Monday, February 27, 2012

book review: Wildwood

There is nothing that more convinces the kids of my success than our getting of random shit in the mail. And don't get me wrong: I love free stuff. Sometimes it is simply excellent. Pomegranate juice, hummus, cookbooks, beautiful soap. Hooray for loot! And sometimes it isn't. "Consider sharing this full-sized bottle of Scrubb-o Shower Tile and Vagina Disinfectant with your readers!" Sometimes folks email first: "We'll send you 1 free sample-sized bottle of Kidz Kloroform after you tell your readers that Kidz Kloroform is how you get your own kids to sleep!!!" And sometimes the random shit shows up randomly to the exalted joy of the random-shit-loving children. 

But every now and then something truly wonderful arrives. Like an email from the lovely HarperCollins children's book publicist. Who was just wondering if we, you know, wanted any books. Which we did.

One of the books she sent us was Wildwood, which Birdy absolutely loved, in the way kids love books where every time you look at them, you see just the top of their rapt head peeking over the cover. I haven't read it myself, but it's a beautiful object: gorgeous cover, lovely paper, great heft. And I transcribed Birdy's review of it, in case there's anyone book-loving at your house. For reference, a few of the many other books Birdy has loved include The Little House series, Harry Potter, The Penderwicks series, and The Birchbark House.

by Colin Meloy
illustrated by Carson Ellis
reviewed by Birdy Newman, age 9 (on Saturday)

I thought it was a really, really good book. There was a lot of excitement. I like it because it doesn’t really keep the same. Unexpected things happen that you really wouldn’t have guessed. It’s about this girl who gets followed into some woods that she’s not really supposed to go into. She goes to get her baby brother because the crows take her baby brother into the forest. And then a classmate follows her. Most of the book happens in the forest, which is called Wildwood. It’s magical. The main character is a good person. She’s really brave and cares a lot about her brother.

It has a map, which is really fun to look at! And I like that there’s sort of a lot of different groups working together. The groups are sort of against each other, but then two pool together who weren’t really together before. Or maybe that gives too much away… Don't tell your kids that part. It’s really suspenseful, and so it’s hard to put it down. I think everyone should read it.
What are your kids reading and loving right now? What about you? I just finished and liked Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall. You are noting correctly that I didn't love, love, love it. But I liked it a lot. And there's just nobody who excavates a character's interiority quite like him. Also, dialogue to die for.

Blog Search Keywords

"decorative rocks that look like dog poop"

Now you're just messing with me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Warm Sweet Potato Salad with Black Beans, Feta, and Lime

I am not poutine! I am a healthy salad!

Travel always leaves me craving healthy food when we return home. I love clam shacks and road houses, diners and street food and sausages and all those outrageous local specialties that emerge piping hot from various deep fryers and must be doused in maple syrup and/or hot sauce. Eating well (and badly) is, for me, more than half the fun of travel. It’s actually, like, 9/10ths of the fun of travel. But then we sit down to our first post-trip meal, and somebody always says, “Ah, it’s Mama’s classic first dinner home.” And it is. Tofu, brown rice, and a salad. It feels almost like a physical relief to eat it.

And the Ottawa trip did seem to involve a nearly excessive amount of French fries, gravy, cheese, and fried dough. Plus, there was the added fragility factor, after first Ben and then Birdy contracted a nasty virus. Michael had had the bug first and described it as “bowling ball stomach,” but for the kids it seemed more to be a kind of “bile geyser stomach.” (I, like all good mothers everywhere, stayed healthy so as to wallow around in the muck in a cleaning-up fashion.)

Oops. There goes my 2012 resolution not to talk about barf in a recipe column. Doh!

Anyhoo. The one super-healthy meal just didn’t cut through all the grease. So I had to make this one too. And I found it on my new favorite food blog. Such a good and beautiful place. I really love it.

Ugh. Bad flash is making this look like a greasy porn shot. Sorry! It was gorgeous, I swear.
Warm Sweet Potato Salad with Black Beans, Feta, and Lime
Adapted from Remedial Eating, where Molly Hays claims to have adapted it from Mark Bittman, though I bet her version is much yummier. Molly suggests that this is a versatile salad, and indeed it is. I made this again last night, with giant black beans instead of regular ones, roasted winter squash instead of sweet potatoes, toasted almonds instead of pumpkin seeds, a handful of dried cherries, and heaps of leftover cooked quinoa. It was delicious. It follows all my own basic principles of a good bowl of food: something tart, something crunchy, something rich, something salty, something sweet, something green-tasting, something spicy. It's zippy and tender, fragrant and pungent and gorgeous. You really can’t go wrong.

