Saturday, December 31, 2011

Six O'Clock is the New Midnight

A few hours ago, our house was ringing with the sounds of a dozen yelling, running children celebrating at our inaugural New Year's Eve Kids' Ball. They decorated cookies, thundered up and down our hallways, and jumped on bubble wrap under a balloon drop at "midnight."

It was a new threshold for New Year's. This has always been one of my favorite holidays, full of nostalgia and promise and champagne. For many years, I spent the night drinking with my girlfriends at New Year's parties, and in 2003, I walked into a party and saw a man standing in the kitchen who would later make a Kitchen Widow out of me.

But tonight, New Year's shifted focus and was about my kids. It was a turning point, just like the first night you bring your newborn home and realize that good sleep is gone, or when you realize that Christmas is absolutely not about you anymore. Part of the shift was just out of necessity; I am too old to crash on someone's floor after drinking keg beer out of a plastic cup until three in the morning. I am almost too old for going out, period.

Our New Year's traditions changed as soon as we had kids. We stayed in and went to bed early. But something always felt empty. I did not necessarily miss throngs of people or a New Year's Day hangover, but I missed the air of celebration.

I am reluctant to let go of New Year's forever, though. So instead, I will channel my love of New Year's into my children. We will forgo the champagne for sparkling juice, we will do the big countdown at six instead of midnight, we will play with balloons and toys, we will be noisy in that joyful way that children have. We will end the year as happily as we spent it.

As I sit awaiting the ball drop, alone with my champagne and pondering the resolutions I will quickly break, I am content in our new manner of celebration. It was a great thrill for my kids ... and you cannot get a headache from sparkling apple cider.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Twas the Treats Before Christmas

'Twas three days before Christmas,
And all through our home,
Our diets were dying,
No one's worse than my own.

The children were sleeping,
All cozy and sweet,
As their tummies digested,
Yet more holiday treats.

I in my slippers,
And Chef Matt in his shorts,
Were attempting to fend off
Another sugary course.

And then arose from the kitchen
Quite a deafening chorus.
The stashes of treats shouted:
"Please don't ignore us!"

"You know that you want us,
The cookies and fudge,
We'll be here 'til New Year's,
We're not going to budge.

"Don't stick to your diet,
Now that's just not living,
Haven't you baked six whole pies
Since the week of Thanksgiving?

"The potlucks and gatherings
Over the last long five weeks,
Have certainly filled out
Your waists and your cheeks.

"But what wondrous treats!
What chocolates, what cakes!
It is the sweet delicacies
That a good holiday makes.

"Cake pops and mints,
And peanut butter kisses,
Frosted sugar cookies,
Full of butter, and delicious.

"The New Year is your chance
To keep the calories at bay,
To go back to vegetables
And hide the Crisco away.

"But it's almost Christmas,
A time for family and peace,
And gratuitous indulgence
In all manner of sweets.

"So eat up, my friends,
Give up your noble fight,
And a merry Christmas to you,
And to all a sweet night!"

Monday, December 12, 2011

Finding Fellowship in Coffee Addiction

Lately, life has been reminding me, in all kinds of creative ways, that coffee is crucial to my survival on this Earth. Without it, I just might shrink down into a barely functional, unsociable grouch.

Normally, I am a very moderate person. I can summon the willpower to say "no" to another drink, to a dessert I do not need, to a pair of shoes on sale. And when I am pregnant, I can turn away from a morning cup of coffee with little distress.

But once that baby is born, all bets are off. Coffee calls to me, a siren song of warm, aromatic comfort that brings to mind nothing less wonderful than a quiet, sunny Saturday breakfast in fuzzy slippers. Some mornings at work, I have to distract myself with mindless inbox cleaning simply so I will not get up, head downstairs, and fill my cup for a third time within an hour.

Recently, coffee has been coming at me from all angles, taunting me into drinking far more caffeine than a human should consume in a day. First, the Christmas season brings with it irresistible, frothy, chocolate-y confections from coffee chains, waving down from billboards in their whipped-cream splendor. They are more dessert than coffee, true, but it is that bitter taste of espresso amidst the chocolate that forces me to fork over five dollars without hesitation.

Second, a recent bit of historical education on the Civil War built a kinship between me and those soldiers, who were apparently addicted to coffee. So intent were they on getting their fix that they ground their beans using filthy socks and the butt of their rifles, and they were known to hastily chew coffee beans if they were heading into battle and did not have time to brew. I suppose when your choice is between coffee and water from some suspect source, dirty-sock coffee is the way to go.

And finally, tomorrow would have been my grandma's 82nd birthday, a luminous, gracious woman who always had a pot of coffee on, and sometimes two. It was a rare moment at her house when she did not have a cup nearby, and for me, coffee-drinking and the contentment it brings is synonymous with the feeling that all is well and that Grandma is just around the corner, finding extra blankets or frosting up some cinnamon rolls. 

Coffee seems to catch memories in its steam. It transcends time and geography and situation, settling comfortably in bustling cafes and Civil War camps and grandmas' kitchens, and sometimes when I clutch my warm mug, I can sense the kindred spirits holding their own cups, mulling over their lives and pasts alongside me. It is the addiction I cannot shake, but I think I am in good company.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

All That Comforts Us

I think if my kids had to choose between me and macaroni and cheese, they would choose macaroni and cheese.

When I pull the box out of the cupboard, suddenly there is my daughter beside me, as if she heard the slight rattle of the dry noodles from the other side of the house. And my son, when presented with a bowl, shoves macaroni in his mouth two handfuls at a time and spends several minutes digging every single dropped noodle out of the crevices of his high chair.

I love macaroni and cheese as much as the next person, and I know that it is a staple of the Kid Diet, but it is amazing to me that they would eat it every single day when I take such great pains to expose them to all the wonderment of foods like risotto and shepherd's pie. I think what it comes down to is that, more than any other food, macaroni and cheese is their comfort food.

Everyone has a food or three that acts as a bit of a band-aid for the soul. Mine are all tethered to childhood, to the memory of a warm house and my family around the table. I remember coming home from school and spotting the crock pot on the counter and knowing the best night ever was ahead: stroganoff over egg noodles. And having "What's for dinner?" answered with "meatloaf," and suddenly the day did not seem so bad. And eyeing a huge Thanksgiving bowl of my favorite comfort food: buttery, lumpy mashed potatoes drowning in gravy.

The very reason it is called "comfort food" is that it is comforting, not only to our bellies but to our minds. Food has a fantastic power to recall, for good and for bad, and our comfort foods bring on a pleasant feeling that is a little "I just had a massage/large drink/chat with my best friend" and a little "sleepy food coma," and perhaps a little "eating this makes me remember the best of my past."

Maybe my kids just really like eating macaroni and cheese. Or maybe it makes them just a little bit happier than usual, and in 30 years, when they pull out the blue box for their own kids, they will remember when their mommy used to make their favorite meal for them, in a warm house with family around the table.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

La Belle Vie, Indeed

Five years ago this week, Chef Matt and I said our vows in a grand cathedral, opened some presents, and flew to Italy, where we ate like gluttons and drank like kings. Every year around our anniversary, we honor the memory of Bella Italia and find an Italian restaurant where we can pretend, for a few hours, that when we walk out the door we will be back in Rome.

This year, we diverted a bit and visited a restaurant that has been on our "to-eat" list since before our wedding: La Belle Vie, a restaurant that graces the top of most local dining lists and has the price tag to prove it. A fortunate twist of events granted us the privilege of a special tasting menu, offered by a chef who is something of an inspiration to my husband. The restaurant gods had granted us a blessing.

It was a menu that, in many ways, inched close to the French Laundry. We ate dishes I could never have imagined, such as foie gras cheesecake and lamb stuffed with blood sausage, and reveled in the transformation of the everyday chicken and trout into something quite magical.

As it always is when we are at fancy restaurants, the pleasure is not only in the food, but in watching Matt adore his craft. We spent much of the night talking about food -- how much we love it, our top five meals of all time, how it personifies our relationship in a lot of ways -- and although by the end of the night my wine flight had caught up with me and I cannot quite recall everything we discussed, I do remember feeling very happy.

Marriage, on a daily basis, is hard. I can see why the commitment can be daunting, and there are moments that certainly test us. But we have made it a priority to take pleasure in each other's company at every opportunity, and to find joy in what the other person loves. It may sound flighty in the face of financial hardship, difficult parenting, and the other trials of marriage, but joy is what we always come back to, and it sustains us.

On our actual anniversary, we spent most of the day apart, shared a frozen pizza after the kids went to bed, and watched "Iron Chef" on TV. Our two vastly different dining experiences revealed a universal truth about marriage: you have brilliant moments within days of ordinary, but if you can find joy in both, then I think you have found "happy."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Is That a Vegetable Under All Those Condiments?

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that children are genetically disposed to hate vegetables.

I never thought I would be the mother who said that. I was certain that our great love of food would pass cleanly into our offspring's DNA, and if we presented our children with a variety of vegetables from birth, surely they would grow up preaching to their little preschool friends about the wonders of kale and broccoli.

