Tinto de Verano

restaurant I suppose it was inevitable that the vacation glow would wear off, but I was surprised by how quickly it happened. The first day back from our trip, the first sunny day of a week that would reach vacation-like temperatures in the ’80s, I got into an argument about my dog with our mail carrier. Of course the argument, and my reaction to it, wasn’t really about the dog or the mail carrier at all.

It was about Change. construction If you know me or you’ve followed this blog, you know my neighborhood is changing. As the old-timers die off, developers are buying their land and razing their houses, building three and four-unit expensive condominiums in their place. “Chicken coops,” my taciturn neighbor, one of the remaining elderly men on the block, calls them. “Filing cabinets” is the term preferred by one of my colleagues.

My street is a constant construction zone. It’s loud and busy and my dog and I can’t stand it. He barks, which is what upset the mail carrier. I sometimes bark too, but mostly I am full of suppressed and not-so-suppressed rage.

On that first sunny morning, when my dog and I went for a walk, I learned that the neighbors on the corner, who had built the treehouse that everybody’s kids played in, had sold their property and were getting a divorce. My next-door neighbor, a good-natured handyman, who is always kind enough to feed our cats when we are away, told me he was leaving too. And then he offered to come back to the neighborhood anytime we needed him to feed the cats.

So when Jeff told me to let go of the argument with the mail carrier, he was really trying to tell me to stop fighting the inevitable.

Change. musicians Makes a person want to turn around and head right back to Spain. (I had to laugh when I read the snarky comments in response to the article I wrote about the mail carrier/dog brouhaha and destruction of my neighborhood. One of the more vicious trolls, who obviously saw me as an entitled enemy of honest working people, snarkily accused me of vacationing in Spain.)

Yup, I was in Spain alright. Andalusia to be exact.

Carefully constructed around Christmas time, when we were all sick with the flu, this trip was meant to have something for everyone.

A pitstop in London, for British-obsessed Daughter #1 (with a long-anticipated trip to Ottolenghi for me). Ottolenghi Windsuring in Tarifa, for windsurfing-obsessed Jeff (with a side-trip to Tangier, Morocco for me). tarifa   Morocco stairs Warm weather, for Daughter #2. Morocco foodMorocco doorwayGibraltar, just because. And Moorish history and great food for me.

When you travel internationally somewhat infrequently with your kids, it’s hard to know what will make the greatest impression. You never know what’s going to stick.

The morning of the trip, as I was frantically trying to make sure we had everything together, we realized that Daughter #2 did not have a purse. I know from experience with D#1 that teenage girls are very particular about their purses.

All other options rejected, my eyes fell on a black faux-leather Marc Jacobs shoulder bag that my stylish friend C. gave me when she moved away. “You can use this,” I offered, sure that D #2 would reject it as falling within the fashion domain of a 50-something woman clinging to the last vestiges of style. But D #2 surprised me. “Really?” she asked, her eyes gleaming. “Is that a designer bag?”

“Our boots” flashed before my eyes.

Surprise #1 of the trip was the way in which D#2 and I bonded. We’d been having some tussles and she, far more enigmatic than her sister, rarely let me in on her secrets. Lending (yes, lending) her that purse opened a window. I discovered just how sophisticated her interest in fashion has grown. She discovered that I had a past, one that apparently included more designer swag than she’d realized.

At the airport I told her that in my young, single, traveling days, when leaving a country, I used to take my remaining currency to the duty-free shop and spend it on perfume.

So on this trip, together, we spent all of our airport waiting time in duty-free shops, searching for what she hoped would be her “signature scent.” I spoke with familiarity about Chanel and Dior, Guerlain and Lancome, and she regarded me with a respect for experience that sometimes gets lost in our day-to-day lives.

When, in the last few minutes at the last duty-free shop, despairing of ever finding just the right essence (despite my using my own olfactory history as proof that your signature scent changes, as you change), a kindly British saleswoman (who was clearly one of those “sweet-smelling women,” like those who guided me) took D#2 in hand and helped her navigate the shelves.

No matter that I misread and miscalculated the price of the Gucci perfume we ended up purchasing, only realizing after we returned home just how much we’d spent. provactive perfume

“Our perfume,” I call it. And though she may not realize it, we share it in more ways than one.

Back at home, D#2 and I went on a feminist movie-watching jag, watching the original Stepford Wives, which Jeff rented for us, under the suspicious eyes of the somewhat militant women at the video store, who refused to let him rent the Nicole Kidman remake. (A guy renting a movie like that is the equivalent of a guy buying tampons, which Jeff has also done. Welcome to the domain of women.) and Rosemary’s Baby.

My little girl is growing up.

D #1 looked utterly at home navigating the Tube in London, drinking tea and eating Maltesers. Maltesers-Wrapper-Small

She wants to study there and I realized that she probably will.

I dug even further back, before my perfume-purchasing days, to the two years that I was an exchange student in Europe, years of glorious poverty.

One of the most interesting things about being a parent as your kids get older, is that suddenly you can remember and relate. The distance between your respective experiences seems to shrink. My Eurail Pass self and my designer perfume self are just under the surface. My girls’ equivalents of those selves are just under the surface too, about to emerge. Ronda

But what about Spain?  Did they appreciate the Alhambra and the cathedral in Seville and the tomb of Christopher Columbus and the all-you-can-eat paella on the beach?