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Kosher salt
2 limes, 1 zested, both juiced

½ teaspoon chipotle puree
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup green pumpkin seeds
1 can of black beans, drained and rinsed and drained (or 2 cups cooked black beans)
few handfuls of greens (I’m using arugula)

½-1 cup crumbled feta

*A note about the chipotle: I buy a small tin of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (if there's a Mexican section of your supermarket, you'll be able to find it there), puree it in the blender, and store it in a clean glass jar in the fridge, where it keeps almost forever as long as you don't stick a dirty spoon (or finger) in it. I find this incredibly handy to have around for those times you want to stir a bit of smoky heat into something.

Preheat the oven to 450, and place a rack on the bottom level.  

Toss the cubed sweet potatoes with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt and arrange them on a large non-stick baking sheet, ideally one with a rim. Roast for about 20 minutes, or until fragrant and caramelizing on bottoms.  Toss gently with a flat metal spatula, turning most of them over without making yourself crazy.  Return to oven to roast another 10-15 minutes, or until gorgeous brown and tender. 

Meanwhile make the dressing and toast the pumpkin seeds. Combine the lime juice and zest, the rest of the olive oil, the sugar, chipotle, and ½ teaspoon of salt in a jar and shake well. Toast the pumpkin seeds in a teaspoon of oil in a tiny frying pan over medium-low heat until they are browning and fragrant.

When the potatoes are done, put them in a bowl with the beans, pour about half the dressing over it, and stir gently (hands are best for this) and taste. Add more dressing or more salt, if you think it needs it.

Arrange the greens on a wide platter, and top with the sweet-potato mixture and then the feta and pumpkin seeds. Serve straight away.
My CSA sweet potatoes were so dirty and filled with dirt-filled holes that I thought I'd have peeled them to nothing before I got a sheetful of cubes out of them. It was a strangely tedious experience.
They came out lovely and caramelized.
The rest of the ingredients (the limes are dinged-up and ugly, hiding beneath the arugula bag), plus Ben studying his lines for Pirates of Penzance. Is he not the very model of a modern major general? I know.
I typically cook my beans from scratch, but this tin called out to me. At some point we should talk about canned foods and Bisphenol-A. 
pumpkin seeds!
I love a big bowlful of healthy food that I can call dinner. And so does the major general.
And the Birdy general.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Greeting from the Super-Cheerful Mom!!!!!

Hello, friends, how has your week been?

Ours has been fantastic, even though Birdy barfed all over our hotel room (well, not all over, since the trash can I gave her did remain clean) and the Rideau Canal was actually closed to skaters. But Ottawa was delightful nonetheless: we ate beaver tails (in Canada, that does not seem like a lewd thing to say), visited the stray cats in their miniature parliament buildings on Parliament Hill, ate poutine (fries, gravy, cheese curds, don't get me started), and slid down enormous slides carved from ice and snow. Plus, in Canada, hotel staff is much more "Oh gosh, I'm sawry your daughter's sick!" than "We have to ask you to leave now, and we'll forward your bill for the drapes and carpeting."

And now we are back.

I will be posting a new recipe in the next day or so, but in the meantime, I do have a couple pieces on the news stand: in Ladies' Home Journal, for one, where the subheading of my essay is, I just noticed, "Go ahead, call me a Pollyanna. I'm one of those super-cheerful moms who always sees the silver lining -- and I'm secretly happy my kids have inherited the sunny gene." (Not only am I a Pollyanna mom, it seems, but I've also been abducted by crazy ventriloquizing aliens!!!) Also in Whole Living, where I write about my lack of a mud room for, like, the bazillionth time. And in Brain, Child, too, which I may have already mentioned.

And now a photo. You know I make blankets, right? From Salvation Army wool sweaters that I wash and dry and shrink and felt, and then cut up into squares and sew back together. Here's the one I just finished for Ben. I collected pink sweaters for months, and the blanket is so gorgeous that I can't even believe it (Go ahead, call me a Pollyanna). I am happy that it wasn't a gift for somebody outside the house!

Oh, I love blogging on my own so much! I was just daydreaming, as I pasted in the photo, that someone could write, "What's up with your gay son and his gay loving of the gay color pink?" the way they used to, those stupid jerkholes. But instead of being all silent about it, I could just write, "Go fuck yourself!" Maybe that actually is kind of super-cheerful, in its own twisted way. 


