This included lot of enthusiastic oh yeahs! amens! and much indecipherable ad-libbing. The service culminates with singing and dancing, during which Gabriel and Sacha fought over playing the bongos, and Gabriel spun wildly like a dervish.

Speaking in tongues and ecstatic dancing; perhaps the key to enjoying synagogue is to behave like you're at a tent revival or a rock concert, and let your freak flag fly. Next year's highlights will include pogoing, and slam dancing.

06 October 2010

slinging hash: pesto genovese

No one needs another recipe for pesto, but the basil, if not quite dead, is no longer thriving, and so it is time to pick the plants clean and lay in a stash for winter, or at least the next week. Last weekend I set aside time to do just this, which is incredibly easy now that I no longer use the mortar and pestle.

I love mortar and pestle sets, and find them incredibly useful, and satisfying. I have a small collection of them, including a small one made of virtreous ceramic, and a larger ceramic Japanese mortar with a grooved surface that helps facilitate grinding, but is a bitch to clean. What I really covet is a molcajete, and if I had unlimited counter space, I would leave it out on display because I find it's primitive, sculptural form so attractive. Once I purchased one in the supermarket for a very good price, and immediately set about using it, only to find that whatever I prepared in it was inedible due to the presence of tiny bits of pulverized stone.

For years I swore by the mortar and pestle method of making pesto, believing it yielded a sauce with a true, fresh basil flavor, as opposed to the slightly stale quality of dried basil, on the theory that bruising, as opposed to chopping the leaves preserves the plant's volatile oils. This is also why most recipes instruct for basil to be cut in a chiffonade, as opposed to finely chopped, like parsley.

It was time consuming, and a bit of a pain in the ass, to make pesto by hand, but also fun to do with the kids — pounding things is extremely therapeutic at any age. When she was small, Sarah used to ask for a turn marching the basil.

A few years ago I read Laura Schenone's lovely The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, and although I probably shouldn't have been, I was surprised to read a description of Enrichetta, a Genoese woman who made pesto in a blender. Her secrets included working quickly, and adding a bit of water to the blender to give the sauce a smooth, creamy texture.

As Enrichetta's son Sergio says, "Better to make good pesto in a blender than bad pesto in a mortar." This seemed like eminently sensible advice, for pesto, or for life. And so I put away my mortar in favor of the food processor. I was getting tired of all that pounding anyway, and of the kids picking strands of basil they deemed insufficiently pulverized off their pasta.

And now, while making pesto is no longer an event, it is every bit as satisfying and delicious. 

Pesto Genovese

You can use either a blender or a food processor for this. Depending on the size of your machine, you may want to make this in two batches to ensure you can work quickly, without clogging the machine.

Because I make this is large batches, and keep the sauce in a jar in the refrigerator covered with a layer of olive oil, I don't add the parmesan until I toss the pesto with pasta. If you are going to serve all the pesto immediately you can add the cheese after the basil. Made without the cheese, pesto keeps for a while in the refrigerator covered in a layer of oil, or can be frozen for longer periods. 

1/2 cup pignoli
generous pinch salt
1 fat garlic clove
olive oil
3-4 fistfuls basil leaves, about 4 cups

parmigiano-reggiano for serving

Put the pignoli, salt, garlic and a tablespoon or two of oil in the blender or food processor. Grind well, and scrape down the bowl.

Add the basil in two batches, scraping down the sides of the container as necessary, adding a little water at this time. If serving immediately over pasta, add parmigiano-reggiano and process well.

30 September 2010

Random musings for a rainy day


Today as my nurse called me in for my allergy shot, it looked very much like she winked at me. She may have been blinking, or perhaps it was a trick of the light, or an involuntary twitch, but from where I was standing it looked very much like a wink. This is a standing appointment, and I chose the time slot because not only is it convenient for me, but also because this nurse is the best jabber in the office. Shots don't make me nervous, nor do I find them especially painful, but she has a very light touch, as opposed to the other nurse, who has a more muscular, flesh wielding style. The more I think about it, considering that she was professional in every other respect, she probably didn't wink, but it would have been kind of exciting, if inappropriate, if she had. 


The kids always come home from the first day of Hebrew School with a care package. This year's contained a notebook and pencil, to signify knowledge, (fake) honey candy for sweetness, a penny for tzedekah, and a container of what they called "tradition soup," which is supposed to be chicken noodle soup, but is actually vegetarian chicken flavor. This is a kosher version of Cup Noodles — which I remember being called Cup O Noodles in my youth, which I guess is now too hokey and unsophisticated, or maybe too faux Irish — aka ramen in a bowl. I'm not sure what I find saddest about this; the lack of imagination demonstrated by dried soup to represent the rich history of Jewish civilization, or the imitation chicken flavor.


This is what it sounds like after school in my house. Sarah is to my right in the dining room, doing homework, while Gabriel is on my left, having a snack at the kitchen table.

Sarah: Mama, does it make sense to say, "I relish my phone?"
Me: Not bad, but it might be better to say —
Gabriel: Mama, do you know if you sell ten boxes of chocolate you win a free iPod?
Me: Really? Coo—
Sarah: Mama, how about this sentence: When I get in trouble I get very morose?
Me: Pretty go—
Gabriel: Mama, can I tell you what you get if you sell 100 things?
Sarah: Mama, I'm out of money on my hot lunch account.
Me: I thought we just put money on last—
Gabriel: Mama, today in music we got to put our names on our recorders.
Me: Did you learn any—
Gabriel: Mama, what are cats made of?
Sarah: Mama, don't forget I'm staying after school tomorrow.

At this point, Sacha's bus arrives, relieving me of my whiplash, and inability to complete a sentence.


Pincamayurasana elbow burns: like carpet burn for elbows
Peeling big toe pads: from tucking the toes on the back foot, which sometimes prevents me from getting a pedicure when I sorely need one

24 September 2010

the new routine

I am a midday, as opposed to a morning or a night person. It takes me a while to get going in the morning, and I am happiest when in bed by 10.00.


I like to ease into the morning slowly, in silence, and darkness, which is not entirely compatible with family living. Spouses rise early for work, and young children often wake well before you would like them to. Because David has the peculiar habit of getting readying with the lights on, I have been known to stumble into the brightly lit bathroom like a wounded lemur, covering my eyes and grunting while he shaves and tries to chat me up.

My favorite part of the morning is the 30 minutes I spend alone with a cup of coffee, reading Andrew Sullivan or the newspaper. For years now, I've tried to be downstairs by 6.30 so I have 30 minutes to myself before the children wake. That this only happens one out of five mornings is besides the point; it is the sacred ideal to which I aspire.

Sarah started middle school this year, which begins at an uncivilized 7.50am. Never mind that getting up early is difficult for a child who prefers sleeping until 10, and who tried, admirably but without success, to get in the habit of waking early during the week prior to the start of school. My point is that this new routine has completely upended my morning ritual. Sarah's bus comes at 7.23, and so when I come downstairs she is already in the kitchen preparing her lunch. It is rude not to acknowledge one's children, and so I must say things like, good morning, how did you sleep, and you look very pretty today.

By the time my coffee is ready she is sitting down for breakfast, and I feel boorish retreating to the living room and leaving her to eat alone. And so I join her at the table. But then, there is laundry to do, and a dishwasher to empty, and I wind up sitting for only a few minutes before I am compelled to do some work, periodically stopping for a sip of coffee.