Spanishpaella

Yeah, they did. Granada

But more than anything they appreciated eating five times a day, dressing up, wandering around on their own, late night tapas crawls and sips of the drink that defined the trip for me: Tinto de Verano.

Enjoyed more by Spaniards than Sangria (which is apparently for tourists), Tinto de Verano, or summer red wine, is equal parts red wine and lemon/lime or orange soda. It is divine.

Seville

In Spain I was probably drinking a mixture of cheap wine and lemon-lime Fanta. At home, I tried to replicate it by mixing wine with Dry brand blood orange soda and a splash of agave and it wasn’t the same. I’m still tinkering. This uncomplicated recipe, from Saveur, is a good place to start.

The wonderful book that accompanied me on this trip was Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Passion, Revenge and the World’s Finest Cheese.

Among other things, it’s about change, or rather the push-pull we humans feel as we struggle to preserve history, heritage and our way of doing things, with the inevitable changes that time brings. Cadiz

Fully back at home now ensconced in real life, with my Spanish sojourn and the sting of having three packs of jamon Iberico confiscated at the airport fading into memory, I can see change on the horizon.

But summer is coming.

As much as possible, I will spend mine trying to replicate our favorite tapa — grilled goat cheese drizzled with honey—cooking from my old favorite Spanish cookbooks, The New Spanish Table, The Spanish Table cookbook (from the wonderful Seattle store of the same name) and my new favorite, Moro, the cookbook, which I learned about one melancholy rainy day from this recipe for spinach and garbanzo beans (courtesy of The Smitten Kitchen), which transported me right back to Andalusia.

When the construction workers have left for the day and quiet returns to the neighborhood, I will lie on my backyard hammock with a good book, a glass of Tinto de Verano nearby.

I’ll try not to worry this summer, as Daughter #1 learns how to drive, reminding myself that change is inevitable.

How sweet it is.

How sweet it is.

Foodie Fan Fest

 

The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

I’m just back from a glorious trip to the Andalucia region of Spain. The trip included a brief stint in London, where I got to enjoy a jet-lagged, yet wonderful meal at the Islington branch of Ottolenghi.

The next installment of Slice of Mid-Life will be all about that trip and the wonderful food we ate. I’m still marveling at the fact that Spaniards eat five times a day and late into the night, but don’t seem to get fat.

Until then, I wanted to share this brief interview I did with Molly Wizenberg, author of the wonderful food blog Orangette, who has a new book out this month. She’s at a very different stage of life than I am and it’s fun to see how she manages the interplay of food, art and motherhood. I admire her very much.

I hope you’ll think of this brief article as a tapa, in anticipation of the feast to come. Here’s the link:

Someone You Should Know: Molly Wizenberg

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.

 

 

Serrano ham will solve everything

Hello, new year, which snuck up on me the same way Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas did.

“it kind of feels like the holidays didn’t happen this year,” remarked Daughter #1.

I know what she means. All our little rituals —the advent calendar (which admittedly, I’ve never managed to have together by December 1), lighting the menorah (which admittedly, we’ve never managed to remember to light all eight nights. This year, because of Thanksgivukkah, we hit an all-time low), creating a photo calendar and trimming our Christmas tree were done haphazardly, late and without the enthusiasm of years past.

What took you so long?

What took you so long?

Finding a time when everyone was available to go get a tree was tough. Finding the time for our family ritual of eating gingerbread and going through our ornaments one by one, sharing the associated memories, was challenging.

For us, that luxurious block of time known as winter break was taken up by a week’s worth of flu. When we weren’t sleeping or sneezing or writing cards or working we were dragging ourselves around town shopping for presents, baking cookies (even during the “barfing Christmases” of yore, I always baked cookies) and trying to get into the Christmas spirit. We’d come home and take to our beds or the nearest couch to recover from the exertion.

Each year, we buy a few new ornaments to commemorate the year’s highlights. It’s sweet and increasingly bittersweet to look at the ballerinas and Disney princess ornaments, the owls, mushrooms and pet-related trinkets (the most heartbreaking is the ornament to commemorate our departed hamster Zen, the only rodent I have ever loved).

Christmas tree

This year, Daughter #1 got a Tardis ornament.ed9f_doctor_who_christmas_ornaments

Daughter #2 got a hairdryer ornament.

Hair-Dryer-BR12019

 

And I got an ornament of Seville.

seville

Because Spain is what will get me out of the doldrums and jumpstart my year. We are going to Spain, Andalusia to be exact, later this year. We’ll stop in London for a few days for the benefit of Sherlock and Dr. Who-obsessed Daughter #1.

While there, we’ll eat in one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurants.

For me, this is the adult equivalent of going to a One Direction concert. I am giddy.

Everyone in the family had a different vacation wish list and London/Andalusia fits the bill. Daughter #2 wanted to go somewhere warm. Jeff wanted to windsurf. And I, who am fascinated by Muslim culture, am interested in seeing Moorish Spain. And am looking forward to taking a day trip to Tangiers.

On New Year’s Eve, we started feeling better and arranged to have a small tapas and paella party at home. I started sipping Fino sherry at around 6:00.

We indulged in an array tapas, including gambas al ajillo, mejillones a la marinera and queso manchego con membrillo.These recipes came from Tapas, the little dishes of Spain, by the late Penelope Casas, a book I scored one year at our biannual library sale (sadly, a  scavenger hunt tradition I have let fall by the wayside).

