When in doubt, do projects. Or so Zoë calls them. Math is good. Art is grand. Science is a slam-dunk, in these parts, anyway. Well, or add ice cream. But that goes without saying.
So much of parenting is, I find, rhythm. Rhythm's one of those things, like good health or great dark roast, that you often don't notice until it is gone. But oh man, when it goes? All the world seems off-kilter.
For the most part, our days hum along, a mish-mash of legos and sheet forts and Bulldog Restaurant. Plus all the usual ups and downs of four independent souls, making their way through a day. But in every week, there's a moment—a dozen moments—when the hum slows, stalls and clatters, ominously.
I don't mean disintegration in the falling apart sense, everyone a misery of tantrums and tears. (That happens, on occasion, but not often, thank goodness.) No, what I mean is dis-integration, the loss of cohesion, the fading of unity.
It's a subtle thing, more process than event, the centrifugal force of free spirits and individuals. It is often a fine thing, a pause, some time alone, a chance for each to do their own thing. But when it manifests itself as frayed nerves and raised voices, I like to be ready. Have a few projects up my sleeve.
I was never a boy scout, but I do think they're on to something. When I'm the slightest bit prepared, my days roll infinitely more smoothly.
Prepared, mind you, in a stealthy-ish sense. (If you can verb a noun, I can -ish an adjective.) It has taken me years of parenting to figure out that any project I float directly, they will veto, vigorously. "Hey kids! Do you want to [insert great idea here]?!" will be met with all the enthusiasm of Harry Reid's deficit proposal. Humph.
Pulling out celery and food color almost guarantees draws a crowd. Dropping mention of cheerios' string-ability leads to snack-laces. Leaving all-ages science books lying about invites Can we? Can we?! Taking over a friend's fantastically curated stack of Egyptian library books works if you point out they're tied in to a certain scarab. Just *happening* to have a weirdly wonderful drawing book (in triplicate) rocks. Non-chalantly starting something "just for me" fails, brilliantly.
(That old reverse psychology gambit of pretend-hoarding your zucchini, in order to get picky littles to beg a taste? Doesn't work worth beans. Not at dinner, not at my house. Works like a charm, though, when the subject is projects. I shopped around rubber eggs for days. Zilch. Until I set out to make one myself. Suddenly, we were three, all big eyes and curious minds. From the wonderful Nancy Blakey, or here.)
When we cannot so much as see the same page, much less pedal ourselves onto it, I don't wish to be casting about for ideas. I'm no better at extemperaneous parenting than speaking. I still stock note cards, for goodness sake, 3x5's, blank and lined. I want back-up positions. Plans B, C and D. Experiments, games, projects we can turn to in a trice.
Not because I'm keen on micro-managing (plan A is their plan, ever and always, and ordinarily, it rules the day.) No, I want a few notions filed away in my brain because disintegration is, in fact, part of the rhythm. But when we undertake a project, and the mess has been cleared, and the table wiped (and the floor, hands and faces, also), the disintegration's in the rearview mirror. We've made something—a mummy, zappy zoomer, blue celery—and that was fun, and that was the least of it. We've come together. We've changed the pronoun. We are we, again.
(Also? Watching them make a project their own is a stitch. Zoë wrapped her mummy like a champ, but sarcophagus embellishment was a bit over her pay grade. No matter. Her mummy's heading to the after life in style. She trotted off, without a word, only to return ten minutes later with provisions for the pharoah. He should be enjoying his eternity in comfort, what with his dog, chairs, food, books, and two bottles of laundry detergent. Accessorize she does, but by golly, she's practical.)
This preparation bit's been on my mind, recently, as it's come into play in my kitchen of late. I am not, as I've mentioned, much one for menu planning, preferring ad hoc over the strictures of set meals. But summer's its own creature, all onslaught and urgency, the glorious crush of corn-beans-peppers-peaches-eggplant-blackberries-broccoli-scallions-potatoes-tomatoes. Makes me plum giddy, the endless possibilities. And then, it makes my mind go pitch black, as I cast about wildly for some way through the glut.
Last week, it was basil. That micro-basil I mentioned? Yup. Huge. And everywhere. And all going to flower, RIGHT THIS MINUTE. And my most thoughtful, intelligent menu ideas could be roundly summed up as "Basil ... huh?"
