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.

16 February 2010

Lexicon of love

One of the ways in which my age shows is that I cannot help but text in full sentences. I am not above the occasional WTF, and regularly use w as shorthand for with, but am generally unable to write b4, or L8R, and I don't see the point of IWBAPTAKYAIYSTA*. While it gets points for looking vaguely Cyrillic, the sentiment could be far more succinctly conveyed by a simple, "Fuck you."

Last week we got on the subject of texting shorthand when Sarah, reading over my shoulder, couldn't help but offer her copy editing services by suggesting that I use LOL, instead of my preferred "ha ha ha." Aside from generally feeling foolish writing LOL, I don't like it because it could be misleading, if someone thinks I am sending lots of love, or inaccurate, as I'm more likely snickering, or laughing inside.

At age ten, Sarah desires nothing more than a cell phone. That we have no immediate plans to get her one has not deterred her from choosing her preferred model, and familiarizing herself with text message jargon. And so she began to give me a primer, quizzing me on the likes of MYOB, G2G, NJZ, and most alarming, GAB.

While Gabriel knows absolutely nothing about texting, he could not resist playing along. I try to steer clear of tales of How Cute My Child Is, in favor of How Delightfully Hysterical/Eccentric/Perverse is My Child, but this was so indicative of Gabriel's sweet nature, that I could not resist. Here is his first crack at texting:

ILMAD: I love mom and dad
YAS: You are special
ILYF: I love your food
YKM: You kiss me
and, finally, because he is a boy, PLB: people love balls.

This is why, when I look at him, it takes all the restraint I can muster not inhale his cheeks like two plump egg yolks. 

*I will buy a plane ticket and kick your ass if you say that again. WTF?!

10 February 2010

slinging hash: carbonnade

Although I make it with some regularity every winter, I am not head-over-heels for beef stew.

Although there are many ways to flavor a beef stew, the method I've relied upon for years uses beer for the braising liquid, and is finished with a bit of tomato paste to brighten the flavors. It is sturdy, dependable and warming, and while I would never refuse a bowl, it bores me. The flavor strikes me as a bit too dull and brown. The tomato paste provides a jolt of acidity, but to my palate, it's inherent sweetness dampens the effect.

Recently I discovered carbonnade, a Belgian stew of beef and beer. The meat is braised in beer with a generous amount of onion, but finished with mustard, and this, I think, makes all the difference. The beer gives it bitterness, the onions provide sweetness, and the mustard provides tang, which pulls it all together.

The result is a gentle balance of sweet and sour. It is homey and unpretentious, with a touch of elegance. Thanks to carbonnade, I no longer merely tolerate beef stew, but look forward to it.

Carbonnade (Belgian beef stew with beer)
Adapted from Marc Bittman's How to Cook Everything
Serves 4-6

2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
2-2-1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut in 1-1/2 inch cubes
salt and pepper
3-4 medium onions cut into eighths
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1-2 bottles dark beer, like Guinness Draught (not Extra Stout, which is too bitter)

Heat a large pot with a lid on medium high for 2-3 minutes. While the pan is preheating, generously salt and pepper the beef.

Add the oil, garlic clove, and about half of the beef, being careful not to crowd the pan. You want to brown the beef, so err on the side of more space in the pan, or the meat will steam. Cook undisturbed on one side about five minutes until a nice crust forms, before turning the cubes. Repeat with remaining beef.

Remove the beef to a plate, spoon of most of the fat off, and reduce heat to medium. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until softened, about 10 minutes. Add enough beer to partially submerge, but not completely cover the beef. Start with one bottle of beer, adding more if necessary. Add the bay leaf and thyme and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and cover. Cook undisturbed anywhere from 60-90 minutes, until beef is tender. Before serving, add the mustard, stirring to combine, which will give the stew a bit more body.

I like to finish this with chopped parsley and serve with mashed potatoes.

09 February 2010

The shape of things to come

On the last Saturday in December, I read on Twitter that Ted Leo was playing that evening, here in Montclair, at the Meat Locker. This was something of a dream come true for me; one of my favorite musicians, playing in my town?

