Monday, November 30, 2015

Gift Guide 2015

Thank goodness I'm not sentimental, or these little faces would really kill me!
My loves. I want to say the obvious, before launching into the catalogue of things to buy, buy BUY! and it's this: touch a match to some candles, set out a bowl of nuts and a nutcracker, put on some croonery Christmas carols, write a check to Planned Parenthood and Partners in Health, and participate as little as you like in the consumer end of things. We have actually stopped giving the kids birthday things (we give them experiences instead, like concert tickets or ziplining), but we still wrap up material gifts at the holidays. But I am all for not doing that. Or for making everything yourself. Or for whatever tradition you can come up with that distills the spirit of the season back to light in the darkness rather than a black hole where your wallet used to be. 

But. For buying things, here's a little culled list of ideas for games and books and other happy-making things that will ideally either have remarkable longevity or get nice and used up (rather than languishing unloved in your life and home).

Last year's gift ideas are here.

The year before, here

And the year before that, here.

As always, the master list of games is here.

For starters: Animal Upon Animal, Small and Yet Great!

Our coffee table continues to be covered in white paper, and this continues to be a great thing.
You are going to think this is a German little-kid game that's been awkwardly translated, and you are going to be right. But oh, it is so strangely wonderful. I first laid eyes on it in a Facebook post by Jessica Lahey (who also wrote a fantastic piece about games for the Atlantic), and it has been a favorite ever since: a simple, maddening, tiny, aesthetically divine, fabulous stacking game. There are other versions of this game, including the original big one, and we've never played any of them because this one is so perfect. I keep it in a little mint tin in my bag, and it is our go-to restaurant game for that awkward stretch of time when the chicken wings still haven't come out.

A brand-new favorite is Rolling America, which is like a slightly more complex version of the always-terrific Qwixx, but with similar game play and materials. You roll dice and fill in numbers (the whole country/state thing is kind of a red herring, in terms of strategy), and you need to put certain numbers next to others, and no two whatevers can be next to something else, and men with knitted woolen ties can't sit next to women drinking tea, so how would you arrange the luncheon buffet? No, it's not like the GREs. It's just dice and numbers. And it's an excellent game. 
If you play on a dirty carpet in bad light, it will look more like this.
Plus, relatively simple, inexpensive, quick to play, and portable. LOVE it.

I lifted this photo from BoardGameGeek.
Splendor was our new big game of 2015. We played it a lot. It's kind of a classic accumulate-resources-to-get-more-resources game, as many strategy games are, but it's a lot faster, easier, and quicker to learn than, say, my beloved Agricola or Catan. Plus, there's a jewel theme, which is appealing, and the jewel chips are weighted in a lovely way that makes the game feel well-crafted. I have to paste this, though, from their own description, because what? "As a wealthy Renaissance merchant, acquire mines and transportation, hire artisans and woo the nobility. Create the most fantastic jewelry to become the best-known merchant of them all! Acquire precious stones to trade them for development cards. Use development cards to acquire more gem stones. Use your gems and gold to create the most fantastic jewelry, and appeal to the nobles to gain the prestige you need to win." Who knew!

Next up, a pair of games that we got last Christmas, and that we play regularly. We are learning about ourselves, as a game-playing family, that the more attractive a game is, the more we want to play it. Call us shallow design snobs, but there it is.
Machi Koro is an awesome city-building card game that I'm pretty sure one of *you* recommended to us! (Thank you.) I'm linking to the deluxe edition here because it includes both the Harbor and Millionaire's Row expansions, which we have and love, but you could also give the original, which is smaller and less expensive, and then you can save the expansions to give separately when birthdays come around! Right? 

It also happens to have really great graphics and colors. It's your kind of classic--say it with me--get-resources-so-you-can-get-more-resources game, and, as with most good games, every time we play, the wheel in my brain turns another notch, and I think: Aha! That's how you play! 

Takenoko is a full-on game, with awesome panda graphics, Catan-style tiles, a cool die, and colorful wooden pieces. 

You are growing bamboo to feed a giant panda, and it's got a little of the Catan juggling-goals flavor, but definitely refracted through, like, the cheerful feelig of Totoro. That is, it is appealing to younger players, and while there are a number of rules, it is not hideously impossible to learn. Plus: totally adorable.

I have gotten in the habit of getting our family a White Mountain puzzle every year, and this time it's the junk-food one. As far as I'm concerned, White Mountain makes the perfect puzzle: fun themes, interlocking pieces, and plenty of individual areas for people to work on in the kind of parallel-play puzzle-doing apart togetherness that I love. I won't put this under the tree. My mom and I will open it (and some other things, like bottles of wine) on Christmas eve. 

