Thursday, July 28, 2011

Not Yer Mama's Salad

I love recipes. Cookbooks, websites, television shows--any source is welcome, but unlike my husband, I don't like to just "wing it" when it comes to cooking. In baking, of course, following a recipe is crucial, because you are dealing with chemistry. This means that if you add baking powder instead of baking soda, too much salt or not enough oil, you are going to be very disappointed with your final result. Though mixing flavors in dinner dishes is not quite as unforgiving, my husband is much better at it than I. Perhaps because I am a baker at heart, I don't like to experiment with my cooking.

One would think that when it comes to salad, a recipe would be unnecessary. There's no heat element involved, and not much variation of ingredients to work with, so why bother following instructions? Iceberg or romaine lettuce, celery, cucumber and a big ol' tomato. I grew up viewing salad as a peripheral--a boring but necessary add-on to dinner.

But then my kitchen disappeared, and kind friends took pity on us and invited us over for dinner. When they brought a big salad bowl filled with lime-cilantro chicken, provolone cheese and avocado to the table, followed by a colorful, spicy chicken salad topped with crisp tortilla strips, suddenly salad seemed like a great idea. When I raved to my friend about how delicious her salads were, she pulled out a cookbook. OK, maybe "cook"book isn't a completely accurate description. But she told me she swears by it, and as an avid cookbook user with one or two particular books that I refer to again and again, I knew exactly what she meant. As I flipped through the beautiful photos in Raising the Salad Bar, all my memories of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers and hothouse tomatoes flew out of my head. This was definitely not my mom's salad world.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available in my area. Herbs and spices are growing in my garden. I have more flavors of vinegar than you could shake a stick at. Inspired, I decided maybe it was time to start experimenting.

The best part is that, though I love vegetables, I can't see myself as a strict vegetarian just yet. This book of recipes shows me how to incorporate grilled beef, salmon, chicken, shrimp and other proteins into interesting, beautiful and most importantly, delicious salads. No longer an afterthought, salad is about to become a meal staple--if not the meal itself--in my house. Sorry Mom. Not to give your iceberg lessons the cold shoulder, but it looks like my salads are about to grow up.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Flying By the Seat of My Cookie Sheets

They say you never really know what you've got until it's gone. But what they don't talk about is all the residual things you lose along with it. Anyone who has lived through (meaning lived in your house during) a kitchen remodelling project can understand what I mean.

We knew the kitchen would be gone--no stove, no sink, no countertops, no peace from the construction and, of course, no money. But we left out the toaster oven, dug out plastic utensils and paper plates, and filled the fridge with cold cuts. We may not be able to cook, but we still have to feed all the animals.

This all looked good on paper. But when I tried to apply it to day-to-day reality, it lost some of its fine, organized, two-dimensional sheen.

Here's what they don't tell you about a kitchen remodelling job: you have a lot more, er, stuff in your kitchen--however small your kitchen may seem--than you realize. You've just gotten really good at storing/hiding it. When you have to remove and relocate it all, while keeping portions of it somewhat accessible, you're also going to lose a lot of space in your living room, dining room, playroom, family room and mind. Because no matter how well you plan, all that visual clutter in your house can't help but clutter your mind and cause the occasional freak-out. Whether it's kids, dogs, Mom or Dad, someone will very likely be freaking out at any given moment during such a project.

Trying to be smart about it, we decided to do this during summer, when the kids were out of school and camp. What we had figured on was eating out occasionally, grilling on the porch often and eating lots of salads and sandwiches.

The same "they" who say all those smart things also say that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. In our case, we made our plans but didn't account for a mid-July heat wave and someone staying in our guest room. Did I mention the frequent freak-outs?

A very smart friend said to me that suffering through to a new kitchen is a very high-class problem to have. And she's right. So I'm trying stay positive. Just think of how efficient this is turning out to be! Three adults, two children, two dogs, 100-degree weather and contractors finding hidden surprises at every turn (electrical, plumbing and the like)! How else could we build so much character at one time? May as well kill as many sprits as we can with one stone countertop, right?

