Thursday, October 28, 2010

Eat: $25,000 Roast Chicken?

When I opted to reduce my work schedule to part-time this year, much of the appeal lay in the domestic bliss I imagined I'd be able to achieve with my extra hours.  The house would be not only clean, but organized and surely I'd have time for those decorating projects I'd been putting off.  I would whip up delicious, from-scratch baked goods and tasty nutritious dinners.   All of this, I reasoned, would make part-time worth it.

My homemaking skills haven't quite earned back the missing 40 percent of my salary.  I may throw in an extra load of laundry here and there, but our playroom is still swathed in blue painter's tape and we've been eating a lot of sandwiches.  This chicken was my attempt to earn my keep, a taste of that elusive domestic bliss...but one that would, hopefully allow me time to help Big E with her homework, keep Little E from liberating every toy in the as yet unpainted playroom, and maybe make a little progress on the scarily thick folder of grading in my bag.

I used the  Best Roast Chicken with Garlic-Herb Butter recipe from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites, and found that it was pretty simple and didn't require a huge amount of active prep time.

for the garlic butter:
5 garlic cloves, whole
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 1/4 teaspoon dried, crumbled
1 tablespoon chopped fresh time, or 1/4 teaspoon dried, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper

for the chicken and vegetables
One 3- to 4-pound chicken
4 medium onions quartered  (I only had one, but didn't feel that the finished product lacked for onions.)
11/2 pounds fingerling or new potatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups dry red or white wine

First, make the garlic butter by preheating the oven to 350 and putting the garlic in a small ovenproof pan and covering it with the olive oil.  An 8-inch cake pan worked for me.  Roast it for about 15 minutes; it will get tender and sweet.  Remove them from the oven, let them cool for a few minutes.

In a small bowl mash together the butter and herbs, then season with salt and pepper. Chop or mash up the garlic and add it and any oil from the garlic roasting pan to the butter and mix well.

At this point you should move a rack to the lower third of the oven and preheat to 450.  Then, prepare the chicken by removing the bag of giblets and rinsing the bird inside and out with cold water.  I let it stand in a strainer in the sink for about 10 minutes to allow it to dry.  At this point you can put the vegetables in a bowl and toss them with the olive oil.

Now the fun part: cut off any excess fat near the flaps of the cavity.  Then wiggle your fingers beneath the skin to create a pocket between the breast meat and the skin; fill the pocket with half of the butter mixture and massage it into the breast meat.   I am no fan of raw chicken flesh and was moderately horrified about doing this, but I assure that it is ultimately worth those few minutes of horror (and several additional minutes of aggressive handwashing).

Rub the remaining butter over the skin of the rest of the chicken, then put the chicken into a roasting pan.  Surround it with the vegetables; if you have any leftover butter, melt it a little and drizzle it over them as I did.  Full disclosure: At this point I feel compelled to admit that I have some form of poultry dyslexia and, as I often do when cooking a bird, I put the chicken in upside down.  This wasn't actually a huge deal but did deprive us of tasty roasted breast skin, so beware.

Roast the chicken for 25 minutes, then pour half of the wine over the chicken and toss the vegetables so they'll brown easily.  Turn the oven down to 375 and roast the chicken for another 20 minutes; pour the rest of the wine over it and toss the vegetables again.  Roast for another 20 to 25 minutes or until the juices run clear.

Transfer the vegetables to a serving bowl and allow the chicken to rest for about 10 minutes.  After carving the chicken and putting it on a serving platter, do not forget to spoon the pan juices over the sliced meat.

So, was it $25,000 worth of domestic bliss?  Maybe more like $25, but it was tasty.  My family appreciated it, and I got to get in touch with my inner-June Cleaver, serving Sunday Dinner on a weeknight. 

Most importantly, it gave me hope: only $24, 975 worth of bliss to go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Play: Flying Solo

My very first mental snapshot of Little E is from the second after her birth as I pulled her from the birthing tub.  In that very first instant of seeing my baby, I was focused not on her face --I didn't even notice that it was obscured by the birth membrane-- but on the spot between her legs where I was convinced I would see boy parts. 

We'd opted not to find out gender at the ultrasound, but I was convinced that I was having a boy and was almost as shocked to see a girl as I would have been if the technician had told us it was a boy back at 18 weeks. When I got over my astonishment, I realized that I had given Big E something I had never had but always wanted: a sister.

