Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dear Readers

Oh, hey there readers.  Thanks for stopping by over 40,000 times.  Thank you especially to those who have left comments.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Overheard Outtakes 2014

Those who get our Christmas letter will know that we include funny quotes from the boys
also rejected for the family Christmas card
during the year.  We capture more than we can use.  We used to have a lot we couldn't use; this year, three quotes made the draft stage but failed to make the final cut.  I present them here for your amusement:

C: The [Star Wars animated] Rebels episodes are only 3 minutes long because they haven’t aired yet, according to the red-headed kid at Toys ‘R Us.

After a Little League game:
J: Who won?
T: We did.  We’re undefeatable.

To Teddy during a dispute while playing:
C: When you grow up, if you throw something at someone, you could go to jail.  If you throw scissors at someone, you’ll get a three-day suspension.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Pizza Steel

On the final day of Kitchen Item Review Week, I bring you the Pizza Steel.  Like many good things in life, we have King Arthur Flour to thank for this one.  They didn't invent the pizza steel, but they got behind it and have sold it in their catalog.  My Competent Wife gave me a pizza steel as my big birthday present this year.  To hit the basics: yes, it's like a pizza stone, but it's made of heavy gauge 1/4" steel instead.  Also, the people who make it call it a baking steel, but it's highest calling in life is pizza, so that's what I call it.  The guy who created my version works for a garden variety modern company but also really loves pizza and had pursued the perfect crust.  Eccentric and overly-fussy Nathan Myhrvold posited that hot steel would be the best thing to bake pizza on, and our regular Joe went out to the plant to test the theory.

first effort with the steel
We briefly owned a pizza stone, and it impressed me by feeling heavy and cumbersome and fragile all at the same time.  The steel is heavy but feels easier to wield and far less fragile.  I can't think of many things that are less fragile.  Slide this baby in the oven and preheat, and you essentially create the bottom of a pizza oven right there on your rack.  The crust turns out fantastic, but I'm really pleased about the cheese.  I've never been able to get my pizza cheese browned like the pros do, and it turns out what I have been lacking is massive heat from below.  Who knew?  An interesting point for home pizza bakers: traditionally, I've baked pizza as low in my oven as possible.  The Steel instructs you to put it on a high rack, creating a small hot box in which your pizza bakes.  I really do think of it as sectioning off a portion of my oven as a pizza oven.

Competent Wife would like me to inform you that once I got the steel, I also needed a

pizza peel for the first time.  You bake right on this puppy, and it gets mucho hot in a 500-degree oven.  [Parenthetical to Pittsburgh foodies: I bought a peel at In the Kitchen in the Strip before walking down to Pennsylvania Macaroni Company and finding a 90% identical peel for half the price.  I marched right back and returned the more expensive one.  Save yourself the trouble; start at Penn Mac.]  

She would also like me to mention the pizza-specific cutting board I have purchased but not yet used.  [That came off the half-price rack at In the Kitchen.]  These accessory purchases are not as ridiculous as they sound.  I'm fond of the flesh on my fingers and therefore needed the peel.  We've traditionally made pizza on a pan (aluminum, I assume) on which we could cut it.  When you bake right on the steel, the pizza a) is not necessarily completely round - I assemble it on the peel now and b) needs to be cut somewhere.  We don't actually own a cutting board completely big enough, so I bought a cutting board with slicing guide grooves and a nifty rack to keep it off the table.  Completely necessary and sane.  I have not yet used it.

If I have one complaint about the steel, it's that owning one makes me want to own two, so I can bake two pies at a time for my growing family.  But that's insane.  Until my next birthday, anyway.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Chef's Choice Knife Sharpener

After reviewing a newish knife, it's only fitting that I review a newish knife sharpener.  I believe this was a Christmas present from my Competent In-Laws last year.  We'd had a manual knife sharpener for years that did something.  I honestly never felt like our knives got much sharper using it.  In fact, I took our chef's knife to a kitchen store and paid a nominal amount to have it sharpened because our manual one didn't seem to do much.  Failure of technique could 100% explain that.

