What we’re eating 9/22: BLTs, empanadas, ramen with roasted chicken

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Saturday night felt like a Sunday night. We were tired from a day of soccer and birthday parties. Jay was coming down hard with a cold. We were *this* close to throwing in the towel and having frozen waffles for dinner (or something like that) when I remembered the package of bacon in our refrigerator, left over from a breakfast gathering the week before.

I’ve never really understood the BLT. Lettuce and tomato are filler vegetables, and bacon’s a side dish. The BLT has always struck me as a pseudo-sandwich, and definitely not a meal. But Caroline conjured up the image of a diner, a plate of fries, a chocolate milkshake, and soon I was out the door to buy airy wheat bread and mayonnaise (because even as a BLT doubter, I knew that mayonnaise pulls the whole thing together).

Caroline and I ate the sandwiches and a feeling approaching giddiness came over us. For minimal effort, we’d made a delicious dinner and recreated the far-off experience of easing into the vinyl booth of an Upper West Side diner. The BLTs were a slit in the fabric of a gloomy Saturday evening, a passage to someplace a little sunnier. We’ll be making them again soon.

Dinner I: BLTs with french fries and peas. Caroline used the Martha Stewart method (mayonnaise on one slice of bread, butter on the other).

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Dinner II: Beef empanadas. These were very fun to make. The dough recipe has you work two sticks of butter into 4.5 cups of flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Whenever I combine cold butter and flour, I love how one moment it looks clumpy and the next you have in front of you something that looks indisputably coarse. The transformation seems to happen slowly and then all at once.

Jay and Wally helped us cut the dough into 6-inch rounds, apply the filling, and pinch the empanadas shut. It was a good family activity, with the usual undercurrent of stress. Wally kept applying unnecessary indentations to the finished empanadas and threatening to eat the dough, which contained raw egg. At one point he actually did eat the dough, and was temporarily banished from the kitchen. Jay, true to form, was diligent throughout. He’d be a real asset to a family of Buenos Aires street vendors.

One cooking note: We left the dough too thick, which made it hard to get in enough filling, and as a result, the dough overwhelmed the taste of the meat. Thinner, next time.

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Dinner III: Pasta with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. Cook the pasta, drain. Combine hot pasta with 4 oz. of goat cheese and stir until the goat cheese coats the noodles. Add tomatoes and arugula. Done. We’ll have this Wednesday before soccer practice.

Dinner IV: Ramen with roasted chicken and mushrooms. The temperatures in Columbia have finally dipped into the (upper) 70s. So what if this is what summer in Maine feels like? I’m ready to pretend it’s Fall and I’ve been wanting to make ramen for awhile. This recipe is scheduled for Friday. That feels like a long, long time from now. I’ll post pictures if it turns out well.

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What we’re eating 9/14: banana-stuffed french toast, pizza with sausage and figs, easy pasta with ricotta and bacon

What we’re eating 9/8: pizza with red onion marmalade, ricotta and prosciutto; slow-cooked chicken tacos

Small acts of mercy

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Yesterday morning the boys were getting dressed and I was in the kitchen pouring bowls of cereal. I called out to remind them they should wear something nice for school picture day. Jay chose a blue and white striped button shirt, which he regards as the prettiest item in his bureau.

It turned out that I’d marked picture day incorrectly on our calendar, and was off by a day.

Yesterday evening we were driving home from soccer practice and Jay asked if he could wear his shirt to school again the next day, when it would be picture day for real. Caroline looked the shirt over. It was stained from lunch and spotted with dirt from soccer. She told him the shirt was too dirty and he’d have to wear something else. Without thinking, I offered from the driver’s seat that I could do a load of laundry that night, and his shirt would be ready again in the morning.

We arrived home and the boys were tired. Just inside the door, Jay balanced with one hand against the couch and tried to remove his shinguards. “I can’t get them off,” he said. “Yes you can,” I replied. “I can’t,” he said, sounding even more pathetic. Then Caroline walked into the living room. She got down on her knees and pulled Jay’s shinguards off, first one, then the other. Finished, he ran off down the hall to the bath, where Wally was waiting for him.

I thought about our experiences with the shirt and the shinguards a lot last night. They stuck out because Caroline and I each acted differently than we usually do toward the boys.

In most of my interactions with Jay and Wally, I’m of one or two mindsets.

The first is a mindset of sternness, setting limits, and pushing them to be responsible. In this mindset, when Jay asks for help taking off his shinguards, I tell him he can do it himself. In this mindset, when he makes a demand like wanting to wear the same shirt two days in a row, I tell him to be flexible, and to consider that I might not have time to do a special load of laundry just for him.

