Category Archives: Meat & Potatoes

Apron Strings

I am a mediocre cook at best, perhaps an unlikely one as well, since I never was much for the kitchen—even as a kid. I have a handful of recipes in my repertoire that I feel comfortable with, most of which have been handed down through family over a number of years. Mastery came only as a result of determined effort and decades of repetition—certainly not from talent or inclination. That said, I almost never stray from the recipe, sticking to the formula that has worked for me time and again. There’s always the chance I’ll burn or undercook something, so I suppose that’s all the adventure I need.

Occasionally, I’ll branch out and try new things that I’ve seen on the Food Network, but only if I can pronounce the ingredients and find them easily in the grocery store. I’m not one to traipse around looking for something completely obscure that Giada went on and on about. That’s just not me. The degree of difficulty matters, too. Chances are if a third grader couldn’t prepare it, blindfolded with a whisk tied behind his or her back, I’m not likely to tackle it anytime soon.

I realize this isn’t the sort of example I ought to be setting for my daughters—always playing it safe, unwilling to step outside my comfort zone in order to reap the benefits that sometimes come with taking risks. As adults I’m hopeful they’ll be more adventuresome than I, delving into cookbooks, experimenting with new recipes they find online, crafting their own from scratch.

I’m sure if I had sons I’d feel the same way.

Nevertheless, I don’t pretend to know what my children will glean from me as it relates to culinary skills. Lord knows I’ve tried to lure them into the kitchen, because, of course, I’d feel like a complete failure if I didn’t at least teach them something. I’ll admit it was easier when they were small. We’d pull the heavy mixing bowls out of the cupboard, shove wooden chairs up against the counter and sort through the drawer for favorite aprons—the ones that practically swallowed them so many years ago, two tiny sets of feet peeking out at the bottom. Together we’d bake cookies, scooping mounds of flour, cracking eggs in a less-than-efficient manner and eating chocolate chips straight from the bag. Not surprisingly, my kids were greatly invested in anything that involved making a terrible mess and/or eating sweet stuff.

Over time, I coaxed them into learning how to make some of their favorite dishes, banking on the idea that they’d be inspired by the outcome. For the most part, this has worked, evidenced by the fact that they feel comfortable enough to make their own dinner once in a while and no one has burned down the house as of yet. No small feat.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether they fall in love with the kitchen and all that it entails. I won’t be disappointed if they fail to fully embrace it, nor will I be displeased if they do. I just want them to continue to enjoy spending time with me there—even if I have to bribe them with Ghirardelli chocolate chips or having free rein to make an enormous mess of my kitchen, something that’s still very popular.

What’s more, years from now I hope I’ll see that I’ve managed to impart at least two things to my daughters, neither of which has anything to do with properly sautéing vegetables or peeling a hard-boiled egg without destroying it. I want them to recognize the importance of making a meal for someone who really needs to feel pampered or just plain loved—to know that comfort food is a godsend when someone is grieving or recovering or stressing about life in general.

I also want them to remember how special it made them feel to have someone bake them a birthday cake, slathered with their favorite icing and/or sprinkles. If they can in turn bake someone happy on their special day, that would indeed make me smile.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2016 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Gratitude, Growing Pains, In the Trenches of Parentville, Meat & Potatoes

Eggs, Toast and a Side of Cynicism

For whatever reason, the gods of morning madness have been smiling upon me these past few weeks. And like any good cynic, I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out. With every ounce of my being, I fully expect my petulant children to return, brimming with an abundance of snarky commentary regarding breakfast cereal choices (or the lack thereof), eager to display the alarm clock-inspired rage to which I’ve grown so accustomed and to bring to the fore their lovely penchant for bickering with one another at dark-thirty. Joy. Likewise, I presume the frenzied packing-of-lunches-and-backpacks thing coupled with shrieks involving the very real possibility of missing the bus will resume shortly as well.

If nothing else, it would feel familiar. Quite frankly, I am suspect of the degree of calm that has befallen my home of late. Mornings are no longer intolerably hectic, which I find fairly disturbing since it’s all I’ve known since the days of kindergarten. There are no shouting matches to speak of, no monumental crises related to bedhead or perceived fashion offenses and, incredibly, no one has become enraged over wrinkles in socks or the gunkiness of toothpaste for days on end. Gasp!

