October 9, 2014

The second time around...

Kirkland Hall, Vanderbilt University

I have been trying to find the time to update the blog, especially with the big life changes going on, but I'm finding it hard to stay awake. Exhaustion comes in many forms, I'm learning. There is the kind that leaves you totally emotionally and mentally spent --as in the kind I felt most days while a stay-at-home mom. And there's the kind I feel now--the kind that is maybe more physical in nature and also laced with a lot of personal satisfaction. Not that staying home with kids is not personally satisfying, but it's inherently not the point. You do it because it's what you think is best for your child and you do it without ever getting the satisfaction of your child knowing the sacrifices you've made.

This working full-time on the other hand, is inherently good for me. As much as I feared it and even sometimes avoided it, I am really enjoying it. Yes, it has been challenging and not without moments of doubt and uncertainty. But for the most part, we are all adjusting well. Also, I love getting dressed in the morning in something besides sweats or work-out clothes. I love drinking my coffee on the way to work while listening to grown-up music or NPR (no more "horse tunes" or "free to be you and me," Hooray!) I love seeing and talking to adults all day. And I love coming home and picking up my smiling girl who runs to the door and squeals with delight upon seeing me. Our time together is now more precious because it's squeezed into a few intense hours in the morning and before bed.

My new workplace - The almost 150-year-old Vaughn Home

My new job at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt means I am working on a college campus again in the same environment I used to teach in (it was the reason I moved to Nashville). But this time I get to do things that are much more practical and mundane, but also interesting and new. Instead of teaching--or trying to at least convince students that the Humanities are worth studying--now I help make possible the kinds of interactions and meaningful discussions that define the Humanities. I get to help provide the opportunities for faculty and graduate students in different disciplines to learn and study with each other. Plus, it's fun! In the first few weeks I got to play tour guide to a group of academics from Ireland and help coordinate a visit from an award-winning novelist and his gospel band. I get to go to the Southern Festival of Books this week and get paid for it. And I get to listen to interesting people talk about engaging intellectual topics that matter. I feel so lucky to have found this place!

I remember one day in the Fall of my first year teaching at Vanderbilt. I was walking in front of a huge magnolia tree and the sun was shining through the leaves on that crisp, cloudless day. I had an almost out of body feeling of being very happy and content with my present situation. That kind of pure happiness that hits you for fleeting moments is hard to come by. That, unfortunately, didn't last too long in that particular time and space, but I feel like I finally have the chance to feel that way again. It's a feeling I longed for many times during the last however many years it has been--years spent trying to find myself and my career path again after coming to a dead end. Now, although the future is unclear and mysterious, I feel like I can finally hope for that contentment again.

It helps that my husband has a schedule that allows for us to both work and still be involved parents. I love my family, I love being a mother, even though it's the hardest thing I've ever loved, but I also love working. And I need to do both. That is not to say that I didn't love my time staying home with June for the past four-plus years. But I think this is what works for me now. And I am grateful for this opportunity. Stay tuned... if I can stay awake long enough to compose my thoughts, I'll be back soon!

July 29, 2014

As I write this on a gorgeous, sunny –and dry—70-degree day in July (!), I am feeling happy and grateful and not at all grumpy like I normally am this time of year in Tennessee. I know I complain a lot about things I can’t change such as the climate where I live, and I do a fair amount of it here on the blog, but I am highly susceptible to mood swings that depend on the weather. It’s just who I am. It’s probably the reason I spent 12 years happily living in Colorado and could have seen myself living there the rest of my life. But I am glad I moved here. For many reasons, not the least of which is the beautiful family I have and the idyllic lifestyle we live which I am reminded of every single day.

I feel particularly grateful lately as I watch the news of so many atrocities happening around the world. The bombing in Gaza, the violent shooting of the airliner from the sky in Ukraine, the two-hour execution (and others like it) in Arizona, the child refugees at the border searching for a better life and being turned away, the endless school shootings…it’s enough to make you really question our existence and get pretty overwhelmed with sadness.

