Thursday, November 29, 2012

We Were Bored and We Liked It

Somewhere around hour four of a five-hour flight, my seven year old uttered the inevitable words of a child traveler: I wish we were there already. I shared her sentiment but took umbrage.

She had a bag full of books, puzzles, and an iPod and headphones. I had food stashed in every carry-on: squeezable applesauce, Pirate's Booty, granola bars. I had three flavors of gum, pomegranate lollipops, and a few Starbursts hidden in my purse. I could not fight the Jetstream, but surely my preparation could rebuff hunger and monotony.

Five years before we had made the same journey. It was well before iPods and iPads, and before she had a fondness for Hot Chelle Rae. (To be fair, it was before anyone had a fondness for Hot Chelle Rae.) I had a bag full of stickers, some small cards with ducks, goldfish and a clumsy mini DVD player. Elmo’s World would entertain, in the moments when such devices were permissible, and in the others, she amused herself by head-butting her father. A good time was had by all, until the fun and games ended by an altitude-induced bloody nose.

In my day, I thought now, we were bored all the time. And we liked it.

I do not remember many plane flights from my youth, but I remember many long car rides. My mom would pack some hard-boiled eggs, and my older brother and I would occupy ourselves by monitoring the cloth line that delineated the sides of the back seat. Eventually, my brother would convince me to crouch down where one’s feet usually rest, and he’d stretch out.

He also got me to eat puppy chow, but that’s a story for another day.

The point is that most of the time we expected to be bored and nauseous. It was a tacit understanding and that, I suppose, is where I have put myself into a tough spot. My mother never said, “What do you mean you’re bored? You have hard-boiled eggs and a new Billy Joel tape?”

But, how often do I hear myself saying, “You can’t be bored. You have your iPod and Flavor Blasted Goldfish.”

In the not-so-long-ago past of stickers and Elmo, it was common wisdom to keep the airplane goodies a surprise. Novelty was the name of the game. Anything new—no matter how small-could entertain. But now, the ante must always be upped.

Common Sense Media recently released a study that puts this phenomenon in another context: school. In a report published this November, 71% of teachers surveyed said entertainment media has hurt their students’ attention spans.

The findings have bigger implications for the classroom, both in terms of how students handle obstacles and communicate and in how teachers might attempt to compete, or not, with the format of video games, apps, social networking sites and other forms of digital entertainment.

But what does it mean for the road trip? Or 39,000 feet above the ground? In many ways the plane flight is more complicated than a car ride because you can not pull off to the side of the road to fetch something from the trunk, make a pit stop to stretch your legs, have a picnic in a state park, or swing by Arby’s to get your dog a roast beef sandwich (we only did that once.)

Then, as with now, you eventually have to put the Walkman down. The stickers are all used up. The iPod is no longer amusing. You just have to lean your head against the glass and stare out the window.

To sit quietly with one’s own thoughts, to allow for silence, and to accept that doing nothing may or may not feel like boredom is a noble experience. But if it is not practiced on the ground, there’s little chance that a four or seven year old is going to be happy about it in the air. And the trouble then is that it’s not just the parents who hear and feel their child’s frustration; it’s the entire plane. So we fight against boredom instead of letting it creep in and a victory is never absolute. It’s relative.

On our return, with the Jetstream in our favor, and after we’d gotten off the plane and begun our walk to baggage claim, my husband remarked, “Well our kids were not the worst behaved ones on the plane.”

He wasn’t damning them with faint praise, he was ranking the behavior of kids on the plane and, truth be told, ours actually weren’t the most poorly behaved. That distinction went to the kids in the row in front of us. Three kids crammed into two seats, who at various points cried and squirmed, without a parent in the aisle.

Why this seating arrangement?

They all needed to share the same iPad.

Photo credit: Itsramon, wikipedia commons. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Let's Talk Turkey with Chef Daniel Gallo

Let’s talk turkey, and a few other dishes, with a man who knows what he’s talking about. Chef Daniel Gallo is the owner of Little Pig Catering in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He’s worked in restaurants all over the country, including ventures as sous chef in two named to Bon Appetit’s Top 10 New Restaurants list. Dan is sharing some tips with readers this week. He’ll also offer “hotline” assistance by answering reader questions sent to his email address. And, local folks can get 10% off a catered meal or event if you mention this blog post now or even after Turkey Day. So, with less than a week before the big meal, let’s dish with our own top chef.

Dan starts the conversation by offering this preface: Thanksgiving is my mother’s holiday. I have cooked during the years when I lived too far to come home, but when I can make it home I only help. It doesn’t matter how many great kitchens I have worked in, on Thanksgiving my Mom is the boss. 

