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

Pizza Figs

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.

French Toast 3

French Toast 2

French Toast 1

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.

Pizza Mushroom

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.

Ricotta

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.

Taller, faster, stronger: Little boys love hierarchies

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Last night Caroline had to fight her way out of the boys’ room. She’d sung them their songs, given them their three hugs, but still, the questions came.

“Can ice break metal?” Wally asked.

“What if the ice is really thick?” Jay followed up.

Caroline closed the door and left them to puzzle out these mysteries on their own.

For a while now, the boys have had hierarchies on their minds: faster, stronger, taller, sharper. They’re trying to order the world within the very most important categories they can think of.

This summer, that meant horsepower. “What has more horsepower, a dinghy or a sailboat,” Jay asked me more than once. Wally, who got the form of the conversation more than the substance, developed a perfect unwitting parody of his older brother. “What has more horsepower, a dinghy or a motorcycle,” he’d ask, tilting his head quizzically to the side, and throwing up his palms in perfect “on the one hand, on the other” fashion.

Eventually we established that broad generalizations don’t work well with something like horsepower, so we got down to the details. Papa’s motorboat had 115 horsepower. His sailboat had 2.5 horsepower. His dinghy had 6 horsepower. None, Jay was sure, were faster than Opa’s boat, which we we all remembered as having 215 horsepower. Later, in August, we boarded Opa-boat and learned it actually only had 190 horsepower. Jay’s disappointment was palpable.

All summer, the boys operated under the assumption that more horsepower meant more speed. Then we boarded a car ferry, which seemed powerful, but not swift. I told Wally I couldn’t even begin to guess how many horsepower it had. A few days later we were licking ice cream cones on the docks, when we met an old salt who seemed sure to know the answer to our question. “You know how many horsepower that boat has?” I asked casually, gesturing to the docked ferry with my cookies ‘n cream.

He thought on it for a second, then said, “2,000.” Jay’s eyes went as wide as a lobster pot.

Since returning home the boys have had other hierarchies on their minds. They want to know how fast I can run and how that compares to how fast Opa can run, and Laurie can run, and how fast the fastest person in the world can run.

Recently we spent the entire eight-minute drive to pick up Caroline talking about how tall giants are. Are they taller than a car, or a house, or a tree, or a skyscraper? My head was about to split when Wally saved the day. “But giants aren’t real, right?” he said. “Right,” I said.

Nothing makes for a good hierarchy like predators. The boys intuit that taller, faster, stronger—it’s all window-dressing if another animal can eat you. Last summer we were at the aquarium in Charleston, watching a presentation on owls. The guide asked the kids, “What’s the number one threat to owls?” and Jay’s hand shot up. “Cheetahs,” he exclaimed, as surely as he knows his own name. (The actual answer was automobiles.)

We’ve established that on land, nothing can really touch a lion, and in the sea, Great Whites rule. Then last night, before all the questions about ice and metal, we were reading a book about dinosaurs. A page on “marine reptiles” included a section on the fearsome Mosasaurs, a “giant swimming lizard” that could be up to 56-feet long (yes that’s longer than our car, maybe it’s about as long as our house).

I was reading along without thinking too much about the words, when I came to the line, “They ate just about anything, from ammonites to sharks to plesiosaurs.”

Both boys gasped. “Sharks?! They could eat sharks?!”

And that’s the danger of hierarchies, I didn’t tell them. Just when you think you know something, everything changes.

What we’re eating: September 7, 2014

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I’ve been to the grocery store a lot this week: six trips in the last five days, including two emergency stops at Publix for cornbread mix (because there  were no muffins left for our second night of chili). Saturday morning I had a little less than an hour to get to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and get home again, at which point Jay and Caroline needed to leave for a birthday party. As I raced through a yellow light I was struck by this very obvious fact: The whole eating process- planning meals, grocery shopping, eating- takes up a huge amount of our time each week.

When I drop Caroline off at the university in the morning, the last thing we usually talk about is what we’re going to have for dinner that night. After I pick the boys up from school in the afternoon, often we head back home to get a jump on dinner prep. The days in which we have to make a meal from scratch feel like a scramble; the days we have leftovers feel luxurious; and on Thursdays, when we’ve exhausted the week’s menu plan, I consider the idea of skipping dinner altogether.