In the second mindset, I’m accommodating, and willing to make the boys the center of our family activity. In this mindset I make a pit-stop for ice cream because I know they’ll like it, or I sign them up for soccer because I know it’s good for them. In these situations, everything revolves around the boys, and I’m on the lookout for creeping ingratitude.

Last night was different. When I offered to do that extra load of laundry for Jay, it felt neither stern nor accommodating—it felt like a small act of mercy. Mercy is a familiar word, but it’s so rarely a part of my life that I looked it up, just to make sure I understood what it means: “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.”

I tend to think I’m in charge when I’m making the boys do things my way, and they’re in charge when I’m doing things their way. Mercy is a third way, in which I’m running the show and they’re getting what they want. It feels like a slight distinction when I write it out like that, but it felt so completely and totally new when I practiced it last night. Mercy. This morning it seems to be exactly what Jay and Wally need most.

How hard should you try to contain little boys?

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If you were standing in the ocean and you kept getting battered by the surf, what would you do? Would you scream at the waves? Get out of their way? Put the ocean in time out?

I thought about this last Sunday while the boys took a bubble bath. They were in the tub off our bedroom, chin deep in suds, awash in little rubber toys, and they were having a hard time complying with the afternoon’s one rule: Please, no splashing water outside the tub.

Wally tromped his squeezable T-Rex through the water and a few drops flew onto the floor. Jay whirled to make a whirlpool and some bubbles hit the wall. Wally stood up to clean the foam from his face, slipped, and fell in a splash that sent a small tsunami across the floor.

I watched all this from just outside the bathroom and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The first time they splashed I calmly restated the no-splashing rule. The second time I barked at them. The third time I put my head in my magazine and pretended I hadn’t seen what was going on.

Increasingly the boys feel like a force of nature, and Caroline and I are at a loss about how to respond. When they do something that’s obviously wrong or dangerous, I feel comfortable getting mad at them. When they’re obviously exhausted, I know the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and patiently pack them off to bed.

But recently they’ve been spending a lot of the day in a different mode: They’re energetic, unruly, loud, clumsy, fun-loving. I joined the boys for the last ten minutes of their afternoon television shows yesterday and found Jay rolling up on his back, so that his feet were over his head and coming close to hitting the television screen. Do I say something about that? At dinner last night, for no explicable reason, Jay let out a loud whoop. Do I tell him to stop that? At breakfast this morning, Wally arrived at the table with his “cereal pinchers” and proceeded to use them to eat his mini-wheats. We have a rule about no toys at the table, but really, weren’t the cereal pinchers more of a utensil?

All told, I prefer a calm house. I’d like to see Jay and Wally spend more time reading books. I’d like them to sit neatly at the dinner table and tell us about their school days, instead of sending each other into uproars of laughter with nonsense utterings like “schmooey” and “stinky underpants.” They do read books, and they do sit calmly, sometimes. But order is not their natural way.

To bring them in line, I’d have to spend all day telling them no, putting them in separate rooms, yanking them out of the bath. I don’t want to raise wildlings, but trying to contain their quivering, random energy, has started to feel as unnatural as foot binding, and as futile as yelling at the ocean.

Related posts

Jay is who he is, but his behavior’s not inevitable (December 2011)

A new strategy for Jay: just knock it off (October 2012)

What we’re eating 9/14: banna-stuffed french toast, pizza with sausage and figs, easy pasta with ricotta

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The boys love to cook and I love the idea of them cooking, but it’s hard for me to let them in on the action. Jay always wants to crack the eggs into the boiling water for poaching, but I wince just thinking about the slow, shell-y way his eggs break apart. They like to bake, too, but when flour starts billowing across the countertop, I usually step in.

This weekend, though, we found the perfect father-son recipe: banana-stuffed french toast. It’s perfect because, after the sauce has been cooked, each step in the process lends itself to the blunt, messy way kids like to interact with food. Use a potato masher to combine cream cheese and caramelized bananas? Wally can do that. Stuff gooey filling into envelopes of challah bread? Jay’s the man for the job. On top of that, the final product is so very good. As in, it shows up on your plate and you can barely believe that something so intensely delicious is being served on your dinnerware, out of your kitchen.

Breakfast I: Banana-stuffed french toast. We sliced the challah the night before and left it out to stale, and also added a half-cup of walnuts, which for some inexplicable reason the recipe didn’t call for. We used two loaves of challah to feed six adults and four kids.

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Dinner I

Pizza with wild mushrooms, fontina, rosemary, and caramelized onions. This is a classy pizza, tasty but subtle, a dish that lets you feel like your life is operating on a more refined epicurean level than it really is. Caroline, who’s always looking for these kinds of angles, came up with the smart idea to precook the crust for five minutes before adding the toppings and putting the whole thing back in the oven. This let the crust get crispy without burning the cheese.

