Folding socks lately, I find I keep confusing my eldest's with my own. Partly, this is because I'm often dull in the sock department, grabbing white crews over spots and stripes. Partly, it's because his shoe size is 9. Height-wise, I've still got a good 7" on him. 7.5", actually. But our socks are already the same size. As are our t-shirts.
Did that half-inch seem nit-picky? He grew a full five inches, last year. Asked for a new, bigger lunchbox, today. Seven more inches isn't much. That last .5 might buy me a month.
My middle came downstairs last night, to tell me he'd been reading eighty minutes. The assignment was forty. The hour was well past ten. But he couldn't help himself. Swept up in a great story, couldn't stop.
I get that. Happened to me, Saturday. But I swear he was all Hop on Pop, just last week.
As I walked to pick up my youngest from her first day of Kindergarten, last month, I found I was, inexplicably, carrying my purse. Apparently, I'd grabbed it on my way out the door, which made as much sense as grabbing an ostrich. I walk to school. I never need a purse. Can't say I've ever grabbed it before. But it seems I'm so accustomed, at pick-up, to having a sidekick, I needed a proxy.
Walking to school alone? Zero experience. But, I am learning.
Mind you, Kindergarten's a three-hour affair. Not even that, when there-and-back's figured in. We still have long mornings to hang and chat and wire circuits and make top hats for sock puppets and host picnics with pine needle hors d'ouvres for pink polka-dotted giraffes. Hallelujah.
But. It's that old one-way-street business. (Those cheeks!) And if words are Train Babyhood's final stop, Kindergarten's Grand Central for, well, everything after.
At the outset of summer, a week or so in, I looked up and realized that in all my years of parenting—which as of last month, somehow total 13—I'd never had a summer such as this. That my youngest child was a ripe old five years. That in every summer prior, my youngest was, at most, always four.
Uncharted territory, this.
Visions of independence, wide open hours, and tremendous productivity immediately filled me head. To test out this notion, understand the new boundaries, I tried an experiment, one Saturday. After cleaning was finished, I disappeared to my bedroom, picked up a book, and began reading.
In broad daylight.
Without telling a soul.
(A, in this case, stands for 'audacious'.)
I wanted to see just how long it would take before anyone noticed my absence. I could hardly concentrate on the words, so busy was my brain, guessing at numbers. Ten minutes? Twenty? Thirty-five? Maybe I could make my way through a chapter.
One was the answer. (Minute, not chapter.) Sixty small seconds, before the first person found me. Ninety passed, before the second. Apparently, I'm still needed.
Still. All revolutions start small.
(Also? I repeated the experiment, this weekend, and the results were startling. At least a thousand-percentage-point increase. Maybe twice that. Maybe twenty minutes. Maybe a miracle.)
And accompanying all this onward and upward, a host of goodbyes, to this life phase's flotsam. Our final two strollers. Nappies not used in years. Big boxes of wipes. Under-sized spoons. Itty-bitty bows. Tricycles. Bath toys. Toy trains. Clothing sizes ending in T. Every last relic of the young years.
The high chairs and cribs left years ago, but somehow, this shift seems more monumental. With all due respect to Aldous Huxley, London ca. 632 After Ford has nothing on post-preschool parenting. In the spirit, then: brave new worlds in the kitchen.
Is cumin brave? Turmeric, mustard seeds? Maybe not any more, not for you. There was a time, some time ago now, when such spices were strangers in my kitchen. When that towering 13-year-old was, say, 3. When I was still learning the dinner ropes. When I'd read a recipe, swoon a little, set out to make it, then stop short, lacking some essential something. Then revert, for the umpteenth time, to noodles, to chicken, to yaaawwwwn. This went on for years, until one day, I officially found myself Fed Up. So I sat down with my stack of unmake-able recipes, pile on the left, paper on the right, and made a list of everything I lacked. Cumin, coriander, sesame oil, mirin, oyster sauce, sake, fish sauce, fermented black beans, garam masala...
Then I got in the car. Set out to a great grocery. And shot half my week's grocery wad on not-food. It totalled, maybe, $50. I've never stopped cheering that impulse trip.
Because what happened that night, and every night after, was the opening of a door, towering and wide. By equipping myself with a few global basics, I'd gained entry to an entire world of food. Suddenly, I was able to turn chickpeas into a bowl worth writing home about. Turn tofu into a top-ten meal. Cauliflower into CAULIFLOWER!!!
A can of beans comes awfully cheap. As does a tub of tofu. I've re-couped that initial throw a thousand-times over. Not to mention eaten royally, ever since. All of which is to say: get your hands on some cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds, and unsweetened coconut. Also, urad dhal, if you can find it. Fork and napkin, if you can't. Either way, there's a feast, dead ahead.