Thursday, February 16, 2012


Today is our 22nd "wedding" anniversary. And by "wedding" I mean, you know, becoming partners. If you get what I'm saying.

I wrote Michael a poem:

Remember how my calves ached?
I stood on tiptoe while we kissed and kissed,
and missed anthro, dinner, nightfall, nothing.
We had the skin of peaches then:
smooth and taut, soft in all the right ways.
And I am only thinking of it now
because my calves ache again.
I stood on tiptoe while we smiled and smiled
at our smiling faces in the mirror
where I was leaning up and in
to pluck my chin hairs.

* * *
We are off to Ottawa to skate the famous Rideau Canal. If you can't (afford to) beat the winter--join it! Head north! That's my special secret February vacation tip.

Have a great weekend!


Monday, February 13, 2012

PBJ Valentine Cookies

I wanted to make Valentine's Day cookies, but without rolling and cutting the dough, because I am lazy and also because I don't like to clean up the counter afterwards, which, come to think of it, is related to the aforementioned laziness. So I used my trusty peanut butter cookie recipe, but made them into thumbprint cookies, with little heart-shaped jam-filled wells in them. They came out so great that I'm sharing the recipe. First for the cookies themselves, which are a total go-to lunchbox standard around here. 

And then for the festive variation. 

Of course, if you don't feel like going that far, you can do what we've been doing since the kids were babies: arrange raspberries in a heart shape over a pool of yogurt. Like this.

That little fatty-face just filled my heart with such a terrible aching. Oh, I miss the babies sometimes.
Happy Valentine's Day, dear friends.

Amazing Peanut Butter Cookies
Total time: 30 minutes
Makes: 3 dozen
These cookies have no flour and no butter. They're so fragrant and crumbly and peanut-buttery, you'll be amazed.

1 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky--not natural-style)
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt -- more salt if your peanut butter is unsalted)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda

  1. Heat the oven to 350, and grease 2 baking sheets or cover them in parchment paper.
  2. With an electric mixer, beat together the peanut butter, sugars, and salt until combined well.
  3. In a small bowl lightly beat the egg and vanilla, then beat it into the peanut butter mixture with the baking soda until combined well.
  4. Roll teaspoons of dough into balls and arrange them about 1 inch apart on baking sheets; the mixture may seem oily and crumbly, and this is okay. Flatten the balls with the tines of a fork, making a crosshatch pattern.
  5. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven until they're puffed and golden, about 7 or 8 minutes. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer them to racks to cool completely.

These come together very quickly.
And they shape up and bake up very quickly. You'll love them.
PBJ Valentine Variation
Make bigger balls of dough--use either a tablespoon or a scoop--then flatten them gently. Now use your best finger (Trial and error will determine which is the best finger for the job! Mine is my ring finger, even though it is strangely weak. I can tell you that it is not my thumb, unless the symbol for Valentine's Day changes from hearts to canyons.) to press two adjoining ovals deeply into the surface of the cookie to make a heart shape. Spoon jam or jelly into each indentation (stir it vigorously first or microwave it for 15 seconds so that it will be easier to spoon in). Bake the cookies as above, for 7-9 minutes.

My beloved scoop!
Heart-shaped indentations. Make them nice and deep.
Ready to bake.
Some of them were a little, er, heart-broken. Use plenty of jelly!

Saturday, February 11, 2012


I have a friend--we'll call her Scraddie--and this friend and I are notorious for going to each other's houses and then sending middle-of-the-night remorse emails. We lie in bed, one or the other of us, picturing the glorious evening, heads thrown back in laughter, Chinese Checkers and 2 or 4 bottles of wine, staggering out with a sober partner and overtired kids way too late. . . and then we picture (doh!) what must have been a kitchen full of dirty dishes, a playroom strewn with Lego, properly effusive thanks unspoken. It got to the point where she created a blank template for us to use:

Dear ____________________,

Thank you so much for having us over for ___________________ (dinner/ 
brunch/cocktails/birthday party)
We all had a _____________ (nice/great/fantastic) time.

I am so sorry that I drank too much and didn't help clean up.  I'd  
also like to apologize for _____________________ in your  
________________.  I hope it wasn't too much of a problem.

All my best,

And then we found, where you can design your own cards with your own text.

