On Turning 40. And Eggplant.

Miso Glazed Eggplant

If I were to fill out a questionnaire right now that asked what I do in my free time I’d have to answer “wipe down the high chair.” Oh my god, the high chair! The whole wipe down the baby/wipe down the high chair/get down on your hands and knees and wipe up every sticky piece of orzo on the floor/pick up the rogue pieces of food that have stuck to her clothes and later fall off on the rug routine is never-ending.

But I love this stage. The chubby thighs! The giggles! The slobbery kisses! The chatter! It’s just a big old love fest around here right now. Except between 4am and 5am every single morning when I think about how glorious it will be when one day I can go back to waking up on my own instead of being woken up. The memory of restful sleep and knowing that every day we are getting closer to it again is one of the things that keeps me from being completely overwhelmed with the sadness of the last baby growing up. I also remind myself that one day I’ll have real, uninterrupted time again to focus on my work and have conversations with my husband and read the newspaper on Sunday mornings. It’s exciting to think about moving on to a new stage in our lives. But I know that once that happens, there’s no going back. Our baby days are slowly but surely coming to an end.

The baby turns 1 in just a few weeks. How quickly this year has passed! It takes my breath away. And, a few months ago I turned 40, a birthday that was pleasant but uneventful.

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There was no big party or lavish get-away. I was too tired to plan or want either of those things. Sorin bringing home some take-out and a bottle of Champagne and a cake decorated by my 4 year old was exactly what I wanted.

birthday cake

 

But although I paid little attention to the actual birthday, I’d be lying if I said the number 40 hasn’t been flashing in my brain like a neon sign.

It has little to do with vanity and much more to do with, “well, what now?” I feel the need to re-focus and take stock of things and make sure I’m living the life I want to live. I feel a more urgent need to appreciate what I already have. And there is a bit of a dull ache, from my babies getting older, for sure, but also because, damn! I’m 40.

Awhile back Meghan Daums’ New Yorker essay about deciding not to have children examined the same dull ache.

“… or perhaps it wasn’t even sadness we were feeling but, simply, the dull ache of aging. Maybe children don’t save their parents from this ache as much as distract from it. And maybe creating a diversion from aging is in fact much of the point of parenting.”

There is truth to that, I think. Watching my two littles grow up is far more interesting than paying attention to myself growing older. What better way to fight aging than by surrounding yourself with youthfulness? But I don’t want to let myself be so distracted by parenting that I allow the years to slip by without any self-reflection. I want to map out my own individual future, too, not just help them map out theirs.

Taking stock of things leads me in a very indirect way to miso. Miso that has been in the back of my fridge for a very long time. Miso keeps forever, so they say, but I was really testing the limits. Every once in awhile I like to give the fridge and pantry a once-over. I try to identify and cook the random bags of grains I’ve bought from the bulk section. I open cans of corn that I bought for no apparent reason. And I start Googling recipes that include miso.

This one, for miso salad dressing, is pretty good. I plan to try this miso tahini soup from 101 Cookbooks when it’s not 4,000 degrees in LA anymore. And the one below, for Miso-Glazed Eggplant, I’ve made twice, and it’s been twice rejected by our children, but Sorin and I really like it.

I have to give myself a pep talk every time I cook eggplant. It’s like that friend who can be really amazing and fun, or total nightmare, and you’re never sure which one is going to show up. But with this recipe I finally feel confident. We’ve eaten this miso-glazed eggplant alone as a side and also chopped up and thrown into rice (or noodles). It’s best when eaten right after it’s cooked; not so great as a leftover. And although it’s really tasty, this dish isn’t going to win any beauty awards.

Eggplant glazed with miso

Take note: You might have some of the miso glaze leftover, and I think it has potential to be a tasty salad dressing too, if you add a little bit more water to it.

This recipe adapted from two recipes, one from Bon Appetit and one from the NY Times.

Ingredients:

4 to 6 long, skinny Japanese eggplants
1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or sesame oil)
1/3 cup white miso
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon reduced sodium soy sauce or tamari
1 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar or white vinegar
Optional: 4 teaspoons finely grated peeled ginger (I forgot to add this, but it probably would be really good)

Instructions:

Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise.  Cut an incision down the middle of each half, but don’t cut down so deep that you cut through the skin. Salt the eggplant lightly and let sit for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet (or two) with foil for easier clean-up.

