Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pop Pop's Not-So-Secret Recipe

Like most people I know, when I spend time around my parents, I revert to being a child. No whining or temper tantrums so far, but I have become quite passive (my parents might even say "lazy").

I had grand ambitions of cooking during my stay in Hilton Head, but it's simply too easy to sit back and let my folks cook for me (or take me and the kids out to dinner). And since their house is so clean and my mom is constantly changing the linens and doing laundry, it's easy to pretend I'm at a hotel.

The dining room at this "hotel" is far from gourmet, but the food is quite servicable and the price is right!

The other night, my dad (who the kids call "Pop Pop") whipped up his favorite tomato sauce, which he served with chicken tortellini (no, that is not my dad in the accompanying photo). The same sauce can also be used for a cacciatore-style chicken or shrimp dish.

Pop Pop's Tomato Sauce

1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 can (14 1/2 oz.) Italian-style diced tomatoes
1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
salt and pepper
shredded romano or parmesan cheese

In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan over high heat, stir shallots and garlic in olive oil until shallots are limp, about 5 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes (with juice), tomato paste, wine, oregano, and basil. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.

Stir sauce into cooked pasta. Sprinkle with parsley, add salt, pepper and cheese to taste.

Simple (especially when my dad is cooking it for me) and tasty too!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Laundry Lady

"Do you have anything to throw in the laundry?" my mom asks.

No, of course I don't. How could I? She just asked me the same question when she did the laundry an hour ago.

I am not exaggerating when I say that my mom is always doing laundry. It is what you might call a hobby of hers.

Living in a co-op building in Brooklyn, we normally share a laundry room with the other residents and are constantly collecting quarters to feed the machines.

Here in Hilton Head, my parents live in a rambling ranch house with a separate laundry room. It's a luxury that I don't have to shell out money to clean our clothes, but it's an added bonus that someone else does the laundry for me -- and even folds (much better than I ever could).

I literally can't keep up with my mom's laundry output. Before I get a chance to put our clean clothes away, she's already handing me more folded items to stuff in the dresser.

"This dress of Jesse's needs to be ironed," my mom says as she hands me a rumpled white hand-me-down frock.

And I ask myself, "when does a 7-year-old's dress ever need to be ironed?"

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Polish Your Furniture with Panty Hose

When the girls and I arrived at my folks' place in Hilton Head yesterday, my mom had a present waiting for me, a second hand copy of Polish Your Furniture With Panty Hose and Hundreds of Offbeat Uses for Brand-Name Products.

The book, by Joey Green (author of "The Get Smart Handbook" and "The Partridge Family Album"), is exactly what it sounds like, a how-to-guide for alternative uses for well-known products.

Green, a former copywriter at J. Walter Thompson, became so obsessed with alternate uses for name brand products that he quit his job and spent the next ten years on a quest to uncover the hundreds of mysterious uses for products like Coca-Cola, Vaseline, and WD-40.

He found some amazing handy, household tips. For instance, Jif peanut butter doubles as axle grease. Efferdent cleans diamonds. Listerine can cure acne, fertilize a lawn, and prevent dandruff. You can use Colgate to clean piano keys. Nestea Iced Tea can sooth sunburn pain.

He suggests that SPAM works as furniture polish, but I'm not sure I'd like to give that a try!

And you'll never drink Coca-Cola again after you learn that you can use the stuff to clean corrosion from car battery terminals and to clean a toilet bowl (let it sit for one hour, then brush and flush clean).

I'm looking forward to two weeks of learning cooking and cleaning tips from my mom and dad. After all these years, they're just thrilled I'm going to finally listen to their advice.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Meal to Remember

Yesterday morning, when I told Avo of my plans to cook a family dinner, he tried to dissuade me. "Don't stress yourself out."

No, he's not sick of my cooking yet. He was just being realistic. He knew I would be busy packing and getting ready for a two week trip with the kids at my parent's house in Hilton Head. Two weeks without him -- the longest we've been away from each other in the 11 years we've been together.

But I was determined to cook one last meal before we left. Maybe I just wanted to leave some leftovers behind for him to remember me by.

For whatever reason, I was determined to cook the Penne with Chicken and Vegetables in Basil Sauce that I saw on the Kraft site.

The other day when I had to cut chicken up for Chicken with Lemon Garlic Sauce, I ended up using cooking shears, which Avo thought was pretty funny ("it's not a bad idea, actually, but I never would have thought to do it"). Today I had an even better idea for cutting the boneless skinless chicken breasts into strips -- I asked the butcher to do it for me!

I guess I'm gaining confidence as a cook because I strayed from the recipe and skipped the walnuts (in the past, I wouldn't have dared making such a bold move!). The pricey gourmet shop I stopped at for some last-minute ingredients was charging an outrageous $5.00 for a small container of walnuts. And, truth be told, as much as I love walnuts, they don't seem essential for this dish.

It all went amazingly smoothly. It was fun using the blender to create a basil sauce. And for the first time, I didn't overcook the chicken! Adding fresh grated parmesan was a perfect finishing touch.

"If you got this at a restaurant, you wouldn't say 'this is really gross,'" I said to Avo.

"No, I wouldn't send it back."

Now that's a rave!

Friday, June 26, 2009

I Heart Kraft

I've always thought of Kraft Foods as, well...cheesy and sorta trailer trashy.

But a good friend of mine who is a foodie (and also happens to work for Kraft) has suggested I check out their site for some easy recipes.

Naturally, most recipes involve Kraft Products, but the site is also educational. It seems designed with someone like me in mind -- there is a "Cooking School," featuring how-to videos which instruct aspiring cooks how to grill onions, how to clean shrimp and even how to create perfect ice cream scoops.

Since I happen to have a mental block about herbs (I confuse basil and oregano), their herb guide is a life-saver.

Don't get me started on The Chocolate Lovers' Center or I'll be gushing all day. Not only does it feature various chocolate recipes, it also explains the difference between various types of chocolate.

This beginning cook plans to rely on the substitution guide during those moments when I seem to be missing just the ingredient I need.

It's too hot to use the slow cooker, but I'm excited to see Kraft features a list of slow cooker recipes.

My favorite element of the site is Make It Now, where you input three ingredients and they'll recommend a recipe.

When I list chicken, basil, and pasta, the site produces eight results, including a Planters penne with chicken and vegetables in basil sauce (of course, you don't have to use Planters brand nuts!). It looks so tasty, I might try to make for dinner tonight.

Not all of the recipes are so appealing. I'm fairly certain I won't be testing out Kraft's Ham & Cheddar Mac -- which calls for frozen peas, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, and Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh Shaved Honey Ham -- anytime soon. Sure, it sounds easy to make, but also pretty nasty.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Baking Soda, Gift of the Gods?

Die hard baking soda fans wax poetic on the many uses for bicarbonate or soda, but I have always been skeptical....until today, when I used baking soda to scrub my bath tub and it has never looked shinier (except, maybe when it was brand new)!

My mom always insisted that I keep an open box of baking soda in my refrigerator to keep it smelling fresh. Who am I to argue with her?