I grew up with a younger brother and my husband had two older sisters; this territory of same-sex sibling relations is somewhat unfamiliar to us.  We try hard to be conscious to avoid quagmires like unwarranted assumptions, unfair judgements, and unattractive hand-me-downs, but we aren't always vigilant about is making sure that they each get some solo time with us.  Dictated by time constraints or practicality, or as a result of our attempts at fairness, the girls tend to travel as a pack.

This weekend we took a tiny step toward giving the girls a little more solo time.  On Saturday, I took Big E to Starbuck's, inexplicably one of her favorite places, where we got hot chocolate and Chai and split a brownie and on Sunday, while Big E was at a friend's house, my husband and I took Little E to her favorite lunch spot, a grungy local diner.

No magical moments of bonding or spectacular strokes of insight sprung from these outings.  But I think that the solo time was worthwhile.  As much as I cherish the sturdy foundation that we as a family provide each other, I value the individuals, as well.  I'll continue to find opportunities to complement our family time with one-on-one time, so the girls can see how much they each mean to me --together and apart.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Work: Running away from home

We first set foot in our home a little over five years ago.  We took a perfunctory tour and  surveyed the backyard for a few minutes, where our real estate agent pointed out the possibility of adding a pool, as he had, unprompted, at every showing.  Then we stood in the street conferring with our agent.

We leaned against our car in the blazing July sun and gazed at the house as we told him that we wanted to make an offer.  He, too, stared at the house with its swayback roofline, faded Christmas wreath on the front door, and mouldering pumpkin remains on the front stoop, and asked, "What makes youse guys want this one, of all the places we've looked at?"

Well, we explained, there was the location: five minutes from my new job, across the street from a library and playground, convenient to the highway and in viewing distance of a quaint New England church in which we would never set foot.  But, more importantly, there was the backyard, a large grassy expanse with two huge leafy trees.

He pursed his lips, squinted his eyes, nodded slightly and then threw up his hands and shrugged.  At the time I thought he was conceding our house-buying wisdom, I realize now that he was giving us the international sign for Well, it's your funeral. 

When you are living in a 712 square foot condo with an even smaller shared yard, you never underestimate the value of space.  And when you are sharing that condo not only with your spouse, but your active toddler and hyper-active Boston Terrier as well, you really covet outdoor space.  When you are in this position and yardowners complain to you about the hassle of mowing and the agony of leaf-raking, you feel angry and you absolutely know that you would relish these jobs, that the satisfaction of working your own land would have you happily raking, mowing and trimming every weekend.

Until that is, you actually own a backyard and you realize that you do not revel in its maintenance, but instead find yourself running away from home.  This happened to me last weekend, when at a critical juncture in the landscaping cycle (long grass meets falling leaves), I found myself not mowing or raking, though both are in critical need, but first soccer-cleat shopping with my husband and then crossing state lines to shop a "designer bag replica" flea market so shady that when Big E later developed an itchy scalp I was convinced that she'd picked up an exotic breed of head lice from my new "cashmere" scarf.  All to avoid the yard.

It is, perhaps, because my vision of adulthood is a product of too much television that I imagined that at adulthood I'd be issued a sturdy, symmetrical home with a self-tending lawn. That my reality has turned out so differently, with so many more cracks, leaks, rodents, and, yes, leaves, is hard to accept at times.  It is a lot more work than I had imagined.

I know that I need to come to terms with my burden and deal with the grass and leaves.  But maybe I'll just bulldoze it all and put in that pool.

(Tragic Update:  That itchy head?  It really was lice, and though I cannot comment on their exoticism they sure are proficient at multplying.  This is clearly punishment from the lawn gods for my lack of gratitude.  The irony is that the time I really and truly planned to spend cleaning up the yard this weekend will now be spent combing, laundering, vacuuming, boiling,and bagging. Sweet revenge for condo-dwelling yard coveters everywhere.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dream: Glass Cases

I am a much better curator of memories than I am a liver of moments.

I have been reminded of this a lot over the past few weeks.  I cross state lines to cheer on my college football team and even referenced the school in my daughters' middle names, and yet on the day I graduated I was so happy to leave that I swore I would never go back.  The other night I felt myself tearing up nostalgically at the movie Dumbo as Mrs. Jumbo lovingly inspected her new baby, but I spent Big E's babyhood reduced to a jiggling heap of frustration and anxiety.  This morning at school a group of exchange students from France arrived and I sentimentally recounted to my students my own sophomore year trip to Paris; it wasn't until I was in the parking lot that I remembered how my host family had sent me up to a cold, lonely bedroom to wait for hours before dinner.