We're thinking of publishing a whole line of domestic regrets. I'm bracing myself for a sudden onslaught of wealth.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Catching up. . .

on answering some questions in the comments sections, especially in the beet post. I wish blogger would let you post an answer right where the question is. Sigh.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Super-Healthy Chili Mac

You might not run off yelling into the night about how awesome this is, but then again it is a very good and satisfying dish of food.

I am not making dinner dinners as much as I used to, and I can’t tell if it’s a phase or a shifting worldview. Nine times out of ten these days, if Michael’s not home for dinner, then the kids and I light candles at the coffee table, and sit around it on the floor to enjoy a simple meal of fresh bread, goat cheese, and oranges. Or a giant Caesar salad that we eat right out of the bowl, sometimes with real homemade croutons (the kids’ first choice) and sometimes with roasted chickpeas standing in for them, so I’m sure we get some protein.

Michael overheard me telling this to a friend, and was, like, WTF?, because he’s hardly the kind of man you need to make a big meat-and-potatoes dinner for. He has an even longer history of vegetarianism than me, for one thing, and for another he is very easy to please. He really is. The Patriots’ loss notwithstanding.

Maybe it’s that he doesn’t like goat cheese, not even the good kind from Trader Joe’s that I marinate in olive oil, lemon zest, garlic, and herbs. And maybe it’s that he’s too big to sit comfortably on the floor. And maybe it’s that the kids and I are bigger romantics than he is, and we crave the intimacy and appetizers-at-a-party feeling of our living-room meals. I’m not sure.

Bean pasta!!! (Unhelpful visual. I didn't take a lot of pictures.)
So we are still eating plenty of beans and brown rice, plenty of wide bowls of freshly cooked pintos dressed simply with olive oil and salt, plenty of black bean soup and lentil soup and beans, beans, beans every which way. I cook meat, chicken, or fish maybe once a week, if that, and if there’s one main staple in the house, it’s—can you see this coming?—beans. So here’s one of our go-to meals, and we call it Chili Mac, because that sounds better than Bean Pasta, but it’s not really chili mac. What it is is more of a concept than a recipe—a quick and ever-changing combination of pasta and beans (tinned or leftover or even leftover soup, depending), and whatever else we have around that would be good in it. Kale or spinach, say. Or herbs. Or odds and ends of cheese. It’s the kind of recipe that requires a few strict principles, and then the variations are nearly infinite. The strict principles are these:

·      Cook the pasta in well-salted water and butter it after you drain it. These two steps guarantee that the dish you build around it will be good.
·      Use plenty of olive oil. It is the base of the sauce you are making.
·      Add something a little bit acidic: tomato paste and/or vinegar and/or lemon juice.
·      Add plenty of cheese.
·      Add something crunchy: butter-toasted breadcrumbs is everyone’s favorite, but here I’m using toasted walnuts. Toasted pepitas or slivered almonds are good too.

Super-Healthy Chili Mac
Serves 4-6
Active time: 15 minutes; total time 30 minutes

If I’m using white beans or chickpeas, I will sauté a stalk or two of chopped celery with the onions, and add lemon juice and lemon zest to the final dish. And I might not call it Chili Mac. If I’m using pinto or black beans, I often go in a more robust direction with a little bit of smoked paprika and/or chipotles, and a nice oozy layer of grated cheddar.

1 pound whole-wheat pasta shapes (I like Bionaturae, which is often on sale at Whole Foods)
3 tablespoons butter
1 15-ounce can of any kind of beans (or two cups cooked beans or bean soup)
1 small onion, diced
1/3 cup delicious olive oil, plus more as needed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Sherry vinegar (or lemon juice or balsamic vinegar)
Toasted walnuts (or different nuts or butter-toasted breadcrumbs)
Grated Parmesan (or cheddar or crumbled feta)
Chopped parsley (or basil or cilantro)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a large handful of salt, and taste the water. It should be as salty as the sea. Cook the pasta, drain it, and add the butter.

Heat the bowls, if you think to, in a very low oven.

Meanwhile, over medium-low heat, sauté the onion in oil until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté another minute or two, then add the tomato paste, and the beans with their liquid, and simmer until it the beans are fragrant and hot. Add salt and a teaspoon or two sherry vinegar (2 teaspoons) to taste, and make sure it’s loose and saucy (if it’s not, add some more olive oil and/or some of the pasta cooking water).

If the pan is big enough, stir the buttered pasta into the beans—otherwise combine them gently in a large bowl. You’ll want to stir in about half the pasta to start, and see how much more pasta the sauce can take. I suppose it might make sense to cook only half of the past, but (full disclosure) the kids like to have their seconds be plain buttered pasta.