I can definitely tell you that our Chef's Choice Hybrid 220 electric/manual sharpener does
something.  Starting with the left-hand slots and their terrifying-sounding whirring sharpener and moving to the right-hand manual slot to finish the job, this sharpener works quickly and effectively.  It makes me nervous that I will wear my knives out unevenly, but I really enjoy being able to make a real difference in how sharp my knives are in seconds at home.  The longer I cook, the more I realize that a dull knife can be far more dangerous than a sharp one.  Vacation home kitchens can be the worst.  With this, we can keep our knives at home nice and sharp and effective.

Here's a mesmerizing wordless video demonstration of someone cutting two things I'd probably never cut with my chef's knife: tomatoes and paper.  It's good to know I can, though.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme

Our lineage of bread makers goes like this: My college roommate got us a Breadman Ultimate as a wedding present.  We used it essentially weekly for nine years, replacing the pan once.  The motor eventually gave out, and we faced the need to replace it.  

It happened to be the spring, when our neighborhood holds a massive (like, 70-household) yard sale.  Desperate to have a new bread-maker, the night before the sale, my finger hovered over the mouse button to order a replacement.  Knowing how much we used our machine, we were going to buy a Zojirushi that King Arthur Flour endorses as a workhorse.  The sale the next day gave me pause because bread makers are the kind of thing that people sell in good condition because they didn't use it as much as they'd hoped to.  I decided to leave the Zoji in my virtual shopping cart. If we didn't find one at the sale, we'd come back and complete the purchase.  It was hot, and we had a small child in tow, and we found no bread machines for sale.  At a fateful corner, we could either head for home or go down one more block we'd not visited yet.  We went for the mystery block.  Halfway down, there were items on a porch with no people around.  A sign read: "Free stuff (but not the porch furniture)".  Among the free items was a brand new, in-the-box, never-used newer version of the Breadman Ultimate.  It had a horizontal pan, which produces a much nicer loaf.  I was as shocked as I was thrilled.  We carried it home and used it for about eight years.

When that one went - if I recall correctly, it was the pan, and it was impossible to buy a replacement pan for our model - I complained on Facebook about being breadmaker-less.  It was kind of a middle schooler ploy for attention.  An acquaintance replied that she had one she never used, and we could have it for free.  I'm not proud that it worked, but I was very pleased.  Hers was as old or older than our first one, a smaller vertical pan model.  But it was free, and we used it for about eighteen months, until the motor went.

This time, I wasn't messing around.  We bought the Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme (Model number BB-CEC20)
from King Arthur Flour.  They don't have exclusive sales rights, but we're faithful to them.  This machine works really well.  I've talked so much about our bread machine history that I don't know how much I'll actually say in this review.  It has a horizontal loaf pan with two paddles.  This design distributes and mixes ingredients flawlessly.  A feature that really stands out is the preheat cycle.  No machine I've had has preheated the water.  It's convenient when you're going to start the cycle right away to not have to wait for the tap water to heat up (especially in the winter).  But the real money in the feature comes when you set your timer for the cycle to start later (like overnight or in time for fresh bread to come out when you get home from work).  Hot tapwater would cool down overnight; when the machine preheats the water, the results are far more consistent.  You can read up on other features, but I really don't need more than a good dough cycle and a good bread cycle. This is a rock solid, thoughtfully-designed breadmaker that looks nice, works rather quietly and turns out the most reliable loaves I've gotten.  That's a useful endorsement from a weekly (at least) bread baker of 19 years. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Victorinox Fibrox Chef's Knife

 For the first 18 years of our marriage (and cooking life), we used a Cutco chef's knife that we got as a wedding present.  It was a very solid knife for us, and we happily used it, getting it sharpened less often than we should have.  We still have it.  It has a good handle that feels nice in your hand, and the knife looks essentially the same as when we got it.  It's well made and has worn well.

