Monthly Archives: November 2021

Soup’s on

As much as I wax poetic about the alchemical value of using reserved pasta water to add starchy body and enhance the textural properties of sauces, there is something to be said for cooking pasta without using the basic “boil it in water” method. Frequently I develop recipes out of necessity or the desire to make use of something comestible in our possession that isn’t being consumed in a timely fashion, but this one was borne simply out of the spirit of invention. Not that this idea is original, I’m sure, but it was new to me and felt like a worthwhile experiment to pursue.

My daughter was in a week of Ancient Greece camp run by the former-teacher mother of a friend of mine, and I’d offered to bring lunch for the group, so she suggested I bring the meal for the final day. Did I want to bring something that everyone would eat, remaining faithful to the theme of Greek week? Well, of course I did, but the slight hiccup in this initiative was that they’d already had spanakopita, hummus with pita, crudités with tzatziki, and pizza that week, plus plenty of Greek-inspired snacks, and the family hosting the camp were vegetarian. Having been to Greece and sampled the cuisine myself, I suspected that the girls’ palates might be averse to some of the menu options under consideration, so it felt like a challenge to produce something that would be nutritious, vegetarian, at least semi-Greek, and actually enjoyable for the audience to whom it would be offered.

I finally settled on two main options, one of which was a batch of my dad’s famous lentil du puy, cooked with carrots and celery and bay leaves, which I knew my daughter would eat. I also had the idea to make a pasta and cheese dish, opting for halloumi over feta because I happened to have a block of that delightfully squeaky, salty stuff already in the freezer. Also on hand was a quart container of tomato soup that hadn’t found its way into a meal yet, so it seemed like a good idea to try using it in place of water to cook the pasta. That way, I theorized, it would serve to hydrate and infuse the noodles with flavor while retaining that precious wheat starch released during the cooking process, with the result being a pasta cooked in its own sauce. Orzo seemed like a good choice, as it cooks quickly enough that the soup wouldn’t reduce too much before delivering that desired al dente density, and the decidedly Mediterranean association of that particular pasta shape clinched the decision. The results of this experiment proved successful, and whenever a recipe that calls for fewer than five ingredients turns out well, it always feels like another leaf added to that laurel wreath we food-providers wear.

Tomato Soup Orzotto

(serves 4-6 depending on accompaniments)

1/2 lb. dried orzo
~4 cups tomato soup
salt and pepper

Add two cups of soup to a saucepan over medium heat. Once it’s about to boil, add the orzo and cook, stirring constantly as you would a risotto and adding more soup until orzo is al dente and the sauce is of a, well, saucy consistency. Constant stirring is important to prevent pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste. This can be served in any way you choose, but some halloumi sliced into pieces a half-inch thick and fried in a dry, nonstick pan ’til brown on both sides is a good way to go. If your people won’t go the halloumi route (I’m the only one in this house who’s a fan), some little balls of mozzarella di bufala stirred into the mix works well as an alternative. And if you’re not a vegetarian, a nice meatball never hurt anyone. (Please don’t say that to your children, however, unless you want them to consider it a challenge they can’t help but accept.)

And to all a good nightcap

One evening as summer melted into fall, after an hour spent preparing our six year-old for bedtime and having gotten so far as to have half-closed his door for what I’d hoped was the final time that night, he said, “Mommy? I just have one question.” Although that seemed highly unlikely, as his questions tend to create a multiplicative causation, I waited for it, expecting him to ask something like “When is it the weekend?” or “Can I have a playdate with Tripp tomorrow?” or “Are there viruses in outer space?” Instead, he hit me with, “Are you Santa?”

All parents of young children who believe in Santa Claus prepare themselves for this moment, and most of us have read at least one viral account of a way to answer the question gently but honestly while still preserving the spirit of enchantment and tradition. I read one or two of those years ago, back when I thought having some tips and tricks in my back pocket might come in handy with our oldest child, but of course it had been so long since then that I couldn’t remember any of the turns of phrase or model of delivery I’d expected to sample when the need arose. And of course my child had chosen this exact time of day, as the clock was striking half-past goodnight, when I was just about to snug the door against its jamb with a sound much like punching out a time card on the way to happy hour. “Not so fast,” the boss says, “There’s still work to do here. Time to clock back in and tidy things up.”

