Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Kitchen tip: measurements en place

I doubt that this kitchen tip,
which I submitted to Cook's Illustrated, will get published. So I'll share it with you here. In several recipes that I make, things need to be measured and cut to a certain size. For example, Cook's loves to have you make a foil sling for your brownies and then just lift the whole shebang out as a slab. For the foil to fit, it has to be a certain length and width.

I'm not the type to eyeball a measurement like that, but instead of fetching my ruler ev
ery time, I've noted the lengths needed on the control panel of my stove. The stove panel works well because it has all those knobs and text and buttons and lights as reference points. Maybe you have a stretch of tile in your kitchen that would work as well (e.g. 3.5 tiles). Once I had my length markers measured I footnoted them in the recipe. Now I don't need the ruler in the kitchen; I just roll the foil out from the edge of the stove to the edge of the clock and cut there.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week in Full

A warning to regular readers: this post is much more reverent than my usual fare. It's downright spiritual. Oh, and it really has nothing to do with parenting. And it's too long for proper writing on the web. Oh well.
If you're a person of faith, it might resonate with you. If you're not, it may pique your curiosity or put you in a fit of pique. If it's going to be the latter, maybe you just skip this and catch my normal snide self in my next post.

I hate Palm Sunday. Not that I would have it any other way, but I hate the way the service starts with Hosanna and gets to Crucify! by 25 minutes in. Nothing brings home the role of my own sin in the crucifixion and my own need for the redemption of the resurrection quite like Palm Sunday. Which is precisely why I don't like it.

To back up, I grew up worshiping at The Salvation Army, where the church calendar means nothing. Easter Sunday arrived with no prelude, except maybe some shopping for a new outfit. Out of nowhere, we just woke up one frigid April Sunday and went out on a hill or even on folding chairs in a church parking lot for a "sunrise service". The closest we had to a liturgical tradition was the stop at McDonald's for breakfast sandwiches between the sunrise service and regular church. The egg has some spiritual significance, but a) I don't think those are necessarily real eggs and b) combining them with American cheese and English muffins, while trans-Atlantic, probably robs them of their Trinitarian meaning.

Now, I worship at an Anglican church and have learned to love the richness of the church calendar. The Lenten season through Holy Week makes Easter mean so much more.

At Ash Wednesday, we start with the pleasing symmetry of having ashes applied to our foreheads created by burning last year's palms. Hard to say whether that's a resurrection or a reverse resurrection. Either way, it's an important reminder that we are all ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

In Lent, worship changes in subtle ways like the eliding of the word "Hallelujah" from the liturgy and a much-less decorated altar. Purple stoles remind us that we are awaiting the crowning of a King. Individually, we give things up or take things on as a discipline. This year, I've found that I could live without facebook during Lent, a valuable lesson.

Then, we arrive at Palm Sunday, and the Hosanna!-Crucify! whiplash occurs. That whiplash sensation used to catch me unawares. I would forget from one Palm Sunday to the next everything but the joyous waving of the palms in what insiders call the "holy pretzel" processional. Then my complicity in Christ's death would rise up just a few liturgical minutes later. The past two years, though, I've been cast as Peter in our congregation's passion play. Apparently, i'm typecast as being disloyal in times of trouble. Anyway, rehearsing for the Passion means that I'm tuned into Palm Sunday for weeks in advance. We yell "Crucify!" over and over again. Reciting Peter's denials, I embody all the most obvious flaws of disciples, both biblical and contemporary. I don't actually need Peter's words to embody those flaws, natch.

Maundy Thursday claims two superlatives in the liturgical calendar: 1. most mispronounced day (Maunday Thursday seems more like a trick of the parallelism-craving mind and tongue than a mistake about how Maundy is spelled.) and 2. coziest service of the year. I like to think it's cozy because we remember the Last Supper in the Upper Room not because the service is so poorly attended. Jesus and the Disciples lived such a public life together during His ministry that the Last Supper strikes me as a rarely intimate moment. The most intimate act that happens in the sanctuary at any point in the year happens on Maundy Thursday as friends and family members wash each others' feet. And in case you didn't know what was coming the next day, this service ends in total darkness and silence.

