October 18, 2014 Comments Off on debate

IMG_0721At his grandparents’ suggestion, C joined the high school debate club earlier this year.  It’s a good match for him.  He likes to argue, and even more than that he likes to be right.  But debate is also a good match in terms of personalities.  Most self-proclaimed high school nerds gravitate toward math, but C’s not all that down with that.  He does fine, but gets bored easily.  French seems to be coming easily to him, though, and more and more he’s becoming something of a humanities nerd.  That’s a good move, I think, because the chick factor is much higher in French and History than in Computer Science.

So he was looking forward to his first debate tournament today.  So much so that he even remembered to point out to me that he needed a suit jacket for it.  He did this on Wednesday, of course, and the debate was today, Saturday.  But we managed to squeeze in a trip to the local department store after school, where we discovered that C is absolutely smack between kid and grownup sizes.  There was exactly one jacket that fit him without having room for two of him.  Good thing he liked it.  Was it the cheap, store brand?  No, it was not.  I’ve instructed him that he can’t grow out of this for a year, but at his rate it’s likely to be a week.

Anyway, he’s down in the big city today, showing off his new suit jacket and his mad rhetorical skills.  Could he have also used a pair of wing tips?  Sure, but no one will see the black slip-ons when he’s behind the podium.  And does the kid own a belt?  OK, he’ll wear one for his second debate tournament.

His sister got in on the sartorial coaching as well.  “You either need a comb or a haircut, Justin Bieber,” she told him.  That did it–he agreed to the purchase of one comb.  And, as evidenced by the photo, he at least took it out of its package.  I was no help, of course.

On the way home from comb shopping and fro-yo last night they got into it.  C was clearly in debate warmup mode.  “Well,” he said, looking for the kill shot in their nightly game of one-upsmanship, “at least I have Dad’s undying, eternal love.”

“That’s in the contract,” O said.  “He HAS to give both of us his undying, eternal love.”

“Yeah,” C said, “but I earn it.  You’ve been coasting for a while.”

The sound of a five-fingered rebuttal heading toward the back seat was deafening.  I don’t think the bruise shows, do you?


grilled cheese

July 8, 2013 Comments Off on grilled cheese

L and I have been–obsessively–watching David Chang’s “Mind of a Chef” on Netflix.  It’s the best food TV there is–maybe the best TV there is.  Chang comes off as a kind of overgrown frat boy, but behind the exhortations to “crush it, dude!” there’s a lot of genuine thought about the food he makes at Momofuku and that he appreciates elsewhere.  Which is mostly Japan.

We watched the episode “Simple” last night, and in it one of Japan’s leading yakitori chefs explained that his customers don’t want to be surprised, necessarily.  They’ve chosen to have yakitori for dinner, they’ve chosen his place, they know what they want.  His job, he felt, was to give them what they wanted, but to make the best possible yakitori–and to maybe rise above it just a little bit.

That kind of rings true with the simple stuff I’ve tried to get my head around.  Pizza–making the perfect pizza margherita is impossible, but getting as close as you can and trying some variation here and there is immensely rewarding.  Same goes for mac’n’cheese.  And then there’s C’s daily lunch.  “What do you want for lunch,” I’ll yell up the stairs, knowing full well what the answer is.

“Grilled cheese?” he’ll always ask, his voice rising as if, this one day out of hundreds, that won’t be possible.

J. Lopez Kenji-Alt had a good primer on the ultimate grilled cheese back in April, the gist of which was that you’re insane if you just put a piece of cheese between two slices of white bread, chuck it in a skillet, and hope for the best.  The bread insulates the cheese, the center never gets crispy, you’re missing out on the mouthfeel of a totally crisped pair of bread slices.  What he recommends is grilling the bread first, then adding the cheese to the toasted sides of the bread, putting the raw sides back into a re-buttered skillet, and grilling until well browned.


Et voila.  Does it help that I made a loaf of buttery brioche with the leftover from the turkeyburger buns?  Absolutely.  This is the best stuff in the world to make grilled cheeses with. The fat in the bread helps it brown up nicely, and if you make it light enough, it has an english-muffin-like propensity to soak up the butter in the pan.  I use Organic Valley american cheese slices, which aren’t as salty (i.e., good) as Kraft, but C understands the concession, there.  And if you use two of them on top of one another, you get the perfect ratio of bread to cheese goo.