But, to be honest, I never thought the baking soda made much of a difference. I just put it in the fridge to humor her. I generally forget about it until I get around to cleaning out the fridge and realize it's probably time to replace the old box of baking soda (experts say you should also keep one in the freezer and replace them both every 2 months!)

Now that I witnessed first-hand its wonder powers, I feel certain that there's nothing baking soda can't do! Even better, it's cheap -- and it's environmentally-friendly.

Here are just a few ways to use baking soda around the house:

1. Keep an extra box of baking soda by your stove in case of grease or electrical fire. Toss the powder on the flames to put out the fire. Ditto with your garage and your car. Baking soda also puts out fires in clothing, fuel, wood, upholstery and rugs. But hang on the fire extinguisher just to be safe!

2. Clean vegetables and fruit with baking soda.

6. Wash garbage cans with baking soda and sprinkle some in trash bins to prevent nasty odors.

7. When trying to remove tough oil and grease stains from clothing, add some baking soda to the wash.

8. Clean your fridge and freezer with dry baking soda sprinkled on a damp cloth. Rinse with clear water.

10. Since baking soda absorbs kitty litter odors, coat the bottom of the kitty box with 1 part baking soda; then add a layer of three parts kitty litter on top.

11. Clean combs and brushes in a baking soda solution.

14. Wash food and drink containers with baking soda and water.

15. Wash marble-topped furniture with a solution of 3-tablespoons of baking soda in 1 quart of warm water. Let stand awhile, then rinse.

16. Clean formica counter tops with baking soda on a damp sponge.

17. Clean thermos bottles and cooling containers with baking soda and water to get rid of stale smells.

18. To remove stubborn stains from marble, formica or plastic surfaces, scour with a paste of baking soda and water.

19. Wash glass or stainless steel coffee pots (but not aluminum) in a baking soda solution ( 3-tablespoons soda to 1 quart water).

20. Run your coffee maker through its cycle with a baking soda solution. Rinse.

21. Give baby bottles a good cleaning with baking soda and hot water.

22. Sprinkle baking soda on barbecue grills, let soak, then rinse off.

23. Sprinkle baking soda on greasy garage floor. Let stand, scrub and rinse.

24. Polish silverware with dry baking soda on a damp cloth. Rub, rinse and dry.

25. For silver pieces without raised patterns or cemented-on handles: place the silver on aluminum foil in an enamel pot. Add boiling water and 4 tablespoons baking soda. Let stand, rinse and dry.

26. Reduce odor build-up in your dishwasher by sprinkling some baking soda on the bottom.

27. Run your dishwasher through its cycle with baking soda in it instead of soap to give it a good cleaning.

28. To remove burned-on food from a pan: let the pan soak in baking soda and water for 10 minutes before washing. Or scrub the pot with dry soda and a moist scouring pad.

29. For a badly-burned pan with a thick layer of burned-on food: pour a thick layer of baking soda directly onto the bottom of the pan, then sprinkle on just enough water so as to moisten the baking soda. Leave the pot overnight, then scrub it clean next day.

30. Rub stainless steel and chrome with a moist cloth and dry baking soda to shine it up. Rinse and dry. On stainless steel, scrub in the direction of the grain.

31. Clean plastic, porcelain and glass with dry soda on a damp cloth. Rinse and dry.

32. Remove the nasty smell from ashtrays with baking soda and water. Then sprinkle a bit of dry baking soda in your ashtrays to prevent smoldering and reduce odor.

33. Clean your bathroom with dry baking soda on a moist sponge -- sink, tub, tiles, shower stall, etc.

34. Keep your drains clean and free-flowing by putting 4 tablespoons of soda in them each week. Flush the soda down with hot water.

35. Soak your shower curtains in water and baking soda to clean them.

36. To remove strong odors from your hands, wet your hands and rub them hard with baking soda, then rinse.

37. Dip your wet toothbrush in baking soda and brush your teeth with it.

38. Sprinkle baking soda in tennis shoes, socks, boots and slippers to eliminate odor.

39. Add 1/2-cup or more of baking soda to your bath water to soften your skin. Putting 2-tablespoons of baking soda in your baby's bath water will help relieve diaper rash irritations. Take a baking soda bath to relieve general skin irritations such as measles and chicken pox.

40. Apply baking soda directly to insect bites, rashes and poison ivy to relieve discomfort. Make a paste with water.

41. Take 1/2-teaspoon of baking soda in one-half glass of water to relieve acid indigestion or heartburn.

42. Gargle with 1/2-teaspoon baking soda in one-half glass of water. Freshens and cleans your mouth.

43. Used as a mouthwash, baking soda will also relieve canker sore pain.

44. To relieve sunburn: use a paste of baking soda and water.

45. Bug bites: use a poultice of baking soda and vinegar.

46. Bee sting: use a poultice of baking soda and water.

47. Wind burns: moisten some baking soda and apply directly.

48. Making Play Clay with baking soda: combine 1 1/4 cups water, 2 cups soda, 1 cup cornstarch.

49. Use baking soda as an underarm deodorant. Hmmm. Not sure about that one.

50. To eliminate dog odors or just freshen up the air, sprinkle baking soda on your carpet where your dog lies and vacuum up. Leave the soda on the carpet for half an hour. It also eliminates odor in your vacuum after it has been vacuumed up. A great way to freshen up your home air during the winter when everything is closed up.

Oh yeah, and of course, you can use it for baking!

There are so many uses for baking soda that I can't list them all here. I'm going to rush out now to stock on some more baking soda and I advise you to do the same.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Classic 50s Dinner

It's such a cliche. You've seen it in so many movies and TV shows. The woman slaves over the hot stove all day to make a nice dinner for her hard-working husband. She sets the table, pours and wine and waits...and waits...

Hours later, finally, he walks in the door with excuses.

"Dinner's in the fridge," the woman says, before huffing off.

That's pretty much how this evening went -- except when Avo finally got home at 9 pm (after leaving work at 6 pm!), he re-heated his dinner and then did the dishes. You never see the men do that in the movies.

The truth is -- dinner would have been disappointing even if he had gotten home on time.

My first mistake was following a recipe I found on the Park Slope Food Coop web site.

Chicken in Lemon Garlic Sauce


- steamed or cooked white rice
- 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast
- juice of 1 -2 lemons
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 oz white wine
- 3-4 cloves garlic
- veggies (summer squash, broccoli, green beans)


- Get the rice going first. It may be done 10 minutes before the rest is done.
- Cut the chicken into thick slices an inch thick and 2 inches long. Salt and pepper the chicken now.
- Slice the garlic thin and saute in a saute pan for a few minutes in the olive oil.
- Add the chicken and just cook the outside.
- Dump in the wine and lemon juice and let it simmer until the chicken is cooked completely. Let simmer longer if you want more evaporation.
- If you cover the pan you can cook the veggies in there, or steam/boil separately and throw them in for 5 minutes at the end.
- Serve over the white rice. Pour the sauce on top.

I had a fun time cutting up the chicken with cooking shears (I didn't take out a ruler to measure 1x2 inches).