Suffice it to say the "before" pictures are looking better and better, as we sit firmly entrenched in the middle of the "during" stage, all eagerly looking forward to the "after."

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Telltale Stomach

Much like raising children, there's nothing in the world like the unconditional love that you get from a pet. All you have to do is feed it, water it, pay for its doctor visits, house it and let it sleep in your bed it will love you forever. How could it not? Because of you, that lucky little guy will never have to figure out how to carry money without pockets or thumbs.

On top of all this, one would think that feeding a dog 'people food' like chicken lo mein, beef ribs and lasagna instead of just basic, dry kibble would secure you a place not just in Heaven but in your dog's heart as well. In fact, he'd likely be ready to go to the ends of the earth for you, bite a smelly, dirty person for you, even lie for you if it came down to that.

Apparently, you'd be wrong.

The life I've described is not a theoretical one, but apparently the very life Flash lived before he came to us. And when the poop came down, Flash didn't lie for his amazing owners who had treated him as if he were one of them.

After being told by the vet that Flash was overweight and had a terrible diet, and that his mom and dad needed to stop feeding him from their table, they agreed they would. The next time he went for a visit, the vet scolded Flash's mom yet again, as the pooch either didn't look good or hadn't lost weight: something told him that Flash was still on a strict people-food diet.

His mom proceeded to look the doctor in the eye and tell him with the straightest face that, "oh no, we don't feed him lasagna any more. We know we're not supposed to."

In the next moment, something happened. Maybe Flash decided it was now or never if he was ever going to get help obtaining the svelte figure he wanted. Or perhaps he felt that lying, especially to a doctor, was just plain wrong. We will never know the impetus, only the resulting action.

While his mom's words were still hanging in the air, Flash puked up a stomach-full of undigested lasagna right there on the vet's floor.

I came by this story honestly, from a neighbor and dear friend of Flash's former mom, and the mom was the one who had told it to the neighbor.

Of course, I had to laugh as I imagined how many shades of red the mom must have turned at that moment. And I also imagine that she said not a word to the vet, nor he to her. What could be said? Flash had ended the conversation.

I love the story, and the lesson that--as with parenting children--we should always be very careful about what we say and do, especially when it comes to little white lies. Honesty will win in the end, and whether it's out of the mouths of babes or the stomachs of dogs, when we lie, the innocents we care for will be the ones to give us away. Even if they can't speak.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Random Waffles

Jacob has been gone to sleepaway camp for only two days, and already there's been a change in Benjamin. Perhaps it's because his brother isn't around to criticize him all the time (that sibling rivalry's a biotch), or perhaps Ben just appreciates the reduction of noise (Jacob does have a tendency to talk, sing, yell, hum, fill-in-the-blank-with-any-other-insistent-consistent-noise pretty constantly). Whatever it is, Ben has become much easier to see, and seems to be revelling in his ability to be seen without the smokescreen of the dynamic with his brother. Because, let's face it, when they are in competition for my attention, Ben is always painted as the villain, the hitter, the crybaby or the one who started it. It's tough to be yourself when someone is forever preceding you into the room and announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, The Bad Guy."

To say that Ben has been a model child this week would not be an understatement. In fact, he's been so great that I could tell immediately when he was tired or hungry--the two triggers that often send him spiralling. We went out to a drive-in movie on Monday night with some friends. The theater is one of the few left in our area, and it was all kinds of fun. Sitting outdoors on a blanket, staying up late, eating junkfood surrounded by girls (Ben was the only boy in the party) and seeing a new flick made for an exciting night. So much so that he didn't even fall asleep on the trip home, keeping his eyes open until I tucked him in at 11:45pm.

I killed the fun the next morning when I woke him up at 7:30 to go to camp. As is typical for Ben when he doesn't want to get up, he went into full turtle mode: drawing his head and feet underneath the covers, he balled himself up in the middle of the bed and groaned. I asked if he wanted me to make him waffles for breakfast (to entice him into getting vertical) and he answered 'yes, please.'

Ten minutes later, waffles on the table, I returned to his room to let him know they would get cold if he didn't get out there soon.

"Mom, I don't WANT waffles!" he said rather loudly.