We supped on my friend Diane’s paella and her brother-in-law Ian’s sugar plums (not authentically Spanish, but oh, so good).

At midnight I had a few sips of Cava leftover from last January’s book launch party, and tried to get over the fact that, thanks to the developer who bought the property across the street and is now building a monstrosity, we no longer have a New Year’s Eve view of the fireworks over the Space Needle or our clear-day treat of a glimpse of Mount Rainier.

kenny's house

The new year arrived and with it, woes. These days, at any given moment, I am worried about people who are close to me, sometimes everybody all at once, and even the dog.

I appeared on TV and learned the life lesson that wearing polka dots on TV is a bad idea.

So I decided to think about Spain. I read this article about a jamon master. I sought out recipes featuring jamon serrano and jamon iberico, arranged to buy replacement parts for my Spanish-manufactured Fagor pressure cooker and anticipated the Spanish pressure cooker recipes I could experiment with. Daughter #1 and I watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

My friend P, who was widowed when both she and her kids were young, was waxing poetic on Facebook about holiday traditions, remembering the Christmas Eve screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life and staying up late stuffing stockings after the preschoolers had gone to bed, anticipating the early morning Christmas magic to come.

These days, my girls like to sleep in, so I was the only one up early on Christmas. The good news is magic is magic at 6 a.m. or at 10 a.m. And as long as there’s coffee, either is fine.

In a post entitled “Time to Enjoy the Gifts That Matter,” Catherine Buday, who blogs as The Sandwich Lady, describes letting go of traditions  —no writing Christmas cards or baking multiple batches of cookies— instead, simply enjoying the return of the prodigal kids and having the whole family together on one couch.

My friend P. summarized it best: “Like all things, we–and our traditions–change. I think that’s a good thing.”

One of my all-time favorite cookbooks is Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table. Every recipe in the book is outstanding. One of my favorites is Garlicky Braised Green Beans with Jamon.

You know how I feel about Yotam Ottolenghi. This recipe for Saffron Cauliflower is a winner.

Time will pass and people will change. But one tradition I will never give up is exploring the world from my kitchen.

Hopping off the Mommy Track

Donald Reilly, The New Yorker collection, 12/03/1990

Donald Reilly, The New Yorker collection, 12/03/1990

Life is full of surprises.

Just a few blog posts ago, I was whining about my dismal chances at employment  because I’ve been out of the traditional job market for 15 years.

Then, out of the blue, somebody offered me a job. A right-up-my-alley job, working for a magazine with smart people in a flexible, family-friendly environment.  A job that came my way because someone was familiar with my freelance journalism and thought I would be a good member of the team.

A job. A real, honest-to-goodness, too good of an opportunity to pass up, job.

I was and remain flattered.

The job offer coincided with a number of great opportunities for me: some unexpected, meaty freelance work, a meeting with the journalists who founded the Solutions Journalism Network, a TV appearance to analyze our local school board race, an interview for someone else’s book and two book promotion events of my own.

It must be the weather.

According to weather watchers, Seattle is close to setting a record.  We’re closing in our first rain-free July in 50 years.

seattle-weather-forecast1

All this sunshine can be a bit overwhelming for us, despite the fact that Seattle apparently sells more sunglasses per capita than any other U.S. city.  We count on gray, rainy days to get things done.  There is an unstated rule that sunny days are for having fun, but that usually doesn’t mean going 30 days without working or paying bills.

Rain or shine, I’ve been busy and I’m going to get busier.

This has resulted in some flakiness, like buying conditioner instead of shampoo for both me and my dog and wondering why he and I weren’t sudsier.

From redbookmag.com - How to get a dog clean

From redbookmag.com – How to give a dog a bath.

I’ve spent a lot of evenings eating take-out food or thrown together meals from refrigerator scraps, which is not my preferred style.

But, true to my promise and time permitting, I am making a dent in my Yotam Ottolenghi canon of recipes.

The Grape Leaf, Herb and Yogurt Pie from Plenty was to die for.  I couldn’t find Camargue red rice, so substituted Himalayan red rice instead for the Mango and Coconut Rice Salad. It kept me going for much of the week, “Let them eat steak,” said I (who am allergic to beef), happy to eat this hearty salad as a substitute.

Though the kids proclaimed it “slimy,” Jeff and I were blown away by the Roasted Aubergine with Fried Onion and Chopped Lemon from Jerusalem. Not too many self-respecting American kids admit to liking eggplant. I wonder if it would be a different story if we used the more melodious word aubergine. We served our aubergine with Turkey and Courgette Burgers with Spring Onion and Cumin, barbecued instead of fried, and garnished with a creamy sour cream and sumac sauce.  Can you tell that I have the British edition of Jerusalem?   Courgette sounds much more exotic than zucchini. Actually, it sounds like it could be the name of a character in “Les Miserables,” but I digress.

Goodness, will you look at the time. It’s after midnight and I need to go to bed because, well, I have to get up for work in the morning, which is why I won’t be typing out the recipe for Turkey and Courgette Burgers (I couldn’t find an acceptable link). Time management and preserving my cooking integrity will be among my new challenges. Which is good, because I was getting bored with my old challenges.

It’s nice to know that eggplants have the potential to be aubergines.  They can be main courses, side dishes, delicious dips, or even serve as metaphors, as the circumstances require. Each permutation can be delicious (or slimy) in its own way. It all depends on your perspective.