Blot the eggplants with paper towels to remove the beads of moisture. Place on the baking sheets. Brush both sides with the vegetable oil. Roast for 20 minutes or so, turning once, until soft and slightly shriveled.

Remove the eggplant from the oven and preheat the broiler.

In a small bowl, whisk together the miso, sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, (and ginger, if using) with 1 Tbsp. water. Use a spoon to smear a light layer of the glaze on top of each eggplant’s fleshy side. Broil, flesh side up, 4 to 6 minutes, until the glaze is browned and bubbly but not burnt. Keep an eye on it.

If you like, top with sesame seeds and chopped scallions before serving.

 

 

 

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Things I Will Miss

tomato basil relish

This meal  – fresh mozzarella topped with serrano and tomato-basil relish – was our last hurrah at the cabin. Good old caprese needed an update, and this slightly spicy, briefly seared version is what I’ll be eating for the rest of the summer.

Because there is still a whole lot of summer left. Although I have that empty, summer’s over feeling I get whenever we leave the lake in our rear-view mirror.

Things I Will Miss

Waking up to this every morning
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And saying goodnight to this every evening
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Commuting by boat instead of car. No car seats. No traffic.

priest lake

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Phone games and videos are not an option. Instead, we listen to records and catch butterflies when we’re bored.

priest lake

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But the kids are never really bored because they can wade in for a swim any time they want. Plus, you always have a cousin or a grandma or grandpa to play with. Is there anything better than that?

the lakshore

And although we had many, many sunny days at the lake and loved every minute of soaking up the sun, it is the thunderstorms I will miss.

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Especially when you get to wait them out on the dock with a gin and tonic.

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Find the fresh mozzarella and serrano and tomato-basil relish recipe at cheese.about.com

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A Tonic for What Ails You

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I often think about what raising kids was like before you could hop online and instantly connect with moms everywhere. Was it lonelier? Harder? Or was it better? I’ve heard my mom and aunts talk about raising their kids along with all the other women on their block. When they reached out for companionship or advice, they picked up the phone or knocked on a door.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t isolating at times. There are days when every mother feels trapped by the constant needs of their little ones. And it’s true that the Internet is a nice little peephole out into the world. But it’s also true that the Internet is just one more thing to do, one more thing demanding my time and attention.

Your computer isn’t like your TV. You can’t just turn it off and stop thinking about it. It’s always there, pulling on your skirt, wanting more from you. I’m grateful for this public space I have that forces me to write and allows me to share, but not updating a blog constantly is just one more thing that gnaws away at me late at night when I can’t sleep. Why don’t I post every week? Why, despite my best intentions, is my Instagram account updated like a slow drip from a faucet? Why don’t I have any desire at all to tweet or be tweeted to? I should really read that one article someone posted…I should email her back…I should be more interesting….

I’m suffering from a case of Internet Fatigue. There’s just too much, of everything. And there’s a lot of the same thing, over and over again. But everyone just seems so into it and so adept at navigating it and so damn gung-ho about participating.

Maybe I don’t need to abolish the Internet entirely. Maybe I just need a good night’s sleep?

I’m on the tail-end of a cold that the baby and I have been sharing. Miraculously, it was not brought home by my preschooler, who’s immune system seems to be getting stronger as mine gets weaker. In addition to not catching this cold, she also didn’t catch the stomach flu going around last month, but I did. How does that happen?

This past winter, I started making batches of thirst-quenching, immunity boosting beverages to drink in the afternoon instead of coffee, which I really only like to drink in the morning. And I think they helped me avoid one or two bugs that went around. If nothing else, they tasted good. So I’ve started making the elixirs again, and all of them are refreshing enough for any season, not just winter.

My main go-to is Bon Appetit’s Classic Tonic with many variations. I skip the Swedish Bitters and added elderberry syrup instead. Sometimes I used fresh herbs, sometimes not. And I don’t add ginseng. My typical blend (with no measurements) is lemon or lime juice, a little bit of orange juice, unsweetened cranberry juice, elderberry syrup, echinacea and chilled chamomile tea. I keep a jar of this blend in the fridge, then mix a little with sparkling water before I drink it.

