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

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.

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.

DSC_0003

(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.

PISA_OECD_rankings3

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.

fire-up-amazon-300x262

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.

julia_child_avec_un_poisson

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.

window

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

Thin Mints

Upside down

I don’t know why March gets all the hype, when anyone with kids can tell you that in September madness abounds.  There’s the getting back into school rhythm, the ceremonial synching of the calendars, the myriad of forms to fill out, the continual washing of soccer clothes (and hunting for soccer socks) and lots and lots of driving.

We’re affiliated with a new school and a new swim club, which means new faces and names to remember and new “opportunities” to become a part of these new communities.

For every event on my September calendar, there were one or two competing or bookending events, making it hard to get into the natural flow of daily life.

A few weeks after school started, we hosted a Japanese exchange student and had the opportunity to show her how a normal American family lives.  I thought it would be a good idea to make homemade pizza for our first dinner together.

I should have learned the Japanese translation for this.

Later that evening, our intrepid friends the Canadians unexpectedly showed up. They were camping in their nifty house on wheels

Sigh. There’s something to be said for simplicity.

which they parked on the normally quiet street in front of our house.  All day I had noticed an unusual number of cars parked on our street, including one with a woman in the front seat engrossed in a book.  Two hours later, she was still there.  Four hours later, she was still there.  At 11:00 p.m. she was still there, still reading.  It reminded me of that famous scene from When Harry Met Sally.

“I’ll read what she’s reading.”

Flanked by Jeff and the Canadians, I knocked on her window to make sure she was okay and to get a look at the book that had held her attention for so long. She explained that unbeknownst to us, our neighbor across the street had died earlier in the week and there was to be an estate sale beginning the next morning.  “They provide entry to dealers based on a list.  I’m number one on the list, so I’m spending the night here in my car to protect my spot.”  She went on to explain that it’s not unheard of for people to sneak out at night and remove estate sale entry lists, which are posted outside the property.  “Actually,” she said indignantly “you are supposed to remain near the premises to hold your place on the list, but I’m the only one still here.  At 5:00 tomorrow morning, everyone else will show up.” I did ask her about her book, but neither it, nor the prospect of being the first person to get the chance to dig through an old man’s stuff, seemed worth spending the night in a car.

The Canadians wisely decided to move their vehicle to our driveway, rather than risk being awakened by treasure hunters.  At 6:00 a.m., when I took the dog for a walk, there they were and their numbers grew throughout the weekend.  I imaged trying to explain the reason for all these people to our visiting Japanese girl.  Was this how normal Americans lived and died?

I decided we should stick to sight seeing.

The new ferris wheel on the Seattle waterfront

The visitors left, the month wore on and I kept waiting for things to calm down.  Over dinner, I spoke authoritatively about putting “systems in place” and established menus and job charts to keep us all on track.  Whenever the opportunity to restore order presented itself I grabbed it, collecting the apples that had fallen from our tree to make applesauce (using a James Beard recipe which admonished that, because different varieties of apples vary in sweetness, it would be “folly” to add sugar until the apples were cooked.) and catching up on laundry in between the first and the second time the dryer broke.

One such night I wanted to cook, really cook and so I decided to make maqluba, a traditional Middle Eastern upside down dish of rice, eggplant, cauliflower and chicken, using the recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s new book Jerusalem. The timing may have been bad – just as I was frying up cauliflower, Daughter No. 2 needed help with her math homework. I know I’m not alone when I say that answering any questions about math requires me to sit down and breathe deeply before I dive in. But when I brought the steaming platter to the table and adorned it with garlic-infused yogurt, I could imagine that one day, life would feel normal again.

 As we moved into October I had two encounters that gave me pause.  One was with a former neighbor, who came by to tell me that a member of her family had died.  I was rushing to dry my hair, take the dog for a walk and zip to an appointment when she appeared and so could not fully express my condolences or share memories with her. The other was a telephone conversation I had with a woman I had interviewed for an article I’d written.  She’d lost her teenaged son unexpectedly last Christmas and recently her family met the man who had received her son’s donated heart. Our interview the day before had stirred up memories and now she wanted to tell me all about her son, not so that I could write about him, but so that I could know the person he had been.  I listened, wanting to help her keep his memory alive, but I was distracted. I had ten minutes to chop and brown pork and put it into the Crockpot so that we would have time to eat dinner after school and swimming and before soccer practice.