English: eggplant Français : aubergine

How Tony Soprano Helped Shape My Identity

I’ve been a big believer in reinvention in my life, so it’s come as a surprise to me that in recent years I have embraced my New Jersey upbringing.

I hold Tony Soprano accountable.

Fucking Tony.

Fucking Tony.

I fled the Garden State in 1979 and haven’t looked back. I made a brief return for a family wedding in 1993, but had to turn around and leave almost immediately because the President of Sri Lanka was assassinated.  I was the State Department’s Sri Lanka country officer at the time. Sri Lanka did not normally occupy the world stage, so when it did, I wanted to put to use my accumulated expertise about the country and be there for the briefings and press inquiries and late night work sessions, all commonplace for those responsible for sexier countries, but a novel experience for me.

Some in my family suggested that I was a little too happy to leave the state of my birth that fateful weekend.

Exit 7A, if you must know.

Exit 7A, if you must know.

I lived in Europe, California, Washington, D.C. and Asia, before settling in Seattle.  Along the way I shed the most obvious trappings of my New Jersey heritage (though I would like to state emphatically for the record that I never had Big Hair).

Seattle is perhaps the polar opposite of New Jersey, and my Scandinavian neighborhood Ballard, especially so.  Most Caucasian inhabitants of the city can trace their roots to Northern Europe and have the characteristic calm and reserve of those cultures.

People don’t yell in Seattle.  People don’t argue in Seattle. If they must disagree, they do so carefully and politely. They don’t “lay out” to get a deep tan, they prefer polar fleece to “wife-beater” tank tops and they retreat indoors if the weather gets too hot.

The Seattle Weekly's "Uptight Seattleite"

The Seattle Weekly’s “Uptight Seattleite”

People in Seattle don’t say fuck. Though, like decent bagels and good pizza, the f-word can occasionally be found in Seattle, the 250 or so different intonations of the word have not found their way into common parlance here.

The Sopranos debuted in January 1999, the month and year my first child was born.   I don’t remember when Jeff and I first started watching it. We weren’t big TV watchers and didn’t have HBO.  I think it was my brother, who lives in Hawaii, but retains much of his Jersey demeanor, who got us hooked, by sending me videotaped episodes of Season 1.

He couldn’t keep up with our demands for more, so I turned to an unexpected source: my Scandinavian-American neighbor B., who videotaped episodes for her Norwegian fisherman husband to keep him occupied during his months at sea.

Seafaring life is “salty.” I am only now considering the impact “The Sopranos” could have had on the inhabitants of that boat.

Gives new meaning to the "deadliest catch."

Gives new meaning to the term “deadliest catch.”

By now, my daughter was in pre-school. Word must have somehow gotten out that I had access to “The Sopranos,” because I was approached by unlikely fans: a blonde, mellow California woman and her equally chill husband, who asked if I could pass the videotapes on to them when I was finished watching.

All worked well for a while. B. recorded the episodes, sent them out to sea and passed them on to me once they returned. I, in turn, I passed them on to the Mellow Couple during preschool drop-off.

Once, there was a glitch in the supply chain and B. was delayed in getting the next installment to me. The Mellow Couple appeared at my house asking where their tape was.

angry hippy ale

For a moment, I thought I was about to get whacked.

Eventually, we began renting “The Sopranos” on DVD from our neighborhood video store.

The kids got older and I sometimes regretted that I was so far away from home and family.  They had so little contact with my heritage and very little sense of who I had been.

So I cooked. Years of watching Carmella Soprano bring Baked Ziti to the table for Sunday dinner had made my mouth water and so I made some too. I explained to my family that, though we were New Jersey Jews, the closest thing we had to traditional family recipes was Italian food.  My mother’s Veal Parmiagiana, her stuffed shells and mancotti (which she pronounced like a true New Jersey Italian, dropping the final “i”), stuffed peppers, and more.

family_dinner

Our extended family regularly congregated at Sibilio’s Golden Grill, a classic “red sauce” place with delicious spumoni.

Jeff, who is pretty mellow and spent much of his youth in California, indulged my fascination with the Sopranos, even as it got more and more violent.

“There he is,” I would sometime say, when he walked in the door after work.

The series ended and I never found anything to fill the New Jersey hole inside of me. Yes, I dressed up as Snooki one year for Halloween, but though I grew up there, I could never be a fan of “Jersey Shore” or the”Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

Logo's 3rd Annual 2010 "NewNowNext Awards" - Arrivals

“The Sopranos” wasn’t parody. It was Shakespeare with red sauce.

A few years ago, I was asked to perform at a live storytelling event.  The piece I performed was entitled “The Battle Cry of the Jersey Mother,” in which I explained why judicious use of the word fuck could be an effective parenting tool.

My kids loved it.

They listened to me whoop and holler as I watched the 12/12/12 concert to raise relief funds for the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. Check out this moving editorial.

Now (when they aren’t rolling their eyes at me) they love my Jersey persona. If I’m upset at some injustice they’ll say, with admiration, “Don’t go all Jersey, mom,” not-so-secretly hoping that I will.

Recently Daughter #1 told me that she and some middle school classmates were discussing their parents’ taste in music and she told them how much I loved Bruce Springsteen.

“Your mom is from New Jersey?” a girl asked in awe.  “That’s so cool.  Does she curse a lot?”