Then, what can I say? I got lazy and used a garlic press instead of thinly slicing the garlic with a knife.

I clearly should have cooked the veggies separately because I ended up overcooking the chicken in an effort to cook the vegetables.

So the chicken was chewy and the sauce was too lemony. But at least the rice turned out okay!

"You tend to pick recipes with odd flavor combinations," Avo said diplomatically. "Garlic and lemon are not two things I would necessarily put together."

Oh well. Even top chefs have their off nights.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Keep on Shoveling

"Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing." - Phyllis Diller

Right before Jesse was about to turn one, I couldn't find her favorite book, "Bunny, My Honey," a sweet story about a baby bunny who gets lost.

I just about ransacked our small apartment before our babysitter, a young New Age-y aspiring actress, grabbed me by the arm and told me to get a grip on myself (all the while, she had quite a strong grip on me!)

"Let go of the book," she commanded. She didn't mean it literally, of course. She meant that I was getting overly fixated on one item rather than focusing on my daughter's upcoming birthday.

Of course, I ignored her and continued to scour the apartment until Avo I finally found the damn book hiding under Jesse's crib. "Bunny, My Honey!"

All at once, everything was again right in the world.

A year later, we visited friends of ours with a toddler daughter of their own. After the girl went to sleep, the mother busied herself by tidying up toys. Well, not just tidying. It was more like categorizing. She shelved the books according to author. She placed the Little People figurines in their homes (and tucked them into their beds). The process went smoothly until she couldn't find her daughter's favorite doll.

"Where is Kimchee?!" she asked over and over until we all wanted to tell her that Kimchee was dead.

But instead of slapping some sense into her, we helped her look for hours until we finally hit the sack and encouraged her to do the same. When I woke up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I caught a bleary-eyed glimpse of my friend still searching for that doll. By the time she found it the next day, she had forgotten why she cared so much about it in the first place.

I've loosened up since then -- and after a few more kids, my friend has relaxed a bit too. For the most part, my kids' games and puzzles still have all of their essential pieces. But I no longer dress their Barbies before tossing them into the toy bin and we have way too many books to worry about just one that may be missing.

In other words, unless you want to be a neurotic mess (or pay a lot of money to house cleaners), you've got to lower your standards of neatness when you become a parent (not that my standards were so high to begin with!)

And, of course, any pop-psychologist would tell you that sometimes a book or a doll is not just a book or a doll. In these cases, we're not just looking for the missing object, but, rather, we parents are really looking for some semblance of order amid chaos...which we probably won't find until our kids are grown and hopefully, out of the house.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dirt Revisited

I love DIRT -- the book that is. After reading a different essay from the new anthology DIRT: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House each night before going to bed, I've been dreaming of dust bunnies.

I wrote a bit about the book before, but because it's so good, I decided to interview DIRT's editor, Mindy Lewis, who is also a memoirist ("Life Inside") and teacher.

Undomesticated Me: What inspired the idea for an anthology devoted to the subject of housework?

Mindy Lewis: DIRT was inspired by in part by my awareness of the difference between my cleanliness-obsessed mother and my own, shall we say, casual approach to housekeeping. The differences in our cleaning styles seemed symbolic of other issues. I began to think about how attitudes towards cleaning and housekeeping reflect personality, family and cultural roots, gender roles, and relationships.

UM: What sort of relationship do you have to housework?

ML: Housework has always been something I’ve turned to when I need to make a fresh start, be it a new season or an emotional upheaval. I’ve spent many cumulative hours scrubbing the floor on hands and knees after a romantic break-up, ferreting through closets after the loss of a loved one, scrubbing sinks and appliances when I need to sort something out. (I know I’m not alone in this.) Cleaning is what I do, intermittently, when I’m too mentally fatigued to work. But I have to say my approach is casual.

UM: Did editing the book change that relationship at all?

ML: In the spirit of research, I hired a housekeeper (a couple, actually) to clean my apartment, something that I sorely needed yet might not have given myself permission to do otherwise. The magic they worked in my cluttered space inspired me to keep it up on my own, making that extra occasional effort. (My sinuses have thanked me—and if I don’t do it, they remind me.)

UM: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of editing the book?

ML: Each essay is specific and personal, touching on universal aspects of what it is to be human. In researching the subject, I learned some surprising facts about literary figures: Thoreau brought his dirty laundry home to his mother, and Virginia Woolf, though dependent upon her domestic help, was demanding and critical. Our home environments are like our faces—we allow people to see what we want them to see, but when we’re alone, our habits are visible mainly to ourselves.

UM: Why is housework such a hot-button issue?

ML: House cleaning is a powerful lens into gender roles, economic status, social class, and race.

You would think that by now domestic tasks would be equally the responsibility of men and women. Not so; although cleaning styles vary within gender, it’s still women who are largely left holding the bag. And it is generally the underclass, the immigrants, who clean up the messes of those who have the means to pay them.

UM: Do you have any cleaning advice for Undomesticated Me readers?

ML: In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not really one to give cleaning advice. I would say this: Try to make regular efforts to clear your space so it doesn’t become too daunting.

But if you’re not doing it yourself and can afford to hire someone to help you, do it! It’s an honorable arrangement: You can use the help, and they can use the work.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Alice Waters, watch your back!

Family and friends from near and far have been calling and e-mailing wondering how Friday night's dinner went.

Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but a couple of people have asked, so in service to efficiency, I figured I'd post the full report here.

The short answer to the question "how did it go?" is: great.

If you're interested in more details, read on...

First off, let me say "yay!" I did it. I really did it. I cooked a full meal, poached salmon with cucumbers cream and mint and sauteed grated zucchini with herbs -- without burning either the food or myself. And the food was good, even Avo thought so.

Thankfully, my friend Blair was standing by to answer my questions or I might have given up early on.

The first smart thing I did before beginning to cook was turn on the TV so the kids wouldn't bother me. In theory, I'd love to cook with my kids. But given that it was Friday afternoon after a long week and they were nearing meltdown (and so was I), TV was the only reasonable option.

I had no problem with the first steps:

1. Rinse the salmon, pat it dry, refrigerate
2. Get out pantry items (I substituted Kosher salt for sea salt)
3. Get out tools (I never thought of a skillet as a tool!)
4. Assemble the ingredients (although I always get my herbs mixed up)
5. Open the wine and chill it (and since it's open, you might as well take a sip or two).

Things got tricky once I began to prep. The web site I was following, notakeout, instructed me to "grate the zucchini on the large holes of a box grater." Amazingly, I was able to locate a box grater, but I couldn't figure out how to use it. Was I supposed to peel the zucchini? Luckily, Blair helped me situate myself so I was able to use the grater (although I think I contracted tennis elbow!).

Blair's advice: "Next time, use a Cuisinart with a grating attachment."

We went to our back garden to pluck the mint and the basil. I got quite a kick using ingredients we grew ourselves. Wouldn't Alice Waters be impressed?!