1. Let’s start with the turkey. What do you think is the most common mistake people make when making the Thanksgiving turkey? How could they avoid this? 

I think that the most common mistake people make in regards to the turkey is simple; they over think it. I think that people build it up as the MAIN course on the big Holiday and they feel pressure to make it “perfect”. Don’t over think it. Use a fresh turkey, pre-heat your oven and give it a little butter under the skin or some olive oil. Season it well with kosher salt & black pepper and then just be patient. Always use a digital probe thermometer and set the temperature (let the probe do all the guesswork of when it is done), and make sure to let it rest before slicing.

2. I often make a very rich potato and fennel gratin but even though we only have it once a year, it’s beginning to get old. What might be a new take on a gratin or casserole you’d recommend?

I love roasted winter squash and it makes a delicious casserole. I like to roast some Butternut and Delicata Squash, assemble the gratin and have it chilled and ready to go.

3. Speaking of potatoes, how can a person make mashed potatoes that don’t end up like glue?

Potatoes end up like glue because they are over cooked (which soaks up water) and then over worked, which releases the starch. Russets or Yukon Gold’s make great mashed potatoes.
 · Simmer the potatoes, don’t boil.
 · Drain when they are just tender, do not let sit in the water.
 · Heat cream and butter in a separate pan, mash briefly, stir in hot cream until just incorporated.

 4. Would you share some tips for preparation and getting the timing right when planning a large meal for a lot of guests? 

Stay organized; lists are your best friend. Make a shopping list, then make a list of all the cooking that you need to do (this is a “prep” list). Look at the list and start to figure out what you can do ahead of time, and when you have time to get it done. The turkey needs to be cooked on Thanksgiving, but plenty of sides can be prepared a day or two ahead…in fact some items get better after a night in the fridge (i.e. soups & stews). Finally, make another list for Thanksgiving (this one should be a timeline) and try your best to stick to it.

5. What is an underrated dish that you think could be more appreciated on the Thanksgiving table?

Dinner Rolls. Most times they are an afterthought or store bought, but there is nothing better than a warm, flaky biscuit or a buttery-yeasty Parker House Roll.

6. Can you tell us about the most involved or complicated dish you make for Thanksgiving? The simplest?

I try not to make anything too complicated on Holidays, lots of simple sides. Sometimes I’ll make stuffed Pastas (roasted squash) but that is about as complicated as it will get. The simplest is Mashed Potatoes, not fancy Pommes Puree mind you, just good old mashed Potatoes.

7. Do you have any family recipes or dishes that you include out of tradition?

It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the smell of my Mother’s Pumpkin Bread.

8. You like to work with local ingredients. What is on your list this year and where have you gotten them?

I am still getting introduced to all of the wonderful local markets and farmers that make Bucks County great, so I feel like I am always finding something new. I would have to say that my current favorite is the Stone Ground Grits and Cornmeal from Castle Valley Mills. They make fantastic grits and cornbread…..outstanding.

9. Have you ever catered an event or done a private party and you’ve had to improvise or change direction on a dish at the last minute? How did that play out?

Well, that question pretty much applies to every single Saturday night I’ve ever worked in a restaurant kitchen. You adjust and do your best. I’ve had power go out on an event before, in which case I can say that I am thankful for portable burners and candles!

10. What is the best use of leftover turkey?

I would really love to say a casserole or something fancy, but I can’t…..Turkey Sandwiches. Roasted Turkey with Bacon, Avocado, Lettuce and some Spicy Aioli makes a great club sandwich.

11. Would you share a recipe for one of your favorite Thanksgiving desserts?

Thanksgiving is the ultimate Holiday for the home cook, and for home cooking I always turn to Martha Stewart; her recipes are really consistent. I love making her Pumpkin-Cheesecake.  I substitute Gingersnap cookies for the graham crackers in the crust, and I add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and ½ teaspoon of allspice. It is delicious.

12. Bonus question: What should we serve in those wine glasses?

I would have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and a good Chardonnay (light on the oak) open at all times; but I think the Holiday itself calls for a good cocktail. I would simmer some apple cider with a cinnamon stick, clove and a little maple syrup. Serve warm or chilled with a generous dose of brandy and you’re good to go.

Have a question for Chef Dan Gallo? He’s generously offered to be your go-to-guy for Thanksgiving cooking questions. Where was he when I cooked my first turkey upside down? Send Dan an email at: 

You can also follow Dan on Facebook or reach Little Pig Catering to plan an event: 610-742-4441.

