Friday, December 31, 2010

Farewell, 2010. Thanks for the Recipes.

New Year's Eve is inevitably a day of reflection on the rapid passage of time, in the year past and the years before. For me, it's a particularly sentimental day of remembering, since I first met Chef Matt on New Year's Eve 2003. Each year on this day, it's both the sunset of a old year and an anniversary of a great new beginning in my life.

The first time I saw Chef Matt he was, of course, in a kitchen. He was making food for the New Year's party we were both attending, and although I do not remember talking to him much that night, I do remember my first thought about him when I saw him standing there by the stove: "Boy, that guy is really short."

In the seven years since that rather uncharitable thought, I have gone from a single graduate student living with my parents to a wife, mother of two (and one more on the way), history professional, living in our own home. I have also transformed my knowledge and use of food; I am not quite at "live to eat," but I know that I am no longer just "eat to live."

When I met Chef Matt, I did not own salt, pepper or any other spices or herbs. Why waste the money, I reasoned. Sometimes I splurged on grated parmesan cheese, but usually my shells with red sauce went without. I ate noodle and rice mixes a few times a week, and rarely kept unfrozen vegetables in the house. Looking back, it was a sad state of affairs.

In this year alone, however, I have learned to make homemade cherry pie, pizza, au gratin potatoes, zucchini bread and strawberry jam. I have not purchased a box of dehydrated mashed potatoes in five years, and I always make my french fries by hand. This is not meant to be especially impressive; I still use cream soups every week and eat a frozen pizza every Sunday.

It is the focus that has changed. When I was alone, meals were quick events, rarely fancier than something that proclaimed "Just add water!" on the box. But since I'm cooking for four, and since I am trying to consider the cultivation of my children's taste buds, meals have become an opportunity to learn, be creative and conquer the boxed entree. Plus, it is hard to argue that the potato flakes taste better than real mashed potatoes with chicken stock, sour cream and butter.

Overall, 2010 has been a good year in my food education. Our trip to the French Laundry was the shining moment of the year, but on a much less grand note, learning how to make new foods by hand, by way of much trial and error, has made me a more curious, adventurous and patient cook. And as 2011 dawns, a whole new year with my chef and our growing family, I am excited for the food possibilities -- maybe there are souffles and bisques in my future.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's the Holiday Season. Just Give Up Now.

It happens every year between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, from the minute the first turkey appears until the last bottle of champagne has been drunk. All my good habits, the usual absence of sweets in our house, the attempts at portion control and daily vegetables, swirl out of sight with the first snow.

It's not my fault, I argue with myself. What logical human being, faced with an onslaught of starchy, sugary, cheesy, chocolatey foods for five weeks, can raise the necessary willpower to fight back and declare: "I will stick to my diet. I will eat fruit not dipped in chocolate. I will eat vegetables not covered in crispy onions. I will turn my nose up at every treat that comes my way."

The answer is: No one. I challenge any person confronting a holiday season and multiple family gatherings to successfully combat the operatives of the Holiday Food Assault. Sometimes I find the will to turn down a fourth cookie or a third helping of roasted turkey, but it is not often. I have come to accept, then, that the weeks between the fourth Thursday of November and the last day of the year must simply be named a Bermuda Triangle of Healthful Eating.

It begins with Thanksgiving, when I strategically map out the coordinates of my plate to ensure maximum capacity. Normally, I would say "no" to a generous pour of gravy on everything, but little is as delectably comforting as a pillow of mashed potatoes, cradling melted butter and smothered in gravy.

From Thanksgiving, we roll straight into Christmastime, and although the actual holiday does not arrive for several weeks, it does not mean that those days need be absent of gooey fudge or coma-inducing workplace potlucks. I feel strangely compelled to keep my oven perpetually on and full of homemade cinnamon rolls, peanut butter crinkles or cherry pie. This year, even Chef Matt, normally not a baker, got into the indulgent spirit of things and made M&M cookies. Of course, his recipe was the child of the French Laundry chef, and mine are the product of Betty Crocker, but the point is that our house has been a nonstop bake shop since November.

For the record, I do ensure that my children continue to eat green things that are not Christmas-tree-shaped cookies. But I have long since given up feeling bad about my own overeating during the holidays. The last weeks of the year are so full of treats because they are also so full of family and celebrations and giving. And if spending time with my family, and baking with my daughter, and preparing meals in warm, bustling kitchens means that my jeans do not quite fit come January, then pass the fudge and bring on the gravy, because it's worth it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thanksgiving Comes Not Just Once a Year

On Thanksgiving morning this year, Chef Matt and the kids and I walked to end hunger at the Mall of America. We only made it about a mile before the walking toddler declared herself finished, so it was not, by any means, a rigorous race, but the idea was more of an installation of the value of helping people into our children's heads than anything else. It was a helpful reminder of what we have that others may not.

Because Thanksgiving is a holiday of indulgence. We give thanks for all our blessings, eat mounds of turkey and potatoes and stuffing, and then roll onto the couch for several hours of football. These are all things I love about Thanksgiving, but this year it also made me wonder, as I do every year on Valentine's Day when I am instructed by Hallmark to express my love, if we shouldn't remember to give thanks all year with the same vigor that we do on the fourth Thursday of November.

I am guilty of this. Life speeds by at a million miles an hour, and how often do I pause to show gratitude for the good things in my life? How often do I cease complaining and change my perspective? I have been thinking on this for a few weeks, slowly working on persistent gratitude for the things that, at first glance, might be more cause for complaint. Two things in particular have emerged from this reflection.

First, I am grateful that my husband has a job, and a job doing what he loves. Sometimes I get lost under self-pity and loneliness in those long nights and weekends when he is working. But I have reminded myself that he, unlike so many others these days, has a steady job to go to each week, and that while I am home with the kids, he is working long shifts to provide for his family.

And it is a business that he loves. When he describes the delicious nightly specials he has created or vents because he knows that something could be better, I know that we are lucky he is able to work every day in a job that elicits such passion. I remember six weeks when he was out of a job in 2009, and it was frightening and humbling. Now, every time I feel frustrated because he is not home, I shift gears and am thankful he is not home because he is working.

Second, I am grateful that I am able to feed my children. There are some nights that the toddler and I wage an epic battle of wills over dinner; I have come very close to a breaking point that involves me actually tossing food at her head. Other nights I feel an overwhelming guilt that I feed my children too much macaroni and cheese, simply because it is easy for me.

But despite the stubborn refusals to eat and the Mommy guilt, I know that my babies will never go to bed hungry, as long as I am alive. I strive to focus on the fact that we have macaroni and cheese to feed our kids, and that if they eat it two nights in a row, at least they are fed.

I think if we all took a closer look, we would see that our gifts are cleverly disguised as grievances. For me, it took a slow walk around a mall, past stacks of canned food for hungry people, to remind me that Thanksgiving is an everyday holiday, if we can only see past the irksome moments and find the blessings underneath.