Wednesday, July 05, 2017

How Bad Could it Be?

When I was a relatively new cook, I made Salade Niçoise for the first time. I think it took me about six hours, what with all the blanching, poaching, peeling, pitting, seeding, chopping, washing and whisking that the recipe called for. It was delicious, but I was a little stunned by how labor intensive it was. So, in the interests of science, the next week, I made the easiest possible version-- just to see how different it would be. I substituted canned tuna for poached salmon, iceberg lettuce for the mesclun mix, canned pitted black olives for the niçoise olives, and bottled dressing for homemade vinaigrette. It was easy, quick and cheap, and tasted like it too. There had to be a middle way. That canned tuna was a step too far, and homemade dressing is the best bang for the buck around.

In the years since then, I've continued my research (also known as "How bad could it be?"). There are some things that I have learned are worth the time and effort, and some things that are not.

Chicken thighs, being flavorful and fatty, can withstand all sorts of poor treatment. If you get the boneless skinless ones, they need no prep at all. Straight from the package to the crock pot with some curry paste and a can of coconut milk, they make a respectable chicken curry. Right onto the grill with no marinading or rubbing or other manhandling, they make a tasty Grilled Protein Item that can be applied however you like (salad, sandwich, pasta, taco, quesadilla).

Frozen broccoli can be dumped onto a cookie sheet and thrown right into a cold oven. Turn the oven to 400 degrees, and when you find yourself thinking, "Oh crap, I forgot about the broccoli!" it will likely be perfectly done, with some slightly crispy brown edges, and ready for a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper. The same is true of green beans, according to one of my trusty sisters-in-law, but I haven't yet tried that one myself.

I've tried short cuts that haven't worked out, like dumping a bag of frozen berries into a puff-pastry-lined baking dish (too thick, too cold, too heavy, sad waste of both items), but generally my cooking has gotten simpler, faster, and better over time. How bad could it be?

When I make Salade Nicoise now, I use prepared white anchovies, pitted, jarred kalamatas, frozen haricots verts (blanched and cooled) and homemade vinaigrette. It's pretty easy, fairly quick, moderately cheap, and very delicious. Win.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The Days These Days: Six Years Old

She still wakes up early. Our official deal is that she has to be quiet until at least 5:40. Her dad helped her write out the numbers on a slip of paper and they taped it up near her digital clock, but still, my daily alarm clock is a plaintive call, "Is it 5:40 yet?" I have no idea what time this happens, because that cry means one thing to me: roll over and go back to sleep for another hour.

But sometime around then, Cleo does get up, gets herself dressed, and makes her bed. The arrangement is that she makes her bed every day but Sunday, when she gets the day off. Many weeks, she forgets it's Sunday and makes her bed anyway. I try not to reveal how charming and amazing I find all of this. I can't remember making my bed until (maybe) college, and probably not even then. I was a slovenly child.

Once her bed is made and she's dressed (current rules: colorful, stretchy, not too tight, no jeans, no "floppy" pant-legs or sleeves, and never, ever anything corduroy), she often goes upstairs to her dad's office, where he's been working since four. He does this so that he can get some work done early, which lets him quit earlier for family time. He knows how charming and amazing I find all of this. She sometimes draws with him up there, or plays with his collection of plastic monsters. She loves being with him At Work.

At some point, they come downstairs and make breakfast. These days, it's oatmeal or rice and eggs or sometimes eggs and toast, which she swears up and down she will eat if he cooks it, and then eats only her favorite fify-five percent of: the liquid yolk, the buttery middle of the toast, a few thin scraps of white from around the edges. By the time I show up, it'll be a congealing yellow disk next to a crescent moon of nibbled crust.

Once his breakfast is eaten and hers is being picked at more and more slowly, he makes me a coffee and brings it to me in bed. I'm somewhere between partly and mostly awake, and the coffee finishes the job.

I come downstairs a bit before seven and have my ritual First Hug of the Day. Cleo is no longer the endurance snuggler she used to be, but she's still attached to regular brief check-ins, and her absolute favorite thing is the Silly Snuggle, wherein I tickle her, throw her around, and make goofy noises while she laughs hysterically. If it were up to her, we'd do that for a solid hour every morning. Poor thing gets ten minutes every couple days.