I mean, pesto, obviously; our freezer's full of it. Caprese, of course, but the big tomatoes are still pending. I knew, I know, basil is chock full of talent, but blimey if I could think up one good use. Enter Jerry Traunfeld, basil whisperer.
Riffling through The Herbal Kitchen last week, I landed on Corn, Orzo and Basil Salad. It sounded serviceable, if innocuous, a good way to use up an excess of herbs. I think I might even have whispered the word bland.
It tasted awful, the first bite, anyway, seeing as I had to eat crow, and every last one of my scandalous presumptions. Every bite after was another story, altogether.
This salad is everything I love about salads, and supper, and August, and eating, in general. It reminds me of this one, an autumn beloved, one giant perfect platter of texture and flavor. There is sweetness and crunch from fresh corn and red pepper, plus the soft savory slip of those tiny orzo. There are bites of just-tender summer squash and green beans, plus those nutty chickpea polka-dots. Did I mention the occasional twang of feta? The zip of a dressing punch-drunk on fresh lime? Perfectly salted, discreetly peppered, both by the ground black stuff and, oh yes, the basil! One and a half cups (cups!), one generous farmer's bunch, slivered and tossed in like so many salad leaves. Have you ever had so much basil in one place, fresh and intense and sweet-peppery-bright? It is outrageous, in the best sort of way. Not overwhelming, just deliciously addictive. I polished off three plate-fuls. Possibly four.
For the pragmatically-minded, I ought to mention, this is one of those clever, hard-working recipes. You chop while the water boils, cook the veg with the pasta, and have dinner on the table in twenty minutes, flat. Unless you prefer to eat two hours hence; it sits beautifully, and tastes best at room temp. Also, the entire platter costs upwards of five bucks. Also, it begs to be brought to a barbecue, being mayo-free and durable and vegetarian and grand. Or just whip up a mess for you and yours, and feast off the plenty, your own scrumptious party.
Corn, Basil and Orzo Salad with Chickpeas, Feta, Zucchini et al.
adapted from Jerry Traunfeld, The Herbal Kitchen
Traunfeld deserves all the credit for oomph, with his pitch-perfect seasoning, genius quantities of basil, and the irresistable pairing of corn kernels and orzo. I confess, I adapted wildly from there. The chickpeas are mine, as is the feta, as are the zucchini and haricots. I love it like this, a one-platter meal, but thought you should know that it can be pared down. Or adapted, or expanded, based on what's on hand. It's generous that way.
Lemon basil is fantastic here, if you've got it, but sweet basil is equally, differently wonderful.
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from one plump lime)
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 ears fresh corn
3 small zucchini, cut into 1/4" coins (optional)
2 cups greens beans, topped, tailed, and cut into 1/2" bits (optional)
1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/4" dice
8 oz. orzo pasta
1 bunch (six) scallions, white and pale green ends sliced
1 15 ounce tin chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1 1/2 packed cups sweet or lemon basil, washed, well dried, and slivered
1 cup feta, cotija or ricotta salata, crumbled
Set a large stockpot of well-salted water to boil.
In a lidded jar, combine vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper. Swirl to dissolve salt. Add olive oil, replace lid, and shake vigorously to combine. Set aside.
Stand shucked ears of corn upright in a wide, shallow bowl, and cut off kernels with a sharp knife, just to the cob. Set aside. Slice zucchini and green beans if using, and set aside together, separately from the corn. (These veg will be added to the pasta water in two stages, first the zucchini and green beans, then the corn.)
In a large serving bowl, combine diced red pepper, sliced scallions, slivered basil, and 2/3 of feta, and set aside.
When pasta water comes to the boil, add orzo, and set timer to five minutes fewer than final cooking time (mine took ten; I set the timer to five). When orzo is five minutes from done, add the zucchini and green beans, if using. Stir, and return to the boil for four minutes. One minute from orzo's final cooking time (test one; orzo should be al dente), add corn, return just to the boil, then drain orzo and veg into a colander.
Return hot pasta and cooked veg to the stockpot, and toss with all the dressing, plus the chickpeas, while still warm. Let sit 10 minutes, to cool slightly, then toss gently with the red pepper, scallions, basil and 2/3 feta. Top with remaining feta, and eat immediately, or over the next four hours. Salad is best served at room temperature. Leftovers are marvelous the next day.