After a week of this, I decided that if David is in the kitchen it would be alright to retreat to the living room. And so I settled in the my chair in the dark living room, triggering the ass sensor, at which point Sacha appeared at the bottom of the stairs, warm, tousled, and smelling of sleep, wearing nothing but his briefs, demanding to snuggle. A mother is powerless to refuse. But instead of abandoning myself to Sacha, I tried to continue to read over one shoulder and drink my coffee over the other. Which is how I wound up reading roughly 150 words in a coffee-dampened robe.

22 September 2010

slinging hash: figs and basil with pomegranate vinaigrette

I am having a love affair with a salad. It began with a dish of sausages and figs in a pomegranate dressing that appealed to me. I bought the figs, made the dressing, grilled sausages. And then I got distracted, and put a few onions and red peppers on the grill; I've never been good at following recipes.

We had sausages and grilled peppers and onions with pomegranate dressing and grilled flat bread for dinner, and as I washed the dishes, I remembered I'd forgotten about the figs.

The next day I sliced the figs and, in a fit of inspiration, arranged them on a plate with some basil leaves, drizzled with some of the leftover dressing, and my new favorite salad was born. I don't know what possessed me to pair basil with the figs. I am an intuitive home cook, not generally prone to  inventing flavor pairings or restaurant flourishes. But the combination of meaty figs, with their gently popping seeds, and the sweet-pungent licorice tinged basil is exactly right; so clean, refreshing, and with the vinaigrette, just the right amount of sour, that I can't get enough of it. I have been eating this for lunch, dinner and anything in between.

I am so entranced by this dish that when I refused to leave the table to help Sacha with his bedtime ablutions, he accused me of being greedy. At the time I found this delightfully absurd, but considering that I ate an entire box of figs in one sitting, he may have had a point. Whatever the case may be, it was worth it.

Figs and basil with pomegranate vinaigrette
Adapted from Bon Appetit

fresh figs
basil leaves
salt and pepper
pomegranate vinaigrette

Pomegranate vinaigrette
Pomegranate molasses is available at Middle Eastern markets, and at Whole Foods. I like the Al-Wadi brand. 

1/4 cup balsamic or white wine or champagne vinegar, or a combination
1/2-3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper

Whisk ingredients in a bowl or measuring cup; season with salt and pepper

Arrange figs and basil leaves on individual plates or a platter. Season with salt and a few grinds of pepper, drizzle with vinaigrette.

It looks beautiful on the plate, that I must hurry up and arrange a dinner party soon, before figs are out of season, so I can watch people swoon.

21 September 2010

The package

One afternoon recently I arrived home to find a large maroon box from Gevalia, addressed to one Emelda Sanger, on my doorstep. I marked the package for return, expecting to never see it again.

The next afternoon, the mail arrived, but the box remained. At this point I surmised it had not been delivered by the USPS, and called Gevalia to request they pick it up. That was the first of several errors of reasoning I was to make in my attempt to get the package to its rightful owner.

The first customer service rep I spoke with wasn't much help.

"Hello, and thank you for calling Gevalia! How many I help you?"
"Hi; my name is Pamela Goldsteen. A package from Gevalia was mistakenly delivered to my address."
"Can I have your name?"
"Pamela Goldsteen."
"Thank you Ms. Goldsteen! I don't see any record coming up under that name; can I have your account number?"
"I don't have an account number; I don't have an account. I have a package from you that I did not order."
"Can I have your address?"

I gave her my address, explaining I did not think it would be very helpful as it was the wrong address.

"Then may I have your credit card number, so I can look up your account?"

I considered several responses: fuck, no; hell, no; and, do you have a large sum of money you'd like to transfer to my account, before settling on no, and reminding her that I did not have an account. 

We went on like this for a few rounds, until she grasped the root of the problem. At which point, she suggested that I keep the package.

"Thank you, but I don't want it," I said.
"Then give it to someone!" she responded.
"I don't know anyone who will want it."
"You can donate it to charity?"
"I don't want to give it away; I do not want to be in any way responsible for this package."
"Then throw it away."

Thems fighting words. I suffer from irrational guilt regarding trash. I will never forget the scene at the beginning of Sex, Lies and Videotape when Andie MacDowell speaks to her therapist about her obsessive thoughts about garbage, because I too used to worry far too much about garbage. Since then, I've gained considerable perspective and become an ace recycler. But it pains me to place number six plastics in the trash, and I will carry a empty plastic water bottle around in my purse to recycle at home if no bin is available. Today in Whole Foods I had to restrain myself from offering to take a cardboard package from the woman on line in front of me when she asked the cashier to throw it out.

I am almost as insufferable about clutter as I am about trash. If it were up to me, my children would have no toys, and if I want to disrupt my sleep at night, all I need to do is think about the contents of my garage. And so I was in a bind. I could no sooner put a new, non-biodegradable coffee pot in the trash than I could bring it in my house.   

"You want me to put a brand new coffee maker in the trash?" I asked.
"Yes. If you don't want it, you can throw it away!"replied the customer service rep.
"May I speak to a manager please?"
"Yes! I'll connect you, but my manager is going to say the same thing."

I waited on hold for several minutes, and was disconnected. Perhaps it was an accident, or perhaps that's how Gevalia deals with the crazies.

I called back, undeterred, because now I had a point to prove. Thus began round two, where I was eventually connected to a manager, not before being warned by yet another customer service representative that the manager too would tell me to throw the package away.

Which he predictably did. Their coffee may be mediocre, their business plan questionable, but Gevalia is certainly effective at delivering a consistent message.

And so began a futile pas de deux, in which I attempted to approach from different angles, trying to convince the manager that this was his company's error, and therefore their responsibility to rectify, only to be consistently stonewalled. I suggested Gevalia contact Emelda Sanger, and was told that if she really wanted the package, she would contact them. I asked them to send UPS to pick up the package. The manager said I was welcome to ask my UPS deliveryman to take the package, but he wouldn't send it back to Gevalia. I began to suspect there was a sinister plot afoot to cleave me to this package. 

I knew I was wasting my time, but I couldn't help myself; I was, like a dog with a bone, unable to relent. My lunch went cold, and apparently I left Sacha stranded on the kitchen counter after washing his dirty feet in the sink. I was so absorbed in my debating exercise that Sarah had to tell me that Sacha was calling for me, begging to be let down. The circles became tighter as me and the manager approached our denouement.

Eventually I hung up the phone frustrated. The package remained on my doorstep all weekend, mocking me. In this time, I contemplated various ineffective schemes from the useless to the absurd— writing angry letters, and sending the package back to Gevalia at my own expense—before resigning myself to storing it in the basement until school started, when I would offer it to one of my children's schools.

The package was still sitting there on Monday morning when I took the kids to camp, but when we arrived home, it was gone. I'm certain Gevalia did not retrieve it, so either my mail carrier took pity on me, or more likely, someone stole it. If it was stolen, I know I ought to be upset, but really, I'm very grateful for this act of petty thievery.

10 September 2010

What passes for rational conversation around here these days

Late Friday evening, on a late summer evening. David is out of town. 

Sacha: Mama, will you come upstairs and help me get ready for bed?

Me: No, Sacha. I am going to finish my salad. Sarah and Gabriel are upstairs, and they can help you. 

Sacha: No! Mama! You're being greedy!

Me: No, Sacha, I am not being greedy.

Sacha: Yes you are. Greedy: G-A-T-R-W-X-Y-Z. You're being greedy!

Me: Sacha, greedy does not mean what you think it means. Greedy means —

Sacha: Mama! Just come upstairs right now or you never come up here again! Or, you come upstairs and you can...take a bath. But you should never, ever be greedy; it's very dangerous!