I eat my breakfast, which often involves her leavings, and then call her over for a hairdo. Her hair is getting longer (shoulder-length now, with irritatingly nose-length bangs). Her choices include the side/top braid, the side/top ponytail, two bunches, one ponytail, or just two barrettes. She generally picks whichever hair style takes the least brushing, while I encourage her toward something that will stay in for longer than forty minutes, depending on the day's activities.

These days are summer days, which this year means swim lessons. She has a balance of caution and bravery that's served her very well on the playground (cartwheels, monkey bars, rope-climbing), but when it comes to the water, her cautious side wins every time. She would happily swim all day as long as she never had to get wet above her neck, and at least one foot was always safely on solid ground. She's making glacial progress. But certainly better than nothing, and definitely better than me-- I was of the one-foot-on-the bottom school until I was at least eight.

Often, if the day is hot and one or all of us is wiped out, someone will suggest Quiet Time after lunch, which is the vestigial nap time. If it's a weekday, Cleo can have an hour with an audio book in her room, and listens fairly enthusiastically to Pippi Longstocking, Wind in the Willows, Noisy Village, Beatrix Potter, Rabbit Hill, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle or Little House in the Big Woods while she draws or colors. Her vocabulary has really blossomed, thanks to this. Some recent requests for definitions: searchingly, wild-eyed, philodendron, and heedless (I admit it: I am a big nerd and I love this). On the weekend, she can have a (cue dramatic music) Video Quiet Time! This means an hour of Daniel Tiger, Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, or Peppa Pig on the iPad. Not so vocabulary-enriching, but so fun! What a treat!

Cleo recently came home from a play date with the news that, "Sophia is allowed to watch videos Whenever. She. Wants!" A visit to another friend's house resulted in the update, "There were advertisements between all the videos!" Also known as commercial television. I guess she'd never seen it. She can work a touch-screen like a boss, however.

The evening routine is well-established and calm these days, which is a lovely thing to be able to say. We eat dinner at 5:30, and start upstairs at 6:30 for tooth-brushing and a story. Her dad does the brushing and I do the reading. This summer, we've finished two big chapter books that I loved as a little girl-- A Little Princess and A Secret Garden. I love watching her desperate and passionate involvement in the stories, and it's pretty easy for her to talk me into "just a little extra reading tonight!" This sometimes calls for careful handling if I know a particularly traumatic or thrilling event is coming up. We did a lot of extra day-time reading when Sarah Crewe's father died. By bedtime, we had throughly discussed all the ramifications and possibilities and we were safely into reading about charming sparrows and their enjoyment of crumbs.

Our current book is Mary Poppins. I love introducing her to books I loved as a kid, but I realize these stories skew very Privileged British. I may have to do a little broadening research.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pickled Vegetable Manifesto

In my twenties, I learned a lot about cooking, and I gradually acquired a good collection of kitchen tools. I tried things, I bought stuff, and I read a lot about the hows and whys and whats of cooking, which means I spent a lot of time learning about other people's priorities in the kitchen. I bought (and almost never used) a mandoline, a food mill, a mortar and pestle, some excellent cake pans and a garlic press. I also bought (and still adore) an immersion blender, a sturdy whisk and a couple of great knives.

In my thirties, I've spent more time learning about my own priorities in the kitchen. Am I the kind of cook that needs the tools to bake every possible dessert? I am not. My realistic annual baking output is fifteen batches of muffins, twelve dozen cookies, three pies, and something less than one whole cake. I clearly do not need to own any cake-specific tools. I like to be able to make a nice dessert. I do not need to be able to make all the nice desserts. I only make piecrust a few times a year, I kind of like to hand-slice cabbage for coleslaw, and my immersion blender makes excellent pesto. And so I have happily given away my poor, unappreciated food processor and I'm about to de-aquisition my mandoline. The waffle iron has gone back to the thrift store from whence it came, and if I ever change my mind, I know where to go to get another one.

