Monday, September 22, 2014

DEALING WITH "HELP": A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

This post is aimed mostly at mothers, but I believe it might be useful for everybody else, too. So read on, and let me know what you think.

I believe that one of the most difficult tasks a new mother is presented with (together with taking care of an infuriatingly ungrateful living creature while being continually chastised by society) is getting the help she really needs. Since I had my first child over three years ago, I was lucky to have family and friends come and visit often in order to help me. The help was mostly well received, but to be honest there were times I wished I had no help at all. I'll give you a few examples.

One time I thought a simple nap WITHOUT MY BABY would save my life, whereas my mother thought I needed her to reorganize my kitchen drawers. Another time, a well-meaning friend pestered me to tell her exactly how she could help me, but I was too tired to answer so she reorganized my kitchen drawers. Once I dropped my baby in my father's arms and ran to take a nap. I awoke to my child screaming out of mad hunger in a soiled diaper while my dad was happily reorganizing my kitchen drawers. See a pattern here? 

At first, I thought the problem was finding a way to communicate effectively what I needed. But that was only half of the problem, since there are people who won't meet your needs even when they are expressed in a simple sentence written in a bold Helvetica typeface on the side of a zeppelin and echoed by a Gospel choir. The real lesson I had to learn before I asked for any help was a simple one:

THE HELP YOU'RE GOING TO GET = THE HELP ONE IS WILLING TO GIVE YOU

There are different kinds of helpers in this world, and unless you learn to recognize and accept their strengths and limitations, your pleas for help are going to be exhaustingly unproductive. So let me introduce you to a framework to help you identify the types of Helpers in your life so that you, dear mother, can maximize the support you're receiving.

Type 1. The Moderate Helper

As you can see from the diagram below, the Moderate Helper will help you in some of the things you need done (the Help Offered is a subset of the Help Needed). The Moderate Helper listens to your requests and usually takes on the easiest and quickest tasks. People in this category tend to be friends without children, so their judgement is not impaired by blood line or by supposed "experience with kids".


Babysitting: Up to 30 minutes for a non-crying baby.
Duties performed: Allows you to shower and take a short nap, makes sandwich and/or coffee.
Advice offered: Suggests interesting new releases on Netflix.

Type 2. The Good Helper

The Good Helper does everything s/he can while in your company. S/he will listen carefully to your requests and even spontaneously assess your situation in order to provide help that you feel too embarrassed to ask for. People in this category are usually well-adjusted individuals with children close in age to yours, and rarely blood relatives. As you can see from the diagram, they perfectly cover all your needs.



Babysitting: Up to 3 hours.
Duties performed: Lets you take a bath, cleans up your living room, brings a bag of groceries (prompted or unprompted).
Advice offered: Generic and non-judgmental tips on baby-rearing.


Type 3. The Great Helper

The Great Helper doesn't even need to hear your requests. S/he will immediately help you with everything you need and with other things you didn't even know you needed (Help Needed is a subset of the Help Offered). People in this category are usually successful members of society with a high level of empathy. Please note this is the Holy Grail of friendships. Honor it.


Babysitting: Up to 12 hours (overnight included).
Duties performed: Schedules appointment with lactation consultant as soon as you're back from the hospital, lets you drop off your child at their house and then kicks you out, brings gourmet food unprompted, leaves dry shampoo in your beauty-case without mentioning it, changes your bedsheets, instills in your child awe and respect for nature.
Advice offered: None.

Type 4. The Bad Helper

The Bad Helper will technically help you, but will feel obligated to "help" with tasks you couldn't care less about. Bad Helpers technically don't deserve the "Bad" label, since they are actually helping, but you will get so irritated at their misdirected efforts that I have to call them that. People in this category are usually close relatives or people whose adult children live in another state/country.




Babysitting: Up to 1 hour.
Duties performed: Sets the table, brings junk food, distracts you with mildly-entertaining gossip, reorganizes kitchen drawers.
Advice offered: Long, heartfelt discussion on the best way to change your parenting style completely but successfully, based on their personal experience.

Type 5. The Really Bad Helper

The Really Bad Helper is someone who will not do anything you need because s/he knows better than you. In this diagram, you see how Help Needed and Help Offered do not intersect at all. Really Bad Helpers are usually a parent or a parent's sibling. In case of the sibling, having children is irrelevant to their uselessness.



Babysitting: Up to 30 minutes (while you are printing some weird document they need printed).
Duties performed: Polishes brass you didn't know you had, vacuums laptop keyboard, irons your wedding dress, spends hours online researching scientifically obsolete diet plan for you to follow, informs you your child needs to learn some respect.
Advice offered: On all fronts, because they think you're being too soft but also too insensitive to your child's needs.


OK, BUT WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS INFORMATION?


Being able to identify the types of Helpers in your life is hugely important. While it's true you will have to deal with each of them at some point, knowing their role will help you decide who to call and when, and whose offer to politely reject. For example, Great Helpers need to be called right after birth, whereas Really Bad Helpers can be invited for tea on a weekend or whenever you and your partner are both home to support each other. I would also suggest you share this framework with your Helpers, so that people can take a hard look at themselves and see whether they can drop the brass polishing already.


