Wednesday, March 29, 2017

getting her number

Photo courtesy of Coffee + Crumbs

The three of us walked through the gate as I flashed our shiny new family membership card at the teenage boy behind the desk. My daughter was decked out in her swim gear, and my son sat in the stroller, content, a toy car clutched in each chubby hand.

I was ready for this.

I'd decided on cut-off jean shorts, a navy blue tank, flip flops, and pony tail, a casual but clean ensemble that said I was easy-going but actually did laundry every once in awhile. My mom bag hung over my shoulder bursting with towels, Goldfish crackers, and three baby dolls my daughter insisted join her at the pool. I eased over to the picnic tables, the scent of sunscreen and chlorine heavy in the air. My eyes darted back and forth behind sunglasses, scoping out the field.

This was it - the first day of swim lessons in our new town - the ultimate pick up scene. This place was crawling with moms, and I was on the prowl.

It was pretty new territory for me. In our previous town, all my girlfriends and I started having babies at the same time. My friends became my mom friends; no mom dating required. This worked for me. I was never very good at the witty banter and thoughtful questioning that first dates require. Today had to be different; I brought my A game.

I unloaded at an empty table and attended to my children, careful to present myself as available but not overly desperate. I knelt down to give my daughter the obligatory pep talk about obeying her teacher and being a kind friend. My speech faded off as I noticed a mom at the next table smothering her child in Banana Boat. We exchanged a quick glance and brief smile before our moment was cut short by a whistle and a lady with a clipboard. 

I walked my daughter over to the pool fence and casually hung around to check out the kids (read: moms) in her class. It was a small class, only five children, and one was dropped off by her dad. Useless.

I sat on a bench and began gauging the compatibility potential of each mom. Did she look friendly? Did she look funny? Was she too put together? Too frantic? Was she a high-strung mom or an I-don't-put-sunscreen-on-my-kids mom? Did she have other children? Did it look like she already had enough friends? Was she out of my league, or did I stand a fair chance?

First impression: everyone seemed taken. Moms were already paired up or huddled in small groups chatting about swim meets and The Bachelorette. Should I move closer? Maybe I looked unapproachable or uninterested sitting on this bench alone. I was just about to walk a lap with my son when I spotted her.


To finish reading about my feeble attempt at mom dating, visit Coffee + Crumbs. And while you're there, stick around. Coffee + Crumbs is the real deal when it comes to all things motherhood.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

my lame to-do list


Stephen came home to crabby children, a messy house, and scrambled eggs for dinner, again.

I felt the need to defend myself, or more accurately, I felt the need to console myself and feel accomplished. I opened my planner onto the kitchen counter as Stephen tackled the dishes.

"I am going to name for you all the things I got done today. You won't be interested in most of these, and I recognize this isn't for you - it's for me. But when I'm done reading my list, I'll need you to be proud of me. Maybe even clap."

Stephen's a good sport about ridiculous requests, so in an urgent yet mocking fashion, he turned off the water, and leaned across the counter to humor me with his undivided attention.

I proceeded to read the following list:

Fold laundry
Deposit check
Return stuff to Target
Call Verizon (I deserve a medal for this one!)
Order the canvas print
Empty the dishwasher
Make eye doctor appointment
Cut the kids' nails

What a sorry looking list.

It seemed foolish to rattle off a list that only reinforced my lame life, but my unshowered body and shriveled up mind needed to feel effective. By the looks of crabby child #1, tantrum-throwing child #2, and this "well played in" house, I had little meat to show for my day.

I desperately wanted to think back on my day and feel a sense of pride, but instead, my day was unimpressive and filled with tasks a trained monkey could do.

But Stephen clapped anyway.

*****

For twelve years, I walked into school and knew a to-do list would be waiting on my desk. Sometimes it was a long one on a yellow legal pad and organized into categories like "To Copy," "Phone Calls," "Must Do Today,", and "Must Do By Friday." Other times it was a scattering of items jotted down on neon post-it notes or a sliver of white space in the corner of my plan book.

It was a never-ending list, and for every item scratched off, another two were added in its place. Nevertheless, each day was marked by tangible accomplishments - phone calls made, emails sent, lesson plans written, teachers observed, agendas drafted, meetings conducted, problems solved, presentations completed, papers graded, resources gathered. Boom.

I got stuff done. Impressive stuff.  Important stuff.

Months later, I am still adjusting to this stay-at-home-mom gig, and my list looks different, less satisfying. That rewarding feeling of an impressive, productive day is slipping away.

*****

I imagine I am not alone in my love-hate relationship with these lists. In a social setting, I complain, burdened by a to-do list that haunts my sleep, but secretly, I love that list. I love the sound a Paper Mate Flair pen makes as it crosses off a completed item, and I know I'm not the only one who adds already completed tasks to my list just to feel the rush of checking it off.

