[ASIDE: Reader, I’m not happy with the aesthetics of my blog posts. I tried to make the font larger for better readability, but then things looked even more catty-wonkus. If there are any WordPress mavens out there, please drop me a line, yo?]
At the end of last summer, I wrote a blog post called “Family Vacation: Same Crap, Different Location.” We’d gone back East for three weeks, only to have both of my parents end up in the hospital. Sammy was in his biting phase. Ben was working too much. And since the summer experience here in NorCal before we went was kind of a nothing burger, the whole summer felt like a reality-TV show about The Sandwich Generation, starring yours truly as the haggard 40-something mother of two whiny children.
I don’t know if I had all of that in mind when I planned this summer, or if we just got lucky, but I’m sitting here of a Thursday feeling genuinely sad that school is starting again on Monday. It’s been a fantastic summer for our family, if not quiiiiiite as amazing as the carefree summers of my youth, then still the best one could expect with two children. It’s been a summer of growth and hard work and bonding and fun, of optimism and realism and good fortune.
—> One. I had great boundaries.
Most academics have the summer off. I do not, but my summer schedule is fairly flexible, and I made sure it stayed that way. I won’t reveal all my tricks of the trade, but suffice to say, I managed to have one of my best work summers yet, by being present with my students but clear about my boundaries. I didn’t get roped into drama. I LOVED my students this summer, you guys. They were smart and engaged and funny and grateful. Who knew?
—> Two. I didn’t overindulge.
Bald-faced lie. Yes I did. I had approximately 78* glasses of booze, spread over a series of fun nights: on camping trips, by the pool, in the afternoon, at gigs, every night in Maine. I also ate delicious food all summer long, had ice cream occasionally, and binge-read novels.
But I ALSO maintained some good habits: I stretched and did my back exercises EVERY morning. I exercised a ton, and I still got up 3-4 mornings a week to write. Woot! That leaves me going into fall without that slightly terrifying feeling that there is a very rude awakening coming in the next ten days.
—> Three. I was spontaneous.
The invitation from my college friend came unexpectedly: did I want to visit her at her cabin in the Sierras that weekend? I’m not great with last-minute plans, but when I saw only one thing on the calendar, I thought, why not? I’m so glad I did. One thing that’s been sorely missing from my life since I had kids is real time in the wilderness, not just sweet urban hikes but being in landscapes that smell like trees, where there’s no electricity, where you hear owls at night. L and I drove three hours up, up, up into the mountains. We hiked in Desolation Wilderness, swam and kayaked in a frigid and beautiful lake, and saw a bald eagle. The only cell coverage to be found was at the top of a steep outcropping of rocks. Maybe if we all had to make that kind of effort to check Facebook, the world would be a different place.
—> Four. I lowered my expectations.
And in doing so, I also raised them. To save money and because, frankly, he wasn’t too excited about it, I didn’t enroll L in week after week of camp. But instead of sitting around reading Calvin & Hobbes like last year, he rode his bike to friends’ houses. He explored at the creek. He helped us plan a camping trip. This summer, my son turned ten and became more independent, too. Summer is nothing if not a time for growth and change, to recharge before the next big thing(s). (Last year of elementary! A new class to plan and teach for me! Preschool!)
—> Five. I counted my blessings.
Not everyone gets to spend two weeks on an island in Maine and then fly to England for five days. Not everyone gets to have three amazing weekends away in California. Color me incredibly grateful for my charmed life, for my community, for my friends, for my flexible summers, and for my parents, who don’t mind how long we stay and who always help with the plane tickets.
And while I wax rhapsodic about how great the last few months have been, I also remind myself that there are children in cages along the border, reproductive rights being threatened, and endangered species being taken off the list. Part of a summer recharge is gathering the energy to return to real life refreshed and ready to fight for what you love.
How was YOUR summer? Nothing burger, or magic? I’d love to hear from you.
Didja notice I skipped a week of Vegetarian Dinners That Don’t Suck? Forgive me. It’s summer, and we wrapped up the school year with a two-night camping trip in the Sierra foothills, came home for two nights and went camping again. So last week was a wash. Camping with two small kids is no small feat, it turns out, and the first trip was sort of medium successful. S. loved the tent, but also decided to wake up at two a.m. and harass me and his brother for three hours the first night. We managed to pick the noisiest campsite on the entire gorgeous lake. The people next door were jerks. Etcetera. But it was still lovely to swim, and the days were hot and dry and spectacular.