So I lay beside the boy and did my best to recall some of the strategies I’d read those years ago, coupled with some improvisation on my own part, and here’s the basic gist of how it went. “No, buddy. I’m not Santa! One person couldn’t be Santa on his or her own. Santa isn’t even a person at all. Santa’s made up of so many people and so many feelings and ideas that it’s hard to explain, but everyone who loves to give, and gives out of love, has a little bit of Santa in them. If you could take all of those people, all of that love, and put them together into one being, that might amount to Santa, but you can’t do that exactly. That’s where the magic part gets involved. Only magic could create a single entity to represent the combined spirit of benevolent generosity in the world for as long as it’s existed, so that’s where the idea of Santa came from. Every person has a Santa spark inside, and that’s a kind of magic too. If you believe in using that spark to bring happiness to other people, then you believe in Santa because you are part of what makes him real. And when you let your own Santa spark shine, more magic can happen because saying and doing things that bring joy to other people…that’s a kind of gift you can give too. Just because you can’t necessarily open a gift and hold it in your hands doesn’t mean it isn’t something special you can keep. And if you believe that, it means you don’t just believe in the magic spark; it means you also believe in what I think is one of the most impressive superpowers: the power to give beautiful gifts to others that they can feel but not see. What do you think?”

He yawned in the adorable way they do, with that singsong whistle-catch of breath at the back of the throat, and rolled over. “Yeah, okay. Goodnight, Mommy,” he said and snuggled under his blanket. Now I’m not sure if he was just ready for me to stop talking and let him fall asleep at that point, or if I’d just told the most successfully boring bedtime story of my life, but it felt like the boss had just handed me his credit card, pushed me out of the office, and said the first round’s on him.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

One night after a particularly trying evening, I went to put a snack in my first-grader’s backpack for the next day. Along with several rocks, sticks, and other assorted nature-treasures, I found a piece of folded paper. I opened it to find this:

At pickup, Arlo had said that Summerly had brought him a note as part of her Thankful Thursday routine in third grade that day, but I’d forgotten to follow up and ask him if I could see it. If ever there were a child who needed a note like this on a day like that, it was the recipient of this love letter. It took my breath away to the point that I almost fainted dead away, and I thought, “If I fell over right now, at least my day would end on a happy note,” then took those words literally and laughed uproariously at my own joke.

And then it dawned on me

There aren’t many things all people can agree upon, but one semi-axiomatic testament I think is pretty watertight is this: everyone loves a good drinking vessel. For some, that might mean a double-walled, insulated hiking flask; for others, a hand-blown wine goblet might be a favorite. My friend Jason prefers to take his beverages in glass jars, and I know a few people who might not be recognizable without a Tervis tumbler in their hands. Our oldest child, for his part, bears a stalwart adherence to his fleet of Thermos Funtainers (perhaps that marketing-driven moniker bears some responsibility for his allegiance). The newest addition to his collection of these flip-top aluminum bottles with straw attachments is one decorated with a depiction of the amazing Spider-Man in action, and recently I’d noticed that the silicone straw component for it looked a little grubby and was in need of a thorough scrubbing.

To prepare for this, and because I frankly didn’t feel like getting out the tiny straw brush to work on it in that moment, I put the piece in a bowl in the sink and sprayed its entire surface area with my sink’s companion, the Dawn Powerwash, to let those scum-scouring agents work their surfactant sorcery, or, as my husband puts it, “let it soak”. The next morning I’d finally summoned the energy to attack the thing with a wire brush, successfully removing all traces of discoloration and stuffing it onto one of the pegs in the top rack of the dishwasher for a final cleanse.

A couple of weeks later, my son came home from school saying that his water tasted like perfume all day, and I silently scoffed at his sensitivity but disassembled the whole Spider-Man Funtainer, put it back in the dishwasher, and thought nothing else of it. However, the next time he used that bottle, the same complaint ensued. I challenged him on it, thinking perhaps there was a psychosomatic element at play here, but he adamantly averred, “No, Mommy, it really does taste like your perfume!” Wait a second, I thought. MY perfume?! I haven’t worn perfume since the moment he was born, cringing prudishly when anyone wafting eau-de-anything wanted to hold my children as infants and bemoaning to everyone who would listen that Johnson & Johnson baby products were full of fragrance. Hell, I don’t even use dryer sheets. “Liam,” I said, “I don’t wear perfume. I haven’t worn perfume in years,” to which he responded with certainty, “Yes, you do! I smell it on you a lot!”