I must admit, however, that this has not been a completely efficient process. I got rid of my sushi-rolling mat about a month before I realized that homemade sushi has quite a lot going for it (tasty, cheap, flexible, exciting, healthy). But three dollars for a new sushi mat seemed like a reasonable price to pay for cleared-out cabinets and a spring in my step.

I want the tools I do keep to be both useful and also actually used. One of my favorite recent additions is a handsome set of nesting enamel baking dishes. I have roasted chicken, baked casseroles, served grilled fish, made brownies, and tossed salads in them. They're pretty, sturdy and easy to wash and store. I have three favorite pans that do almost everything I need to do on the stovetop (and two junior auxiliary pans that I keep around for very particular reasons: frying dumplings, and cooking a single scrambled egg).

I've been applying this cold-eyed realism to cooking, too. Which sounds like a terrible idea, I know, but bear with me. I'm just after the best ratio between kitchen-hours spent and tasty meals produced.

So, when I cook, I try to make not only the meal at hand, but also a few incidental meal starters, accompaniments, or add-ins that I will be delighted to find the next time I open the fridge at 4:30 in an inquisitive and hopeful way.

In that spirit, here are some flexible pickled vegetables that are culturally non-specific, so you can make a big batch and eat them with scandinavian-style sandwiches, alongside Indian curry, tossed into a salad, layered in a sandwich, or tucked into a burrito. So efficient (also, good).

Universal Pickled Vegetables

6 tablespoons white vinegar (as culturally neutral as you can get)
3 tablespoons water (okay, maybe water is even more neutral)
1 teaspoon sea salt (a fairly global commodity)
2 tablespoons sugar (ditto)

1 large cucumber, thinly sliced (peeled and seeded only if skin and seeds are tough)
1 sweet white onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, julienned or grated (I use this julienne carrot peeler all the time)
1 lemon, both zest and juice (or more-- the lemon is so good)

Mix the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Toss the cucumber, onion, carrot, lemon zest, and lemon juice into the bowl as you prep them. Mix well and refrigerate for at least six hours.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Set Phasers to Maximum Geek (or Advanced Freezer Management)

Last night, scraping the bottom of the fridge for dinner, I came up with a winner: Pea Frittata with Mint and Feta, with toast. I won't report the whole recipe here because it's fairly self-explanatory, but it got me thinking about Freezer Management and how helpful a well-stocked freezer can be. I tend to go in phases with my freezer inventory, and I'm forever forgetting and then re-discovering clever freezer strategies, so I figure it's high time to write some things down for myself (and you! everything is for you, dear reader).

There are a lot of time-saving freezer tips out there, most of which involve freezing completed (or almost-completed) dishes. The most extreme of these is Once a Month Cooking, or OAMC to its hard-core fans. These dedicated individuals cook twenty or thirty dinners in a day or two, load up the freezer, and then only have to thaw and cook for the rest of the month. This works well for some people, but it sounds kind of dreary to me, not to mention the freezer space it must require. My freezer philosophy borrows from the good old Minimum Inventory, Maximum Diversity, which I learned about in design school. The theory is that a few well-designed parts can be combined in multiple ways, resulting in many different products. So, ideally, anything that's given a spot in my freezer's Permanent Collection should have the potential to be a part of lots of different meals. I can cook according to whim, season, weather and pantry. The other main theory behind my freezer inventory is The Sale. If there's a good deal on some kind of meat, I stock up in a big way, and eventually end up with a diverse collection of meal-starters. Here are the ingredients and methods that have served me the best over the years:

Plastic tubs
I generally avoid plastics and food these days, but the freezer is one place where the utility of plastic outweighs my fear of it. Tapered plastic tubs (like you get yogurt or sour cream or takeout soup in) are great, mainly because of their shape. The truncated cone is made for the freezer. Being larger at the opening and smaller at the base, it can release frozen food without a lot of tedious thawing. Just run the tub under warm water to loosen things up, then squeeze out the block of whatever-it-is and proceed. This makes frozen food nearly as useful as fresh food for last-minute cooking. The only other thing you need is good labels: tape and a sharpie works for me.

