Saturday, July 30, 2011



Home from taking the kids to North Carolina to see my brother and his family. Leaving today for the Cape. Vacation is my vocation, it turns out. The only problem with freelancing is that nobody actually pays you while you're not working. Teeny, tiny problem.

Recipes and news when we return!

I hope you're enjoying yourselves so much.


Monday, July 25, 2011

China-Moon Shrimp. And Knives.

So, yes, when it comes to pickles, I am an unreliable narrator. I love them beyond my ability to interpret how widely loveable they might actually be. I pickle cukes and green beans, beets and red radishes and daikon. I have pickled turnips and cauliflower and a fleshy weed called purslane. I make vinegar pickles. I make fermented pickles, like sauerkraut, kim chi, and classic kosher dills. I make pickles you eat right away and pickles you put up in jars so that you can crack open some sweet, fragrant, turmeric-hued bread and butters in the middle of winter. If you left your Birkenstocks here by mistake, I might put them up in a jar of brine.

So, pickled shrimp. I don't even know what to say, except that I do believe there's precedent, and that it's a fairly traditional Southern dish. But this version is based on the late Barbara Tropp's recipe for Chinese-style Pickled Salmon in her fantabulous China Moon cookbook, and it's one of my favorite party and potluck dishes. After pickling, the shrimp get meaty and chewy, addictively puckery and lip-tinglingly spicy. They're a great gateway seafood for uncertain children because they're so firm and "unshrimply," as Ben puts it. I make them and eat them and crave them and then make them again. You will too. Unless you don't like them. And then you won't.

And, about the knives. These are my kitchen workhorses, and I think that why I'm so happy cooking--or at least part of it--is because I have good, sharp knives that make prep work a pleasure. I can sit down with an enormous heap of vegetables to trim and chop, and if I've got my trusty knives, then I just hunker down contentedly to the task. Plus, they're the same knives I'm teaching my kids to cook with, and I feel much safer with them learning to use sharp knives carefully than with them hacking away at stuff with cruddy knives (you are more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife, apparently, because it takes so much more force to slice with it). I am the person who brings my good knives camping, you brings my good knives to our thumbnail-sized vacation rental, because I miss them if I don't (I make a little stapled cardboard sleeve to make traveling with them less scary.)

So, there are others--a good serrated bread knife, for instance--but these two are the knives I use for almost everything:

This Kyocera ceramic paring knife that I've had for years, and that's still as razor-sharp as the day I opened it. I reach for it constantly.

Oh, lovely knife!
There's nothing too hard or soft for it to manage. It's the knife that Birdy uses most of the time for serious cutting, because it fits so nicely in her hand.
And this beautiful Wusthof chef's knife.
Ben cutting the onions.
It is so exquisitely sharp, and wonderfully heavy, and it just feels great in your hand. Of course, it cuts and chops like the dickens. Plus, there's something about the shape that I enjoy for what is likely just an aesthetic reason.

Birdy cutting zukes. She made a cucumber salad the other evening, all by herself! Sliced cukes, fresh mint, and seasoned rice vinegar. She was beyond thrilled.
They aren't cheap, these knives, but here's what you tell yourself: one expensive knife costs the same as going out to dinner maybe once or twice--and you'll use it to make hundreds, or more likely thousands, of meals. Or else go ahead and put it on your wish list in case someone is buying you a present.

China-Moon Pickled Shrimp
Serves 6 as an appetizer
Active time: 20 minutes; total time, including pickling: 1 day

Find fragrant Szechwan peppercorns at an Asian market--or substitute black peppercorns. This is the kind of recipe that should have the word "disappearing" in its title. It's like that.

