I’m Just Like Gwyneth. Except When I’m Not.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Gwyneth Paltrow would never let more than two months elapse without updating her blog.

gwyneth-paltrow-sticks-to-her-diet-while-family-eats-pizza-and-pasta__oPt

Bad for the brand.

I’ve been thinking about personal branding lately and, of course, about Gwyneth, because how could you not? For the lonely writer, social media is our water cooler. Gwyneth’s announcement of her split from husband Chris Martin has dominated social media over the past few days, but even better are the writers who have posted insightful and funny retorts to Gwyneth’s comments about “conscious uncoupling” and difficulties of life on a movie set in Wisconsin.

Others have responded so much better than I could, but I will just say, as someone with two jobs, kids doing three sports and and a husband who thinks I have all the time in the world to get his international drivers permit, life on a movie set in Wisconsin with 14 hours of uninterrupted focus on one goal sounds pretty good right now.

wisconsin cheese

Actually, I’ve been on something of a Gwyneth kick lately, exercising regularly, sticking to 1500 calories a day, snacking on cauliflower with bagna cauda and generally trying to maximize my potential.

But years of attempts at personal growth and personal stomach shrinkage have yielded an important realization: I’m good for about three weeks.

Three weeks is the maximum stretch I can regularly run, do yoga and Tabata, limit myself to one glass of wine with dinner, accomplish my professional and personal tasks with aplomb, volunteer at school, take the dog out regularly for long walks, drive carpool, manage the carpool Google calendar, make healthy dinners that everyone actually likes, drive to and from soccer practice and get enough sleep.

Gwyneth-Paltrow-Real-Beauty

Before

Three weeks. Then, something’s got to give.

I just listened to a piece on NPR about male coming-of-age rituals in Kenya. Boys are circumcised at age 13, in an elaborate ritual that involves pulling the penis through the foreskin and then tying the foreskin into a bow. Though I don’t have male equipment, my knee-jerk reaction is ouch. Prior to the ceremony, the boy’s face is caked with mud, which dries into a hardened mask. During the ceremony he is supposed to remain perfectly still. If he flinches or reacts in any way, the mud will crack and he will be branded a “sissy” for life.

 

Three weeks later

Three weeks later

That’s how Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand of “aspirational” (my new, most-hated word) lifesyle strikes me. I admire the effort to be perfect, but aspire to the more realistic, trickle-down effects of trying to do your best and settling for achieving your personal best, whatever that is, at any given time, with whatever you’ve got going on in your life.

Eventually, the mud will crack

Eventually, the mud will crack

In the months that I’ve contemplated what I wanted to write about next, two pieces served as inspiration. One was a much reviled piece by New York Times writer David Brooks called The Thought Leader, in which he paints a grim picture of the life cycle of a certain type of self-satisfied intellectual.

The other, which ran a few months later in The Atlantic, is called The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age. As we age, the writer argues, we may find it hard to accept that not just our looks, but also our ideas, are discounted in favor of the young. Wisdom and experience are no longer at a premium, especially in an age of self-absorption.

I found the happy medium in a New Yorker essay by Roger Angell. This Old Man is an account of Life in the Nineties. If you are short on time, stop reading this blog immediately and read that instead.

Wisdom is not dead.

Yes, feminists, I realize I have just cited three works by men. This past week there has been a trove of good stuff written in commemoration of Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday. I am well aware that wisdom and reflection are not solely the domains of those who have endured penis-centric coming-of-age rituals.

Quote-by-Gloria-Steinem

In the past week, I had two contrasting experiences which provided food for thought. The first was the day I spent interviewing third-generation longshoremen on the docks of a busy container shipping terminal. I learned about the values that had shaped them and how they pass these on to the younger generation. The second was lunch in a beautiful penthouse apartment listening to academics and followers of the Dalai Lama talk about ways to bring “secular ethics” into schools.

Both groups were equally aspirational and I guess you could call them both “thought leaders.” And both, though they used different terminology, were essentially trying to accomplish the same thing.