Cookie sheet and waxed paper
Freezing things separately and then, once they're frozen, putting them all together in a plastic freezer bag makes them easier to use than freezing stuff in one huge lump that has to be thawed all at once. The cookie sheet is self-explanatory, and the waxed paper (a double layer) keeps the stuff from freezing to the sheet. This works well for gobs of cookie dough, fresh sausages, berries, single-serving lumps of pureed vegetables, and other things that will be used in small amounts or specific units.

Chicken Bombs
Chopped, cooked chicken packed tightly into plastic tubs, with chicken broth poured over to keep out the freezer burn. A chicken bomb can be turned into soup or curry or chicken pot pie or tacos or quesadillas or chicken salad or any other dish you can think of that uses cooked chicken. And you're clever, so you can think of a lot.

Homemade Chicken Broth
The trick here is to cook the broth down to quadruple strength (or even more). Let it cool and solidify in the fridge in one of those handy tubs, then pop out the chicken jello (mmm!). Since it's homemade and super-condensed, it'll be very firm. Cut it into hunks and freeze the hunks on a (waxed-papered) cookie sheet, and then into a freezer bag. This saves a lot of freezer space, and means you can use it either diluted for soup or a little, full-strength, for a sauce. Or, if you have more freezer room than time, freeze the broth regular strength in a plastic tub.

Curry (or Stew)
Most of the time and effort of curry and stew is in the browning of the meat and onions and the long simmering. The vegetables are quicker and easier to cook, and I'm likely to have some things on hand that can go into a curry at the last minute (including frozen vegetables). So I've started making a big batch of meat-and-onions-only curry, enough for four or five dinners. This saves space in the freezer, and I can prep vegetables (and/or clean out the fridge) while the chunk of frozen curry heats up on the stove. Just remember to divide and freeze it in one-family-dinner-sized portions.

Individually frozen on a cookie sheet, then bagged. I generally make soup with sausages, but they're flexible too. The trick is in the individual freezing, and the fact that sausages are pre-seasoned, pre-cleaned, pre-portioned meat.

Really Good Bread
Our local bakery sells large chewy, rustic rolls that are just the right size for two people. I freeze five or six at a time, and use them one by one. It does help to thaw them for a couple hours first, and then here's the trick: preheat the oven to 400, run the bread under water briefly (just to wet the outside) and then bake for 10 minutes. The crust will be restored to its just-baked glory, and you'll have what seems like freshly baked excellent bread for dinner.

The Good Frozen Vegetables
There are some truly terrible frozen vegetables that will make you feel as though meal-replacement drinks are a good idea. But persevere! At least in our area, there's one particular brand of broccoli that is really excellent, a different brand of green beans, almost any brand of corn, and ditto peas. Frozen kale and collards are a huge time-saver over fresh, and perfectly delicious in the right preparation (well-cooked, well-chopped). I've never had good frozen peppers, onions, or asparagus, and despite seeing frozen artichoke hearts in several recipes, I've never seen them in a store. Good frozen vegetables are a life-saver. They're just as nutritious as fresh (sometimes more so), often cheaper, and keep for months rather than days, so they're much less likely to turn into expensive sludge in the bottom of the fridge.

In the warmer months, any leftover fruit, odd ends of juices, the last inch of ice cream, leftover whipped cream, and any browning bananas often get blended together and frozen (along with a couple big spoonfuls of yogurt) in popsicle molds. The only caveats are: don't mix your purple fruits and your orange fruits (no one likes a brown fruit popsicle), and chocolate syrup doesn't freeze unless it's mixed in.