Well, that was a real head-scratcher. Our detergent is free and clear, and I don’t use fragranced skin or hair products, so I had no idea what he could be thinking. At any rate, it was time to see what all of the fuss was about, so I finally took the time to sniff the silicone straw apparatus and, lo and behold, the kid wasn’t wrong about it bearing a scent reminiscent of the second-grade teacher at my school, Mrs. Burchett, whose classroom famously reeked of her perfume to the point that I could barely pass by the open door without gagging (luckily my homeroom that year was with the sweetly unscented Mrs. Holden). So Operation Scent Removal began, which included an overnight white vinegar bath, a sterilizing session in a rolling boil of water in a saucepan, and a full day of full sun in hopes of achieving deodorization. I’m pleased to say that this reverse-spa treatment worked fairly well in eliminating almost all of whatever bouquet had infected the strawpiece, so I called the situation salvaged and case closed. Spider-Man could now safely get back to his work of eradicating street crime and hydrating middle schoolers.

The plot thickened and quickly thinned out a week or so later, when I went to say goodnight to Liam one evening. I reached over to give him a hug, then fluffed his hair and mentioned that it was almost haircut weekend again. “There it is!” he said, sitting suddenly straight up in bed. “That’s it! Your perfume! I smelled it on your hands just now!” I checked to see what he meant and discovered that there was, in fact, a residual odor on my hands. It was the distinct aroma of the blue Dawn I’d used to finish up the dishes moments before coming upstairs. Immediately upon making this realization, we were able to surmise that leaving the silicone to “soak” in the Dawn Powerwash (erroneously labeled as imparting a “Fresh Scent”) had had the opposite effect of what was intended.

That was the moment when I recognized that my child might very well enter into adulthood with an olfactory association between his mother and the smell of distinctly blue dish soap. And all I can say about this is that if you could bottle up the feeling of accomplishment, not even Coco Chanel could put a price tag on it.

A matter of taste

It’s fascinating to consider the dissimilar approaches that different children take to the topic of food. Our oldest son mostly eats meals, rarely asking for a snack unless a sweet treat is offered. His lunchbox is routinely empty when I unpack it in the afternoon, and when I ask him if he’s hungry between meals, his answer is usually, “Not really.” Our youngest son prefers to graze, rarely finishing even half of a sandwich in a sitting, and I frequently put a bowl upside-down over his partially-eaten plate of food, to which he’ll return throughout the day, upend the makeshift cloche, and have a few bites here and there. Trying to get him to eat a decent amount at one time is a pursuit that, considering how densely-sown the minefield we’re navigating with him is, we’re choosing not to undertake for now.

Our daughter, who was so tiny as a baby and toddler that she didn’t even measure “on the charts” until she turned two, is the most fun to feed (well, she has been since she stopped nursing every hour of every day at the age of 8 months and deigned to finally avail herself of solid foods, all of which she’d rejected up until that point). The first thing she was interested in eating was a slice of orange, and after she passed through that sweet citrus gateway, there was no stopping her. She ate smoked salmon, prosciutto, pickled ginger, tuna, seaweed, cottage cheese, raw tomatoes, bacon, zoodles, refried beans, potstickers, mustard, pumpkin pie, edamame, pesto, potato latkes, and her favorite of all, avocado maki. And it wasn’t just the interesting range of foods that was impressive, but also the size of the portions she could consume. And these portion sizes grew as she did. Three cream cheese bagel halves for breakfast? Sure thing. Twelve Bagel Bite pizzas for lunch? No problem. Five hotdogs for dinner? It’s happened before. Twenty pieces of avocado roll for any meal, with as much soy sauce as I’ll let her have? That’ll do, and some miso soup, please.