Top each bowl with walnuts, cheese, and parsley.

Bean pasta!!!

This photo is so cute, if not exactly a ringing endorsement. But the kids are happy enough to eat this, I swear.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Be(et) My Valentine

Be(et) mine.
Lucky for you, the magazines I write for were kind of less than wildly enthusiastic about this idea, and so it is mine, still, to post here. It’s so cute, they said, we’re just not sure it’s really very festive or romantic for the holiday. Also: Pretty, but maybe too strange for our readers? What are they, crazy? Nothing says I Love You like beets! For one thing, the pinkness. For another, nutrients. And the sweetness. And also, the very faint dirt flavor does not as much say it, but still. Are you just picturing poor Ben and Birdy, opening their Valentine’s Day lunchboxes to a Cupid’s buffet of pickled root vegetables, while your kids bite into their frosted pink cupcakes and heart-shaped taffy kabobs? I know. Me too. But you could use the beet idea as an excuse to get this little set of aspic cutters. I have gotten so much use out of mine, it's crazy--and we don't even eat a lot of aspic! Or actually any aspic. We mostly use them to shape Fimo clay beads. And for very tiny tea sandwiches for doll parties.

In case I forget to say more about this later, this is the whole idea: cut a pickled beet slice with a tiny aspic-cutter, then add both the cut-out hearts and the outlines to a salad.
You can also use the cut-out hearts to stamp tortillas:

If I weren't such a pain in the ass about whole-grain this and that, the hearts would show up even better! Happy Wheat Germ Valentine's Day.
 And, as Birdy discovered, the beet juice makes fantastic nail polish!

(or not)
I always have beets pickled in the fridge these days, given that winter is the season of the root vegetable farm share, aka Night of the Living Turnips. You go every other week with your yawning bag of emptiness, and the cheering signs invites you to Help Yourself! 15 Pounds! Mix and Match! Whatever You Want! Which is thrilling when it’s glass beads, say, or cocktail shrimp. And less thrilling when it’s turnips, rutabagas, broken storage carrots, grubby potatoes, and daikon that dwarfs a whale’s dildo. But so far so good, thanks in part to the book An Everlasting Meal. The thing that has most significantly changed (rather than simply confirmed) the way I live and eat is her advice to cook a lot (or all) of your veggies at once, whether or not you’re planning to use them just then. Boil, roast, or pickle all of it when you get home, then it’s ready to eat plain or add to salad or a plate of bread and cheese—or to turn into soup, pasta dishes, and casseroles. I am really doing this: pickling all the beets and radishes, braising all the turnips with butter and soy sauce, roasting cubed sweet potatoes and rutabagas, marinating shredded carrots. I am more lazy than I am determined to consume junk: if there are cooked veggies, I will eat them, because there they are. And I will cook with them, because I don’t have to confront a bag of filthy or rotting tubers along. (Try it and report back, okay?)

Baked Beets
Heat the oven to 400. Place however many scrubbed but untrimmed beets you like into a lidded casserole dish that they will fit into in a nice, snug way. Add a half an inch of water, cover, and bake until the beets feel tender when you pierce them with the tip of a sharp knife. Depending on the size of your beets, this will take anywhere from 30 minutes (very small beets) to an hour and a half (enormous storage behemoths). Let the beets cool (if you cheated them, and they could use a hair extra cooking, let them cool in their lidded casserole, where they'll continue to steam a bit), then slice off their tops and rub the skins off under cold running water. Slice or cube them.

Pickled Beets
Makes 1 1/2 quarts
Active time: 15 minutes; total time: 1 hour 30 minutes

6 medium beets, baked as above
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pickling spice (or a bit of allspice, cloves, bay leaf, and cinnamon)

Trim and skin the cooled beets, then slice them a quarter inch thick and put them in a large glass jar or bowl. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil in a pot, simmer for 10 minutes, and pour through a strainer (if you used powdered spice you can skip the strainer) over the beets. Cool and store in the fridge.

Bonus Recipe: Delicious Creamy Beets
To some amount of sliced or cubed pickled beets, add a big bloop of sour cream and a large spoonful of prepared horseradish. Stir well and taste for salt and overall excitement: if it needs more oomph, a little Coleman’s mustard seems to marry well with the other flavors.

To recap: roast them.

Peel them.

Slice them.

Pickle them.

Cut them with a wee cutter.