Preservation: Part Three

TOMATOES.

Let’s be honest, kids.  We’re all just in this summer produce thing for the tomatoes, right?

There’s an unmistakable difference between ANY fresh, in-season produce, and its evil doppelganger, the out-of-season grocery-store version.   However, I know I can’t be alone in saying that I find there to be much less of a difference between, say, Farm Zucchini and Evil Zucchini than there is between Farm Tomato and its absolutely heinous, unthinkable counterpart, Evil Tomato.

Farm Tomato is juicy and sweet and heady.  Evil Tomato is mealy and orange-ish.  Farm Tomato tastes like sunshine.  Evil Tomato tastes mainly like water.  Farm Tomato needs nothing, absolutely NOTHING, to make it dance on your plate; Evil Tomato can’t even be revived with generous amounts of salt and really good olive oil.  There is no purpose to purchasing and eating Evil Tomato, because much like the Dementors from “Harry Potter,” Evil Tomato’s one goal is to suck all the tomato joy out of the world.

How to fight the forces of evil?  Preserve what you can, while you can, friends.  Preserve as if your very tomato-eating lives depended upon it.

There are numerous things you could do with your tomatoes – too numerous, actually, to set down here.  Most of them allow you to mix the tomato love with other vegetables to make yourself some darned tasty freezer sides, like the ratatouille I recommended to you when we talked about preserving your zucchini, or the green beans and tomatoes I described in the same post, when we were on the subject of beans.  You could also do something completely radical and make tomato muffins (or a loaf), which I haven’t done in ages, but is a wonderful unusual use for your summer friends (and will freeze perfectly).  But sometimes, you’re going to just want some TOMATOES, in their own glory, as un-fooled-with as possible.  Here are four ways to do that.

Simple puree.  You know what’s ridiculously easy?  Throwing tomatoes in a blender/food processor.  Oh, sure, you could seed them and peel them and all of that beforehand, but why would you want to?  I try to avoid peeling tomatoes at all costs, since even with the best of tomato-peeling tricks, it’s a thankless chore.  I chunk up my tomatoes just as they are and whiz them up into a smooth puree, then stick it in jars and freeze it.  It works fine in recipes and saves me lots of time and effort.

Marinara sauce.  Take some of that simple puree and cook it up into sauces you’ll eat all winter long.  The best ratio I’ve found is this:
For every 2 cups of puree, you want:
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1-2 cloves of minced garlic (depending on your garlic tolerance)
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried basil (I don’t use fresh for things I plan to freeze – I find it gets slimy)
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup red wine OR 2 tblsp. Balsamic vinegar  (Optional, but I find it really deepens the flavor of the tomatoes)

That’s it.  You’ll sauté the garlic in the olive oil until it’s soft, then add everything else and cook it down for about 40 minutes.  If it seems too watery, boil more aggressively to get some of the water content out.

Roasted Tomatoes.  These little gems are gorgeous.  They’re perfect for just tossing with pasta or risotto on their own, pairing with roast meats, or stirring into macaroni and cheese.  They’re amazing in omelets and they’d make a killer fancy aioli for sandwiches.  You should start with plum tomatoes or some close cousin, though – I used Juliet tomatoes from my favorite farm, which are like smaller plums.  Just cut the little suckers in half lengthwise, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, a few cloves of roughly chopped garlic, and a tiny sprinkle of sugar (yes, really – it brings the whole thing together), and roast at 400 degrees for about 20-25 minutes, cut sides down.  The skins will blister and come loose, and the tomatoes will be soft and succulent but still hold their shape.  Let them cool slightly and then just remove the skins, which ought to peel off with no effort at all.  When you freeze the tomatoes, pour a little of the pan juices over the top.

Oven-dried tomatoes.  Sundried tomatoes are super expensive, but oven-drying your own can be really cost effective in the summertime.  Again, if you can, start with plum tomatoes – but if you can’t, any old tomato will theoretically do.  Cut the plum ones in half OR larger ones in quarters or eighths and gently squeeze out the seeds.  Lay them out on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake them at 250 for, oh, anywhere from 2-4 hours, depending on your oven.  You’ll want to keep checking on them to make sure they’re not burning to a crisp.  When they’re dry and shriveled like sundried tomatoes, put them in jars and cover with olive oil.  They’ll keep in the fridge for several weeks like this, but they also freeze perfectly!  I recommend freezing in half-pint jars for the perfect portions.

Now, for something REALLY special, come back tomorrow for a guest post by my amazing sister, D.  Lots of people have asked me questions about canning their produce like real people do, and of course I’m no canning expert.  Luckily, D. is!  She’s put together a wonderfully informative piece on the basics, along with her three absolute favorite summer canning recipes.  (Teaser: One of them is referred to, in our family, as “The Crack,” which should tell you how good these recipes really are.)  Check back tomorrow for D.’s helpful advice!

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Monday Menus: Lunchbox Edition, Part Two

Welcome to Week Two of our Menu Mondays Lunchbox series!  By now, if your kids are not actually back at school yet, the day must be drawing very, very near.  I know L.’s practically too excited to sleep these days, knowing that his very last day at his beloved preschool is imminent (just two more days to go…snif), and actual KINDERGARTEN STATUS is a mere week away!

Of course, older kids may not be quite so thrilled about the prospect of giving up the last vestiges of their summer vacation.  And certainly, for us parents, the whole thing is like an emotional trail mix.  A little angst here…a little excitement there…and a few pieces of candy-coated nostalgia as we look forward to another year of watching them grow into something that resembles REAL PEOPLE.  This primordial soup of feelings is precisely WHY having a great lunch plan is so important.  Let’s face it – a good school lunch can actually make or break a kid’s day.  For the excited new kindergartener, opening a fabulous lunchbox is like a reaffirmation that THIS IS HUGE.  For the reluctant returning students, a great lunch may be one of the brighter spots in their day.   And for us parents, let me venture a theory about lunch-packing that goes beyond our usual assumptions.

I think packing a really, really good lunch for our kids shows them how much we value their educations.  It’s a way of putting emphasis on the vital importance of what happens each day when they step through the doors of their school and move from being “our kids” to being “students.”  Part of having kids who do well in school, I think – and I don’t mean necessarily straight-A students, but kids who are at least trying hard and engaging in the process, no matter what their academic aptitude – is having a home environment that prioritizes education and values the learning process.

