How to Appear to Be a Fantastic Mother

I haven’t tried anything new for dinner since the snow started, so I thought I’d take a break from the culinary arena and focus, for an entry, on parenting. Feel free to leave immediately if this is of no interest, as it’s barely interesting to me. Now that my ventures into the public sphere involve managing the life systems and temperaments of three individuals aside from myself, I find that a surprising number of people not only notice my juggling skills, but take the time to point out that (most commonly) I sure do have my hands full, (frequently) they have no idea how I do it, and (occasionally) that I must have the patience of a saint. I do, nor do I, and no, no I don’t.

A background in Meetings & Events — respect the caps — has enabled me to take a possibly unique view of parenting. The world is a trade show, and your kids are your salesteam. The product: your appearance as a fantastic mother. In this regard, the office (home) is full of Debbie Downers who want to complain all day and do as little actual work as possible. My job is to make sure what happens behind the scenes stays behind the scenes, and that my salesteam hits the booth (grocery store, playgroup) during those twenty minutes they’re at their shiniest and brightest. A non-negotiable system of bonuses (gumballs, lollypops) and disciplinary actions (I will carry you to the car like a baby in two seconds) is imperative, and your unwavering, iron-fisted follow-through must be at the constant forefront of your team’s minds during all “on” time. My kids can run around naked and screaming when we’re at home for all I care, but when we’re out, the direction is to bottle it and button it.

The office-based part of my work day includes plenty of time for my team members to work through their differences and generally air their petty wrath in a room free of anything that could be fashioned into a weapon. All of that bottled rage built up during “booth duty” can be released far from judging eyes, and the team reappears well-mannered and reasonable for their next shift. I once had a boss who called his weekly staff gatherings “rocks meetings,” the idea being that we’d cover the biggest items first, then down the priority list as time allowed. I think, at least, that was the metaphor; when he explained it he talked a lot about pebbles and boulders. Needless to say, his name was quickly removed from my cookie distribution list. Anyway, I have reappropriated the term for the substantial chunks of time my underlings spend whacking their rock-like heads into things and each other in the throws of their collective dissatisfaction. The containment of their fury to the main boardroom (living room) frees up the rest of the house for cleaning. This is imperative in appearing to be a fantastic mother, as no one witnesses the freedom (neglect) bestowed upon the subordinates, which enables her to maintain shiny floors and dust-free surfaces.

Organization is an apparently fantastic mother’s number one necessary neurosis. There is nothing that cannot be improved through the implementation of a carefully constructed system. Things get boxes, actions get policies. Each thing in my house that measures under six square inches is currently in a bin, box, basket or drawer. Baths, feedings, meals, diaper changes, travel preparation, naps, bedtimes, and so on are carried out in the exact same manner for each instance. Never waiver, and never let a “must-happen” become a topic of discussion. The brilliance of policies is that they allow no room for guilt. If a baby cries when it should be sleeping, the checklist includes: diaper, hunger, trapped burp, wet clothing, chin-fold squatter, hair around digit, snuggle want. If crying persists after the checklist has been completed and the baby is obviously not sick, let it sing its joyful song for the duration of two cigarettes and a Diet Coke, and it’ll most likely be out cold upon your return check.

Speaking of the kind of noise level that literally drives some mothers insane, Pena Co. is currently under threat of a takeover by Teething Corp, and there are about two hours total per day of relative quiet. But that just means that I’m taking advantage of my prescription for something that knocks the racket down from mind-numbing to mildly annoying. That’s another odd effect of appearing to be a fantastic mother of three small children – therapists will prescribe us anything. I don’t pretend that mine is the hardest job in the world because 1) it isn’t, and 2) I don’t make it as hard as it possibly could be. Yet a baffling number of people consider staying at home with over two under-fours unfathomable. However, the difference between supporting self-important marketing executives and salespeople who drink whatever’s within reach and submit for reimbursement on their daily McDonald’s breakfast, and keeping three small children alive, healthy and not miserable is a slight one, indeed.

Let them have their pink!

Boys-Love-Pink-Food Robo-Cupcakes

Since males are expected to completely renounce a specific color from the moment they’re born, they inevitably find it alluring when it makes a rare appearance through a socially accepted vehicle. Food, more specifically dessert, is one of the only times straight men get to enjoy pink, unless they’re brave enough to wear pastel button-downs during the Spring. Even the most adamant “hands off my gender role” manly man will be drawn immediately to anything covered in pink frosting, especially if you reinforce the unisexiness with, say, robots. Manly men tend to enjoy robots. Billy the Kid was beside himself when he found the robot cupcake kit Santa left in his stocking; we used Amy Sedaris’s recipe for the cake and my cherry-vanilla buttercream to frost, flecks made possible by vanilla paste as opposed to extract. I suggest that anyone partnered to a surly lumberjackian type provide a monthly pink dessert; otherwise he may be tempted to look in unsavory places for his taboo color fix.

Cherry-Vanilla Buttercream

1/3 C butter
3 C powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste
2 tbsp maraschino cherry juice
Milk as needed

Melt the butter. Stir in one cup of sugar completely. Add the vanilla, another cup of sugar, and a restrained splash of milk. Stir until completely combined. Add the cherry juice, the last cup of sugar, and another splash, stir until completely consistent and lumpless. Stir in a little more milk if the frosting seems too greasy and it will smooth out quickly.

