I knew I’d want to cook again, but I didn’t know exactly how I’d get started. It didn’t happen the way I expected—not with the ripe fragrance of strawberries on the counter, or a craving, or a taste, translated from tonguespeak to brainwave, like they so often do, into some sort of cookable fantasy. It was sound that brought me in.
There are a lot of new sounds in my life right now. There’s Graham, of course, who turns out to be part horse, whinnying and neighing in his sleep. There’s the thud of the mail in the bin, always right around 2 p.m. There’s the now-familiar squeak of our not-so-gently used rocking chair.
That chair is beginning to feel like part of my own anatomy. I feed in it. I read in it. I pump in it. And yes, occasionally, I sleep in it. The other day, I had Graham on my shoulder, rocking and patting. It must have been some seldom-seen hour, because as I listened, the thwattwhattwhat sound of my palm on his back morphed into the steady rhythm of a KitchenAid, beating its contents against the side of the work bowl with dutiful regularity. I am going crazy, I thought. I am imagining my child as a stand mixer. I could see the dough in the bowl, curling and cleaving around the white hook. I’m not generally that into bread making, so it sort of surprised me to find myself wondering what sort of bread I’d start in the morning. No, I thought. If you haven’t showered in 3 days, you may not make bread. I ignored the urge, but for days, every time I went to burp Graham, I thought about it. Thwatthwatthwat.
This chair of ours, it’s been a godsend in the wee hours, which I’ve decided to dedicate to all the baby preparation reading I never did before Graham was born. At night, after I feed him, I’ve been plunking him on a pillow on my lap, and reading and rocking to make sure he’s good and konked out before putting him back to bed. This worked like a charm for the first few nights, when I was reading one of those What to Expect books, which are roughly as entertaining as a grammar primer.
Then I picked up Hungry Monkey. It’s ostensibly a book on raising a kid to eat well, so it qualifies for inclusion in my midnight reading pile. The only problem is that it makes me laugh so much—and I say makes, not made, because I keep picking it up to reread bits and parts—that I keep waking my kid up.
You know Roots and Grubs, right? It’s a blog, by Matthew Amster-Burton, another Seattle food writer. He’s fantastic; it’s one of the few blogs I actually read on a regular basis. When I’m in a funk—or worse, at a bad press event—Matthew always makes me laugh.
If I were to make sweeping generalizations, I’d say Roots and Grubs is about making his family dinner. It goes like this: He cooks something, and his daughter, Iris, says something hilarious. I’m not convinced he doesn’t make some of it up, because it’s always funny, and no one’s funny all the time. Except Matthew and Iris. I’ve never actually met her, but Iris seems to be a great advertisement for having children. And Matthew, it turns out, is a great advertisement for being a parent (in the food department, at least).
Hungry Monkey is Matthew’s first book—one I’d been waiting anxiously to read, because it chronicles his attempts to raise an Eater, capital E, within the restraints toddlerhood naturally entails (pickiness, unexplained changes in food preferences, preschool peer pressure, etc.). I plowed through my advance copy before Graham was born, chortling over stories about taking Iris to a Seattle sushi-go-round, teaching her to make pancakes on an Iris-sized griddle, and competing with other parents to make the most sensational preschool snack. Here’s the one about fish eyeballs that Graham lost sleep over:
One night I made stuffed trout for dinner. “And will the trout get very, very big when you stuff it?” Iris asked. She helped me stuff the trout with fennel, bacon, red onion, and fresh herbs.
Stuffed trout is easier to make than it is to eat, because you want to just cut off a hunk with stuffing sandwiched between two pieces of boneless fish, but there are many bones in the way of this noble intention. For this reason and because Iris is frequently more enthusiastic about cooking than eating, I figured she would forget about the trout by the time it hit the table and concentrate on the hash browns I served with it.
Wrong. Iris at the fish, the bacon, the vegetables, the potatoes, and even, well . . .
To say that she was undeterred by the fact that the fish’s head was there on the platter would be an understatement. “There’s the head!” she exclaimed. I found a piece of cheek meat and ate it, and Iris said,
“I want to eat some cheek.”
I said okay and rooted around for another piece. “There’s some check,” Iris said, pointing.
“No, that’s the eyeball.”
“I want to eat the eyeball.”
“Yes.” She took a bite. “It’s gooey. Why is it gooey?”
“Eyeballs are just like that,” said Laurie.
Iris thought about this, then requested and ate the other eyeball.
Anyway. The first time through, I folded down page corners, like I always do with food books, promising myself I’d make potstickers, and larb gai, and gingerbread cupcakes, and duck hash. Then came Graham, followed almost immediately by fantasies about raising a kid whose plate sees as much action as Iris’s. I picked up Hungry Monkey again, and bought twelve copies (not joking) for friends celebrating (or about to celebrate) Mother’s Day.
So now, every day, I open the book to a random page, hoping to absorb the crumbs of parenting wisdom Matthew sprinkles throughout his stories—but after Graham’s asleep, so when my belly jiggles I don’t disturb him as much. This morning, frustrated by Graham’s introduction to breastfeeding, I flipped to the first chapter again:
According to Laurie, on our first night home from the hospital, I made one of our favorite dinners, salmon with cucumber salad. I have no memory of this, or much of anything from those first three months before Laurie went back to work. I remember Iris nursing almost constantly, day and night, and taking naps in our laps. She refused to be put down, ever, for twelve weeks. I’m not exaggerating for effect: we held her 24-7 for twelve weeks. I called her the Ice Princess, because she never smiled. Sometimes, when it had been twenty minutes since her last feeding and she was ready for the next one, I called her Hungry Monkey.