 

Berry Shrub

You’ve probably heard about shrubs (the drink, not the plant) making a comeback. A shrub is basically flavored vinegar that’s topped off with sparkling water. I make them with fresh berries and apple cider vinegar (for the purported health benefits) and less sugar than usual. Here’s a basic shrub recipe to get you started.

This Lemon-Ginger Brew is also great.

Now get off the Internet and get outside. Summer is calling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Eat Your Greens

escarole

At the library recently I exchanged small talk with a woman whose baby had just turned 4 weeks old. It was the first time she had left the house without him and she had that wide-eyed but exhausted expression that’s unique to new moms. “Does it get easier?” she whispered. “This has been the longest month of my life.”

I knew exactly what she was going through. When my first baby was born, it felt like years until we reached the six week mark. Now, that baby is already 4 and my new baby, the one who I swear was born last week, is already 5 months old. Life is moving forward at an alarming speed these days. I keep having flash-forwards to when my girls are both in college or older and I’m in my sixties and what scares me, is that it doesn’t seem all that far away. I understand now how days fold into years that fold into decades and you suddenly find yourself looking back instead of forward.

Snapshots appear in my head, photos of me and Sorin and the girls, photos that the girls will look at one day and say, “Can you believe how young mom and dad are?” They will see me as I am now, youngish and blonde and thin and with some wrinkles but not too many yet. And they will see how handsome Sorin is and how happy we are holding these two little girls, one blonde (with brown eyes), one brunette (with blue eyes).

And this makes me smile. Because they won’t ever really know or remember how exhausted we are on most days because every night at our house feels like taking a red eye flight. We don’t really wake up in the morning, because we’ve never really slept. I knew this time around what I was getting into with the whole first year of sleeplessness; it’s easier to take because it’s less of a shock. And for a baby her age, I think J is sleeping pretty well. But there’s always something, isn’t there? And the kicker this time is having two young children in a very small house where a cry from one easily wakes up the other. It can get a little bananas over here between the hours of 11:30pm and 6am.

We’re in triage mode. We simply don’t have enough energy during the day to attend to anything but the essentials. It’s excruciating, but it also makes the little things in life seem unbelievably great. Like a good cup of coffee in the morning. Oh, my god, how I love that first cup of coffee. I go to bed thinking about it. Or, slipping out for a quick walk or jog alone? It feels as restorative as a tw0 week vacation use to. And yesterday, I allowed myself a few minutes before jumping in the shower to take some old nail polish off my toenails and it felt like a spa treatment.

Needless to say, I haven’t been whipping up too many blog-worthy meals over here. Our meals are fine, some of them even quite good, but inspiring they are not. Until the other day, when I found myself standing in the kitchen peeling hot escarole leaves off a pan just out of the oven and popping them into my mouth. Then Sorin walked in and started doing the same thing. And we ate the whole pan just like that, savoring the bitter, salty flavor.

If you don’t like the bitter, bracing flavor of greens, this recipe isn’t for you. But if you’re into it, then you’ll find yourself craving wilted escarole just like me, needing another hit of olive oil and garlic dripping from leaves that are perfectly crunchy around the edges and soft and slightlty chewy in the middle. Doused in olive oil and garlic and topped with (optional) shavings of parmesan cheese, it’s about as good as winter greens can get.

The recipe is simple: Tear escarole leaves into small pieces, generously coat with olive oil and garlic, sprinkle with red pepper flakes and salt and roast in a 450 F oven for about 7 minutes. A more detailed version of the recipe is over at cheese.about.com.

escarole

This escarole would be lovely at a dinner party, especially in February in LA, when you can eat outside with lights strung overhead and the faint smell of orange blossoms in the air. But it’s also okay to eat the escarole standing in your kitchen like we do, then have a main course of popcorn and wine while watching The Wire.

 

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On Berry Pie and Babies

Berry Pie with Buckwheat Crust

What better to soothe a weepy new mother than a slice of homemade berry pie and a decaf espresso topped with cream?

Sorin’s birthday was last week and so I baked a pie. He happened to walk through our sweaty, un-airconditioned kitchen while I was trying to roll out dough that was too soft and throwing together the filling without measuring anything and we both looked at each other and laughed about the same thing, why didn’t we just buy a damn pie? Any other woman, one week postpartum during an intense heatwave, would’ve had the sense to do so. But no, I had to bake it myself. And it turned out to be quite delicious, despite soft dough and no measurements, which makes me think this is a good recipe to pass along. Pie is finicky. But this recipe seems to defy the odds again and again, always turning out no matter how hard I try to screw it up.

