Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Kindergarten is Kicking my Butt

Jack started kindergarten this year. He has a summer birthday, so instead of sending him to full-day kindergarten at an elementary school, we decided to send him to a half-day kindergarten at a preschool. We are treating it more as a Pre-K and planning on sending him to full-day kindergarten next year.

We're considering this "Kindergarten: Round 1" and I'm so glad because kindergarten is kicking my butt.

Don't misunderstand me, Jack is doing great! He loves school. He can't always tell me what he is learning, but he never forgets what he ate for snack or which friend played what Power Ranger at recess. Thank goodness for newsletters from the teacher.

I, on the other hand, have been somewhat blindsided by this rapid change of pace that comes with having a school-aged child. If I've seemed a little scarce lately it is because all of my mental energies are being harnessed by this thing called kindergarten.

Just getting out the door in the morning is like my own personal Mommy Hunger Games, except that in The Hunger Games Katniss battles vicious monsters and opponents in order to stay alive and I am trying to get 3 small children dressed, fed and in the car in order to get to school on time SO IT'S BASICALLY THE SAME THING.

No matter how early we get up, no matter how much preparation is put in the night before, countless OBSTACLES arise to keep me from my goal as the precious minutes tick away. It's like some crazed gamesmaker is behind the scene plotting ways to make me lose my mind. Quick! Topple an entire box of Cheerios on the floor! Hide the shoes! And as soon as they're walking out the door, MAKE SOMEBODY POOP!! MWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!
Curse you, Seneca Crane!!
Sometimes I look towards the sky to see if someone has sent me a little parachute package of Xanax BUT NO ONE EVER DOES.
"Those are not the clothes I put you in!!"
Most days I call it a success if Jack makes it to school wearing actual clothes instead of a costume. I give myself bonus points if his hair is free of food debris.

There has been one day since school started when I woke up extra early, fixed his hair and pleaded with him to wear a collared shirt and stain-free pants. That day was picture day. Except, when I picked him up from school his sweet teacher said, "Jack looked so handsome today, but picture day is actually next week!" Unfortunately, since I had already spent all my effort on fake picture day, by the time real picture day rolled around I was like just wear whatever! I have 8,000 pictures of you on my phone anyway!

And if getting to school is a scene from The Hunger Games than coming home from school is exactly like The Shawshank Redemption. Or The Green Mile. Or any movie that involves prison where the inmates are making trouble and trying to escape and the warden is all DO YOUR HOMEWORK OR ELSE NO DINNER!!

But seriously, homework? I don't remember agreeing to homework when I brought my cuddly little eight pounder home from the hospital.

 On the first day of school Jack brought home a worksheet for homework and I realized that we did not have one pencil in the entire house. Sure, we bought all the supplies on the list for school, but it did not even occur to me to buy some supplies for home. And I am a former elementary school teacher. THE SHAME. That first day Jack completed his homework in purple crayon. OH THE SHAME!

One day last week he came home with this:

I don't know if I was more panicked over the words "Family Project" or "cut and glue."

Turns out it was "cut and glue" because when I went out and bought pencils for the house I totally forgot about kid scissors or glue sticks, but giant shears and rubber cement work just as well, right?
"Just don't inhale, Honey!"
Of course, then Henry decided he needed to use the "special glue" on his own "homework," and that is how we ended up trapped in the kitchen for an excruciating amount of time. Just like prison.

Thank goodness I get a re-do at kindergarten next year. Hopefully by next year we will be fully stocked on school supplies and I will have figured out how to get the kids out of the house without tears or bloodshed.

Otherwise, I will just have to play dumb and NEVER EVER admit to the teachers that I used to be one of them. What? It's not ok to complete homework in crayon? Well, it's not like I have a college degree in this or anything! OH THE SHAME.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Very Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

This chocolate chip cookie recipe has been perfected for years. It's been tweaked and fine-tuned, tested on everyone from potlucking neighbors to birthday partying kids. After countless hours in the kitchen and many, many batches, the Very Best Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe was created.

And then I stole it from my mother and claimed it as my own.
(And if that's not some sort of metaphor for motherhood, I don't know what is.)

These chocolate chip M&M cookies were always a hit around my house growing up and now I love making them with my kids too. No matter the occasion, when it comes to these cookies, there are never any leftovers.

Start with 2 sticks of butter, softened to room temperature. Just leave them on the kitchen counter a few hours before you make your cookies - no microwaving!

Extra-cute kitchen helper is recommended, but not required.

Mix all the "wet" ingredients together: butter, brown sugar, white sugar and vanilla. You can use a mixer, but mixing by hand works just as well too. 

Next, mix in 2 eggs. 
Be sure to pick out stray eggshells after Extra-Cute Kitchen Helper insists on cracking the eggs into the batter himself. 