When a friend in college talked once about leaving the Good Friday service in grief, I had no idea what she was talking about. Again, at that time, I knew nothing of the rhythm of the church calendar, and the notion that a service could bring home the reality of Christ's death as much as she described it (her face was altered, she discovered upon seeing her reflection in a store window). Three hours in length, this service reminds us of what it must have been like for Jesus' disciples and family members to watch and wait, scared witless, while he died and was taken away. The oft-quoted "Today is Friday, but Sunday's a-comin'" sermon undersells the importance of pausing on Friday to take in all the dire sadness of The Death without which there is no resurrection. Today is Friday. Let it be. Sunday has its own business.

Finally, having turned our minds and hearts in so many directions for 40 days (plus the Sundays that are feast days and not technically part of Lent). we arrive at Easter with the proper appreciation for all the fuss. At our church, we bring bells and ring them like crazy people as we celebrate the empty tomb and worship the risen Messiah.

To paraphrase a Pittsburgh political slogan: I hate Palm Sunday because I love it so much. Even if you missed Palm Sunday this year, I encourage you to participate in the rest of Holy Week at a church near you that observes it. And next year, you can do the whole shebang. There will be no denying it: It'll be your most meaningful Easter ever.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Haiku: To Everything, There is a Season

Describe birth to ten.
Wiffle ball and Matchbox cars
When I'm not at church.

Describe your teen years.
The new kids are twin brothers.
Which one has acne?

Describe your twenties.
Graduate school was not fun
But hey! Free degree.

Describe your thirties.

Making juice from concentrate

and doing laundry.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Garden Minute: Find the Shadow Line

Between our garage and our neighbors' garage lies a long, narrow bed. We've got lots of bulbs in there, and this time of year, it's clear exactly where the shadows fall in that bed.

In case you can't divine from this photo the orientation of our lot, here's a compass in the image to help you out. As the sun comes up in the morning, from the near end of this bed (East), our garage casts a shadow.

The other funky thing in that bed is our newish tree. It's toward the back of the bed in front of the World's Ugliest Hedge. It's a Perrotia (a.k.a. Persian Ironwood), and it's one of those trees that keeps its dead leaves until it buds out again in the spring. It was full of orange/brown leaves all winter; only in the last week has it shed most of its leaves.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Grocery Store Population Schedule

For the past seven years, I've done the majority of our family's grocery shopping. As life circumstances have changed over that period, I've found myself shopping at various times of the day. The chance to observe the grocery store through its daily and weekly rhythm has given me insight into patterns of who shops when at my city-edge/first-ring-suburb grocery store.

Early Weekday mornings: CIC Time
The old and frail clog the aisles on early weekday mornings. They've been up since 5:15 anyway, just waiting to get their day off to a roaring start by purchasing a quart of milk, some Lean Cuisines and a box of After Eight mints. The dominant population makes itself known through their most graphic symbol: canes in carts (hence CIC time). If you walk with a cane, a grocery cart transforms into a walker with the advantage of storage. While you store your Metamucil in there, you can also store your cane, which you don't need as long as you can lean your shuffling weight against your temporary wire mesh traveling companion. On a recent trip, I saw a member of the CIC set with another telltale accessory: the giant magnifying glass.