On Curry and Child Rearing

Initially Insecure Mango Chicken Curry

I’ll admit that I’m rather nationalistic when it comes to cooking. I assume that Italian food made by non-Italians never quite hits the mark, and that in thirty years I still won’t be able to make Puerto Rican white rice that passes. Unsurprisingly, it’s never occurred to me to take on Indian cuisine, aside from a WASPy dash of curry powder in an occasional chicken salad. Once more, thanks goes to Simply Recipes for tonight’s magnificent, seconds-even-though-we-already-hurt dinner of Mango Chicken Curry over non-native Puerto Rican white rice (I don’t keep basmati on hand…yet). The vegetable-based sauce that serves as the eventual pur
ée takes a pass through the blender to achieve that surreal texture, and I suggest using your Cuisinart Mini-Prep Food Processor for the initial pre-cook chopping. What, don’t have one!?! Skip dinner and pick up McDonald’s on your way to the mall.

I can’t imagine why I shouldn’t take the liberty of retyping the recipe with several necessary alterations, since I find the idea of making ad money off this sort of thing unseemly and crass. I discourage SR from taking offense at my edits; I don’t expect everyone to have such a refined palate as mine.

Vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped or processed
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped or processed
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
2 tbsp yellow curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin
2 mangos, peeled and diced or processed (you will not use the entire second mango – snack at will)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 1/4 C water
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (using the suggested 1 1/4 lbs resulted in a surplus of lonely sauce), cut into 1″ chunks
1/3 C golden raisins
1/2 C heavy cream
Salt and pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
No cilantro**

**Cilantro is suggested as a garnish in the original recipe. Fresh cilantro has only one purpose: to reprimand swearing children. Soap in the mouth is child abuse, but a single leaf of a pepper-free cooking herb sends a message nicely with no chance of getting the state involved. To anyone who wonders whether this is indicative of my own child-rearing practices, don’t worry – my children are perfect angels, speak/gurgle with flawless non-regional accents, and consider using FCC-banned words utterly beneath them.

Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a deep skillet or large saucepan over medium-high. Add the onions and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until soft. Add in the pepper plus another tbsp of oil and cook for 3 more minutes. Toss in the curry and cumin, cook 3 more minutes, adding extra oil if anything starts to stick to the pan. Add the ginger and garlic, stir, and cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the vinegar, water, and half of the mango chop. Increase the heat and bring it to a thick and icky boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring every minute or so. Pour the sauce into a blender and purée until it’s smooth, then return it to the pan. Dump in the chicken and raisins, stir, and bring the whole thing back to a simmer. Cover it up and cook for 10 minutes, until the chicken is done but not dry.

Add half of whatever quantity of mango chop you have left, then stir in the cream. Cook over low heat for a couple of minutes while you add quite a bit of salt and some pepper and adjust seasonings. I threw in a sprinkle of crushed red pepper for some heat that was blatantly lacking from the original, and I found it necessary to splash in another few tsp of vinegar to cut the mango.

As noted, I served this over Puerto Rican white rice (defined by a painfully specific and elusive texture and consistency), and I don’t know that the conventional basmati accompaniment would stand up as well to the sauce as the denser medium grain. Again, feel free to garnish with cilantro if you feel like ruining the entire thing, but if you absolutely need some green for contrast (<<cough>>simpleton!<<cough>>), throw some parsley florets onto the plate and fully acknowledge your, as Heidi Klum would offer, questionable taste level.

Chard, where have you been all my life?

Vegetarian But In No Way Vegan Lasagna


By some miracle all of my children are asleep at the same time in the middle of the day, and I can’t say I have high hopes for the completion of this particular nugget. Getting straight to the point, I am adding a new standard to not only my vegetarian repertoire, but to the Team-Peña fortnightly rotation as well. I’ve more than established my Seinfeld/Newman relationship with the vegetable, but every so often a new one gets past the gatekeeper, and as luck would have it, I like Swiss Chard. I’m not leaving Mr. P for it, but I like it. I made this for dinner last week when the fearless culinary maven Jess came over for some hair-of-the-Christmas, and I would have made it every night since but for the delightful and ridiculous amount of cheese involved. I was obviously in holiday shock when I undertook the recipe, serving something for the first time to a guest, experimenting with new leaves, and purchasing organic, whole-wheat lasagna noodles. I seemed to have temporarily misplaced my character.

Incorporating two of my favorite things (mushrooms sauteed with nutmeg, and ricotta), it was the sort of delicious that causes you to repress grunts, snorts and moans, and make at least a halfhearted attempt to refrain from wolfing. I found the recipe on Epicurious, and will link instead of typing it out, as I’d suggest only a few alterations. I wound up spooning out about a half cup of onions once they were in the pan with the chard, as the proportion just seemed off, and I’m glad I did. I was out of Extra Virgin, so I used regular and it was just fine, and I have no idea if my bay leaf was Turkish. Finally, I’d recommend any kind of whole-wheat noodles (who really cares if their pasta’s organic?). That last part was not an invitations for smart remarks.

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