Putting food on the table each night is the week’s big chore. It’s also a small outlet for creativity, and a place where we can sneak some extra pleasure into our daily lives. On Friday after lunch I made a red onion marmalade to go atop pizza that night. The onion slices started out moist and firm, went wobbly in the skillet like cooked noodles, and turned a deep brown, before I doused them in an uproar of balsamic vinegar. It was one of a small handful of best things I did that week.

This is all to say I’ve realized that in order to give a full account of our family life, I need to talk about dinner. So, from time to time I’ll share the recipes we’re making that week, plus any other encounters we have with food. Like that picture at the top, which is of Wally watching canned cinnamon rolls bake in the oven. About twice a year they catch my eye in the grocery store and I can’t say no. We had them for breakfast Saturday morning, and did not stint on the frosting.

Dinner I: Pizza with red onion marmalade, ricotta, and prosciutto. We went with store-bought ricotta instead of making our own, and also pre-made dough. The marmalade was a marvel. The pizza was almost too acutely delicious.

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Dinner II: Pasta with blue cheese, grapes, and arugula. This is one of our 20 or so staple dishes. When Caroline first made it a decade ago, I couldn’t believe we were eating cooked grapes. In pasta. But, the combination of ingredients is no accident; the blue cheese envelops the arugula, and the grapes wash it all away. (We skip the watercress called for in the recipe and use arugula, which is easier to come by.)

Dinner III: Slow-cooked chicken tacos. I don’t have a recipe for this one, but it’s straightforward. On Tuesday morning we’ll put a pound of chicken (breasts and thighs) in the crockpot with two jars of green salsa. We’ll eat it in evening as tacos with sliced cabbage.

Breakfast I: Buttermilk biscuits with chives and baked eggs with mushrooms and spinach. As noted in yesterday’s post, we served this to friends for breakfast. The eggs, especially, were easily as good as anything you’re likely to get at a good brunch place, and more unique. The biscuits and the eggs also have the advantage of being easy to make ahead. I made the biscuit dough on Saturday night, cut it and froze it, and placed it on a baking sheet in the morning. For the eggs, I made the vegetable base Saturday during quiet time. In the morning I combined the vegetables with 2/3 c. heavy cream, cooked the mixture on the stovetop for one minute, cracked in the eggs, and then baked for 10 minutes.

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To church or not to church

In a few hours church bells will begin to toll around our neighborhood. Their sound will float from unseen belfries over magnolias and brick bungalows, and find me where I sit: on our back patio, drinking a cup of coffee. It’s a peaceful moment, but also an uncomfortable one, because it reminds me that once again we haven’t gone to church.

Of course, we basically never go to church. Aside from a single year in Ann Arbor, and some scattershot appearances as a child, I’ve been unchurched my whole life. That year in Ann Arbor was wonderful, though, and just enough to make it seem reasonable to speculate that more church might be in our future.

Last fall we visited a half-dozen churches, but none stuck. Really, we were probably looking for something that doesn’t exist: a love at first sight experience in the pews. Toward the end of the summer we resolved to try again this fall, to pick one church and give it a real college try. Yet here we are on the first Sunday in September with other plans in store for the morning. Friends are due at ten. The menu calls for baked eggs, bacon, and buttermilk biscuits.

It’s crazy to wish to be something you never were and probably never will be. One of the hallmarks of successful adult life is coming to accept that who you are is distinct from who you thought you wanted to be. I’m never going to be a jazz aficionado or the guy you want by your side when you’re lost in the woods, and I’m probably always going to be more attached to neatness than I’d like to be. Maybe church falls into that category, and maybe it’s time to accept that “God-fearing,” even “church-going,” just isn’t a way I was born to be described.

But aspirations can be healthy, too. Until I was twenty-four I hated running, and now it’s one of my favorite parts of each day. A few years ago it took me four days to write an 800-word book review. Now, for better or worse, I can unspool a blog post in the time it takes to bake bacon.

Sitting here now, with the boys playing downstairs (pretending to be baby twins, from the sound of it), it’s hard to say what our church future looks like. It could begin next Sunday, or it could be the kind of thing where thirty years from now, we laugh when we remember there was a time we thought we might start going. All I know is that this morning, when the church bells ring and find me with a mouth full of hot buttered biscuit, I’m going to feel caught in the act, and like I really should be someplace else.