18 August 2010


This morning while Sacha and I snuggled and watched television, he took my hands, which were folded around his middle, and guided them toward his groin. Being a person of sound judgment and a respecter of boundaries, I resisted his request. He, in turn, resisted my resisting, and so our hands remained suspended, as if subject to the force of magnetic repulsion.

I am quite familiar with the sight of my son's naked form, and consider it a thing of great beauty. I have laid hands on him countless times, as I've snuggled and bathed and otherwise groomed him. I will continue to rub his feet and goose his bum, kiss, hold, hug and squeeze him, for many years to come. I expect I will still want to do these things long after he no longer needs my assistance.

But Sacha, as adorable I think your penis is, I do not, under any circumstances want to touch it.

Some time—not until your late teenage years, if I have any say in the matter—you will no doubt find yourself a friend with whom you will spend hours happily fondling one another. Until then, I'm sorry son, but you'll just have to do it yourself.

14 July 2010

slinging hash: caesar salad

I prefer hot weather to cold, but cold weather cooking over hot weather cooking. I'm complicated that way. During summer, the less time spent in the kitchen the better, and last week, with the heat wave, any impulse I had to cook ground to a halt.

Would that I could afford to order in sushi whenever the temperature reaches triple digits. Until then, all I can stomach is a dinner of salad, bread and cheese.

Normally I can take or leave salads, which I think of as restaurant food. This may have something to do with having been tasked with salad prep as a child, which I still find extremely tedious. But lately, Caesar salad has me in its thrall, and for this I have the Canal House to thank.

The friend who introduced me to Canal House described it as food porn of the highest order. Canal House is a joint undertaking of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, who, as best I understand, share a sort of cook's atelier in Lambertville, New Jersey, where they have pulled off the enviable feat of crafting an incredibly seductive print facsimile of their happy, yet no doubt ordinary, domestic and professional lives.

In addition to being beautifully designed, written and photographed, their four volumes of Canal House Cooking are full of recipes for straightforward, delicious things to eat and drink. They do not rely on fancy ingredients, complicated techniques of fussy presentation.

Opening Canal House Cooking puts me in a fugue state, where when I am not sent straight to the kitchen, I desire not so much to curl up with a copy as climb inside.

Technically, this is not a true Caesar salad, because it lacks egg and Worcestershire sauce. With lots of anchovies, the dressing does not stint on flavor. Garlic is pounded with salt, anchovies and Dijon mustard, to which olive oil is added. Rather than add the parmesan directly to the dressing, I add it when I toss the salad, which allows me to save the extra in the fridge. 

Serve over romaine, with parmesan cheese and with or without croutons, it makes a satisfying meal on an oppressively hot day.

Caesar Salad Dressing
adapted from Canal House Cooking Volume 3
makes enough for 2-3 salads

1 large or 2 small garlic cloves
salt and pepper
6 anchovy fillets
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
juice of 1 lemon
10-12 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

To serve:
romaine lettuce heartsparmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated


Smash the garlic in a mortar and pestle, add salt and pepper and grind into a paste. Add anchovies and pound into the garlic paste. Alternately, you can do this on a cutting board with the flat of a knife, and scrape the paste into a bowl before proceeding.

Stir in Dijon mustard and lemon juice. Slowly stir in ten tablespoons olive oil, one tablespoon at a time, until you have a thick dressing. In truth, I don't measure out the oil in advance, preferring to drizzle it in a bit at a time. Go slowly, tasting as you go. Adjust for salt and add up to two additional tablespoons olive oil if dressing is too acidic.

Cut or tear the lettuce into a bowl. Pour dressing over the leaves, add parmesan, and stir to combine. Top with croutons if you have them.

22 June 2010

Flotsam and jetsam

Gabriel's second grade teacher, Mrs McChesney, runs the most effective behavior modification system I've encountered. She prints her own money, McChesney dollars, which is earned out in exchange for desired behaviors: turning in assignments on time, completing extra work, sitting quietly, random acts of kindness.

One of her classroom rules is that all correspondence from home must be penned by the student and signed by a parent, if necessary. Gabriel will write her a note about anything, which has resulted in a string of highly amusing, if somewhat tautological correspondence.

Dear Mrs McChesney
I'm sorry I couldn't get a white shirt. So my mom is going to get one. I don't know when she is going to bring it in. Mabey around 10:00-1:00. 
From Gabriel

Dear Mrs McChesney  
Gabriel has permission to walk home from school by himself with Sarah. She can come over and get me. Or I can go over to her when I see her come out. Either way is ok, really. So Sarah can get Gabriel, or Gabriel can get Sarah. And they can walk home together by themselves now. 
From Gabriel

When I mentioned to Mrs McChesney how amusing I found Gabriel's notes, and his zeal for correspondence, she smiled and told me they receive McChesney dollars for writing notes. I thought requiring students to write their own notes was clever, but paying them to do so elevates it to brilliant.

The highlight of the week is a shopping expedition to the McChesney store. So sweet is the experience that more than one of Sarah's fifth grade classmates cited the McChesney store as their fondest elementary school memory on their yearbook page. The children can choose to save up for big ticket items, such as lunch with Mrs McChesney or the principal. More often, they buy from the store's inventory of the usual tchotchkes that middle-class children have in spades yet covet nonetheless, and enjoy for roughly twenty-four hours — pencils, erasers, stickers, notepads, whistles, yo-yos, plastic rings and Mardi Gras beads — before being consigned to the metaphorical slagheap for parents to manage.

At this time of the year, Mrs McChesney holds the equivalent of a reverse fire sale, and this is where she really shines. First, a a note came home soliciting donations: do you have half a box of granola bars your kids hated? Old forgotten pez dispensers? More unsharpened pencils than you'll go through before they leave for college? All your flotsam and jetsam is welcome in the McChesney store.

But instead of selling these items for a song, they go for prices that could only be considered extortionist. In the past week, Gabriel bought a black synthetic leather checkbook cover, two silly bands for $200 apiece, an empty slot-machine shaped candy container, a composition notebook decorated with pink and purple flowers, and my favorite, a DIY balsa-wood star ornament bearing a symbol of unknown origins that resembles a double chai or an unwound caduceus. When I noted it's obvious handmade character, it's fine color scheme and superior draftsmanship, and asked when Gabriel had made it, he replied that he bought it. My son happily spent $300 for an anonymous child's discarded craft project.

That the children use their money to purchase the sorts of things they already own, and at obscene prices, does nothing to diminish their zeal to accumulate and spend their cash. She really has their number, because the fact that the McChesney store is nothing more than a pint-sized Ponzi-scheme does nothing to dimish it's appeal.

When school is over, I am contemplating hiring her to see what she can do with some of my own less desirable behaviors.

16 June 2010

slinging hash: walnut pesto

When planning menus for dinner parties, I tend to avoid serving the same old thing, and I'm somewhat cavalier about violating that rule about not serving anything you've never made before. 

But when it comes to something to put out with drinks, before dinner, I serve up the equivalent of the missionary position — not bold or inventive, but delicious and eminently satisfying.

For years now, my standard spread includes cornichon, the Union Square Cafe's bar nuts, and olives marinated with lemon and herbs. All are easy, and never disappoint. Until recently, I've never deviated from this roster. A few weeks ago, though, I threw caution to the wind, and made walnut pesto.

Although they're not my favorite nuts to eat out of hand, I really like walnuts in sauces; they add body, and have a pleasantly astringent bitterness. This walnut pesto is composed of nothing more than nuts flavored with garlic, sun-dried tomato and thyme and bound together by oil and sherry vinegar. The sun-dried tomato struck me as perhaps a mistake; I wondered if they would be too sweet, and throw off the balance of flavors. But as this was the first time I was making the recipe, I left them in, and it turns out, they are exactly right; punctuating the soft, sweet nutmeats with a little toothsomeness.