Funny story: we rented a Jetta to get up there, since our car is on the fritz, and we had so much stuff that the kids could barely see out the front. There were duffels and coolers and sleeping bags at their feet and between them and everywhere. So when we arrived and B was hauling things out of the car, he asked, “what’s in this giant bag?”
By the second trip, we had our systems down (Read: brought fewer stuffies) and it helped that camping up in fancy Healdsburg on a friend’s parents’ property was more like glamping. A pool, a lot of floatation devices, some imbibing, kids running wild—it all made for better sleep, easier days, and more fun. And we had really delicious, easy food both nights, big old communal dinners that are just what summer is all about.
Herewith, my last vegetarian dinner that doesn’t suck, a delightful and easy summer meal that’s always a crowd pleaser.
This recipe is a combo of something I’ve been making for years and an amazing uncooked sauce my sister-in-law J—yep! The one with the chickens and the Gado Gado—made for me once.
3 very large ripe tomatoes (heirloom or beefsteak), or the equivalent (several different colors looks nice)
1 cup or so beautiful sweet yellow or orange cherry tomatoes
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
2 T. capers
1-2 cloves of garlic
1 container little fresh mozzarella balls or equivalent amount of another melty cheese you like: ricotta salata, brie, etc.
A fragrant peppery green extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Maple syrup, agave, honey, or sugar (optional; see Note)
Grated lemon rind (optional; see Note)
1 pound of pasta, gluten-free or regular (fresh pasta would also be divine)
Chop heirlooms into various sizes and shapes (all within the realm of bite-sized) and place in a bowl. Halve the cherry tomatoes and add them, too. Squeeze through a press (or mash with the side of a knife) the garlic and add that, along with the chopped basil, the capers, salt and pepper to taste, and a generous glug of olive oil. Toss gently, let sit for 15 to 20 minutes, then taste again. You want a nice mix of garlicky, salty, tangy, and sweet. If the tomatoes are too tangy, you’ll need to soften the flavor with a little bit of sweetener. If they’re very sweet and you want more tang, go ahead and grate in some lemon rind.
Add your mozzarella or cheese of choice, sliced in half, and let marinate for another 15 minutes or while you’re cooking your pasta.
Cook pasta until al dente in salted water. Toss with a bit of olive oil and your sauce. Correct seasoning and serve.
Note: You can actually marinate the tomato mixture for hours on end and leave in on the counter with a cloth over the bowl. I would still add the cheese towards the end, but do give the cheese a little time to absorb delicious flavors. This can, of course, also be made without the cheese for a vegan dinner.
A word on gluten-free pastas, for they are not created alike! Hands down, the best one is Jovial brand. That is all.
We went to Ben’s sister J’s last weekend in the 90 degree heat to check in on her beautiful and quirky property in Sonoma. We met her in Santa Rosa at a farm where a lovely woman named Vivian raises chickens. Little Sammy immediately availed himself of the flock, grabbing whichever bird would let him near. That kid is so fearless—at two, Leo sure wasn’t picking up any chickens (he wasn’t even at nine). Emus ran around the back of the farm and we bought two dozen gorgeous pastured (chicken! Not emu!) eggs to take home.
At J’s, there were fawns to feed with bottles, more chickens, including three temperamental and hysterical roosters, a pond with bright little fish, and a hose—oh my! Sammy watered for hours on end, and since their property is fed with a spring, we didn’t even feel too guilty about it.
And there was Gado Gado for lunch.
I already had Gado Gado on the brain. I was thinking how all of my recipes so far have been pretty homey, not “company stuff,” as they say. But with its gorgeous layers and colors, the Indonesian dish Gado Gado is the kind of vegetarian dinner you could serve when you want to make a big deal out of someone. Gado Gado is versatile, it feels a bit exotic, it’s a great way to put to use any veggies you’ve got, and it’s delicious. It’s also gluten-free (as have been all of my recipes so far) and good for vegans if you omit the eggs.
Note that my interpretation of Gado Gado is probably not authentic. (Someday, I’d like to go to Indonesia and eat the real thing.) And like last week’s recipe for tofu, this recipe is more of a concept than a firm list of ingredients and techniques. But that’s what I love about it: the possibilities really are endless.
A note on amounts: I’m sorry not to be firmer in the amounts below, but this dish depends a lot on how many are coming and how big their appetites are, as well as on what’s in your fridge. If I only have three potatoes for my family, I’ll supplement heavily with a sweet potato and a few carrots. Half a cucumber is fine if you also have some beautiful spring onions and a handful of cherry tomatoes. Etc.