Pizza with grilled sausage, figs, goat cheese, and arugula. This is more of a “everything and the kitchen sink” pizza, and it all works well together. The figs, especially, were a pleasant surprise each time I bit into one.

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Dinner II: Easy pasta with tomatoes, bacon, and ricotta. We learned this recipe from my sister-in-law and it’s one of our favorite last-minute dinners. Cook five pieces of bacon and set aside. Saute 1-2 red onions in a large skillet until soft. Add two cans of diced tomatoes and 1-2 tablespoons of sugar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes. Serve the sauce over pasta, with a healthy dollop of ricotta and crumbled bacon.

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Dinner III: Baked salmon in teriyaki sauce, served with steamed broccoli and couscous.

Dinner IV: Crab cakes with french fries and broccoli. The crab cakes are 4 for $10 at Earthfare this week, and the french fries are frozen. We’ll have this on Wednesday night, just before we hurry off to soccer practice.

Signs there’s a new baby on the way

IMG_5410Last Saturday morning Jay and Wally moved about the house with unusual purpose. Wally was in the playroom closet, atop a chair, reaching for something on a high shelf. On the floor above I could hear Jay moving quickly in the attic. After a few minutes he came down and found me and Caroline in the kitchen, drinking coffee.

“I need some tape, scissors, and wrapping paper,” he said. Caroline told him where he could get those things and he turned to leave. At the doorway he stopped and turned back. “Do you know what I’m doing?” he asked. Caroline and I made wide, undiscerning eyes and shook our heads. Reassured, Jay left. Five minutes later he was back with a small package in his hands.

“Look,” he said proudly. “I made a present for the baby.”

Yes, that’s right. A baby. This December Caroline is due with our third child, a brother for Jay and Wally. We shared the news with the boys back in June, on the day we brought home our first ultrasound photos. They stared at the grainy black and white images for a moment, and then both decided they were looking at pictures of their early selves. Not quite, Caroline said. This baby’s in my tummy right now.

And from there they’ve been off. They had a flurry of name suggestions to start. Jay liked Ferdinand. Wally was partial to Parker. They’ve wanted to know whether the baby can hear or see, what it’s eating, whether it’s awake, and how in God’s good name it’s going to get from Mama’s tummy out into the world. We’ve given them a gentle but not inaccurate version of that story. As a result, there’s been a lot of birthing around here lately. The boys will go under their beds, or behind a pair of curtains, and then emerge, pronouncing in their best baby voices that they’re being born.

For me and Caroline, the anticipation of this new child feels different than the previous two. We went together to her first midwife appointment in the spring. As we held hands, listening to the heartbeat over the Doppler, I had the feeling of coming to the end of a long journey. Three children is our intended fertility, and unless something unexpected happens, we’ll stop here.

Right now Caroline is on her laptop in the dining room, Jay is at school, and Wally is upstairs, home sick. I think back five years ago to Jay’s birth—our bright, dizzying rush into parenthood. Now I see our family as a ship about to clear the headlands, with a little boy running along beside us. The four of us beckon from the deck, Jay waving, Wally beseeching with a monster truck in his hand. “Come aboard,” we say. “There’s room for one more.”

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Last night at soccer, I realized you can’t treat a second child like a first child

Yesterday afternoon while driving to Owens Field, Wally said a funny thing: “I’ve never been to soccer practice.” It was funny because he has been to soccer practices- lots of them. We kept driving and Wally kept talking and eventually his meaning became clear. When he said he’d never been to soccer practice before, he meant his own soccer practice, which was true, and also not something that was going to change that evening.

This is Jay’s third season playing soccer. He started last fall, when he was four, and Caroline and I decided that we’ll sign Wally up when he’s four, too—which means next September. We reached this conclusion a few weeks ago, and it felt like a clean, fair decision. But what’s fair depends a little on where you sit. From his view in the second row of our minivan, Wally had different ideas about what he deserved.

We got to the field and I blew a whistle to round up the U6 Falcons. I introduced myself as the coach, and then told the kids I wanted them to dribble their balls and follow me.

Wally, who’d stayed close to my side, wanted to know where his ball was. I almost asked Caroline to take him somewhere else. Then I thought it couldn’t hurt to have him participate in a few drills, so I gave him my ball, which was the only full-sized one on the field. We set off. Wally dribbled valiantly in the back of the pack, the ball coming up past his knees; when we regrouped in front of a goal, he was still fifteen yards off. “Wait for me,” he called, hurrying toward us.

After that, it was hard to convince Wally this practice wasn’t his.

Next I had the kids dribble with a partner. After the last pair had gone, Wally, waiting by my side the whole time, asked when it was going to be his turn. “In just a minute,” I said, blowing my whistle and moving on to the next activity.