Some people deal with these realities by turning off the TV and the computer, by turning a blind eye to the world and focusing on their own little universes and the small things they can do to produce good in the world. That’s wonderful. I wish I could that. I am cursed with a need to know, an almost masochistic torture where I force myself to watch and to read about what’s going on in the world. I think I inherited this from my dad. He is a voracious reader and media consumer. Some of my earliest memories are of hearing the theme song to the nightly news and seeing him read the newspaper. He still does. He’s very well informed and a very compassionate human being. He gets involved, too. He volunteers every week feeding the homeless, he has arguments with co-workers about politics and he never misses his opportunity to vote.

My mom, on the other hand, had a spirit and generosity that was more local. She was a kindergarten teacher and touched the lives of many, many children who loved her, and she helped her friends and neighbors all the time. I remember her saying, as she was dying of cancer, “I wish I could do more to help people.”

So I guess it’s no surprise that I’m a bleeding heart and compassionate to a fault. It’s also interesting to see how it is affecting my daughter who watches and learns from everything we do, whether we realize it or not. But is this a bad thing? I wonder, when I watch the news sometimes while making dinner and she plays in another room or helps me in the kitchen, listening all the while. Or whether our morning ritual of having breakfast, drinking coffee while listening to NPR in the kitchen is somehow bad for her. Am I exposing her to too much atrocity and sadness? Does she become afraid when she sees the look on my face or the tears in my eyes?

I used to worry about this, but lately I have decided to embrace my compassion and not hide it from her. After all, isn’t one of our most important jobs as parents to model kindness and empathy for our kids? I am just being real. I am not interested in creating a make-believe world to shelter her from bad things. Of course, I don’t want her to have nightmares and worry about death, but at the same time, she is old enough and, I believe, sophisticated enough already to understand that there is both good and bad in the world and how lucky we are to live where we live, while other children in other parts of the world are not so lucky. I want her to know this.

So it is with pride and a tinge of sadness that I field her questions “Where is that? And how close is it to here?” (about the violence in Gaza). That’s when I pulled out the world atlas and showed her on the map where it was and explained to her about the geography of the middle East.

When she told me she had named her newest doll "Gaza," I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.

And when she overheard on the news that there was a shooting and a mother and her child were injured and asked where that was, I told her that it was in downtown Nashville, only a few miles from where we live. But we are safe here, I assured her.

Some people may question my motives in exposing my child to so much at such an early age. And I could be wrong, but I tend to believe that in the long run, it will make her a more compassionate and caring person. She already knows about Kenya (where her auntie Neena worked last year helping women and children), she knows what war is and that it is happening in several parts of the world, and she knows that the young girl across the street who came to our door on a cold winter night because her aunt wouldn’t let her in the house was a lot less fortunate than us but not because of anything she did wrong.

As one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott says:

We stitch together quilts of meaning to keep us warm and safe, with whatever patches of beauty and utility we have on hand. We help each other laugh, against all odds. Barry Lopez was right: after all is said and done, all we have are Compassion and stories. 

It’s so true.

I’ll keep being emotional and connected to the world in front of my child because I can’t do it any other way.  And hopefully, it will be something she remembers (and likes) about me when she’s older.

May 14, 2014

 For the last six weeks or so we have had a bountiful season, replete with all the colors, sounds and smells you would expect of Spring in the South--my favorite time of year, perhaps the only time of year I really love the weather here.

We spent a lot of time last month working on our backyard and making it more beautiful. Once we cleaned out the last vestiges of winter--the blanket of brown leaves that had been there since fall--we got to work making it both more useable and better to look at. Then we cleaned out our vegetable garden and planted new grass seed throughout the yard, spreading hay over the trouble spots that needed more green.We even stopped throwing the ball in the same spot over and over for our ball-crazy dog and have, for the first time, managed to grow grass on the right side of the yard. And a major bonus: she still wants to fetch but isn't quite as obsessed as she used to be.