I hadn't eaten any lunch on the day I first made this. As a result I found myself making a second batch before I'd even cleaned the food processor. Which brings me to another good point about walnut pesto; it comes together in a trice. When I served this to guests that evening, we could have happily spent the evening eating this with drinks. 

So far, I've only served this on toasted baguette, but I imagine it making a nice sandwich spread, a sauce for whole wheat pasta, or dressing for green beans or broccoli. 

Walnut Pesto
adapted from smitten kitchen

1 cup shelled walnuts, toasted and cooled
2 tablespoons minced sun-dried tomatoes, oil or dry-packed. (If using dry-packed, soak in boiling water for 5-10 minutes prior to use.) 
1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed
plucked leaves from 3 sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper 
small splash of sherry vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup parmesan cheese


Coarsely grind walnuts, tomatoes, garlic, and thyme in food processor. Remove to a bowl, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add a small splash of vinegar. Stir in cheese and oil. 

Slice baguette, and grill or toast under broiler. Top toasts with a spoonful of pesto. 

08 June 2010

Adventures in eyewear

Last month Sacha began wearing glasses. Apparently, he has been farsighted since birth; who knew? Such glibness can only come from a woman of remarkably laid back temperament or several years of mothering under her belt. Because had this been my first child, I would have spent weeks bemoaning my poor mothering skills to anyone who would listen for having thought my son merely clumsy when in fact he was NEARLY BLIND.

I brought him to the eye doctor for what I expected was a routine, $20 co-pay exam, and left $400 poorer, having purchased one, dare I say sexy, set of frames.

As soon as he put them on he exclaimed, "I can see better," and between that, and all the complements he's been receiving from adoring classmates, teachers, and mothers, he wears them happily. Apparently, girls do make passes at boys who wear glasses.

And thus, our adventures began.

The glasses went missing, but were quickly found.

The glasses went missing again, and David and I spent a frustrating hour searching the house, causing us to almost cancel plans to meet friends for dinner in Brooklyn, because the thought of having to replace Sacha's very expensive glasses so soon would have dampened my fun.

David and I take very different approaches to looking for lost objects. As a far more organized person, I will methodically comb an area, taking it apart and putting it back together bit by bit. Because I am a bit compulsive, I cannot resist the urge to sneak in a little cleaning as I go.

David is more a locating whisper; a modern-day Jewish St. Anthony. Once he found a coveted three volume set of Romance of the Three Kingdoms at the Strand, which a clerk had failed to find, by standing in the correct section, closing his eyes, and repeating come to me, to himself. He subsequently opened his eyes, strode confidently across the room and picked up the book.

David was annoyed to find me emptying the boys' bookshelves and toy bins — and because I am a model of efficiency, dusting as I went — because my moving of things interfered with his room scanning abilities.

This is especially uncanny when you consider the assortment of papers, ticket stubs, lottery tickets, receipts, change, pebbles, clothing tags, collar stays, orphan game pieces, figurines, screws, drill bits, and guitar picks corralled in the tray on his dresser.

When Sarah went to his office this spring, she took an admiring look at his nest desk, nodded and conspiratorially declared they must never speak of this to Mama.

Shortly thereafter, the glasses found David, luring him to their resting spot in the dining room, under the china cabinet.

Defying all odds, Sacha broke what were widely considered the toughest, most indestructible frames available for preschool boys. We spent a week waiting for a new hinge, during which time Sacha was once again blind, albeit temporarily. Suspecting this was not to be an isolated incident, we went to Costco and ordered a considerably less expensive, but only slightly less devastatingly handsome, back-up pair of glasses.

While demonstrating the impressive flexibility of my eyeglasses as an alternative to Sacha's tough yet sexy-preschool frames, the nose piece snapped in two. The optometrist declared my frames DOA, thereby earning me the distinction of besting my son by needing to replace, rather than repair my frames.

Thus concluded a good month for the optometry industry, and a bad one for family finances.

07 June 2010

Where I've been

I've been a negligent blogger lately, but I have an excellent reason; I am writing a book.

In March, I enrolled in a memoir writing workshop with Laurie Lico Albanese, a writer whose work I greatly admire. Her memoir Blue Suburbia made a great impression on me; while the particulars of her story are different, the emotional terrain was very familiar. And so when the opportunity to study with her arose, it was not hard to say yes. It was most worthwhile experience, and one of the best things I've done for my writing.

For a time, I was able to make blogging and memoir writing dovetail. But for me, blogging is about the present, whereas for memoir, I must revisit the past. The more I immersed myself in memoir, the more the paths diverged. With about 90 minutes a day for writing, I reached a point where I could not give both the attention they deserved, and so I decided to take a break from blogging for the duration of the class.

And while I missed blogging, I also dreaded my return. In my imagination, there is a blogging muscle, and the more time elapsed, the more I let that muscle atrophy. To be sure, strange, funny, wildly amusing things are happening every day, but my worry is what if I have forgotten how to find the creative hook, and mine their storytelling potential. As with any creative endeavor, the more you blog, the more ideas you have. There was a time when I had such a lengthy list of ideas for posts that I couldn't keep up with them. For me, blogging is very timely, and when I look at that list of ideas now, they no longer seem relevant. And enough time has elapsed that the new ideas aren't coming as easily. 

In my absence my readership may have dropped into negative numbers, but if you are out there, I hope you will bear with me as I try to get my rhythm back.

26 April 2010

Good-bye to all that

Shortly after Sacha was born, a friend stopped by with dinner, and upon seeing a shiny new car in the driveway said, "I don't know what's more surprising, that you have three kids, or a minivan."

Me and the minivan never got along. I drove it for four years, and enjoyed doing so for one billing cycle, which is about the length of time it took for the novelty of automatic sliding doors to wear off.

I'd like to say it's nothing personal, but really, it is. There's nothing materially wrong with a minivan. I have dear friends who not only do not mind, but enjoy, driving one.

I am just not one of them. I have a long list of grievances against it, both ridiculous — I found it  intimidating to drive a car that was taller than me —  and legitimate — the second row sliding doors stick in weather below freezing, forcing passengers to enter and exit via the passenger front door and climb about the cabin in order to get to their seats.

If you are in the business of shepherding a flock of children about, the minivan performs the job with distinction. Designed with family convenience in mind, it has many handy storage compartments. There is a built-in slot for everything from cups to eyeglasses to toys, which makes it not unlike traveling aboard a houseboat. I would not at all be surprised to learn that there are hidden compartments, a-la-Nancy Drew, that I never discovered.

And therein, at least in part, lies the problem. The minivan's commodiousness — it's raison d'etre — overwhelmed me. Perhaps I wasn't woman enough for it. I found driving it not unlike piloting a small boat on dry land. It has the turning radius of a straight edge. In order to avoid hitting a curb, I had to swing so wide that when the front end rounded the bend, the back was left stranded in another municipality.

Behind the wheel I felt like I was in an airplane cockpit, isolated from, yet responsible for the safety of my passengers. The acoustics are terrible, which made it difficult to hear my kids. While this may sound like heaven, it put me in an awkward position. I could pretend to hear them, and thus risk agreeing to something to which I would never acquiesce. Otherwise, I could request that they speak up, but as I spend a considerable amount of time telling them to lower their voices, this is something I never, ever want to do.