We kept reading in Cook's Illustrated, though, about the high-value Victorinox Fibrox 8" chef's knife.  They praise the shape and texture of the handle and the very sharp blade.  We ordered one through a local kitchen store that we like, but they're available lots of places including Amazon.  Although it's apples and oranges, the knife really performs better than our 18-year-old knife.  One can get used to cutting performance that's not optimal.  When a more optimal knife comes along, it pleasantly surprises.   At around $30, this is a fabulous deal.  For comparison, if we were to buy the current version of our Cutco knife, it would run round four times as much as the Fibrox.  Anyone starting a kitchen from scratch would do well to stock one of these.

Thanksgiving this year, we deployed both chef's knives at once for the first time.  That felt like sumptuous luxury.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Scrub Daddy

We've acquired several new kitchen tools large and small in the last year.  I thought I'd take a week and post some reviews.
My co-worker's guilty pleasure is Shark Tank.  For some reason, she just loves that particular story told in reality TV format.  She came in raving one day about the Scrub Daddy. It's a spongy scrubber that holds a rigid consistency when you use it with cold water and softens considerably with warm water.  It's really pretty effective for scrubbing pots and pans that don't have ridiculous things caked on.  Plus, it's shaped like a smiley face.  Its creator touts the mouth part as a convenient way to scrub spoons.  I've used it for that, but then, I wasn't lying awake at night, puzzling over food caked on my spoons.  The video at the link above instructs you to stick your fingers in the sponge's eyes because that grip will make it easier to reach the bottom and sides of dirty vessels.

One use I discovered on my own: this little thing cleans out from under dirty fingernails like a champ. We've had surgical sponges in the past that work OK but tend to fall apart over time.  A four-pack of Scrub Daddies might last us years. For now, there's one by our kitchen sink and one in the shower the boys use.

They're really useful.  Sometimes As Seen On TV crap actually lives up to the hype. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

That's more like it, Nyquil I've beaten up on Huggies for their sexist advertising in the past, I feel responsible to cheer Nyquil for making a gender-neutral parenting commercial.  Actually, it kind of plays on an expectation that men work in offices.  The way the beginning is shot, we're supposed to believe this guy is telling his boss he's sick.  Then we get a little surprise when it reveals to whom he's really talking.
  It's not amazing.  It's not rocket science.  It just chooses to portray a father as a vital parent instead of a mother.  We need more like this.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What I Can and Can't Tell my Kids About Drugs

One can get the idea in our culture that everyone does drugs. Characters in TV shows and movies do drugs all the time, and video cameras capture ordinary people doing outlandish things while they're high.  As a parenting issue, Baby Boomer parents have had to wrestle with the question of how to discourage their kids from using drugs while being honest about their own "experimentation".  No doubt many of my Gen X peers face the same issue.  Call this the "I learned it by watching you" problem. I wrestle with a slightly different problem.

When I was in elementary school, first lady Nancy Reagan opened up the children's front in the war on drugs with the Just Say No campaign.  We heard at school and on TV that if we were offered drugs to have the courage to Just Say No because the size 2 lady in the White House said so.

Because I came of age in this milieu, I was always waiting for the moment when someone would push drugs on me.  It never happened.  Having been primed to Say No, it haunts me now slightly as a parent to say that I have never done it.  I have never said no to drugs.  

I don't have to figure out how to tell my kids to Say No when I Said Yes.  I get to tell my kids that I've never done drugs.  It feels Pollyanna to admit that, but it's true.  

Part of me, though, feels like a better story to teach my kids would be the one where someone offered me a bong hit that I refused or that when the roach got passed to me in a circle, I just kept passing it.  In a way, I feel like it would be better to tell them that I had the courage to say what Mrs. R. wanted me to say.  