When it came time to seed the cucumbers, Blair handed me a spoon and said "You do it. Seeding a cucumber is something one needs to experience." I tried it and it was -- fun! It was so satisfying watching those cucumber seeds fly into the sink and knowing I was responsible.

Meanwhile, Blair scoured the pantry looking for measuring cups, but no luck. Finally, I found them on a top shelf.

"I knew we had them because I've seen Avo use them before," I said.

By this time, Blair and I were drenched in sweat.

"Why are we so hot?" I asked.

"Um, the oven is on." Apparently, we had forgotten to turn it off after baking brownies.

One thing I learned is that poaching is really easy. I basically just flopped the salmon into the water and remembered to flip it after 3 1/2 minutes.

Ruby helped to set the table and we all scrambled to clean up in time for Avo to return home from his 2nd day of work at the new job.

We timed everything so that the meal would be ready at 7:30. Luckily, Avo arrived just in time for us to sit down at the table.

"Surprise!" the girls yelled as he walked in the door.

Avo was indeed surprised to find a gourmet meal waiting for him -- and was especially happy when I handed him a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc.

The meal turned out perfectly -- except for the brownies, which were too flat and gooey (even after I let them bake for 7 minutes longer than the 20 minutes the recipe specified).

"It's interesting that of all of the things you made, the brownie is the one that didn't work since it's the easiest," said Blair. "Luckily, it's chocolate, so it still tastes good."

I loved using notakeout as a guide, except I had one big problem with their recipes. They listed some ingredients by weight: 4 ounces unsalted butter and 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate for the brownies.

So we had to turn to wiki answers to determine that 4 ounces of butter = one stick. The equation didn't work for chocolate chips, so Blair spread them on a plate and eyeballed it.

Maybe that's why the brownies were so mushy. We'll just have to try making them again sometime soon! I'm sure the kids won't mind.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Those Slacker Guys!

Last night's dinner was a big success, but you'll have to wait until tomorrow to read the full report.

Given that it's a rainy Saturday in Brooklyn and I'm still basking in the glory of last night's dinner, I'm slacking off a bit. We're thinking of taking the kids to IKEA so they can run wild in the ball pit while Avo and I shop for things we don't need.

Meanwhile, to tide you over until tomorrow, I thought I'd share a housework-related news report from Daily Express in the UK:

More than a third of men still think housework is a job for the ladies.

Most dads won’t have a problem putting their feet up on Fathers’ Day tomorrow ­either – 80 per cent admit they don’t clean anyway.

A poll found that although fathers and married men are the laziest, more than 70 per cent of all men do very little cleaning.

A shocking 38 per cent think domestic duties should naturally fall to women, and one in five do not lift a finger to make their home spick and span.

The survey by cleaning experts Vileda of 1,853 men found that one in three say they have never tackled the bathroom with a mop, bucket or cloth and 7 per cent say they don’t even know where the cleaning products are kept.

All I can say is: lame!

Friday, June 19, 2009

No Take Out Tonight

How would you like poached salmon with cucumbers cream and mint & sautéed grated zucchini with herbs for dinner? How about if it is paired with a loaf of fresh, crusty bread and a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and topped off with homemade brownies for dessert?

No, you don't have to go to an expensive restaurant for this feast. You can learn how to make it at Notakeout.com, which provides a complete menu, an express line friendly shopping list and a game plan to prepare a delicious, seasonal dinner. You can find tonight's menu here.

It's an ambitious project for a beginner cook like me, but I'm up for the challenge.

"Why wouldn't you just open up a recipe book?" asks my friend Blair, who is in town visiting from San Francisco.

"When I look at a recipe, I get overwhelmed," I explain. "The web site presents it to me in tiny steps, which I can manage."

Blair is on board. She helped me shop for the ingredients this morning and tonight, she'll cheer me on (and lend a helping hand) as I attempt to poach, sautée and bake.

Past notakeout menus have included: Pan Fried Pork Chops with Green Pea and Asparagus Ragout, Grilled Sirloin Steak with Herbs & Farro Salad, Braised Chicken Legs with Tomatoes & Sautéed Cauliflower, and Pasta with Summer Squash, Walnuts, Herbs & Hearts of Romaine Salad.

Alice Waters, a guest contributor (tonight's menu was adapted from Waters' "The Art of Simple Food") is a huge fan of notakeout. "Mealtime is a time for empathy and generosity, a time to nourish and communicate. I’m delighted that this global website will make it easier for families to come to the table, and back to their senses!" she raves on their site.

If you become a free subscriber to notakeout, you will receive your Menu and Shopping List every weekday morning via email or RSS. On weekends you're left to fend for yourself!

Elsewhere on the web, I'm inspired by Not Eating Out in New York, a web site started by Cathy Erway chronicling her endeavor to eat only home cooked meals.

If you want some reasons to not eat out, check out Erway's list. Her arguments are almost compelling enough to convince me to give up my favorite take out burritos and Moo Shu Pork.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Studies depress me

I've had it with studies. First, the experts declared that housework is likely to make you depressed.

Now, a different set of experts has concluded that doing housework can help prevent depression and anxiety.

A new study by the British Journal of Sports found those who did vigorous housework weekly were 20 percent less likely to suffer from mental health problems. Of course vigorous housework is exercise, and it's common knowledge that exercise helps alleviate depression and anxiety.

Otherwise, I'm pretty skeptical about their findings. On the one hand, living in a cesspool can bum you out. But, on the other hand, cleaning toilets and mopping floors can be a bummer too.

I am waiting for an expert to declare that vacuuming and sweeping don't make you happy or depressed. They just help you keep your house clean.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Feng Shui Me

I've already tried attaining enlightenment and finding inner peace through housework, but I never experienced the joy in every moment of doing the dishes.

So clearly it's time for a different approach to housework...

Feng Shui devotees claim that tidying up can shift the energy in your home. Practiced in China for over five thousand years, Feng Shui is based on the Taoist concept that everything is comprised of energy called Chi. When the energy in an environment is not flowing properly, it can cause disharmony. Seems reasonable enough.

Feng Shui works to balance this energy in order to achieve greater productivity, happiness and health. According to some devotees, clutter-clearing will feel as powerful as a therapy session and -- even better -- it's free.

According to Feng Shui practitioners, if you are dirty and disorganized, your various energies will stagnate. I'm pretty skeptical of anything that registers on my New Age radar, but I have to say that my mind is a lot clearer when our apartment is cleared of unnecessary crap.

Feng Shui fans also claim that cleaning and organizing helps keeps all the energies flowing, including energy for sex, money, career and health. Sounds good to me.

I’m ready to get the energy flowing right now – if only I could muster the energy to get off the couch.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gringo Burritos

Maybe I'm missing out, but I've never used Hamburger Helper to help me make a great meal (as the commercial used to promise).

But I do rely on other handy helpers to help me put pseudo-homemade meals on the table. It's better to cook half a meal than none at all, right?