Coincidentally, it was during those chilled Gallic hours that I first read (and then re-read) The Catcher in the Rye whose protagonist Holden fixates on the glass-cased dioramas at The American Museum of Natural History.  Fearful of change, he appreciates their static nature.  This is close to the opposite of my need for glass cases, for it is only after things have changed that I can look back fondly at the diorama of days gone by. 

It is not that I never gaze appreciatively on a sweet moment, it is just that my eye is drawn more often to the less dazzling details: the children are whining, the house is a mess, I have a backpack full of grading to do.  Later, in my mental exhibition, I will polish and position it all to its best advantage.  I will see only the golden sunny vacation, the fun-filled playdate, the weekend of lounging with the family. 

Really, that is what I am doing with this blog and probably why I have been enjoying it so much.  I can take an experience, say venting work frustrations on my husband or pouting on a family skating trip and imbue it with sage like observations.  I am no longer a shrew or a party-pooper, I am wise and reflective.  I am Doogie Howser, M.D., without the genius IQ and the bedside manner.

Here is where I should claim some plan to change this aspect of me.  But I don't really think I can do that; it's too deeply ingrained.  I will, however, try not to share my dark vision with those around me.  Beyond that, all I can do is appreciate the gift of an optimist's memory.  It is, after all, the memories that endure.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eat: Pumpkin-Chocolate-Chip Squares

After Little E was born I took a super-sized maternity leave --almost 18 months.  During that time I did freelance work for a textbook publisher, vacuumed every other day, scrubbed the bathroom twice a week, baked frequently (and always from scratch), planned and executed nutritious weekly menus, created hand-sewn Halloween costumes, read novel after novel and explored every park in a 20-mile radius with Big E at my side and Little E tucked into the Baby Bjorn. 

I felt as if my life were actually capacious enough to contain not just what I absolutely needed to do, but what I wanted to do, as well.  My kids were happy. my toilet was clean and I was earning a paycheck to boot.

I first made these Pumpkin-Chocolate-Chip Squares from Martha Stewart during that time and consider them emblematic of my days as calm, competent, multi-tasking mommy.  Big E and I would whip up a batch while Little E napped and then I'd season the rest of the pumpkin puree with ground ginger and have gourmet baby food on standby.  Everything was under control in a way that it has not been since I returned to work.



Ingredients

Makes 24
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin puree
  • 1 package (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with foil, leaving an overhang on all sides. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, pie spice, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
  2. With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium-high speed until smooth; beat in egg and vanilla until combined. Beat in pumpkin puree (mixture may appear curdled). Reduce speed to low, and mix in dry ingredients until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
  3. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake until edges begin to pull away from sides of pan and a toothpick inserted in center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan.
  4. Lift cake from pan (using foil as an aid). Peel off foil, and use a serrated knife to cut into 24 squares.

Calm and competence may elude me, but at least I have the Pumpkin-Chocolate-Chip Squares.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Play: Pushing, not plodding

Although our plans for the long weekend included a sport a day (college football on Saturday, over-30 soccer Sunday and the Tufts 10K Monday), it was Friday night's dinner with my friend Carole that got me thinking about the value of sports.

Carole is many things --mother, blogger, career woman-- but not a sports enthusiast. Still, over burgers and beers the conversation turned to what she considers her hyper-competitive nature.  As she bemoaned her need to be the best, my own hypo-competitive personality was thrown into stark relief.

I know that competition spawns excellence. But as it also invites failure and disappointment, I have long retreated to the safe haven of apathy. When a competitive situation arises, I smile politely and slowly back out of the room.  I loved basketball as a kid but gave it up to avoid try-outs.  I withdrew from sorority rush days before it began, unnerved by a roomful of girls scrutinizing me.  I don't fly Southwest anymore; the jostling for position necessitated by their lack of seat assignments gave me a stomachache.

This is not what I want for my girls.  Much as I adhere to the youth soccer league's no score policy, I truly wish that Big E cared enough to keep a running tally.  When I lament her politely abandoning the ball to any defender who challenges her, my husband dismisses my concern by telling me that she's smarter than all of them.  I like to think this is true.  And still, I know from experience that the world is skewed more to those who are first to the ball than those in the top reading group.