The getting and passing down of wisdom is an important aspect of the human condition and a key tenant of some religions. Blogs and brands and Twitter accounts notwithstanding, it’s generally assumed that wisdom is something that makes an appearance on the heels of experiences, which are accumulated throughout the course of one’s life. There’s no right way to do it and no one time when you’ve got it all figured out.

It’s a solitary and individual experience.

Because we are treading into heavy, preachy Gwyneth-like territory here, please take a moment to watch this video.

I’ve jumped back on my Gwyneth regimen today (because I have three weeks before departing for Spain, where I will happily get off the virtue wagon). And here’s how my day has shaped up so far:

Up at 6:30 to rouse a tired teen who had been at a dance the night before and take her in the pouring rain to meet the bus for her track meet. We stopped at a coffee shop on the way. Didn’t I feel virtuous eating a Morning Glory muffin to take the edge off, so I could attend an 8:30 a.m. power yoga class.

Here’s the thing about that yoga class. I used to do yoga at a trendy studio with lots of young, attractive people in great looking yoga threads, who liked to do handstands and Bird of Paradise and Side Crow and probably use the word aspirational a lot.

gwyneth yoga

Now I do yoga at our friendly, affordable neighborhood gym with a bunch of regular looking people of all ages, shapes and sizes and a teacher who plays great music. I’m not much for the woo-woo aspects of yoga, but every now and then, something the teacher says sticks. Today he reminded us not to worry about how we looked. “Nobody’s looking at you,” he reminded us. “They’re all too busy focusing on themselves.”

Confession: I look at other people all the time in yoga and sometimes, like when my shirt is riding up over my belly, I worry that they are looking at me too. I don’t judge, but I aspire to look like those beautiful older women who look like they’ve stepped out of an Eileen Fisher catalogue.

between friends yoga

I’ll finish this blog post and then, because I’m not on a movie set in Wisconsin,  I’ll go out again in the rain and drive for 40 minutes to pick up Daughter #1 from her track meet. She’s likely to be self-critical about how she did and how she looked and, on the long drive home, I will dispense the wisdom that I, and so many others struggle to remember in this increasingly connected, always on-display world.

Last night, as I drove D#1 to a high school dance, (about as aspirational a venue as you’ll ever find),carrie

the streets of downtown Seattle were filled with people in costume heading into Comicon. We joked about how high school dances are a lot like fan conventions, with people dressing in character and finding their group. “But fandoms aren’t judgy,” (a word I have come to love) she reminded me. “Everyone dresses and acts the way they want to, and nobody gives them a hard time.”

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In thinking about aspiration and wisdom and perfection and Real Life, I got to thinking about Roseanne Barr. Have you seen her lately? She looks pretty good. She’s got the relaxed look of someone who has been on her version of the Gwyneth-Go-Round and has figured out that perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Maybe Roseanne should be the next Thought Leader of something I’m calling the “Lighten Up” movement. She’ll remind us all to relax, eat pasta and Girl Scout cookies and wear inexpensive drawstring pants if we need to.

If our mud cracks, it should be from laughter, not pain or self-sacrifice.

rosanne_barr_new_comedy

Not that I’ve been doing much cooking because of all those sports practices, but my absolute favorite new recipe is this aspirational, yet indulgent, Turkish Poached Eggs in Yogurt, courtesy of Saveur magazine.

This is not a perfect picture, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

eggs

 

 

 

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.

Refrigerator Wars: Work-Family Balance in the Crisper

Fortune-Cookie-Fortune

When the refrigerator shelf shattered, I didn’t see it as a metaphor, merely an inconvenience.

Daughter #2 had been on a summer fruit smoothie kick.  She put a blender jar of leftover smoothie on the top shelf of the refrigerator.  A few moments later we heard a crash.  The top shelf was intact, but three levels down, the glass shelf that sits atop the vegetable crisper had shattered into a zillion pieces.  I looked into the crisper and saw shards of glass adhered to leaves of cilantro.  In the door of the refrigerator, glass was stuck to condiment jars.

I closed the refrigerator door and walked away.

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Continue reading

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.

sponge

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).

am slaughter

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).

modern-family-real-estate4

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.”

0225_feiler-bookcover

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.