It’s all so alarmingly alien—this death of disorder and dissent. So naturally, I greet it with cool skepticism, assuming that a conspirator has somehow snatched my ill-tempered brood and left me with a delightful pair of third graders who get up on time, dress for school without complaint and exhibit an obscene amount of good cheer all morning long. Imposters, I am sure, are among us.

Or perhaps my fortuitous situation has arisen as a direct result of the plan my husband so shrewdly devised and skillfully implemented. Translation: The man is a genius. That said, he pulled our charges aside one day and explained how our shameless bribe new morning routine would work. The seed was planted thusly.

“If you get up and get dressed as soon as your alarm goes off,” he purred with Grinch-like finesse, “and haul your sorry selves to the kitchen by 6:30, I’ll make you WHATEVER HOT BREAKFAST YOUR LITTLE HEARTS DESIRE. And,” he sweetened the pot, “I’ll even let you crack eggs and stir stuff.” To date, the immaculately prepared entrées have included pancakes (with faces!), French toast and waffles (to die for!), eggs (infinitely varied!), bacon (impossibly crisp!) and a vat of drool-worthy, bathed-in-olive-oil fried potatoes I felt compelled to appraise. Again. And again.

In sum, he made a deal with the unwitting pair. A wickedly clever, painfully simple, non-negotiable agreement—one that is likely responsible for the glowing success we’ve experienced thus far on our journey to the Land of Hassle-free School Mornings. Note to self: Cold cereal nourishes the body, but hot cakes (and other breakfasty-type foods with irresistibly enticing aromas) inspire action of the bounding-out-of-bed variety.

But perhaps the motivation runs deeper than that. Part of me suspects that under the surface lies a host of benefits aside from the obvious. Like the delicious sliver of time in which we snuggle together before anyone heads to the kitchen. All four of us, looking as much like sardines as anything, burrow beneath a sea of blankets in our big, oak bed—the place where toes are warmed and whispers are shared in the waning moments of still and darkness.

“Here I am, your little alarm clock,” they each announce as they crawl in with us, a different stuffed animal tucked under their arms each morning. To my utter amazement, both kids have already dressed, fulfilling their end of the bargain. I shake my head in disbelief.

The plan is working.

A few minutes later, they clamber downstairs to the kitchen and confirm with the cook their menu choices for the day. Chairs are then shoved against counters, eggs are cracked and batter is stirred—fulfilling the other end of the bargain.

As the sun crests over the hillside and begins pouring into the house, a steaming, hot breakfast is served—as promised. Syrup and cinnamon, juice and jam look on as chatter fills the room. There is talk of disjointed dreams, of library books and of plans for playing with a favorite friend at the bus stop. Everything that follows is sunny-side up.

Once again, I shake my head in disbelief. The plan is still working—despite my side of cynicism.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (wondering when the novelty will wear off and hoping like crazy that’s never). A variation of this article appeared previously in the Khaleej Times, UAE, Dubai.

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Daily Chaos, Gratitude, Meat & Potatoes, School Schmool

In Praise of Turkey and Tradition

We make pot pie at our house each Thanksgiving—a savory Pennsylvania Dutch meal that features the most perfect blend of onions, potatoes, thick squares of doughy goodness and meaty strands of chicken. Only we use turkey on this festive occasion. Six-and-a-half pounds of succulent dark meat to be exact, bathing in a vat of broth that most would find fairly intoxicating. It’s tradition. Or more correctly, a slight variation on tradition that serves to remind our family of the delectable dish my mother-in-law made not so long ago.

That said, in the four years since Grandma Ella’s been gone, I’ve tried at least three times to marry the flavors of the aforementioned dish as well as she did. And although I doubt I’ve managed to achieve that level of culinary success, I’m guessing I’ve come close—which is saying a lot given my proclivity for food related disasters, making me heady with the notion that my skills are no longer thought to be among the most deplorable on record.