I spent three years juggling motherhood with a career and would have been grateful to complete a list like the one above in a week. I know the battle of getting nothing done, forcing myself to surrender the to-do list and play Candyland or cars instead. But these past few months, time has been on my side. With one in preschool, another obsessed with his train table, and afternoon naps still going strong (knock on wood), my Paper Mate Flair pen can swoosh through that to-do list.

Why isn't that enough? Productivity ought to be satisfying.

My day is filled with doing, but what I'm looking for are a few items to activate the 80% of my brain that is turning to mush. Dishwashers? Phone calls? Errands? Ugh. I can practically hear my brain jingling around up there.

I used to get stuff done. Impressive stuff. Important stuff.  

Don't say it. I already know.

It matters. That lame to-do list matters. 

******

I decided to stay at home with my children for many reasons, the most pressing being Stephen and I weren't content with our quality of life. Yes, we had more breathing room in the budget with two incomes, but no breathing room with our time. Weekends were spent catching up on the bare bones of survival - laundry, grocery shopping, running a Clorox wipe over the bathroom sink. And when we ignored those responsibilities and opted for a family day, we paid the price of falling even further behind. We'd blink, and it was Monday morning, back to the grind. Weeknights were exhausting, a mad rush to stay afloat until the kids were in bed, and then Netflix. So much Netflix. Who had energy for anything else?

So we made a change. I traded that never-ending, seemingly impressive to-do list for a lame one, filled with mundane, brain-mushing tasks. But it has made all the difference. 

It means we can breathe at night. We can pop popcorn and watch a movie with the kids without folding laundry and writing a grocery list at the same time. We can both put the kids to bed rather than one of us heading out to run errands after dark.

It means we can stay in our pjs on Saturday until whenever we want. We can go for a bike ride or spontaneously invite friends for dinner without feeling suffocated by the phone calls we didn't make and the chores we ignored. 

It means I can support Stephen in a way I haven't had time to before. I get to make his day a little bit easier, and hopefully a little bit better by relieving him of the trivial but necessary tasks of life, freeing him up to pour into a job he loves and a family he loves. 

*****

I am quite certain that tomorrow I will be cleaning up spilled milk for the umpteenth time while my brain wiggles and jiggles. I will mumble words unsuitable for my grandmother's ears rather than remembering what my lame daily accomplishments really mean for our family. That's the funny thing about truth - we know it, we speak it, we write it, but it doesn't always play out in our hearts and actions. 

Some days I ache for impressive - for pencil skirts, high heels, meetings, and presentations. I want to learn something and be challenged by new information. I want to solve a problem and organize an event. 

Instead, I make pancakes, sit on hold with Verizon, and entertain a toddler in the post office line. I make animal noises, talk about rainbows, and constantly answer the question "Can I have a treat?". I organize toys, manage schedules, and buckle children into car seats a dozen times a day. I take Charlotte to preschool and perfect Andrew's forward roll during parent/child gymnastics class. I sing songs at storytime and prepare the guest bedroom for upcoming visitors. I fold, iron, tickle, paint, read, hug, cook, call, build, drive, laugh, wash, teach, play, sing, snuggle, and kiss chubby cheeks. 

I get stuff done. Nothing impressive, but everything important.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

ricotta surprise

In my last post, I promised one more of our early free cable favorites. This pasta dish is the only early favorite that has stood the test of time. Ten years later, and it still makes regular appearances around the table.

Under most circumstances, I advise against dishes with the word "surprise" in the title; however, when the surprise is a large dollop of lemony ricotta cheese hidden under a pile of sausage, broccoli, and pasta, you have nothing to fear!



 Ricotta Surprise
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 pound short-cut pasta
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound Italian sausage - mild, sweet, spicy, whatever you prefer
  • 1 large head of broccoli
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • big handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • big handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and while you're waiting, get to work on a few other things.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, lemon zest, pinch of salt, and lots of pepper. Set this aside to come to room temperature.

Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat with olive oil. Add the sausage and break it into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Cook the meat until brown, about 5 minutes. Brown bits should be forming on the bottom of the pan. This is good news.

While the sausage is browning, cut the broccoli tops into small florets.

By this time, your water should be ready for salt and pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente. Before you drain the pasta, scoop up a cupful of the starchy cooking water to use later for the sauce.

Once the sausage is brown, remove it to a paper towel-line plate. Return the skillet to the heat and add all of the broccoli and onion. Spread the veggies out in an even layer, season with salt and pepper, and let the broccoli brown up a bit, about 2 minutes.

Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Keep cooking a few minutes more.

Add the sausage back to the skillet along with the stock. Ladle in some of that starchy cooking water you saved, and bring it to a simmer. Don't forget to scrap up all those yummy brown bits.

Cook until the broccoli is tender and the liquids have reduced, about 2 minutes.

Add lemon juice, parsley, and drained pasta. Toss to combine and simmer another minute, allowing the pasta to soak in all that yummy sauce. Turn off the heat, add the cheese, and toss again.

Now, here's the fun part! To serve, place a large dollop of the ricotta mixture in the bottom of each bowl and bury it with hot pasta.