IMG_1786-2

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

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Algorithms, Measurable Outcomes and the Value of a Reliable Recipe


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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?”

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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

Ruminations and Resolutions

Now available on Amazon.com.  Ask for it at your local bookstore.  They can order it.

Now available on Amazon.com (Kindle edition coming soon). Ask for it at your local bookstore. They can order it.

On January 1, 2013 my book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small was published.

Which means that I got to start out the new year having fulfilled a promise I made to myself last year, not an official New Year’s resolution per se, but a resolution all the same.  I resolved that 2012 would be the year I published the book I had started ten years earlier.

I’ve got to tell you, it feels pretty good.

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It felt even better on January 2, when I got onto Amazon.com and saw my book listed there.  And better still, when Facebook friends from far away announced they had or were buying the book and shared this information with their friends.

I didn’t think the day could get any better but it did.  2013 started out with the best winter weather Seattle has to offer – crisp and clear and dry with the mountains gleaming in the distance. I went out for a run and on the way home was treated to the sight of the snowy owl that has been nesting in our neighborhood.  I got a close-up view of this beautiful bird thanks to a neighbor who had thoughtfully set up a telescope. (Though not the actual bird I saw, this is what a snowy owl looks like).

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That’s enough bounty for one day, right?  But it gets better.  When I returned home, there was Daughter #1, who these days is usually embarrassed by everything I say or do (We read this blog about girls’ relationships with their mothers during puberty. “Interesting,” she commented, rather cryptically, I thought.) engrossed in my book.

D #1 has read my manuscript, heard me perform parts of it onstage and was helpful during the editing and cover design process. But to hold the book, the actual book, in her hands and be able to read it was different.

“I’m so proud you wrote this book, Mom,” she’s told me over and over again.

The rest is gravy.

The rest is gravy.

With last year’s resolution so satisfyingly accomplished, I found myself wondering what I would resolve for this year.

We talked about resolutions on our way to the beach for Jeff’s annual Polar Bear Swim, which D#1 participated in for the second year in a row.

D#2, a pragmatist, was not  tempted to join in the fun.  She was, however, the first person to complain she was cold.

D#2, a pragmatist, was not tempted to join in the fun. She was, however, the first person to complain she was cold.

“I’ve got to lose ten pounds this year,” I resolved.

“Oh, come on, ” said Jeff.

I was taken aback, until he continued. “Surely you can come up with something less pedestrian than that.  How about doing something to make the world a better place?”

Jeff must have noticed the initial look of shock on my face because he laughed and said, “Did you think I was going to say, ‘how come only ten pounds’?”

There have been lots of articles, blog posts and comic strips about resolutions and I don’t think I have anything profound to add on the subject, especially since resolutions are a personal and ongoing matter.

But two things have stuck with me:  This year, like nearly every year, there was one Christmas card noticeably absent from the pile.  Though I realize sending actual cards is a dying convention, sometimes when one is missing, you know in your gut that something is wrong.

Sure enough, I emailed my dear friend R. and discovered she has been through not one, but four major life traumas in the past few months. “It seemed like a bit much to put on a holiday card,” she said ruefully.

So when I allow myself to feel intimidated by the uncomfortable and overwhelming process of book promotion, I am reminded of something an acquaintance told me several months ago, when I mentioned I was working on a book and she said she wanted to be invited to the book launch party.  “Really?” I said.  “I feel funny asking people I hardly know.”

“Most people just want to be happy for you,” she told me.

Somehow I think being happy for each other is an important step in making the world a better place. I thank those of you who have been happy for me.  I resolve to revel in the good fortune of others and also to be supportive when skies are gray.

Don’t tell Jeff, but I’m also still resolving to lose ten pounds this year.  My favorite post-holiday recipe to ease the transition from indulgence to “eating mindfully” comes from the book Oregon’s Cuisine of the Rain.  It’s also a great way to use up post-holiday bubbly and cream.  If you happen to have something to celebrate, as I did this week, it’s a pretty festive dish, though certain members of the family were not thrilled that I served it with brown rice.