When I was a kid, my parents were very clear with us that going to school was no less a job than any of the things they did during the day to keep our household functioning.  Our lives were structured in a way that put school and homework FIRST – no playing with friends, no TV, no leisure activities until we’d had a chance to tell Mom about our day, hand over any important notices, and get our assignments done.  (Obviously, this model shifted somewhat as we grew into middle and high school – but the point is, by then, our priorities were set.)  Back-to-school shopping was an event in our house, with a trip to the store for new clothes, a special lunch out with Mom, and an end-of-day scavenger hunt through Staples to find all the required supplies on our teachers’ lists.  There were rules, expectations, and yes, an air of pomp and circumstance around the whole school experience.  And I’d say it worked pretty well.

Of course, those weren’t the ONLY things my parents did that showed us how invested they were in our educational lives; but you get my point.  Right now, at this very moment, as we poise for back-to-school time, it’s precisely those kinds of preparatory gestures that will show our kids how much we care – and subsequently, how much they ought to care – about their educations.   Treating the shopping for back-to-school gear as a special ritual is one way to get kids in the mindset that school is a big deal, but even better than that is treating the stuff that’s IN that gear every day of the school year as if it’s worth our time and attention.

Certainly, the quality and variety of packed lunches will vary day to day – we’re only human, after all, and life happens.  There will be days when we have colds and headaches and early morning meetings and when the fridge is emptier than it ought to be and everyone has overslept and the dog barfed on the carpet.  Lunches won’t always be perfect.  But throwing a couple of pre-packaged processed food items into a paper sack and shoving it at your kid on his way out the door sets one tone for his school day; taking the time and effort, when you can muster it, to put an array of fresh, nutritious foods into containers, fill up a water bottle, and pack it all in a way that will keep it relatively attractive until lunchtime sets another tone entirely.

My friend B.W. once said to me of the uniforms L.’s new school requires: “I wore a uniform as a kid, and then changed schools and didn’t have to anymore.  I like the uniform better.  It gives you a sense of purpose and makes school seem more serious.  You’re going off to do a particular job, and you’re dressed for the part.”  I like her thinking, and I’d venture to say that the same applies to lunches.  A well-packed lunchbox says that the seriousness of your kid’s job as a student warrants some serious fuel.  For their efforts at school, you’ll offer your own efforts at keeping them well-fed and focused and happy.  And that is a lunch-packing motivation that will get me out of bed to pack on even the darkest and coldest of mornings.

Today’s lunch theme is “Mini Meals.”  Making food that’s scaled down in size for lunches helps kids not only feel as if you’ve really made a lunch that’s just for them, but also keeps them focused and engaged in the eating process.  Little bites of food are often easier to handle, especially in a short lunch period.  Some of these mini meals will also be great for older kids who feel self-conscious about packed lunches – teenaged boys, for example, might score “cool” points for having chicken wings in their lunch, while older girls might like the appearance of delicacy that comes with popping open a container of neat little rice cakes or veggie wraps.

Nut-free Thai-Style Chicken Dippers
L.’s Favorite Honey Wings
Meatloaf Muffins
Salad Spears
Veggie Wraps
Arancini Cakes

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Monday Menus: Lunchbox Edition, Part 1

It’s really not possible that it’s back-to-school time already, Is it?

I feel like I just got STARTED on enjoying all the wonderfulness that summer has to offer.  I know it’s strange – J. and I still work full-time, no matter what the season, and our kids have continued to go to their year-round preschool program – so technically, summer shouldn’t feel as deliciously lazy and free as it does.  And yet, there is something about the heat and the sunshine and the water and the yearning to be outdoors that slows down time in the summer.  It makes everything a little sleepy and a little more golden.  Back-to-school time will change that.

This is our first year with a REAL back-to-schooler.  L.’s starting Kindergarten at a neighborhood school, the first time he’s changed schools in over 3 years.  Obviously there’s excitement and apprehension floating around our household (probably more apprehension for J. and me than for him).  We’ve been immersing ourselves in the flurry of preparations – buying uniforms, getting a new backpack and cool new lunchbox, taking that first-ever trip to Target for school supplies – and I’m starting to experience the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that, as far as Kindergarten goes, the whole exercise is way more about us, as parents, not failing than it is about L.

He’ll be FINE.  We, on the other hand, find ourselves in the position of reading “Parent Agreements” and navigating the volunteer-hours expectations for Kindergarten parents; obsessing over whether it’s REALLY okay to buy some of the uniform pieces from a different supplier (okay, maybe that one was just me); trying to understand how we, as parents, fit into a whole new – and very different – school culture in a way that will support L. best.   I feel a little of that old back-to-school fire in my belly, the kind that used to well up each August as I contemplated how to start out a new school year, and how little old overachiever me would do.

So, in short, I’m probably projecting.

But since I can’t really control much about L.’s first “real school” experience – not gym class, nor recess, nor reading, nor math – I can only focus on the details.  And obviously, for me, a MAJOR detail has to be lunch.   It is, as always, all about the FOOD in my household.  I want his lunches to be awesome, to be nourishing, to do all the good stuff for his body and brain that a proper lunch ought to do – and to keep him happy, to boot.  No small order.  But then again, I’m pretty good at this food thing, and packing lunches is old hat at this point.  If nothing else, I can guarantee myself that I will not fail lunch.

Happily, neither will you, dear blog readers.  I’ve been thinking about this all summer (you know that’s true, right?  Because I’m a horrible geek that way?), and I figured out that ROUGHLY, there are 36 weeks of any given year in which our kids will be in school.  So…doesn’t it make sense for me to come up with 36 lunches for you?  One per week, to keep things from getting stale?

Of COURSE it does!  And, of course, I DID.  I won’t make you wait 36 weeks to get all the ideas, though.  Instead, I’m offering up this lunch-packing inspiration guide as a six-part series.  Six posts, six lunches each, every Monday here on RRG.  Today’s theme is Easy Bites, because frankly, it’s still darned hot and summery and I KNOW none of us are really ready to get back to the lunch-packing grind.  So we’re starting simple, with lunches that require little to NO actual cooking and still offer all the freshness, variety, and nutritional punch you want for back-to-school brains.