We also did a little patio makeover, replacing the ugly brick pavers with sand-colored pea gravel bordered by railroad ties. I love it. It reminds me of little patios in Europe.  I bought a new teak round table that I love and added a few plants here and there. Over the last two years, we've taken down a couple of hackberry trees and it has really opened up the yard to the sun and sky.

Daniel built a castle for June last fall and the three of us worked together one sunny afternoon to put the finishing touches on it and paint it. On Easter we had about 15 kids over for an egg hunt and it was so wonderful to see them all up there "storming the castle."

The backyard has been a long work in progress, as has everything with this little 1930s East Nashville bungalow we bought exactly 7 years ago. We closed on it on May 15th, 2007. And, while I've lived with one foot out the door, always looking for an opportunity to move for the last 6.5 years, now I feel like we are pretty settled in and will soon start renovating it instead of moving. I am finding that what makes me happy these days is making something out of what we have, not always wanting more.

Living in a small house (1,150 sq.ft. to be exact) is a challenge, but it makes you really edit out the clutter and get creative with your space. I think I could win an award for the most creative use of a small, oddly laid out house. I rearrange the furniture about 3-4 times a year. When recently it looked like we might be adding one to our little family, I was already scheming about how to make room in what is essentially a one-bedroom. Just a year ago, we moved June out of her matchbox-sized nursery that Daniel built out of what was  part of a bathroom and a closet, and turned that space into my office/sitting room. I love having my own little space to write in and keep some of my books.

I am more and more convinced that, for me, happiness is found not in buying things or acquiring more stuff, but in the everyday small things we do like cooking dinner together, hanging out with our friends while the kids play and just living in a neighborhood where it's possible to have friendly social interactions everyday. These are the keys to a happy life (I believe this, but so do many others and it's born out in a lot of research--see here and here).

I think that while we still have room to grow and improve (I am working on my shopping habits and have made huge progress shopping more and more locally and second-hand for most everything), we have managed over the last several years to build a life that expresses our intrinsic values. I am not saying that I still don't find sometimes that I get sucked into the materialistic messages that surround us all the time or that I am not as addicted to my personal media devices as everyone else (except for maybe my husband). But it's a constant challenge and I am reminded by the beautiful little things I see everyday, especially in Spring, that social connection and community and spending time with those we love are the true foundations of a happy life.

As a little reminder of this, there are three different bird families nesting on some part of our house right now. There is a family of starlings in the eaves of the front porch who have been coming back every year now for at least the last five to have their babies; there is a new nest on the inside of the porch at the top of a column which houses a morning bird and her mate sitting on a nest of eggs; and there is a little robin family who have made their home on top of a drain pipe on the back of the house and just yesterday I saw four little hungry beaks popping up! These little birds have provided me and June endless hours of delight while we watch them do their thing, the thing they were meant to do, with such determination and purpose. It gives me a lot of hope that this goes on right in our midst --literally on our little house--and we can all co-exist peacefully, all while living in the urban core of a city. Now that's happy.

copyright 2014 joyiscooking

May 1, 2014

"Picky eater" muffins

I think this may be a record. My child left the dinner table last night for the third night in a row without eating more than one bite. And it's not that I made food that was inedible. I tried to include in each meal at least one thing that I knew she liked. One night dinner was "risi e bisi" (a staple of kids in Italy): creamy risotto with peas and lots of parmesan cheese. The next it was turkey burgers with cabbage-apple slaw and broccoli (she did eat most of the broccoli) and last night it was beef chili and green salad with Goddess dressing. She even requested the chili and then decided it was not what she wanted after all. What is wrong with her??!!

Okay, so my frustration has reached a peak level. It's all I can do to sit quietly at the table each night fuming and trying to pretend I don't care what she eats. Tonight I did let on how disappointed I was that she would not eat the dinners her daddy and I put on the table each night, trying really hard to guilt her into eating something, to no avail.

So today I decided that perhaps subterfuge will be my new weapon of choice. I am going to start sneaking healthy foods into baked goods and smoothies and anything else I can use to disguise the foods I want her to eat. I always scoffed at this when I met parents who did this or heard about it in the latest celebrity cookbook. But here I am. It's my reality and I am willing to go to some pretty great lengths if it means I can get this kid to eat well.