But the worst thing about driving a minivan was the filth. The chasm between the first and third row — the children's domain — is large, and it did not take long before the back of the van began to resemble the Collyer brothers' brownstone. Being orderly and controlling, the very thought of going back there made me shudder. If you recall the experience of being many months pregnant, and then getting an unexpected glimpse of your inaccessible lower half, you know what I'm talking about.

The dreaded back row attracted an assortment of items including: books, notepads, writing implements, stickers, sample paint chips, spare change, action figures, matchbox cars, legos. My fatwa against bringing food into the car was difficult to enforce, so at any given time there could be chip wrappers, melted and re-solidified chocolate, snack containers, straws, and beverages in various stages of completion strewn about. And then there were the collections of twigs, rocks, and leaves that children seem to attract, which combined with the cookie crumbs to form a thin layer of humus.

My conviction that the car has a blind spot on the front passenger side of the bumper was validated by a survey of Toyota Siennas in any parking lot, which frequently bore similar patterns of nicks and dents. Our bumper was already in need of repair before I had a fender bender in March, and we were waiting until right before our lease terminated to fix it to avoid the possibility of incurring further damage.

The accident forced us to repair the bumper a few months earlier than planned, but we only had to shell out for our deductible. David and I resolved that when the car was repaired, because it would never again look this good, we had no choice but to get rid of it immediately.

When the body shop called sooner than expected to say the car was ready, I may or may not have replied, "Oh, shit." I disliked the minivan so much that I preferred the rental car, a decidedly unsexy Dodge Grand Caravan. Ambivalently reunited with my own car, I drove straight to a car dealership. Twenty-four hours later, we bid adieu to the minivan, and I drove home in a Mazda 5, which, because I am the zeitgeist, was profiled in the Sunday Times last week

The Mazda 5 is a micro-minivan; it's built on a car chassis, and is about two feet shorter and a half-ton lighter than a typical minivan. It has three rows of seats like a minivan, but seats one person fewer. The first time Sarah got in, she asked if it was a sports car. The experience of trading down to a smaller car has been exhilarating, like exchanging a septuagenarian for a teenage body. Things that were long impossible are now be done with ease. Three-point turns now contain only two points, and when I step out of the car at home, my feet are in my driveway, as opposed to my neighbor's garden. I no longer parallel park as much as glide into tight spaces with one hand on the wheel and my eyes closed.

Although I'm not much of a driver, I am delighting in the experience of being behind the wheel of this smaller, nimbler, and cleaner car. And while the honeymoon will end eventually, in the meantime, to maintain the illusion that the car is, and will forever remain brand new, I subject the children to mandatory disrobing and strigiling prior to entering the vehicle.

19 April 2010

a brief bringing up to date

1. We postponed a spring break road trip to Boston because I am suffering from a combination of cold and allergies.

2. We got a new car last week, and turned our old, much hated car in today. Despite our fears, we incurred no additional fees for abuse to our much abused old vehicle. Good riddance! I will have more to say about this shortly.

3. I quite like Parks and Recreation; do you?

4. Lately I'm on a roll with the Negroni, which is composed of equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. I would like to say it combines three of my favorite things, until I actually thought about it and realized it's not at all true as only Campari is one of my favorite things, and I could take or leave the gin and vermouth. So really, it's more a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I was mixing up a couple tonight when David walked into the kitchen and said, "You MEASURE?!" A martini drinker, he added, "I never measure."  I was mildly embarrassed to be caught in the act; as one who has a more improvisatory nature, measuring carefully is out of character for me. And yet, I stand by my ritual, as it makes a damn fine drink. I've only this a handful of times, and don't yet have an intuitive feel for it, and I want the proportions to be perfect. Above all else, it amuses me, and puts my scale to good use. I enjoy placing the cocktail shaker on the scale and then hitting the zero button. A Negroni is nothing more than of 1-1/2 ounces each of gin, vermouth and Campari, stirred, and poured over ice and garnished with thin, thin slices of orange, although it strikes me that a slice of cucumber might also be nice. I find it slightly bracing, and quite tasty. Try it, and let me know what you think.

5. Because I am slightly under the weather, Sarah and Gabriel have promised me a breakfast in bed of scrambled eggs and toast tomorrow. Although it sounds promising, I am a little scared about this. I like
my eggs runny, and Sarah prefers hers more resembling steel wool in texture. It's entirely possible they may forget about this in the morning, though I doubt it. In the event that they do not, my controlling nature will be battling hers, even if I am nowhere near the kitchen, and I will have to do my best to convey how sublime the eggs are, which they will be, even if I don't like them one bit.

07 April 2010


Today is significant because you turned eleven, and although it is your day, the fact of your birth marks the day that I became both your mother, and a mother.

Soon after you were born, as your father and I admired you, we agreed that we wanted to raise a strong-willed girl. In that, we have succeeded in spades. You are so effortlessly authoritative that on occasion I have found myself responding to direction from you before I remember that I am the mother, and I give the orders around here. And though we'd like to take credit for the manifold ways in which you know, and express your heart and mind, the credit belongs to you.

Your kindness, maturity, humor and conscience are wise beyond your years, and often leave me speechless. I thoroughly enjoyed your last parent-teacher conference, which was less a critical assessment than a forum in which your teachers and I swapped stories about about your many forms of awesomeness. I left with a shit-eating grin on my face that did not subside until sometime after I fell asleep.

I know it's hard to comprehend that your birthday is not a national holiday, and it was only because you were sick that you got your wish to take the day off from school. And while it is disappointing to be sick on your birthday, I think we had a pretty good, albeit ordinary day knocking about together. I think you are well on your way to learning, at a far younger age than I ever understood, that try as we may to manufacture memories, they fail in comparison to the way in which the mundane is sacred, and the best moments often arise unbidden, in the crevices between running the vacuum, and throwing another load of laundry in the dryer.   

You are remarkable beyond my wildest expectations, and I am forever grateful for the privilege of being your mother.

Happy birthday, beauty; I owe you some macaroni and cheese. 

31 March 2010

slinging hash: matzoh toffee

Passover is upon us, and in my admittedly limited experience, only gentiles, and Jews of the Greatest Generation actually enjoy matzoh. It has a mouth feel reminiscent of cardboard, tears up the roof of your mouth, and, if that weren't insult enough, swallowing it feels like being stabbed in the esophagus. It is messy, leaving a trail of crumbs in its wake. The less said about the havoc it wreaks on one's digestive tract, the better.

I reached a new low this year when I pulled out the vacuum mid-seder to clean up the mess Sacha made by stomping a piece of matzoh to dust on the rug. I think he did it for the pure sensory joy, but it pretty well summed up my sentiments toward this contemptible cracker.

Aside from the occasional piece of matzoh brei, or slathered with butter and salt, the only redeeming thing I've found to do with matzoh is make matzoh toffee. Although I only discovered it last year, apparently this recipe has been around for eons.

It is salty, sweet, chocolaty, and crunchy; easy to make, impossible to resist. This is wicked, wicked stuff, it's only drawback being that it is very hard to resist. Were it not for the fact that you can substitute saltines for the matzoh, I'd be tempted to say this is good enough to lay in a supply of matzoh.

In keeping with my spirit, as opposed to letter of the law nature, I observe my own made-up dietary restrictions for Passover. I won't eat anything yeasted or risen, but see nothing wrong with rice, so call me Sephardic for a week. I usually make it through the week, on my makeshift rules, but this year, my heart's not in it, and I'm presently working on the assumption that where I'm concerned, when the matzoh runs out, Passover's over. Matzoh toffee disappears quickly, so I may speed this along by making a second batch.

Matzoh Toffee

4 to 5 pieces of matzo
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
generous pinch of kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling on top
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Place the matzo in one layer on the baking sheet, breaking to fill the pan. 