On the Menu this week:
Pizza Dip
Cheeseburger Kebabs
Pesto Tuna Rollups
Salami Cups
Pretzel Kebabs
Fruit and Nut Chicken Salad

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Preservation: Part Two

ImageIn my first post about preserving summer produce, I mentioned veggie anxiety — that pervasive fear we all seem to suffer from, to one degree or another, when we start to feel as if there’s no possible way to take full advantage of all the bounty of summer, and therefore it’s easier to simply do nothing and let it all go to waste than it is to figure out what in the world to do with it.  Of course, I then promptly wimped out on you, in a manner of speaking, because I went straight to greens and herbs and didn’t talk about some of the more, er, PROLIFIC summer vegetables — which are likely precisely the ones you’d rather hear about.

If you haven’t yet caught up on my first preservation post, just a little refresher: This series is all about preserving summer produce in ways that DO NOT involve canning, dehydrating, fancy gadgets, or a great deal of effort.  This is an ideas list that is frankly as much for myself as it is for the rest of you, because I really need to keep myself moving forward with getting some of this produce locked down and secured for the winter as well.  Every year I swear I’ll do it, and every year I look at my limited freezer space and my lack of canning skills (or time), and I think….Next year.  And then, in the cold weather, I’m sorry and desperately missing a taste of summer.

No more.  With greens and herbs firmly in hand, I thought it best to move on to some of those horribly prolific vegetables — the kind your generous neighbors keep leaving on your doorstep in abundance because they just can’t eat any more of it.  Tonight, we tackle green beans and zucchini.

1. Zucchini and/or Summer Squash.

Step One: Realize that you can treat these two items virtually interchangeably.  Their flavors are not terrifically different, nor are their texture;, so unless you have a thing about color, go ahead and mix them up.

Step Two: Resist the urge to loathe the sight of one more of these maddeningly growth-happy suckers.  You’ll appreciate them more after you’ve preserved them.

A) Grate and freeze in individual measurements – later, they can be used in baking or in soups, stews, and pasta sauces.  If they seem extra wet when thawed, drain them thoroughly before using.

B) Make ratatouille and freeze in Mason jars.

C)  Slice into planks and bread lightly, then bake or shallow-fry in a little oil of your choice.  Cool completely, then freeze with waxed paper or parchment between slices.  Later you can pull these out to make a quick zucchini or squash parmigiana – just layer with marinara sauce and cheeses straight from the freezer, then bake at 375 degrees for about 35-45 minutes to melt the cheese and heat everything through.

D) Bake into muffins and quickbreads, then freeze those. Try banana-zucchini muffins:

Whole Wheat Banana-Zucchini Muffins

2 cups shredded zucchini or summer squash
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened (You should also be able to use coconut oil or ghee for this recipe)
2 very ripe bananas, peeled
3/4 cup pure Grade B maple syrup
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups white whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Lightly grease or line 12 muffin tins.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter, bananas, and maple syrup until smooth and creamy.  Add the eggs and beat well.  Stir in the zucchini and vanilla extract.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.  Gradually add to the zucchini mixture, stirring just until evenly combined and moistened.
Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin tins (each should take about 1/3 cup of batter).  Bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out completely clean.  Let cool before serving or storing.

2. Green beans or Pole beans

Image

Part of a jar of fermented dilly beans

A) Make dilly beans.  I’ve newly begun dabbling in lacto-fermenting, and J. and I like the results (the boys are still not quite in our camp, but I have to admit that it’s an acquired taste!)  Dilly beans will keep for a few months in the fridge if pickled with vinegar, and for up to six months in the fridge if lacto-fermented.  I can’t recommend a specific recipe over any other at this point, but we’ve had luck with quite a few that we’ve found just by searching on Google.

B)   Blanch lightly — about a minute in boiling water ought to do it — shock in cold water, dry thoroughly, and freeze.

C)  Stew with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and oregano, and freeze in Mason jars.  Should be, oh..3 or 4 large tomatoes, cut in chunks, plus 2-3 cloves of garlic, 1/2 a small onion, and just about 1/2 tsp. of oregano for every pound of beans?  Don’t forget a good slug of olive oil and some salt and pepper.

C)  Cut into small pieces, blanch as directed above, and mix with blanched fresh corn and diced red bell peppers for an easy vegetable medley that you can freeze and use later as either a side dish or a starter kit for soup.

D)   If you’re a green bean casserole fan (or even if you’re not), try making creamy green beans with bacon and mushrooms, then freezing for later.

Creamy Green Beans with Bacon and Mushrooms

1 lb. fresh green beans, ends trimmed
3 slices uncured bacon
1 tablespoon olive oil (or oil of your choice)
2 tablespoons diced onion
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms — cremini, button, or any you like
1 tablespoon flour (optional — you could omit it, or use arrowroot)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
3/4 cup heavy cream

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crisp.  Remove the bacon from the pan, crumble, and reserve.
Add the olive oil and onion to the pan and cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent.  Add the mushrooms and cook until softened. 
Sprinkle the vegetables with the flour, salt, and pepper.  Cook, stirring, for 1 minute to get the raw taste out of the flour.  Then gradually add the cream, stirring constantly to prevent lumps.  When all the cream has been incorporated, add the green beans to the pan and cover with a tight-fitting lid.  Bring the contents of the pan to a simmer and allow the beans to steam, shaking the pan occasionally, for about 3 minutes or until they begin to turn bright green.
Remove the lid, stir, and allow to cook for an additional 2-3 minutes to thicken the sauce.  The green beans should still be somewhat crisp-tender.  Remove from the heat, add the reserved crumbled bacon, and cool before packaging for the freezer.

With all these ways to keep your summer produce working for you throughout the winter, that old vegetable anxiety ought to be disappearing by now.  Next week we’ll move on to a few more popular items, but in the meantime, feel free to leave a comment or stop by the Red, Round, or Green Facebook page for advice on what to do with your produce overload.

 

 

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Lots of Lunch Gear

An assortment of lunch items, packed in various containers.

I want to keep things simple tonight.  I know lots of you are already headed into the back to school madness – ack! – and are probably looking for the whats, wheres, whys, and hows of lunch and snacktime.  I’ve received several messages, in fact, from parents with very specific questions about packing good lunches for their kids and selecting snacks that will represent a reasonable compromise between what the other kids have, and what they’re comfortable serving.  I’ve got lots of stuff up my sleeve for the coming weeks that will help, I promise; but tonight, we’re just going to deal with the gear.