Late Weekday Mornings: The At-Home Hour
It takes the at-home parents a little minute longer to get to the grocery store than their geriatric forebears. Clusters of 1-3 children per shopping party make this the most difficult time to get the novelty carts (truck, racecar) that my children covet. Kids occupy themselves with a few activities: munching cookie card cookies from the bakery; pointing out licensed merchandise to buy; climbing into, out of, onto and off of the cart. The at-home moms occupy themselves not making eye contact with me because I'm the wrong gender. The few at-home dads give me the "hey bro" nod.
Weekday Lunch: The Saddest Office Lunch Hour EverWho eats lunch at the supermarket? Yes, there are tables near the hot food counter. Yes, there's that popcorn machine in there. But isn't that just to save the staff from walking across the parking lot to Wendy's? In my benefit-of-the-doubt theory, the guy in the tie eats there with the woman in black jeans because she's his wife, who works there. Employee discount and all. That's still pretty sad; I'm crying as I type.
Early Weekday Afternoon: The Golden LullPossibly the easiest time of day to get that prime parking space close to the door or the cart corral (depending on your priorities in life). Clog-free aisles and a deli counter with no line await. Fully-staffed daytime checkers make for plenty of checkout options with little competition. The at-home set has retreated home to oversee naps. Other would-be customers are napping themselves or working or pregaming for WheelofFortuneOprahJudgeJudy.
Early Weekday Evening: Workday Warrior SeasonI work all day. I have no kids. There's no babysitter on the clock. I don't really plan out meals. I go to the grocery store in my work clothes on the way home and grab some stuff. I use the self checkout.
Weekday Evening: Prime Time...for Staff HormonesWhile some customer groups mark this time, the most dominating population is the staff - part-timers who don't get the cherry daytime shifts. When Paige was in law school, one night a week presented a daddy-toddler bonding ritual with little Charlie at the grocery store. When this was my key time to shop, I could expect interminable waits at the deli ("I've been thin-slicing this ham for seven hours straight, and I'm so tired I'm not going to make eye contact with any of the dozen people holding those flimsy paper numbers.") There were a few other populations out at this time; jelly-stained at-home parents who escaped the tedium of home for the thrill of forty kid-free minutes under the fluorescents once their spouses came home and took over; true workday warriors who had worked late and now - ties loosened, hair coming unfixed - filled their baskets with microwaveable dinner, Ben & Jerry's and margarita mix. But the most salient feature was the army of high school students who take over from the career checkers after dark. I was just happy if I could get them to scan my groceries in between scamming a date to the prom or sucking their teeth about their peers at school or work ("No she ditn't!")
Saturday: Grab bagI'm not very familiar with Saturday, but it seemed to be a more random time than other periods. Mothers of teenagers seemed to kick it old school on Saturdays. Also, some grandparent/grandkid groupings. Those who depend on a jitney to get to and from the market also seemed to enjoy Saturday shopping. No, I don't live in the hood. I live nearthe hood.
Sunday afternoon: J-Dub TimeOK, so not everyone who overdresses for the grocery store on Sunday afternoons is a Jehovah's Witness. They just look like it. Fancy dresses, high heels, suits that stop one notch short of pimp-level. They execute something less than full-scale shopping trips. Too late to be equipping a Sunday dinner, they appear to use the dangerous approach of entering the grocery store without a list or a plan.
Sunday evening: X-Cargo O'ClockOh, the road warriors. Are they on the exit ramp when they realize there's no milk or juice for breakfast? Are they looking forward to home cooking after a weekend sports tournament? Or have they just eaten mom's cooking for an entire weekend, rendering their home grocery store a little bleak? In Pittsburgh, probably the former; everybody's mom lives here. Looking haggard, they're attempting a surgical strike that will allow them to get home to the mail they missed as soon as possible. Don't rush, dears. There's nothing but coupons for the grocery store in that mailbox. But you might want see who's outside picking over the contents of that lovely cartop carrier.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Recipe: the best home-made burgers

The beautiful spring equinox weather gave us a chance to grill for the first time since the fall. We decided that burgers would inaugurate the season. We love Cook's Illustrated Magazine, and in the July/August 2006 issue, they ran a recipe designed for well-done burgers on the grill. By best burgers, I mean easy to make and dependable as well as delicious. They're terrific no matter how you cook them, but the panade (milk/bread paste) enables these burgers to stay juicy even in the face of high heat.

Well-done Hamburgers on a Charcoal Grill
Serves 4

1 large slice sandwich bread, crust removed and discarded, bread chopped into 1/4 inch pieces 9about 1/2 cup) we use our standard breadmaker sandwich bread for this - slices on the big side.
2 tablespoons whole milk don't sweat the milkfat; use what you have in what should be a pantry recipe
3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through garlic press - about 1 teaspoon
2 teaspoons steak sauce, such as A-1 (we use Worcestershire Sauce)
1 1/2 pounds 80 percent lean ground chuck (For our family, we use a pound with all of the other proportions the same. This produces the burgers we need: big one for dad, small one for mom, one to share for the boys, plus a leftover one for the best office lunch ever. Again, don't sweat the fat content, although fatter's better for burgers.)
Vegetable oil for cooking grate
6 ounces sliced cheese, optional
4 rolls or buns
(Pittsburghers, we used Mancini's hamburger buns, bought from the source in the Strip in a dozen bag. Yum!)

