The Gleeful Gourmand: December 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winner Winner Christmas Dinner!

This Christmas, my husband once again graciously offered to make the main entrée of our family’s Christmas dinner. After trying out a couple of different recipes, he hit on the perfect one from Bon Appétit’s December issue:

Mustard-Seed-Crusted Prime Rib Roast with Dijon Crème Fraiche and Roasted Balsamic Onions.

I knew we had a winner when I came home from running errands. The smell in the house was truly amazing and tantalizing. What really sold me on it was the crème fraiche I helped make to go along with it. Reading the recipe I worried that this accoutrement would be too heavy, but it was perfect. Light, fluffy, with just the perfect hint of mustard and horseradish, it melts delectably on the tongue.

The only thing we’re not sure about is the jus that you pour over the meat right at the end. It certainly smelled delicious enough when we made it, but after straining it, we started cleaning up the kitchen while we waited for the meat to be done, got to talking, and before we knew it, Buck had accidentally thrown the whole thing out. We had a good laugh, but even as we ate later, we didn’t think it missed the jus terribly.

My sister-in-law and brother are supplying the sides: some sort of potato dish, and a nice, light spinach salad, maybe with some citrus to lighten the whole thing up. I’ll be making my Sugar-and-Spice Cake – a Southern Living classic (not the one pictured on the magazine cover here - which looked way too complicated even for me).

I’ll be taking pictures of our work Christmas Day, and I’ll report back with how it went. In the meantime, check out the recipe here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Toddler Table Manners

Yesterday I was reading Eatocracy’s latest blog post on CNN, and it was all about bad behavior of large groups while eating out, especially during the holidays. What surprised me wasn’t the number of people who agreed in the comments that table manners in general have gone downhill, but rather the sheer outrage of some comments over having to dine with children in the same establishment. Some even went so far to say that children shouldn’t dine out at all. That, of course, got me thinking about my 3-year-old son, and how we like to eat out during the weekends.

First of all, I agree that table manners in general have really hit a low point, but I come from an old-school mentality that how you behave at the dinner table, either in a restaurant or at home, really matters. My parents raised us to have impeccable manners at the table, and it started at home with some simple rules. Chew with your mouth closed. Your left hand belongs in your lap. When you’re finished, your fork and your knife are placed together on the plate, parallel to the bottom. And when we went out to eat, we knew what to expect. We were expected to sit there for the whole meal, and be quiet with our conversations, or else. My parents never would have allowed us to run all over any restaurant – it simply wasn’t done.

I’ve taken a similar approach with my son, and while it hasn’t been an easy road, it’s been a very rewarding one. Liam was dining out with us as early as 4 weeks old – when we just couldn’t stand being housebound one more moment. He slept through the whole meal. As he’s gotten older, we’ve put some pretty firm rules in place, again starting as early as possible. He sits with us at the dinner table, and he is not allowed to throw his food (and if he does he gets a timeout). He doesn’t have to eat everything on his plate, but he does have to at least try everything on it. Dinner is over when we say it’s over (but usually he knows it’s over when we deny his request for that third handful of animal crackers). When we go out, the same is expected of him there.

I firmly believe that there is a place for children in restaurants, but there is a time for everything (which I’ll get to in a moment). And here’s something even more shocking: You can have well-behaved children at your table at home and out to eat. You just have to be willing to work at it. It occurred to my husband and I that not only as our children get older will they be joining us more and more out to eat, but they will be eating at finer establishments eventually. What we teach them now sets them up for success later. It can be done. Here’s how we’ve done it:

1) Knowing that as toddlers, you have to set boundaries for what you want and expect to get out of it. Only you can decide the ultimate outcome, whether it’s simply fun family dinnertime at home, or well-behaved kids in a restaurant. Know that as you set up these boundaries, your toddler will cross them again, and again, and again. It’s going to be hard. Know what you’re willing to live with, and what deserves discipline. Have patience.
2) Decide before you get started what rules you want to set up, and which ones you’re willing to let slide. If you know the rules, it makes things so much easier.
3) The more you practice at home during meals, the easier it will be to take your children out in public.
4) Be willing to discipline your children in public spaces. What I mean by that is this: My son, at 3, now knows what to expect when we go out to eat. And when he starts misbehaving, we give him a warning: Stop what you’re doing, or we go out to the car for a timeout. And yes, I have taken him out to the car for a timeout, and yes, it did work.
5) In the early toddler years, get your practice out to eat at places that you know are family-friendly. Don’t set yourself up for failure in the beginning! When we started with Liam around 1, we tried to hit mealtime out as close to 5 p.m. as possible. That way, he wasn’t too hungry and impatient, and there weren’t too many other diners to bother if he did get unruly. We still try to dine between 5-6 p.m. as a rule, and now that he’s older we get to go to better restaurants as a result.
6) It’s usually a good idea to bring things for your toddler to do: crayons, activity books, etc. When they’re this young, it’s almost a necessity. However, just as I don’t condone children running around a restaurant I also don’t condone children who are older than, say, 6 sitting at a table and reading or playing video games. This is a great time for you and your children to interact, and for your children to learn good social and communication skills. They can’t do that if they’re glued to their handheld device. That goes for you, too, parents. Not only are your kids watching how you treat your waiters, but they’re also watching as you fiddle on your Blackberry.
7) If you know that you don’t have the patience for the above on a certain day, throw in the towel! Get a babysitter, and go out. Because there’s no way you’re going to be able to handle your toddler when you’re already at the end of your rope. Give yourself a break, and try again another time.

And to all those out there who cannot stand to have a child in their midst when they dine out: Lighten up! Realize that most parents are doing the very best they can, but sometimes kids will be kids. If the parent disciplines, and takes care of the problem, commend that parent for their skills. If they don’t – well, I don’t have any advice for that because I’m typically a non-confrontational person.

