Friday, August 21, 2015

Helicopter parents and latchkey kids

Isabel back when I started this blog.
Over the past few weeks, people kept asking me how I felt about Isabel going to college and I would smile vaguely and say, “Sad, but she’s really ready to go.” 

The truth was I didn’t know how I felt.

On Wednesday, I went up to say good morning and see if she was all packed to leave for the airport and when I saw her there in her childhood bed, suddenly I knew exactly how I felt because I burst into tears. Her suitcases were lined up in the cozy room where she’d played in her dollhouse, read Beverly Cleary, had sleepovers, learned her times tables, sewed costumes, written college applications, dressed for the prom. . . 

Oh, it was so sad for me! I was abruptly and totally heartbroken. Eighteen-and-a-half years of cohabitation with this calm, thoughtful, lovely girl were over. I drove her to the airport and said a tearful goodbye. I would like to say I wept off and on for the rest of the day, but that’s a far too graceful term for what I did. I sobbed off and on for the rest of the day.

Do you know what was pathetic? Not the sobbing. What was pathetic was that I felt kind of ashamed of being so sad. I was especially ashamed of wanting to text her and see how she was doing that night. Ashamed of wanting to text her and tell her how much I missed her. Like, get a grip, Mom. At the back of my mind were two hideous little words that had never before made an appearance there: helicopter parent

I never liked that term, but I didn’t realize how much I loathed it until for a few fleeting moments I worried it might apply to me. What a contemptuous label to smack on someone whose attention to their child doesn’t fit your idea of what's appropriate.

Helicopter parents are the worst. They hover. They wring their hands. They noisily micromanage. The poor children of helicopter parents are (supposedly) flailing out in the real world because, among other things, their moms text them too much. Seriously. I've read this criticism of parents who text their college-age kids in about a half dozen different places. Eventually, it gets under your skin.

Meanwhile, the cool parents are raising independent “free-range kids," a term that brings to mind happy, organic chickens in a meadow with some buffalo under a big, blue, helicopter-less sky. Unsupervised, these kids learn to make their own decisions. They're taking the subway on their own. They're learning how to handle adversity. They're not being driven to soccer and ballet, they're playing stickball or roaming the woods. They're thriving. They probably don't even have cell phones.

When I was growing up, one of the snidest things you could say of a mother was that she was raising a “latchkey kid.” These pitiful creatures were on their own every afternoon while their parents were at work and this was considered a big problem. Unsupervised, they were forced to make their own decisions. They were taking the subway on their own. They were learning how to handle adversity. They weren't being driven to soccer and ballet, they were .  . . . well, back then it was assumed they were having sex and doing drugs. 

If you think about it, a free-range kid is really no different from a latchkey kid except, I guess, there's someone home to let the free-range kid in when she's done free ranging. Whatever that even means.

Parents are always supposedly screwing it up royally, one way or another. You can't win. And yet generation after generation, most kids have this way of growing up ok. All these labels and theories seem completely bogus to me at this point in my life, and yet there I was, hesitant about texting my own daughter.

Anyway. Wednesday was tragic. Thursday was better. Friday, I'm fine. I texted Isabel twice today, shamelessly.


I made these crunchy, chocolatey, peanutty bars and they are great but I’m not sure they're worth the trouble of tracking down the feuilletine and cocoa butter. If you have those two ingredients on hand, by all means go for it. 

I also made Laurie Colwin’s nutmeg cake for Isabel’s farewell dinner. It was her choice and a very good one. I hadn’t baked this cake in a few years and had forgotten how sticky, spicy, and delicious it is. I make it in a 9-inch pan and omit the cloves. 

Saturday, August 08, 2015

It's all copy

If you ever see a Nora Ephron audiobook on the shelf at your library, grab it.
For the last ten days I’ve been driving Owen in to San Francisco for summer art school with three other teenagers and after several failed attempts to spark conversation, I finally accepted that the ride would be silent. Dead silent. Once the kids were out of the car, I’d pop in my audiobook and things would liven right up.

I happen to be on a Nora Ephron kick. I love Nora Ephron. I’ve read all her books, some of them several times, but now I’m listening to them as narrated by Ephron herself, with her New York accent and wry intonations. They're a total delight, as fresh and vital as when I first read them. 

Her final essay collections, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing, cover a lot of territory, from interning at the Kennedy White House to Ephron's obsession with the food writer Craig Claiborne. But as the titles suggest, they deal largely with age -- the coloring of hair, buying of skin cream, mortality. I would have said these books would appeal almost exclusively to women and, in particular, women over 40, but I've changed my mind due to an unexpected, rather sweet turn of events. 