This is, at least thus far, not the truth at all. I remember watching our daughter and older son slurp up their squash, much as our little guy does now, and proudly determine that we were raising uncomplaining vegetable-eaters. A few years later, I think it will come down to complete deprivation of any other food except vegetables to make them eat anything but peas.

And oh, how we have tried to make vegetables exciting. We cook every kind imaginable, especially considering our community-sponsored agriculture share this summer, as well as the friendly staples of corn and carrots. We (and when I say we, I mean me and Chef Matt) eat a lot of asparagus, green beans and peppers, and we have a newfound love of turnips, beets and kohlrabi, and in many cases, we make every attempt to hide the "vegetable-ness" of these delicious foods so they will actually get past our kids' mouths and into their stomachs.

My first tries were amateur. Butter and garlic, butter and garlic, butter and garlic. But when that failed to entice them, I tried cheese, heavy cream, lemon juice, and bread crumbs. When that did not work, I pureed carrots and layered them in lasagna, and I hid finely chopped Brussels sprouts in pasta. Finally, I pulled out the big guns and cooked gratins and fritters and even disguised various root vegetables as French fries.

It was during the kohlrabi-as-French-fries episode that I found victory in its most unsophisticated form: ketchup. If I allow the kids to douse their vegetables in ketchup, they will almost always try whatever is on their plate. They might try one, kind of swallow, and not eat any more, but maybe the veggies' close proximity to their faces emits enough nutrients to actually get in their resistant little selves. Last night, I hit a new low when I gave in and allowed our son to use ketchup on his salad.

Someday, the lightbulb might go off and they will suddenly decide that they just cannot get enough spinach. I take heart in the fact that they are fruit-lovers, so vegetables cannot be far behind. If all our efforts fail, and they grow up to be adults who eat ketchup on their salads, I guess I can take solace in the fact that in their formative years, the fumes of all kinds of vegetables (if not the veggies themselves) were ever-present in the house and they caught at least passing whiffs of nutritious leafy greens.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fondly Remembering Lunchlady Land

I have a confession to make. Some of you may never respect anything I say about food ever again, but this blog is all about honesty, so here goes: I really enjoy school lunch.

When you have finished scoffing at my confession, consider my justification. At school, you can go through the lunch line with your nicely sectioned-off tray and receive representation from each of the food groups (or food pyramid or whatever the current form is), choose your white or chocolate milk, douse it all in ketchup if you want, and have a mini-restaurant experience at the lunch table.

I was a brown-bag luncher for most of my school career, but every month when the new lunch menu came out, my mom would let us choose a few days that we could eat "hot lunch," and it was always supremely exciting. Do I want turkey and gravy day, or fiestada pizza day? The shoo-in was always Italian dunker day, arguably the best school-lunch day of the month, when the lines in the cafeteria stretched around the room as students clamored to get their cheesy bread and marinara sauce.

And I was the student that the lunch ladies liked to see coming: unless it was chow mein day, I swept through the lunch line with enthusiasm, took one of everything, and always brought an empty tray to the return window.

School lunch has changed dramatically since I was in junior high; many schools now have several choices or a salad bar or brand-name fast foods, and some are trying very hard to make lunches healthier. Maybe I am just a traditionalist, but I liked the days of chicken nuggets and french fries, with a scoop of canned corn, a roll and a cookie. In the first few years at my current job, I spent a lot of time at schools around the state, and thus a lot of time eating school lunch in teachers' lounges. I happily ate things I had not in years, like fruit cocktail and tater tots, and just like in junior high, I was a charter member of the clean plate club.

Earlier this week, I made Italian dunkers for my kids, and as my son used his cheesy bread as a vehicle for drinking the marinara sauce, I could not help but reminisce fondly about running from class at top speed to make it into the lunch line before the rest of the school so I could get my own dunkers. I loved Lunchlady Land, for where else could I get a chicken patty on a bun with as much mayonnaise as I wanted, an ice-cream scoop of mashed potatoes and pink applesauce for the bargain-basement price of two dollars? Nowhere else on earth.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ships Passing in the Night Anchor in the Harbor

I was reading a blog of another chef's wife recently, and she said something about her husband that I thought was funny and true: "I love him. Where is he?"

This rang especially true for me last week, when in the course of five days, I had four hours of face time with Chef Matt. We crossed paths briefly in the morning before I left for work, and for a few hours on the weekend as we dodged work meetings and kids' gymnastics. This sort of "ships passing in the night" is nothing new, but for some reason last week was particularly crunched for husband-wife time. And suddenly my mother's pre-marital advice glowed before me like a neon sign: Do not forget to go on dates with your husband.

At the time, before we got married, that advice seemed unbelievable. Why in the world would I need to schedule dates with someone I live with? But I think any married person would tell you that work and kids and life grow into thorny brambles, leaving you on one side and your spouse on the other. I first knew that my mother was right in the year after our daughter was born and we had gone on a total of two dates the entire year, and one of those was someone else's wedding.

We vowed to try harder. We called upon grandmas and snuck out to dinner every couple of months, and on one very memorable occasion, actually went to a movie together. Even when we just cannot find the time to leave home, we try to watch movies together on the couch or I kick his butt in Scrabble.

Something that is much more difficult to do, but is equally important, is to get away together. This weekend, we spent the night downtown Minneapolis, and it was just what the marriage-doctor ordered. We watched businessmen try to pick up businesswomen in a steakhouse bar, had another drink down the street at an Irish pub (our version of "bar-hopping"), slept in (which means 8:30), and breakfasted on eggs and a caramel roll at a funky live-music restaurant.

Our not-quite-24-hours away will hold us for a while. In a perfect world, I would "date" my husband every week, but something Kitchen Widowhood has taught me is how to be grateful for every minute I have with him. If our "time together" consists of brushing our teeth at the same sink in the morning, I will take it and look forward to the next outing where I get to wear something other than pajama pants.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Great Smell is a Thing of Beauty

There are few moments I love more than walking into a house that smells like something good is cooking. For that brief moment, nasty weather and a bad day at work and a long commute disappear under delicious aromas, and I feel instantly soothed, like I am going to walk into the kitchen and my grandma will be there with cookies and milk, a hug, and a blanket fresh out of the dryer.

Smell is just as important to eating as taste; when foods smell good, it makes them even more appetizing. Sometimes our wires are crossed and we love the smell of something but not the taste -- I think the classic example is coffee -- or vice versa. To me, the smell of cooking and baking has a monumentally pleasurable attribute: anticipation. When I catch a whiff of something aromatic in a kitchen, I feel a bit like I am counting down the minutes to Christmas.

Everyone has their favorite cooking smells, the ones that trigger memories or make us instantly ravenous. If I had to construct a list of my top five, it would be a close race, but here is how I would rank:

5. Bacon. The perfume of frying bacon, sizzling away on a griddle, is full of guilt and satisfaction. I can envision it with thick slices of tomato, next to scrambled eggs, or all by itself, each greasy bite savored while the scent still hangs heavy in the air.

4. Cinnamon rolls. Anything baked with cinnamon brings me instantly to the holiday season, but cinnamon rolls in particular, their sweet, spicy flavor permeating the air, are divine. The smell of fresh rolls out of the oven always make me long for a snowfall, Bing Crosby, and a warm sweater.

3. Lasagna. Nothing but the word "bouquet" is sufficient to describe the smell of tomato sauce, meat and cheese slathered over slender noodles. It is a friendly smell, meant to be shared around a full table, and perhaps that is part of the allure.

2. Garlic. Chef Matt often says that if he found out he were allergic to garlic, he would eat it anyway and deal with the consequences. When I breathe in the sharp, flavorful smell of garlic sauteeing in butter, I cannot help but concur. I sometimes find myself leaning too far over the pan and coming away a little dizzy from that intense, invigorating aroma.

1. Bread. The smell of bread baking, to me, says "peace." It is soft and warm and reassuring, reminiscent of childhood and long Saturday afternoons and thick slices with melted butter. I always want to cozy up on the couch with that smell, taking deep breaths to inhale as much of that vaporous comfort as I can. Everyone has their favorites, but I think bread is universally endearing, one of the foods that almost compels us to take huge, appreciative lungfuls to prolong the joy.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Little Bit of Wisdom from a Graffiti Artist

Yesterday, Chef Matt and I took the kids to the park, and as I sat slowly breathing in the last of the warm summer air, I noticed a bit of graffiti on the bench. It read: "So live life."

The writer may have been intentionally profound, or perhaps it was just a casual scribble, but either way I was struck by this statement. So live life ... because it is short? So live life ... despite all that gets in our way? So live life ... and do not just survive it?

I think sometimes we forget to actually "live" our lives in our quest to barrel through the distractions. I know that is not a priority in my own world; when I am crawling on the floor scooping up wet, gummed-up bread that our son has thrown from his chair, or when I am nodding off during a two a.m. feeding, all I can focus on is keeping my head above water. I do not notice the adorable, gleeful smile on our toddler's face as he plays his favorite "toss food game," or the contented sighs of our snuggly baby.