Here’s the plain and simple of it: The ultimate goal is for those kids to one day grow up and sit in your seat, and dine respectably. And they cannot do that if we put them in a bubble and never let them out.

P.S. - I know the photo of Liam isn't really him eating at a restaurant, but it sure is cute, huh?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lewis Ginter's GardenFest of Lights

If you live in the Richmond, VA area, and have never been to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's "GardenFest of Lights", I highly recommend it. They truly go all out, covering nearly every inch of the extensive gardens with lights, making fanciful flowers, butterflies, spiders, fairies, and even a gigantic peacock that spans the better part of the enormous lawn. In the children's section you'll find a bonfire, refreshments for sale, and a light maze. Inside the conservatory you'll find enormous Christmas trees, orchids, a train set and poinsettias.

We took Liam last night as we do every year, and he had a blast - running all over and looking at all the beautiful lights. It was freezing cold, but well worth it. Even if you don't have children, it makes the perfect date night!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Smell of Fall is...Onions?

Well, not just onions, but more specifically, onions sautéing in melted, bubbling butter. I know that sounds strange, but as fall officially winds down here in Virginia (it went down to 19 degrees last night!), it got me thinking about my favorite smells of the fall season: that peculiar delicious smokiness, apples, and of course onions in butter.

Let me explain. When I was a kid, we were sent outside to play most of the time, unless it was raining or bitterly cold. We were very fortunate to have a great yard with lots of room to play and explore, and also other kids in the neighborhood willing to play as well. One of my strongest memories associated with smell is coming home just before dinnertime in the fall after an afternoon of play, and coming up to our backdoor. Without the door being opened I could smell my mother’s cooking – the heavenly aroma of onions sweating it out in a pool of butter. Maybe she was making her own spaghetti sauce, or Johnny Marzetti, one of my favorite dishes. My stomach would tighten in hunger, and the anticipation of a great dinner would build.

So when I think of fall and its smells, I think of onions in butter. Besides the ocean, and maybe a freshly baked apple pie, it is one of my favorite smells. When I sauté onions in butter, I frequently stick my nose down close to the pan and simply inhale. It smells like home, and warmth, and childhood.

What about you? Do you have any favorite cooking smells, or smells that take you back to your childhood kitchen? Leave them in the comments!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Parting Ways

I had to have a serious conversation the other day with an old friend about the fact that we needed to part ways. Have you ever had a friend who, in the grand scheme of things, just brings you down? Hurts you again and again though you’ve done no wrong to them? This friend of mine is like that. They bring good, even great things to the table, but in the end, they simply hurt me. A lot. I’ve felt for a long time that she and I were simply coasting, with brief spurts of pain interjected along the way. Meaning that I have allowed myself to put up with her, and complain about her to other friends, but I never do anything about the situation.

So it was in my kitchen that I had the talk with this friend about needing to end our friendship. This is never an easy thing to do, especially when it’s a one-sided conversation. I talked and talked, and she just sat there and took it, never saying one word back to me. I don’t know what I expected – I didn’t expect her to apologize to me – I just wanted her to know that it was over. And all she did was sit there coldly, silently, unforgiving.

I don’t think it helped matters that I told her I was replacing her with another friend. A new friend, who probably won’t hurt me. I also explained how I had tried again and again to fix our friendship – even going so far as to fix her – with no real results. Still, nothing. Unfortunately, she and I will have to live with each other for another couple of months, and that’s going to get awkward. Relying on her, depending on her, all the while trying to suppress my glee at the thought of my new, better friend’s arrival.

What’s that? You think I’m being callous? Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that this friend is my stove.

Why are you laughing? This isn’t funny! This stove has slowly become the bane of my existence. It came with our house when we purchased it 5 ½ years ago. Back then I was only just starting to flex my muscles when it came to preparing meals. Nothing fancy. Just the meal equivalent of taking a stroll through a park. But over these past years, I’ve grown a lot. It started with the baking: I’ve enjoyed getting more elaborate with what I created, and that spilled over into mealtimes. At first there wasn’t much wrong with our relationship. We worked fine together, though I hated the gray grates on top of the gas burners because no matter what chemical I used, or how much elbow grease I put into it, I could never get them clean. But, who cares, right? If someone is staring at the grates on your stove hard enough to criticize then they’re probably not someone you want to share a meal with anyway.

But then, last year, right around this time, something horrible happened. I was lowering the oven door to slip something in when one of the hinges snapped off and disappeared into the oven. I know, that sounds crazy. How could I not know where the long, awkward hinge had gone? There were only so many places. But gone it was. Mr. Handyman informed me that I’d have to order a new hinge from GE, which I gladly did, for $90. Mr. Handyman installed said hinge, but because it’s such an old oven, the new hinge still makes the door hang too low. I’m constantly balancing it on my knee.

And then I noticed something else: The door was shutting, but apparently not all the way, because if I was cooking something in the oven, and also using the range on top, the dials in between the two were suddenly getting piping hot. So, if you can imagine, every time I use the two simultaneously, multiple times a week, I’m burning my fingers. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? See what I mean about this friend hurting me over and over again?

Yet, through all of this pain and frustration, I know in my heart of hearts that my oven is doing its best. It’s still turning out flawless meals and baked goods. And if they are flawed, I know it’s the cook’s error, and not the oven’s. But even this fact is not enough to keep me from hating it. Anytime I talk about it, my tone is filled with scorn and distaste. It’s got to go…but not for another couple of months, because that’s when we’re going to be able to afford a new one. Until then, I just wanted to let my old friend know that it’s over. Really, truly over.

However, if she decides to stop working for me in the meantime, there will be no more talks. Things are going to get ugly. As ugly as her grease-stained grates.