Now add the "dry" ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt. Many recipes instruct to mix the dry ingredients together before adding them to the batter, but I've found it doesn't really make a difference either way in this recipe.

Personally, I have never liked the taste of raw cookie dough. 
I think Jack likes it better than the actual cookies.

Finally, stir in the chocolate chips! 

This dough can be made ahead of time and refridgerated until you are ready to make your cookies.

Roll out balls of dough to desired size. Mine usually end up on the larger side because I get lazy and don't want to be in the kitchen making tiny cookies for hours. 

If you're adding M&M's, press them into the tops of the cookies before baking. I love the M&M's because they add a wonderful, sweet crunch and help the cookies keep their shape. 

Bake at 375 degrees, on the middle rack, for 8-12 minutes. The baking time will depend on your oven and the size of your cookies. How do you know when they're done? As soon as the tops start to set and the edges brown, take them out!
Just a couple more minutes...

The most important step in this recipe just may be to NOT OVERBAKE. The cookies should still be doughy and gooey on the inside. (If you're worried about salmonella in raw cookie dough, just know that I've been eating theese cookies for years and I'm still here.)

And they're Henry-approved!

Makes 1.5-2 dozen

-2 sticks of butter, softened
-1 cup packed brown sugar
-1/2 cup white sugar
-1 tsp vanilla
-2 eggs
-2 3/4 cups flour
-1 tsp salt 
-1 tsp baking soda
-1 bag (12 oz.) chocolate chips
-M&M's (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Mix together the butter, brown sugar, white sugar, and vanilla. Then mix in the eggs. Next, mix the flour, salt and baking soda into the batter. Finally, add the chocolate chips.

Roll out balls of dough to desired size. Optional: press M&M's into the top of each cookie before baking. Bake at 375 degrees on middle rack for 8-12 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of your cookies. They are done when the tops start to set and the edges are barely brown.  

Finally, check out this resource for the science behind a great chocolate chip cookie!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

When Food is Art, Art is Yummy

My husband loves sports. I cannot catch a ball.

I love to read. John would rather wait for the movie.

However, we do share at least one common interest: FOOD. We love eating and all things related to food. We love cooking food, watching shows about food and even reminiscing about the best food we've ever eaten. Perhaps our favorite thing to do is visit fun restaurants at which we eat more food.

We consider ourselves foodies, but mostly because "foodie" is a nicer word than "glutton."

Actually, it would be a bit of a stretch to call ourselves foodies since the goal of most of our meals these days is to shovel in as much food as possible before the inevitable spilled drink or dinnertime meltdown. The most exotic thing we've eaten recently is take-out from Mr. Wonton. However, when we're not scraping dried macaroni off the floor or hiding in the pantry with potato chips, we like to envision a future where we can once again frequent fabulous restaurants. Or at least a future where we can roast brussel sprouts without anyone yelling "EW!"

So maybe we are only foodies in our minds. We are faux foodies.

A while ago we were watching a show (about food, obviously) that featured a segment on an avant-garde style of cuisine called molecular gastronomy, in which chefs utilize chemistry and physics to transform the tastes and textures of food, creating a unique and innovative culinary experience.

Basically, you get a dish that looks something like this:
Caviar, egg custard, red onion gelee and brioche foam.
It tasted like the ocean, spread on buttery bread. 

Or this:
Green apple taffy helium balloon: bite the balloon, suck out the helium and enjoy the taffy.

There are only a handful of restaurants in the US that specialize in molecular gastronomy, and one happens to be in Chicago. When we were planning our Chicago trip (and by 'we' I mean me, obviously), we decided that gourmets such as ourselves could not pass up the opportunity to indulge in the ultimate foodie experience. The restaurant, called Alinea, would be a true test of our foodieness.

We arrived on a Thursday evening, not knowing what to expect. It was hard to believe that this unassuming grey building housed a restaurant that books up months in advance. There was no sign, no name prominently displayed, only four silver street numbers to reassure us that we had come to the right place.
This better be good.
We entered and made our way down a long, dark, narrow hallway that seemed to dead-end, when all of a sudden, a silver panel to our left slid open and we walked into the dining area.

The dining room was small, only five tables in all (although there were a few more tables in the floor above). There was no soft background music, no aroma drifting from the kitchen, and the windows were covered so as to let some light in, but block any outside distraction. Clearly, the most minute details had been considered to insure that nothing took away from the main attraction: the food. In fact, the most noticeable feature of the dining room was actual stalks of rhubarb suspended from the ceiling over each table.

I immediately began to document our experience. If we were to become true foodies, we needed to take notes. I think some large kale leaves might look divine hanging from our kitchen chandelier.

Diners are not presented with menus at Alinea (much too conventional), instead the servers bring out one surprise course after another, fifteen in all on this particular night.