But the fact is, I've never knowingly hung out with drug users.  "Knowingly" is a key word in that sentence.  My naivete tends to get revealed later.  Ten years after high school graduation, I found out that a pretty close classmate (lunch table close) dropped acid nearly every day.  Acid.  Every day.  I had no idea.  Attending Red Sox games as a kid, I always noted this strange smell in the right field bleachers at Fenway Park.  In college, a friend nudged me as we entered a dorm and said knowingly, "Smell that weed?"  I said, "That's not weed.  That's the right field bleachers at Fenway Park."  The Red Sox were bad in the '80s, and the fans had to get through somehow.  

My parents were protective, so I didn't attend a ton of high school parties.  Being a social outcast probably helped, too; I wasn't with the cool kids, who could presumably score drugs.  The kids in French Club and on my Bible quiz team didn't do drugs (again, as far as I knew).  My family were teetotalers.  Our church tradition required a commitment not to smoke or drink for membership.  The upshot was that no one ever offered to give or sell me drugs.  

I had personal reasons to be cautious if they had.  Two of my uncles spent prime years of their lives and my life estranged from the family in the throes of alcoholism.  Controlled substances flashed a danger sign.  I didn't start drinking alcohol until graduate school.  And at that, I took it up very slowly and cautiously with an informed moderation.

At this point, I can be deeply grateful about being sheltered.  I can be deeply grateful that I didn't have my after-school-special moment when I had to decide whether to yield to peer pressure.  Former drug user parents might envy my position, but still in a vacuum, I kind of envy theirs.  I can't tell my sons from direct experience about my regrets about using drugs.   What I really wish, though, is that I could tell them what it takes to marshal the courage to Say No.  When the guy with the joint is older and someone you admire.  When the girl with the little pill is really cute.  I never faced those situations.

The grass is always greener (pun noted but not rejected).  Nancy Reagan be damned; I can say a powerful thing to my kids:  

I have never used drugs.  Your mother has never used drugs.  It is possible to reach adulthood without doing drugs and then continue not doing drugs as an adult without ever Saying No.  Sticking with the nerd herd and the youth group meant I never needed to test my mettle against the temptation to fit in.  That worked out for me, and it can for you, boys.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Seasonally Appropriate Flashback: Casserole Week

Now that the weather in Pittsburgh has turned definitively cold and nasty, it feels like the right time to repost the recipes from casserole week.  I posted these originally in early May last year because I'd had a conversation with a friend who asked for favorite casserole recipes.  But given that we were about to shift into cooking things that focus on fresh produce and not turning on the oven, it was a funky time to post them.  That did not stop me.  So, if you're feeling casserole-ish, as I am, here's a refresher:

Sausage, Polenta and Tomato Layers - More people request this recipe from us than any other.  Of any kind.
Slow Cooker Baked Ziti - easy and tasty
Mexican Tortilla Casserole - good, easy, includes make-ahead instructions
Macaroni and Cheese Casserole -yum
Italian Easter Pie - OMG

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Haiku: Cousins

The youngest often
Ends up saying guys guys guys

The oldheads ignore

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Huggies Dad vs. G.I. Jane

Although I've noodled on the subject a fair amount, I only this week had an epiphany about the dumb dad stereotype this blog seeks to combat.  Call me slow on the uptake, but what finally occurred to me may explain - at least in part - why one vein of sexist advertising continues to be tolerated.  I detail one side of the coin in my "Why Competent Parent?" sidebar mini-manifesto - that coming off as incompetent allows men to punt family responsibility.  My epiphany, on the other side of the coin: men in the domestic sphere threaten some people's conception of how the world works and what kinds of people should get which opportunities.  Fathers taking responsibility for their kids and their homes aren't as rare as we once were, but we're still pioneers.  If this choice seems novel in a good way to many, it also seems novel in a threatening way to others.  Lampooning the at-home father may be a defense mechanism for the threatened.