A nice, light crunch on the outside, and a similar crunch on the inside just before your teeth hit the cheese.  C is usually a 2/3 sandwich eater, but ever since the double-grilled technique hit the table, there’s never been more than a crust that’s come back to the kitchen.

Simple.  Tending toward perfect.


July 6, 2013 Comments Off on fourth

We live in an immensely practical state.  Fireworks for the 4th of July get spread out over three days in our little corner of the place–the big city politely gets theirs out of the way on the 3rd, leaving the suburbs to fire all of theirs off on the 4th.  This means the smaller towns get to go on the 5th–Friday this year.  The result?  Everyone gets to see two or three fireworks displays, and none of the small places get abandoned by people looking for bigger and better shows.  

I got the kids back on the 3rd, leaving my folks to go see the ones in the big city.  There was a concert beforehand, and my folks, being my folks, left before the fireworks started to beat the traffic.  We went there on the 4th to watch all of the suburbs fire theirs off–from the condo balcony we counted five major displays, plus uncountable backyard pyrotechnics that barely made it above the tree line.  My mom made brats for us and turkey burgers for her and L, and while O went straight for the brats, she did point out that I’d never grilled turkey burgers for them before.

“And with good reason,” I told her.  “The reason people eat turkey burgers instead of beef burgers is to cut down on fat.”  And the way you make delicious stuff on the grill is to make sure whatever it is comes loaded with fat–either in the grillable itself, or slathered on to the outside of it.  Turkey?  Skinny stuff–fine for the oven if properly basted, but death by dryness on the grill.

Still, O persisted, and I looked up as many hacks as I could.  Ricotta cheese?  Bacon?  I went with a couple of egg yolks and a miso and mirin paste folded into ground turkey.  And the other strategy, which I figured was foolproof, was to make sure the burgers came loaded with toppings.  That way, if the meat ended up dry, at least there’d be some crunch and juiciness on top of it.


And were there toasted brioche buns to go with them?  There were.  This is the Jeffrey Hertzberg/Zoe Francis “Five Minute” brioche formula, albeit a little wetter and, therefore, a little bit puffier.  Brioche is a kid-week-only affair; even lightened up, the stuff has enough butter and egg yolk in it to quickly chew up a whole morning workout’s worth of calories.  Just the thing for two scrawny teenagers, though, and the leftovers will make for good grilled cheese sandwiches.

The results?  Fair.  The kids plowed through them and pronounced them fine, I thought they were still turkey burgers–a bit on the dry side, and even with the miso/mirin flavor bomb they still ended up tasting like toppings.  Which, given some organic tomatoes, bean sprouts, and blanched red onions, were hardly bad–just not the beefy hit that a good burger would give you.

The fireworks last night in our fair city were spectacular, of course.  O spent most of the display texting best friend A, who’s in town visiting for the week.  But C and I had a good time discussing the sublimity of the whole experience.  Fireworks, like Roman ruins or the Sears Tower, are very good at reminding you how very small you are, and I think C likes the idea that really, really big things put everyone–small people included, on a more or less even footing.