1/4 cup finely slivered ginger
1 tablespoon Szechwan peppercorns (or regular peppercorns)
1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
2 or 3 spicy chiles (Serrano or jalapeno) cut into thin rings
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (thaw frozen shrimp by running cold water over them in a colander for five or so minutes)
1 small yellow onion, cut into skinny half moons
Mayo, soy sauce, pickled jalapenos for the dipping sauce

Add a tablespoon of the ginger and a teaspoon of the peppercorns to a medium-sized pot of water, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, in another medium-sized pot, bring the vinegars, sugar, salt, remaining ginger and peppercorns, and chilis just to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat.

Now add the shrimp to the boiling water, stir, and cook for 2 minutes, until they are just pink. Drain them in a colander, then add them, along with the onion, to the warm brine and refrigerate overnight in a non-reactive bowl or jar (I use a large mason jar for this, and love the old-fashionedness of it).

To serve, drain the shrimp and their seasonings and arrange them on a platter around a dish of dipping sauce made by whisking 1/2 cup of mayonnaise with 1 tablespoon each of soy sauce and pickling liquid, and chopped pickled jalapeno to taste.

This is actually quite simple to make. 
And good knives make it all the easier! Okay, I'm done sermonizing. For now.
The pickling liquid.
The shrimp, after their brief poaching. 
Jar o' Yum
I played a single game of pingpong, and when I came back upstairs, the shrimp were long gone. Sigh.

Friday, July 22, 2011


This book. I have slowed way down since the middle, in absolute dread of finishing it. And if you haven't read this either, you should.

This music. It's like the Bee Gees crossed with the soundtrack of Friday Night Lights, crossed with all your own memories of broken heartedness. In the most beautiful way. Just listen to a bit of that first song and see if you like it. And if you do, then go watch this Bonnie Raitt cover.

This blog. Which is my friend Emily's. She's as lovely as she seems like she would be.

These movies. Right on the edge (and by "on," I mean, of course, "over"), in terms of appropriateness for the kids, but I have never actually seen Birdy laugh so hard before. I thought she was going to choke. We regaled our friends Daniel and Pengyew so thoroughly over lunch, that they rented the first one too and are still chuckling over the line, "I'm boiling a roast." Speaking of: major heat wave around here. Yikes.

This dress, which I wear every day, all summer long. I even hiked the Alps in it last summer! I have it in black and scuba, and I even bought it new, which is an exceedingly rare phenomenon, as you know, if you see me at the Salvation Army on Family Day.

These skirts. Okay, full disclosure, that's my friend Nicole's etsy shop. But seriously. How gorgeous are they?

This snack. Mmmm. Though it gives us all the thing we call "nut sickness," and I know you know what I'm talking about--the eating equivalent of pouring liquid into a bottle through a funnel and forgetting that it's going to keep filling, filling, filling for a little while even after you stop pouring. If there's no Trader Joe's near you, maybe you can figure out how to make these, and then tell me all about it.

Stay cool. And thank you for co-reminiscing with me over that last post. I am always in such good company with you.


p.s. I see that somebody ended up here from Googling "Catherine Newman Brazilian." I sure hope it was only chocolate cake you were looking for, given the expansive fact of my navel-to-kneecaps pubic hair.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nickerson Again

I think it's from a Sandra Cisneros story--about how, at every age, you still have all your other ages rattling around inside you. It's so true. I used to picture time as this rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it's nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that's come before. Cut me open and I'm a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward.

This is what I'm thinking, camping for the eleventh year in a row, in the exact campsite where we have pitched our tent since Ben was a baby. At the picnic table I write on a pad, "like rings in a tree trunk, all the years inside all the years," and my friend Nicole sees it and asks if it's a poem. "No. It's just camping. Every year I think about the year before when I was thinking about the year before, and it goes all the way back. You know?" "I think you said that last year," our friend Jonathan says, and I say, "Exactly." In fact, writing this just now, I Googled "Catherine Newman matryoshka dolls" and sure enough--I've also described camping that way, all the years nested inside each other. It is my own personal house of mirrors, writing about it. Here first, for example. And then here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And, um, here. Oh, and also here.