One of our first courses came out in the form of a large nest. Our server explained that there was a root vegetable called salsify hidden somewhere within. It was marinated in soy sauce and other flavors and tasted a little like beef jerky, only less chewy.
I should definitely whip up a batch of these for our next preschool playdate. They would be a big hit.
If only I knew where to buy some salsify. 
It became clear very quickly that this was more than a meal. It was meant to be a gastronomic affair. Every ingredient was carefully selected and prepared in a way that highlighted each individual flavor. Every bite was an event. The chefs may have utilized science to create these culinary sculptures, but this was more than chemistry. This was art.
And art was yummy.
One of my favorite courses was a dish called "Hot Potato, Cold Potato," a deconstructed take on potato soup. The dish was placed in the palm of my hand and I could feel the chill of the cold, creamy broth through the tiny bowl. At the same time, I could see steam rising from the piping hot bits of potato, leek and truffle secured on the silver pin. Our server instructed us to swiftly pull the pin, letting the hot vegetables drop in the soup, and rapidly drink the soup in one gulp, like taking a shot.

It was a marvelous sensation of hot and cold combining as they slid down the throat, creating the impression that one had enjoyed an entire bowl of potato soup in just one mouthful.

It was reminiscent of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Violet Beauregarde heedlessly samples Willy Wonka's three-course meal chewing gum. She is delighted at the sensation of enjoying tomato soup, roast beef and baked potato all in one stick of gum. Unfortunately, she turns into a giant blueberry during the dessert course and all the fun is over for her.

Fortunately for us, our fun was just beginning.

Roasted corn atop manchego cheese grits with truffle. THIS I could have eaten all night.

Also, it turns out that the dangling rhubarb was not only for decoration. It doubled as a garnish for the rhubarb and celery root salad.

As different courses arrived at various tables, the diners oohed and ahhed over every morsel. "The dehydrated yogurt rock was divine!" exclaimed one. "Compliments to the chef, my ashed goat cheese paired perfectly with the licorice graffiti!" In fact, while we were on course 9 or so, one patron had just finished his meal. He proceeded to shake the hands of the servers and sommelier as he declared, "Thank you so, so much! This has been a life changing event for me!"

John and I locked eyes across the table. "Is this meal changing your life?" I whispered. He leaned over the table, "Maybe we haven't gotten to that course yet."

At that precise moment our server arrived to whisk away our plates, "And how were the lily bulbs and lychee gelee?" I glanced at my husband and we both knew the other wanted to shout LIFE CHANGING! But neither of us could manage a word, for we were both overcome by a fit of giggles.

"I'll take that as a good sign," replied the waiter.

Dinner at Alinea was a modern art masterpiece. The use of color and texture was dazzling and the medium was new and innovative, but in the back of my mind I couldn't help but be reminded of the story The Emperor's New Clothes. Amid all the euphoric exclamations of praise, there was a small part of me that wanted to channel the boy who spoke plain truth while everyone else played along with the pageantry. I had a tiny urge to stand up and declare to my fellow diners, "You guys! We are eating FLOWER PETALS and BUBBLES! My toddler eats those EVERY DAY FOR FREE!!"

But I didn't, because then everyone would know I was just a faux foodie.

Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful experience. We had SO MUCH FUN. We ate foods we'd never tried in ways we could have never conceived.

For me, it wasn't a life changing event, but it was a once in a lifetime experience.

Besides, I already had my life changing event.

He was sitting right across the table from me the whole night.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scenes From Chicago

Last spring my husband came to me with an idea. "Hey, what do you think about taking a trip to Chicago in August?"

"You mean for our anniversary?!? Honey, that is SO sweet!" He never plans ahead, so I was gleefully shocked to think he was imagining a romantic getaway for us months in the future.

"Oh, err, um, yeah. For our anniversary. And also, the Orioles will be in town."

So last week we jetted out to Chicago to see John's favorite baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, play the Cubs...I mean, for a romantic anniversary weekend.

Either way, I was excited because it was our first big trip together in 7 years and our first time away from all three kids EVER. At this point I would be happy to go on a date to our local Chili's if it meant I could remain seated for the entire meal and not listen to a squeaky voice yell "BITE! BITE! BITE!" every time I lift my fork to my mouth (even though she has the exact same thing cut up in tiny pieces in front of her), so I was ecstatic to be able to eat meals and sleep in a bed in an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT STATE.

As I mentioned, John is not much of a planner, but lucky for him, I AM. I researched, asked friends, read blogs, made reservations and bought tickets. I typed up a color-coded itinerary for us. And printed out copies. On second thought, it's amazing he agreed to travel with me at all.

I planned your typical Chicago-tourist type things like a show at Second City and an evening at the 95th floor of the John Hancock building to take in the spectacular city view.
At the Signature Room: the dining experience was ok, the views were unparalleled. 

I planned some not-so-typical things like a restaurant where we ate dinner from a nest...
"Um, what do you mean my dinner is 'in here somewhere'?