And, in case you’re wondering, Little Pig, despite its logo, is named in honor of Gallo’s Boston Terrier, who, like many on Thanksgiving, earned the nickname.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Everymom

We’ve all seen the mothers and fathers who bring enough food to feed an army, or more precisely, an entire cast of a play, or basketball team. Parents who volunteer to help and are counted on not just by a school but also by kids who, while they might not want to see their own mom or dad in public, are happy to see someone else’s.

There is a sense that one’s family has been extended, at least for a while, and anyone’s mom becomes everyone’s mom. I saw this as a teacher many times, and while some kids were bold enough to state their thanks to such parents, many showed it in subtler ways. But you knew they were filled with something that let them be, if nothing else, kids for a while, well fed and safe.

As a parent, I have felt the status of Everymom occasionally, although not with food. It has come more often when I arrive at school with information, able to tell my daughter’s friend that her own mother might be running late. Not to worry, I’ll stay here until she comes. My Everymom powers never felt stronger than they did a few weeks ago when I walked into a room after school and had three girls—none my own—come to me in a flash, expecting an update on their rides. I was, for the moment, home base.

Kids run from base to base sometimes at school but also out of it. And perhaps my friends and I did so even more without the structure of playdates or official carpools. How many times did we end up at our friend’s house, staying for dinner and getting an impromptu ride home?

Many a mom looked the other way when we raided her pantry to invent a cookie recipe. Rides here and there, dinners that turned into sleepover parties; so much of what we thought was freedom was facilitated by the parents of our friends who opened their homes and, in their effort to raise their own kids, by extension raised us, too.

I am feeling sentimental about this today, a few hours after hearing that one of the mothers of such a friend died last week. When we’re kids we may say “thank you” for the food or for the rides. But we often forget. And as parents, we are aware of our roles, both to our children and to their friends, and hope that by extending our reach, the circle around our own family is made larger and stronger.

But as a parent who remembers being younger, in this case, a teenager, I can’t help but think that the sentiment is not shared enough. Thank you to the Everymoms. Kids, especially teens, need more than their own parents at times; other families to connect with or to learn from or catch a meal.

In my case, my friend’s mother became my Facebook buddy, commenting from a distance, always supportive, never judgmental. She was, as before, simply extending the net of friendship and comfort that the Everymom always does.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Friends in 2024

My seven year old registered to vote a few weeks ago. The hardest part for her was signing her name in cursive. I am speaking about an unofficial voter registration form, of course, part of a packet designed for kids by the website Great Schools that I have to say was pretty great.

I found the packet online and after printing the 15 pages, I handed it to my daughter without much explanation.

“When you can’t sleep, just do the word-find about the electoral college,” was the gist of my introduction. She completed most of the pages in her closet with the aid of a book light, which, like reading Harry Potter on her own, means she was into it.

Many of my friends, and perhaps readers of this blog, have taken a more active role in bringing their kids into the political process. For whatever reasons, and I am not sure I can articulate them, I have been more passive in this with my daughter than I might have been.

We have looked at big themes: read books on Elizabeth Cady Stanton; talked about the government; she has gone with me to vote ever since she could walk. But she is a sensitive kid, and although she likes ideas and debate, she does not like conflict. And I cannot explain to her much of what I perceive in this political climate without entering into that realm.

The brilliant thing about the Great Schools handout is that it does not shy away from explaining one of the sources of this conflict or what kids might recognize as behavior they certainly are expected to rise above. This is the section on “Political Ads” defining them as positive, negative or ones that exaggerate.

She was to identify the quotations accordingly:

“My opponent secretly hates ice cream.”

“I like ice cream and I support people eating it.”

“Ice cream has calcium, just like milk. That’s why we should all eat ice cream more often. Maybe even every day! Most doctors agree with me.”

A few weeks ago, my daughter came home and told me she’d been talking to a boy in class. He was supporting a different candidate than she. But that was ok. They could still be friends.

If "being friends with someone who holds a different opinion" is a concept she holds onto as she begins to learn more details, takes a more active voice and matures to hold her own opinions and finally votes—for real—in the year 2024, I will be happy. It is naive and out of touch with the urgency of political issues, but it is the lesson I will continue to teach.

How she feels about ice cream is a different matter.

The devastation Sandy brought continues to leave people in my region without power or even their homes. My particular New Jersey neighborhood was not hit as hard, although many friends were without power for days. Thanks to those who checked in, or mailed me a lantern.

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