I thought maybe this weekend's events would provide me with some teachable moments for the girls:  this is how one cheers on one's alma mater, this is a penalty kick...please don't grow up to be a pushover like your mother. 

The football game, it quickly became clear, would not be the place to inspire an appreciation of competition.  Within the first few minutes, our University of Richmond quarterback threw an interception that resulted in a game-ending injury for him and a touchdown for the other team.  It didn't get better from there.  The only teachable moment came when a sloppy coed in faux-denim leggings and facepaint whiskers plopped herself onto the visitors stands and slurred "Richmond sucks..."  The take away: leggings are not pants.

The soccer game was equally fruitless.  Over the last couple of years, the girls have seen enough pushing, shoving, swearing, sweaty men to inure them to the competitive spirit out on the pitch.  They did marvel, though, at the artificial turf's ability to at once look like dirt, and yet not be dirt.  Perhaps there's a lesson there, but not the one I was looking for.

And so it landed on me to create the teachable moment with my race.  I thought I had an idea of what the takeaway would be.  On my training runs, I had reminded myself that all I really had to do was keep my breath steady and put foot in front of foot.  At the time it seemed an apt metaphor for life.  Yet when I found myself in that pack of 8,000 women all heading to the same place, I felt less slow and steady wins the race than go big or go home.

So, instead of plodding safely and breathing evenly as I'd envisioned, I jostled, struggled, surged, and gasped. I finished six minutes ahead of my target time, beat 5,645 of the 6,696 finishers, and felt elated for having actually competed.

The girls were less interested in my triumph than in the Happy Meals that my father had bought them while I was running.  But that's okay.  I learned the lesson and now I can teach it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Work: Progress Report

It's progress report time at work.  So, in the spirit of reporting progress, I decided to take a look at how I am faring in my year of balance and despite a slightly bumpy start, it's going well. 

One of my biggest concerns, that shaving two-and-a-half hours off of my day wouldn't justify hacking 40 percent off of my salary, seems unfounded.  I've always noticed that if I take an extra two minuthere es to get Big E and I out of the house in the morning, those minutes seem to somehow repoduce along the way until I'm well more than two minutes behind schedule.  We will inevitably get stuck behind a school bus, my harried rush will cause Big E to cling a little longer at drop-off, the parking lot at work will be choked with other frazzled parents blocking the travel lanes with their own drop-offs, and on and on.

Amazingly, it actually works the same way in reverse.  Those extra two-and-a-half hours are amplified in the same way the two minutes are: fewer hours at work, fewer classes to prep, fewer papers to grade, less time wasted complaining, fewer hours spent panicking, and on and on.

And since my field has taught me that undocumented success is not success at all, here is evidence of my progress:

More playing fetch,
more playing house,
more apple picking,

more bike riding,



more tire riding,



more llama feeding,

more playgrounds,


and even more soccer (because there should always be room for improvement).




Not bad.  Now to work on the less photogenic details that I may have neglected, like more floor-mopping and more toilet-scrubbing...


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dream: Seeking Shangri-La

A few weeks ago Little E and I stopped at a playground in the pedestrian mall of a nearby downtown.  I had just picked her up from daycare and was already out of step with the other moms by virtue of my shoes --high and pointy, not low and sensible.  Feeling out of place --and shunned by Little E who asked me to please sit quietly while she played by herself-- I sat watched as the woman on the bench next to me ranted to her friend.

"Two years and nine months," she shouted, gesturing emphatically.  "Two years and nine months.  If they tell me that the class will be two years and nine months in January, there better not be anyone in that class who's turning two years and nine months in February.  I see what the neighbors kids are doing in their preschool.  They're drawing faces and hair.  FACES.  HAIR.  We're just coloring.  JUST COLORING."

Were I not afforded a dual perspective on the "mommy wars" by my current part-time arrangement, I might wrongly chalk her hysteria up to too much time on her hands. But I know that this ultra-competitiveness, this hyper-awareness extends to the parents at Little E's daycare, as well. 