Since tonight is "Mexican Night" in our house, I usually make the kids cheese quesadillas (basically grilled cheese, but with a tortilla instead of white bread). I bought some vegetarian taco filling and had grand plans for Avo and I. I was thinking I'd shred some cheddar, toss in some lettuce and tomatoes and call it a burrito. To add a little spice, I would follow the recipe on the back of the box for

pico de gallo:

1 tsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 lime, juiced
1/2 cup white onion, diced
1 cup small-diced tomatoes
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
salt and peppper to taste

I was hoping Avo would even get in the spirit and mix us up some margaritas. Arriba!

But, Avo just informed me he has other plans for dinner tonight. While he was at the supermarket this morning, he couldn't resist buying a 3 1/4 pound chicken since it was on sale. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like buying bargain basement poultry.

I tried to explain to Avo that tonight is Mexican night, but he is determined to cook the bird.

Maybe we can make chicken burritos?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Clean is a relative concept

Whenever I worry that our house isn't clean enough, I remind myself that in previous eras and in other parts of the world, there are different cultural standards for cleanliness.

The truth is that there are no absolute definitions of what is "clean" or "dirty." It is all a matter of perception. What is clean enough for me may be revoltingly dirty for my obsessively neat neighbor. Likewise, my standards of cleanliness would seem excessive and extravagant to someone living in a rural village in Malawi, for instance.

I'm just glad I'm not living in Colonial times when washing the family laundry took three to four days. Lugging heavy wood and water was considered women’s work. Preparing meals required growing the food, then cooking it over an open fire, and, yes, there were still the dishes to do (and no Tupperware to store leftovers!)

Ironically, innovations like the washing machine and vacuum cleaner may have made housework easier – but by raising standards of cleanliness, they also created more work.

During the years domestic appliances became widely accepted in the home, the hours devoted to housework have increased. One study claims that the time dedicated to laundry has actually increased over the past 50 years.

How is that possible? The machines make it feasible to clean sheets once or twice a week, to do laundry daily, to wear clothes only once – practices that were considered a luxury in earlier days.

So while it might have been a bigger drag to do the laundry back then, at least they didn't have to do it every day. Or as Betty Friedan wrote in "The Feminine Mystique," "Housewifery expands to fill the time available."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Got Lemons? Make Lemon Cheese Souffle

Avo reminds me of my dad in so many ways. For one thing, they are both type-A overachievers who can't stand to waste a moment of the day. They've got more energy and drive than almost anyone I know.

Another thing they have in common is that they both go bananas at the sight of a ripe banana. They can't stand the idea that one single banana may go to waste. In my dad's case, he creates a strict schedule for banana-eating, so he can ensure that they never grow old. Avo has another way to make sure the bananas are always used -- he bakes banana bread or makes the kids a banana smoothie.

It's quite common for Avo to orchestrate an entire meal around one ingredient which he is determined to use before it goes bad (or just to clean out the pantry).

Once when we had a big jug of maple syrup, he made Boston Baked Beans.

Then yesterday afternoon, after buying a $3.00 container of tsatziki, Avo invested another $20 in pre-made lamb and chicken kebabs which he then grilled -- all to justify his purchase of tsatziki. Plus, it's fun saying tsatziki. Try it yourself!

I admire Avo's resourcefulness, but it does make me laugh when he ends up buying a batch of new ingredients just so he can use up something we already have.

Plus, if he really wants to impress me, next time he should make the tsatziki and the kebabs from scratch.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Housework Wars

It's such a cliché. Lazy husbands toss their dirty socks on the floor and expect their wives to pick up after them. After a long day in an office (or taking care of kids), their wives must cook, clean, and take care of the housework.

So it's not so shocking to hear that in most married households, this scenario is pretty commonplace.

A story on CNN.com (via Parenting.com) reports that although wives do half as much housework (including cooking and cleaning) as those a generation ago, they still average 16 hours a week -- four times more than our husbands, according to a study from the University of Maryland.

The article provides some advice for getting your husband to help out more around the house (no, nagging or withholding sex aren't viable options):

1. Be direct. Simply put the clean laundry basket in front of him. Hopefully, he'll get the hint.

2. Don't criticize the way he cooks and cleans.

3. Make a list of the most important chores and create a schedule.

4. Respect your partner's time, needs, and preference of tasks.

5. Stop worrying and make peace with your pigsty.

Personally, I find it a bit irritating that the article suggests that wives show their appreciation and thank their husbands for helping out around the house. I'm all for expressing gratitude, but it's a two-way street. In other words, husbands need to thank their wives for cooking and cleaning too.

Friday, June 12, 2009

It was an historic night

Congratulations are in order. I managed to successfully cook my family a tasty, healthy meal last night without any major mishaps.

Of course, there were a few minor bumps along the road. To start with, I didn't actually have a recipe for the salmon. I was so focused on marinating the salmon in Alma's famous maple soy dressing, that I neglected to consider how I planned to cook it.

"Well, you could broil it," Avo said. "Do you know what broiling is?"

"Um, not really," I confessed.

"It means the flame is on the top. The trick is not to over-cook things, which is easy to do."

Avo suggested that I place the salmon on tinfoil and then on a pan in the oven (2nd rack from the top).

"You need to crumple up the tinfoil first so there air gets in."

I asked him to demonstrate (always a good way to get out of doing something yourself).

"It should resemble the surface of the moon. It should have lots of craters," he said as he crumpled up the tinfoil.

The thing I like about broiling is that I don't need to worry about oven temperature. But since I'm not following a recipe, I'm not sure how long to cook the salmon.

Avo suggests four minutes for each side. After eight minutes, I remove my creation from the oven and -- what do you know? -- it's perfectly done.

My Aunt Sheila's Sesame Noodle recipe was a snap. One of the easiest and tastiest dishes I've made (which, granted, doesn't mean much considering my lack of experience, but still...).

For the vegetable dish, I opted for a simple salad -- using the salad mix from the Park Slope Food Coop, topped with crunchy sprouts and tomatoes.

"I made the whole dinner," I proudly announced as I placed the dishes on the table.

"You made the salmon?" Jesse asked, a look of shock on her face. "That looks hard!" Even at seven, she can appreciate how far her mom has come.

Ruby, a salty food fiend, quickly gobbled up the salmon and the noodles.

"You're a better cook than me!" she declared.

Even Avo was impressed.

"I think you're getting the hang of it, honey. I'd like to see you keep this up for a month."

Uh oh. What have I gotten myself into?

"To be honest, I must admit I feel threatened," said Avo.

"Really? Are you serious? I thought you'd be thrilled I'd be taking over on some of the kitchen."

"Well, it's just that this was an area where I was in charge."

"You'll still have the grill."

"Yeah, but every guy grills."

"Don't worry, honey, I'll still need you."

In fact, I might even ask Avo to cook tonight.

UPDATE: Next time I make the sesame noodles, I think I'll try adding soy or chicken to make it a complete dinner.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I feel like cooking tonight!

Thanks to all you Undomesticated Me readers for encouraging me to get into the kitchen and give this cooking thing a shot.

You'll be pleased to know that I've already promised Avo I'll be making him dinner tonight. So it's too late to back out now!