1. Using large chimney starter, ignite 6 quarts charcoal (gas grill instructions at end*) (about 100 briquettes) and burn until covered with thin coating of light gray ash, about 20 minutes. Empty coals into grill; build modified two-level fire by arranging coals to cover half of grill. Position cooking grate over coals, cover grill and heat grate for 5 minutes; scrape grate clean with grill brush. Grill is ready when coals are medium hot (you can hold your hand 2 inches above grate for 3 to 4 seconds).
2. Meanwhile, mash bread and milk in large bowl with fork until homogeneous (you should have about 1/4 cup). Stir in salt, pepper, garlic and steak sauce.
3. Break up beef into small pieces over bread mixture. Using fork or hands, lightly mix together until mixture forms cohesive mass. Divide meat into 4 equal (or unequal; see above) portions. Gently toss one portion of meat back and forth between hands to form loose ball. Gently flatten into 3/4-inch-thick patty that measures about 4 1/2 inches in diameter. Press center of patty down with fingertips until it is about 1/2 inch thick, creating slight depression in each patty. Repeat with remaining portions of meat.
4. Lightly dip wad of paper towels in oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe cooking grate. Grill burgers on hot side of grill, uncovered, until well seared on first side, 2 to 4 minutes. Using wide metal spatula, flip burgers and continue grilling, abut 3 minutes for medium-well or 4 minutes for well-done. (Add cheese, if using, about 2 minutes before reaching desired doneness, covering burgers with disposable aluminum pan to melt cheese.)

*Gas grill instructions
Turn all burners to high, close lid and heat until very hot, about 15 minutes. Use grill brush to scrape cooking grate clean.
Lightly dip wad of paper towels in oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe cooking grate. Leave primary burner on high, turn other burner(s) to low. Follow recipe from step 2, grilling patties with lid down.

Monday, March 8, 2010

New Childcare Tattoo Theory

I have just developed a theory to explain why childcare workers put tattoos and rubber stamps on the children (my 3-year-old's tend to be on his forearms, Popeye-style): to monitor the frequency of baths in the childrens' homes. Now, Paige's and my Parents of the Year nomination will not be based on timely bathing. A daily bath seems absurd for working people without live-in help. So, I imagine this conversation in the break room at my son's childcare center:

Teacher 1: Remember that tattoo I put on Teddy's arm last week?
Teacher B: The choo choo train? On Monday?
Teacher 1: Yeah. Guess what? It's still there!
Teacher B (appalled): Noooooooooo.
Teacher 1: They seem like such nice people, too.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Friday, March 5, 2010

Car kid

When Teddy asked recently what the symbol on the steering wheel of our car was, I told him it was H for Honda, thinking it was a good way to teach him that letter. He doesn't know all of his letters. For a while, the one he knew dependably was T for Teddy. Occasionally, though, he surprises us by confidently naming another letter somewhere in his environment; P for Pirates came second.

Since that day with the steering whe
el, however, he's skipped letters and just concentrated on car logos. Now, he has a stable of them that he calls out accurately when he sees them on the cars on the street. A video demonstration of his skills:

I am still going to work on his letters, though.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Battle-choosing Algorithm

A few days ago, K commented in a discussion following my post about Teddy's prayer that she needed to "work up a battle-choosing algorithm". That lovely turn of phrase has stuck with me, and I have some notions about what battles we choose to engage in with our kids. When some variables are at play, the battle must be fought; others, not so much. Here's a first crack at my list:

Variables that cause me to fight
Safety - Where the safety of my children or other people is involved, the battle is on. This is why we're taught not to run with scissors, put coins in our mouths, cross the street without looking and talk to strangers. If my kids are doing something dangerous, they'll hear about it from me and my wife in a loud way. Paige has this intense way of getting in their faces when the situation demands it that is, ahem, memorable. We live in the city, and our neighborhood has shortish blocks, and we
go for walks/bike rides. Because we started teaching them when they were very young, our boys do not run out in the street. They stop at the corner and wait for us and occasionally look both ways.

Courtesy - I fight for courtesy. This is probably not that unusual among parents (he said, broad brush in hand). If children are not taught to say "please" and "thank you" by their parents, who will teach them? So, our kids do not get a drink or a snack if they whine "I'm thirsty! or shout "Pretzels!" They do those things,
but then we slow them down and make sure they ask appropriately. Some might think we shouldn't let them ask wrong and then immediately ask right and get what they want. That they should have to work on asking right the first time in order to get what they want. What do you think?
These fights extend from the home to the public sphere. I was very impressed a few years ago when Paige knew that our then-five-year-old was going to meet her co-workers. She instructed him on three things: make eye contact, shake hands confidently and say a greeting ("hello" or "how are you" or j
ust answering questions he was asked). And guess what: when she provided a five-year-old with those few instructions, he was capable of following them, and he wowed the group.