In a large sauce pan, melt butter and brown sugar over medium heat, stirring constantly. When  mixture reaches a boil, continue to cook for an additional three minutes, stirrin, until thickened and just starting to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from heat, add pinch of salt, and pour over the matzo, spreading an even layer with a heat-proof spatula.

Put the pan in the oven, then immediately reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Bake for 10-15 minutes, checking frequently beginning at the 10 minute mark to make sure it doesn't burn. If it looks like it's starting to burn, turn heat down to 325.

Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with chocolate chips over the pan. Let sit for five minutes, spread the chocolate evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

Let cool, break into pieces. I store this in the fridge, but room-temperature is also fine.

30 March 2010

She really knows how to work it

Last night we had our Passover seder. On her way up to bed, I had the following conversation with Sarah. 

Sarah: Thanks for dinner mom, all the food was so delicious.

Me: You're welcome, sweetie. Sarah, you are a good kid, and I am happy to cook for you.

Sarah: I know. But my goodness is a testament to my parents.

And thus concludes another scene of domestic harmony.

And yet, as satisfying as it is to pat myself on the back, I can't help but remember Pygmalion, and marvel at the ways in which my charge, a vast improvement on the original, will continue to surpass, outwit, and outsmart me, and generally succeed in getting me to do her bidding.

25 March 2010


I'm not certain what compelled me to reach into the glove box two weeks ago for my auto insurance card, but when I did, I found not the current card, but the one from the policy which expired last December. Figuring I'd forgotten to transfer the new card to the car, I went to retrieve it from my files, but it was not there either.

Sometimes one's depth of self-delusion is impressive, because rather than consider that something was amiss, I assumed I'd accidentally shredded the card along with the old policy, and called our insurance agent to request a replacement. It was at this point that I learned that our policy had lapsed in October.


I called David to see if perhaps he might recall having forgotten to pay our insurance premium? He considered this for a moment, and answered, yes, it had possibly slipped his mind.

I pause now to give thanks for the grace of living in a society where we are the architects of our own destiny. While it may have distressed his mother, it good that David did not enter the medical profession, because he would have made a disastrous surgeon.

A feeling of unease settled in as I began to comprehend that we two reasonably responsible adults, had been driving uninsured for five months.

Did you know that not many reputable companies wish to add drivers with lapsed insurance to their risk pool? Nonetheless, our insurance agent managed to keep us out of the state pool, finding us a policy with a reliable company for an only slightly exorbitant rate. What's more, as a 6-month policy, we have time enough to reinstate our good name, and then shop for a better rate.

Legal once again, I set out on Monday afternoon to pick Sacha up from school, whereupon I proceeded to get into a fender bender while looking for parking. At lunch time. On Bellevue Avenue. In the bone-chilling rain.

Once I regained my mental faculties, established that no one was seriously hurt, and there was no major damage to my car, I remembered to contact David: Been in accident, Bellevue/Valley. No one seriously hurt, car ok, needs work. Good thing we're insured!

To which my ever loving husband fired back: Indeed; I'd hate to see you end up in the clinker!

Friends have expressed disbelief that I wasn't furious with my husband, but truly, I was not.

Had he behaved in a way that was completely out of character, I would have seen a blue streak. But for someone for whom attention to detail is not a strong suit, forgetting to make an insurance payment is unexceptional. Considering what could have happened — injury, penalty, fines, arrest — compared to what did — minor delays, mild embarrassment, inconvenience and expense — it's more an instance of catastrophe narrowly averted, which is just another way of saying grace.

You can't cherry pick your spouse's personality; you fall in love with the whole. On a day to day basis, that means while I can remind David to wipe down the chairs as well as the table, or vacuum with the lights on so as not to miss say, a piece of spicy tuna roll that sat on the rug for 24 hours*, I accept that he most likely won't.

In exchange, he doesn't tolerates my micromanaging his way of doing chores, because he knows that I am controlling, and I can't help myself. Such is the dance; over time, as we exchange some degree of passion for intimacy, we come to know our mate as well as we do ourselves. In this way our vines twine and twine, filling in cracks, and bolstering weak spots, to create something stronger.

*not that this has ever happened

23 March 2010

Putting the FUN in funeral!

Consider yourself lucky not to be related to me, because today I attended my fourth funeral in thirteen months.

My children are now very familiar with Jewish customs of mourning. They've come a long way since October, when David explained that after his mother's funeral we would go back to the shiva house, and people would visit, and there would be food.

"What kind of food?" Gabriel wanted to know.

"Jewish food," David answered.

"You mean, sushi?"

And so today, over breakfast, we discussed how the day would unfold, and Gabriel asked, if David predeceases me, where I would like my children to sit shiva for me. I answered that they should sit wherever they are most comfortable.

To which my most thoughtful, wise, empathetic and also, I now know, pragmatic son replied that he might not be available. I smiled bemusedly and waited for him to explain.

"What?! I want to be a famous trumpet player*, and I may have a concert, and I won't be able to cancel."

"Surely your fans would understand your needing to reschedule?" I asked.

"Yes, but what about my bosses? They won't like it if I ask for time off," he said.

"Well, when the time comes, you won't ask; you will tell them, and they will say okay."

He nodded in agreement — I do have things to teach him yet! — and responded, "Yes, but they won't like it."

True enough; but such is life, and death.

*This from a child who has not yet played a trumpet, and has been working the past three years to improve speech deficiencies including: low oral tone, a reverse tongue thrust, and motor planning issues. I am most impressed by his determination.

18 March 2010

slinging hash: british flapjacks

Until I saw this recipe — ignorant American! — I never knew flapjacks could refer to something other than pancakes. I have since learned that in the British sense, flapjacks are bar cookies. I prefer bar or roll cookies because they are not only easier to prepare, but are often made without leavening, which I find imparts a slight but noticeable chemical flavor.

And yet, as these contain brown sugar and golden syrup, I suspected I would find them too sweet. These objections were overruled because a friend raved about the recipe, from Molly Wizenberg, who I find has a near-unerring palate.

With the possible exception of golden syrup, making flapjacks requires only five ingredients, all pantry staples. Golden syrup, also known as light treacle, has a lovely, true, sweet flavor, and is not impossible to find in American markets. If you are British, or like me, prefer golden syrup to honey (which I'm not wild for; weird, I know), you've got everything you need.

I am glad I did not listen to myself, because these are delicious. Buttery and toothsome, they are like a decadent, sophisticated granola bar, and I would not at all be above serving them for breakfast in a pinch. An undercurrent of burnt sugar adds an appealing bitter edge, and in combination with the salt, keeps the sweetness in check.

What's even more remarkable, I have made them several times, and all my children still like them. With a house full of highly opinionated palates, a cookie that everyone agrees on is a rare thing indeed. Rarer still is that it takes almost no effort.

British Flapjacks  
adapted from Molly Wizenberg's recipe for Bon Appetit

The original recipe calls for quick cooking oats; I prefer old-fashioned, so rather than make a trip to the market, used them. The recipe also calls for a metal pan, and mine is glass. I suspect these changes account for the fact that my flapjacks come out very dense and chewy, as well as the difficulty I had removing them from the pan when cool. I've gotten around this by buttering the pan and lining it with buttered parchment paper, and utilizing my mandible. 

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces 
1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar (I sometimes use dark brown sugar, and like it equally well)
1/4 cup golden syrup
2 1/3 cups quick cooking or old-fashioned oats
Generous pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 8x8x2-inch metal baking pan. Line with buttered parchment paper.