Thanks to my mom for posting Aunt Sheila's sesame noodle recipe and to Alma Schneider for passing on her famous Maple Soy dressing recipe, which I'm using to marinate salmon in the fridge right at this very moment! I love that I can be preparing tonight's dinner while I'm writing.

I might re-purpose the grilled broccoli left over from last night's dinner and toss it into the noodles. Or if I'm feeling really ambitious, I could sautee some zucchini with garlic. Don't I sound like a pro already?

Now you know, I am listening to your advice and trying some of your recommendations. So keep 'em coming.

Meanwhile, I'll be sure to report back about tonight's dinner.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Is clutter a problem for you?

I'm generally a pretty good neatener. I don't mind tossing magazines into the recycling bin or even occasionally loading the dishwasher.

In fact, I sometimes find it relaxing to create some semblance of order in our apartment -- or at least to move things around a bit so I feel as if I'm doing something productive.

Still, in a relatively small New York City apartment -- especially one inhabited by young children -- things tend to have a way of piling up.

As a not-so-subtle hint that I might need some help getting things in order, a friend recommended I check out Cynthia Townley Ewer's “Houseworks: Cut the Clutter, Speed Your Cleaning and Calm the Chaos."

In her book, Townley Ewer of OrganizedHome.com details the embarrassing incident that forced her to realize that she had a serious problem with clutter. Apparently, after her house was burglarized, the police surveyed the scene and declared that her bedroom had been ransacked.

"“No!" Townley Ewer explained. "That’s just the way I left it!"

After making peace with clutter, Townley Ewer became a born-again neatener, proselytizing to the (literally) unwashed masses that turn to her book and web site for homemaking advice.

I never realized that being a slob qualifies as an addiction. According to Townley Ewer, there are support groups for "Clutterers Anonymous," which applies the Twelve Step program to "issues of clutter and hoarding."

Luckily, I don’t things around here have become dire enough for me to join up anytime soon. I can only imagine what their meetings are like:

"I can’t help collecting coasters. My living room is filled with them."

"You think that’s bad? I’ve got a pile of newspapers dating back to 1986!"

The book begins with a multiple choice Cleaning Quiz:

“What’s the relationship with the vacuum cleaner?”

I didn’t realize we were having a relationship. I didn’t even know we were dating.

"How often do you remove dust from the home?"

Actually, Avo and I maintain a "shoe-free" household. To the annoyance of my more fashionable friends, we insist that guests remove their shoes at the door.

They assume it's because we are neat freaks. In truth, we are counting on their socks to dust and buff our floor.

My responses peg me as a "Dirt Dodger. Too often, you're discouraged about life on the home front. Remember, the truth: if you don't wanna, you ain’t gonna."

Okay, I admit it. I don't wanna. Should I just throw in the dust rag before I even start?

At the back of the book, Townley Ewer includes several pages of lists: freezer inventory, shopping lists, weekly menu planners, daily to-do lists and weekly to-do lists. They are left blank, presumably for the reader to fill them in.

Note to self: Add these To-Do lists to my To-Do list.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The I Hate to Cook Book

Nearly a half century ago, Peg Bracken, an advertising copywriter with an aversion to household duties wrote "The I Hate To Cook Book," which went on to sell more than three million copies.

It also spawned the follow-ups "The I Hate to Housekeep Book" and "I Try to Behave Myself," an etiquette book.

In The New York Times obituary of Ms. Bracken (10/23/07), Margalit Fox wrote:

“The I Hate to Cook Book” emphasized speed, and if speed happened at the expense of the rubbing and rolling and stuffing and tying and long, sensuous, self-congratulatory simmering that James Beard was just then making de rigueur, then, Ms. Bracken strongly suggested, so much the better.

In Ms. Bracken’s culinary canon, ingredients should be cheap, common and above all convenient, ideally frozen or tinned. Canned soups loomed large in her recipes. So did crushed cornflakes, powdered onion soup mix and Spam of the pre-electronic type. So did alcohol, though in many cases her instructions called for it to bypass the cooking process entirely and proceed straight down the cook’s throat.

Keep in mind that this was three years before Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" and many women felt chained to the stove.

In the introduction to "The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book," Bracken wrote:

Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them. This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking. This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.

Pretty subversive for 1960.

And I can still relate in 2009.

But the truth is that while the wit of Ms. Bracken's writing withstands the test of time, her recipes do not.

Her recipe for "Skid Road Stroganoff" suggests that you "add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink."

Poignant and hilarious prose, but I don't think I'll be whipping up that recipe or the one for her Cancan Casserole anytime soon:

Cancan Casserole
Beat 2 eggs and add a small can of evaporated milk. Then add:
2 cans cream-style sweet corn
7 oz. can tuna fish, broken a bit with a fork
1 green pepper, chopped
1 middle-sized onion, grated

Pour it all into a buttered casserole dish and bake it, uncovered, at 325 degrees for 1 hour.

What is it that Moon Unit Zappa used to say? Gag me with a spoon!

Unlike Ms. Bracken, I came of age in a time when young girls were told they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up (I always said I wanted to be a bear).

I certainly couldn't complain that I am chained to the stove. Instead, I have a husband who does most of the cooking.

So, perhaps I need to re-adjust my thinking. Instead of viewing cooking as an unpleasant necessity on par with paying taxes, I should try seeing it as an opportunity to enjoy myself and nourish my family.

I bet even Peg Bracken, a savvy pragmatist and a smart cookie, would agree with that.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cooking without turning on the oven

For obvious reasons, my favorite recipes are ones that involve just a few household ingredients and don't require that I turn on the oven or stove.

I've been on the lookout for yummy dishes that take almost no time to make and yet still qualify as cooking. Here's what I came up with so far:

Chickpea Salad with Lemon and Parmesan courtesy of Orangette, who recommends that you use the best quality ingredients, especially a good brand of chickpeas (I used Sahadi's).

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 ½ tsp. olive oil
A pinch of salt
¼ cup loosely packed shredded Parmigiano Reggiano

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and stir gently to mix. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve immediately, or chill, covered, until serving.

I had no problem draining and rinsing the chickpeas and squeezing in some lemon juice. But then I realized I didn't have any Parmigiano Reggiano (is that the same as plain old Parmesan?) I sent Avo out to the overpriced corner market where he nabbed a $10 (!) slab of gourmet Parmesan/Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. By the time he returned, I had poured in the olive oil and added a pinch of salt.

I took a bite. Not bad, but the recipe said season as necessary, so I figured I'd add a bit more salt.

Oops. Apparently, I forgot to put the top back on the salt from earlier. The entire shaker full of salt emptied into my lovely chickpea salad.

Without thinking, I attempted a daring recovery.

I quickly grabbed a damp paper towel and mopped up the pillars of salt. Then I cupped some remaining piles of salt with my hands until the chickpeas were no longer buried under a snowy layer of salt.

I can't believe I messed up a five ingredient recipe that doesn't even involve cooking!

Avo just had a taste and didn't think it was over salted, so I guess on some level, I succeeded. One mark of a good chef is being able to salvage culinary disasters, right?