Summer Freezer/Winter Freezer
Turnover is an important part of freezer management, and I use the change of seasons to help me remember. My summer freezer is for popsicles, quick-cooking vegetables, ice packs for picnics, and the pinnacle of delicious and practical food-gineering: the ice cream sandwich (no bowls! no spoons! single serving!). My winter freezer is for broth, soups, stews and chili. As the weather turns, I try to plan some meals to use up the freezer stash and make room for some fresh stuff. Freezer-as-time-machine only works for so long, before freezer burn catches up with you.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Salmon Curry with Vegetables

This gets full marks in all the important categories: tasty, quick, frugal, healthy, and sustainable. The only hurdle, for people unfamiliar with canned salmon, is the horrific sight that confronts you when you open the can. There is slimy skin, there is mysterious orange oil floating on top of a grey liquid that smells of cheap cat food, and there are bones that look like they'd be more comfortable in a natural history museum. But persevere! Canned salmon is generally (always?) wild caught from sustainable fisheries, it's full of healthy fats, and those creepy bones are soft enough to eat. Just crush them between your fingers and throw them into the mix. They're a great source of calcium. The omega-3-full orange oil should get used too, so don't pour off the liquid. It mixes right into the curry sauce.

Salmon Curry with Vegetables
serves three or four

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon oil
2 tsp curry powder

1 15-oz can coconut milk

1 tablespoon fish sauce (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon lime juice (or more to taste)
2 tsp sugar

1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and chopped (2 or 3 cups)
one red pepper, chopped

one bunch of scallions, chopped
1 7-oz can red salmon (skin chopped up, bones squished into bonemush, flesh gently flaked)

Heat your largest frying pan. Fry the garlic and ginger in the oil. Once it's soft and fragrant, add the curry powder and let it toast in the oil for a few minutes, until it's a little darker. Stir in the coconut milk, fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar.

Let it reduce a little bit while you prep the vegetables. Once you're practically ready to eat, heat the sauce to a wild boil, and toss in the asparagus. Once it's heated through, toss in the red pepper. Once that's hot, stir in the salmon and scallions. Serve with rice.

Going Out For Lunch! Or, Fish Cakes

Step One: Give up eating meat for Lent (fish is okay).

Step Two: Find yourself (with spouse and child) downtown at lunchtime, chilly and peckish.

Step Three: Try to find a place that is open, has some food that includes a pescatarian option, and is willing and able to cook and sell this food.

Step Four: Give up on Step Three. For extra credit, avoid familial squabbles!

Step Five: Take the bus home and make fish cakes for lunch.

Easy Fish Cakes
1/2 lb mild white fish, cooked and flaked
1/3 cup panko
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 egg
1/4 tsp garlic powder

Combine, form into small cakes, and fry in a little oil until golden brown. Eat with leftover sauteed greens, avocado slices, and peanut sauce. Vow to never again eat restaurant food.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Noisy Village Dumplings

Cleo likes to listen to audio books when she's sick. Well, she likes to listen to one audio book: Astrid Lindgren's The Children of Noisy Village. After listening to the whole two-hour book as many times as she's had a cold this winter (so, so many times), I suggested a few other options.

No. Noisy Village or nothing. So, by now, I could probably recite the whole thing from memory. Let's see... "My name is Lisa, and I am nine years old. I am a girl, which you can tell by my name." I could go on. I will not. It's a sweet story, about six Swedish children growing up in the countryside and their antics and accomplishments.

In one chapter, there's a dramatic snow storm, through which the children must walk home from school. They struggle through the snow, get rescued in a horse-drawn sleigh, and go home for hot beef broth and dumplings. This inspired Cleo's first book-induced food craving. She requested it for dinner, with great enthusiasm and shining eyes, and (with the help of the internet, the freezer and the pantry) we were eating it a couple hours later.

I guess Swedish dumplings are usually potato-based, but I was limited to flour-and-egg dumplings, so I tracked down and adapted this recipe. I doubt there's anything Swedish about it, but it was delicious, frugal, easy, and a great parent-child kitchen project (especially if you use a plastic pizza wheel to cut the dough). They're like thick, chewy, tender noodles. I have no idea how they are the next day, since we inhaled them.