One evening last week, in the brief available interlude after dinner and homework and before bed, we watched snippets of the documentary Half the Sky, which aired on PBS.  Even my daughters, who were riveted by what they saw, realized that our challenges are First World problems of our own making.

Still, I know it would be folly to expect that September will ever be any different, at least as long as I still have kids at home.  Just as I once designated a night of the week as European Chicken night, I’m thinking of designating September as Topsy-Turvy month and cooking maqlaba and tarte tatin and other upside down dishes until life, and our priorities, right themselves again.

It’s been a year since I started Slice of Mid-Life and I want to thank all of you who have read it and commented.  Even though work and life and puppies sometimes interfere with my best-laid blogging plans and I have to find stolen moments to write (like tonight, when I typed in my car while waiting for our Cuban Roast pork sandwiches to be ready), I’m always glad that I did.                 

Cold Feet: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part I

I’ll start by telling you that I suffer from latrophobia, fear of going to the doctor.  Though I haven’t undergone counseling to figure out the root causes, I think this fear took hold during childhood.  Growing up in a tumultuous household, I was a bedwetter, and I found it humiliating that during my annual physical, Dr. E felt compelled to “examine” my nether regions, looking, I assume, for signs of rash. In those days you didn’t question doctors and parents didn’t ask kids about their feelings.  Even though for many years, on the eve of my check-up I would parade around the house with homemade picket signs which read:

I HATE DR. E!!!!!!!

my mother didn’t pick up on my discomfort or, if she did, didn’t think it was worth alleviating.

It was the mid-1960s, after all.

(You’ll be happy to know this is one of the issues we resolved on her deathbed.  Dr. E was apparently a celebrated pediatrician and my mother thought she was acting in my best interests).

When I became an adult, I dreaded going to the doctor for a different reason:  the weigh-in.  In some crazy, retro, pre-feminist way, I managed to transform what is supposed to be a partnership caring for and maintaining my body/machine into a self-created moral test of my character.

Even though I’m older and wiser now, I still avoid going to the doctor unless I am in desperate need of a Z-pack of antibiotics, have a sports-related injury or am having my annual Pap smear or mammogram (they don’t weigh you for those).

In other words, I don’t get an annual physical.

When I first started noticing that my body seemed different, I assumed the ravages of age and perimenopause were taking hold.

Certain friends who shall remain nameless here have gained a bit of weight around the middle, many have joked about forgetfulness (including my dear friend C., who forgot to feed my cats over Labor Day weekend.  They were hungry for more than just affection when we got home). Broken nails, my friends have seen a few.  Let’s face it, we’re not as young as we used to be.

Reference material nerd that I am, earlier this year I felt compelled to purchase Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause and keep it on my bedside table for a little light reading about hormonal changes. As I read through the section on mid-life weight control, something in Step Five:  Get Your Thyroid Checked jumped out at me.

Cold Feet

My feet are always cold, even in summer.  As I read through the rest of the possible signs of hypothyroidism, I realized most of them could apply to me. (It kind of reminded me of one of those quizzes in Cosmopolitan:  Ten signs that tell you he’s cheating.  By the time you finish taking the quiz, you are convinced that he is).

I added getting my thyroid checked to my mental medical to-do list, along with the colonoscopy I should have had last year, but of course, I didn’t do anything about scheduling either one of these important, potentially life-saving tests. (No, JDM, I have not had a shingles vaccine.  No, sister-in-law D., I have not had a flu shot either).

On vacation this summer, I awoke each morning, more bloated than the next.  It felt like more than an excess of tequila and tortilla chips, and, as I thought about it, the problem had been worsening for months.  Was I suffering from cellular inflammation or an overabundance of fat-accumulating hormones, such as insulin?   Was my thyroid the culprit?