Petrale Sole with Champagne Sauce

Sauce:

1 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice (I used some homemade shrimp stock from my freezer)

1 cup brut champagne (I used Cava and have also used Prosecco on occasion)

2 scallions or shallots, chopped

1 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream

salt and freshly ground pepper

juice of 1/4 lemon or to taste

Fish:

salt and unbleached all-purpose flour for dusting

2 pounds petrale sole or other white, firm-fleshed fish fillets

3 T extra virgin olive oil

1 T fresh chopped tarragon

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. To make sauce, place fish stock or clam juice in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add 2/3 cup of champagne and scallions or shallots. Turn up heat to high and reduce mixture by 4/5 of its volume, skimming the surface occasionally (around 15 minutes). Add creme fraiche or cream and reduce by half (5-10 minutes) until mixture is thick. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.  Remove from heat and set aside.

3. Salt fillets and dust with flour.  Heat two 10-inch saute pans over high heat  Add  1 1/2 T of oil to each pan.  Divide the fillets between the two pans, saute for 30 seconds, then flip over and place in the preheated oven for two minutes.

4. Remove pans from oven, cover with tight-fitting lids and let stand for three minutes. Remove lids and pour collected liquid into the reserved sauce. Cover pans again and set aside.

5. Bring reserved sauce to a boil, then reduce heat to low, so sauce simmers. Divide chopped tarragons and remaining 1/3 cup champagne to the saute pans.  Divide sauce evenly between the pans and warm to serving temperature. If you want, you can spoon the sauce onto each serving plate and top with a fillet  We’re not that fancy, so we just serve sauce and fish from the saute pans.

Another resolution I am contemplating, comes from my new friend Martin, who makes a cassoulet feast every year on New Year’s Day. Martin is an engineer by trade and he tackles cassoulet with the zeal of an experienced project manager, making confit and sausage over a period of several days. Because I shared my favorite recipe for preserved lemons with him, I got invited to this year’s feast.  I hope to stay in Martin’s good graces so I get invited back every year.  

Martin and I are fellow cookbook nerds and we both live with people who question the utility of using so much space for these books.  Martin’s solution:  each week a member of the family chooses a cookbook from the shelves and the other person in the family makes the recipe of their choice from that book. I’m excited to give this a try (though I’ll be doing most of the cooking).  There has been a less than enthusiastic response from the members of my family pod, but as you can see, we have a lot to work with.

We have a lot to work with.

Happy New Year!

Monday, Monday

Blah, blah; blah blah blah blah

Blah, blah; blah blah blah blah

Last Monday was a dreary day and I just couldn’t kick it in gear.  Keepers of family tradition might know what I’m talking about.  No sooner are the Thanksgiving leftovers put away, then the December holiday season ramps up with a vengeance.  Suddenly it’s the beginning of Advent (which we take seriously in our household) and time to order the holiday photo cards and calendars while Snapfish still has them on sale. Far-flung family members (who have also probably been caught by surprise) request Christmas wish lists via early morning and late night texts and the holiday pressure mounts.

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I had spent the rainy Sunday evening before happily peeling and chopping a leftover Thanksgiving pumpkin for a Turkish pumpkin soup while listening to the audio version of Salman Rushdie‘s new book Joseph Anton. I know some critics have said that the book falls prey to excessive name-dropping and self-promotion, but I haven’t  gotten there yet.  I am reveling in Rushdie’s evocative portrait of the artist as a young man. I find this book riveting.

So I should have been soothed and intellectually sated come Monday, but I wasn’t.  All day I lacked inspiration.  I decided to turn things around by preparing Marcella Hazen’s Braised Artichokes and Potatoes.

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To be fair, Marcella Hazen probably didn’t decide to cook this on a day when she had inadvertently double-booked herself to drive in two different carpools at the same time on opposite ends of the city at rush hour.

And I’m fairly certain that she didn’t have to pee while embarking  on the elaborate trimming protocol required to ensure that the artichokes are silky and tender and melt in your mouth.