James Gandofini was 51 when he died; the same age as me. Like me, he was celebrating his eldest child’s graduation from middle school.

Much has been said about his gifts as an actor and the way he and others associated with “The Sopranos” revolutionized television.

I’ll always have fond memories of snuggling up with my husband after the kids were tucked in bed, watching bodies get put in the trunks of cars or dumped in the river.

But the true legacy James Gandolfini and “The Sopranos” left me was a way to embrace my roots and share them with my kids.

The only appropriate thing to say about his untimely death is:

Fuck!

I’m currently on vacation, so don’t have access to my trove of cookbooks to give you a recipe. I don’t actually have “the recipe” for Baked Ziti, that tastes as wonderful as it did when I was young.  Since it’s summertime, I suggest you get yourself a slice of thin-crust pizza with no yuppie ingredients on it (this is the one time I will advise you to stay away from merguez, despite the fact that it’s surprisingly good on pizza), raise it to your lips and show some respect.

So long, big guy.

So long, big guy.

Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)

blogmenopausal

I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.

I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together.  A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”

“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.

That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.

So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.

theo chocolate

Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.

Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school.  We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT.  UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.

Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.

I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).

Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.

The week I had to wait to see him was tough.  It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.

It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.

To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.

Unusually alone on Sunday morning and feeling under the weather, I comforted myself with a batch of shakshuka, using my standby recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s wonderful vegetarian book Plenty.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.

So instead I focused on cooking:  My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2′s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.

tart

This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking:  If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?

Maybe I’d get a book deal.

I wonder who would play me in the film?

A girl can dream.

So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.

Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).

It tasted great cold the next day.

Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury.  Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us.  Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.  

May peace return to Turkey.

Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:

Serves 6

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 T green olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 T red pepper paste

1/2 t salt

2 T chopped mint leaves

1/2 c chopped green pepper

2 T crumbled feta cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t cumin

2 Roma tomatoes diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 T pomegranate molasses

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Every Day is Mother’s Day

To celebrate Mother’s Day, this weekend my book, Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, is available as a free Kindle download.  Here’s the link.  I hope you’ll give it a try and tell your friends and loved ones too.  And if you like the book, please consider posting a review.  Thanks!

My grandmother, a wise, warm woman who made French toast out of hot dog buns and called it Belgian toast, used to say “Every day is Children’s Day.”

She was a wonderful woman but, with the exception of latkes, not much of a cook.

She was a wonderful, inspirational person but, with the exception of latkes, not much of a cook.

In fact, the 1960s were not nearly as child-centric as today. The sometimes controversial writer Caitlin Flanagan summarized it aptly:  “When we were children, we followed our parents around.  Now we follow our children around.”

It will be 80 degrees and sunny today in Seattle.  What will I be doing?  Schlepping kids to school, a track meet, a volunteer appreciation party, a dance and possibly the mall. I find it amusing, and admittedly sometimes annoying, that the teenagers in my life plan all sorts of group excursions that involve driving hither and yon, but they often forget to consult the drivers.

It's probably time to put this on my reading list.

It’s probably time to put this on my reading list.

Because they text instead of talking on the phone, the logistics can drive even the coolest of parents crazy. Example:  Daughter #1- Can you take my friends and me to the mall? We want to go to the Alderwood Mall (15 miles away from Seattle). It has better stores.  Me:  (attempting to dry my hair)  Sure, but I have to stop at Northgate Mall (5 miles away) first to return something.  D #1:  My friend E. will meet us at Alderwood. What time should her mother bring her there? Me:  I’ll pick her up. It’s on our way. Daughter #2:  I want to go to the mall too and invite a friend.  D #1:  I just texted E. and told her to meet us at Alderwood Mall. Me, getting frustrated:  I told you I would pick her up. (This exchange actually went on for several additional rounds and involved several hair dryer interruptions).

Surprisingly, the phone rings and it’s not a telemarketer:  It’s H., friend of D #1:  I texted E. and asked her to ask her mother to drive her down to my house so we can go to the mall.  Me:  I said I would pick her up on the way to the mall so her mother doesn’t have to drive her anywhere.  D#1:  Calm down, mom. Me: Text E. and tell her I will pick her up. D#1:  Stop yelling, you’re ruining everything. Maybe I just shouldn’t go to the mall.

Me: WHY IS THIS SO HARD AND WHY CAN’T I DRY MY HAIR?  Pick up the phone and CALL E. and confirm that I will pick her up.

In the car, much to D #1′s mortification, I lectured everyone on effective communication, minimizing our carbon footprint by not driving unnecessarily and not inconveniencing parents, who may actually have things they want/need to do.

When we got to the Northgate Mall we learned that D#2 had neglected to tell her friend B. that our final destination was the Alderwood Mall. B. had neglected to mention that she had a volleyball game in an hour.

We waited for B.’s father to come to Northgate Mall and pick her up.

If there were a logo to describe me as a mother these days it would be a sponge.

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Not because I clean, but because as the first line of defense of the family, I absorb everyone else’s emotions.  I also step in to resolve messes, sometimes (such as prior to having my morning coffee or during the aforementioned mall logistics) I can be abrasive and I adapt to a variety of tasks.

But lately I’ve been wondering whether if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen to quit my career to become a full-time mother.  In my book and on this and other blogs, I’ve chronicled the intellectual frustrations I felt, which clashed with the stronger pull to be there for my daughters.  Now, almost fifteen years later, I am dealing with the economic ramifications of my decision.