Even dogs can suffer from hypothyroidism

There was only one way to find out.  Feeling very mature (in a good way), I called my Ob/Gyn’s office to schedule my annual Pap smear and mentioned that I also wanted my thyroid checked.  The young receptionist wanted to verify my insurance coverage and gave me the name of an insurance carrier we haven’t used for years.  “No,” I said.  My carrier is C**, the same one I had last year.  “You haven’t been here for three years,” she said coldly.

I felt like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.

I had to wait till I got home to comb through my insurance documents, call my insurance company and check all of my calendars for the past three years to prove that I had seen that doctor last year and the year before that.  When that turned out to be fruitless, I called the doctor’s office again to ask them to check my physical file.  This time the receptionist was more understanding when she informed me that there were no notes in my file after 2009.  “I know how you feel,” she said sympathetically.  “I was born the same year as you.”

I was not surprised to learn that a faulty memory is another symptom of hypothyroidism.

The plot and my waistline thicken

The weeks I had to wait for my appointment felt interminable, but I tried to make them productive.  I gave up alcohol, tried to stay away from carbohydrates and made sure to adhere to a regular exercise regime in spite of my achy joints (another symptom).

I researched doctors and made an appointment for a physical with one who looked promising (in my own latrophobic defense, apart from my Ob/Gyn, whom I have seen for seventeen years, I haven’t been able to find a doctor or a practice that impressed me with professional, high quality care).

One day while out for a run, I tried to pinpoint what had changed over the past six months to make my symptoms, especially the weight gain, worsen.  I’d started making and eating granola on a regular basis, but it seemed hard to believe a cereal mix could be so potent.  Then I remembered.  Around six months ago, after being diagnosed with a herniated cervical disc, I received two epidural steroid shots and also took oral steroids. Because I have trouble remembering things, I made a note on my iPhone to do some research.

At home, a quick search on the Internet suggested there could be a link between the steroids and my thyroid. (Searching for things on the Internet reminds me of writing high school essays: combing the available research materials for snippets of information to support my thesis).

Next week I will see my Ob/Gyn and hopefully be that much closer to figuring out what, if anything, is wrong with me.  Who knows, my symptoms might just be the normal by-products of aging, which require a change in my behavior, nothing more.

But at 51,  I think I’ve finally learned my lesson.  Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay on top of your health, if for no other reason than to have a baseline to work with if something is really wrong.  Perimenopause and menopause can cause some surprising symptoms (remember pregnancy nosebleeds?).  It’s worth talking to a doctor about them, instead of suffering in silence.

Check back with me in a few months to see if I’ve scheduled that colonoscopy.

This week, four diplomats were killed in Libya and my nephew was deployed to Afghanistan. As a proud former member of the Foreign Service, who served in the Near East and South Asia bureaus, my heart is with those who dedicate their lives to promoting international understanding.

In their wonderful new book Jerusalem, chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a Jew and a Muslim who grew up in the western and eastern part of that city, talk about food’s ability to break through religious and cultural boundaries.

Twice this week I made Ottolenghi’s recipe for Figs with basil, goat cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette from his book Plenty.

Historically, figs have been revered as a symbol of peace.  I can’t think of a better thing to eat. And they’re good for you too.

Shall I Compare Me to a Summer’s Fig?

If I were a real food blogger, I’d be writing about late summer Italian plums, figs and tomatoes, the last blackberry cobbler of the season, about eggplants and the fact that by late August my apple tree was already brimming with fruit as red as a seductress’ lips.

I’d be telling you that for the first summer in thirteen years, I made no jam from berries I had picked myself, but luckily was able to use Susan Herrmann Loomis’ recipe for apricot jam from her lovely book On Rue Tatin (a nice read when you are suffering from the doldrums) with the remnants of the ten-pound box of apricots I bought in Eastern Washington on the way home from a camping trip in Idaho.

I had big plans for these apricots, but a certain teenager ate most of them on the road from Quincy to Seattle.