Tomorrow will be yet another attempt at pot pie mastery, and, of course, an opportunity for all of us to close our eyes, to breathe in the deliciousness that will hang heavy in the air and in doing so, to revisit a time when Grandma stood at the stove peering into a steamy pot, summoning her special brand of kitchen wizardry. I’ll wear her rumpled apron for good measure—a speckled and storied bit of fabric flecked with tiny green leaves, now wan and threadbare from decades of use. I’ll wear it because I cannot imagine surviving the ordeal without splattering inordinate quantities of the soupy potage upon myself, but also because it’s tradition—or at least that is what it has become over time. Heaven forbid I disturb the delicate balance of good luck and a great recipe by offending the gods of tradition and/or flawless feasts.

With any further good fortune, I’ll be able to lure my charges away from the colorful swell of parades on television, from their beloved books in the den and from the pervasive yet somehow endearing skies of gray and barren woodlands long enough to enlist their help in the kitchen. Never mind that Child One completely abhors turkey. Or that Child Two will feign interest unless and until I permit her to stand atop a chair to drop wedges of dough into a boiling sea of broth. Grandma would’ve let her do such a thing, mindful to teach her the importance of placing each wedge, carefully and singularly, atop a bubble as it surfaces within an impossibly brief window of time. Just as she taught me—just as I hope and envision all three of my children will one day teach their children. Handing it down from one generation to the next.

Again, with the tangible and treasured notion of tradition—on this Thanksgiving Day and, perhaps more importantly, on perfectly ordinary days—the ones I routinely fill to capacity with obligations of one kind or another, dismissing all too often the mundane slivers of time with my family as opportunities to connect and share that which I value. Of course, I kick myself for doing so, recognizing that it is the harvest of tiny moments that matter most. Like the delicious time I spent with my grandparents, especially my grandfather in his workshop—a place that reeked gloriously of motor oil and sawdust—a place where I became inextricably consumed time and again with saws and sandpaper, two-by-fours and tape measures. A handful of seemingly insignificant pages of childhood that somehow clung to the corners of my mind, filling me with the warmth that comes from having lived them.

I’d like to think that simple traditions (like making pot pie) are like that, too.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (in praise of turkey…and tradition). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Meat & Potatoes, motherhood

Half-Baked

I love clams. To the point of being dysfunctional, most might say. Those warm and wonderful nuggets of fleshy goodness have been the object of my affection for longer than I’d care to admit. But here I am, telling all.

They’re best bathed in butter. Plucked hot and steamy from a monstrous pot on the stove or from a metal garbage can resting atop a wood-fired pit—which is how my friends from Canton used to cook them each summer. It was tradition to gather there amidst friends and mosquitoes in their sprawling backyard, whacking at Whiffle balls, tossing Frisbees and crowding around that glorious can, the one that also housed corn-on-the-cob, foil-wrapped potatoes and other picnic-y items that didn’t matter much when clams were on the menu. In my mind, clams defined the menu.

Everything else was peripheral—an afterthought designed to woo non-serious clam eaters, or to serve as cover for people like me who planned to gorge exclusively on those brackish bits of joy with wild abandon. I’ve found that it’s surprisingly easy to mask such gluttonous behavior. A carefully placed wedge of watermelon or scoop of potato salad can hide a mountain of shame. Bouncing around from table to table with a fresh plate throws off the casual observer, too, especially when coupled with idle chitchat. Gluttony becomes all too conspicuous, however, if you wear a path to the same spot to indulge, pausing only to breathe and to mop the embarrassment of schmutz from your chin. Apparently, I am not alone.

My friend Pat has admitted to consuming 22 dozen little neck clams in one sitting and estimates his lifetime consumption as “incalculable.” Some other friends have been known to fast until the big event in order to arrive primed for epic feasting of all-things-clam-ish. Of course, I admire these folks and recognize that I simply don’t possess that level of commitment. Not yet anyway. But there’s always hope. And always another clambake to pencil in on my calendar.

My husband said he once saw a guy eat 32 dozen. Throngs of people gathered around as if he were a sideshow freak. It’s no wonder as the man recklessly scooped them out of their shells, dumped them by the dozen into a Styrofoam cup brimming with melted butter and chugged them down like a beast. I don’t get it. Where’s the joy in that? The romance? To my mind, that sort of behavior qualifies as rash, dispassionate and superficial. Moreover, it smacks of casual dining.