Yet there was no way we'd find a sitter on such short notice. Did we dare put Sacha to bed and leave Sarah and Gabriel in charge?

Oh, yes, we did!

After making sure Sacha was soundly asleep, we said good-bye to our glassy-eyed elder brethren, who were thrilled to be left alone with the television, promising we'd be home by eleven.

We drove across town feeling sneaky and giddy, like we'd just pulled a fast one on our parents, until we remembered we were the parents. You would think realizing this would take the joy out of it, but actually, it didn't. Although I kept my composure, my inner self was riding with her head out the window.

You've never heard of the Meat Locker? Neither had I. The Wellmont it is not. It is a basement space on Park Street, just north of Bloomfield Avenue, furnished with a few nasty vintage automotive seats. Calling it a dive would be generous. Dank, dark, subterranean, poorly ventilated, it was grotty in the extreme; my twenty year self thought it was awesome.
We arrived at nine, paid our cover, and descended.

Did we see Ted Leo? Yes, and no.

One of the first things we do when we get to a show is take a mental inventory of the median age of the crowd. Usually, we fall somewhere in the middle; twenty-somethings are always well-represented, but there are enough people from thirty to fifty, as well as a smattering of parents with teenagers in tow to reassure us that we are not completely out of our element.

As the Meat Locker has no liquor license, the crowd skewed far younger, putting us well into the grandparental demographic. I would rather be perceived as a square than aging hipster, but here, I wasn't so sure. As if we weren't feeling old enough already, we learned that Ted Leo would not be playing until eleven, our self-imposed curfew.

Our hopes were dashed, but only slightly. This wasn't exactly an Arctic Monkeys situation, as we've seen Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play a bunch of times, and hadn't driven TWO HOURS to not see a show.

We stayed for a while listening to the band, until my lungs began to seize from the mold and cigarette smoke, at which point we came up for air. Standing outside was a somewhat familiar figure. Having little compunction about embarrassing myself, I introduced David and myself to Ted Leo.

He and his wife, being over thirty, had also come up for air. We chatted for a few minutes, apologized for not being able to stay, and arrived home at 10.30 to two disappointed children, who demanded to know why we were home before eleven.

It was a strange, fun, unsuccessfully successful night. We crossed the Rubicon. Time collapsed, and expanded as our mental age went from forty, to twenty, to sixty, and back to forty. It turned out to be a perfect prelude to watching the season finale of Doctor Who with the kids, which is how we spent the remainder of the evening, and still managed to be in bed by midnight.

02 February 2010

The object of his affection

One of Sacha's most endearing qualities is that he is unabashedly, effusively affectionate. He declares his love for me at reliable intervals throughout the day; when I greet him in the morning; when I unbuckle him from his car seat; when I wipe his ass, and always, with pitch-perfect timing, when his siblings are getting a tongue lashing.

I see his constant reassurance that I am indeed, the only mom for him as karmic payback for putting up with his ball busting ways.

Or so I thought until the day in December when he leaned in close to our babysitter, and said, "I love you."

While I know the day of reckoning will come when my son transfers his affections to a suitable mate, I thought I was secure for a few more years.

Yet had I known what was on the horizon, I would have been grateful that he'd expressed ardor for a sentient creature, because yesterday, Sacha plucked from his mouth a straw on which he'd been chewing, looked at it tenderly, and said, in his best moony voice, "I love you."

I felt betrayed. Yes, it was a perfectly nice straw, but aside from a willingness to be masticated, I can't imagine what it had over me, HIS MOTHER. I gave him life, nurse him through all manner of illness. I tolerate his crap, and come back for more. And for this, he declared his affection for an inanimate object.

No sooner had he declared his affection than he began asking the straw, "What do you want from me; what do you want from me? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!?"

Secure in the knowledge that the relationship had soured, I gave them a few more minutes. Once he had reduced the straw to a pulpy mass, I led Sacha to the trash can, and told him it was time to say good-bye. He tossed the straw in without question.

Thus concluded my son's first love affair, with a minimum of drama and heartbreak. The episode reminded me that while I am infinitely glad to be his mother, and he will no doubt have a fascinating love life, I would not want to be his wife.