 I love surprises.



Tuesday, February 28, 2017

i owe it all to free cable

I'm writing a book.

Sort of.

I was taught to begin my writing with a strong lead in order to hook my reader, so I attempted a more dramatic approach there. Did it work? Are you hooked? But perhaps a more accurate statement would be: I am making a gift for my children.

If you hang around 44 & Oxford for a few minutes, you will learn of my love for mashing food, recipes, and storytelling. In our home, food sparks memories, and memories spark stories.

This first book is filled with meals and stories of our life before children - the years Stephen and I learned to cook together, party plan together, and open our home and table. I have such a soft spot in my heart for those years because they were the beginning. We were figuring out marriage, adulthood, eating without the Taylor University Dining Commons. We were creating family routines that became such a part of us I can still see them 12 years later.

I want to remember those years.

I want to remember those meals.

I want my children to peek into that first kitchen to see the disasters and the delicious.

The book will begin with a section entitled I Owe It All to Free Cable, the story of how it all began.

Take a look.

*****


I don't have an exact memory of the day we plugged my brother's old, college television into the wall. I suspect it was sometime in early December 2005 as we moved a mix of elegant wedding presents and hand-me-down necessities into a spacious but shady two-bedroom apartment in Arlington Heights. I don't think we initially realized we had inherited cable from the former tenants, and if so, we probably thought it would disappear by the end of the month, or a bill we certainly couldn't afford would soon arrive. 

Both of us had grown up in cable-less homes, so we didn't have favorite shows or channels. It probably wasn't until mid-January that I stumbled upon a cooking show.  I was ignorant to the fact that there was entire channel dedicated to food, and I certainly had never heard of this up-and-coming Food Network star, Rachael Ray. Her spunk and colorful kitchen were an initial draw for me as I watched her prepare a citrus salmon with green beans. I'd only caught the tail end of this 30 Minute Meal show but jotted down enough to help me find this recipe in one of her cookbooks. (We didn't have Internet, so I sat on the floor of Barnes & Noble flipping through each of Rachael's books until I found the citrus salmon.) To my delight, a second episode of this 30 Minute Meal show came on, and I diligently wrote down every detail for her Cornbread Pizza. 

This was the start of my love affair with the kitchen. 

Everyday from 5-6 pm, I would faithfully watch Rachael prepare gourmet feasts in thirty minutes, all the while learning the basics of the kitchen. I learned to cut an onion, dice a pepper, and mince garlic. Prior to this, I couldn't have picked a garlic clove out of a line up. I began buying fresh herbs, working alongside a garbage bowl, and utilizing multiple burners at at time. I learned to butterfly a chicken breast, indent the middle of a burger before grilling, and watch carefully when placing a cheesy casserole under the broiler. Who knew ovens had broilers?

I'd built up a solid collection of recipes by the time the cable company caught on to our free ride and cut us off. 

Those first few years, I relied heavily on Rachael's cookbooks. On our first anniversary, your dad and I waited in line for a picture and autograph with Rachael. I was too starstruck to tell her she'd changed my life, which is somewhat dramatic but also true. Although I don't use many of Rachael's recipes anymore, the following recipes will always hold a special place in my heart - and belly - because they were some of the first. 



For your dad and I, the kitchen became our special place. We have never had a fancy kitchen, but we have always had a full kitchen and a delicious time attempting all sorts of culinary feats. 

I hope the same is true for you.

***** 

Pan-Seared Salmon with Citrus Vinegar Glaze and Green Beans

The recipe that started it all. 

  • 4 salmon fillets
  • olive oil for brushing the fillets
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (I have also used chicken broth)
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • big splash of orange juice
  • small splash of lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed
  • orange and lemon rind slices

Preheat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high skillet. *See note below*

Open the wine, and pour yourself and anyone else in the kitchen a glass. Be sure there is 1/2 cup left for the glaze. 

Rinse the salmon under cold water and pat dry.

Brush each fillet with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook the salmon until just cooked through, about 3 minutes on each side.

At this point, I pop the skillet into a 350°F oven to finish cooking the fish for a few more minutes as I finish up the glaze and green beans.

While the salmon cooks, bring wine, vinegar, citrus juices, and brown sugar to a boil over high heat in a saucepan. Reduce the glaze for 3-4 minutes, until thickened. Remove from the heat, and stir in a good pitch of pepper.

To another skillet, add the green beans, orange and lemon rinds, and 1/2 inch of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook 3-4 minutes. Drain the beans and season with salt and pepper.

Drizzle the glaze over the salmon and serve the beans.

*Note* If you do not have a cast-iron skillet, any oven-proof skillet will do. However, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity and tell you to buy a cast-iron skillet. It took me ten years to get one, and everything from pancakes, to brussels sprouts, to salmon tastes better cooked in that skillet. What a tragedy I will never get those years back.






Just add glaze. They'll love it. 




Check back next week for another favorite recipe from the early years.