I might mention all the terrific Mexican food we ate at the Columbia River Gorge and the fact that I got to eat at three restaurants I’d always wanted to try:  the fantastic Pok Pok in Portland, Aziza, the San Francisco restaurant owned by Mourad Lahlou, author of Mourad’s New Moroccan, one of my favorite new cookbooks this year, and the iconic Zuni Cafe, where the famed roast chicken did not disappoint. Two weeks in a row, after dining at Aziza, I made Mourad’s piquillo almond spread, a real crowd-pleaser.

I might sneak in a mention of some of the books I finally got around to reading on vacation (The Night Circus, The Tiger’s Wife and, at the behest of Daughter #1, The Hunger Games trilogy).

I could tell you that it is bittersweet to realize that with the passage of years comes the realization that I will never have enough time in a season to make all of the favorite dishes we have compiled,

especially since I can’t resist adding new favorites, such as the Garum Factory’s Avocado Salad with Pikliz.

Finally, I might point out that if you have an abundance of Italian plums or figs, you could do worse than to turn to Dorie Greenspan‘s Baking from my home to yours  for inspiration (check out her Fig Cake for Fall and Flip-Over Plum Cake) and that if you are having a big gathering of friends on Lummi Island for Labor Day, people will be impressed if you whip up a big paella (even if you think you could have done a better job seasoning it).

But I’m just a broken down hybrid mid-life blogger taking advantage of a few free minutes on this, my 51st birthday, to muse about the differences between turning 50 and 51, opportunities found and lost this summer, our family’s newfound preoccupation with hair and the fact that as I progress further and further into that undefined hormonal state known as perimenopause (and perhaps because of all my fine summer dining), I am beginning to resemble a fig and am longing for the vitality I had when I turned 50.

Today was the first day of school, so if ever there was a birthday that was not all about me, this was it.  You should see our downstairs bathroom.  It’s a mess of hair straighteners, hair product, curling irons, nail polish remover and metallic blue nail polish, some of which has spilled onto the top of the toilet bowl, where it will probably remain for eternity.

I wanted this, my friends remind me.  I wanted Daughter #1 to feel comfortable with her femininity and to embrace her beauty instead of hiding it. I love the new nightly ritual of Daughter #2, our resident fashionista, patiently straightening her sister’s hair, of watching the two of them in the bathroom at 6:30 a.m., determining how much mascara is too much, of seeing how much fun they both have with clothes.

I also want to be able to leave the house without having to factor in 45 minutes of primping every time.

Instead of a day of self-indulgence and an unbroken train of thought, my birthday (it is now the next day) ended up being about making time for other people:  a 6:30 a.m. call from my nephew, who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan and a call that interrupted my much-anticipated chance to exercise from my brother, who told me about the Bruce Springsteen concert he had just attended (he was seated next to Chris Christie).

You can take the girl out of Jersey but…

There was the farewell conversation with our elderly neighbor, who has been a part of our lives for seventeen years and is leaving her home for a retirement community, and there was teen roulette.

As anyone who has more than one child knows, a good day is one in which all of your kids are content. More often than not, if one has a good day, the other doesn’t but, like a game of roulette, no matter how you bet, there is no proven strategy for beating the odds.

I held my breath to see how the first day of school would turn out.  I didn’t have to hold it for very long, because Daughter #1 started school at 11:30 and Daughter #2 finished at 1:00.  We went out for a Starbucks refresher, which is as magical to my daughters as my breast milk used to be, and Daughter #2′s impressions of her first day of middle school at a new school came spilling out.  When we went to pick up Daughter #1 at her friend’s house, I quickly scanned her face for signs of how the day had gone.  Then off to the swimming pool for her swim team tryout, which had been a disaster the day before, and this time was a smashing success.

It was only as we sat down for sushi and Daughter #1, now a seasoned veteran of middle school, regaled us with funny stories,

that I let the psychic energy of the day dissipate and I relaxed and remembered it was my birthday.

We came home to presents, lemon tart and dog poop on the stairs.  And then, as the hair straightener came out and my daughters took up their respective positions of straightener and straightenee, we listened to Michelle Obama’s speech about hard work and personal responsibility and contributing to the well being of society.

We’re gearing up for a new school year, a new array of seasonal foods to inspire us, a new   soccer season and new books to read (including my birthday bounty:  Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson and Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty, one of my favorite cookbooks this year).