I mentioned them over the summer, I know, but these watercolors would make a perfect holiday gift. They're compact and of very high quality: the hues are as vivid or washed as you want them to be, and the colors themselves are simply thrilling. We use them all the time. The pad you see in the picture above is the fabulous Poppin Jumbo Writing Pad that used to be called "The Analog Tablet," which made me laugh. I have given this pad as a gift to at least a dozen kids, including my own, and everybody loves it. The paper is thick and white and square, and edged attractively in green and blue. Plus, the pad is just so appealingly thick and chunky. 

I am also rementioning this wonderful coloring book. The whole series is great (we got this one too), and the pages are sturdy enough to handle the paints. This would be fun to get, no matter who you were, except if you were my dad, so I won't be getting it for him.

I also got my kids some ridiculously expensive pencils this year.

They're Blackwings, and our friend Corn, who I trust in all things, made me feel like we had to have to them. Putting pencils in the kids' stockings reminds me of Ben's fourth birthday, when our friend Daniel asked him if anything special had happened yet and Ben said, with his excited little eyes glittering, "Well, Daniel. Yes. I got juice without any water in it!" "Juice without any water in it!" Daniel said. "You are living the dream."

Okay, are you ready for the slightly more random portion of the gift guide? It's these four things, and then after that, some not-random books. 
This weird plastic stuff: Fix That Thing Mouldable Glue. I confess to having an ulterior motive in putting it in the kids' stockings this year: there are some broken things I'm hoping they'll repair, including a shower handle, a pair of kitchen scissors, and a window latch. Merry Christmas! (But it really looks cool--like Silly Putty, only purposeful.)

This Swedish Fireknife, but sign the waiver first, okay? Because this is not for the faint of heart. We gave it to a friend for his eleventh birthday (after clearing it with his parents, I swear), and he did manage to give himself a small(ish) cut. So. There's that. But he loves it, and I love it as a gift for older kids because it is so real and useful, and the fire starting--which involves striking a steel with the knife--requires practice but is so incredibly cool. We are giving it to Birdy for Christmas, along with this book. (Read the reviews and it will become clear that, in the Venn diagram, this is where I overlap with conservative survivalists.)

This bubble bath, which I mentioned last week too. It's something we actually had when I was a child, so it's true that the aromatic nostalgia factor is high for me. Still, it is gorgeous. Not at all car-freshenery. Just clean, real, pure foresty heaven, and a little goes a long way. I got a few bottles to give as adult gifts (why does that sound like porn?), and I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want it.

This cider syrup. Okay, yes, our dear friends make it, so are we biased? 

Cider makers! (aka "Ava's parents.")
No we are not. I would love it no matter what--for cocktails, for waffles, for braising pork and glazing ham. It is my go-to sweetener for savory dishes, and the New York Times wrote, praising it highly, "The depth of flavor that can be teased from apples is evident in a dark cider syrup that suggests caramel."

And a couple of books, below, but for other books that would make great gifts (or to read yourself while you're hiding out from the holidays), including the fabulous new children's classic, Rad American Women A to Z, please see this post. Note: I am starting to think that All My Puny Sorrows may be the best novel I have ever read. Oh, and The Green Road--get it for yourself and/or anybody who is lucky enough not to have read it yet. Oh, oh, and The Last September. Okay. I'm moving onto the giftier books now, I swear.

Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York, which, coincidentally, our cider-making friends gave us last year. The book is a lot like the blog: photographs of vibrant, wacky, beautiful, struggling people, with provocative, funny, life-affirming captions that make you think and laugh and--listen closely!--that creak open your heart a few notches. Plus, it is lovely to sit with your children and a real book, rather than calling everyone to gather round a device. This is also a great book to give teenagers, who can find themselves in a strange vortex of difficulty, with respect to gifts: halfway between LEGO and scotch. It is edgily wholesome in all the right ways.

Okay, this which I'm pasting from an earlier post: the latest Unbored book: Unbored Adventure, which I had the deep honor of contributing to, and which Birdy has named "The best Unbored book yet!" (Huge praise.) This is a chock-a-block book, filled with crazy, thoughtful, well-tested ideas that range from the immediately doable to the profoundly inspirational and aspirational. Birdy read the book cover to cover, then promptly spent the day sewing something called a "Ditty Bag," which thrilled her no end. "What are you going to do next from it?" I asked her, and she looked thoughtful, then said, "Purify drinking water using nesting bowls and evaporation." We have already given many copies of this as gifts, sometimes accompanied by an adventurous accessory, like a headlamp or a Swiss Army Knife or the Swedish Fireknife above.