You can’t pack a really good lunch without really good gear.  It’s true, I swear.  I used to think it didn’t matter what I used to pack the kids’ lunches; but I can testify right here and now that their food has gotten MUCH better with each upgrade I’ve made to our gear.  I think it’s part reality and part placebo effect, to be honest.  On the one hand, it is so much easier to branch out into all kinds of foods beyond the sandwich if you happen to have things like a trusty Thermos container in the cupboard; on the other hand, it’s actually more enjoyable and more inspiring for me, the parent charged with the chore (I mean, privilege) of packing all those darned lunches if I have nice containers laid out in front of me.  Strange, but true.

I’m STILL not going to be an all-out bento mom, and I’m not going to start making the kids’ lunches look like rocket ships and pirates and all that awesomeness.  I enjoy and appreciate that OTHERS do that, and the ideas are great.  But that’s not me and that’s not my role in life.  What I will do, and try to do on a daily basis, is pack lunches that are fresh, nutritious, and reasonably attractive.  My kids’ lunches look good because the food in them is good, not because I work hard at the presentation, but luckily, having the right products means you could approach things any way you want to.  If you’re itching to rock things out with fabulous bento lunches, you can do that with the right gear.  That same gear will serve you even if you DON’T want to do a major bento overhaul – because it’s designed well, holds up nicely, keeps food separate, and keeps things fresh.

What follows is my list of lunch gear recommendations.  There are so many systems, brands, and products out there that it can be overwhelming; but these are my top few, chosen because I think they’d be great for almost anyone and cover a variety of price points.  Also, while you can purchase each of them separately from their respective websites and various stores, every single item here is also conveniently available on Amazon, so you can shop around, compare them, and load up your wishlist for future orders.

LunchBots We own lots of Lunchbots, and we love them and use them regularly.
Pros: The stainless steel is durable, it doesn’t absorb odors, and it holds cold well so that the container itself works along with an ice pack to keep things extra-fresh.  Also, there are plenty of different sizes and configurations to choose from, and they’re compact enough that I can easily fit two Lunchbots plus a water bottle in my kids’ standard-sized lunchboxes.
Cons: They’re not cheap, so I tend to build my collection over time with one piece here, one piece there. Also, they’re not entirely leakproof (though a little juice from sliced berries, for example, probably won’t be an issue).

EasyLunchboxes.  I don’t own any of these personally, but I know the product and have heard from lots of enthusiastic fans – enough so that I was happy to be a contributor to the EasyLunchboxes Cooking with Trader Joe’s cookbook!  As the creator, Kelly Lester, says, these are not going to be right for everyone (no one lunch item IS right for all people).  They’re not right for us at the moment, but I bet they’d be PERFECT for lots of you.
Pros: BPA-free plastic, colorful lids, REALLY reasonable price point (like, insanely low!), and a fabulous lunch-packing community that will show you all the beautiful meals you can make in your EasyLunchboxes.
Cons: They’re not leakproof (though you can use some Press and Seal to help, if you’re okay with that solution), and they only fit in certain lunchboxes.  Kelly’s site helpfully sells her own special cooler lunchbags AND offers a list of other readily available lunchboxes that will house the containers, but if your kid really wants a specific lunchbox that won’t fit the container, you’ll have to make a choice.

Kids Konserve.  We have some of their products, though not as many as the Lunchbots, and we do use them frequently.
Pros: Stainless steel again, so again, they’re durable and don’t absorb any odors or flavors.  The containers we’ve chosen from them are also leakproof and have lids that are very easy for kids to pull off by themselves.  We also have some of their Food Kozies, which are BPA-free, lead-free, phthalate-free recycled plastic wrappers with velcro closures that can be used in place of baggies or plastic wrap.  They fold out totally flat so they’re easy to wash and dry, and have held up to tons of use for well over a year.
Cons: Just like Lunchbots, these are not cheap — at least not at first glance.  The food kozies, though, are about $20 for a pack of five, and if you figure that’s $4 each for an item you might use almost every day, I can’t say that I’m too disappointed with the way the math works out.  Better yet, you’re not going to have to buy sandwich bags, and that’s a huge plus not only for your wallet, but for the environment.

Thermos Containers.  Both Lunchbots and Kids Konserve make insulated thermos-style containers, but honestly, we just have the original Thermos brand stainless steel kind you can buy at any old store.  We got ours at Target and they have fun characters on them, which pleases the kids.
Pros: Keeps hot food hot and cold food cold.  If you use them properly, they really do exactly what they say they will — I’ve tested a thermos here at home before, and sure enough, five hours later the food was still plenty warm enough to eat.  They’re also quite cost-effective, leakproof, and just owning one of these will surely expand your lunch-packing options tenfold.
Cons: Not many.  I will say that I can see how these might be hard for little kids to open on their own; truthfully, I don’t know if my boys can do it, or if they get help from teachers.  Also, you’ve got to preheat the container if you want it to properly keep food warm for you, but that’s easily accomplished by filling it with boiling water while you heat up whatever’s going inside it, so I don’t count that as much of an inconvenience.

With the exception of the EasyLunchboxes, everything I’ve listed here will work with any old lunchbox you like.  We had rectangular cooler bags from Target for years, until we upgraded to some really cute Crocodile Creek lunchboxes with matching water bottles that L. and P. adore.  (In case you’re wondering, L.’s got the solar system design, and P. chose the fire engine.)  You can pack ANYTHING for lunch using some combination of this gear, and if you add a few extra touches — cute, inexpensive flatware that’s sized right for your kids, some colorful silicone muffin cups to hold small items and help keep things separate, even a cheap (possibly homemade) cloth napkin with a bright print — I can very nearly guarantee that you and your kids will feel just a little bit happier about the daily lunch routine.

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‘Tis the Last Plan of Summer: August Meal Plan

Forgive me…that old art song, “The Last Rose of Summer,” is drifting through my head.  I’m taking a minute to get the meal plan posted for you all, and in that minute I’m breathing, and that makes me realize that August is IT.  This is it for the summer, for the long days of wet and sandy children, for the aspirational list we made (foolishly and optimistically) months ago of all the fun stuff we wanted to accomplish with the boys before September reared its head.  This is it for L. being a preschooler, and maybe for P. being a part of the young-preschool class that’s been such a great place for him (since they are talking about moving him to L.’s old classroom soon – a shock to my system!).  This is THE MONTH for tomatoes, and eggplant, and peppers, and peaches, and already the time for strawberries has passed.

It’s momentous.  And nothing has changed.