I have the same excuses as everyone else for not stopping to smell the roses: no time and no energy. So many days, I look back sadly and realize that some great moments have passed me by because I was too busy giving baths and doing laundry and answering e-mails at work. I catch a few more of these moments when Matt is home because I do not feel that desperate urgency to get everything done at once, all by myself. Yet alone or with my husband, I feel like my "living" is slipping through the cracks.

The solution, I believe, is appreciation, and not an attempt to make every day a memorable one. Even though my days will not be "lived" largely -- we do not travel or go on a lot of outings or get really involved in the community or try to do grand things -- I can feel satisfactorily "lived" if I appreciate all the little things that add up to create my messy, scattered life.

I can tell you that today, I appreciated the sight of my two big kids rocking out to Elvis in the car, two little blond bobbleheads in my rearview mirror. I appreciated the taste of the season's last sweet corn, and a hug from my husband after a long day apart, and the feel of a sleepy baby on my chest.

I still had to scrape gummed-up bread off the floor, and I probably will tomorrow, too. But those words -- so live life -- flashed before my eyes as I was doing it, so I looked up at my son in his high chair. And he smiled at me.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Daydreams Have No Calories

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher inquired about the class's favorite foods. Competitive and anxious to please even at the age of nine, I replied that my favorite food was "fruit salad." Really what I wanted to say was "pizza," like all of my classmates, but fruit salad was the healthy, correct choice, meant to impress my teacher. I like fruit salad, certainly, but was lying through my teeth.

Many years later, I struggle with the healthy, correct choice, as so many of us do. It is especially difficult post-partum as I try to shift my eating habits back to normal and feel the daily pinch of a few extra pounds as I attempt to fit into things that clearly I am no longer built for.

This is a frustrating occurrence, largely because so many of the unhealthy, incorrect choices are the ones that I dearly love to eat. I think a lot of people live in fear of their food, for one reason or another. We fear calories, preservatives, trans-fat, sodium, pesticides and carbohydrates. We fear what certain foods will do to us, so we change our eating habits for the better. We make more responsible choices.

And to be honest, the thought of that makes me a little miserable. I like vegetables and fruits and lean meats, just as much as the next person, but I also like fried chicken and hollandaise sauce and Pop-Tarts. My great fear of food is imbalance, so my menu is largely about moderation. But I started wondering, what if I had one day where I could throw all my food-fears out the window and make the worst choices possible and eat whatever tasted good? It's almost too naughty to consider.

I would start with a huge breakfast: eggs over easy, American fries with cheese, a buttered English muffin, homemade spicy sausage, and a fat cinnamon roll with cream cheese frosting. Around ten-thirty, I would eat a chocolate eclair, and drink several cups of black coffee. For lunch, I would consume a heaping plate of pasta drowning in a red pepper cream sauce, a garlicky piece of foccacia bread, and at least three Cokes. For a late-afternoon snack, I might just sit down with a bowl of guacamole and eat it with a spoon. And for dinner, a crab cake with a nice aioli, a rack of lamb, buttery mashed potatoes with gravy, asparagus with a bearnaise sauce, and a creme brulee. Before bed, three scoops of cookies and cream ice cream, with a drizzle of Hershey's syrup.

My arteries hurt just a little, even thinking about it. There are very good reasons for making responsible food choices, but the devil inside me sometimes fights hard against healthy. And occasionally, he wins. I press on, however, and stick to my plan of moderation, dreaming about a red pepper cream sauce while eating my turkey sandwich for lunch.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sweetbitter September 11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at a restaurant.

On the morning of September 11, 2007, I was in a hospital room.

Both days are milestones for me, one tragic and one joyful, and as we near the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks and the fourth anniversary of my first day as a mother, I am struck by how much life does, indeed, go on.

In 2001, I was waiting tables to make a little extra money. Full-time, I was a copy editor at a newspaper; it was my first job out of college. One of my customers told me that they had heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York, and wasn't that a horrible accident? Twenty minutes later, another customer told me that a second plane had hit the other tower, and with a terrifying swooping feeling in my stomach that I associate with close calls while driving or other near-misses, I understood that this was no accident.

My editor called me at the restaurant and told me to come in right away. In restaurant uniform, I spent the rest of the day, until the wee hours, watching CNN and editing page after page of attack special editions. It was exhausting, mournful, and, if you will forgive me, energizing. As journalists, we are trained to seek out news, act quickly, and cover stories with responsibility and accuracy. An event of such magnitude pushed us all to the limits of our training as we scrambled to keep up and report judiciously on the waterfall of news. And as I cried watching the replay of that plane hitting the tower, I felt like I was somehow doing my part to make sense of this mess.

Six years later, as America was marking the time the planes had hit the towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, I sat in a hospital bed holding my newborn daughter. I had, only the day before, remarked that I hoped I did not have a 9-11 baby. But the force of nature pushed me past midnight on September 10 to a birth date of the commemoration day of great national tragedy.

Now that date is a bittersweet anniversary, or perhaps a sweetbitter anniversary. Before, when someone mentioned September 11, my first thought, of course, was of the attacks. But now, my first thought is of the beautiful, sweet, spunky little girl whose first act of defiance was to be born on a day that her mother did not want.

Her birth reminded me that life continues. This sentiment is perhaps of little comfort to those who lost loved ones on 9-11, or in the subsequent wars, but as humans, as Americans, that is what we do. We mourn, we remember, we pick up, we keep moving. As she gets older, I hope that my daughter will not see her birthday as an unfortunate intersection with those tragic events but rather as a reminder that our days are precious.

As we eat our cake and ice cream tomorrow, and as I reflect on the long days of vending-machine food in the 2001 newsroom, we will honor the memory of the victims and celebrate the life of a girl who started her life with an exclamation point: "I am here! I am born on a day of sadness, and will make the world a better place!"

Sunday, September 4, 2011

You May Say I'm a Dreamer, But I'm Not the Only One

When I first met Chef Matt, we had a philosophical disagreement on what it is that makes the world go 'round. I said love, and he said dreams. In seven years, neither of us has changed our position, but we are starting to understand the other's point of view.

For me, dreams are a nice diversion, something to think about while hoping you have a winning lottery ticket, but not essential to survival. Love, as we learned from Lord Voldemort's shortcomings, is the most powerful force on earth.

But my husband is a dreamer. It is a part of his fabric. And while some of his grand ideas teeter on the ridiculous (building a pirate ship and sailing around the world dressed in a cravat and large hat), his dreams related to the world of food are maddeningly possible ... if only we had an endless supply of disposable income.

First and foremost, he wants his own restaurant. I think the world of celebrity chefs make this dream all the more enticing, because it seems like every chef on earth has his own place. But in reality, very few do, and of those, few survive more than a couple years. For Matt, as it must be for every hopeful small-business owner, the allure lies in freedom -- to be his own boss, to be the artist in his own cozy, warm, 25-table restaurant.

Second, he wants to write a cookbook. This dream is already in production, and has been for several years, but the demands of the full-time job and family relegate all cookbook-production to the few minutes of wind-down time before bed.

I think what makes these dreams so wonderful is that Matt has absorbed these visions into his character and finds time, just about every day, to ponder the possibilities. Dreams, as any certified dreamer will tell you, are sometimes what make life bearable, for they allow you to choose an ultimate happiness and wander there every day, at least in your head.

As a dreamer's wife, I am concurrently impressed and saddened by his dreams. I love that he is so invested in these ideas and knows them outside and in, as if they already existed. I am saddened that it is something as unyielding as money and time that keeps his dreams locked in his mind. But I am the practical one: I do not dream as he does, so I have neither the frustration nor the joy.

Our dreams reveal so much of who we are; pirate ships and scratch-kitchen restaurants reveal someone with an adventurous and creative spirit. And every once in a while, dreams leave that little place they occupy in the backs of our minds, and come down to earth.

While I still maintain that it is love that makes the world go 'round, I have to say that dreams, and the dreamers behind them, make the world go forward. Successful dreamers build new opportunities, create something out of nothing, achieve after years of work or failure, and give the rest of us hope that perhaps, our time is coming.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Crackerjack ... and Definitely a Hot Dog

Last night, with a light breeze lifting the warm summer air and the smell of dust and leather in the air, Chef Matt and I sat behind home plate at the new Target Field, taking in one of the greatest pleasures of summer: an outdoor baseball game.

I love baseball, partly for its history, partly for its beautiful simplicity, partly for the utter glee that sweeps across a stadium when a home team ball sails over the centerfield fence.

Mostly, I love how baseball appeals to all of our senses. If you're a baseball fan, the wonder of the experience lies in the crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, the feel of a glove that has been broken in just right, the sight of a deep outfield diving catch, and of course, the taste of baseball fare that has been a part of the sport since the great Babe Ruth became a legend.