All in all, it was a pretty good summer, a pretty good first day of school and a pretty good birthday.

All’s well that ends well.

What I Wore

There it was, featured in the Boden USA catalogue, the Riviera shirt dress.  Despite the fact that the model was five inches taller, twenty-five years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter than me, I was completely seduced by the suggestion that by donning that dress, I, too, could have a life inspired by the French Riviera, sipping Lillet cocktails in a sunflower-filled garden.

Still, I waited.

Whenever a new Boden catalogue comes out, I make note of the outfits that catch my fancy (as the British-based company would say) for future reference.  Future reference means clearance sale.  Boden has fantastic clearance sales and I am the happy owner of of three Boden dresses, one cardigan, a few shirts and several skirts — all colorful and striking — that I scored during clearance sales.

When the dress arrived, it became clear that on the shorter, squatter me, it was not quite as sleek, stylish and, well, French as it had looked on the model.  But embellished with a black patent leather belt and cute black sandals (someone once told me that accessories are what separate us from animals), I was able to pull together a look that would be eye-catching in Seattle, the fleece capital of the U.S.

I wore it for the first time on a gray, chilly summer morning for a work-related meeting.  As a writer who works from home, it’s rare that I have to dress up, and fifteen years removed from the daily tyranny of heels and pantyhose, I still get a shiver of excitement whenever I do. As many Boden dresses are, this one was extremely comfortable.  And as I waited for my morning latte, the barista said approvingly, “Hey, nice dress.”

We were going to a party later that evening, the kind of party suggested by the photo of the dress in the catalogue, sipping drinks on the deck of a house with a view of the sunset over Puget Sound.

I wanted to wear the dress to the party but feared it was too dressy.  Seattle party attire usually consists of fleece, cargo pants and Tevas, though lately I’ve seen a lot of high-end yoga wear.

Plus, there was the problem of the intervening seven hours between the end of my meeting and the party. Should I take the dress off and put it on again later?  Or should I revel in the “daytime to dusk” qualities of the dress and keep it on all day?

Have you ever read the Sunday New York Times Style Section feature What I Wore?

Here’s an excerpt from the May 17, 2012 profile of the painter Anh Duong:

May 9:  Still recovering from the Met Ball marathon, where I, in my beautiful Giambattista Valli dress the color of a cloud, climbed all night from the bottom of the Met stairs to the Top of the Standard hotel for the after-party.

But all I have left from the ball is a cold. I started with a new healthy smoothie recipe that I read on Goop. Rejuvenated, I slipped into my gray Stella McCartney exercise costume. I don’t know if I would have committed to my exercise regimen without her designing for Adidas. Whatever it takes.

Before heading uptown to see my shrink (I like to dress comfortably so I can relax on the couch and let my inner child free), I put on a beige Phillip Lim sleeveless wool dress with a black Uniqlo T-shirt and Christian Louboutin black biker boots. Added a DVF cashmere leopard-print scarf for my sick throat.

It’s very clear to me that the people profiled in What I Wore, all of whom change their outfits at least three times a day, don’t do their own laundry.

Were the New York Times to profile me in their What I Wore feature, it might go something like this:

July 30:  Donned a ripped T-shirt and black exercise pants from Target to walk the dog.  The worn patches in the hindquarters remind me of ominous gray storm clouds. 

Put on a striking blue and white Riviera shirt dress from Boden and went off to work.  Came home to find kids bickering and, feeling French, toyed with the idea of yelling “Ca suffit!”  The full skirt of the dress makes a statement when you flounce away in frustration. I drove to a neighborhood park and checked my email and discovered some good news I had been waiting for.

Still wearing the shirt dress, I took the kids and the dog to the doctor for check-ups and shots and then waited in the car while they bought donuts.  When we got home, as a post-shot treat, we curled up on the couch together and I  agreed to watch Pretty Little Liars, their favorite show, with them. Miraculously, though I repeatedly wrinkled my nose during the television program, the dress remained wrinkle-free.  

Did you know it’s easy to cook in the Riviera dress?  Feeling tres Nicoise, yet trying to avoid splattering oil, I whipped up a batch of socca to bring to a party and then loaded the dishwasher.