That next activity was a game where two kids raced each other to a soccer ball. Wally must have given up on waiting, because the next thing I knew, he was in the middle of the field. In their rush for the ball, two Falcons knocked him over. He fell on his back and lay there for a minute, seemingly confused: Is this how soccer practice is supposed to go?

Finally it was time to scrimmage. Wally lined up by my side, waiting for the other team to kick off. I didn’t see how he could run with the big kids without getting hurt, and I waved Caroline over for help.

When Wally was born I was convinced I was going to treat him exactly the same way I treated Jay. Three years in, it’s clear that’s the wrong strategy, even if it were possible to achieve. Jay, after all, has never had to deal with watching an older brother get something he really wants for himself. The two boys experienced the first three years of their lives in unavoidably different ways, and Caroline and I should probably make parenting choices that reflect that.

But last night, all we could do was damage control. While I waited to start the scrimmage, Caroline picked Wally up and carried him away. He twisted back toward the field and was hysterical by the time they reached our blanket on the sidelines. For the rest of practice he cried hard in her arms, while his brother galloped up and down the field in front of him.

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Thoughts on running, blogging, and how we get better at things

Over the summer I had the good fortune to meet Chris Huntington. If you’ve been reading Growing Sideways for awhile you may remember him as the subject of The Parent Interview #5 and the author of a guest post about a family trip to Hong Kong Disney.

He also lives quite far away, in Singapore, but this summer he was back with his family in the United States. Their tour included a stop in July in northern Maine to visit his wife’s grandmother. That was just about the same time that Growing Sideways was showing signs of new life. I’d just written about “the meaning of a summer in Maine,” and that post served as an unintended smoke signal: Chris saw it, we emailed, and on a Saturday afternoon, the boys and I met him, his wife, Shasta, and their son, Dagim, at a bookstore in Portland.

The meeting could have been awkward, but it wasn’t. We talked easily about our summer plans, life in Singapore, and life in Columbia. Every now and then I’d remember we were ostensibly strangers to each other, and that he lived halfway around the world, and things would go out of focus for a second. But, really, our entire lives exist in strange circumstances, and usually it’s best to pretend everything’s normal. So, for a successful hour, that’s what we did.

After the bookstore we stopped by a donut shop where I ordered a chocolate glazed. As we ate, Chris asked me why I’d stopped writing Growing Sideways through the winter and spring. I didn’t—and don’t—have a clear answer, but I did say that during that period I’d viewed the blog as fallow, not dead, and that I’d always anticipated I’d pick it up again.

In this, I said, I tended to think about Growing Sideways the way I think about running—as something that develops in bursts, then settles, then bursts again.

Running is a ripe metaphor in general. It has weight for me personally because in the realm of easily assessable activities, it’s both the thing I’m best at and the thing I’ve improved at most.

I’ve been running for nine years, and that time breaks into five phases:

  1. 2005-2008. Just starting out, I ran a few times a week, at an easy pace and never more than four miles. During this period there were several multi-month stretches in which I didn’t run at all.
  2. 2009. Around May of that year I thought I should try to run a marathon. I was worried about getting injured so I trained at the minimum I thought I needed to be able to complete the distance. That November I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 3:24, about twenty minutes faster than I’d expected.
  3. 2010-2011. I went back to short runs a few times a week, and again had long stretches in which I ran very little at all.
  4. 2012. That January I met a pair of accomplished marathoners at a birthday party. We talked for awhile about training, which got me wondering how much faster I could run a marathon if I put in more miles than I had the first time. I trained through the summer and that October ran the Detroit Marathon in 3:14.
  5. 2013-present. For the last two years I’ve been going along at a middle speed, running 20-30 miles a week, neither letting my running drop-off, nor doing much to get appreciably better at it.

Altogether, the pattern is of periods of dedicated activity, which led to higher results, interspersed with periods of idling. The first time I thought about running this way, I was surprised: I’d always imagined progress as linear, and given thoughtless assent to sayings like, “If you’re not getting better, you’re falling behind.”

So, when I wasn’t blogging much, I always imagined that the inactivity was a prelude to some next act. There’s a strong self-delusional risk to that kind of thinking; it’s easy to confuse a fallow period with a real descent, or to rely on the currents alone to buoy you, when all progress requires, at some point, an act of will.

But there’s also no use hastening some things. Right now my running is in a semi-fallow period and Growing Sideways is just coming out of one. I have in mind that I’d like to run a sub 3-hour marathon one day, just like I sometimes have big ideas for this blog. Will either ever happen? I don’t know, but it’s exciting to be position where you have energy, and don’t know exactly what comes next.