Whether sitting on coarse wooden bleachers or almost-cushy stadium chairs, I never feel quite settled in to the game until I have a hot dog in hand, a stripe of ketchup on one side and mustard on the other.

There is something particularly wonderful about baseball hot dogs; when I bite into a fat juicy dog, I feel transported back to a time when all stadiums were open-air and Hank Aaron was home-running into history. I will always choose a hot dog over any of the dozens of new options at ballparks; a Cuban sandwich just does not exude "baseball" in the same way.

The other thing I cannot leave the ballpark without is a chocolate malt, served with the flat wooden spoon that threatens tiny slivers with every bite. The first game I can remember attending was the summer of 1984, Cubs vs. Expos at the incomparable Wrigley Field. The Cubs won, and I ate a chocolate malt. It was a fine moment for a little girl, to stare in awe at the wall of ivy and hand-operated scoreboard while digging in her own personal malt, that perplexing but perfect combination of chocolate and malt -- not quite ice cream, but better.

The delightful thing about traditional baseball food is that the basics have remained largely unchanged for decades, much as the game itself is remarkably the same as it was in the era of heroes. True, there are now bright lights for night games, and beer is eight dollars a glass, but if I want peanuts and crackerjack, those foods immortalized in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," I can get them.

The Twins lost last night, but I left the ballpark as giddy as always, excited by the bats, the grass, the gloves, the impossible plays made to look effortless, and by the stadium fare that gives me a thrill now as much as it did as a five-year-old girl. And that is the magic of baseball.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Mayonnaise

Yesterday, parenthood and I were not on good terms. A screaming baby amplifies any stressful situation, but when you add in two older kids flapping at each other in the back of a shopping cart, and walking in circles looking for help in an otherwise silent store while people stare at you, shaking their heads in irritation, it is enough to push a mommy to the edge.

The moment that pushed me over the edge, however, was when I was struggling to just get the hell out of the store. A kindly old lady asked me about my howling baby, and I smiled faintly and explained that he had just had some shots, and she said, with very sweet condescension, "Well, you should have just gone straight home, then."

Piling my hot, sticky, hungry, cranky kids in the car, while the old lady's scolding rolled around in my head, I could feel that parental hysteria starting to take over. For me, the only cure for such hysteria is a distraction. Since Chef Matt was at work, running around the block or reading a book in silence were out.

Instead, I made mayonnaise.

I did not set out to make mayonnaise, actually. I passed a little farmer's market after the store debacle and bought a bag of fresh peaches for a pie. The idea of rolling and pounding dough sounded like a perfect release, as did tossing my post-partum diet out the window ... again.

At home, I consulted Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to see if Julia Child had any other delicious uses for peaches, and I came across a recipe for a rice and beet salad. Conveniently enough, I had beets that needed roasting and rice on the docket for dinner, so I put the pie momentarily on hold. The salad recipe called for one and a half cups of mayonnaise, but somehow I think that Julia Child did not intend for me to use Miracle Whip. So I flipped to the beginning of the book, and made some mayonnaise.

If you have ever made mayonnaise, you will know that it is a race against time and the stamina of your whisking hand. A failure to continually whip tiny trickles of oil into egg yolks results in a broken, sad little sauce. A successful mixing of said ingredients, achieved by five minutes of uninterrupted whisking, results in a creamy, slightly lemony sauce that might even be too fine for a potato salad.

So I whisked for five minutes, while my toddler relieved our dining room cabinet of its contents and our preschooler pleaded, with increasing volume, to watch Dora the Explorer and our baby drifted in and out of fussy sleep. And when my mayonnaise was just like Julia said it should be, I felt instantly better.

The rest of the night, I whipped around the kitchen like the whisk itself. I finished the rice and beet salad, which sounded rather unappetizing the whole time I was assembling it, and in the end was delightful; I should always trust Julia. Then I made a peach pie with a lattice-top crust and a French silk pie with Oreo crumbles.

Everyone has their own form of "do" therapy, whether it is gardening or exercising or socializing, and honestly, cooking is not always my first choice. But I find that the wonderful formula of measure+mix+cook=tangible, edible product is sometimes the best way to be distracted and rediscover my center. I can think hard and fast about the task at hand, focus my attention, and emerge from the kitchen with balance reinstated and patience unearthed.

Not to mention that we also end up with pies and fantastic mayonnaise in the house, which would probably impress that old lady quite a bit more than my parenting skills.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

And in Far Second Place, the "Other Woman"

I was discussing potential topics for future blogs with Chef Matt, and he, always ready with helpful ideas, suggested that I blog about how handsome he is. While I was grateful for the advice, I thought perhaps an entire entry gushing about the extraordinary good looks of my husband might make people want to gag just a little bit.

I felt a little bad about laughing at his suggestion, although it was, by far, not the most ridiculous idea he's ever had. So I thought it was only fair that I concede and share, not my syrupy admiration for his fine looks, but my admiration for his ability to be a good husband, despite the "other woman" in our life: the kitchen.

Restaurant life is, actually, much like an illicit affair, but one that is conducted quite out in the open. Matt is gone for long hours, sometimes home later than expected. He reads about food at every chance, texts and calls his co-workers about dishes and schedules and frustrations, checks restaurant menus online, and talks restaurant life all day long.

And he is not alone. This business is notorious for swallowing up its devotees, and very often, they love it. So many chefs are sadists who live for the thrill of the beat-down of a Saturday night rush, the challenge of unexpected disasters, and the conquering of irate eaters. When the smoke clears and the chaos is over, they lean against their flattops and pause for a breath, euphoric and slightly drugged from adrenaline. It is a high, for certain.

This can make for very difficult relationships. Chefs often top the list for highest divorce rate, and truthfully, I can see why. Waiting at home can be a lonely life. But the ones who have the business in their blood are attached like sinews to bone, allowing elusive perfection of their craft to stand between them and their loved ones.

Except for my chef. Even though he does see his line cooks more than he sees me, I know that the "other woman" doesn't stand a chance. Matt makes time out of no time and never leaves any doubt as to what is really the driving force of his days. His heart, though it beats just a bit faster when in the same room as some sumptuous cut of meat, is always at home with me.

Other wives might roll their eyes a bit if their husband ever declared, as mine does: "I love you more than osso bucco." But for me, knowing how much my chef loves osso bucco and all the other quirks and wonders of the business, that compliment is proof, beyond doubt, that he loves me quite a lot and that the "other woman" will continue to sit, tapping her feet, waiting for him to call.

Friday, July 15, 2011

In a World Where Art Class is Cooking Class

No matter how much I might like to be, I am not an arts-and-crafts sort of person. Elbow macaroni is meant to be eaten, not glued to paper plates or strung in a necklace, and I do not think I am even capable of summoning the patience needed to make a placemat out of construction paper strips. The extent of our art projects does not generally go beyond a box of crayons and the occasional sticker.

At our house, we work in a different medium, one that I think is just as interesting as paints and glitter and slightly more functional. When I want to engage my preschooler in a creative activity that does not involve the possibility of marker drawings on my walls, we make a mess, and usually something edible, in the kitchen.

Our daughter is at the age where she loves to help but is not much help. She drags a dining room chair over to our center island and demands to pour and mix while I measure and chop. The majority of the flour does end up in the bowl when I pass over the measuring cup, but as we progress, the mechanics of making food always become less interesting to her than inserting a licked finger into the sugar and pressing little indentations into the butter.

The end results are sometimes better than others, but the journey there is always a success. Perhaps baking and cooking are not traditional "art forms," and perhaps when she gets to kindergarten she will be a bit perplexed by Elmer's glue. She will, however, have an early understanding of the lovely precision of baking -- instilled by a exacting mother -- and the way that a proper order and careful attention to measuring can result in a baked good with excellent texture. She will also understand the artistry of cooking -- demonstrated by an inventive father -- and how the blending of experimentation and knowledge can produce profound meals.

I never want my daughter, or my sons, to have memory of a time when they were not allowed to help in the kitchen. Even our toddler, who is currently one percent helpful and 99 percent destructive, stands at the island and munches on Cheerios while we work. They will be trained as artists from the beginning, but their tools will be spatulas and wooden spoons, and someday, paring knives and zesters.

My daughter will never present me with an elbow-macaroni necklace, and she will probably never see a watercolor paint until she gets to school. Instead, she will, with flour smudged on her pretty face and batter glommed in her hair, eat a chocolate chip cookie that was the product of her mildly dextrous mixing, baked while she traced designs in a pile of sugar spilled on the counter. To me, that is the best kind of artistry: the kind you cannot hang on the fridge.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sometimes We Pretend to Be Fancy Eaters

The other night, Chef Matt and I uncorked a bottle of wine from our trip to Napa Valley, one that we had been eyeing ever since I was able to imbibe again: a tempranillo from a family owned Sonoma winery, Robledo. It was gorgeous -- robust, full of dark fruit, with aromas reminiscent of some ancient Spanish vineyard where the grape was born.