...and a charred stump.
I believe this experience merits it's own blog post. (see here)

Some of my plans did not pan out so well, which can often be the case when you're somewhere new and unfamiliar. However, my husband (the man who never plans ahead and is never on time) is blessed with what seems to be this innate streak of good luck that causes things to naturally work out for him even better than if he followed a color-coded itinerary.

We had tickets for a riverboat architecture tour, which was cancelled. A heavy rainstorm the night before had caused the water levels to rise, making it impossible for the boat to pass under some of the bridges. Who knew?

Instead, John suggested we make our way down to Navy Pier.

Navy Pier is Chicago's number one tourist attraction and I had read reports that it can be an overly-crowded, overly-commercialized tourist trap. But, for whatever reason, on our visit that morning there were no lines, no crowds, and a delightful breeze blowing in from the harbor to cool down the August heat. Maybe the rainy forecast had discouraged other travelers from exploring the pier that morning. Or maybe it was just my husband's dang lucky streak that made it all fall into place.

Ferris wheel selfie!

I was also DETERMINED to try a Chicago-style hot dog while we were in town. I'm convinced that really good hot dogs are one of life's greatest pleasures, ranking right up there with fresh pasta and nachos. If I were on a deserted island and could only eat one food for the rest of my life, I would readily choose bun-sized, all-beef hot dogs as long as I had a grill and a variety of fresh toppings.

In Chicago, they serve their hot dogs on a poppyseed bun with mustard, onions, relish, sliced tomatoes, a pickle spear and spicy sport peppers.

Naturally, a Chicago dog is a MUST while in Chicago, and I decided that if I was going to eat a Chicago dog, it might as well be the BEST hot dog in Chicago.  All my research pointed me to a little place in the north side of Chicago called Hot Doug's. Reviewers raved about the "foie gras dog" and the "duck fat fries." "Without exaggeration, the best hot dog restaurant in the world!" one exclaimed. Hot Doug's even has a quote emblazoned on a large, hot dog-shaped sign that reads, "There are no two finer words in the English language than 'encased meats,' my friend." I would have to agree.

The reviewers mentioned there would be a line. Unfortunately, they neglected to mention exactly how long that line would be.
I had to swipe this photo off Instagram since I was too distraught at the time to document my disappointment.

By the time we arrived at 11:30am, the line was already 3 hours long. See the itsy-bitsy red awning in the photo above? That's Hot Doug's. From where we were in line, you could not even see the awning. People brought LAWN CHAIRS and COOLERS with them to wait in line. An ice cream truck circled by to sell frozen treats to sweaty customers as they waited. I'm surprised no one whipped out a grill to tailgate before the main event. I don't know what makes people willing to spend half a day waiting for a hot dog, but Doug must have hired the Angels themselves to grind the meat and add spices from Heaven.

Sadly, I don't know what the word's best hot dog tastes like, because we couldn't wait for 3 hours. We had a baseball game to get to.

And the best part of the game for me? My husband bought me a big ol' Chicago-style hot dog.
Verdict: fresh, spicy, sweet. It's no Carolina dog, but I'd eat another. Especially if it happened to be made by meat-grinding angels.

For some reason, John was quite frustrated I kept calling this place "Wrigley's Stadium," so I must inform you that it is actually named WRIGLEY FIELD and it is a national historic treasure or something like that.
They had some cute t-shirts for sale with little bears on them, but John wouldn't let me buy one.
Other highlights included fresh pasta from Eataly; part restaurant, part gourmet grocery, part bookstore, part kitchen store. It reminded me of the marketplaces in Florence, only a LOT cleaner and without exclamations of Ciao, Bella! every 10 steps. Eataly: cheesy name, amazing place. Check it out.

We also had dinner with my sister, Katie, (a Chicago resident) at award-winning restaurant and dessertery Mindy's Hot Chocolate. The food was so good we forgot to take pictures.
But we did manage one fuzzy snapshot for our mom. You're welcome, Mom!
Finally, we did managed to snag a ride on a riverboat architecture cruise right before leaving for the airport. If you do one thing while in Chicago, this is it.

We had a wonderful time. It wasn't all romance and rose petals, we went to 2 baseball games, after all. There was even the occasional argument, like when we almost missed our departing flight. Twice. (It was John's fault.) But I attribute the success of our trip to 5 things:

1. My excellent planning
2. John's knack for winging it when my plans go awry
3. Yummy food
4. Occasionally making out
5. Appreciating the moments together, particularly those spontaneous and unplanned

Come to think of it, those are the things that make our marriage work too.

And a big, giant THANK YOU to all the grandparents who made this trip possible! Although we are currently in the throws of some serious DETOX, it was well worth it. ;)

Note: Because some have asked, all photos were taken with my iPhone and most were edited with the apps Snapseed or VSCO Cam.