As usual, dinner will still need to happen, and I’m still going to be trying to serve it all up with speed and calmness so we can eat in the backyard with our shoes off  — our new favorite nightly ritual – to soak up the last of the sun.  So forgive me if this month’s plan seems pedestrian in any way.  I just don’t want the fuss right now, not in THE MONTH.

Wednesday, 8/1: Grilled nitrate-free uncured ham steaks and vegetables
Thursday, 8/2: Whole-wheat pasta tossed with farmer’s market vegetables and herbs, fruit, cheese
Make it GF: Use Jovial brown rice pasta.
Friday, 8/3: Car picnic, as we’re going to see family for the weekend!  On the menu: Roast beef wraps, tomato-mozzarella skewers, fruit, and chocolate-dipped graham crackers (because in the car, I’m not above a little bribery).
Make it GF: Omit the whole-wheat tortillas and just roll up your vegetables and cheeses inside the slices of roast beef.  Instead of chocolate-dipped graham crackers, dip fruit or marshmallows in chocolate.
Saturday, 8/4 – Sunday, 8/5: Not cooking.  Sorry, folks!
Monday, 8/6: Burgers, sweet potato fries, and fruit
Make it GF: If you don’t want to use a gluten-free bun for your burgers, you could do lettuce wrap burgers, or simply serve the burgers off the buns altogether (we did that during our GF days, and we still do from time to time).

Lazy Girl’s pickle relish on a grass-fed cheeseburger.

Tuesday, 8/7: J. and L.’s birthday!  I’ll be honest and say that our plans are still a bit up in the air.  But if we’re home and I’m cooking, my bet is on the boys requesting lobsters.
Wednesday, 8/8: Waffle iron Panini, fruit and vegetable platters
Make it GF: Use GF bread, or make quesadillas instead of Panini, using corn tortillas.
Thursday, 8/9: Chicken fajita salad
Friday, 8/10: Fend night
Saturday, 8/11: L.’s birthday party!  I’ll post the photos and recipes after we’ve pulled this thing off.
Sunday, 8/12: Fish (and probably, given the events of Saturday, a loooong nap).

Brown rice pasta with scallops, squid, tomatoes, and eggplant.

Monday, 8/13: Grilled chicken sausages, grilled vegetables, whole-wheat pita
Make it GF: Omit the pita and substitute fruit, GF crackers, or potatoes.
Tuesday, 8/14: Fish
Wednesday, 8/15: Vegetable stir-fry with brown rice
Thursday, 8/16: Whole-wheat spaghetti with fresh marinara
Make it GF: Use Jovial brown rice pasta.
Friday, 8/17: Fend night
Saturday, 8/18: Fish
Sunday, 8/19: Oven fried chicken, tahini coleslaw, corn

Tahini coleslaw

Make it GF: Crust your chicken in a mixture of cornmeal and rice flour for a delicious, crispy batter.
Monday, 8/20: Fish
Tuesday, 8/21: Grilled whole-wheat pizzas
Make it GF: I’m going to have to say that there is just no substitute for pizza. J  Luckily, there are gluten-free crusts and crust recipes out there, so you can still indulge!
Wednesday, 8/22: Grilled chicken with blueberry-ginger chutney, quinoa, vegetables
Thursday, 8/23: DIY Salad night
Friday, 8/24: Fend night
Saturday, 8/25: fish
Sunday, 8/26: BLT panzanella, fruit
Make it GF: I would use cornbread croutons (made with masa rather than wheat flour) for this panzanella.  You could also substitute big chunks of chicken for the bread and make it a chicken club salad!

BLT Panzanella

Monday, 8/27: Back-to-school dinner for L.  We’re having his favorite flank steak and vegetables.
Tuesday, 8/28: Fish
Wednesday, 8/29: Homemade chicken nuggets, vegetables, couscous salad
Make it GF: My kids love gluten-free nuggets crusted with a mixture of pulverized oats, popcorn (yes, really!), and puffed brown rice cereal.  1 part oats, 4 parts popcorn, 2 parts puffed rice, blended with a little garlic powder, salt, and pepper – and your nuggets will cook perfectly.
Thursday, 8/30: Salmon burgers and salad
Make it GF: I make my own salmon burgers, and I use panko in the mixture, but you could substitute pulverized oats very easily.  Serve the burgers without buns, on a bed of rice or quinoa.
Friday, 8/31: Fend night

Here’s something fun for those of you who are into Pinterest: I’ve been dabbling, and I have an idea board up for the August meal plan as well, so you can see it in two places now!

Happy end of summer, everyone.  Don’t spend too much time in the kitchen.

 

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Preservation: The Beginning

Breathe. It’s going to be okay.

The other day, I got a slightly anxious message from my best friend, C.: “You need to call me because I am DROWNING IN PRODUCE.”

A phone call later, I was able to easily diagnose C.’s problem.  She’s suffering from what the NY Times has brilliantly termed “Vegetable Anxiety,” and she’s definitely not alone.  (I mean, if the NY Times is writing about it, it’s probably not an isolated thing, right?)  Lots of people have been asking me these past few weeks what they ought to do with their fruits and vegetables.  So many of us are in this predicament because we either got a CSA share (as in C.’s case) and can’t keep up with the constant influx of fresh produce, or because (as in my case) we can’t resist the lure of the beautiful seasonal items on offer at the moment, and we want to buy ALL THE VEGETABLES.  All of them.  And we (okay, I’m really talking about myself here) just KNOW that we are going to do many, many wonderful things with those vegetables, and we are going to preserve them and smugly eat them all winter long, never worrying about where our next nutritious bite will come from, since we’ve squirreled away everything we’ll ever need.

Yeah.  Something like that.

But look.  Here’s the thing.  Vegetable Anxiety is GOOD.  It means that you value fresh food, and you want to make it last as long as possible.  These are positive indicators, overall.  The problem isn’t the anxiety, the problem is that we don’t always have a plan of action that feels as if we can conquer the veggie mountain.  So I figured, we all need a plan.  And I guess I’m just as good a person as any to come up with one…right?

This is NOT a plan that requires you to be one of those awesome canning, dehydrating, special-equipment-owning kitchen gurus.  If you ARE one of those people, you have my respect and admiration, but you probably have already figured out what you’re going to do with your stuff…or you have much more eminently qualified websites that will tell you how to go about doing it.  My own sister, D., is a canning person, and one day I shall make her teach me.  One day.  When I don’t have small children running around perilously close to all those hot things, and when I have lots of time to myself, and when I am not, myself, such a klutz that I’m justifiably terrified of handling things that may be hot, sharp, or explodey.  (Yup.  Made that word up.  Embrace it.)