It would have been fitting to pair such a fine wine with an equally fine appetizer as we made dinner, maybe roasted poquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, or a dense foccacia dipped in 10-year balsamic vinegar. At our house, however, it has become the norm to pair elegance with inelegance, so we saw nothing strange about sipping a beautiful red wine while munching on plain ruffled potato chips.

Like the person who buys a 900-square-foot plain Jane house and installs a professional gourmet kitchen, we inject bits and pieces of excellent into our menu of otherwise ordinary in an attempt to pretend that most of our meals don't originate in the Campbell's Soup Cookbook.

Our sad, tiny pieces of generic sandwich bread do not taste quite so dull when transformed by fancy homemade jams or gourmet slabs of cheese. Our elbow macaroni and marinara bakes taste a little less like a college meal when mixed with bits of steak and topped with Panko bread crumbs.

Even when we create elaborate meals with high-end ingredients, there is always an element of our Poor Man's Pantry that I want to casually eliminate when I am describing the dish, or at least mumble it quietly out the corner of my mouth: slow-cooked, pulled-pork stroganoff with sauteed kale and sweet cippolini onions and ... shhhh ... cream of mushroom soup. Or, smoked salmon and scrambled egg fajitas with fresh dill sour cream and ... don't tell anyone ... Imitation American Cheese Food.

Such motley cooking habits remind me vividly of a scene in the movie "Sideways," when the main character sits in a fast-food restaurant, eating onion rings and drinking the rare, perfect bottle of wine that he has been saving for the absolute right special occasion.

I think the lesson is that every occasion is the right one for luxurious foods, no matter what you see fit to pair it with. Drinking a rich tempranillo with potato chips may not be classy or a practice endorsed by celebrity chefs, but the reality is that most of us do not have the available funds or particular palates to support singularly ostentatious eating all the time. Saving a bottle of champagne or an expensive prime rib for just the right moment is a lovely idea, but sometimes it is more enjoyable and memorable to create that moment out of thin air, even if it means you have to add a little Imitation Cheese Food to make it happen.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Secret Food Life of Parents

When I was young, little made me feel more betrayed by my parents than the early-morning discovery of empty Dairy Queen cups in the garbage. The lingering residue of creamy soft serve and tiny bits of chocolate, still clinging to the skinny red spoons, launched an indignant fury: I was deceived, and by the people who love me most. 

Kids are not dumb. Although it might take them longer, they do eventually put two and two together. Two empty Dairy Queen cups + I did not receive any ice cream = my parents got Blizzards after I went to bed. 

And at least in my childhood world, there were few greater treats than a trip to Dairy Queen. To be sneakily sidestepped by my parents in their selfish quest for ice cream that they did not have to share with their beloved flesh and blood was simply the worst kind of low-down dirty trick. 

I remember very clearly finding evidence of late-night ice cream or popcorn or other treats and, lower lip extended, wondering why I was not included. My sister, either because she in more in tune with such sneakiness or because she had a better nose for the smell of microwave popcorn, was more apt to get out of bed and confront my parents in the midst of their treachery, while I slept on, unaware.

This is, of course, a treachery that Chef Matt and I now engage in on a regular basis, making me the most evil kind of hypocrite. How many times has my poor preschooler called down to me with some sort of sleep-stalling excuse and I have had to hastily swallow a mouthful of Oreo Blizzard to answer her?

Our kids are still a little too young to catch on, so we have a few more blessed years of the patient waiting for a bedtime all-clear before Matt ventures out for an evening treat that the little ones will never suspect. Someday our kids will discover the long red spoons in the garbage and accuse us of exclusion, but for now they are blissfully clueless. 

Now that I am seeing this undercover Dairy Queen quest from a parent's point of view, I absolutely see the logic of such deception. Nighttime ice cream for kids can only lead to unwanted sharing. Sometimes, I think, parents deserve a treat that they can enjoy without the experience descending into feeding time at the zoo. 

Selfish? Maybe. There is something vaguely naughty about after-dark ice cream, much like wine before noon, and after a day of temper tantrums and befouled clothing, it is only too fair for a parent to selfishly indulge. So much like our children may someday hide their cigarettes and speeding tickets from us, I am getting my trickery in now as we wait with bated breath for the silence at the top of the stairs before dashing out for a little secret, deceitful ice cream. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Summer Onslaught of Vegetables

I must confess: we are not that into organic food. That might seem strange for two people who love food like we do, but we eat corn-fed beef and non-organic tomatoes and regular old milk, and we are perfectly fine with that.

The idea of organic food, however, is a fine one that we finally bought into. This winter, my colleagues asked if Chef Matt and I wanted to buy into a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) share. We had resisted in years past, partly because of the upfront cost and partly because we were unsure if we would be able to consume all the vegetables that came in a weekly box.

But this year, in the pit of despair that is February, I perused the list of vegetables and fruit and could suddenly smell sweet summer breezes and feel watermelon juice running down my chin. I called Matt and pitched the idea to him, and he agreed before I could finish rattling off the many varieties of leafy vegetables. It was very much a "you had me at rainbow chard" moment.

Last week, our first box arrived. I was a little stumped: how does one cook a turnip? how does one eat that much lettuce? what, precisely, is a pea vine? But, motivated by the upfront cost and the sad sight of food in the garbage, I resolved to use it all. When in doubt, Matt said, saute in butter and garlic.

First, I made a layered summer salad with romaine, green leaf lettuce, scallions, pea vine and basil. The bouquet of greens tasted like fresh air, even through a veil of mayonnaise, cheese and bacon. Tonight, I whipped together a homemade sweet and sour dressing, and tossed it with baby bok choy, scallions, French breakfast radishes (sauteed in butter and garlic), and parmesan cheese. The greens had that bright, heady taste of something that has been recently plucked from the earth, still warm from the sunshine.

Undoubtedly, the flavor and freshness of something organic and recently harvested is heavenly. Our non-organic way of eating is not likely to change, but the CSA will inject a little new life into our summer menus, with its heirloom tomatoes, varieties of peppers and eggplant, and lovely exotic foods like kohlrabi and rutabaga.

The weekly boxes, unfortunately, do not include any sort of macaroni and cheese, so it is unlikely that our children will eat any of it, no matter how luscious. I suppose that means more rainbow chard for us ... whatever that is.

Monday, June 13, 2011

An Escape from Kitchen Widowhood

Having a newborn brings into sharp perspective the things in life one should never take for granted, namely sleep, uninterrupted meals, and time with one's spouse. For the last week and a half since our son was born, two of these have become scarce and the other fantastically abundant.

Babies have impeccable timing. Inevitably, I will make the briefest of contact with my bed or the dining room chair when his "Mommy is getting comfortable" radar will go off, and he will scream, face scrunched in misery, until he is fed. It is the extreme good fortune of babies everywhere that they are so adorable; a routine of little sleep and cold meals could only be briefly borne otherwise.

But amidst the whirlwind of starting all over again, there has been a peaceful glow settling about our house, radiating from the constant presence of Chef Matt on a two-week paternity leave. Reality has been temporarily suspended, and as a result, I have not, in the last 11 days, felt rushed, stressed, overwhelmed, vaguely out of control, or lonely.

Our time together as a family is normally pinched into Monday nights and Saturday mornings, shoehorned in around gymnastics and swimming lessons and random weekend work meetings. Thus, two full weeks together has been nothing short of luxuriant. We have no schedule. We have no time limits. We are living like idle rich people, without the accompanying yachts and Gatsby parties.

And I love it. What do I have to do to continue this amazing life? Win the lottery? Keep having babies? Nag Matt to quickly finish his best-selling cookbook so we can be millionaires? This sort of 24-hour togetherness is not normal for anyone, but for us, always scraping to find time to do things other than eat dinner and watch a Disney movie, it has been a beautiful week of the zoo, the children's museum, the library, a backyard barbecue, morning walks, visits with our families, and actual conversations.

On Thursday, Matt goes back to work. We will still have nine weeks of abnormal, until I go back to work, but nothing can quite compare to the brief escape of the past two weeks. The lack of sleep and meal interruptions will continue as we learn to make our newest little man a part of our family, but our time together will diminish and we will go back to missing each other and the comfort that comes with having two parents in the house. Kitchen Widowhood, ever so briefly slumbering, will be back.

So honey, get to work on that cookbook. I sure like having you around.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Year with the Kitchen Widow

Once upon a time, there was a romance, a marriage, a mortgage, and three pregnancies. There were changes in jobs, changes in finances, and changes in the world. Yet there was also a constant, through all the moments of joy and moments of difficulty, and the lives in this relationship were defined by that constant: the kitchen.

I started this blog a year ago this month to address that constant, on my own terms. Kitchens and food have become my roots, whereas before they were, perhaps, like a bed of autumn leaves: visible and noticeable, but not part of any foundation.

The adjustment to a world of food has been a path I have loved and despised. It has brought out the very best in me, and illuminated the very worst. It has brought me closer to my husband emotionally, although it generally keeps us apart physically. It has carried us to the absolute pinnacle of cuisine, in our evening at the French Laundry, and has kept us humble in our financial attachment to pasta with red sauce.