I found this healthy muffin recently on the NYTimes website and tweaked it a bit. It's pretty forgivable and changeable, especially as far as the veggies you 'sneak' in. I've tried it twice now making small changes and this one is definitely the keeper. I also doubled it so that I can make a bunch and freeze them.

If you have an uncooperative eater right now, please share your stories so that I don't feel so alone. And if you try this recipe let me know what you think!

Lunchbox Harvest Muffins (adapted from Melissa Clark of The NYT)

(this recipe yields about two dozen mini-muffins, and probably 12-15 regular muffins)
 2 1/2 cups of flour* 
 (*The orig. recipe called for whole wheat pastry flour. Since I am trying to avoid wheat, I used half almond flour and half garbanzo-fava bean flour. You could also use Bob's Red Mill all-purpose gluten-free flour).
 2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup olive oil (or coconut oil)
2 tablespoons of honey
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
 1 med apple, grated with any juices reserved
1 cup grated carros (or butternut squash)
1 cup grated zucchini (or beets)
(1/3 cup (golden) raisins)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease mini-muffin tins
2. Whisk together flours, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in med. bowl
3. Combine eggs, oil, honey, brown sugar, grated apple and juices and grated veggies in large bowl
4. Using a spatula, gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture until just combined. Fold in raisins if using.
5. Fill each muffin cup and bake for about 15 minutes, or when a toothpick comes out clean.

April 28, 2014

April showers ...

The look that preceded the explosion ...

 Last night we went out with a big group to watch one of our friends play bluegrass music at a neighborhood restaurant. The rain drizzled lightly but no one seemed to care as it was a fun night, the music was good, the kids were dancing and it was a nice way to wind down the weekend. Then, without warning but coming on the heels of a pretty emotional weekend, our usually mellow, sweet child went from zero to sixty and a tantrum of epic proportions ensued.

It was the kind of tantrum I've witnessed other people's kids have on occasion but fortunately, not that common for us. And just when I thought we'd escaped the toddler years mostly unscathed only to find out the pre-school years are much worse, there we were running for the car, kicking and screaming child in our arms, embarrassed beyond belief and glad that one of us at least had the presence of mind to pay the bill a few minutes earlier.

 I want to say that I handled this and the other challenges of the weekend (another full-blown fit upon leaving a party the night before, as well as a whole new level of verbal abuse that I thought I'd have to wait until the teenage years to experience) with grace and calm. I've read the parenting books, I know that children need love, especially when they least deserve it. But man, is it easier said than done.

All I can say is this parenthood thing is a learning process and sometimes it hurts. It is also full of unexpected moments of beauty and a love that fills you up completely and makes you wonder how you survived before you knew this kind of love.

As year four of our girl's life moves quickly toward a close, it feels like we have all come a long way. The last year has had its ups and downs and April felt like a microcosmic version of the whole year. It was, like the rest of the past 10 months or so, a roller coaster of emotions. I have always loved April because I look forward to Spring and to celebrating Easter and it was also my mom's birthday month. So the happiness and sadness are intertwined, as is usually the case.

Adding to that, yesterday was the official due date of the baby we lost. It's hard to believe that if things had worked out differently we would be welcoming another child into our lives right about now. I've moved into the latter stages of grief, however, and instead of a stabbing pain when I think of that, it now feels more like a subtle twinge. And, instead of feeling overwhelming sadness when I hear of other people's babies being born, I now feel genuinely happy for them, the darker feelings  gradually being replaced by the joy and happiness that I used to always feel at the sight of a new baby.

My own 'baby' is quickly becoming a little girl, coming into her own on so many levels and starting to show her predilections and preferences more and more as well as her "spirited" personality. She's a tough cookie and I wouldn't have it any other way. Not too long ago she started climbing all over the place on the playground without much fear, something I thought she may never show any interest in doing. She's gotten really good at riding her bike, another thing she was slow to show interest in. She played her first soccer game and was actually not bad at it, and she is still really interested in music and dance.