I've been shoveling these South Indian vegetables all summer, rotating different actors through the same script. Grated carrots, diced zucchini, corn kernels, green beans... every last one shines. Then again, maybe I would shine, too, nestled in coconut, glowy with turmeric, freckled with mustard seeds and fried dhal .... I know. I'm sorry. It's hungry-making stuff. *Crack!* Back to business.
The script hails from the wonderful Maya Kaimal, by way of Kerala, where it's known as a thoren, or dry curry. The method is similar to a stir-fry, as is the cook-time: lickity-quick. You get your veg chopped and ready, as well as your seasonings (coconut, spices). Halfway done. Next: into your hot skillet, you add your oil and mustard seeds and dhal. Within moments, they'll brown and pop, whereupon you add onions, to get good and soft. In go your veg, to rub elbows with the heady onions, until the carrots/corn/beans are just-toothsome. And then, like the grand finale that it is, that simple spiced coconut slurry, which finishes the cooking, and flourishes like calligraphy, and floors you when you take a taste. Tip out, tuck in, toss back a heap. Because, behold: vegetable transcendance.
The vegetables cook up sweet, juicy and meaty, brimming with flavor and excellence. The cumin hums along in the background, warm and earthy and elemental. The barely sweet coconut is balanced by cayenne's low, slow burn. The mustard seeds—which are not at all hot, but nutty small splendid pops of crunch—are everywhere, like so many savory sprinkles. The urad dhal (if you can find it; just double the mustard seeds, if you can't) makes for this whole second level of crunch. The all-told is salty, hot, sweet, savory, tender, crunchy, textured, ridiculous. Serious bang for maybe three bucks.
It is easy, for me, anyway, to forget just what a vegetable can do. What it's capable of. What chameleon ways it holds. To get caught in the rut of raw carrots and raw cukes and the raw red peppers my littles mediums prefer. To fail to appreciate a vegetable's full potential, to not just fill up, but absolutely delight. To understand all the ways a vegetable can be a meal's alpha and omega and exclamation point. A tickle-you-down-to-your-toes kind of meal. A slaphappy, chin-drippy, thirds-please meal. A meal made possible by a plain bag of carrots, plus a spice drawer that leads, like certain wardrobes, magically, into some brave new world.
Carrots (Green Beans, Zucchini, Corn) with Coconut
adapted from Savoring the Spice Coast of India, by Maya Kaimal
Kaimal's recipe was written for carrots, but I've applied it to green beans, yard long beans, zucchini, summer squash, and corn, all to excellent effect. To adapt, simply keep in mind that pieces should be small (grate carrots; remove corn kernels; cut squash and beans into 1/2" dice), and water and cooking time adjusted, according to the vegetable. Slightly drier green beans and carrots will take a splash more water and a few extra minutes. Corn and (watery) zucchini will require less of both. Whatever the veg, stir and taste and remove from heat when just tender.
Unsweetened, finely shredded coconut—found in the bulk section, or as 'macaroon coconut' in the baking aisle—is what you want here. I've omitted the 10-12 curry leaves Kamal calls for, as I'm out, but do toss them in if you've a stash in your freezer. Urad Dhal (split; black or hulled white) is available at supermarkets with well-stocked Indian sections; some bulk bins (try Whole Foods); all Indian markets; and here and here. Whole brown mustard seeds are found in most spice aisles; bulk bins; or here. If you can't locate urad dhal, double the mustard seeds to 2 Tbs.
1 pound carrots, peeled
3/4 cup finely grated unsweetened coconut
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon whole brown mustard seeds
1 tablespoon urad dhal
2 tablespoons vegetable or coconut oil
1 cup diced onion (1/2")
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Coarsely grate carrots, using a box grater or food processor. Set aside. Dice onions. Set aside. In a small bowl, place coconut, cumin, cayenne and turmeric, then add 1/4 cup of water; stir gently to combine. Set aside.
In a wok or wide skillet with a large lid, heat oil over medium-high heat. When oil shimmers, add mustard seeds and urad dhal, and cover. When seeds pop, in 1-2 minutes, add curry leaves, if using. Stir. When the urad dhal goes light brown, 1-2 minutes more, add onion, stir to coat with oil and spices, and fry until translucent and going gold in spots, 5-7 minutes. Adjust heat if needed to keep from burning.
Add the grated carrots and salt, stir to coat with onions and spices, and cook over medium-high heat, several minutes, until carrots are barely cooked but still have a bit of bite. Add coconut-water mixture, stir to combine, and cook all for another 2-3 minutes, until carrots are tender but a bit toothsome, water has cooked away, and flavors have married. Don't abandon your post. From carrots to done is five minutes, maybe six. Check salt, heat, and seasonings, and adjust to taste, stirring to combine. Eat immediately.