The best food writers will tell you, through their masterful command of the language and the cuisine, that food is profound in its ability to unite, impress, satisfy, nourish and inspire. If these same writers have knowledge of the business, they will likely say the same about being in kitchens, while in the same breath they bemoan the business' tendency to frustrate, demoralize, antagonize and destroy. Both are true. It is finding a balance that tips toward the inspirational that keeps chefs coming back for more.

I have not sought here to be a great food writer; my knowledge of food -- the ingredients, trends and history -- is passable, at best. What I have sought to do is make sense of the world of kitchens that is our gravity, and perhaps stretch my writing muscle while I am at it. I enjoy this outlet and the fact that Chef Matt does not mind that I parade our exploits with food and his job around the digital universe.

We are not the sort of kitchen royalty that makes it into books and television shows; our story is not uncommon enough. But as long as Matt continues to be a chef, and as long as I try to be a writer, I will use this medium to tease out the elements of unity, frustration, satisfaction and destruction that characterize our lives in kitchens. It is who we are, even if it is not fodder for a Lifetime original movie.

Whoever you are out there, thank you for reading. As long as you remain, I will press on.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Third-Trimester Love Letter

Dear Baby,

Very soon, I will have to share you with the rest of the world. For almost nine months, you have been my constant companion, growing in a private little world that only you and I were privy to.

While I will miss your kicks and somersaults within, and the feeling that I am never alone, I cannot wait to see your face. I cannot wait to call you by your name and see the look on your daddy's face and watch the sure-to-be-interesting reactions from your sister and brother.

As selfish as it is, I am also anxious for your arrival simply for the normalcy that will return. Soon, I will not obsess about the next time I will have access to a pickle, or five or six. Soon, I will be able to eat more than the somewhat more "ladylike" portions that I've been consuming lately. And soon, very soon, I will be able to sit on my back porch in the summer sun and eat a hot dog straight off the grill and wash it down with a cold Stella Artois.

These last weeks are the longest, as I struggle to sleep and you struggle to find space, and as we both prepare for your life in the outside world. For me, life will resume a more familiar rhythm, with the added blessings that a newborn brings, but for you, life will transform. You will see things like sunlight and colors and faces, and I wonder what will spiral through your little mind as you process all the newness.

Throughout all these changes, I will be a constant for you. I will look and feel different, and you will adjust to a new way of eating, just as I am adjusting back to an old way, but I promise you will know me, even in this brighter, colder world.

So finish up in there, and when you are ready, come out to meet us. Your family is waiting.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Love, and a Jar of Pickles

Not that anyone will ever ask me for this sort of advice, but if someone were to inquire about my thoughts on the secret to a successful marriage, I would say that the answer lies in a giant jar of pickles.

My last trimester has been an endless battle of wills between me and pickles. I crave them all day and in at least one instance, definitely ate half a jar in one sitting. I am fully aware that the sodium is not good for me or Baby, and I have tried to beat back the desire to eat three or four with every meal. But something enticing about the crunch and the delightfully salty taste has me wearing a path to the fridge several times a day.

As Mother's Day approached, I instructed Chef Matt to forgo flowers or any of the other "usuals" of the holiday. All I wanted was a nice meal out with him and our kids; I did not necessarily need a gift to stress his appreciation of my motherhood. In response, he presented me with a several-gallon jar of enormous pickles a few days before. I laughed and could feel the cravings surge.

When Mother's Day actually arrived, it was a day of epic Kitchen Widowhood for both of us. Matt worked a 12-hour day, and just the right 12 hours to prevent a family meal that was not noodles and red sauce thrown together at the last minute.

As I sat with the kids, eating cold leftovers, I felt selfish and irrational -- what was the benefit for us of my husband missing major holidays with his family, working unexpectedly extended hours, and leaving us minimal hours to nuture our marriage? When he got home, he was equally downtrodden at the pattern of loss of time with his wife and kids. We stared at each other, trying to make sense of the difficulties that sprout from the business that he loves and sometimes bury us in undergrowth.

And then I thought about the jar of pickles and realized that despite the frustrations that come with this business, our marriage is significantly nurtured. The pickles were a gift with far greater value than jewelry or flowers; they demonstrate that despite our limited time together, he makes time to listen and understand. He knows that what I needed or wanted was not an expensive gift but something to ease the last few weeks of a long, exhausting pregnancy.

Last year, I surprised him with a trip to the French Laundry. This year, he surprised me with a giant jar of pickles. I would argue that his gift is more demonstrative of the health of our marriage. A trip to wine country is flashy and extravagant, but the industrial jar of dill pickles is like a homemade greeting card: original, heartfelt, and the product of intimate understanding of what makes someone happy.

Ultimately, Mother's Day is just a day. Long hours are a fact of many people's lives. It is the concerted effort of spouses to make it work, despite roadblocks, that reflect a good marriage, not a meal out on a holiday. Everyone has their own jar of pickles; it is just a matter of recognizing the significance of such a gift when it appears.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Advent of Breakfast Saturdays

Last week, I was sufficiently entranced by the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton to get up at 3:30 a.m. and spend the pre-dawn hours at a British pub, eating an English breakfast buffet and sighing over the amazing millinery in Westminster Abbey.

If it hadn't been for the allure of the buffet, I still would have been up early, but I would have been watching from the comfort of my couch. One of my great weaknesses in the culinary world is breakfast food, and breakfast food in bulk. Not for me the "light breakfast" of juice and coffee, or a solitary English muffin with a smudge of butter. Give me eggs and bacon and potatoes and toast, and maybe a pastry and fruit, and I will show you a meal composed of splendidly matched pieces, delivered in an unpretentious manner, eaten with the promise of a full day ahead.

Breakfast food can be fancy, to be sure. But most of the time, when you venture out for breakfast food, it is served all crowded together on a single plate, scrambled eggs overlapping hashbrowns hiding beneath pancakes. The plates are quick coming out of the kitchen, often accompanied by any manner of simple condiments and a bottomless cup of coffee. Breakfast food is dependably the same, with slight variations depending on preference or region: sweet and savory and plentiful.

But I think what I like best about breakfast food, whether I am having an omelette day or a French toast day, is that it is the most leisurely meal to eat at a restaurant. When do we go out for breakfast? After church on a lazy Sunday. To celebrate Mother's Day or Easter. To enjoy conversation with a friend. I find that I never rush when eating breakfast out; it is a deliberate appointment to start my day with a large plate of comforting food.

It comes as no surprise to me, then, that as Chef Matt and I discussed opportunities for me to have a little time to myself, outside of work and mommy-ing, I chose to start Breakfast Saturdays. One Saturday a month, I go out by myself or with a friend and indulge in a huge plate of foods that I love to slather with jam or ketchup or syrup.

It is a comfort to me that on my mornings "off," I know I can predict what will be on the menu and know that I will love it. Satisfying my hunger with breakfast food is the easy part; for peace of mind and soul, breakfast has taken on a new meaning as the most important meal of the day as I leave the chaos for an hour of quiet with a pair of over-easy eggs and a cinnamon roll.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Confessions of an Imperfect Pie-Maker

Until very recently, the closest I had ever come to making a pie was watching my mother make one while I drank a glass of wine. Pies were simply too complicated and time-consuming for my patience and schedule, and besides, couldn't one buy a perfectly good pie at the Rainbow Foods bakery?

I have since ventured into the world of pies, and the aversion of "complicated" has transformed into "worthy challenge." Making pies, like so many other baked goods, is an art and a science. One misstep leads to another, which leads to a ball of dough in the garbage and a filling down the disposal. But once I decided to give pies a try, I met them head-on, wrestling the challenges to the ground.

My mother, an accomplished pie-maker, taught me how to make a crust. Her crusts are picturesque and perfectly flaky, so naturally she made it look very easy. Unfortunately, the sly geometry involved with trying to get a pie crust to flatten in a perfect circle, coupled with the precise moisture content, has made for evenings of cursing while sweeping flour off the floor and out of my hair.

Tonight, I attempted two pies: a banana cream and a strawberry cream. Apprehensive about the crust, due to a previous debacle involving a football-shaped crust and way too much flour, I took it very slowly. What emerged from this patience were two absolutely flawless, round crusts. I could not quite believe my luck, and actually stared at them for a few minutes with disbelieving pride.

The banana cream filling was one I had made before, with some help from Chef Matt, but buoyed by my perfect crusts, I was sure I could do it alone. Turns out, tempering egg yolks with hot liquid is a delicate business, which left my lovely vanilla pudding full of scrambled eggs. I decided that people would, in fact, notice scrambled eggs in their pie, so I first tried to sieve the eggs out before furiously throwing the whole mixture away. Not wanting to need Matt to bail me out, I tried again, and managed to avoid breakfast food in my dessert.

The strawberry cream was much easier, although I did examine the recipe for a minute, stumped, as I determined the best way to mash fresh strawberries. When the potato masher and potato ricer did not do the trick, I gave up and used my hands.