Ah. So it’s not just me. And it’s okay, that my child has no concept of time, and that I will have no recollection of writing this?
So nice to have a book on child-rearing that tells me I’m normal.
Yesterday, I flipped to chapter 13, and was reassured in advance that no parent can avoid being a sucker at the grocery store:
But shopping at the supermarket with Iris brings up the kind of stereotypical parent-child issues that I like to pretend I can opt out of. As in: Iris tries to convince me to buy some stupid product. I say no. She whines. I relent. When we get home we eat 10 percent of the product and the rest goes stale. This happened most recently with frozen pretzels, which I agreed to buy even though I make homemade pretzels and Iris loves to sprinkle salt on them.
Time out, I thought. He makes pretzels? As in, squishy, salty, Bavarian-style pretzels? It never occurred to me that they could be produced without a two-hour rest on some sort of spinning device under heat lamps. But there it was, a recipe for pretzels, right at the back of the chapter. Better yet, it looked easy—just required a quick knead in the stand mixer. Oooh, I thought. I can make bread without actually making bread.
These pretzels require very few ingredients and the attention span of a three-year-old. (Perfect!) Sometime mid-afternoon, I announced to Jim that I’d be baking them, and that yes, I’d let him dip them in mustard. He looked at me like he was going to go get prepared to clean up after me (emotionally or physically, I’m not sure), and mumbled some sort of acquiescence.
I measured. The KitchenAid mixed. The dough puffed up. I rolled it out into skinny little snakes, feeling almost a little guilty that I didn’t wait for Graham to be old enough to make them for the first time. I boiled them, flipping them with a fish spatula before transferring them to the baking sheet. I salted, and when the salt melted in a little, I salted again. (It’s best to use salting as a verb, so you get enough on there. Someday, I’ll have a toddler who can do this for me.) They looked like a line of grumpy old men with their arms crossed, standing guard on the baking sheet. In they went.
In about 20 minutes of actual work time, I had pretzels way tastier than what we buy for $4 a pop at the German pub down the street—soft, gorgeously crackled, gently blistery pretzels. Even better, they came out of the oven on the same baking sheet I put them in on, which meant something in my brain registered “hot” and I didn’t burn my fingers, like I do every single time at Prost. We ate all six of them immediately.
Honestly, I sort of fault Matthew for buying frozen pretzels now. I mean, I understand the in situ issue—gorgeous child embarrassing him in the grocery store, baying about how if he loved her he’d buy her frozen pretzels. . . but really. If you make these, and ever feel the urge to buy a frozen pretzel afterwards, I’ll buy you a beer. (If you remind me I said this when Graham’s 3, though, I’ll deny it.)
Of course, now that I’ve made them, I have to admit that I was wrong—the thwattwhattwhat sound I was remembering is the one the paddle attachment makes, whipping a looser batter, like for a cake. Kneading dough with the hook makes more of a grumbling noise. Which, come to think of it, Graham makes also. But whatever. All that happens in the middle of the night, and in a few weeks, I won’t remember any of it anyway.
Recipe by Matthew Amster-Burton, from Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater. Used with permission.
TIME: 2 hours, including rising time
YOU’LL NEED: stand mixer
LITTLE FINGERS: After I let Iris help shape pretzels, she invented this game where she curls a rubber band or piece of string into a squiggle and asks,” Would you eat a pretzel shaped like THIS? Yes or no?” Repeat a hundred times. Other than that and the obvious warnings about the electric mixer and the oven, I have no caveats about letting your children help make pretzels.
Makes 6 pretzels
8 ounces all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons baking soda
kosher or pretzel salt for sprinkling
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the flour, yeast, and salt. Stir the honey into the water until it begins to dissolve, then add the honey-water mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix with the paddle on low speed until the dough starts to come together, then switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed (4 on the KitchenAid) for 4 minutes. If the dough is very dry (bits are refusing to incorporate) add an additional tablespoon of water. Spray a bowl with cooking spray and place the dough in it. Spray a bit more cooking spray on top of the dough, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise 75 minutes, punching down the dough after 45 minutes.
2. Line a large baking sheet with parchment and spray with cooking spray. Divide the dough into 6 pieces (about 2 ounces each). (It will be easier to form the pretzels if you cut the dough into strips with a bench knife rather than pulling off balls of dough by hand.) Roll each piece into a long (18-inch) snake and form into a pretzel. Place the formed pretzels on the baking sheet.
3. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring 2 quarts of water and the baking soda to a boil in a saucepan. Add 3 pretzels to the boiling water and boil 30 seconds. Flip the pretzels, boil an additional 30 seconds, and return them to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels. Sprinkle the pretzels with kosher salt or with pretzel salt (available from kingarthurflour.com) if you have it.
4. Bake 9 to 10 minutes or until deep golden brown. Cool pretzels on a rack and serve warm.