The lighthouse of Nice, on the Mediterranean c...

The lighthouse of Nice, on the Mediterranean coast (French Riviera). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 My husband and I strolled to the party, where we sipped drinks in the company of writers, while watching the sun set over Puget Sound.  I felt a few pangs of regret when I admitted that I’ve barely made time for any writing this summer because mostly all I’ve been doing is driving kids places and doing endless amounts of laundry and dishes.  Then I remembered that French women don’t have regrets.

“Hey, nice dress,” someone said.

Socca is the perfect snack to prepare for any occasion, but especially when you are feeling worn down from doing laundry and dishes and need a little of the French Riviera to bring romance back into your life.  I used Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe from Plenty but have also used Dorie Greenspan’s socca recipe from Around My French Table and have faith that David Lebovitz’s socca recipe is as great as all of his recipes are.  Thanks to Dorie Greenspan, I now keep a jar of homemade creme fraiche in my refrigerator, right next to the preserved lemons.

Finally, my go-to summer cocktail this year has been a Lillet spritzer, which is Lillet on the rocks with sparkling water and a squeeze of fresh lime.

It reminds me of my younger days, when I subsisted on white wine spritzers and air-popped popcorn and a pretty dress could lead to all sorts of possibilities.

Good and Plenty

I’m not supposed to be writing this.  I’m supposed to be packing for that ski trip I told you about.

But I couldn’t resist telling you about a few good things that have come my way lately.

This is the granola I made this morning, inspired by the wonderful blog Orangette.  My horoscope for today recommended that I “make something with honey” (in 40-odd years of reading my horoscope in the morning paper, I have never been similarly advised) so maybe it was in the stars, but it took Molly Wizenberg extolling the virtues of homemade granola and providing me with a few great recipes to convert me.  The house smelled great.  Do yourself a favor — read Orangette.  And make your own granola (I haven’t yet tried the recipe you’ll find by clicking on the above link.  I used an earlier Orangette granola recipe, which Molly adapted from Nigella Lawson.  You can find it in the Orangette recipe index).

(I also made my own pancake mix, but we haven’t tasted it yet, so I’m not ready to share the recipe.  I snuck in flax seeds.  Shhhh.  Don’t tell Jeff and the girls).

While I was making the granola, I listened to a few stories from The Moth, the live storytelling project based in New York.  I learned about The Moth last week, when I was asked to participate in a Spoken Word performance on March 20, as part of the Ballard Writers Collective.  The stories I heard today were funny and touching.  I’m looking forward  hearing more from The Moth during our eight hour road trip.  (I’ll tell you more about the March 20 event later).

As you know, I’m interested in eldercare and in spreading the word anytime I hear of anything that makes life easier for the elderly and their caregivers.  This recent post from The New Old Age is just such a thing.  At a networking event this week, I met an eldercare advisor and was reminded of this growing business.  If you are caring for someone and feel overwhelmed, you can hire a consultant to help you navigate Medicare, find senior housing, etc.  Also, Jane Gross told me to tell you about her Facebook page, where she provides useful updates and information for fans of A Bittersweet Season:  Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves.

Yesterday, at Costco, I found this fantastic Near East-inspired vegetarian cookbook.  I’ve read about Yotam Ottolenghi and Plenty in my cooking magazines and in The Guardian, and have even made some of his recipes, but I was unprepared for how blown away I have been by this book.   I want to cook and eat everything in it.  Tonight.  Instead of packing.

Finally, it’s no secret that there are a few places I would rather be going than skiing.  But, to paraphrase Adele in her beautiful cover of this Bob Dylan song (you can buy the live version on iTunes), I’d go to the ends of the earth for the ones I love (though eight hours in the car with a teen and pre-teen might be pushing it).

(Check out what Margaret Cho had to say in response to Karl Lagerfeld’s snipe about Adele after the Grammys. Thanks, Theo Nestor, for sharing it.)

That’s all, folks.  I’ll be diligently doing my physical therapy exercises and writing next week, and maybe even doing a little bit of skiiing too.

Happy President’s Day.