On Wednesday morning, Owen was carping at me when we got into the car.  I mean, he was really going at it and had been for about an hour. Usually I switch off my audiobook in the car to be courteous when he's riding with me, but he was being such a jackass, I decided I was going to leave it on as passive-aggressive punishment, force him listen to an older woman narrate a book about her wrinkly neck while we drove to pick up his carpool companions. 

We pulled out of the driveway and headed down the hill. I expected complaints. None came. The car felt oddly peaceful. I glanced to see if he’d put his earbuds in, but he hadn’t. Nor was he looking at his phone. Then, to my surprise, he chuckled. He was listening to I Feel Bad About My Neck and chuckling. I wish I remembered the line that elicited that chuckle, or even the particular essay, but I can’t. I pretended I didn’t notice because were I to notice, he would have stopped immediately and tried to switch on the radio. We got to Walgreens, where we meet the other kids, and I turned off the audiobook. We drove to San Francisco in silence. 

Thursday morning, Owen wasn’t carping, but I left the audiobook on anyway, to see what happened. Ephron was midway through an account of her relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman, a bittersweet little masterpiece about female friendship, narcissism, age, and regret. It was the tail end of a story about someone Owen had never heard of, but he was fully absorbed. Again, I heard him chuckle.  When we picked up his companion (only one this morning, a 16-year-old boy) I left the audiobook on and the three of us listened to Ephron’s story about having a restaurant meat loaf named after her. The ride was no longer silent. Nora was narrating and the boys were laughing. I’m not talking big, rollicking laughs. That would be too much to ask. But there were a good number of small, grudging, teenaged boy chuckles. We listened to Nora Ephron essays until I dropped them off.

Yesterday morning, I was down to the last, very short essays in I Remember Nothing in which Ephron notes that, at 69, she probably only has a “few good years left.” As Owen and I were driving to pick up his companions, she was listing the things she won’t miss when she’s dead: bras, Fox News, taking off her makeup, et cetera. After that, she listed those things she will miss. It was a lovely list that included her husband, her children, waffles, spring, walks in the park, and dinners with friends. It ended, simply, with “pie.” The book was over. We pulled in to the Walgreens parking lot. Owen said, “That was really sad.”

I said, “I know, and she died just a couple of years later.” 

He said, “Really? So when she said she only had ‘a few good years left’  she actually only had a few years left and didn’t know it?”

I said, “I suppose. She was amazing. Such a funny writer.”

Owen said, “And sad.”

I said, “That last story was really sad.”

He said, “All the stories were sad.”

And he was right. There are a few weak, fluffy essays in these two collections, but most are witty, smart, full of life, and yet also quite poignant. I believe this is what makes them great. A lot of these essays are really, really great. 

I then tried to prolong the conversation by telling Owen and his carpool companions, who soon joined us, that Nora Ephron was married  to one of the reporters who cracked Watergate. None of them knew what Watergate was. I struggled to explain Watergate and then gave up. No one asked me to continue. The Nora Ephron audiobooks were over and we were back to silence. 

Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins from The Essential New York Times Cookbook: excellent. Cakey and tender within, crusty and sugary without. But perhaps they could use more blueberries? If you have a favorite blueberry muffin recipe, I'd be interested to try it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

a new lemonade, a failed curry, a Gabrielle Hamilton dessert

 tangy, fresh, and way better than it looks

In the glass above: “nose-to-tail” lemonade (regrettable name) courtesy of New York magazine via Julia Turner on the Slate Culture Gabfest.  You blitz a whole lemon in a blender, skin and all, with sugar, water, and ice for about a minute to create an invigorating drink with the froth of an Orange Julius and the bracing zestiness of real citrus zest, which you don't usually get in lemonade. I made the recipe as directed and thought it needed more sugar. In fact, I doubled the sugar. The fabulous lemonade I ended up with contained almost exactly the same amount of sugar as Coke and I never drink Coke because it contains too much sugar, so I guess I won’t be drinking much of this lemonade. But it sure was refreshing and delicious on a hot, droughty August day. Try it. You don't need to add as much sugar as I did. You might not even want it.

rich, spicy, and way better than it looks

I was going to give you the recipe for the red curry with chicken that we made at the Thai Farm Cooking School after I triumphantly reproduced this dish in my own home, but something went wrong. It tasted good, but I think it’s obvious from the photo why this red curry wasn't a triumph. I'll spell it out: IT WASN'T RED.  I have no idea what I missed and I’ve read and reread the recipe, which I followed to the letter.


Last night I served peaches on buttered toast, another one of those mysteriously wonderful, stupidly simple Gabrielle Hamilton dishes from Prune.  You toast crusty, craggy bread (I used sourdough) then butter thickly and top with sliced, unpeeled, ripe peaches. Sprinkle with sugar. That's it.