I drive everybody crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweetness personified. Only, for some reason, the older the kids get, the less filled with dread I am about their growing up--it's sweeter and sweeter, with just a thin bitter core filled with the babies who are gone from us, with snapshots of their chubby pink cheeks. Mostly, it just gets better and better: everybody swimming and biking and wiping their own cracks; fewer marshmallows stuck to weeping heads of hair and less vigilance required from the grown-ups. "I can't believe how much better it gets!" I exclaim, as the kids tear around the campground in wild bicycling circles while we sit at the campfire with our beers and happiness. "I think you said that last year," Jonathan says. Exactly.

I have always loved the camping, but now I look back and feel like maybe it kind of used to suck. I mean, there was the beach: nursing a hot and sandy somebody in a little blowing-away tent, a pee-bloated swim diaper soaking in my lap. Or the campsite itself, where I seemed to spend every minute chasing my miniature humans away from the road, or shepherding them up to the bathroom so they could admire the vast and flapping entomology lab while pooping for hours on end. I know I loved it. I did. But seriously.

In fact, we saw a couple out by the bay with a two-month-old--and they were trying to keep it out of the sun, and the baby was red and crying, and the parents were taking turns wading into the water up to their ankles before darting back to make sure the other person wasn't mad at them for being gone so long, and I wanted to say, "Oh, go home. Turn on the AC and the TV, and just relax. You can go to the beach later, when it's older." But I remember how much fun we thought we were having--and were, I'm sure--and I spare them my demented advice.

Oh, but then, some things don't change at all. I walk down the road to our campsite with Birdy's hand in mine, and it is this same moment from my entire life of mothering her: her trust and curiosity. Her absolute hereness. "Is it true, about stars, about how we see them even if they're maybe not still shining?" she wants to know, and I could burst into tears, like the weirdo I am. "I think it is," I say, "but it is so hard to understand." I feel her fingers in mine, the full moon rising up into the pines like a cosmic lantern, the squirrels chuckling to themselves in the branches above us, and I want only now. The glow that lasts beyond itself. And I have it.

The beach.

The Pond, also known as Heaven on Earth. It is the most beautiful spot on the planet, and we are always the only people there. There just happened to be 16 of us this year. . . 

The Brewster General Store. We bought Turkish taffy and gummy coke bottles and Mary Janes and black licorice and jawbreakers and caramel bull's eyes.

The thrill of victory (bean bag toss).

And the agony of defeat (mini golf).

This was The Year of Whittling. We whittled and whittled and it was so much fun. I cannot recommend it enough. Try it: make chopsticks, because then you'll have a goal. And also something beautiful at the end, besides your own blistered hands.

Ben whittled. "I should pitch this to FamilyFun," I said, dreamily, and he said, "Good idea, Mama. You could call the piece  'Fun with Fire and Knives.'" Oh, right.

Birdy whittled.

Everybody whittled. It is the most companionable activity ever. Only a very few injuries were sustained.

Shavings galore. By the time we packed up camp, it looked like hamsters had been living there.


And more chopsticks. Seriously, do try this at home, but don't cut off your leg or anything, okay?

"If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs," Michael's dad likes to joke--"If we had eggs." Luckily, we had eggs.

And home-grown ham. And raspberries from our friends' patch. Also fluffer-nutter sandwiches. Just so you don't think we're so fancy.

If you bring pizza dough camping but forget to use it, fry it up in bacon fat the last morning.

Then fill it with raspberry jam and be prepared for the best donuts you ever ate in your life.

Camp Rice and Beans. Fry garlic in olive oil, add 2 pouches of Success Instant Brown Rice (out of the pouch), one can of black beans with their liquid, one bean-can of water, half a cup of salsa, and some salt and lime juice. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed (10 minutes) then turn off the heat, top with cheddar cheese, and cover until it melts. So, so good.
I hope you're loving July.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Japanese Restaurant Spinach with Sweet and Salty Peanut Dressing

In order to make enough of this, I think I'd need some kind of a dump-truck delivery of spinach.