And lastly, Daniel and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary (and 9 years together) and it feels like our bond just keeps getting stronger. I know how cliché that must sound and I'll try not to fall too deep into sentimental dribble. But I just feel so lucky to have met this guy and to be able to have a family with him and grow together as parents and as partners. He may not share in my love of coffee or foreign films or a good thrift store find, but he does the bath and bedtime routine with our daughter and then cleans up the dinner dishes –after a full day of work—because he can tell I’ve had a hard day. And he can stop me in my tracks when I’m about to go off the rails about something inconsequential. He is so patient with me even when—mostly when—I do not deserve it.

Let's hope it is true that April showers do bring May flowers because it's raining like crazy out there today. I also hope that after the storm that was April, May will be a little bit calmer. But I'm not holding my breath.

March 4, 2014

Weeknight roast chicken, or how to get a child to eat dinner

this image courtesy

There are two things that have become essential to my weeknight cooking repertoire: ease of preparation and getting my daughter to eat it. On the first point, contrary to what you may think of me, I am not a huge planner when it comes to dinner. At least not like I used to be. But even when I had more time to plan, shop and prepare (and I even threw an occasional dinner party) I still mostly decided what to cook an hour before serving it.

 I get that the planning is half the battle and I know people who plan out their meals for the whole week on Sundays. But for me that's hard because I don't know how I am going to feel on any given day. It's not because I am not organized or don't like to be efficient. I see the need, especially with kids, to be both of those things and, like anyone else, my time is now more crunched. But I like to be spontaneous with food. I like to eat what's in season or what looks good that day at the store and just go with my mood on any given day (which also includes ordering take-out or going out once in a while). Also, my moods change weekly, if not daily, for what I feel like cooking and eating. I might see a magazine photo that catches my eye and get excited about trying it. Or I might go on a meat kick or a healthy vegetarian kick or any number of things. And I'm always trying new recipes.

Like this one for spiced sweet potato and roasted broccoli toasts which blew my mind recently. (Recipe link to I saw it, I wanted it, I thought June would eat it because broccoli and sweet potatoes are two veggies she's always loved (I was wrong), so I made it.  I left out the red chile in the sweet potato to make it kid-friendly and replaced pistachios with peanuts and almonds since that's what I had in the pantry. I'll make them again because they were so good. And if I keep trying, I may just get June to eat them.

But back to my second point. Also contrary to what you may think (and to everything I expected), I have a child who is a "picky eater." At least she is right now. It's just a phase, I know, and a completely normal one for a 3-4 year old, as far as I can tell. And it kills me. I love food, I love to cook, I cooked my own baby food, I had her eating charcuterie plates in high end restaurants when she was 18 mos old. And yet, these days I can hardly get her to eat the (mostly) delicious home-cooked meals I put on the table. She loves carbs: pasta, bread and pizza, and sweets of course, but getting her to eat her protein and her veg or --God forbid, a curry or beef empanada--you'd think I was torturing her.

So our rule of thumb now is keep putting delicious, healthy, home-cooked food in front of her and don't make a big deal out of it (don't fight, don't cajole, no bribes for dessert) and either she eats or she goes to bed hungry. No special meals or substitutions will be made. Out of pure stubbornness she has gone to bed with hardly any dinner on more than a few occasions lately. (By the way, if you have a "picky eater" right now too, this blog/experiment on the NYTimes parenting site has some useful tips).

Which brings me to the title of this post.

 Who doesn't love a simple roasted chicken? And who doesn't need a quicker way to prepare one? I used to brine, salt, truss, rotate, stuff with all kinds of herbs and pastes back in the days before I had June. And then in the last year or so found myself picking up a rotisserie bird from the local market and throwing together a few sides on busier days. But those store-bought birds are not only not good quality chickens, they are almost always dry and flavorless. This Cook's Illustrated "Weeknight Roast Chicken" turned that around --and made a happy if slightly cave-girl-like eater out of June last night. For the first time in a long time, we had no mealtime battle, we talked about something other than what she was or wasn't eating, and we all licked our fingers it was so moist and flavorful.