Mark said: “Excellent together, better separate. Why not just have some buttered toast and a peach? I’m not saying this to be a jerk. Eating them together, you’re just making things difficult for yourself.”

I love the guy, but he’s wrong. The sum of this dessert was so much greater than the parts. The heat from the toast and the sprinkling of sugar relaxed the peaches so they softened and released just a little bright, fresh juice that mixed with the warm, melting butter and the bread soaked them up. The flavors were pure and vivid.  I think the word "revelation" is overused, but if I used it, I would use it here. It would be condescending to tell you that this dish depends on the quality of your peaches, butter (I used Kerrygold), and bread, so I won’t.

I think this might work with apricots and plums, but probably not strawberries. 

Monday, August 03, 2015

I'm sorry, Mark, I won't do it again

I was driving Owen and his mute adolescent companions to their art program in San Francisco this morning when we passed a sign advertising civet coffee. I'd never seen civet coffee for sale in the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter), and I broke our customary silence to excitedly explain civet coffee to my passengers. No one showed the slightest interest in this bizarre Indonesian coffee tradition. Not a flicker. Adolescents are tough nuts. 

Civet coffee, in case you don’t know, is coffee brewed from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of the palm civet, a cat-like mammal indigenous to Southeast Asia. The civets eat coffee berries which undergo some kind of enzymatic change in the their gut that (supposedly) renders the coffee healthier and more delicious. The beans are eliminated by the civets, collected, roasted, ground, and brewed into a fabled and very expensive coffee. I have just described the process with remarkable delicacy. 

I dropped the adolescents off, started driving home, and tried to talk myself out of stopping at the civet coffee place. So much to do, blah blah blah. Then I thought, why resist? So I could get home to my laptop, dirty dishes, and boring routine a half hour sooner? 

I am $15 poorer, but I can now report that civet coffee has a strong, rich, round flavor with no harsh, acidic bite whatsoever. Per the barista's recommendation, I drank it black, which is ordinarily impossible for me, but civet coffee really is noticeably smoother. It's very good. Is it worth $15 a cup? How absurd! No! Don’t fall for it. No cup of coffee is worth $15, but I’m not sorry I stopped because for a few minutes I felt like I was having an adventure. 
Why does she even bother?
As you might expect, there are ethical issues attached to consuming civet coffee. Another reason not to drink it.

Back to our previously scheduled programming: Unlike a lot of people, I really like Bon Appetit. I actually appreciate that it's flashy and sort of shallow. Maybe because I subscribe to the mighty, unstoppable New Yorker, the idea of yet more high-quality reading material flooding my mailbox exhausts me and I would probably cancel the Bon Appetit subscription if they started publishing great long-form journalism. I just want pictures and recipes and that’s what I get in Bon Appetit. I opened the August issue and it was full of stuff I wanted to make, starting with the grilled corn and chile dip.

To make this, you grill corn and poblano peppers, scrape corn off cob, chop up poblanos, mix everything up in a bowl with sour cream, creme fraiche, and hot sauce. Bake until bubbly and hot. Serve with tortilla chips. I took this to my sister's house for family dinner and it was spicy, smoky, creamy, crunchy, robust, and very popular. 

Two thoughts in case you decide to try this fine recipe:

-The recipe says it “serves 4.” As my father said, “Four what?” The recipe serves at least 10. Perfect for a big potluck.

-While the corn dip worked as an appetizer, I think it would really shine as a side dish. To me, it felt wrong to eat corn on a corn chip. The recipe also suggests serving it with pork rinds, but that doesn't appeal at all. My suggestions is to rename the dish “spicy creamed corn” and serve it like a casserole, to be eaten with forks. 
My niece and nephew collaborated in perfect silence and harmony to braid themselves a whip.  

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Eggplant and tangerine

This morning, an eggplant was sitting on the counter and I thought: I have to eat that eggplant right now, fried and drizzled with honey. 

I first heard of eggplant with honey (and last heard of eggplant with honey) in Laurie Colwin’s classic essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” in which she reminisces about cooking in her tiny New York City apartment when she was in her 20s. She only mentions the eggplant with honey in passing, but this oddly appetizing concept stuck with me. For twenty years that little craving remained latent and then this morning, out of the blue, demanded to be satisfied.