Originally this post was entitled the Mommy Track and Freekah-nomics (you’ll see why in a few minutes).

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Now that I’m ready to “lean in” and go back to work full time, I’m discovering that the years I spent freelancing, volunteering and doing a little of this and a little of that, were years not spent developing expertise in a particular field.  I’ve got a pretty interesting resume, which shows that I am smart and as adaptable as that sponge I mentioned. But, though I’ve reinvented myself professionally several times,  it lacks fifteen years of targeted experience with increased responsibility.  This, I realize, will hurt me in a tight job market.

Jeff and I have an artist friend named T. who has spent her entire adult life cobbling together different jobs to support herself.  She’s also managed to squirrel away enough money to take several international trips.  Currently, she and her husband (who’s had a similar work life) are at the end of a year-long, round-the-world trip, which they have been documenting on Tumblr.

Though not lucrative and often uncertain, freelancing makes for a pretty nice “stop and smell the roses” kind of life.

Every Tuesday Kobe and I used to visit our neighborhood barber, who gave Kobe a "pupperoni" treat.  He passed away last week.  We will miss him.

Every Tuesday Kobe and I used to visit our neighborhood barber, who welcomed canine visitors and gave them  “pupperoni” treats. He passed away last week. Our neighborhood misses him.

So, I’ve chosen to be inspired by the flexibility and serendipity of T.’s unorthodox career. I’m cobbling together several different freelance jobs to help support us and squirrel away enough money to take a trip next spring (Belize, anyone?).

Though I’m devoting far more time to seeking and executing remunerative work and far less time to cooking, occasionally I still make time for culinary exploration, focusing on less time-consuming recipes.

Here’s a recent find from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s Jerusalem: Poached Chicken with Sweet Spiced Freekah.

I hope you enjoy it.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some driving to do.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Resilience

IMG_1785-1Last week was one of the worst weeks I’ve had in recent memory. There was bad news (not the kind that makes you sad, the kind that makes you frustrated), mechanical failures, more bad news (the kind that makes you mad), home renovation stress, sunglasses stress and a mall mishap.  One bright spot in the week was Daughter #2′s first ultimate frisbee game on a very blustery day, which cheered me up until the black clouds returned. (She and I are both disappointed that the Famous Minivan, which sounded like it was about to blow up, only needed a minor repair.  We’d been hoping to be able to justify buying a jazzier ride, even though we try to live by a “one car payment at a time” rule).

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The good news is that everybody and everything is fine, though I am somewhat worse for the wear.

A few Sundays ago I read a piece in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler. Entitled The Stories that Bind Us, it describes developing resilience in your kids through the telling of family stories.  Feiler is the author of The Secrets of Happy Families, a newly released parenting guide billed as “a new approach to family dynamics, inspired by cutting-edge techniques gathered from experts in the disciplines of science, business, sports, and the military.”

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A week or so before Feiler’s piece came out in the Times we watched him present a TED talk on incorporating the concept of “agile programming” into family dynamics.  I am discovering that TED talks are useful teaching tools for our family.  Rather than listen to Jeff or me lecture them, the kids get to look at a screen and watch people much cooler than us impart life lessons much more succinctly than we do. Like watching Modern Family or Downton Abbey or Glee, TED talks can provide a nice source of family time (proud parent moment:  next week Daughter #1 will be in the audience for a TED talk hosted at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she has been volunteering).

I had been working on a story about student entrepreneurs and had spent several weeks interviewing a wide array of current and former university students who have developed a wide array of businesses.  Talking with them, I was flooded with emotion over how proud their parents must be and how the world has changed since I was in college, when the thing to do was settle on a predictable career path that would guarantee you could support yourself after a few bohemian years of eating rice and beans and other inexpensive fare.

Top-Ramen

But mostly I was impressed with their fearlessness.  Not only are they not daunted by the vicissitudes of the economy, they are also not daunted by developing business plans, presenting these plans to potential investors, patent disputes, unreliable suppliers and distributors,  or the challenges of figuring out how have spring break in Cabo San Lucas and still make it to business meetings in China. One indomitable young woman said, “If you asked me to make a spaceship that could fly to the moon, I have no idea how I’d do it; but I’m confident I could figure it out.”

That’s their mantra:  figure it out.

We’re figuring out this pesky bathroom renovation project, which has taken some U-turns along the way but is now officially underway.

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There’s a toilet in our bedroom and Jeff and I will have to resort to sharing a bathroom with Daughters #1 and #2 (the worst prospect of all).  I’m trying to figure out restorative justice for the mall mishap

Neither one of us can hide in the bathroom

Neither one of us can hide in the bathroom

and am hoping, hoping, hoping that the news we will receive this week will be good.

As a start to what I hope will be a better week, I decided to figure out what we’d be having for dinner.  Understand, this is my “best laid plans” list, which only barely takes into account an ultimate game, swim practice, a Japan trip meeting (Daughter #1 leaves in three weeks), spring soccer practice, a Ballard Writers group meeting and a parent education event.

So instead of leaving you with a recipe, I’m leaving you with my list, which is my attempt at resilience, bolstered by the reappearance of the sun in Seattle and the blooming plum trees in front of my house.