Rather, this is a plan for people like me, who have…not a whole lot of time to work on preserving foods, and who own very little in the way of specialized kitchen equipment but can probably shove some stuff aside in the freezer to make a little space.  If that sounds like you, then read on for Part One of the plan, my friend, in which I tackle two of the more delicate items of the season.

1. Greens.

Step One: Decide which are delicate (spring mix, lettuces) and which are hardier (spinach, kale, swiss chard).

Step Two: Make a plan to eat the delicate ones.  They’re not going to handle preservation of any kind very well.  They DO, however, take well to cooking – surprise, surprise!  So if you’re tired of salads, just throw a handful of your delicate greens into pasta, a vegetable stir-fry, or a frittata.  You want to gently wilt them, not COOK them aggressively.

Step Three: Preserve the hardier ones.

A) Blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds to 1 minute.  Drain incredibly well.  Squeeze out remaining moisture.  Freeze in airtight containers (Ziploc bags totally count).

B) Cook into things.  I recommended my recipes for Spanikopita Casserole and Pepperoni-Spinach Calzones to C. – the calzones in particular freeze really, really well as long as you bake them first.

Pepperoni-Spinach Calzone with Homemade Marinara

C) Cream.  If you sautee the greens, chopped, with a bit of diced onion and garlic, then hit them with heavy cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper, you can pour the mixture into mason jars, cool it, and freeze it for a future quick side dish.

D) Make into pesto for freezing.  Which brings me to the next segment.

2. Herbs.

Step One: Okay, there’s no particular step one.  You can treat most of them pretty much the same.

A) Blend into different pesto-style offerings.  If you don’t want to make a traditional pesto (which will freeze fine all on its own, by the way), take any herb you have and throw it into the blender with garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and water.  The ratio goes something like this: ¾ cup of the fresh herb to 2-3 cloves of garlic, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and 4 tablespoons of water.  ½ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. pepper.  Something like that.  Blend the heck out of it until it’s smooth, then pour into ice cube trays and freeze.  You’ll get about 6 cubes from that amount of the herb.  When they’re frozen, pop them out and put into Ziploc bags for better storage.  Now you have fresh herbs, preserved, to use in any cooking you like for months on end.

Frozen cubes of rosemary goodness.

B) Make compound butters.  I was reminded of this trick by Justin of Eat My Asparagus, so hat tip to Justin tonight.  I love to make compound butter, and it’s no harder, really than the herb cubes above.  Just chop up (or process) about 4 tablespoons of fresh herbs, garlic if you like (totally optional – one clove will do), a pinch of salt and pepper, and mix with 1 stick of softened butter.  When everything’s combined, scoop the butter onto parchment, wax paper, or plastic wrap and form it into a log.  Wrap tightly and freeze. 

C) Make syrups.  Herb syrup is delicious and easy: 1 cup of water, ½ cup of honey, and about ¼ cup of your favorite herb (mint and basil work brilliantly for this).  Bring everything to a boil in a medium saucepan, let it cook for 3-5 minutes, and then shut off the heat and allow it to steep for 10-15 minutes.  Then you’ll want to finely strain the mixture to get all the bits of herb out, and you’ll have a lovely herb-flavored syrup that you can use for any number of things.  It can be used to sweeten lemonade or iced tea, in cocktails, or as a nice accompaniment to fruit.  I’ve been known to chop up fresh peaches and toss them into a little Mason jar with herb syrup, let it sit in the fridge overnight, and eat it for breakfast the next morning.  But whatever you may choose to do with your syrups, they’ll last in the refrigerator for several weeks, and they’ll freeze for a good six months or more.

That’s tonight’s preservation primer — and now I’m just CERTAIN you’re all feeling slightly calmer, with two whole categories of seasonal produce taken care of and barely a sweat broken.  Next week we’ll tackle some more vegetables, so if you have any special requests (help!  drowning in eggplant!), please feel free to either leave me a comment here, or head on over to the RRG Facebook page, where I’ve been dispensing more immediate, case-by-case advice.  I leave you tonight armed with at least part of a plan, and this affirmation:

You’re good enough…you’re smart enough…and doggone it, you deserve to preserve.

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Bacon Brings Out the Naughty in Me

The Naughty.

It’s not often you’ll see me talking about a specific product on this blog.  After all, when you’re trying to eat pretty cleanly and in a way that’s accessible to everyone, you’re basically going to end up being more lured by the marketing of Mother Nature (by the way, Ma, nice tomatoes!) than by any particular brand, store, or packaged food item.  I’m not above mentioning a few things here and there that I actually do use and like quite a bit, but in general, spinach is spinach, if you know what I mean.

However…when Whole Foods Market asks if they can give me some free bacon, I’m not going to say no.

OBVIOUSLY it has to be good bacon — nitrate-free, uncured, from humanely raised animals, all of that.  But equally obviously, Whole Foods has that covered.  So when a representative from my local store emailed me to ask if I’d want to try a package of the 365 brand Uncured Center-Cut Smokehouse bacon, and (if I liked it) maybe create a recipe or two to share here on the blog and help Whole Foods promote their current Bacon Smackdown contest, I couldn’t help but be a little bit intrigued.

I mean, COME ON, you guys.  It’s BACON.  And bacon, apparently, brings out the naughty in me.

I know this is a healthy food blog, and it’s a resource for people to turn to when they’re trying to feed themselves and their kids a little bit better than the average Standard American Diet.  I wish I could tell you that I did something wholesome and nutritious with the bacon.  I just…didn’t.  Depending on how you look at it, I guess, the bacon either brought out my worst…or my best.  (Mwah hahahahaha.)

This one’s for you, grown-ups.  Sure, you COULD share with the kids, and they’d probably like it; but sometimes we deserve a little treat that’s just for us, right?  This bacon recipe would be EXCELLENT with cocktails or a cold beer.  It would also make you the most popular person in your town if you happened to make a big batch of it for, say, Christmas gifts this year.  It’s wonderful for bribery purposes (not that I’ve, um, tried anything like that), and if nothing else, it made J. REALLY happy.

This, friends, is  the Naughty.

NAUGHTY, I tell you.

It is  the Bacon-Rosemary Caramel Corn.