We (i.e. I) got Ben 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School and 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. These are crazily attractive little hardback books that are simply full of interesting stuff. Plus, again, for the halfway-between-LEGO-and-scotch crowd, just perfect. Or, I'm hoping. Because I haven't given them yet. But we saw them for sale at the MIT gift shop, so I have a good feeling about them. There are more in the series, too, depending on the interests of your person: cooking, business, law. Oh my god, are they all written by men? I think they are. Sigh. Sexist gift alert. #bastards

Last year, I gave Birdy Just Between Us: A No-Stress No-Rules Journal for Girls and Their Moms, not sure if it mightn't be too gimmicky to be her exact cuppa--and she has absolutely loved it. We both did. Do still. Basically, you each answer the same questions or set of prompts, and it's a way to communicate and share that's totally low-key and free-form. Sometimes we sit together and fill it out; sometimes we leave it on the other person's pillow to find and respond to--from the basic "Favorite Word," "Favorite Book," kinds of questions, to the meatier, "Something I'd do if I knew I'd never fail" or "I believe in." I think it would be a good gift for kids 8 and up. I'm not sure why it's gendered like this, but there it is.

Happy, merry, all of it, all the time. xo

Saturday, November 28, 2015


My loves, I wrote something about being with my friend Ali while she was dying. It's here. I hope you had a wonderful holiday. I, for one, am happily full in every way I can think of. xo

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015


I don't recall Jenny's photo having a glass of pinot noir conspicuously in the foreground.
I am copying my friend Jenny, over at Dinner: A Love Story, who recently put up a photo like this in a post about feeling, after the Paris attacks, like she wanted to be useful. It is such a good idea, to make yourself useful. During this season, we avail ourselves of the opportunity to give money away--to invest in the world we believe in and the one we hope for. That means, for us, stretching to give to the global health organization Partners in Health, but it also means giving smaller amounts to the other causes that matter most to us: Planned Parenthood, public radio, Democrats, and, if paying overdue fines counts, our local library. This year, we will figure out a way to donate that best helps Syrian refugees.

But take care of yourselves too, okay? I know the dark season is upon us, in so many ways. But you can warm and cheer yourself. You should. Make a simple pot of soup, read a perfect novelstitch a garland from the last of the supple leaves, take a fragrant bath, listen to a beautiful album for free, kiss your pets and friends and family, give what you can, and light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

Sending love now and always. xo

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Coq au Vin

I am still shepherding recipes over to here from other places, and this is an old cold-weather favorite. Not just because of the warming deliciousness and the long cooking, but also because it's red-wine season, which means that we occasionally have a couple of inches left in different bottles ("Why did we not finish this?" I've been known to exclaim in the morning, mystified), and this puts it to good use. Take a little swig first, though, before you pour it in. Not just because of enjoying the little swig (although that) but also to make sure the wine tastes at least pretty good. I don't follow the "if it's not good enough to drink, it's not good enough to cook with" dogma, but if it's not *decent* enough to drink--like, you wouldn't even drink it if it were the only wine in the house and you'd been on hold with the cable internet people for 45 minutes while simultaneously writing an email about how most of the definitions on the SAT-prep vocabulary shower curtain were actually incorrect and also cat poop in the living room--don't use it.

Coq au Vin
Serves 4-6

This classic French stew gets its deep flavor from long cooking and red wine, maybe even the dregs from a few different bottles. Serve over polenta or egg noodles for the ultimate in comfort food.

1/4 pound bacon, diced
a 4- or 5-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or 4 bone-in, skin-on breast-halves, halved crosswise, or some equivalent number of legs and thighs
Kosher salt
1/2 cup flour
3 tablespoons butter
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons brandy (Optional. I have used *bourbon* by mistake, and it was good.)
3 cups dry red wine
1 tablespoon wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 cup chicken broth

Heat the oven to 325. Place the bacon in a large, heavy Dutch oven and set over medium heat. Cook the bacon, stirring, until it is browned and crisp. Remove the bacon to a plate and turn off the heat under the pot.

Dredge the chicken: stir the flour in a pie plate with 2 teaspoons of kosher salt (or half as much table salt), and coat each piece of chicken thoroughly, shaking off any excess.

Over medium-high heat, add a tablespoon of butter to the bacon fat in the pot. When the fat is hot, add the chicken to the pot in a single layer, without crowding, and sear on both sides, turning once with tongs, until a deep, golden-brown crust forms: 7-10 minutes total. Transfer the chicken to a plate and, if there's a second batch to brown, brown it, lowering the heat if the chicken threatens to burn at any point. When all the chicken is browned and removed to the plate, pour the fat out of the pan and discard, but retain all the nice browned bits.