This is all there is to it:

Weeknight Roast Chicken (adapted from Cook's Illustrated)

Buy a 3 1/2- 4 lb good quality chicken (such as Springer Mt. Farms).

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees, placing a 12-in ovensafe skillet on middle rack.

Rub chicken all over with olive oil. Pat chicken dry and season all over with salt and pepper (If I have time or think of it, I do this an hour in advance to give the skin a chance to air-dry (in the refrigerator of course) and the seasonings to soak in but it's not necessary).

Take chicken out of fridge at least 30 min before roasting as a cold bird will cook unevenly and throw off cooking times. Transfer chicken, breast side up, to heated skillet in oven. Roast until breasts reach 120 degrees and thighs 135, about 25-30 min. Then turn down oven to 325 and continue to cook until done, about 25 more minutes *(160 degrees for breasts, 175 for thighs).  Remove chicken, let rest for 20 min before serving.

*Note: This high oven to low oven temp process achieves a nice brown skin, with really tender and moist breast meat and perfectly cooked dark meat. The C.I. version has you turning the oven off after the first 30 min and continuing to cook as the oven cools down, slowing the evaporation of juices. My oven not being that precise, I was afraid to do this so I turned it down instead and I think the result was just as good. As always, use a good thermometer as times may vary so check your chicken and err on the side of less, not more time, remembering that temperatures continue to rise when chicken is resting.

Carve chicken and serve-- and watch the happy faces at your table.

January 17, 2014

A new start

image courtesy of
"Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending." - Carl Bard

If you're reading this, maybe you've been around a long time, maybe this is your first time. But, like many people, I always feel a renewed sense of purpose in January and I am reminded that that feeling is what got me writing this blog 6 years ago this month. Wow, I can't believe it has been that long. My motivation for it has gone in and out over the years and life has taken me in other directions, but some things never change: I still like to write and I still love to cook.

I have several friends who said they are relieved that 2013 is over as it was not a great year. It was a rough end of 2013 for us for sure. I had some health problems, I got pregnant, we had a miscarriage, and I fell into a slump that lasted through the holidays. A pregnancy loss is such a hard thing to go through, physically and emotionally, and it has been a real roller coaster ride.

But I am feeling so good about the way things are now, about our little family of three and how we will be stronger for what we've gone through and I just know it's all going to be okay --better than okay. Some things just happen and they change the course of our lives. But good does come out of bad and peace can come from loss.

"Grieving for the child you have lost does not diminish the profound love for the one(s) you have."

This is something I read in a collection of essays on pregnancy loss called "A Silent Love" by Adrienne Ryan. It's something I can't stress enough. Friends, family, strangers, everyone has something to say when they find out you've suffered a miscarriage. And a lot of times it is something along the lines of "Well, at least you have one perfect child." I know they mean well and it's not an easy topic to discuss. But I want to make it clear that there is the love--boundless love it seems-- for the child you have and also profound gratitude. And then there is the love and hopes and dreams for the child you wanted and lost. The two are separate and each deserves its own space.

Our little girl is growing up and giving us so much joy everyday and every year. It's hard to believe the amount of love we have for her could keep increasing, but it does. Each new stage has its own set of discoveries and moments to savor (and challenges too), and I can't help thinking that there is a reason we have been given only one. She's our one and only. The ways that this has shaped who she is and who we are and the ways it will benefit her now and in the future are becoming clearer to me everyday. Our family is perfect the way it is.

I didn't know I was going to write about this today. I planned to write about the delicious granola bars I just made that have me wanting to mine the depths of all the recipes out there using nuts, grains and seeds, and how I have so many ideas about what to bake and cook these days. But there it is. I said it. And it feels good because I finally feel good.

I guess my renewed sense of purpose in the kitchen--and the fact that I chose something like wholesome grains, a feel-good granola bar, to get my creative process flowing--is no accident. And since this is getting to be long-winded, I'll save the recipe and photos for the next blog -- very soon.
Happy New Year and cheers to fresh starts.