Before you ask: YES, you could omit the nuts if you needed to, and substitute extra popcorn.  YES, you can make it without rosemary if you want a slightly less complex flavor, though I actually think the rosemary’s greatest contribution to this snack mix is the fact that it seems to enhance the bacon flavor.  (I tested the recipe both ways.  The SACRIFICES I make for you people!)  And YES, it’s far too full of sugar and bacon grease and just general all-around naughtiness to be anywhere near a blog about eating well.

And I’m sharing it anyway.

Behold, the power of the bacon…and make it at your own risk.

There were actually many jars. And now there are NONE.

Bacon-Rosemary Caramel Corn

4 slices thick-cut uncured bacon, diced (about 4-5 oz.)
2 cups roasted, salted peanuts
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1 1/2 tblsp pastured butter
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup Grade B maple syrup
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the diced bacon until crisp.  Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.  Transfer 3 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat from the skillet to a large saucepan and add the popcorn kernels.  Cover and heat over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the kernels have popped (about 5 minutes).
Transfer 8 cups of the popped corn to a large bowl (you may have a bit of popcorn leftover for later snacking).  Add the 2 cups of peanuts and the reserved diced bacon to the popcorn.
Pour off any grease remaining in the skillet, but don’t wipe it out.  Add the butter and brown sugar to the skillet and cook over medium-high heat, swirling the pan gently, until the butter melts and the sugar begins to melt.  Add the maple syrup and rosemary and continue to cook; don’t stir, or the caramel will become grainy.  Instead, swirl the pan every few moments to help mix the ingredients.  The caramel should come up to a bubble and appear foamy as it cooks.  Allow it to foam for 2-3 minutes, watching carefully until it turns dark amber and all the sugar is melted.  Don’t allow it to burn!
When the caramel is done, remove it from the heat and pour over the popcorn mixture.  Stir quickly and thoroughly to coat everything in the bowl evenly.  Pour the mixture onto a greased baking sheet and spread out into a single layer.
Bake the caramel corn at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven, transfer to a clean bowl, and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes to cool the caramel corn and help the coating become crispy.  Enjoy if you dare.

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Houseguests

Fermented dilly beans, iced tea, and all that remains of 2 full mason jars of cashew-cinnamon granola…

You know what’s great?  Having wonderful houseguests.

You know what stinks?  Having wonderful houseguests leave.

We recently had the pleasure of opening our guest room (read: totally unswanky ½ of a finished attic, in which we plunked two beds) to one of my oldest and dearest friends, Dr. B., and his lovely wife, Dr. K.  (Yes, in fact, they are both doctors.  And yes, they’re kind and attractive and they like to spend their free time traveling to third-world countries to provide no-cost medical care to others.  So in short, you might have the instinct to want to dislike them.  But they’re way too cute and sweet for that.)  Dr. B. and I have been friends for over 18 years.  He was in our wedding.  And sadly, the last time I saw him was at HIS wedding…four years ago.  Not.  Cool.

Dr. B. and Dr. K. just got new jobs and are relocating (sadly, not anywhere near Rhode Island – drat the luck!); during the few weeks of freedom they have in between life phases, they decided to take a road trip.  Dr. K. is a Southerner who has not spent much time in the Northeast – in fact, practically ZERO time in the Northeast – so Dr. B. decided it was high time to bring his bride up the East Coast and show her how we subarctic types live.  We got to have them with us for two sweet and short days before they moved along on their travels.

As is always the case with overnight guests, food was at the top of my list of priorities – after all, as long as the sheets and towels were clean, what could be more important than BREAKFAST?

Luckily, life has been just busy enough recently to force me to evaluate the situation carefully, and I came to an epiphany of sorts (at least, it’s an epiphany for me — the girl who invented ODSKG as a diagnosable syndrome).  I realized that the philosophy of feeding people doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change when the people you feed are not the ones who live under your roof day in and day out.  The basic tenets still apply: Everything should be tasty, nourishing, and not cause you to spend inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen.  The last bit is ESPECIALLY important when you’re entertaining out-of-town guests, because obviously you’d rather be spending time with them than slaving over a fancy four-course dinner.  And yes, there ought to be a little something special about it — but not so special that it’s embarrassing and lavish and you look like a desperate foodie trying to buy your friends with cake.  Not that I, um, know anything about that.

After thoroughly enjoying my sweet, sweet friends for a couple of days, and receiving just enough adorable and thoughtful compliments that I’m a teensy bit red-faced, I’ve boiled down my brand-spanking new philosophy about houseguests into the following tenets:

1. Mix and match and make ahead.  Mornings, ugh.  Who wants to be up and about in the morning worrying about breakfast?  I’m not the sort (surprise, surprise) to necessarily leave my guests fishing around for dry cereal in the pantry, but neither am I functional enough in the early hours to get fancy.  I made whole-wheat blueberry scones ahead of time, along with a batch of cashew-cinnamon granola, and made sure there were yogurt and fruit in the fridge — along with a pot of coffee.   Dr. B. and Dr. K. were delighted with the choices, and I didn’t have to stress.

2. Make it quick and make it custom.  When guests come into town, it’s often the case — or at least, it’s often the case with MY guests — that their arrival hour is not ENTIRELY secure.  When the time of arrival ends with “ish,” I find that there are only two choices for a welcome meal; you can either make something low and slow that can just sit forever waiting to be eaten (pot roast is an EXCELLENT homey arrival meal for guests, in the cold weather), or you need to make something that can be mainly assembled ahead of time and then finished off quickly when your friends are ready to eat.  On the night of the Docs’ arrival, I had rounds of homemade whole-wheat pizza dough ready to go, along with shredded mozzarella, goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, basil, greens, and zucchini.  We were able to toss the pizzas onto the grill, customize them for each person, and have a delicious, simple dinner in just a few minutes’ time.

3. Put out the platters.  It’s not always easy to know what your guests will like to eat.  In our case, I was lucky — I’ve known Dr. B. for so long that I could be relatively certain he’d eat what I served, and he assured me that Dr. K. is equally unfussy — but it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets a little and serve meals in a way that lets everyone make some choices for themselves (without any extra work for you!).  On our second evening together, I made a big whole-wheat pasta salad with chicken and roasted garlic and set it out with a few sides: a platter of roasted peppers and grilled kefaloteri cheese, a bowl of sliced tomato berries with fresh basil and olive oil, and a jar of fermented dilly beans that I happened to have on hand.  None of it took more than a few minutes to put together, but having options made it seem like a much more abundant spread of food than the humble reality.