Even more remarkable is that, despite her petiteness, she is often ready for another meal a couple of hours after one is over. She can easily eat a second full breakfast most days; a recent example of her choice for second breakfast was a whole can of drained black beans with grated cheddar melted into it. Another favorite is an entire 10-oz. packet of Indian Madras Lentils. We all know and admire her gustatory gifts and metabolic means, particularly because she’s taken an interest in nutrition recently (when asked what she’d like to eat, she famously answers, “Protein!”). So I don’t know why I’m surprised when, for example, I asked her after her first breakfast of waffles one day if she’d like anything else and her response was, “Yeah, maybe just a little something. Like five sausages.” Or when she says she’d like a snack, so I send her to pick something out and she comes back with a family-size can of chicken noodle soup.

However, if you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Wow! What a lucky mom! I can’t get my kids to eat anything besides cheese quesadillas, peanut butter, mozzarella sticks, and raisins,’ don’t worry. Practically all children have an “I won’t touch it” list, and those items are all on hers. She’s also averse to things as seemingly innocuous as croissants and whipped cream, but show her a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips, and that girl will be all over it. Feeding children is an endeavor involving equal parts dullness and intrigue, drudgery and excitement, sameness and surprise. So much of it is unpredictable and variable, from child to child and day to day. Sometimes kids like things you’d expect them to enjoy, and other times they refuse what others generally consider to be delectations. I mean, my daughter’s never met a dill pickle she didn’t like, but she’ll shudder with revulsion if you so much as offer her a chocolate chip cookie or–god forbid–a brownie. Her relationship with desserts, pretty much across the board, can be considered “it’s complicated”, which is why she patently rejects the nuance of idioms like “a cherry on top” and “the icing on the cake”. She also questions the use of “honey” as a term of endearment. So, friends, I give you three savory neologisms: “a meatball on top”, “the salt on the pretzel”, and this affectionate nickname: “Pringle”.

Viewer discretion advised

Sometimes the kids bring unfamiliar books home from school, and usually we enjoy not just the novelty but also their content. Once in a while, however, there are aspects of the material that require focused conversations about one topic or another, such as why an author would have chosen the words he did, or what may have motivated a character to act the way she did, or what changes we would have made if one of us were the writer or illustrator. Much of the material that I enjoyed as a child could use a fresh update (I’m still waiting for Louis Sachar to email me back about my idea on how we could reboot his Wayside School series to make them more compatible with our modern-day approach to edifying the growing minds of the elementary school set), and we’ve discussed many times how the zeitgeist of a different decade can affect the written material produced during that time

Recently, Arlo brought home a book he’d been examining at school, written over twenty years ago. Now, I can appreciate many features of this book, particularly some of the playful, albeit distinctly odd, details in the artworks. It’s fairly obvious that the style of the illustrations espoused by the author/illustrator, Anthony Browne, is heavily influenced by Magritte, so I could understand why Arlo’s hyper-creative mind would be fascinated by the illusory nature of the images. Unfortunately, the story I found to be an interesting idea executed pretty poorly, and to compound the issues I had with the narrative, there were some perplexing word selections, most of which could have been omitted with a the effect of improving the overall value of the volume. This page provides an apropos example:

There isn’t enough character development in this book to explain why those final three words deserve a place here. The “child” (she’s part primate, part human, I think) whose voice this is, to the reader’s knowledge, has no reason to call the dog’s owner a “silly twit” purely for experiencing the feeling of anger. We could invent reasons behind it, of course, psychologizing why the “child” might default to name-calling and why the dog owner might have felt angry about something that doesn’t seem to the reader like a situation that would normally elicit such a strong emotion. At any rate, we edited the text as we read and focused on the elements of the book that we could enjoy and appreciate, but later I got curious about the author and what other people thought about this book. Naturally, I went to to read some reviews and stumbled upon this gem:

Well, Mallory, I agree with your two-star rating and your general message, though your syntax and grammar could use a buff-up, but I can promise you, dear reader, that Mr. Browne, despite being British, did not use the word “twat” anywhere in that book. However, this whole vowel-confusion typo situation (at least, my armchair psychologist brain THINKS Mallory’s mistake was a typo) would be a great lesson in perspectives for her to bring to her classroom, if only it were appropriate for second grade.