Now add the remaining butter to the pot and, over medium heat, sauté the onions, carrot, and celery, stirring, until the vegetables are softening and flecked with brown, around 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and sauté for a minute, and then add the brandy, if you're using it, and simmer, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot until the liquid is almost gone. Now turn the heat to high and add the wine, vinegar, sugar, garlic, herbs, and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, bring to a boil, and simmer over medium-high heat until the wine reduces by about half--10 or 15 minutes. Stir in the broth and reserved bacon and bring to a boil, then arrange the chicken in the pot in a single layer (our in any juices from the plate) and cover with parchment paper, pressing down so that the paper nearly touches the chicken and extends up over the sides of the pot. Cover with the lid, place in the middle of the oven, and braise for around 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the chicken is very tender and starting to fall apart. Taste the gravy for salt and balance, adding more salt, sugar, or vinegar if it needs a lift in any direction.

Serve with cooked egg noodles or potatoes. (Note: if the gravy does not seem thick enough, remove the chicken and boil it, uncovered, for 5 or 10 minutes until it does.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Momofuku's Soy Sauce Eggs

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I love eating out. If we were rich, I swear, we would eat out every night—even though, yes, I love to cook and, yes, that money would be better spent writing a big old check to Partners in Health. I know.

Anyhoo, Momofuku is this incredible restaurant in New York, where you wait in line for nine hours so that you can be hustled through the most expensive meal of your life in twenty minutes. But, oh! That meal. We have eaten things there—their famous ramen, their shrimp buns, a special octopus salad—that I have thought about almost every day since eating them.  That said, it’s not an ideal restaurant for our strictly vegetarian Birdy, being largely porkcentric and kind of unapologetically unaccommodating overall. However, Birdy did order a neon green cucumber salad that was improbably good, and, also, this simple, briny pickled egg that arrived beneath a thick shower of fried shallots.


I promised her I would try to make them at home, and now I’ve made good on that promise and I can say that they’re dead-easy and just as delicious as the ones we ate in the restaurant, maybe even more delicious given that we’re using eggs from our neighborhood farm that have the kind of glowing yolks that sing a song about grass and worms and sunshine. But there were a couple store-bought eggs in one batch, and those were pretty effing good too.

Thanks to their killer umaminess, even Ben almost liked them, and he has hated hardboiled eggs since he first tried one, at the age of 14 months, when he was fed a small piece and promptly unfurled his horrified tongue back out of his mouth, with the egg still on it, the same way you would hold your hand far away from your body if somebody happened to shit into it.

But this pickled egg he tasted, then shook his head, then came back to taste it again, the way you do, when you can’t quite let go of something. “That’s definitely the best hardboiled egg I’ve ever tried,” is what he said. “It’s like weird, tangy Jell-o.”


But he’s right, texture-wise. The boiling method and timing produces eggs with perfectly firm whites and gelatinous yolks with a liquid center.  This is, as far as I’m concerned, the ideal egg, and it’s how you get them at Momofuku. If you think that’s not going to work for you, try cooking them a minute longer, but really—don’t go for solid yolks or you’ll dim the magic. Trust me on this.

Momofuku’s Soy Sauce Eggs
This is my version of Food52’s version, which is a version of the version in Milk Bar Life. I added the fried shallots, since that’s how we ate them at Momofuku. Serve these as part of a bread board for dinner, or for breakfast, lunch, or a snack. Don’t worry if you run out of shallots—the eggs are great without them too, although I bet that slivered scallions, crushed potato chips, and/or crumbled bacon would make great toppings too.

6 large eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
¾ cup soy sauce (the recipe recommends low-sodium, but you can guess whether or not that’s what I used)
Neutral-tasting vegetable oil
1 shallot, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
Kosher salt

Half-fill a large pot with water, and bring it to a boil over high heat.

Carefully lower the eggs into the boiling water (I do them two at a time with a ladle) and boil them for 7 minutes (or, according to the incomparable David Chang of Momofuku, for 6 minutes and 50 seconds), stirring them for the first minute and a half (I think what that does is keep the yolk from settling to one side, and it works really well.) Fill a bowl with ice and cold water to prepare for the eggs being done.

While the eggs cook, whisk the sugar into the water in a small bowl, then stir in the vinegar and soy sauce.

After 7 minutes, use a slotted spoon to move the eggs to the ice water. When they’re cold enough to handle, peel them, and put them in a container that they just fit in in a single layer. Pour the marinade over them and refrigerate. The recipe says 2 to 6 hours and I, naturally, went for the full 6. Remove the eggs to a lidded container and store in the fridge for—the recipe claims, improbably—up to a month. You can reuse the soy-sauce mixture for more eggs. I do.

When you’re ready to serve, fry the shallots. Heat a very small pan over medium heat, add a big splash of oil (there should be enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan) and fry the shallot, stirring constantly, until browned and sort of fluffy-seeming, about 3 minutes. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate and salt them. (Use the extra oil for something: salad dressing or stir-frying cabbage, say.)

Slice each egg lengthwise a top with a small shower of shallots. If you skip the shallots for any reason, then sprinkle a little pinch of coarse salt on the yolk before serving.