Monday, September 15, 2014

FIGS ARE HERE ☞ ROASTED FIGS

Do you still have figs around? If you do, I applaud your restraint for not having eaten them yet. It took a massive effort in self control for me to store a dozen figs in order to make this second fig recipe of the month (find the first one here or just scroll down to see my previous post). Since this summer is being especially gracious with its temperature, I turned the oven on and did some roasting. FIG ROASTING.

Out of the oven.

Now, if there is one cookbook I find myself recommending again and again is All About Roasting by Molly Stevens (gifted to me by my incredibly intuitive husband a couple of years ago). It's a wonderfully informative book that explains the science and beauty of roasting and then provides very reliable basic and also sophisticated recipes to roast meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit. The recipe that struck me like a divine and life-changing apparition was this "Orange-Scented Honey-Roasted Figs". I followed the light.

So here they are, a panful of figs drenched in orange juice and honey and then sprinkled with black pepper. They come out perfectly caramelized and spicy, while retaining some of their chewiness. The pan juices, red and sticky, are a delight.

I served the figs with vanilla ice-cream, which is the most obvious choice, but I still have two children under four and I'm lazy, so I'll work on something more interesting next time. (I was thinking about a polenta dessert.) What I would like to try is swapping the orange juice with wine, perhaps a Grecante I once found at The Italian Store. I'll let you know what happens.

On ice-cream.

You can find the original recipe in All About Roasting, otherwise this one from Bon App├ętit should do.

Monday, September 8, 2014

VINTAGE RECIPE CARDS: BATTER FRANKS


Here is the second Betty Crocker vintage recipe card from a 1971 collection I found at a yard sale. Forgive me if I had to go with franks once again (see first card here), but I feel like I have to nip this franks craziness in the bud. First of all, the recommended franks here are AGAIN canned Vienna sausage or cocktail wieners*, which is really scraping the bottom of a barrel that should be launched into space ASAP.

What really surprises me about this recipe is that it is archived under "Fondues", even though our beloved franks are not dipped in melted cheese as the traditional recipe would ascribe. They are instead dipped into a batter made with eggs, milk, Bisquick, cornmeal, dry mustard, paprika, and cayenne pepper. But the absolute weirdness of this dish truly conflagrates in its cooking method, since the batter franks are finally dipped into a boiling hot pot containing "salad oil". When the franks are nicely fried, you dip them for the third and last time, into either ketchup or mustard, and eat them.

"This very night, before the rooster crows, you will dip us three times."
Processed mystery meat wrapped in a chrysalis of bionic batter and communally fried in an unspecified vegetable oil? Pretty disgusting, and yet not illegal, so I'm going to rate it just above the bottom line: A meal you can safely wish on your worst enemy.

*What's the difference between Vienna sausages and cocktail wieners? It seems like there isn't one. In any case, see a scary and almost NSFW pic here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

FIGS ARE HERE ☞ FIG TART


I'm just going to come out and say it. I don't care much about fruit. In fact, if I didn't have children, I would probably never buy it. Does that make me a monster? Yes, it does. So what.

There is one fierce exception to my indifference to fruit: Figs. I love figs and I could eat dozens at a time. They are beautiful, they are sweet, they are luscious, and they bring me back to blissful childhood afternoons, sitting on a fig tree branch with a couple of friends and gorging on the fruits. Interestingly, the fig is one fruit whose seasonality seems to be respected both in Italy and the United States. You find it just twice a year, at the beginning and at the end of the summer. Italian figs are usually bigger, with a thicker skin that can be easily peeled off.

Come to me, my darlings!

You can only imagine my joy when I found a recipe for a "Brown Butter Fig Tart" in John Besh's My New Orleans: The Cookbook, a wonderful book I found at my father-in-law's during a winter visit (a great review here). I immediately copied the recipe on a piece of paper, and then sat on it for months until figs became available.

An empty center. That's what I get for eating half a dozen figs while halving them.

The tart is easy to make, and the result is rather paradisiac (of course). Since the tart is baked for only 40 minutes, the figs maintain their shape and some of their bite. They are also folded into the most delicious custard. And if you're lucky like I am, you have also a secret killer recipe for the perfect pie dough, perhaps with cream cheese. *winks*

The cocoa trick.

The tart you see in the picture was slightly overcooked, so a little too brown on top. To mask my mistake, I sprinkled a little cocoa powder, which is the only deviation from John Besh's recipe. I have to say, the cocoa worked perfectly with the figs and the custard, so I will definitely make it part of future preparations. And if you don't have figs, and like me have fruit in the fridge that you're not going to eat, please know this tart works great with plums and peaches, too.

Find the recipe here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

TWO ITALIAN MOTHERS, BLINDED BY FOOD AMBITION

I just spent two happy months in the company of my sister and her two wonderful kids, aged 10 and 12. We had a great time between summer camps, the beach, and bowling nights, but there was one issue we struggled for the entire vacation: What to eat? I have to say, my sister and I are both blessed with children who eat everything and are happy to experiment. The real struggle was to find a common denominator between our assorted demands for healthy food. We are both very health-conscious Italian mothers, after all, which means we want to provide only the best for our children so that they will, hopefully, never leave the house. 

In the flowchart below (and what a great flowchart it is), I've listed all of our joint food requirements for our summer together. I start with the basic requirements and then go into each subset. Our resulting diet is detailed at the very end. Let me know what you think.