"Honey, I just asked you if you wanted waffles and you said 'yes, please.' That's why I made them."

"No I didn't! You just made RANDOM WAFFLES! I don't want waffles, I want cereal!" he contested.

This was shaping up to be an argument I couldn't possibly win, so I told him he could have cereal and left the room. I was tired too, and the last thing I could take at that moment was an accusation of being something even worse than a random-waffle-making mother.

What happened next was, for someone else's house, probably perfectly normal. But for my house, it was completely unexpected and perfectly lovely. In short:

David ate the waffles.
Ben ate his cereal.
David went to work.
Ben went to camp.

And that was it. Of course, if you don't live in my house, you can't fully appreciate what a momentous occurrence this was. In short:

There were no tears.
There was no screaming.
There were no ultimatums.
Ben ate breakfast.
Ben got dressed.
We got out the door on time.

Even if the first breakfast had gone to the dog, it would have been a small price to pay for such great strides, in my humble opinion.

Credit the absence of one child or the magic of random waffles. Whatever it was, I'm just praying it won't evaporate at the end of the week. Maybe I should consider expanding to an entire random meal plan....

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Inconsistent Gardener

One of the many things I love about summer is my flower garden. Mind you, I use the word "garden" very loosely. By standard definition, mine barely qualifies. Besides being small, misshapen and hilly, it lacks symmetry, reason and defined edges. The weeds don't seem to mind any of this, as they congregate there en masse quite regularly. And I spent the first year just clearing out old, crowding trees, which my husband replaced with a couple of smaller, flowering bushes moved from elsewhere in the yard.

But since gardens are a lot like children, I like to focus on the strong points, hoping that encouragement and optimism will help mine to thrive. Plus, this helps me to downplay my own weak points.

Being a woman, I exercise my right to change my mind all the time. When it comes to what I put in my closet, that's not such a good thing because it means new clothes are required every season. I also like things a certain way (read: I'm controlling). Happily, gardens have flexible, inexpensive options for people like me. Specifically, annuals. Last year, the first year that I actually planted anything, I was all about orange and yellow. Daffodils, marigolds, snapdragons, lilies, we had lots of variety with very few colors. I didn't mind though--it all went together nicely.

This year, I was feeling more daring, and more purplish-blue. Maybe I craved a wardrobe change that depressed me with thoughts of its prohibitive cost. Or perhaps the long, wet spring built a sunless mood in me that transitioned to my flower choices. Regardless, this year the palette is cool and wide. Purples, blues, pinks and fuscias have all made appearances since spring via hyacinth, irises, azaleas and tulips. Throw in some raspberry bushes, onion grass, wild strawberries and roses, and you can see the chaos in my garden has begun to parallel the chaos inside my house. Maybe I'm just getting older, but neither of these things seems to bother me the way it might have years ago.

In the three years I've worked on this little patch of land, I've learned a few things.

1) Wear gloves.
2) Gardening pants work better than shorts.
3) Clashing colors are allowed.
4) Plan to plant and mulch in spring to prevent weeds; don't wait till they've taken over in June and try to pull them out.
5) The gardener cares more than anyone else.

Today I learned that the hydrangea, my favorite of all my flowers, has a tendency to take over a garden. All summer long, the bush's flowers are a riot of color--white, green, pink, purple, yellow and blue, and the blossoms vary in location and size as much as in color. And it's not an annual. What will this mean if I change my color scheme next year? Thanks to lesson number three, not a thing.

In my 12 years of parenting, I've learned a little bit more than what my garden has taught me. But all those lessons have also been hands-on.

Despite the mix and mess, my ignorance and fumblings, my little corner garden makes me smile. And maybe if I'm lucky, and keep working optimistically, it will grow into something worth sharing. Like my children, it doesn't seem to mind my mistakes. It loves the attention and care, gets on well despite the weeds, tests and teaches me, and makes me smile every day.

"I think the true gardener, the older (s)he grows, should more and more develop a humble, grateful and uncertain spirit." ~Reginald Farrer, In a Yorkshire Garden, 1909

Amen, brother.