On a lark

I’d bought a tub of Alouette spreadable cheese a while ago without so much as a vague notion of how it might actually fit into the edible landscape of our lives, but the facts that it was on sale and that we’d never had it were enough to compel me to click “add to cart”. Once it was inside our refrigerator, however, the clock began to tick. I’d recently pulled in the final late-season cherry tomato harvest and, because we’d been fortunate enough to have an abundant supply constantly ripening in the garden for several months, we were no longer consuming them with as much intent. To salvage that final batch after it had sat untouched on the countertop for several days, I roasted them in olive oil and salt and pepper until they blistered and split, then stored them in the refrigerator until I could figure out how to work them into a meal. Well, like two orphaned ingredients in the refrigerator’s foster system that bond through the process, the containers containing the roasted tomatoes and the Alouette cheese just happened to find themselves stacked one on top of the other in that cold world one afternoon. It felt like the universe had brought them together for a reason, so I decided that a joint adoption was in order.

I boiled some pasta, drained out all but some of the water, added the tub of Alouette while it was still hot, and stirred it until the cheese had melted into the pasta water, forming a creamy sauce. Enter in the tomatoes and some generous grinds of salt and pepper, and I’m happy to report that the combination was a success. And though they’re no longer with us, the two ingredients were welcomed warmly at the dinner table, and their leftover days were happy ones for the family who took them in.

Gemelli Alouette

(serves 4-6 depending on accompaniments)


1/2 lb. gemelli (or another pasta shape with similar surface area)
1 6.5 oz. container of Alouette (Ours was the “garlic & herbs” kind, but any flavor would work. I imagine another brand of spreadable cheese could be substituted; I plan to try this with pimento cheese at some point soon!)
~1 lb. cherry tomatoes, tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper


Roast tomatoes at 425 degrees for about ten minutes or until very soft and beginning to blister and char. Place them in a medium-sized bowl, including the liquid from roasting. Boil the pasta until al dente and drain water, reserving two cups in a separate vessel. Pour back into the pasta one half-cup of water and, while it’s still hot, add the Aloutte and stir until it’s melted and the mixture is consistently combined. Add more pasta water as necessary to thin the sauce, if desired, and add this mixture to the bowl of tomatoes. Stir gently and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve alongside a protein (anything goes: sausage, fish, chicken, meatballs, steak, pork loin, tofu…the possibilities are multitudinous!). To pay homage to both languages in the name of this recipe, voilà and buon appetito!

Your move, mom

This is a photograph of how my daughter “put away” the art journal she was given for her birthday. I’m not sure whether she’s taking the title quite literally or if this is a brilliant example of passive resistance. Either way, I’m naming this capture “The Tween’s Gambit”.

Keri, is this what you meant?

Alexa, I’m sorry

One day when I was previewing the lunch options offered by the school dining services for the upcoming week, I noticed that sloppy joes were on the menu for the following Wednesday. It reminded me of how much I’d liked the vegetarian version served at the boarding school where I taught in Connecticut and twigged the idea that I should try serving them to the kids some time (probably starting with a recipe using actual ground beef; the meatless preparation I personally prefer, featuring textured vegetable protein, would likely introduce too many variables at once). I want to expose the kids to as many different foods as possible, gently, of course, so they’ll at least have a frame of reference and a knowledge base, and as I retain fond memories of enjoying the meal as a child when my mother prepared it, I hunted down the ingredients.

To round out the experience, I thought it would be a nice touch to investigate the origin of the name “sloppy joe”; certainly the sandwich had earned its title in the name of eponymy at some point. Now that our family had fully embraced the kind of life where virtual assistant technology is plugged into several rooms, rather than jump on a screen to find an answer, I posited the question to the Alexa device keeping me company in the kitchen. “Alexa,” I said, polite as ever, “Why is it called a sloppy joe?” She responded promptly, “According to an Alexa answers contributor, because it is messy and sloppy.” Well, thanks for nothing, Alexa, I thought. Kind of already worked that part out on my own.