At our favorite Japanese restaurant, Osaka--the place where the kids and I always want to go for our birthdays (links to me writing about it before, only oddly unflatteringly. . .)--there's a crazy-addictive spinach dish that's listed on the menu as "Osmitashi." You might see it on your favorite Japanese restaurant's menu as "oshitashi," which seems to be the preferred English spelling, and if you order it, it will be delicious: chilled balls of steamed spinach in a light dressing of soy and sesame, or maybe ponzu, which is soy and citrus. It's always good. But at Osaka, it's different: the dressing is thick and creamy, rich and salty and a little bit sweet. It says "sesame dressing" on the menu, but, in the way of many "sesame dressings," such as the cold sesame noodles from Empire Szechuan on 100th and Broadway, your mouth says "peanut butter." It's topped with papery flakes of dried, smoked fish (bonito) and the four of us used to get one order, to share, and now we get two, to share, and it's not enough. "I'm getting my own," I say. "For just me. I want you guys to understand that and order accordingly." Only then Michael and the kids decide to share one, and what do you know, they need to get all involved with mine when they run out. I think "step off," but sigh, instead, in my maternal spinachless martyrdom.
 Thus we came (when? just now) to a recent evening of toying, unflushly, with the idea of going out to eat. It was really the osmitashi itself I was craving--not even the expensive rest of the meal--and so, thriftily, I bought a huge bag of spinach instead, and we set about to copycatting. And we got pretty close--close enough to make something addictive, and so we bought another huge back of spinach the very next day and nailed it. The first version had toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil in it, and it was a little wrong. Also miso, which was also wrong (maybe I was confusing it with our other addiction, the miso salad dressing at Fresh Side in Amherst, which CANNOT BE DUPLICATED no matter how hard we try). In fact, it turned out to be incredibly simple: peanut butter, rice vinegar, soy, and sweetener. And the bonito flakes, which I got at our local Asian market, but which you could get more expensively from Whole Foods. 

We've made it a half dozen times now, and it disappears in about a minute. It's crazy good. I want to say that it's irresistible, except that Ben and Birdy's friends Harry and Ava managed somehow to resist it. We were shocked, but it's true--they didn't like it. I mean, they didn't wipe their tongues off on a dish towel (*cough* Ben and hard-boiled egg *cough*), but they ate about 4 nanobites each. So if you really are not a fan of cooked spinach, this may or may not convert you. But the dressing is great for cold noodles too, so you might want to make it anyway.

Speaking of--what? Cold noodles? No. Nothing, I guess. But we're leaving today for our annual camping trip on the Cape! See you there? I'll be the one in line at Moby Dick's trying to decide between scallops and clams.


Osaka-style Osmitashi
Serves 4
Active time: 10 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes

1 pound clean spinach (in a pinch, a 10-ounce bag will be okay, but not enough)
2 tablespoons peanut butter (mine is not natural-style: it's the organic kind from Whole Foods that has sugar and salt and oil in it, like eco-Jif)
2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar (or plain rice vinegar, with a little more soy and sweetener to compensate)
1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
2 teaspoons agave nectar (or, I'm assuming, honey or sugar)
2 tablespoons warm water
Bonito flakes (or toasted sesame seeds) for topping

Cram all the spinach into a large lidded pot with a steamer and a half an inch of water in the bottom of it, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Steam the spinach until it is thoroughly wilted and collapsed--a minute or two. Leave it to cool while you make the dressing.

Combine the peanut butter, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sweetener in a food processor and whizz until it's blended and creamy, then drizzle in the water with the motor running. Now look at it and taste it: it should be thin enough to pour (add more water if it's not) and it should be a perfect balance of sweet and salty, with just enough vinegar to keep it from being cloying. Try it, ideally, on a piece of spinach so you'll see what it's going to taste like, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Scrape the dressing into a jar you can pour it from easily.