Flat Dumplings for Soup
serves two or three

1.25 cups white whole wheat flour, plus extra for rolling out
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
4 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons water

In a big bowl, beat together eggs, oil, water, and salt. Add the flour and mix to make a sticky dough. Chill one hour (next time, I'm skipping this step, just in the interests of research). Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, sprinkle a large cutting board with flour. Dust the dough with flour, and divide it in two. Using half the dough at a time, gently spread/stretch/roll the dough out on the cutting board to about 1/8" thick. Cut the dough into little pieces-- ours were about 1/4" by an inch or two. Variations in size seemingly had no effect on quality, so put down your ruler and go nuts with the pizza wheel. Gently slide the dumplings off the board and into the boiling water, and cover. Boil 8-10 minutes, then scoop out the finished dumplings. Repeat with the other half of the dough. I held the finished dumplings in ice water until the soup was ready for them, and that worked well. Next time, I might skip that step (again, research/laziness).

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Days These Days: Four and a Half

Another year, another blog post. How do I maintain this punishing schedule of constant updates? Yes. Well. Hello, there.

I realized the other day, after wondering to myself what had happened to my blog, that parenting used to be physically grueling. It's manual labor, caring for infants and toddlers, and so much of what you do is repetitive, exhausting, unrelenting, and tedious. There's profound sweetness and love in there too, of course, but it doesn't require that much of the talky/write-y parts of the brain. It's about half sheer physical work and half heady, all-consuming love. While I was doing that kind of parenting, my verbal brain was looking for an outlet. My dear stalwart husband got all the paranoid hypothetical questions about child development (or lack thereof), my cadre of mom-friends got all the commiserating about input and output (ahem), but I had all these sentences and paragraphs growing up in my brain that had nowhere else to go. When I sat down to write in those days, it was like turning on a tap. The water pressure was there, waiting. Or maybe it was more like weeding a garden. It was ready to be picked, to be yanked out and bagged up, to be said and spelled and written.

Parenting a four year old, though, exercises every bit of my verbal brain. Life is conversation, conjecture, evaluation, and an endless series of what-ifs. At the end of the day, when everyone but me is sleeping, what I most want is to Not Talk. To finally stop expressing myself. To absorb a little frivolous information from the internet, to read a tiny little bit of some neglected novel, to drink a whole cup of tea while it's still hot, and then to go to sleep. This is not a recipe for frequent blog updates.

So, in the interests of better-late-than-never, or maybe better-done-than-perfect, here's where we are these days.

4:00 The Dada of the House gets up and goes upstairs to his office. He does this so that he can get some work done at an hour when no one will call him, no one will have a dentist appointment, no client will have a crisis, and no one will need any forts built out of the couch cushions. He likes it, he says, and it works out really well. The hardest part, apparently, is going to bed early enough. The second hardest part is getting up at four AM. Other than that, it's great. I sleep through all this quite soundly.

5:15 Cleo wakes up. She has been instructed to snuggle with her guys (large rabbit, small rabbit, clown, giraffe, fox, turtle), close her eyes, and try to get back to sleep. This usually works.

5:45 Cleo wakes up again and plays quietly until it's officially morning at 6:30. Today it was explained to her that "playing quietly" (already established: not knocking down block towers or jumping off the bed) should not include a jaunty version of London Bridge is Falling Down over and over for forty minutes. The gleeful phrase "take the key and lock 'im up" is now seared into my subconscious. That will be what they find me humming in my wheelchair in the nursing home.

6:30 Cleo and Dada head downstairs for breakfast-- it's usually rice and eggs, oatmeal, or homemade granola these days. After a few rounds of domestic diplomacy, it was determined that he would handle breakfast, pack a school lunch when necessary, and generally do all AM feeding and cleaning while I would sleep in and stumble out of bed in time to heave myself and Cleo into the car for the trip to preschool. In exchange for this, I do both drop-off and pick-up every school day. We arrived at this arrangement after we realized that my idea of hell was packing school lunches twice a week and his idea of hell was driving to school and back, ever. A sweet deal for everyone, I think. But these things are always up for negotiation. Next year, School Bus. Gasp.

7:40 I get out of bed, dress with at least one eye open, and then we head to the car. Cleo runs laps around the car while I unlock my door, poke the main unlock button, close my door, and open her door. Between my slowness and her fleetness of foot, she generally manages three or four laps. She's been up for two hours. I've been up for two minutes. During the drive, we discuss traffic laws, whether or not anyone around us is speeding, which intersections are tricky intersections, the weather forecast, the chances they will play outside at school, whether today is Library, Music or Gym, and the state of the sky as we drive over the bridge. We often agree that it is beautiful.