I've pointed out before in this space the Huggies ads with implicit or explicit themes of
dad as doofus, father as fool.  These ads gain context in relation to how the culture has treated women who have pioneered in traditionally male fields over the years.  Those fictional female characters seemed similarly threatening to those who took comfort in the status quo.  The type reached its apotheosis in Demi Moore's star crewcut turn in 1997's G.I. Jane.  Herein, Moore fights her way into the few and the proud sixteen years before the military allowed women to take combat assignments.  My research revealed that in my memory, I'd actually melded G.I. Jane with (childhood crush) Nancy McKeon's (pun-not-rejected) trailblazing role in 1986's television movie Firefighter.  If we're
establishing a Hollywood lineage here, we should probably wind back the clock at least to Yentl in 1983.  (Side note: apparently one must be a brunette to face this challenge.)  Whether it's Semper Fi or the fire house or religious training in the shtetl, when women invade male domains, they have to endure hazing.  I confess that I haven't seen Firefighter or G.I. Jane, and it's been a long time since I saw Yentl (wherein the lads didn't know she was a she), but the hazing clearly attempts to convince the pioneering woman that she's not strong enough for the challenge.  In fact, she doesn't belong because she's not strong enough.  Cue the stirring music at the end, though, and fit that lady for a uniform.  She proved everybody wrong. 

Which brings me back to what unsettles me about the dad-can't-handle-the-home-front subtext of advertisements: that they don't come around to an ending.  The Huggies dad stereotype tends to focus on a stage at which all new parents feel inadequate to the task: parenting babies.  As Dan Savage has told all the gay kids, it gets better.  We don't see that process most of the time when dads get lampooned.  I've gotten to the third paragraph of this post without mentioning the at-home-dad cultural artifact kryptonite that is Mr. Mom.  Well, there.  I've said it.  The parallels in the titles of Mr. Mom and G.I. Jane are quite striking.  Observers can only see the pioneer through the lens of the person who traditionally holds the role - G.I. Joe at war and, of course, mom in the house.  Everyone associates Mr. Mom with the beginning where (dark-brown-haired) Michael Keaton is utterly incompetent at his new job.  In fact, it can be rightly credited with starting the whole battle that at-home dads still have to fight about how incapable we are of actually running a household.  Of course, the Mr. in this case only becomes a stay-at-home dad because he loses his job, and his wife finds one before he does.  Not exactly a profile in courage.  The narrative eventually arrives, however, at a place where Michael Keaton gets better at running the house and he and Teri Garr do what many professional couples have done in the 31 years since: they both return to work, having negotiated new deals with their old bosses.

Dads get hazed as incompetent the way Demi and Nancy got hazed as weak.  I remember that in high school when I wanted to start doing laundry, I had to lobby my mother hard to get her to teach me the basics.  Why?  Maybe because she'd controlled the laundry room for decades and had her system down.  Maybe she didn't want someone who might make clothing-ruining mistakes to mess up one of her domains.  Just like the firefighters and Marines, power and trust were at issue.  She eventually relented, and I'm a careful-if-not-perfect home launderer.

The fact of the matter is that I'm better at running point on our household and our kids than I was when I went part time six years ago.  I can balance giving attention to the kids and the house better now.  I've always tried to put dinner on the table soon after Paige gets home, and I accomplish that far more often now than I did then.  I calibrate what I can accomplish in the time allotted far better.  I'm faster and better at planning menus that allow us to use what's on hand far more efficiently.  My laundry rhythm rarely leaves us naked or interrupts other activities.  It helps that the boys are six years older than they were then (oi!), but I have also done what people do as they gain experience: I have gotten more competent.

I don't believe that I am less capable of doing this work because I'm male.  Although girls babysit more than boys, I would hazard a guess that your average delayed-marriage, delayed-parenting, career-launched new mother isn't that much better than her partner at the diapering, feeding, cleaning and sleep management required of a new parent.  But women aren't depicted as falling apart in the kitchen or the nursery
because those are traditional female domains.  No one's threatened by her forays into domesticity, even if her graduate/professional degree and rise up the brand management or legal or engineering ladder are inadequate preparation to be a mom.