Recurring Situations - If an issue comes up that I think is going to come up again, I'm much more prone to fight. This can be a behavior like whining, which can drive a harried parent to drink. It also comes up in chore responsibilities. When Charlie started Kindergarten, we started expecting him to make his bed. For a five-year-old, getting up, getting dressed, making your bed and eating breakfast to be ready for school is quite something. Especially for Charlie because he had been cared for by hi
s grandmother (thanks, once again, Popo!) at our house for much of his pre-K time. They were sometimes getting out to do fun things, but they also hung out close to home many days as well. Anyway, Kindergarten mornings were marked by whichever of us was in charge of get ready duty (we alternated) riding Charlie to make his bed, et. al. Now, in second grade, it's automatic. Well, pretty much.

Variables with which I don't engage
Balanced meals
- We're fans of Penelope Leach's Your Baby and Child. A few simple paragraphs in the Toddler chapter section on Eating and Growing cemented that fandom. First, she states the problem:
"After being bombarded with detailed advice about feeding a baby, parents who seek help at the toddler stage usually find themselves put off by the magical phrase 'a good mixed diet.' When they inquire what such a diet consists of they are told to 'give plent of meat and fish; eggs; cheese; milk and fresh green vegetables....' Realizing that their toddler dislikes and refuses almost every one of those items, they wnder whether their child can be eating properly."
Then she lets us off the hook as long as we're not feeding our kids prepared food crap, which fills the belly but does not supply nutrients.

"A mixed diet is one which contains some of each of a wide variety of foods, eaten in different combinations, every day. Its virtue lies in the fact that a person who eats it will quite certainly get everything his body requires under all circumstances. If what you need is not in one food, it will be in another....So if your child does eat a good mixed diet, you do not have to worry about his meals at all. You need not even try tow ork out what you child needs or is getting because day by day and week by week the two are certain to match up." (emphasis in last sentence added)
In other words, your child's body will cry out for the mix of nutrients that it needs, an
d his tastes for foods will depend on what his body needs at the time. This became clear to us the night that toddler Charlie ate five bowls of black beans. A little protein deficient today, tiger? Leach goes on to say that the balance is different for each person and that figuring out the nutrient content in the servings of fresh foods we make at home is terribly difficult.

That means that at our house, no one sits at the table for hours until the last scrap is eaten. Pretty early on, it becomes the young eater's decision whether he wants to eat dinner or not; the corollary is that only boys who eat dinner get dessert. In the toddler years, the dessert threshold was sometimes lowered to tasting. We currently have a toddler who t
astes nearly everything and a second-grader eating most meals, many with gusto.

My embarrassment vector <> my child's embarrassment vector
- I have a low tolerance for embarrassment. I will have succeeded as a dad if my kids have a higher tolerance for it. So far, so good. These boys are at home in the world and comfortable in their own skin. I don't want to talk them out of that refreshing approach to life. Case in point, when Charlie went to the eye doctor recently, they dilated his eyes. At the end of the appointment, when I told them he didn't have sunglasses with him, they gave him the disposable plastic/paper wraparound geezer model to w
ear. It happened that our house was between the doctor's office and his school (schematic at right). When I asked C if he wanted me to stop at home and get his own sunglasses before dropping him at school, he said "Nah, I'll wear these." So, I let him. He got some ribbing on the bus after school, but was pretty well unfazed. So why should I fight?

This couldn't possibly be a comprehensive list, but it does capture the first several factors that go into my personal battle-choosing algorithm. The other thing that I always bear in mind is that my child's ability to battle resembles fireworks and mine resembles a fire in a fireplace. By that I mean that my children's battle ability and tactics can best be described as spectacular but brief. Mine - while less interesting to watch - will always last longer. I can listen to a boy cries until he's ready to comply. When I can listen no longer, I don't give in; I send him to his room. Not as a punishment, just to cry it out. It's a good reminder to him and to me that I'm the parent. Deep down, kids want to know that.

Thanks again, K, for the stimulating comment.