A variety of cooking vegetables, chopped into large-ish bite-sized pieces (potatoes are classic; I have also used sweet potato, carrot, cabbage, greens, etc. Try for a mix of colors and flavors. At J’s we did potatoes, purple sweet potatoes, and large chunks of green and purple cabbage)
A variety of raw vegetables, including cucumber, lettuce, tomato, bean sprouts, green onions, green beans, pickled anything, more cabbage, etc., chopped into large-ish bite-sized pieces (at J’s we had tomatoes, cukes, lightly dressed baby bok choi, pickled carrots, green onions…)
Rice (traditional is sticky rice in a banana leaf! I always just make a pot of jasmine in my rice cooker and call it a day. J made a brown sticky rice, which was delicious)
Baked or fried tofu or tempeh (a block/package will serve four; you can also buy already marinated, seasoned tofu and use that—or, omit it altogether)
1-2 hard boiled eggs per person
Peanut Sauce (recipe below)
To make Gado Gado, prep your veggies: cut everything into bite-sized pieces and get the steamers going. Note that while it’s tempting to just throw everything together, the beauty in this dish is when all the vegetables form a mosaic on your platter. So resist the urge to skimp on pots and pans and neatly separate all your veggies. (This way, too, you’ll be sure that your sweet potatoes are not mushy while your carrots are still hard.)
While your potatoes and similar are steaming away, beautifully wash and prep your raw veggies. Boil your eggs, fry your tofu, and prepare your peanut sauce and rice.
When your cooked vegetables are cooked and your raw vegetables are beautifully chopped, get out your most beautiful platter and arrange everything. I like to pile like with like around the plate, making a rainbow of colors. Serve your rice on the side. You can either drizzle over some peanut sauce (and pass more at the table) or serve the sauce in a pitcher for everyone to help themselves. Either way, be sure to have plenty of peanut sauce.
As J says, without the sauce, it’s just a pile of vegetables.
Serve with hot sauce, too, for those who like it spicy!
Peanut (or Almond) Sauce
This is a recipe I love from Cynthia Lair’s fabulous cookbook Feeding the Whole Family. I *always* double it.
¼ cup creamy peanut or almond butter
2 teaspoons maple syrup
2 Tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon or more grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon sriracha or similar hot sauce (or to taste)
1/3 cup of water
Put all ingredients in a saucepan over low heat. Whisk until the sauce is smooth and warm. Thin with water as necessary.
Love peanut sauce? Make Bathing Rama, too: noodles or rice, fried tofu, a big pile of spinach or other cooked greens, all drizzled with the sauce. Yum.
Meal planning, let alone cooking delicious vegetarian dinners, has been the last thing on my mind. In these parts, we’ve been eating a lot of toast.
It’s been a minor doozy of a few weeks. I finally got rid of my two-week cold only to throw my back out, only to receive word, early last week, that one of the kids from Sammy’s daycare had likely brought in Norovirus. One of the caregivers went home sick, daycare closed for two days, and then Sam had it. Even though he never slowed down for one minute, him waking up covered in vomit on Sunday morning kiiiind of seemed like an indicator that our house was a big virusy mess.
Ensue Papa Bear in bed for two days with nausea and aches and Sammy home indefinitely until, well, his poop firmed up. Me? I had some vague nausea that, fingers crossed, seems to have passed, and yesterday I finally sent Sammy back to school—only to get a call later asking me to pick him up.
It’s been a week of hot-water-washes, incessant hand washing, bleached everything, and the sensation that this thing just won’t release its grip on us. Norovirus, if that’s what this is, seems to impact everyone differently, but its main claim to fame is just how very contagious it is.
Anyway, this morning, in addition to a bolstering bleach-wash of every Lego Sammy has ever touched, plus some more laundry, I’m turning again to thinking about great vegetarian dinners.
I know, I know: if you’re a real diehard meat fan, you don’t think you can get behind tofu, that bland white block of meh. That’s the thing, though. Most people don’t know that tofu is spectacularly tasty when you do it right. As a friend of Leo’s said once, when she stayed for dinner, “I LOVE tofood!” Me too. It feels nourishing and satisfying in a way that even meat-lovers should be able to get behind. In fact, tofu truly makes a vegetarian dinner that doesn’t suck.
Tofu Two Ways
1-2 blocks extra firm tofu (we now make 3 in our house, with a slim chance of some leftovers for the next day! #growingkids)
Lots of soy sauce or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos Freshly grated ginger Coconut oil, sesame oil, or both Neutral oil for frying (see below) Garlic, minced Nutritional yeast
Whichever method you choose, you need to get excess water out of your already extra-firm tofu so as to be sure it’s firm, firm, firm. You can either wrap it in paper towels to blot the excess moisture or stick your tofu between two plates and stack several heavy cookbooks on top for 20 minutes or so. Drain off the excess liquid, and chop it into bite-sized cubes or rectangles.