What would the at-home-dad-who-overcomes-the-odds movie look like?  Where could the moment of triumph occur?  Progress on the homefront occurs in slow motion.  Achievement consists of things like nutritionally balanced lunches packed 4-5 days a week for nine months.  The main motivation for me going part-time in the first place wasn't a singular goal that could be pinpointed (like a military commission).  In the one year post-kids that both of us worked full time we observed that our sons needed more of us than we were able to give when every evening and weekend was a sisyphean mountain of errands and tasks.  My wife was launching her career at a point at which I felt like I needed some kind of professional and work-life change.  I had the good fortune to stay at my job part-time and the opportunity to give more attention to our kids -- and to facilitate Paige giving them more attention by chipping away at the humdrum.  No one comes in and certifies our home as well-run or our children as well-raised.  There's no moment at which the soundtrack could swell and I could stare off into the distance looking proud and relieved.

Dads who are new at this, be strong and competent.  Don't let the sneering diaper-industrial complex get you down.  You can do it.  If it helps, though, I'll come over and whistle Eye of the Tiger while you slice apples.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Violence and Football and Violence

Tony Norman, columnist for One of America's Great Newspapers, offers an interesting take on the NFL's violence problem.  One paragraph in particular asks cogent questions about Adrian Peterson's parenting.
"Isn’t the use of switches, belts or straps against a child an admission that there isn’t enough of a relationship there to use moral persuasion? What is the point of beating a child to generate good behavior when it has never worked? Violence against a child is evidence of the failure of parenting."
The whole column is here:

I find I can't really get excited about football this year.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nurtureshock Update

This article picks up on some of the research that struck me five years ago when reading Nurtureshock and has stayed with me since then.  The big addition here for me is when the author confesses about her own experience trying to implement the recommended praise regimen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

HHHHHH: PNC Park Seat Numbers

Again, this somewhat-neglected feature offers a baseball hint, not a household hint.  I've gone to enough games at The Best Ballpark in Baseball to know which sections I like to sit in under different conditions - daytime, evening, cool weather, hot weather - but I always wish I knew better which direction the seat numbers go in any given section.  After all, Pirates fans are getting more knowledgeable but are still extremely rude in terms of at what (key) points in (close) ballgames they decide they NEED NACHOS RIGHT NOW!  If you're sitting next to an aisle that is between you and the field, this means a lot of people in extra large Free Shirt Friday shirts sauntering between you and the action at inopportune times.

The most recent game I attended was the screw-the-kids day game during the first week of school.  Not all the kids around here were back in school, but most were.  Scheduling a day game right after they go back seems cruel, but I managed to get over that and enjoy the game for myself with one guy friend and zero kids in tow.  Having purchased from Stubhub what turned out to be good number seats, I bemoaned my lack of knowledge of seat number order at PNC Park.  A neighboring fan apologized for being nebby and then dropped some knowledge on us.

She said that PNC Park's seat numbers ascend in the same direction that the section numbers ascend.  So if you're seated in section 127 on the third base line, seat numbers start at 1 next to section 125 and go up toward section 128.  Why is there no section 126?  Hmm, can't say.

If you notice, looking at the complete seating chart, this means that down the right field line, the higher numbers are closer to home plate, the exact opposite of the order on the third base line.  Another caveat is that while knowing this rule of thumb helps, your actual seat preferences may vary based on the number of seats in a particular section.  Finally, there might be a twilight zone directly behind home plate in which all bets are off.  On the bright side, there should be no one jiggling down an aisle between you and the field there.  You only have to worry about those slowly shuffling down the row with their pierogie stacker and two IC Lights.

I would love to hear in the comments a) if this helps you and b) if it's true at your hometown ballpark.