June 17, 2013 Comments Off on wings


C wandered in to the kitchen. “Can I hang out in here?” he asked, “I’m hiding.”
“Sure,” I told him. “What are you hiding from?”
“O. She’s watching My Little Pony again.”
This is a thing amongst the high school set. A show that was unwatchable by any kid except the horse/princess-obsessed three year old that she once was is now the coolest thing on TV. I cannot for the life of me understand this, but another thing is trying to eat a quarter cup of cinnamon dry. So I’m not sure which is worse.
“There are guys who are into it, too,” C told me. “They’re called brownies.”
“We had a name for guys like that in high school,” I told him. “But it wasn’t brownies.” C thought this was hilarious.
“I HEARD THAT,” shouted O from the other room. “DISAPPROVE.”
She approved of that plate up above, though. Grilled buffalo wings. Her request. I head back to Chicago for the better part of a week on Wednesday and they each got to pick a dinner. The boy picked pimiento Mac, which will be duly served tomorrow evening. By he didn’t object to her choice.
We hadn’t made these for a long time. They give me a slight panic attack, since most recipes involve coating deep fried wings in a sauce made mostly of butter. Over time I’ve figured out that you can cut down on the chicken fat by grilling them on the cool side first to render most of the skin before torching them over the hot side. And that the butter is completely unnecessary–tossing them in a bit of Frank’s red hot alone may not be authentic, but it’s not any less tasty. And you have a better chance of actually getting up from the table.
And the blue cheese dressing? Low fat Greek yogurt with reduced fat blue cheese crumbles. Needless to say, this was for me only. And if it wasn’t luscious and silky, it at least had the acid snap of the yogurt to go with the cheese.
O wanted French fries to go with these, of course, but we compromised on oven fries. Mix of fingerling potatoes, roasted at 375 degrees for half an hour, then tossed with a lemon vinaigrette and some sliced garlic. Another fifteen minutes and you get gently flavored potatoes and a whole mess of garlic chips.
All in all? Total clean plate club. And that’s after they demolished a bowl full of crudités in front of the TV beforehand (good trick, that…). They have been to the pool six of the last seven days, so they’ve been outside for three or four hours straight, in addition to the uphill walk home. They deserve some free range protein, some starchy carbs, and some spicy goodness,

happy father’s day, maybe?

June 16, 2013 Comments Off on happy father’s day, maybe?

C walked past this morning.  “I’m going to download a song on iTunes,” he said.

“Cool,” I said.  “Which one?”

“Ballroom Blitz.”

“By Sweet?  Seriously?”  That used to be one of our favorite songs on the jukebox in the high school student lounge.”

There followed an impromptu air guitar jam session featuring an ever-louder chorus.  O wanted no part of it.

“Happy father’s day,” she said, walking out of the room.  “Oh, and here are the keys to your invisible Porsche.”  This has become the running gag.  Ever since the Mother’s Day breadbox incident, gift-giving among the three of us has always had a touch of the ridiculous.  I don’t wear ties or cologne, I have a watch that I like and enough socks, so really, jamming out to 70s  glam-rock with the boy and a knowing look from the girl is as good as it gets.


Well, that plus baseball.  L joined the three of us for an early father’s day present to myself last night, watching the I-Cubs win a squeaker while also watching a good bunch of thunderheads roll through.  The kids plowed through bratwursts, fries, cotton candy, and lemonade, while L and I debated the finer merits of the holiday.  She takes what can best be called a contrarian view of the whole thing.

“What if you’re not that great a dad?  Shouldn’t there be some kind of competition?  Only the really good dads get their own day.”  The rest of them?  They have to mow the lawn.

Thank goodness that isn’t the case.  Happy Father’s Day, all.  Enjoy your invisible Porsches.

kung pao tacos, pizza night…

June 13, 2013 Comments Off on kung pao tacos, pizza night…

IMG_6196“Kung pao tacos?” asked O the other night after I’d told her what was for dinner.  “That sounds kinda…I don’t know…racist.”

“That sounds kinda…delicious,” I told her.  “It’s a thing.  New York is full of Korean taco trucks.”

The verdict was that corn tortillas and our new favorite Cooking Light kung pao chicken recipe were best kept separate.  And they weren’t wrong–cold kung pao for lunch today was pretty outstanding even without the trans-pacific influence.

“But it totally works,” I argued with her.  “Every culture has a taco.  America?  Hamburger.  China?  Pork bun.  Or wonton.”

“Mexico?” she asked.

“Ha,” I told her.

We’ve started doing taco night about once a week, ever since the tortilla press came into our lives.  It takes about 20 minutes to make a full stack of nine or ten corn tortillas, and they can get heated back up anytime by wrapping them in a dish towel and steaming them.  The best so far has been the pulled pork–I mean, come on–but the options seem limitless.  OK, ok, maybe the kids aren’t quite up to food truck fusion, but with pork, beef, and fish already successfully in the taco department, there’s got to be a good chicken recipe that isn’t boring.

IMG_6202Italy has a taco, too.  It’s just called a pizza.  But still–meat, sauce, and a carbohydrate delivery device.  And that, right there, is the best pizza I’ve ever made, according to O.  After two and a half years of making these, I’ve got the choreography down pretty pat.  And C’s pepperoni pizza I nailed a long time ago, at least according to him.  But O and I have been trying to replicate the potato pizza in Rome, and that’s a tough one.  A few months ago, we tried smashed potatoes, and got close.  Tonight?