Combine first 3 ingredients in heavy medium saucepan. Stir constantly over medium-low heat until butter melts, sugar dissolves, and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat. Add oats and salt; stir until coated. Transfer mixture to prepared pan, spread in an even layer, pressing lightly to compact a bit.
Bake until top is golden (edges will be darker), about 25 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 5 minutes. Cut into 4 squares; cut each into 4 triangles (mixture will still be soft). Cool completely in pan before serving.

09 March 2010

Child liberation front

Recently we entered the age of indentured servitude, followed quickly by put the youngest to bed and babysit yourselves.

The evidence is clear; a new era of child rearing is upon us, and we are exploring the contours of the terrain.

Since toilet training, Sacha is marginally less insane, enough that I can leave him in Sarah's care for short periods of time. This means that I now have the luxury of stopping at the market, or doing a carpool run unencumbered.

With this small change, the accumulated pedestrian acts that strung together, form my days, have been transformed into something remarkable.

My children have been in school long enough that having time to myself is not unusual. Yet time to myself while they are home alone is something else entirely. It feels slightly transgressive to leave them on their own, with no qualified child care professional in sight, and stranger still that no money changes hands upon my return. I find it so thrilling that it takes great restraint to keep from approaching strangers in the market and whispering conspiratorially that I have three children, and none of them are with me.

When my children were tiny, I imagined that doing anything without them in tow would be akin to phantom limb syndrome, my heart aching with the pang of their absence. Instead I feel an insatiable longing to make up for ten years of lost alone time.

Lest I become concerned that my behavior is cause for concern about the depth of my maternal attachment, I take comfort in knowing that my children also delight in their independence. They beg to be left alone, and I am impressed with their maturity. Last week, as I left to take Sacha to karate I reminded Sarah and Gabriel that they would need to practice their instruments before the end of the day. I returned home to find Sarah strumming her guitar,  and Gabriel playing piano, and my heart swelled to burst.

Never one to be left behind, Sacha now asks me if he can stay home alone rather than run errands with me. I do my best to keep a straight face while saying no. There is a fine line between responsibility and recklessness, and tempting as it is, I try to stay well away from the edge.

This new found freedom is so completely intoxicating, and dangerously addictive. It's a bit like love sickness, a temporary state of madness spurred by a radical shift to more free time. And so I ration myself, lest I wind up believing that it is not too soon to teach Sarah to drive.

03 March 2010

slinging hash: roasted potato tacos

Let's say I really sold you on the corn tortillas, and you are looking for something to fill them with. There's beef, in its many forms, especially this brisket, which I cannot get enough of lately, or chicken. Or you could keep it simple and make quesadillas. 

I try to serve meat only once or twice a week, and as a result, we eat a lot of pasta. The rhythm of a week's worth of dinners in my house goes something like: beef, pasta, chicken, pasta, fish, pasta. By week's end, determined to make a vegetarian meal that does not involve pasta, I scour blogs and cookbooks to find something new. Often, I expend so much effort looking for a recipe that by the time I'm ready to cook, I've run out of steam, and imagination. When I reach this point, to spice things up, I make a baked pasta.

A few weeks ago, I came across a recipe for roasted potato tacos. It seemed slightly strange, and intriguing. It it quick, easy and tasty, and it works. Plus, it had the added advantage of appealing to one of my general guidelines for feeding children: the starchier, the better.

Roasted Potato Tacos
Adapted from thekitchn

The original recipe called for roasting the potatoes with red pepper as well as onion. I substitute roasted red peppers, but feel free to add one chopped pepper to the potato and onion, or skip it entirely.

I serve this with chipotle mayonnaise, made by whizzing one chipotle pepper in adobo sauce with a cup of mayonnaise and the juice of one lime in the blender.

3 russet potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 medium sized onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Corn or flour tortillas for serving, and any, or all of the following:
grated cheddar cheese
roasted red peppers
lime wedges

Preheat oven to 420 degrees. Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly with your hands until potatoes are well coated. Spread out potato mixture on a baking sheet and roast on middle rack in the oven for 30-40 minutes, until potatoes are tender.

Serve on tortillas, arranged to your liking.

26 February 2010

Law of unintended consequences

A few months ago, I may have mentioned that I was finding it a bit challenging to toilet train Sacha. Those days are behind us, and now, he is a lean mean shitting machine.

The way we trained him was a textbook example of classical conditioning, substituting television and feces for a bell and saliva. Wherever he is, I imagine Pavlov is either nodding in approval or burrowing deeper into the ground.

Here is a typical exchange:

"Mama, can I watch tv?"

"No, not now."

Sacha to starts to protest, and then, he remembers he has a secret weapon.

"Mama, I need to poop."

What a marvel his colon is, because just when I think he is cleansed, he manages to eke out a bit more.

It's gotten so that I've had to issue yet another of the absurd fatwas that are part and parcel of parenting. The nomenclature will be familiar to anyone who has read Everyone Poops once, twice, or a thousand times. 

Television will be offered in exchanged for elephant poops; a skittle will be issued for mouse poops. 

When I deem a movement insufficient, we have a spirited debate on its merits. Frustrated, Sacha chants, "Poop for TV; POOP...FOR...TV!"

Clearly, my plan has worked all too well, and it is time to develop an exit strategy. If we go on like this much longer, given the ubiquity of television in public places, I envision a scenario in which wherever we go, Sacha cannot avoid being constantly tormented by the call of nature. Walking into Costco and confronting the flat screens could become an assault.

Such is the farce that is my life.

25 February 2010

slinging hash: sugar cookies

I don't know anyone who doesn't like a cookie, and were I to run across such a person, I would be highly suspect of their character. Yet, at the risk of contradicting myself, or casting aspersions on my own character, there are a lot of down-home standby cookies which I could take or leave.

I blame it on the leavening. I find the slightly bitter, metallic taste of baking powder and soda compromises my cookie experience. That's why I favor baked goods in the shortbread/brownie vein. But after being deluged with shortbread for months on end, cookie fatigue sets in, my clientele children begin to revolt, and I am forced to come up with something new.

And thus the cycle begins anew.

The last time this happened, I turned to sugar cookies. Because they are, basically, shortbread with an egg yolk, I was not really moving far afield. The addition of the egg makes for a slightly richer, more tender cookie. Like shortbread, sugar cookies are roll, as opposed to drop cookies, which from my perspective as the cook, is neater and more streamlined.

You could accuse me of being selfish or lazy, and you would have a point, but I prefer to think that as a yogi, I'm merely trying to find the middle way for all manner of cookie lovers.

My preferred way of eating sugar cookies is sandwich style, with a layer of raspberry preserves, and so I prepared one batch this way. Sometimes, I really do not understand my children, because, in anticipation of any potential problems, I strained the seeds from the preserves before filling the cookies, yet two out of three still rejected them.

And so they have been happily eating plain sugar cookies for two weeks now. Lest I get too comfortable, as they finished the last batch, Sarah admonished that precisely because she likes sugar cookies, I should stop making them soon, because if she has to eat many more, she is going to be sick of them.

A woman's work is never done.

Sugar Cookies
adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin

Once the cookies are cool, I heat about a half a cup of raspberry preserves in the microwave for about 30 seconds, strain it through a fine mesh sieve, spread on the cookies and top with another round.

1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for rolling
1 extra-large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

raspberry preserves, optional

Cream the butter at high speed, preferably in a stand mixer with paddle attachment, about 1 minute.

Add the sugar, beat 3-4 minutes at medium high, until light and fluffy.

Add the egg yolk and vanilla, beat a few more minutes, until light and fluffy. Slowly add the flour and salt, mixing at low speed until dough comes together.