I found some recipes online -- eggplant with honey seems to be a Spanish dish -- and patched a few of them together to devise a simple, quick formula that worked beautifully. Here it is:
  1. Slice an eggplant thinly -- 1/8 inch is about right, though if some slices are thicker, that’s ok. It’s nice to have some fleshy pieces, too.
  2. Place eggplant in a bowl and cover with milk and a big pinch of salt.
  3. Let sit for 45 minutes or so then pat completely dry.
  4. Heat a thick layer of olive oil in a pan. You’re not deep frying but you’re not doing a delicate saute, either. I know some people don’t fry in olive oil anymore for health reasons, but the thought of frying the eggplant in any other oil felt wrong to me. Obviously, you should use any oil you like.
  5. When the oil is hot, dredge eggplant slices in flour and fry until pale gold and a little crispy on the outside, thoroughly tender on the inside. 
  6. Drain on paper towels. Salt to taste. Drizzle generously with honey. 
SO GOOD. The eggplant was substantial, creamy, salty, and exotically sweet from the honey. It was everything I'd hoped it would be. I raved about my eggplant and Mark said, “Maybe you should make me some.” 

The only thing more shocking than Mark asking me to make him eggplant with honey was his reaction after eating a plateful: “Thank you. That was delicious!” 

I’d think he was just saying that, but he never just says that.

So, fried eggplant with honey. That’s my first recommendation for the day. The second is to go see the movie Tangerine. I had to drag myself because I knew it was about pimps, johns, and a couple of transgender sex workers in Los Angeles too poor to buy anything but a single donut on Christmas Eve. Also, it was shot entirely on an iPhone. I couldn’t imagine how this was going to be much fun, but my imagination failed me. The movie is wildly fun, gorgeous, raucous, and touching. I didn’t want it to end. Owen loved it too. I wasn't going to mention that I took Owen because people might raise their eyebrows, but that is cowardly. I'm not ashamed that I took him, nor sorry. 

My only complaint concerns a vomiting scene. I know I've whined about this before, but in every movie and TV show lately you can be sure someone is going to vomit loudly and realistically. Often, it's played for laughs, as in Spy and Dope, so I guess some people find it hilarious. I find it totally gross. The vomiting scene in Tangerine was the most graphic and disgusting I’ve seen to date and it went on for what seemed like five minutes. I later learned that the actor drank a lot of vodka before filming so he could really go the distance and what we’re seeing is actual vomiting.

Awesome. I hate this trend. 

Other than that, Tangerine is perfect.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From tom kaa gai to a cookie Coolatta

Pounding curry paste. I think my arms might be a little "stronger."
Final chapter of trip report:

In Chiang Mai, Isabel and I took a daylong class at the Thai Farm Cooking School, which is located on a working organic farm where mangos are wrapped in paper to prevent birds from eating them before they fully ripen.
It seems like a lot of work, wrapping up every single mango.
The class was fascinating and I discovered just how efficient and simple everyday Thai cooking is. The same small handful of high-impact ingredients come together in slightly different combinations to create very different dishes. For instance: coconut milk + yellow curry paste + fish sauce + chicken = yellow curry. Coconut milk + lemongrass + fish sauce + chicken = tom kaa gai. Coconut milk +  sugar + bananas = dessert. Coconut milk + sugar + mango + sticky rice = another dessert.

Everything is cooked super quickly, too. A few minutes on the stove, nothing more. We each got to make our own soup, curry, stir fry, pad thai (or spring rolls), and dessert from scratch and we did all this in a few hours and ate all this in that same few hours and since everything contained coconut milk, we got very, very full.
Recipe for delicious banana dessert: in a small pot heat 1/2 cup thick coconut milk, 1/2 cup water, a chopped pandan leaf (optional), 1 tablespoon palm (or brown) sugar, a big pinch salt, and two small, thickly sliced, peeled bananas. Cook until bananas are soft. Serve warm. Serves one.
Our teacher, Benny, had an insinuating, sing-song voice and would swivel her hips when she added extra chili to a curry, smile this wicked smile, look around the room and say, “More spicy more sexeeeeee.”  
frying spring rolls
She had a lot of little sayings she'd deliver in that same voice with her saucy smile. I won't lie, Benny was a trip. I don't think anyone in the class knew quite what to make of her at first because you don't meet people like her in the West, ever. Her act just isn't part of our cultural repertoire.

But by the end of the class, I liked her immensely. Underneath all the mugging and bawdy joking, she was an excellent, serious teacher and we learned to make dishes I plan to replicate now that I am finally, as of yesterday, home for good.
Isabel made sticky rice with mango. The blue comes courtesy of a butterfly pea.
Our other Chiang Mai adventure: a day at an elephant rehab center where we watched, bathed, fed, patted, and respected the elephants.

Elephants are awe-inspiring animals and a bit scary. They are not Babar.