“This is it,” she said.  “This is the ultimate potato pizza.”  It’s not what she had in Rome, but it is smashed Yukon golds–roasted for 45 minutes, smashed and doused in olive oil, and then roasted at high heat for 15 minutes before being introduced to the crust.  Labor-intensive?  Sure, but the oven has to heat up anyway–might as well do it in stages and use the energy to make something delicious.  They were pretty good–crispy edges and oil-soaked potato middle.  And I’m not going to lie–I figured out last year when I went back to Rome that like all good restaurant meals, salt is pretty key.


And those potatoes went on a crust that was one of our best yet.  Pure 00 flour, super-high hydration, and (again) a fair glug of olive oil, plus a really long final rise.  Good hole structure in the cornicione, though I went with straight yeast and I missed the sourdough flavor that’s been in almost everything these last few months.  I’ll fix that next time, and maybe throw in a little sugar to get some better color.  But still, check that hole structure out, man.

The kids have spent basically the last three days at the pool–first string of nice weather we’ve had since it opened.  And while we were devouring these pies, O looked over at C and pointed out that he was slowly turing lobster-red.  “Oh, man,” he said.  “I put on sunscreen, I swear!  Every hour I went back and put on another coat!”

O was convinced that someone had secretly replaced his sunscreen with olive oil.

taco night

May 27, 2013 Comments Off on taco night


A win-win-win situation–my folks had the kids this weekend for a sleepover, which gives the grandparents time with them, gives them time away from me, and gives L and I an evening out.  We had big plans, since the Big City’s best wine bar has a new chef, but other folks had the same idea and we ended up hitting a taqueria on the southeast side that has been on our list for a long time, but that’s fallen victim to sushi being our go-to backup plan.  At $1.79 a taco, this place was a good meal–and with tacos ranging from the normal up to carne asada and (best of all) lingua, it wasn’t uninteresting, either.

“No fair that you got tacos,” O said the next morning.  No worries, I told her, I’ve got some leftover pork shoulder in the freezer.  I’ll throw some tortillas together and we’ll do that for dinner.  Fine, she said, but I also owe her a stir-fry before they go back to their mom’s.

So this is as close as I can come to the array of condiments L and I had the other night.  Once you’ve got the meat cooked and warming, and the tortillas pressed and griddled, this is a meal that’s really about garnish prep.  Queso fresco just involves hitting the almost-hidden Mexican dairy case at the local grocery store, and cilantro, peppers, and cabbage just need slicing.  Radishes?  I salted them for an hour or so, and that seemed to give them the tender, not-so-bitter bite that good taqueria radishes seem to have.  And the salsa is simple–tomatoes, blanched white onions, some lime juice and cumin, throw half of it in the food processor, recombine, and let it marinate for an afternoon.

The kiddos prefer their tacos a bit less garnished than I do, but they went through the salsa with chips, anyway.  Not a jar or an Old El Paso jar in sight, but I doubt this took any longer than a kit taco night would have taken to make.

Summer beckons.  I put C on the school bus tomorrow for the last time this school year.  She’ll get a ride, since it’s stormy, but collectively the school morning madness at Dad’s takes a hiatus until August.

O is cramming for finals, and part of World Studies is world religions.  This has been a topic of much discussion between us as born-again humanists.  “I don’t understand,” she said.  “If your God is all-powerful, how can you have free will?  Hasn’t God already figured out everything you’re going to do?”

I told her that was what her ancestors–good Scottish Presbyterians–held.  “If it’s already been decided,” I said, “then there’s no penance.  Once you’ve done something bad, it shows that you were made bad–nothing you can do about it.”

“That’s awful,” she said.

“That’s why Presbyterians sort of gave up on pre-destination and went with punch and cookies as a tenet of faith instead.  Better for attendance.”

The conversation then veered into William James territory, with the idea of moral holiday and all that coming up before I got wise.

“None of THIS is going to be on your World Studies final,” I told her.  Back to the books.  A conversation worthy of tacos, though, for sure.