It turned out that I had everything I needed already in the house, so I made sloppy joes that very day, planning to gauge the response at dinner a few hours later. While the kids were eating (for what it’s worth, exactly one of them enjoyed the sloppy joe option), I told them how unhelpful Alexa had been that morning when I’d asked her to demystify the origins of the sloppy joe. They laughed and then one of them, naturally, had to try it for himself, so he said, “Alexa, why is a sloppy joe called a sloppy joe?” Her response, delivered in what sounded to me to be an even more saccharine than usual tone, was, “According to an Alexa contributor, the sandwich may have begun as a variation of the loose meat sandwiches that were popular in the 1950s. According to legend, a cook named Joe at Floyd Angell’s café in Sioux City, Iowa, added tomato sauce to his loose meat sandwiches. Some believe this is how the sloppy joe sandwich was born.”

The kids thought this was hilarious, of course, looking at me quizzically while they tried to quell their cackles of mirth, reveling in my slightly dramatized reaction of disbelief tinged with irritation. “I’ve been betrayed!” I said, and Summerly collected herself enough to say, “Mommy, Alexa isn’t very nice to you,” which we’d already suspected based on the runaround she’s given me in the past when I’d asked her to find a specific song or obscure factoid on a few occasions. “It’s like she doesn’t want you to seem like you know more than she does,” Liam added. I’d told the kids when we installed the device that, as a child, I’d been envious of my brother, whose name is Alex, and I’d wanted to change my name to Alexa because of a years-long infatuation with Billy Joel’s “Storm Front” album. “Maybe she heard us talking about how you wanted to be named ‘Alexa’ and now she’s being competitive,” Liam postulated.

My husband always thanks Alexa for her helpfulness, saying, “Alexa, thank you,” after she plays a song or gives us a notification or reminder. After overhearing a particularly obsequious exchange of niceties between Brian and Alexa one day, I challenged him on why he insists on being so mannerly in conversations with a robot. “When AIs inevitably take over the world,” he said, “I just want them to be merciful.”

All I know is that Alexa never gives him the kind of run-around she seems to reserve especially for me. Considering the pattern that’s clearly been established, I’m thinking perhaps it might be in my best interest to apologize for calling her a robot.

Fraternal order

When we decided to adopt a second rabbit as a companion for our pet, events transpired in such as way that we eventually ended up bringing home not one, but two incredibly adorable Holland lops to join Cecil, who had recently been spayed upon our learning that she was female despite a year of assuming otherwise (having been told erroneously by the breeder that the little guy was a guy). There was a lot of reason fueling the decision to expand our brood by 200%, including the fact that bonding rabbits can be a lengthy and challenging process, and we wanted the brothers to have each others’ company in the event that Cecil didn’t take to them readily. Add to that the photos of those baby bunnies that Fabienne, the woman who’d bred them, sent, showcasing the adoring fraternity between the two. The pictures featured them always together, curled around each other to the point that it was hard to tell whose floppy ear or furry paw was whose, and we knew they shouldn’t be separated. However, if we didn’t adopt them both, how could we guarantee that someone else wouldn’t take one but not the other? Well, we couldn’t allow the possibility of that Sophie’s Choice development, so it forced our hand to ensure their lifetime of togetherness.

Cecil accepted her adoptive brothers and seemed to enjoy the company of other mammals more similar to her in speciation, but it soon became clear that they were a workout for her, constantly following her around and intruding upon the alone time she sought in restful places. It turns out that what we’d perceived as the lonely lifestyle she’d lived before no longer existed in any way, shape, or form, and she sometimes took to hiding from the boys, or trying to, in hopes of temporarily recapturing the blissful state of solitude. She really was very fond of them, often cleaning those hard-to-reach spots on their heads and staying put when they would get comfortable and proceed to take a nap on top of her, but clearly she wanted a break from all of the attention from time to time.

One day, she was fully sprawled out in repose on the kitchen mat, eyes half closed and looking positively exhausted, when my middle-child daughter, whose existence is sandwiched between male siblings, walked into the room and took notice.

“Geez, Cecil,” she said. “Those brothers really tire you out.” She walked over to the fruit bowl, selected a plum with the hand not holding a book, and took a bite while considering the pet spread as lengthwise as possible on the floor. Then she nodded knowingly and walked back to her reading chair, calling over her shoulder, “Yup. I get it, Cecil. I get it.”