Clearly I could use some assistance here. Please post any basic recipes that don't involve turning on the oven.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How hard could it be to make pancakes?

It's a Sunday tradition in many homes -- pancakes for breakfast. In our house, it's always Avo who makes the kids pancakes. But this morning, Avo left early to do the weekly food shopping.

"Do you know how to make pancakes, mom?" my 7-year-old daughter Jesse asked.

"Um, well, I've never made them, but how hard could it be, right?"

"I can help out," she said.

How could I let her down? Did I really want her growing up thinking that her mom couldn't follow the directions on the back of the Aunt Jemima box?

Aunt Jemima Pancakes

1 cup Aunt Jemima mix
3/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon oil
1 egg

1. Heat skillet over medium-low heat or electric griddle to 375 degrees F.

2. Combine all ingredients; stir with a wire whisk until large lumps disappear. Over-mixing may toughen pancakes. Let stand 1 to 2 minutes to thicken.

3. Pour slightly less than 1/4 cup batter for each pancake onto lightly greased skillet.

4. Turn when pancakes bubble and bottoms are golden brown.

I appreciated the perfect pancake tips on the back of the box, but it would have been helpful if I had read them BEFORE cooking the pancakes.

- For thicker pancakes, use a little less milk. For thinner pancakes, use a little more milk.

- Do not beat out eh characteristic lumps in the batter; over-mixing will toughen pancakes.

- Lightly grease skillet or griddle with solid shortening instead of oil, butter or margarine; solid shortening does not burn as easily. (Note to self: Find out what solid shortening is).

- Turn pancakes only once; over-handling toughens them. (Again, I should have read this tip before cooking the pancakes)

So you're wondering how it went? Well, the good news is that I actually managed to make my kids pancakes (from a mix, but still impressive for a beginner). Of course, I flipped a couple of pancakes too soon and they flopped into a doughy mush (and I then tossed them in the trash).

But the kids seemed impressed.

"They're not as good as dad's," said Jesse. "But almost. You just have to practice a bit more. Are you proud of yourself?"


Just as I was cleaning up, Avo arrived home.

I guess I got a bit too cocky. I was boasting about my perfectly browned pancakes when the box slipped from my hands and before I knew what was happening, my clothes and the floor were coated with a light dust of powdered pancake mix.

"Well, now you can practice your sweeping!" said Avo.

Eggo waffles for breakfast tomorrow.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I don't know how she does it

Yesterday I posted about Alma Schneider, the social worker who started Take Back the Kitchen to help people gain the confidence and knowledge to cook healthfully for themselves.

I forgot to mention that in addition to Take Back the Kitchen, Alma is also the mother of four children!

She also does about a zillion other interesting things. She is a featured Kitchen Coach Expert on Real Savvy Moms and a healthy food sponsor for Baby Loves Disco. And she is a frequent recipe contributor to SuzySaid.com. Impressed yet?

And as if that isn't enough, Alma manages to find the time and energy to serve as the President of Parents Who Rock, a non-profit organization she founded which raises money for charity through concerts performed by parents seeking to reconnect with their musical pasts. Alma rocks!

Since she's such a pro in the kitchen, I thought Alma would be the ideal candidate for the very first of what I hope will become a regular series of Q&As here at Undomesticated Me.

Undomesticated Me: What are the most common and unique obstacles to cooking?

Alma Schneider: Many of my clients grew up on convenience or fast food with mothers who barely cooked--they had little or no cooking role models.

Typically they struggle with shopping, storing, prepping and preparing food to cook healthy meals on a consistent basis. Add to that picky kids who don't appreciate the fruits of their labors and you have a very unmotivated cooking mom who is conflicted because she wants to keep her kids healthy, save money and not be wasteful.

Then there are competitive, criticizing mother-in-laws, gourmet chef partners who only cook on the weekends making the cook wannabee feel inept, kids who melt down at the dinner table and MANY more obstacles.

UM: What is the most basic piece of advice you could give to someone like me with an irrational fear of cooking?

AS: Learning to cook is like learning ANY other skill in life. Start with small, manageable tasks and goals and make sure you have the support you need to accomplish them.

UM: What is one of the easiest, most basic recipe you would recommend to a real beginning cook?

AS: My "famous" maple soy dressing/marinade/ glaze. It is incredibly versatile, delicious, and all it requires is measuring and pouring.

Maple Soy dressing/marinade/glaze:

1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup canola oil
3 TBS soy sauce
1/8 cup rice vinegar
1/2 tsp sesame oil

Whisk all ingredients together until fully combined and refrigerate. That's it!

UM: Why do you think so many women have hang-ups about being in the kitchen?

AS: Where do I begin?! Being a woman is so tied up with being a nurturer and a provider. Knowing how to cook has, throughout the ages, been a part of that nurturing and providing role.

This is one of the first generations where there has been literally zero need to learn how to cook, with little or no focus on teaching cooking.

If you have perfectionist tendencies or have difficulty multitasking, it can be very stressful not to be able to make a simple meal every day for our families -- especially when we see our friends doing it and even enjoying it!

UM: How do you manage to take care of your family, run your business, and cook delicious, healthy meals every day?

AS: It's all about the prep. I take a small amount of time (in the beginning it took longer, I admit) to think about what I was going to make. I shop and prep in advance. Creating a Menu is a life-saver and that is the key to cooking success.

UM: Thanks a lot, Alma. You are an inspiration!

Friday, June 5, 2009

What's for dinner?

I can now understand why asking my mom "What's for dinner?" every day drove my mother crazy when I was a kid.

Now that I'm a mom, my kids ask me the same thing and I go batty every time. Something about that simple question taps into my anxiety about cooking. Just like cleaning, it will never be completely done. Just when you finish one meal, it's time to start preparing for the next.

On top of that, I was a very picky kid and I pretty much never liked what we were having for dinner. Now I've got my own picky kid and I can't stand catering to her culinary needs.

Who wants to slave all day over a hot stove only to see her work ignored at meal time? Why cook for kids who won't appreciate my efforts?

I recently attended a cooking workshop in the home of a friend-of-a-friend, led by another friend-of-a-friend, Alma Schneider.

A social worker and amateur chef, Alma started her own business, Take Back the Kitchen, to help women overcome the obstacles to cooking.

Alma circulated a handout, “How Not Cooking Affects Your Life," to the room of mothers looking for some culinary guidance.

“Are you stressed out at dinner time or other times of the day about food or cooking?
“Do you get overwhelmed about bringing a dish to a potluck, bake sale or dinner party?
“Are you envious of friends who seem to be able to ‘whip up’ dishes at a moment’s notice?

Yes, yes, and yes.

The brochure lists “self-limiting beliefs about cooking” and I can relate to nearly every one. In particular: “I can’t cook because I don’t have the ‘cooking gene’ and “I’m so far behind, I can never catch up.”

In her private workshops, Alma asks clients to imagine that you have reached all of your cooking goals and fantasies.

My goal is simple: to be able to cook something edible. But I just get into the kitchen and panic.

Alma shows us how to whip up a few basics (it's not so hard when someone is there guiding me through it). And then she has a handy suggestion for those of us with picky kids at home.