But before the recipe, let me tempt you with this sweet little foot. Don’t you just want to kiss it?

foot
Despite my prediction that the baby wasn’t ever going to come, she did, arriving on her due date with 14 minutes to spare.

I ran into a friend in the pediatrician’s waiting room last week and she said, “aren’t second babies delicious?” Although I’ve never been one to say babies are so cute I want to eat them up, I had to admit this time that delicious was just the right word.

First babies are amazing for the absolute awe they inspire. When you’re an adult, not all that much feels new anymore, but a first baby makes the whole world new again.When O was born, I felt like my world had been cracked open and a flood of emotions and experiences I never could’ve predicted came rushing in. You change when you have a baby. Your marriage changes, the daily rhythm of your life changes, your feelings about your career change, the way you view the world changes. It’s amazing, but also really, really hard.

A second baby slips into your life like a soft breeze. She nurses and sleeps and wakes and poops and makes little squeaky noises and around her, our life continues on much like it did before.  A second baby is like someone you already know finally showing up. There you are, I thought, when she was first placed on my chest all wet and warm and staring right at me, of course.

And there’s a feeling of victory with a second baby, isn’t there? Not only did you survive the first one, but you chose to do it all over again and this time you feel like you know what you’re doing. The hiccups won’t kill her and there’s no need to burst into tears every time she does; if you put either breast milk or aquaphor on it, it will clear up; just breastfeed whenever and don’t worry about how much they are or aren’t eating or what their poop looks like; life won’t be like this forever, it will get easier.

The arrival of our sweet little J completes our family and everything feels just as it should be. I want to bottle up this time so it never disappears completely. The weepiness this go-round comes not from being overwhelmed but from knowing the sweet newborn stage will be over so soon. These childbearing years are so hard and exhausting and completely lovely. And they pass so quickly.

Of course, by the end of next week I’ll probably be begging for mercy. The blissed out wave of hormones I’ve been riding since she was born will finally come crashing down, the reality of not having my mom here anymore cooking and cleaning and entertaining O will set in, I’ll be exhausted and un-showered and my hair will start shedding and the toilet will need to be cleaned and the laundry will pile up and the baby will be inconsolable just as O needs me to come in and sit with her while she takes 20 minutes to go to the bathroom and I will think, dear god, please let these babies grown up into independent people soon.

But until then, I’m in love. Pure, sweet, baby love.

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O & J, two sweet sisters

Three Berry Pie with a Buckwheat (or rye) Crust

The pie crust recipe I use is 101 Cookbooks Flaky Rye Pie Crust. She has a link to a Melissa Clark video about how to make crust in a food processor, which is what I always do. I also pre-bake the bottom pie crust like Melissa Clark does.

This time I was out of rye flour and used buckwheat flour instead and the crust still turned out really well, light and flaky with a subtle nutty flavor. Regular buckwheat flour is usually toasted and the flavor is too strong for pie crust – instead, buy raw buckwheat groats and blend them yourself into flour. Sounds fussy, I know, but it’s not hard to do. Whole Foods and probably many health food stores sell raw buckwheat groats. Simply blend them in a blender until very finely ground.

101 Cookbook’s filling is fancier than what I threw together: about 2 pounds of mixed fresh blueberries, raspberries and sliced strawberries, 1 to 2 tablespoons brown sugar (I like tart, not overly sweet pie filling), a dash of cinnamon, a drizzle of vanilla and 4 tablespoons quick cooking tapioca (to thicken the filling, instead of flour). Now that fall is here, I think this crust would be great with apple pie filling, too.

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Labor Day

farmersmarket

The strategic placement of Swiss chard wasn’t intentional, and miraculously it was large enough to cover what has bloomed into a hilariously large baby bump. How do our bodies do it? Even the second time around I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that a tiny human has developed in there over the last 9 months and any day now (please, please, let that day come soon) will emerge.

I am quite literally bursting at the seams. My maternity clothes barely fit. There is no position that is comfortable. It has been miserably hot all week. I’m cranky and tired and also really happy. A baby is coming! It’s such a strange time, waiting for a baby.