I think of myself as possessing a reasonable amount of self-awareness, so, even though I was rushing to get the artichokes braising so they would be ready for D#2 to eat and digest before departing for basketball practice, I’m not sure why I didn’t take the time to pee before trimming. Years of traveling and living in the developing world, where the facilities have sometimes been of dubious hygienic quality, have made me a rapid peer of Olympic caliber. The bathroom at the Shalimar Gardens in Srinigar, circa 1987 remains etched in my memory, yet I traveled seemingly the whole of Cost Rica, circa 2006, in search of a dirty bathroom and couldn’t find one.

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But I digress.

The potatoes in the dish did indeed melt in our mouths, the artichokes, due to my hasty preparation, less so. But we enjoyed our dinner, which was accompanied by a pork tenderloin that I’d had the foresight to brine on that mellow Sunday night following the simple recipe from the Zuni Cafe cookbook.  If you remember nothing else, remember this:  Use Zuni’s wet brine, or something like it, whenever you plan to roast pork.  Use the Zuni Cafe dry brine recipe for roast turkey. You can screw up every other part of the meal and people will love you anyway if you follow these two meat preparations. Also, bring a sarong with you wherever you travel.  It can be helpful when you have to pee on the fly.

It was pouring on Tuesday and still lacking inspiration, I took our puppy Kobe for a very long walk.  A few blocks from home, C.S., a woman I hadn’t seen for a long time drove by and waved.  Then she pulled a U-turn and came back to tell me how much she had loved my blog post about the importance of pets. I hadn’t been aware she knew about, much less read my blog. “I’m so happy there are writers to help us make sense of our lives, ” she told me.

The week was looking up.

Buoyed by C.S., I decided to seek inspiration from other writers.  There was “I Want My Daughters Back,” a John Blumenthal essay on Huffington Post about the melancholy of the empty-nester, that made me temporarily appreciate the vicissitudes of life with Daughters #1 and #2.  There was the song “Same Love” by Seattle’s own Macklemore, a rousing rallying cry for supporters of same-sex marriage, which this week became officially legal in my home state of Washington. (If you have fifteen minutes to spare, watch the link to the NPR Tiny Desk concert with Macklemore, which I’ve posted at the end of this blog entry).

Image: Dow Constantine

There was this song by Shayna Cram, a young Foreign Service officer serving in Peshawar, Pakistan, who was inspired by  Malala Yousufzai, the teenage Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban after advocating education for girls.

And there was a long run on a surprisingly crisp and clear Saturday with Joseph Anton echoing in my ears. That night we dined on Joan Nathan’s potato latkes

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and played dreidel with our wooden dreidel that seems weighted so that everyone except Jeff always gets Nun.

Liked my braised artichokes, the night wasn’t perfect, but, it was a pretty good ending to the week.

On blah days and weeks, perhaps the writer who provides the best much-needed perspective is Judith Viorst, author of an impressive canon of work, including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. 

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Sometimes you just have to roll with a bad day or a blah week, because, to paraphrase Alexander, some days/weeks are just like that.

Even in Australia.

Happy Monday to all and to all a good week.

Braised Artichokes and Potatoes

2 large globe artichokes

1/2 lemon

1 pound potatoes, peeled (though I didn’t) and chopped into 3/4 inch wedges

1/3 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

salt, fresh ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

1/4 cup water

Follow artichokes preparation directions in the above link, but do yourself a favor and go to the bathroom first.

Heat oil in pan and saute onions on medium heat until translucent.  Add garlic and cook until gold.  Add potatoes, artichoke wedges and stems, salt, pepper and parsley and stir two or three times.

Add 1/4 cup water, adjust heat to simmer and cover saute pan tightly. Cook until tender (approximately 40 minutes), adding a few tablespoons of water, if necessary.  Taste and add salt, if necessary.

NPR Tiny Desk Concert with Macklemore

An Historic Day in Washington

Zen

Our dear hamster Zen passed away a few days prior to Thanksgiving. Her death was not unexpected; we’d been on hamster death watch since August, when the ravages of old age were beginning to show, and on high alert for most of November, as she slowed down and eventually became paralyzed.