8:00 We arrive at preschool along with everyone else, a small, dusty hatchback in a herd of glossy, muscular SUVs. I forfeit the game of slow-motion parking lot rugby, and park on the street. We walk in, and it melts my mother heart that Cleo still chooses to hold my hand and walk with me, rather than running ahead. She stows her gear (snow pants, boots, library book, lunch, sweater) and gallops off to play. Her world this year is more gendered than she's been used to, with The Girls and The Boys really dividing themselves into little gangs. We hear a few tiny little bits about how she's navigating this. "Cleo's the only girl who will play Star Wars!" and "Cleo's the funniest person I know!" and "I hate girls. Except Cleo." All quotes from boys in her class, reported by their parents. She's also starting to get more interested in clothes and "beautiful" things (where beautiful=pink or purple or embellished with flowers), but it's clear that she's investigating that almost anthropologically. If left to her own devices, she will pick very colorful clothes and toys, with no thought to matching or conventional girliness. When she's tuning in to other people and social environments, she will request or admire pink/purple/sparkly things. It's hard to know how to support both her individuality and her very human desire to fit in with what she sees around her. My main strategy is to not take her shopping with me if possible, so that I can buy colorful, fun clothes for her that don't strictly adhere to the conventional feminine aesthetic, and she can weigh in on what she wants to wear from those choices. And the less "Daddy's Little Princess" clothing she sees, the better. Oof. It's only eight AM, and we're already into gender roles and aesthetics.

Better done than perfect did I say? I'm going to wrap this up so it doesn't linger in "Drafts" for six months.

1:00 School Pick Up, come home, see Dada, snack.

2:00 Snack, a little playing, naptime. Yes! She is still napping. At an age when almost all of her age-mates have stopped napping, she still totally zonks out for a solid hour or two in the middle of the day. Occasionally I gripe about how this cramps our style socially, but Cleo's beloved babysitter, who has her finger on the pulse of four year olds across the city, advised that we keep it up as long as possible. Her tales of afternoon woe and malfeasance among the napless were sobering. So, yes, Cleo still naps. We will wean her off of it right before kindergarten next fall, if necessary.

5:00 I get home, Cleo's dear Dada goes back to his office to complete his fourteen hour workday (with "breaks" for meals and childcare). Man, I'm impressed with that guy. He always responds to my statements to that effect by saying that he's only trying to be the man I deserve. He's overshooting the mark by quite a bit, I think. Cleo and I have an hour and a half to make dinner, play, read books, and possibly enter into video negotiations. Two smiley faces on the chart equals two 12-minute episodes of Busytown Mysteries. The latest development: cleaning up the whole living room (toy central) completely independently without being asked earns an unprecedented three smiley faces.

6:30 Dinner. Cleo remains a good eater, especially if I've been a hardass and not let her snack on demand in the hour before we sit down. For support, I channel my dear grandmother, who would sweetly tell her four daughters that of course they could have a snack before dinner-- there are some lovely celery and carrot sticks all ready in the fridge. In Cleo's case, I give her a choice of apple slices or carrot sticks, which is usually met with a grumpy, "I changed my mind. I don't want a snack" and a little stomping, before she forgets why she was grumpy and goes back to skipping.

7:30 Bedtime routine: Dada brushes teeth, then I step in for pajamas, story, song, and negotiations. These usually end by 8:15 at the latest, and she chats and sings to herself for a little while before nodding off. She's been in a twin bed for a while now, and is all done with night time diapers, accidents, falling out of bed, and pacifiers (cold turkey, with notice, on her fourth birthday). The only thing that gets us up at night anymore is the very occasional bloody nose or throw up, and that could happen to anyone. It seemed to take forever while we were living through it, but now it feels like middle-of-the-night parenting was just another phase we got through.

10:50 (right now) Holy moley. It is late. Good night.