What I love most about baking pies is the overwhelming satisfaction that comes with conquering a difficult task. Crusts and fillings are frustrating undertakings for infrequent bakers like myself, but I have found that a hole left by talent can be filled adequately by persistence and precision. When I manage to make a beautiful lattice-top cherry pie, or even a banana cream with no scrambled eggs, I feel pride in something that is not one of my gifts. And honestly, that might be a greater sort of pride than something that comes naturally.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Lonely Sunday Strikes

The evil gnome of Kitchen Widow life struck this weekend.

It was a beautiful Sunday, warm and humid and practically begging for much outdoor play, when the dastardly villain crept up on me before I could light-saber it to the ground, as I usually do, and attacked. My defenses were down as I struggled to wrangle the children and fight off third-trimester exhaustion, so I sank easily into its clutches: Loneliness had gotten me.

It was one element of Kitchen Widow life that surprised me in its ferocity, the first time Loneliness struck. I am very capable of being alone, in general. I lived alone, from the time I graduated college to the time we got married, and I loved the freedom and independence aloneness afforded. But I believe there is a difference in the aloneness of single life and the aloneness of missing your spouse.

These days, Loneliness does not win very often. I am too frantic, too caught up in the busyness of career/mommyhood/home ownership/married life to pay Loneliness much heed. It also does me no good to dwell on my lonely hours, and it certainly does nothing for Chef Matt except produce guilt. But this Sunday, I think I was caught up in imagining a life where weekends belonged to us and not the restaurant, where we could lollygag and linger to our hearts' content, where weekend camping trips were a possibility, where we could socialize during normal hours instead of on inconvenient Monday nights.

The world is certainly not set up for non-bankers' hours. But I can find solidarity in so many others who exist outside of 9-to-5: nurses, police officers, retail clerks, journalists, bus drivers, to name a few. Weekends do not always exist for them, or their spouses, and I am sure that many of them see life as we do: hours spent together are rare and precious and never taken for granted.

I was able to vanquish Loneliness after a while, as the day rolled into evening and meals were made and children were entertained. Although I always feel bad when I let it bring me down, I suppose I should feel a little grateful for Loneliness. Its appearance reminds me that my husband's presence is important to me, and to the kids, and just as the existence of evil illuminates the good, the existence of Loneliness illuminates the Companionship. The elusive weekend will eventually come to us, but for now, I will take our Monday nights.

My defenses are operational, Loneliness. I am ready when you strike again.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Frankly My Dear, I Would Like Another Glass of Sweet Tea

In one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs, there is a line that I have always related to: "When God made me born a Yankee, he was teasin'." Although I have not spent a lot of time in the South, I am endlessly fascinated by the complex history and culture of the world below the Mason-Dixon Line, and have often felt that my soul belongs in a warm, coastal place, illuminated by the blossoms of magnolias and rocking chairs on breezeways.

Due to the fortuitous intersection of the anniversary of the Civil War (or, depending on who you ask, the War Between the States) and a national history conference that my department was sending someone to attend, I just spent several days in Charleston, South Carolina, a city I have been desperate to visit.

Like a genteel Southern lady should, Charleston seemed to welcome me in like an old friend, and within hours, I was thoroughly entranced by her rows of historic homes, bright vegetation, pervasive connection to 300 years of history, and the lilting accents of the natives. Although my non-history-nerd relations might laugh, there were moments when I closed my eyes and could almost sense the wide-brimmed hat and sweeping skirts, or at different moments, hear the calamity of war and horrific sounds of a slave market.

Amidst moments of imagination, there was a reality of Southern life that came alive for me in the form of the local cuisine. I am not one to turn down any type of local fare, but the food in Charleston elicited a reaction of familiarity and instant infatuation that I have rarely experienced. The cuisine is a mixture of European, African and Caribbean that has marinated for three centuries and emerged as intensely flavorful and comforting, a source of great local pride.

The first night, I ate fried green tomatoes, followed by catfish with cheesy grit cakes and okra, quite possibly the most Southern meal I could have imagined. The grits were nothing like the runny, grainy mess I had imagined; they were creamy and buttery and seemed to belong to the okra, as if they were part of the same plant. The second night, I had she-crab soup (quite a difference between he and she crabs, according to the locals), with crab cakes, Carolina red rice and collard greens. The greens, like the grits, were a food that raised suspicion, but I discovered in the hot, wilted greens an unexpectedly rich flavor of vinegar, hamhocks and garlic. The final night, I gave in and ordered fried chicken, which was so beautifully crunchy that I almost forgot that it was absolutely unhealthy.

My constant companion, throughout this culinary adventure, was a glass of sweet tea. For Midwesterners, iced tea is served unsweetened, unless you add a packet of Sweet and Low or Splenda yourself. But in the South, sweet tea is brewed sweet, and the result is perfect companion to the spicy, buttery, or peppery meal on your plate. I think I drank five or six glasses each day, reveling in the knowledge that no matter where we were in Charleston, the sweet tea would be waiting for me.

Although the Yankee in me to too strong to suppress at this point, I will always feel an overwhelming desire to be intimate with the South. Maybe it is the history, or maybe it is the natural elements, maybe it is the fact that I would wear a hoop skirt to clean my house and stroll down Summit Avenue, if such behavior was not viewed as completely weird. Or maybe it is the allure of how all of those elements meld so seamlessly in something as simple as a bed of grits or a glass of sweet tea.

Friday, March 18, 2011

In Defense of Meatloaf

It is a nightly source of frustration that our preschooler, the child of two foodies, refuses to eat most anything but macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and grapes. Tonight, I labored over lobster and asparagus risotto, patiently stirring up a minor masterpiece, only to watch my child stare blankly at her plate and sit with an unchewed piece of delicious, buttery lobster in her mouth for twenty minutes.

Every night, I use my best negotiation skills to get something other than noodles into my child's stomach. I am not above pleading or bribery or threats, but even with my best tactics, dinner generally becomes a forty-five-minute showdown.

There are a few exceptions to this battle of wills. Cheesy pasta is one. Grilled cheese is another. Any of the usual childhood fare generally goes down pretty easily. But remarkably, the grown-up food that always disappears from her little pink plate is one that often frightens off the actual grown-ups: meatloaf.

The word "meatloaf" sounds slightly horrific. A "loaf of bread" brings to mind an aromatic, butter-slathered treat. But a "loaf of meat" sounds ghastly, a lump of dry crumbly hamburger served as a method of torture, probably alongside some manner of wilted Brussels sprout or other scary vegetable.

In reality, meatloaf made right is the best kind of comfort food. Mine, made with tomato sauce and rolled around a generous helping of cheese, is my grandma's recipe. Every time I make it, I feel like I'm channeling the finer elements of domesticity: hearty meals around a crowded table, setting the foundation for childhood memories of full bellies and lively discussions. Maybe it's my Midwestern heart, but the familiarity of meat and potatoes, particularly in the form of a warm, melty meatloaf and a-little-lumpy mashed potatoes, makes me feel at home in a way that few other foods can.

If you have been long separated from meatloaf, I encourage you to give it another chance. It is not fancy, or sophisticated, and we all eat ours slathered in ketchup, but you might be surprised at how un-frightening it can be. Just ask my three-year-old. It is on her short list of "best foods ever."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Evolving History of Food with Friends

I am not alone, as a wife and mother in my early 30s, in feeling very much defined by those two roles. Although I do work full-time at a job I love, many of my thoughts and most of my evenings are taken hostage, albeit willingly, by the needs of two adorable children and one fantastic husband.

Every once in a while, however, I glimpse a flash of my life pre-family and yearn, just a little bit, for the days when Saturdays were completely mine, when leaving the house was a 30-second grab-the-purse-and-go affair, when more books were read than gathered dust, rather than vice versa.

A never-fail remedy for this lapse into "where did my 20s go?" nostalgia is a night out with my high school girlfriends. Many women, I think, have some version of this group: a handful of women you have known since junior high or high school or college who, despite gaps in your friendship due to distance or life changes, remain a cherished link to a time when you began the slow move out of childhood.

We do not meet up often, simply because of the inevitable busyness of our lives, but when we do, it is a gathering of several hours over a meal at a restaurant or our homes that always leaves me feeling both slightly older and slightly younger. These are women that I have known for almost 20 years. Back then, we were girls navigating the labyrinth of high school as a herd, following a similar path that would quickly diverge after graduation. Now, some of us are wives, some of us are mothers, all of us are working in different careers, and all of us have settled back in our home state, after some detours along the way.

The other night, after we all gathered at Chef Matt's restaurant, I thought about all the meals that I have shared with these women throughout my life and how those meals changed as we did. In junior high, we consumed untold amounts of pizza and Coke in our parents' basements. In high school, we spent hours at Bakers Square and Perkins, eating chicken strips and pancakes and likely irritating every other patron in the store with our nonstop laughing at nonsense. In college, we ate handfuls of Doritos to balance out the beer.