Just the week before, I attended the open house in her Pre-K class at daycare, where the parents peppered the teachers with questions carefully worded to reference both the extensive academic work they did at home and their child's prowess. (He's really mastered his capital letters, but how can we help him to neaten up his lower-case --when we do our writing practice...which we do every night?  When should we start doing math problems?  I mean she can write all of her numbers, but she can't quite add them yet.)  These are three-and-a-half year olds who spend up to 50 hours a week in daycare...and who apparently have a pressing need to keep up with their correspondence and balance their checkbooks.

Then there was Big E's first grade open house, where all of the parents sat, bent onto chairs a foot high, nodding approvingly as the teacher delivered a spiel that highlighted the word "work" above all others: "working snack", "nightly homework," "work them hard," "work, work, work."  Nary a "learn," "think," or heaven forbid, "enjoy" to be heard.  When one man asked whether his daughter had started receiving her special services yet, hands shot up around the room.  (Special?  What kind of special services are available?  How can I find out whether we qualify for special services?  How often can you get these special services?  What of I have a particular special service in mind for my child?

I won't get into Big E's soccer games, where my husband, the volunteer coach, gently explains the rules and encourages good sportsmanship to children whose parents shout instruction like they're on the sideline at the World Cup.  I won't go on about how every week those parents fold up their lawn chairs at the end of the game and walk off without a word, as my husband picks up balls and cones like the hired help.  I certainly won't mention the lady who called my house last Saturday during dinner to air her grievances about his volunteer coaching. 

The competitiveness, the entitlement, the un-funness of it all, I'd like to think it's regional, that I could pull out a map and find the town where three year-olds color without the pressure of adding hair, where first-graders' homework consists of the occasional diorama, where parents pull up to soccer practice and drop their kids off --or at least say "thank you" after scrutinizing the coach's technique for an hour.  I reminisce fondly about the rural town where I grew up (think Ross Perot signs and poor dental hygiene, not pastoral settings and organic produce), but my mother assures me that it's just as bad there.  I consider other parts of the country, but the chorus remains:  that's the way it is everywhere.

I dream of moving far away.  Maybe we could find our happy, laid-back existence amongst the lingonberries and flat pack furniture in Sweden.  Maybe we could move to Paris and dress the children in little coats and hats and send them out to experience the city with a benevolent nun.  Most likely, though, what I'm seeking is Shangri-La.

(Full disclosure:  I recently signed Little E up for weekly phonics lessons to the tune of $110 a month.  It is ridiculous, I know, and flies completely in the face of everything I believe.  I'm hedging my bets.  When I hear her singing "Monkeys making muffins, mmm, mmm, mmm..." it makes me feel a little bit better about her flat-out refusal to draw a face --don't even get me started on hair.) 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Eat: Late to the party, loving the buttercream

Somehow, I always tend to be a little late to the party.  I watched Sex in the City in late night syndication, I set up my Facebook account a month ago, and last weekend I ate my first fancy bakery cupcake.

When it becomes clear that everybody likes something, I tend to avoid it.  This is partly a contrarian move, but it's also practical, as my tastes tend to be out of step with everybody's.  Until recently (and probably again in the near future), I have been on the losing team during election season.  If I love a television show, it is surely destined for an early demise (and I'm still waiting for the Arrested Development movie).  And since cake is not my dessert of choice, I figured shrinking it and wrapping it in paper wouldn't do much to help.

Thanks to my husband's barber, I realize that I was wrong about that.

She turned him on to the bakery that sold him the cupcakes that showed me that maybe everybody was on to something...in this case.  As it turns out, the cupcake's appeal lies in something bigger than taste.  It's about choice.

My culinary tastes tend to be incompatible with those of the rest of the family, so the autonomy offered by the cupcakes more than makes up for its being cake. Generally, I design our menus to avoid things that they hate, like cheese, tomatoes, artichokes, cream sauces, mushrooms; the list goes on and on and, coincidentally, is nearly identical to the list of items that I most enjoy eating.  But I am outnumbered.

 The cupcakes freed me to eat exactly what I wanted with no guilt or compromise.  I could enjoy my chocolate ganache with peanut butter mousse while everyone else had their cinnamon, lemon or cookies and cream.  Sure, the towering crowns of buttercream were a challenenge after my birthday dinner of spicy shrimp tandoori masala.  And my training run the next morning was somehwhat hampered by my overdose of butter and confectioner's sugar.

It was worth it, though.  Cupcakes, it turns out, are a little taste of culinary independence.  Sometimes everybody has a point.