Shape dough into logs about 1-1/2 inches diameter. Roll logs in sugar, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, at least one hour.

Prior to baking, preheat oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit. Slice logs into 1/4 inch thick rounds and space on baking sheet. I like to sprinkle the tops with a bit of kosher salt.

Bake 10-12 minutes, until lightly browned on bottom. Fill with raspberry jam, or not.

23 February 2010

My property taxes at work

It is somewhat fashionable to complain about the shortcomings of one's children's school districts, and while I am generally happy with ours, I have certainly been guilty of this offense.

At this point, however, I can offer nothing but the highest praise for the Montclair Public Schools.

At age four, Sacha has left a small eddy of destruction at preschools throughout town. When he was three, we had to move him from his first school because they found him so exasperating that in a half-day preschool, where twelve children were supervised by three adults, they wanted us to hire, at our expense, his own personal aide. This seemed absurd, but we got the distinct impression that if we did not comply he would be expelled; it was not the auspicious beginning to his formal education that I had hoped for.

Since then, his experience has been far more positive, but there is no denying that there are things about his nature that we observe both at home and in school, that make him stand out.

He often strikes me as childhood distilled to its essence. There is little middle range in the way he experiences, and processes things, and so his reactions tend to be intense. His joy is infectious, but so is his anger. He is funny, charming, wildly imaginative and charismatic, but also loud, willful, impulsive, and rarely still.

To say he has a large personality is something of an understatement; David and I began to strongly suspect that Sacha has ADHD.

At the urging of his teachers at his current, wonderful preschool, at the end of last year I contacted the Board of Education to request that Sacha be evaluated. In less than 24 hours, I received a return phone call, and an initial meeting was scheduled for the following week. When we left that meeting, we had five additional meetings on the calendar at roughly one week intervals; four for testing, and a final meeting to discuss findings, as well as promises that arrangements would be made for Sacha to see a neurologist. Again, within 24 hours an appointment was scheduled with a pediatric specialist at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

We received a detailed written report far enough in advance of our final meeting to have time to review it. Because it is a catalog of weaknesses, not strengths, reading it required a strong stomach, and a sense of humor. A friend likened it to a home inspection, where the goal is to compile a record of areas of concern.

We had our meeting yesterday, and, as the Magic Eight ball is fond of saying, signs point to yes. Although ADHD is legally classified as a learning disability, and not cause for celebration, when we learned that Sacha does indeed qualify for services, I couldn't have been happier if you'd told me he'd been accepted at Harvard.

We left the meeting with that holy grail, the IEP, and beginning March 1, Sacha will spend his afternoons at the Developmental Learning Center, in a small classroom environment, where he will receive services intended to help him function at his peak in school. He will be bussed from his current preschool to the DLC, and home from there at the end of the day.

The entire process has been extremely smooth and efficient, and I have been impressed with every educator we have had contact with. I am grateful to the Montclair Public Schools for helping us to help our son acquire the skills that he will need to succeed.

I am also extremely happy that come March 1, Sacha will be on a path to get what he needs, and, as a happy consequence, that I will also gain three hours a day of child care. Win-win.

19 February 2010


This morning as I swept the kitchen debris into a dustpan, I saw something skitter. When my heart resumed its normal rhythm, I looked down and saw a cricket lying belly up among the bread crumbs.

I have a generally laissez-faire attitude toward insects; it's their world as much as ours, and knowing nothing of mortgages and property taxes, I can't blame them their desire to co-habitate. I share my bedroom with a colony of ladybugs, and if, while cleaning, I find spiders in the corners of the rooms, I gently disassemble their webs, knowing they will rebuild, or if the weather is not too nasty, escort them outside.

But this cricket scared the shit out of me. Crickets are greasy and disease ridden, and have a penchant for eating organic material, including their own dead. As if that were not enough, they can jump. High.But seeing as this one was already dying, and I am generally squeamish about the sound of crunching exoskeleton, I had neither the heart, nor the guts, to kill it.

And so, I made the most logical next move. I retrieved my phone to snap a picture to send to David. In the few seconds I was away, my nearly dead friend mustered his remaining life force, and when I returned, THE CRICKET WAS NOT IN THE DUSTPAN.

Thus began my panicked hunt for one brown cricket covered in a thin film of gray dust, somewhere at large, on my brown kitchen floor. A quick scan revealed nothing, as did a closer look on hands and knees. By now I had a paranoid, shuddery feeling that I could, at any moment, be jumped by a mostly dead cricket.

Almost as soon as it began, he reappeared a few feet away. I took my photo, wrapped the cricket in a paper towel, and deposited him in the trash. And although the bag wasn't quite full, unwilling to take another chance, I sealed it tight and took it out immediately.

18 February 2010

slinging hash: baked pasta with cauliflower

For most of my life, I was a devoted cauliflower hater. It had the texture of soy cheese, and bore an unfortunate resemblance to the cerebral cortex.

Or so I thought, that is, until, I began roasting brussels sprouts a few winters ago. Enamored of this easy, delicious preparation, my friend Sharon suggested I try giving cauliflower the same treatment. The next time I went to the market I picked up a head, and sure enough, I adored roasted cauliflower. The high, slow heat of the oven transforms it into something sweet and a little silky, and once I start eating it, it is difficult to stop.  

After a year of nothing but roasting, I was ready to branch out. I tried, and enjoyed cauliflower in gratins and soups, and sauteed with Indian seasonings. But roasted cauliflower is always in heavy rotation in my winter vegetable repertory.

This year, it has been joined by another standby, baked pasta with cauliflower. I came across this dish in Matthew Amster-Burton's Hungry Monkey. The method is simple; pasta is parboiled with a cut up head of cauliflower, tossed with cheeses, and quickly blasted in the oven at a high heat.

The first time I served it Sarah declared it her favorite dish ever. This came as no surprise to me; as it was plain and gentle, completely inoffensive, but a little bland for my taste. In other words, perfect for Sarah's palate.

Because she loved it so, and I aim to provide the best service possible, I kept dutifully making it, and while it was perfectly good, it seemed to be missing something. The last time I made it, I reread the recipe, it turned out I was indeed missing something, namely, two cups of cream. While I tend to play fast and loose with a list of ingredients, as cream was the first ingredient listed, this seemed like more than a small oversight on my part.

Although I am not afraid of cooking with cream, or fats in general, two cups seemed excessive, so I  cut it back to about a cup, and added some pasta cooking water to make up for the loss of liquid. The addition of cream made all the difference in the world, transforming this from dull and dry to rich and toothsome; that's cream for you.

Since I discovered and corrected my omission, I've been playing around with this dish, substituting gruyere cheese for parmigiano, and adding some grated nutmeg, which are both natural pairings cauliflower.

Baked Pasta with Cauliflower
Adapted from Matthew Amster-Burton
serves 4-6

1/2 cup gruyere or parmigiano reggiano
1 cup mozzarella cheese, cubed
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
1 box penne rigate
1 medium head cauliflower cut in small florets
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 500 degrees fahrenheit.

Butter a 9x12 casserole dish.

Boil pasta and cauliflower together in salted water for five minutes, and drain, reserving 1 cup cooking water. Alternately, using a wide mesh skimmer, deposit pasta and cauliflower directly from pot and into baking dish, which should provide enough cooking liquid.

Toss the drained pasta in the baking dish with the cream and cheeses. If it seems dry, add a bit more pasta liquid. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Dot top with butter and freshly grated nutmeg.

Bake 10-12 minutes, until the pasta is beginning to brown. Serve immediately.