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Check back with me next week to see if I managed to cook any of it.  And if any of the recipes intrigue you, please let me know (I’ve provided links where possible).

Monday – Chicken and Plantain Stew

Tuesday – Pressure Cooker Risotto with Kale Pesto

Wednesday – probably panini sandwiches

Thursday - Curly Pasta with Spring Vegetables

Friday – Scallops, grits and greens (this one comes from chef Becky Selengut’s book Good Fish.  I recently took a fantastic mushroom class from Becky (talk about resilience, how about brushing mushrooms) and expect great things from this cookbook.

Wish me luck

Related articles

Algorithms, Measurable Outcomes and the Value of a Reliable Recipe


albert-einstein2

I’ve been spending a lot of time of late trying to quantify things, such as which marketing actions translate into actual books sales; which high school curriculum will enable Daughter #1 to have an interesting and challenging education, get into college, graduate and be self-supporting before she’s 40; and how much value our two bathroom renovations will add to our house and to our lives.

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(I almost entitled this post Bonfire of the Vanities.  You can’t underestimate the value of providing bathroom space for two girls to straighten their hair at the same time).  When not searching online for a 42 inch vanity with an offset sink, I’ve been writing articles about the benefits and detriments of standardized tests in our public schools and other education-related conundrums.

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All this examination of data, marketing campaign statistics, shower stalls, tile samples, paint chips, vanity tops (we decided to have one custom made) cost-benefit analyses and discussion of measurable outcomes has my mind reeling. I’m overloaded with information yet, when the decision-making rubber meets the road, like Whitney Houston, I find myself wondering “how will I know?”

Whitney

Luckily, a few shining lights have guided me.

Though it had been an exceptionally busy week and I was on the verge of coming down with the nasty cold/flu that knocked me flat by Sunday, I’m glad I made the effort to attend a meeting of Book Publishers Northwest, where the featured speaker was Laura Pepper Wu, self-described entreprenette and book marketing guru, whose website 30 Day Books offers a wealth of valuable information for independent authors.  I haven’t yet purchased her pdf book Fire Up Amazon (at $4.99 it’s a deal), but I plan to.

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I followed a few of the tips she offered for optimizing your book’s Amazon page (turns out, it’s all about the algorithms, baby) and lo and behold I had some, dare I say, measurable outcomes.

There were more measurable outcomes to come.

I love my husband, I really do.  But we don’t usually follow the same path when it comes to house projects, which is why our kitchen wallpaper was half torn down for a number of years.  Up until now, our philosophy has been, to quote Bob Dylan, “most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine.” If one of us is invested in a project, we run with it (shelves and anything to do with the garage – him, turquoise kitchen walls and any other cool painting project – me.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

When we have to work together…. well…

Here's what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

Here’s what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

But these bathrooms.  Maybe it’s the chance of escape from the vicissitudes in mood of our teen and tween that had us companionably scraping wallpaper from the master bathroom for hours one Sunday (because you know the t(w)eens aren’t going to offer to help) and trolling for tiles on a Saturday afternoon.

I know that’s what drove us to the custom vanity place not once, but twice this past weekend and then off to a lighting fixture store after that.  Imagine my surprise when we managed to agree, not only on floor and shower tiles, but also on style of vanity, counter top (that was big), faucet style and finish and drawer pulls, but also on unexpected new bedroom lighting.  I’ve been worrying about us as empty nesters. Now I see our bright future.  We’ll become renovators.

(Anyone who knows me is snorting right about now and perhaps uttering that evocative British phrase “Not bloody likely.”)

Exhibit A.  Note the lack of doorknob.

Exhibit A, still-unpainted.  Note the lack of doorknob.

The promise of a new vanity that would soon need to be picked up led me to get my act together and finally repair the broken trunk lock of the Famous Minivan. I have yet to deliver the bags that have been sitting in said trunk to Goodwill or to remove Daughter #2′s end of first term project — it’s term four now– but I’m on a roll, so watch out, world.

The nasty cold/ flu bug had knocked me flat just as the high school deliberations started intensifying and, deprived of my usual moxie, I was looking for a sure thing. I found it in a recipe.

If you like to cook with recipes, you know that there are certain people you can rely on to never steer you wrong (Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazen, Paula Wolfert, Patricia Wells, David Lebovitz and, my current gastronomic crush, Yotam Ottolenghi) and other Julia-come-latelys who have to earn your trust.

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If you like to cook at all, you know that there are certain ingredients that are magic together and techniques that are nearly impossible to screw up.  Like stew.  I’m a big fan of stews, tagines and any sort of one pot mash-up.

So when I saw that the ingredient list included chickpeas, preserved lemons, dates, saffron, plus lamb and that nice exotic lamb sausage, merguez, I put down my tissue box and perked up.  I hadn’t felt like eating much over the past few days (but had managed to produce chicken adobo and a Mexican tomato soup with fideos.  I may not be timely with household projects, but, as my friend Donn likes to say “Damn, the bitch can cook).

It came from The Garum Factory, one of my favorite foodie blogs, which perks up my inbox each Friday morning with its clever combination of history, culture, technique and interesting food.

On the way back from picking up the now-repaired Famous Minivan, I zipped over to store, bought the ingredients, slapped them in the pressure cooker and in less than an hour was tucking into a divine tasting and beautiful looking lamb stew.

Sometimes it’s nice to forget about algorithms.