Ideally, with all your dithering, the spinach will be cool enough to handle now. Gather it up and wring it out over the sink. Really squeeze it--you're going to end up with something around the size of a baseball, which is kind of demoralizing but totally fine! Squeeze and squeeze it. Now grab the ball of spinach in one hand and a pair of clean scissors in the other, and cut the spinach ball over a bowl so that you are making smallish pieces of spinach. (Why couldn't you do this with a knife on a cutting board like a normal person? Good question! I'm sure you could!). You're not looking for it to be chopped fine--but you want to be able to grab at it with chopsticks and have some come away without a lot of trouble.

Now grab small handfuls of the spinach and squeeze them loosely into balls. You will get around 8 balls. Arrange the balls in a dish and then (ideally, if you can stand to) cover and refrigerate for a half an hour until they're nice and cold. Now drizzle the dressing around them, sprinkle the bonito flakes on top, and serve.
Oh, that's got to be much too much spinach!
I'm kidding, of course. It all but disappears.
When I'm wringing it out, I think about saving--and then drinking--the spinach juice, but then I think of the "Hard Core" song from School of Rock. I think that might be too hard core even for me.
Snip, snip, snip. A knife would just make it taste so. . . knifey.
This takes just a few seconds--in case this picture gives you that hours-and-hours feeling of making dumplings or ravioli or something. Nope. Easy peasy.
The dressing is quick and easy. And here's my weekly plug for the Agave Council! Kidding.
You could pour the dressing actually onto the spinach balls, given that you're not trying precisely to recreate the way Osaka does it.
Fish food! Bonito flakes. I know they don't seem promising, but they're so smoky and delicious.
Birdy is ready. . . set, go!
Funny that I mentioned "fish food," since the expression "feeding frenzy" comes to mind here--the way goldfish swarm at the top of the tank.
 I feel like the Star-Wars light-saber sound-effects should be playing. We eat this so quickly and thoroughly.

Friday, July 08, 2011

If You Give a Mom a Tylenol PM. . .

If you give a mom a Tylenol PM, she's going to sleep like a submarine bloop-bloop-blooping along the ocean floor.

When she wakes up, she's going to need to do something about her face, which will be simultaneously bloated and creased, like an apple-head witch doll that's been left to soak overnight.

So she's going to need to drive to her meeting with Scotch tape on her forehead to smooth out her puffy wrinkles while she squints blearily into the sun.

Then she's going to worry that she's too groggy to remember the tape on her face, so she's going to tuck her skirt into her underwear, while she's driving, to remind her when she gets there, and notices her skirt tucked into her underwear, that she has tape on her face.
Only she won't. She will walk 15 steps from her car towards her place of work with a taped face and her skirt tucked snugly up into her cotton underpants.

And chances are, if she walks to her meeting in skirt-stuffed underwear with tape on her face, she's not going to be able to fall asleep tonight, so she's going to need a Tylenol PM…

The End.
Okay, new ChopChop column is here.

And I have a few little road-trip suggestions!

Bossypants, on audio, for the grown-ups. So, so funny. Plus, there's bad language and inappropriate stuff galore, but the politics are so great that it was okay with me if the kids heard an odd bit here and there when they took their headphones off. (Go to and see if they're still having their free trial.)

Knucklehead, on audio, for the whole family. Also so, so funny. A three-hour car trip passed in a blink while we listened to this. (Rectum? It nearly killed him!)

Have I already sent you to Mom's Minivan before? She has really great, free printable games and activities, such as license-plate bingo, the dot game, and an excellent pen-and-paper version of Battleship that we love.

And, finally, we got this very simple License Plate Poker game that is simple, but very diverting for some reason. I got it at Barnes and Noble, and even though I was balky about spending $10, I think we're going to get hundreds of hours out of boring-fun play out of it. If you win, you get a sticker for your booklet, and you know how much fun it is to pick stickers! I won a lot, luckily.

Still mulling blog names. . . Happy weekend! xo