4. Make it just a little bit special.  This doesn’t have to take a lot of effort.  In my house, I often find that beverages for guests are a challenge, just because we’re mainly water drinkers and don’t keep much else on hand…and I generally forget about that detail until it’s too late.  With the unfathomably hot weather that’s settled over New England lately, though, I was inspired at the last minute to make a big pitcher of herbal iced tea sweetened with local honey to offer the Docs.  It turned out that Dr. K., who’d never heard of using honey in tea before, loved the drink — so I was more than happy to keep making batches and filling up that pitcher throughout our visit.

Regrettably, I didn’t manage to snap pictures of most of our meals; I was too busy enjoying my friends to think of it.  But I sent the Docs off with the recipes for the granola and the scones, so I’ll do the same for you.  The next time you have out-of-town guests coming for breakfast, these two quick and easy items will be the perfect thing to serve, both for your sanity and for their happiness.  Trust me.

Cashew-Cinnamon Granola
This granola recipe is a formula more than anything.  As long as you keep the basic ratios the same, you can vary what you mix into it, change up your spices, and make your own choices about oils and sweeteners.  For me, though, this one is just about perfect.
2 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups roasted, salted cashews
1/3 cup oil or melted butter (a nut oil would be a perfect choice here)
1/3 cup good quality honey
1/3 cup Grade B maple syrup
2 tsp. cinnamon
Pinch salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, stir together the oats and cashews.  In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the oil, honey, maple syrup, cinnamon, and salt.  Heat until just bubbling.  Remove from the heat and pour over the oats and nuts.  Stir until everything is thoroughly coated, then transfer to a greased baking sheet and spread evenly.  Toast the granola at 350 for 15 minutes, stir, then bake for an additional 10 minutes, until lightly golden.  When you remove the granola from the oven, I recommend giving it one more stir before letting it cool — it will loosen more easily from the pan.

Whole-wheat Blueberry Scones
This is really a recipe I got from a Tyler Florence cookbook, but he makes his with white flour and a sweet lemon glaze.  They’re obviously delicious, but for a simpler, very SLIGHTLY more nutritious breakfast treat, I’ve omitted the glaze altogether and used white whole wheat flour.
For 8 scones:
2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons sugar (plus a little extra for the tops)
5 tablespoons COLD unsalted butter, cut in chunks
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup fresh blueberries

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Use 2 forks or a pastry blender to “cut” the butter into the flour mixture until it all looks like coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and pour in the heavy cream. Fold it all together just until it’s moist. Toss the blueberries in a little bit of flour and then fold them into the batter — try not to smash them too much.
Pat the dough out on a floured surface into a rectangle about 12x3x 1 1/4 inches (I NEVER get the measurements right, so don’t worry if you don’t.) Theoretically from here, following the directions from the original recipe, you cut the rectangle in half, then cut the pieces in half again and get four squares. You would then cut the squares diagonally to make 8 triangles. However, because I never get the measurements right, I don’t end up with squares —  so I just make mine into 8 rectangles and it works out okay! Place the scones on an ungreased cookie sheet, sprinkle each with about a teaspoon of sugar, and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.  I think they’re best served warm, but a turn in the toaster oven will do just fine — no need to serve them piping hot from the oven.

 

 

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Almost Kindergarten

A face only a mother could love…

I bet some of you will be surprised to learn that J. and I took the boys out for dinner – -to an ice-cream place.

Okay, so it was Pinkberry…the very Crunchy Hippie Intellectual foodie version of ice cream.  But we did it, and it was awesome, and here’s why.

I don’t know if I’m experiencing some sort of nostalgia or pre-grief or something, but L. is going to be starting KINDERGARTEN really, really soon.  Like, in 46 days – not that I’m counting.  He’s suddenly lost two teeth and he’s somehow smarter and bigger and wiser and like a real little boy.  And I do mean suddenly.  I’m still wrapped up in thoughts of him at cuddly 3, and as I blink my eyes, I realize he’s his own person now without me knowing quite where that came from.  I know these aren’t unique revelations.  I know all parents go through these moments.  And it’s not as if I’m walking around in some state of despair, or anything – it’s just that I think, more than ever, I’m a little more attuned to just how bittersweet this whole parenting gig can actually be.  It’s not that I want to slow time down, exactly; it’s more like I want to make sure I remind myself to really enjoy it while it’s going past.

And, to be honest, I want them to have an idyllic childhood.  I know that’s silly — it feels silly to even write it down.  I remember childhood as being alternately wonderful and painful, full of adventures and also confusing and scary and disappointing.  I don’t want to shelter my boys from the confusion or the scariness or the disappointment, because I know how valuable those negative experiences are to shaping their resilience and who they will eventually become; but I don’t want for them a childhood that’s merely screens and technology and air-conditioned indoor playdates and safe, structured, scheduled time.

J. and I have talked a lot in the past few months about childhood and about what we had – our childhoods, by the way, were vastly different in several ways – as well as what we’d really like for our kids.  In some ways it seems late, with L. being OHMYGODNEARLYSIX.  Luckily, we’ve realized that we’ve done an okay job of giving him much of what we want him to have, anyway, despite not having had the time to clearly articulate it to one another during the past six sleep-deprived, often-harried, always-messy, generally awesome years.  But our accidental success in this area aside, having the conversations has actually increased our focus on making space for the boys – and for ourselves – to just slow down and be.

Be whatever.  Be silly.  Be tired.  Be crazy.  Be wet all day long.  Be covered in popsicle and sand.  Be in the backyard tending tomatoes in pajamas.  Be indulgent.  Be TOGETHER.

Or just eat damned ice cream for dinner.  Because I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep these kids healthy, and there’s a lot more time and energy on that coming.  But keeping them healthy also means keeping their spirits alive and their eyes wide.

So we had a healthy family dinner.  Maybe it didn’t look like the things we usually eat, or like what you might think of as “dinner,” but it was a moment in time that J. and I felt like we needed to grab and polish and make it shine a little more brightly in their memories (and ours).  It was a moment to honor the time we have and to let our boys enjoy the thrill of an ice-cream dinner while they are still small enough (just barely) to be delighted by a thing so trivial.  Tomorrow we’ll go back to eating vegetables and cooking food and being THAT family, but today, we are celebrating being a healthy family in a wholly different way.

Because with only 46 days until Kindergarten, it’s possible that ice cream will never again taste as good as it does right now.

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