Method One: Stovetop
This is Ben’s method, which was actually passed down from his dad. (We might even call it Eichentofu.) Basically, in a hot frying pan, you heat some neutral oil and sauté 2-5 minced garlic cloves—how many is up to you, but Ben likes to do more than seems right for polite company.
Add your tofu, and allow it to cook on one side until it develops a crust, much like searing meat (in other words: don’t flip it too early!). Once it’s getting crunchy, browned, and awesome, you can flip it gently, then add soy sauce and nutritional yeast to taste. Cook those cubes for a while in that salty, yeasty mixture—maybe 20 minutes. Taste occasionally to be sure you’ve got the right saltiness (add a splash of water if you’ve overdone it on the soy). The tofu pieces should become almost caramelized, crunchy on the outside, chewy inside, with the most umami spectacular deliciousness ever.
Method Two: Oven
Arguably less awesome, but requiring almost no babysitting, is baked tofu, which has become my go-to because most nights I need a quick and easy protein to do its thing while I ignore it. Heat your oven to 400. In a large lasagna-type pan, melt a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil (stick it in the oven for a minute and take it out) and then swirl it around to coat the pan. Meanwhile, toss your firm tofu cubes in a bowl with freshly grated ginger, sesame oil, and soy or liquid Aminos. You’ll need quite a bit of flavoring for baked tofu, so use a heavy hand. The grated ginger is delicious and arguably makes it more digestible, too. Bake for 20-30 minutes, tossing once or twice, until browned and awesome, tasting occasionally to be sure you’ve got the right saltiness and intensity.
Either kind of tofu is best devoured with a giant pot of rice (white or brown) and a green side, like sautéed greens or roasted broccoli (so easy! So good! Just adjust your tofu temp up or your broccoli temp down to do them at the same time) or even a steamed artichoke from the garden. Make sure the table is liberally set with condiments like more soy, Aminos, nutritional yeast, and hot sauce, even if it would make your proper mother cringe.
Or you can serve it like we did in the photo: with a quinoa salad and slaw. —- NOTE: While I really do adore tofu, I DON’T adore the plastic it comes in. It’s also, compared to beans, a relatively processed food that uses a decent amount of energy (on par with eggs and chicken, I think). Seek out bulk tofu where and when you can, and make it a once-weekly treat.
While the Indian food we white people make at home isn’t quite as spectacular as what we get from Vik’s or Udupi Palace in Berkeley, nonetheless we make a respectable Indian meal in these parts. The foundation? Dal. It’s delicious, it’s easy, it’s cheap, and even the kids will eat it, especially if you allow them to tailor their own with condiments. This dal recipe doubles beautifully, which makes it a great candidate to freeze for another meal.
Indian food is so vegetarian-friendly! Here’s an easy recipe for dal, which is a vital part of a kid-friendly, vegetarian Indian feast.
Very slightly adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant
1 1/2 cups of red lentils (you can choose a different kind if you like, but these are readily available and cheap, and they cook quickly)**
4 cups of water
½ teaspoon of turmeric
Salt to taste
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
2 T ghee, vegetable oil, or plain old butter
1 cup chopped onions
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (you know about freezing your ginger, right, for long-term keeping? Just grate it with a microplane for this recipe and others)
1 teaspoon garam masala
Fresh lemon juice to taste
Spinach or other greens, or tomatoes, or a can of coconut milk
Chopped cilantro, to serve
**My mom just reported that the mobile version made “1 point 5” look like 15. One and a half cups, people!**
Rinse your lentils and add them to a pot with the water, turmeric, and about ½ teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, quickly reduce the heat (lentils love to foam all over your stove), and simmer, stirring often, for about 20 minutes until soft.
Meanwhile, melt your butter or oil (I wonder whether coconut oil would be good in this—likely), add the cumin seeds, and stir for 15 seconds or so until they’re fragrant. Add the onions and cook until they are soft and beginning to brown, 10-15 minutes. When the lentils are soft and the onions are done, stir the onions and all the deliciousness from the frying pan into the lentils along with the garam masala and the greens or tomatoes. Cook until the greens are wilted, salt to taste (I find I need a generous pinch, and that the lentils go from meh to amazing with the right seasoning), then brighten the pot with lemon juice to taste. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
Notes: If you want to add some coconut milk, add it just at the end and lightly warm it so it doesn’t curdle. Probably skip the lemon juice. I always add greens to this. My kids like these served with basmati or jasmine rice, with yogurt on the table. My husband adds all kinds of spicy pickles we get at Vik’s. We also buy papadums at Vik’s, and on a good night, fry them up to go with. They’re greasy, salty, and perfect with some mango chutney.