Why not draw up a weekly menu which incorporates foods your kids like and foods they don't like? As long as there is at least one thing you know they'll eat, you don't have to worry that they'll starve.

Try to include dishes that can easily be adapted for picky kids and discerning adults. Then you won't have to cook two separate dinners every night.

So here is what I came up with:

Monday -- "Breakfast for Dinner" - Cheese omelette, toast, turkey bacon and carrots. Fresh fruit. Avo and I can have the same thing, but maybe add a fancier filling to the omelette.

Tuesday -- Mexican night -- Cheese quesadilla with carrots. Fresh fruit. Again, Avo and I can have the same thing, but with a different filling, such as a chicken quesadilla.

Wednesday -- Classic American -- Macaroni and cheese with fish sticks. Fresh fruit and carrots. Avo and I can have catfish instead of fish sticks.

Thursday -- Italian -- Penne and chicken nuggets. Fresh fuit and veggies. Avo and I can have ravioli and chicken cutlet.

Friday -- Japanese -- Rice and edamame. Avo and I will have a Thai stir-fry with tofu and veggies.

The kids seem to like knowing what's for dinner and I like them not asking me!

Sometime soon, I'll feature a Q&A with Alma Schneider, who will share some more tips for conquering your fear of cooking and taking back the kitchen!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Deep Thoughts

Since Brooklyn schools are closed today for the fabricated, quirky holiday known as Brooklyn-Queens Day and I will be busy with the kids, I won't have time to cook, clean, or blog.

On top of which, today is Avo and my 9th wedding anniversary, so we'll be going out for dinner to celebrate.

Therefore, it is the perfect time to share some thoughtful and funny household sentiments from some famous folks:

You sometimes see a woman who would have made a Joan of Arc in another century and climate, threshing herself to pieces over all the mean worry of housekeeping.
-- Rudyard Kipling

My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.
-- Erma Bombeck

Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.
-- Phyllis Diller, Phyllis Diller's Housekeeping Hints, 1966

Don't cook. Don't clean. No man will ever make love to a woman because she waxed the linoleum - "My God, the floor's immaculate. Lie down, you hot bitch."
-- Joan Rivers

The Rose Bowl is the only bowl I've ever seen that I didn't have to clean.
-- Erma Bombeck

I'm not going to vacuum until Sears makes one you can ride on.
-- Roseanne Barr

My theory on housework is, if the item doesn't multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?
-- Erma Bombeck

And with those thoughts, I wish everyone a Happy Brooklyn-Queens Day!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Big Clean Day Revisited

Maybe we should call it Big Clean Week because one day clearly wasn't enough time to check everything off my list -- that is if I had a list.

After my 7-year-old, Jesse, went off to school yesterday, I blasted some classic Elton John and my 4-year-old, Ruby, and I boogied as we dusted.

Tight on time, I admit I cheated and used those environmentally-unfriendly sanitized cleaning wipes to clean the bathroom sink rather than relying on old fashioned elbow grease.

Halfway through "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," I had an epiphany. I realized that when it comes to housework, I've got Attention Deficit Disorder. I can't seem to focus on one task before jumping on to the next one.

I'm generally a pretty organized person who relies on lists and post-its in every area of my life. But for some reason, I'm a haphazard cleaner. Dust a bit here, wipe down a counter there, but nothing ever gets completely clean.

In fact, I often forgo basic household tasks like mopping in favor of cleaning under the couch or behind the book shelf. It usually provides a much bigger payoff since I never know what I'll find under there.

In “The Joy of House Keeping,” (1977) Ella May Miller turned to Jesus to inspire women to embrace the job of housekeeper, urging women to “accept that role as a part of the Lord’s work.”

As a liberal New York Jew, I don’t plan to turn to Jesus anytime soon, but I do think it's worth looking to Miller and other experts for some domestic guidance.

“Keeping house isn’t easy. It’s difficult and very often complicated. It contains many facets, requires greater expertise than any other career. Homemaking is a profession. It takes skill. Know-how. The ability to organize. A desire to want to achieve,” writes Miller.

She advises women to “approach running a house in the same way as a job. You must be serious about your work – and have proper training, or experience.”

Makes sense to me. Starting tomorrow, I will get serious about this new "job" and seek some proper training -- from the experts, from my friends, and last but not least, from my mom.

I hereby declare June Big Clean Month.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A victory for housekeepers everywhere

A self-proclaimed clean freak who suffers chronic pain from a car crash made history Monday with a court victory in Ontario, Canada that upholds her $60,000 award for being unable to do housework.

Claudia McIntyre became the first person in the province to be awarded compensation for injuries affecting a person's ability to clean their house, according to a story from Canwest News Service.

It's a pretty big deal for women, who traditionally, do the bulk of the housework.

As McIntyre's attorney put it:

Although anyone could lose housekeeping capacity as a result of injuries, in our society traditionally women have fulfilled that role. Our courts have traditionally recognized that if somebody loses the ability to work, that's worthy of compensation. Now people who work in the home are entitled to the same consideration.

In the judgement, Justice Susan Lang said that losing the ability to do housework amounts to a loss of identity for the plaintiff.

You can read the whole story here.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Big Clean Day

Yes, it's that special day of every month devoted to sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, neatening, and overall cleaning.

Didn't anyone tell you that today is Big Clean Day?

In case you never heard of Big Clean Day before, it is a special holiday (to use the word loosely) that is celebrated (again, very loose usage) once a month -- at least in our house.

I can always tell it’s getting close to the end of the month when Avo starts to drop “Big Clean Day” into our conversations -- even when we're discussing politics, film, or the weather.

I’m not sure when it first began, but at some point during the course of our nine-year marriage, Avo inaugurated the dubious tradition of devoting the first day of each month to cleaning the apartment.

I think it’s his way of ensuring that we change the sheets and hand towels at least once a month.

Big Clean Day also involves scrubbing toilets, sinks and kitchen counters, vacuuming rugs, mopping the floors and dusting. Oh, and changing the kitty litter. All sorts of unpleasant business.

Trying to muster enthusiasm for the cause, this morning I made a big show of dusting the fireplace screen with my bare hands.

“You’d be surprised. A rag does wonders,” said Avo, without looking up from his morning paper.

To humor Avo, I crumpled a handful of toilet paper from the bathroom and used it to dust the radiators.

“Well, at least that’s better than using your hand."

Luckily, Avo will be working in an office today rather than in our basement so he won't be around to critique my unorthodox house cleaning methods.

And for those of you who might jump to the conclusion that I am solely responsible for cleaning on Big Clean Day, stop yourself before you jump...

The truth is that I almost never get a chance to clean on Big Clean Day before Avo usually cheats and begins cleaning a few days before the actual day. The nerve of him!

This month, I am determined to wow Avo with shiny floors, sparkling mirrors, and toilets so clean he can see his reflection in them, and, of course, fresh sheets!

Does anyone else devote a special day every week or every month to cleaning or are we just dorky? At least we don't wear matching "Big Clean Day" shirts or anything.