Now, although more grown-up and slightly more subdued, we still get together around dinner tables. We eat at nicer restaurants now, or potluck in our own dining rooms, but the spirit of our gathering is still the same. We all have the grown-up lives we never thought would come, but manage to maintain the connections that brought us together when we were young.

I would not trade my life or my family to have those younger years back, even for a day, but I love that I, and a half-dozen of my oldest friends, can still conjure them up in our 30s version of the Perkins camp-out. In 50 years, as we are sharing half-sandwiches at our 4:00 dinners, I believe those younger years will still be alive for all of us.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Modified February "Food Week"

Each year around this time, restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul prepare pre-fixed, coursed menus for lower prices, as part of a wonderful event called Food Week. Maybe it is a way for restaurants to strut their stuff a little, to lure in customers who are normally Applebee's-goers, or simply to provide one bright moment at the end of a claustrophic winter.

Chef Matt and I used to attend Food Week, pre-kids, but have dropped off somewhat in the past few years. Nevertheless, we still like to peruse the Food Week menus online and sigh at little at the amazing concoctions chefs present for this fantastic week of local cuisine.

Although we cannot attend the official event anymore, we managed to create a Food Week of our own. Last week, as I acknowledged the passing of another year of my life, we scheduled a series of delicious meals, both restaurant-made and homemade, and decided that Food Week on your own terms can be almost as fabulous as the real thing.

We started with Valentine's Day, a holiday we do not usually celebrate. But other people do, so coupons for cheap food abound. With the kids at daycare, we split a giant plate of barbecue and a steamy bread pudding over lunch, because nothing says romance like "Hey, you have barbecue sauce all over your face."

Two days later, we called in a grandma and went to a local swanky steakhouse that, luckily for our checkbook, is in the same family of restaurants as Matt's. The server wheeled out the cuts of meat on a cart, including one actually named a "Bludgeon of Beef," and I sensed a small twinge of something feral deep inside as I ordered 24 ounces of steak, just for myself. I felt a little like a rich man's wife that night; that is, until I packaged up half of the food we ordered and silently began to plan how I could use the leftovers in several meals at home.

On my actual birthday, my parents made a February-Thanksgiving feast, with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and encouragement to eat more. And finally, in a culmination that is becoming tradition at our house, Matt made homemade gnocchi, a pillowy potato dumpling with a hint of the potato-graininess amidst an otherwise smooth, chewy texture. He tossed the gnocchi in a cream sauce with lobster and peas, and for that moment of bliss, February in Minnesota melted away and we were eating four-cheese gnocchi at a dusky restaurant in Rome.

It is certainly not plausible, or healthy, to eat this way every week. But once, or twice, a year, a personal Food Week is a welcome getaway from the drudgery of the usual ... especially if you can get it for cheap, or free at your parents' house.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Second-Trimester Love Letter

Dear Baby,

It's your mommy again. By this time, you are more aware of me around you, and I have felt your little kicks and punches for weeks now, mostly when I am very still. It is always a comfort to me, every time I feel the little popcorn tumbles within.

Second trimester is somewhat of a honeymoon period for both of us. You still have room to swim, and I still have room to breathe. These are the months sandwiched between the sickness and dry cereal, and the swollen ankles and unsightly waddle. You are behaving more and more like you will in the outside world -- swallowing and blinking and sleeping for long periods -- and I can take great pleasure in this miracle, while still able to put on my own socks.

As your taste buds form, your little memory will begin to store away the flavors that you will later recognize while perched in your high chair. Sometimes I look at your sister and brother and wonder if their wild love of bananas stems from my daily intake of the lovely yellow fruit, or if their stubborn refusal to eat plain white rice was born of my preference for potatoes.

I hope that you will not only absorb a taste for all the foods that I love, but also a love for food in general. For your sake, I will eat a thousand different things so you will have an experienced palate coming into this world. The first time your sister tried lamb, wrapped in a warm pita and drizzled with tangy tzatziki sauce, she devoured it like she'd eaten it every day of her life. Your brother, first presented with scrambled eggs, could not get them in his chubby little hands fast enough.

It won't be long until I am too big to fit anything in but juice and applesauce. Until the third trimester arrives, though, your early culinary education will continue to include courses in French, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Mediterranean and American. When you are old enough to eat such things on your own, when the days of rice cereal are over, I will be sure to look for the gleam of recognition in your eyes the first time you taste a spoonful of lamb ragout and hope, just maybe, that you will fall in love with it, too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Eating Our Way Through the Great Vacation Spots of the World

Last weekend, we flew to Phoenix for a family get-together and spent three days plucking fresh oranges from the trees and soaking up a bit of much-needed Vitamin D. In the depths of January, Arizona and its cerulean sky were a welcome distraction.

"Vacation" means something different to everyone, whether it is simply not being at work for a few days or a year's worth of planning for a grand three-week European tour. For us, most vacations involve some sort of family event, usually because we can crash in a guest room and spend the weekend digging through someone else's refrigerator. Any other type of vacation, as far as Chef Matt and I are concerned, should be driven by the local cuisine. Amazing landscapes and national monuments are a secondary perk, ranked behind the foods that lend cities their character and culture.

Before I met Matt, I traveled to New Orleans for a few days to visit friends. I spent a sunny morning sipping coffee and eating powdery beignets at Cafe du Monde, one of the treasures of the Big Easy. We ran the gamut that weekend, sampling decadent gravy cheese fries, hideous but delicious crawfish, spicy homemade jambalaya, and an amazing concoction called alligator cheesecake.

During our honeymoon in Italy, we tackled all the Italian classics: margarita pizza, caprese salad, fresh pasta with arrabiatta sauce, bolognese, gnocchi, tiramisu, gelato, and melty prosciutto and mozzarella paninis.  We wore paths between restaurants and street vendors, pausing between to take in the David and St. Peter's before seeking out the next cheesy, saucy, creamy miracle of cooking. 

Vacations will be few and far between in our future, but sometimes, when we sit and dream about the places we have not seen, our dreams begin and end with the menu. Boston will be a race to consume as much seafood as possible, Charleston will be plantation tours sandwiched between fried green tomatoes and spongy biscuits, Austin will be plates of barbecue eaten to a soundtrack of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Paris will be a weeklong orgy of bordelaise, fine chocolate pastries, and boeuf bourguignon. 

Cuisine is a defining characteristic of most places on earth, and reveals much about the people and history of those places, in ways far different than art and architecture and music. Food illuminates the soul of a city. Seeing the Eiffel Tower is a grand thing, but doesn't it look that much more incredible while clutching a crepe and anticipating a plate of ratatouille? 

Friday, January 21, 2011

...As Visions of Steak and Lobster Danced in My Head

Like so many other couples, Chef Matt and I have lately been painstakingly trimming the fat from an already lean budget. We are relatively frugal people already, but the mildly depressing state of the economy has transformed us from a champagne taste on a beer budget to a champagne taste on a generic-juice-box budget. And inevitably, one of the first things to be shrink-wrapped is our food allocation.

Cutting back to one haircut a year and virtually eliminating anything that's not mortgage, fuel or student loans do not induce the sort of panic that a slashed grocery bill does. How many things can I do with a can of refried beans? Is it even possible to stretch a box of rice for four weeks? Can I convince the clerks at Target to give me a bulk discount if I buy them out of spaghetti sauce?

I think every family has times when they alternate between Hamburger Helper and scrambled eggs for dinner, when creativity reigns in the kitchen, and when crickets are practically audible in the pantry. It is just as frustrating to a college student living on work-study and bad beer as it is to parents who go to bed some nights feeling a little too much like Tommy and Gina.

But one of the things my dear husband has taught me, besides the proper way to roast a red pepper, is that allowing yourself to dream can be therapeutic and energizing. For instance, we have a very detailed plan for spending our lottery winnings (our own restaurant, a historic mansion with a batting cage, and a a Tuscan castle, in case you were interested). I figured, then, that it wouldn't hurt anyone, least of all me, to close my eyes to the stacks of canned tomatoes and boxes of penne and envision all the beautiful things I would buy, with a limitless budget, at a lovely neighborhood carpeted market instead of the jumbled mass of humanity that is the discount store.

First, we would never be without a half a dozen delicious fancy cheeses. Imagine a grilled cheese with gouda and gruyere and a fine sharp cheddar! Next, I would stock up on every kind of high-grade meat  and seafood available: sirloins, scallops, and a peppery thick-cut bacon for that grilled cheese. I would buy artisan bread, smear it with the creamiest homemade butter I can find, drizzle it with 20-year balsamic vinegar, and follow it up with lobster ravioli from an Italian deli and a creme brulee. I would toss my Campbell's Soup cookbook out the back door, and we would recreate every recipe in The French Laundry cookbook while drinking expensive imported wine.

Perhaps such fantasies are counterproductive; they will not make scallops appear in my refrigerator. But they do make the hot dish taste a little more like an airy souffle, and make me feel a little less like we are livin' on a prayer and more like we are livin' on Summit Avenue with no canned tomatoes in sight.