Zen’s death was the first we’d experienced since the death of my mother, in February 2010.  Just as we had with my mother, we observed Zen eventually stop eating and had to coax her to drink.  In her final hours, just as we had with my mother, we took our iPod and played the songs she’d loved, while telling her how much we loved her and what she had meant to us.  My mother’s play list:  the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version of “Hawaii Aloha,” Madama Butterfly, Camelot and “Stardust,” sung by Willie Nelson, because that’s the only version I could find on iTunes.  Zen’s playlist:  Sean Kingston’s “Dumb Love,”  Ed Sheeren’s “The A Team,”  and Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me.”

We went out in the pouring rain and buried Zen in the “kitty arbor,” where three cats and one bird rest beneath a pieris japonica plant and a statue of a sleeping cat.

There’s a wonderful David Sedaris essay (which I mentioned in a previous post about dogs) called Youth In Asia that, among other things, talks about how the pets in our lives mark the passage of time.

Zen was Daughter #1′s fifth grade graduation gift.  Now as D#1 prepares to go to high school, it feels as if the last vestiges of her little girlhood are fading away. As we tour prospective schools, she is feeling the pressure of PSATs, SATs, leaving some of the friends she’s gone to school with since kindergarten and contemplating college and beyond.  I used to say that our kids’ remaining time living with us was equivalent to the lifespan of a guinea pig.  Suddenly, for Daughter #1, it’s dwindled to the lifespan of a healthy hamster.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many of my friends from New Jersey posted updates on Facebook about the havoc wreaked by the storm, including how they had coped with power outages.  One of the most heartfelt updates came from my high school friend S., who included this picture:

This is her turtle Speedy, wearing the sweater S. made to ward her off from the cold while the power was out. S. says she also held Speedy over a steaming pot of boiling water, but reassured her that it was for warmth, not turtle soup.

Speedy has lived with S. for more than forty years.  When we were young and S and her family went on vacation, I used to feed Speedy cantaloupe and watch her slowly make her way around S.’s house.

Speedy has been a constant in S.’s life, and, I guess by extension, mine. Though S. and I haven’t seen each other since we were in college, the fact that she still has Speedy is a reminder that she is still the person I knew and loved.  Speedy brings back fond memories of S.’s and my mostly happy high school years.

I wanted to do something special for Daughter #1 to acknowledge the loss of her pet.  Quiet, gentle, bookish, artistic and dreamy, D#1′s feelings are sometimes overshadowed by the loud and harsh realities of everyday life.

I decided that after Zen’s funeral we would have lemon curd, something D#1, adores almost as much as she enjoys Britishisms. (In a recent report she did on British cuisine, D#1, who has an excellent sense of humor and a firm grasp of the inner workings of the middle school mind, decided to steer clear of mentioning “spotted dick.”).

Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s a steamed pudding with currants.

When she was little and couldn’t pronounce the letter L, D#1 would refer to the tangy marriage of lemons, butter and eggs as yemon curd.  Other little kids, who had trouble pronouncing her multi-syllabic name, sometimes referred to her as Lemony. For birthdays she enjoyed the Lemon Butter Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Butter Cream from our friend Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook and my favorite White Chocolate Whisper Cake, featuring lemon curd and raspberry preserves.  You can find that recipe in Leslie’s new book More From Macrina.  I am the “fellow soccer mom” mentioned on page 169, who enjoyed the cake on my fortieth birthday.

So even though I was up to my ears in Thanksgiving preparations, I took a breather from pies, turkey stock and the cranberry- pomegranate sauce from Food and Wine magazine that will now be a staple in my Thanksgiving repertoire and I made lemon curd, using David Lebovitz’s recipe. We ate it with shortbread cookies while watching an episode of Modern Family to cheer us up.

I don’t know if we will get another hamster, though, if we do, we agreed a few years ago while vacationing in Turkey to name it Suleiman the Magnificant (there is some back-pedaling about that agreement now).

The advice about high school I would give Daughter #1 comes from the immortal words of Bob Marley:

Finally, in the immortal words of Jon Stewart, here it is, your moment of Zen (and Speedy’s brush with fame):

As the holiday roller coaster speeds up, we could all use a few moments of Zen.  I finally took some time to collect all the recipes on this site onto one page and also to provide some information about my forthcoming book. It was kind of relaxing. You’ll find both of these pages at the top of the site.