Needless to say, I have not been cooking much. A few easy dishes, like this stove-top lasagna and skillet pizza. I’ve thought about making quinoa enchiladas, but can’t quite find the energy. My mom is in the kitchen right now making spaghetti and meatballs, which is exactly the kind of carb loading I should be doing with labor imminent, right?

As anxious as I am for this baby to come and as eager as I am not be 9 months pregnant anymore in 100 degree heat, I don’t believe in rushing a baby out before she’s ready . They’ll be no chugging of castor oil or acupuncture or doing squats all day going on over here. The last time around, I mostly just listened to this for inspiration.  Waiting is indeed the hardest part.

 

 

 

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Ponzu!

Grilled Swiss chard, cucumber, avocado, brown rice and ponzu sauce

Grilled Swiss chard, cucumber, avocado, brown rice and ponzu sauce

My favorite thing about this summer is swimming. Partly because my pregnant body floats as if weightless but mostly because I’ve realized that swimming is the best way to zap the seemingly endless supply of energy that kids have. In all those books about sleep issues and sleep training why doesn’t a single one include a chapter called Take Your Kid Swimming. An hour or two in the pool in the afternoon and I tell you what, that kid is going to zonk out.

As much as we all adore our children and love the time we spend with them, am I right when I say that the moment you know they’re finally asleep for the night is a moment of absolute happiness? I can’t really think of anything pre-children that brought on that exact same type of relief.

The other night after I had peeked in on O and covered her with a light summer blanket and gently closed her door, I collapsed my pregnant self onto the couch and tried watching Frances Ha, a movie I’ve been wanting to see since it came out a year or so ago. I lasted about 20 minutes before I just had to turn it off. Maybe it’s because I’m nearing 40 and can no longer relate to today’s generation of young women or maybe it’s because I’ll soon be raising two girls and I’m horrified by the thought of them acting like Frances or like any of the characters on the very similar TV show Girls, but I’m finding any story line that has to do with young women hanging out in a place like Brooklyn to be completely unwatchable.

The way these “adult” characters act and the way my 3 year old acts on occasion are just way too similar. As O says so often lately with great frustration, “why can’t you just give me what I want?!” The girls in these shows seem to constantly be saying the same thing. “Why can’t I just work in a cool coffee shop a few days a week and spend the rest of the time hanging out and thinking about creative things and still afford an apartment in Brooklyn and have an amazing boyfriend even though I’m a complete drip?”

Yes, I used the word drip. Which really makes me seem like an old fogy. But that’s what these girls are: dull, unattractive, boring people who seem to think the world owes them an amazing experience. Just because.

Please, let my daughters not grow up to be these girls.

Will it be possible to raise two girls and for the next 16 years or so completely shield them from the Hannah Horvaths and Miley Cyruses and Kim Kardashians of the world? Can I keep them in an Anne Shirley bubble?

There’s no easy segue from the dearth of female role models for young women to ponzu sauce, so let’s just get into it – if you need a bright, kicky sauce this summer, then ponzu is it. The flavor will make you blink a few times at first. But the salty, tart  sauce quickly turns addictive.

These are a few things I’ve drenched in ponzu lately for quick lunches and dinners:

  • Grilled salmon & salad greens
  • Cold angel hair pasta, snap peas and leftover salmon
  • Seaweed salad (Seasnax dehydrated salad mix), Trader Joe’s quick-cooking farro, cucumber, lots of avocado
  • Grated cabbage and carrot slaw and halibut
  • Brown rice bowl with salmon, cucumber, avocado and grilled Swiss chard

Grilled Swiss chard is sort of my thing this summer. That, and grilled broccoli. Both have been such a revelation. Why has it taken me this long to throw them on the grill? Coat in olive oil and salt, throw right on the grill for about 12 minutes, or a bit less for the Swiss chard, and you have the perfect summer side.

As for the ponzu, everyone makes their homemade ponzu a little differently. It’s basically soy sauce mixed with citrus and sweetened just a little. Use lemon or lime,  add some unseasoned rice wine vinegar if you like, and sweeten with mirin, simple syrup or plain sugar. Here’s my quick blend to give you a starting point:

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons mirin

Ponzu is too tart and bold for little O, but with meals like this it’s easy for us to all make our own plate. Some fresh veggies, some grilled veggies, some fish and a grain. It’s the perfect summer meal.

 

 

 

 

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