We spent our last three days on a beach on an island where we splashed around in the warm water, ate, read, and otherwise did nothing. Really and truly nothing.
What were we supposed to do?
Start to finish, it was one of the best vacations I've ever taken. Isabel and I are solid. I didn't know it when we left, but I know it now, and it means the world to me.

We got home to California and almost immediately left for New England to hang with Mark's family on the shore of another ocean where, again, we did almost nothing.  What is it about the beach that makes people want to do nothing? Even in winter, you go to the beach to do nothing.

I didn't do absolutely nothing at the beach in Massachusetts. I did cook one night for a small crowd, but it wasn't the kind of cooking you write long blog posts about.
Simple, quick, and satisfying is sometimes the right call, but one I've been loath to make in the past.  For dessert: Rice Krispie treats. This meal plan freed up many hours for doing nothing.
On my last day in New England, after a week of sitting in a Dunkin' Donuts for an hour or so every morning, the marketing finally got to me and I caved and bought a Chips Ahoy Coolatta. It was like a chocolate chip cookie slushie and little granules of chocolate chip came up through the straw. Weird, but I liked it. I wanted to stop drinking for health and calorie reasons, but found it hard to stop.
Here's to Northern California.
It's been a great summer. Now I'm home for good and very happy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

From the land of cookie-flavored iced coffee

timid eater no more
I'm writing from my summer office at the Dunkin' Donuts in Marion, Massachusetts where they're blasting the air conditioner and pushing cookie-flavored iced coffees and Coolattas. It's hard for me to believe that a couple of weeks ago Isabel and I were driving across Thailand eating santol fruits and blue vermicelli, but there's photographic evidence. I wish I'd written about all this when it was fresh, but I've been flying, driving, busy, sick, and jet-lagged.

Ok. From Bangkok, which I wrote about in the last post, Isabel and I drove to Chiang Mai, the big city in northern Thailand. Three days. Seventy thousand calories. When he wasn't showing us temples, Mongkol, our guide, kept feeding us. He bought us wonderful fruits I'd never even heard of and salted puffed rice snacks drizzled with caramel and green puffed rice squares that tasted like Kellogg's Sugar Smacks. We tried grass jelly, dried bananas, and fried bananas. Pink cupcakes and fluffy eggy cupcakes. Barbecued duck and barbecued pork. If I asked what something was, he'd buy it and then we'd eat it and even if I didn't ask what something was, he'd sometimes buy it anyway. By the end of the journey I felt like a foie gras goose and became cautious with my questions lest I end up with something else to eat. This is the kind of "problem" you want on a tour. He was the best guide ever and if you go to Thailand, email me at for his contact info.
an ancient Buddha head around which a tree trunk had grown
At one temple we saw an extensive display of life-size statues of people suffering for their misdeeds. This didn't  jibe with my admittedly shallow understanding of Buddhism.
Some culinary highlights: In Ayutthaya, we stopped at a nondescript storefront where they specialize in crepes colored with either green pandan or midnight blue butterfly peas and wrapped around long, dry wisps of caramel. Women made the crepes:
While men made the candy floss:


The strands of caramel were tucked inside the crepes to create a textural combination that is totally foreign to the American palate: Soft, petal-like pancakes containing crispy strands of sugar. First bite was puzzling, but you wanted a second bite, and a third, and later Isabel ate the remainder of our crepes and candy floss in the hotel room.

At the century-old Samchuk market, Mongkol introduced us to these freakishly big meatballs with the smooth consistency of hot dogs:
They look like bread, but were pure protein and extremely heavy. I almost dropped the skewer when I tried to hold it upright.
another Samchuk specialty: rice wrapped in lotus leaf with chicken, egg yolk, and vegetables
One morning, not long after breakfast, we stopped for a mid-morning snack of multi-colored rice vermicelli that came with six types of curry, including a sweet peanut curry, a mild chicken coconut curry, and a fiery pork curry. You ladled some curry on a small nest of vermicelli and popped the whole thing in your mouth. This meal managed to be both filling and refreshing,
all colors tasted the same
Right after we'd finished, Mongkok decided it was time for us to try some noodle soup at another restaurant, our second mid-morning snack for the day.
just some of the things they put in the noodle soup

We could not do justice to this fantastic soup.
my noodle soup (egg noodles)
The ubiquitous condiments at a Thai noodle shop include chili, vinegar, turbinado sugar, and fish sauce. I generally added a little of everything while Isabel didn't add anything.
I didn't ask what this was as I wasn't 100% sure I wanted to try it.
That was our drive from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a blur of temples, greenery, and colorful, strange, delicious foods.

And monkeys.


They were cute for about 30 seconds, then scary.