A few people reported that they found my last blog post depressing. “Is it just the end of hope??” one asked, but that wasn’t what I meant, not exactly, and I’m sorry if you, too, found depressing the idea that normalcy is a fallacy. I hoped that by calling out our lives for what they are—unpredictable—that maybe we could make peace with it. I know that when I hold too tightly onto the idea of something being a certain way, when I hold too tightly onto joy, I feel that much more bummed out when it goes awry. A little lightness can help. Witness: when that flood happened, and Ben and I were both minorly freaking out, I noticed that when we had a quick conversation about it, accepted the fact that our house was going to be in chaos for a few days (ha! Try weeks), and hatched a clear plan for what to do next, we both felt a lot calmer.
But the comments I got on my last post made me see how a mantra of “life is unpredictable” could quickly become something like “life is unpredictable…so you should live each day like it’s your last.” And, you’re right—I do find that depressing. That carpe diem thing always makes me feel panicky. Am I living my best life? It makes me wonder. Could I be doing a better job? Answers: a) probably not, and b) yes, of course I could be doing something better. And then what happens? I take up skydiving because I think I should, because I might get hit by a bus tomorrow? What bugs me about the carpe diem mentality is it seems steeped in, among other things, white privilege. And class privilege. Uh, how are you supposed to live every day like it’s your last when you’re poor? Or, in my case, when you have two annoying but adorable kids, plus a very adorable gecko with very specific temperature needs that are stressful to meet?!
But hear me out. Because I’ve had a revelation.
I’m not going to take up skydiving, but I DO think that if life is so unpredictable…I should try a little harder to chase joy. In January, while I was on school break but things were in minor chaos at my house, I found myself feeling like I was wasting every day, not eeking enough enjoyment out of things and not having enough, well, fun. Part of this is the reality that mothers are never really “on vacation,” because even though I wasn’t working I had to rally the kids and make lunches and whatnot and whatnot and whatnot. But when I teased Ben that if he had an entire month off he’d be going on ski trips and day drinking and riding his bike and meeting me for lunch—and he eagerly agreed, and this is one of the things I love about my husband—I realized that I kind of have a hard time relaxing, being on vacation, even just accepting the abundance of my life and the many wonderful things about it.
I have a hard time accepting joy.
I know how that sounds, sort of Marie Kondo-esque, kind of woo-woo, very first-world problem-y, but it’s true: I am constantly rationing pleasure. If I wake up on a rainy Saturday and decide, you know what, I’m going to spend all three hours of Sammy’s nap time watching Project Runway re-runs, because I’m an adult, dammit, and I can make that kind of decision, partway through, I feel intensely guilty and go do some laundry. If I plan to do something frivolous of a Wednesday—say, meet a friend for some day shopping—I temper it by admonishing myself that I’ll have to get up early to write. If I’m sick and decide to read trashy novels for days on end, I get so depressed at not being up and productive I can’t even enjoy them.
And it carries into my work life and makes me worse at what I do. For example, right now I’m really, really trying to make a big mess of things with the poetry collection I’m writing, but every other day a stern voice urges me to stop playing, to stop creating, to start tightening the language and putting it together. Get serious, Suz, the voice urges. Work harder. Even though I know, in some other rational part of my brain, that I haven’t finished the writing/ideation phase yet, that it might be another six months or even a year before I’ve really worked out the kinks, and that NOT approaching it with too much seriousness is exactly what I should be doing.
Why do I do this? As penance? Because I’m so driven by guilt that I just can’t allow myself any reprieve? Because I don’t believe that I deserve the creative process, deserve joy? I’m not sure, but I know that day after day, I’m consumed by guilt. I’m constantly putting myself on cleanses or rationing my wine, curtailing my spending, feeling tight.
There’s a lot of joy in my life. A lot of space. A lot of stuff to be grateful for. And I am.
So. I’m trying to change this. I’m trying to allow myself some space. Some joy in the lovely process of writing poem after poem in the early morning dark, and not pausing to ask whether they’re any good. To take breaks. To drink a fancy cocktail after a tough day without guilt. Because like is short, and I might get hit by a bus tomorrow.
I’ll let you know how I do. And I’d love to know: do YOU ration joy, in your work, in your life? Comment it up, friends.