Admittedly, I’ve been engrossed while eating the silly things. The world simply melts away and I become weak with pleasure, enabling me to block out the maddening blares of my clothes dryer and to silence the persistent demands and relentless bickering of my brood. What’s more, I’ve nearly perfected the art of appearing interested in discussions that float over the dinner table, nodding my head and contributing appropriately to conversations without ever really being present mentally. Of course, this frees all my senses for more important matters—like savoring my beloved clams.

One time I just stood at the counter, blissfully inhaling the freshly steamed batch my husband had so lovingly prepared for me, never once giving a thought to moving to a table like a more civilized individual might be inclined to do. Nor did I share, except maybe one or two. I can’t remember such details. Fifty or sixty clams later I came up for air and slipped back into the here and now. Back into being a mom and wife.

Apparently, the appeal of clams is not a new thing. A CNN.com article I once read adds credence and validation to my obsession. An archeological find in South Africa revealed evidence suggesting that humans living 164,000 years ago harvested seafood (including clams), cooked them over hot rocks and then perhaps gathered together to eat them. News like this makes my heart glad.

As does learning that we’ll be having clams for dinner. I get giddy just thinking about it.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2013 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "S" is for Shame, Endless Summer, Meat & Potatoes, Normal is Relative

In Praise of Leftovers

I’m a big fan of restaurants. The ambiance, the delectable fare, snagging a cozy booth for two, where my husband and I can engage in an actual face-to-face conversation—one almost entirely devoid of cell phones. And children. It’s all good. But mostly I like patronizing restaurants because it means I won’t have to cook, nor will I have to clean my kitchen afterward. A win-win scenario for me.

Better still, I often leave the establishment with enough food for six people. I don’t know what’s up with the portion sizes that typify American cuisine these days, but it seems as if someone thinks we’re all starving to death. At any rate, when a tower of boxes, each brimming with the appetizers, entrees or desserts we couldn’t possibly consume, arrives at our table I can’t help but fantasize about devouring said goodness tomorrow.

If I’m hungry tomorrow, that is.

Gone are the days of being handed a doggie bag with a cute image of a pooch—one depicted with a big smile on its face. What dog wouldn’t smile at the prospect of being fed something other than the standard fare? That said, I’m careful to place the food on a counter or inside the fridge, far from the furry beasts in question.

The only downside to dealing with leftovers is that I agonize over which end of the Styrofoam box is up. It seems that I’m inclined to place my food in the top as opposed to the bottom. Worse yet, I spend an embarrassment of time wrestling with the latch/tab gizmo, which doesn’t work especially well—and because the universe hates me, I often snap the stupid thing off entirely. In any event, I look like a fool when my food flips onto the table or floor. Needless to say, I prefer it when the waiter or waitress offers to transfer my leftovers into the designated container, recognizing that for me, the struggle is real. He or she disappears into the kitchen and in no time arrives back at my table with a big, plastic bag—the aforementioned boxes stacked neatly inside. Tabs intact.

It doesn’t matter if it’s eggplant Parmesan, chicken wings or a few slices of Mediterranean pizza, I look forward to enjoying my meals again, and I’m nearly always amazed by the fact that they taste even better a day or two later. Except for French fries. French fries are a horrible, droopy mess the next day and a pathetic representation of food matter by all accounts. Most of the time, I don’t even bother bringing them home. If I had half a brain, I wouldn’t order them in the first place.

Crazy as it sounds, I’ve even been known to order something from the menu for the express purpose of taking it home in its entirety, never once touching it at the restaurant. I usually get a look from the waiter that whispers “that’s really strange, ma’am,” but in my mind, it’s pure genius. It’s rumored I keep a cooler in the car for just such an occasion. It might be true.

The sad news on this topic is that in actuality, I rarely get to enjoy my leftovers because my kids get to them first. It’s not that they don’t ask before diving in (they usually do), but I feel inordinately guilty when I don’t willingly share.

In fact, one of my progenies has a habit of texting or Snapping me a picture of the leftovers in the refrigerator while I’m out, inquiring as to whether I’m particularly fond of the food in question. She, too, appreciates how completely wonderful leftovers are. How can I not oblige? So, naturally I tell her it’s fair game, and a little part of me dies inside, knowing that, yet again, I won’t get to eat the rest of my tuna wrap—or whatever it was that I failed to hide well enough in the fridge.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, probably eating leftovers. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2017 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Meat & Potatoes