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And sometimes it’s a relief to have a recipe for success.

Thin Mints

Collective Soul

A fellow Seattle-based blogger who is much loved (for good reason) recently confessed on her blog that she has been diagnosed with post-partum depression. Her revelation, and the outpouring of support and thanks she received, got me thinking about the differences in the way women share their experiences now and the way things worked when I was a first-time mother in January of 1999. (Daughters #2 and #1 turned 12 and 14 this week, so I am feeling sentimental).

madonna-and-child

First, there were the books. The pregnancy and parenting books of course:  The What to Expect series, Brazelton and Leach, Sears and all of the behavior books that would follow.  My personal favorites?  The now quaint-seeming age-specific series by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. and other members of the Gesell Institute of Human Development, written in the 1980s.  Many’s the time I’ve found comfort in these books and their evocative subtitles, such as Your Three-Year-Old:  Friend or Enemy or Your Seven-Year-Old:  Life in A Minor Key.  When my daughters were old enough and there were clouds on the home front, we would read these books together, delighted and relieved to learn that eleven-year-olds are so difficult at home that everyone in the family would benefit from a “geographic cure,” such as camp, a visit to grandparents or boarding school.

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I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to realize that we are on our last Louise Bates Ames book, Your Ten-to-Fourteen-Year Old, which doesn’t have a subtitle, though I can think of a few, some not appropriate for a family-friendly blog. I am reassured that, at twelve, D #2 will be “a dream come true.” We have already experienced the “boundless energy and optimistic enthusiasm and goodwill” from her now fourteen-year-old sister, along with the realization that she finds practically everything we do objectionable.

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If there were blogs when I was a new mother, I didn’t know about them.  Essays were the sharing mechanism of choice.  When Brain, Child, the magazine for thinking mothers debuted it was like manna from Heaven.  Here was a treasure trove of other women’s experiences with the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of parenting (a verb that was still relatively new back then).

The only online parenting site I knew of was the wonderful Mothers Who Think section of Salon magazine.  These essays were eventually collected in an anthology; eventually there were many anthologies, including The Bitch in the House, Toddler:  Real Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent Tiny People We Love and a host of great collections from Seal Press, publisher of books “by women, for women.”

I became a rabid consumer of essays about motherhood and eventually started writing and publishing them myself, having the good fortune to have one of my stories included in the Seal Press anthology Secrets & Confidences:  The Complicated Truth About Women’s Friendships.

Years later, I received an email from a fellow parent from my daughter’s elementary school, a woman I had never met.  “I recognize your name,” she told me.  “We’re in the same anthology.  We should get together for coffee.”

I found her story in the anthology, got on her website, read her blog and I panicked.  She sounded so cool, not like the square, boring, goody two-shoes parent I had become.  She rode a motorcycle.  She wrote erotica.  She wrote raw essays about her struggles with infertility and the challenges of fostering and later adopting a little boy. Her writing was funny.  Her writing was real.

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When we met, I relaxed.  She was just as funny in person as in her writing, but also self-deprecating and down-to-earth, not the hip mama I feared would judge me.

Not long ago, a fan of this blog commented that he had enjoyed the book Poser:  My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, Claire Dederer’s memoir of life as a new mother in Seattle.  “I know her, ” I told him.  “Our kids used to do toddler gymnastics together.  I was secretly envious of her. I had no idea she was so frustrated.”  I emailed Claire and told her of this exchange and she responded “I always thought you seemed so smart and together — I was kind of intimidated by you, to be honest.”

I jokingly replied that we could edit an anthology of frustrated mothers and the different ways they secretly found to combat this frustration — her, yoga; me, cooking; who knows what everybody else was secretly doing.

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When I was alone in my kitchen, cooking away the frustrations of confinement, I had no idea there were others like me.  Today’s new mothers need not feel that sense of isolation. They cook, they blog, they comment, they support each other in real time.

On weekend mornings when the kids were little I would drive my minivan to our neighborhood coffee shop, situated at the top of a bluff overlooking Puget Sound.  I would leave the car in the parking lot and go running through the woods.  My route ended with a flight of 77 steps that lead to the coffee shop.  Often I would see a group of women walkers, older than me, and ahead of me on the stairs.  When I reached the top I would retrieve sippy cups from my van, go into the coffee shop and buy lattes for Jeff and me and cocoa for the kids.  The women would be there too, contentedly drinking their coffee, without the urgency of getting home to young children.  I often thought of their presence ahead of me on those stairs as a metaphor for where they were in relation to me on life’s journey.

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I delivered a copy of my book to that blogger, in the hopes that it will bring her some comfort.  She probably doesn’t need it, as she’s received heaps of support in the form of comments on her blog, but, since I’m ahead of her on the parenting stairway, I thought she might like a hand with the climb.

No real food adventures to report, as we’ve been busy with work and birthday parties and planning for my book launch, which is tomorrow night and which may actually draw a sizeable crowd (though Seattleites have a unique relationship with the RSVP, so I really have no idea who will actually turn up).

I’ve been trying to eat healthily and found two recipes from the Washington Post’s Lean & Fit column:  Everyday Stir-Fry (Sabji) and Kale and Chickpea Stew.  While eating the latter, Daughter #2, a white food fan, who has never met a cheeseburger she didn’t like, commented, “Hey, this isn’t bad.”

Maybe she’s turning into that delightful twelve-year-old dream come true.