Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Personal Chef, Anyone?

No, seriously.

My birthday was last week, and for anyone who knows my husband, well, sometimes he goes a little over the top for things. He's amazing, and we all love him, and his family and friends are lucky to have someone like him who enjoys finding the perfect gift and then making it better.

This year, Greg got me a set of all-clad pots and pans, something I have wanted ever since the warnings about non-stick chemicals came out, but that I could never commit to actually investing in. They are amazing, and I have already started to enjoy cooking with them!

For anyone who loves to cook, you can understand how all-clad cooking ware is probably the best birthday gift ever. But somehow Greg got it in his head (who am I to complain, but seriously?!) that perhaps cookware wasn't a very romantic gift, especially since he'll benefit from the meals. It's a birthday. Not Valentine's Day. Maybe I should be more careful about giving him running gear for holidays. Hmm.

Anyway, Greg decided that it would be fun to have a personal chef come in and demonstrate how to use the new cookware with a mini cooking lesson in the form of making a three course meal alongside me to share with my family who was going to be in town for the weekend. Greg helped coordinate the menu, and then on Saturday, Personal Chef Marc Levine from Olives and Herbs showed up with all of the necessary groceries and some of the minor prep work already completed. While my family enjoyed a wine tasting hosted by Greg, I got a personal lesson from a professional chef, who worked alongside me to make celeriac soup with crispy prosciutto and watercress garnished with basil oil and baguette, pecan encrusted mahi mahi with sauteed greens and cauliflower and white been puree, and individual chocolate molten lava cakes for dessert (which my sister in law actually made with Chef Marc since it was a) her birthday and b) Will needed a bath).

When the mahi mahi was in the oven, Chef Marc ushered us into the dining room, where he served each of the three courses with a brief explanation of the dish, and did all the dishes while we ate dinner.

It was an AMAZING night! Once I got over the initial oddity, it was a thrill to have a professional chef enter my dining room to announce and serve the next gourmet course while I chit-chatted with family, not to mention having the dishes whisked away afterwards! All while Will slept peacefully upstairs, and family savored nice bottles of wine without paying the restaurant up-charge.

No, Chef Marc isn't going to be cooking me dinner every night. But if we had driven my family into Boston, paid for parking, eaten at a four or five star restaurant where we ordered several bottles of wine, well, it would have worked out to about the same price. And we wouldn't have been able to relax for hours in our home with no need for a baby sitter or designated driver, in complete privacy, with the added fun of seeing a Chef walk into our dining room to serve us something he taught me to make.

So next time you're looking for a fun idea that's a little outside the box for a bachelorette party (he'll work with groups!), special anniversary dinner, or birthday party, maybe it's worth hiring a personal chef for the night!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Train or Train Wreck? Choosing Children's Toys

Has anyone else been into Toys R Us lately?! With Will's birthday approaching, Greg and I decided it was probably a good idea to go into a larger toy store than just the small local shops we usually frequent, just to see what's out there and think about what we'd like to buy him for his first birthday.

Yikes. That store is overflowing with battery powered, collectible, character based toys! There were entire aisles that I told Greg not to bother walking down because I could already tell they didn't have anything I'd want to bring into our home.

So what's the big deal? Shouldn't kids have some fun, flashy toys that light up and make sounds? They love them! And what's so wrong about Toy Story or Cars, or collectible Thomas trains where you can watch the cartoon and learn the names of all the train pieces?

Well, after some reading and thinking, these toys aren't as innocuous as they seem. And the problem isn't just that they annoy parents.

Toys that light up and make sounds can overstimulate kids, and get them more interested in pressing the button to get the immediate gratification of noise or flashing lights than in finding new and creative ways to play with the toy. Which also means that every toy that does light up or make noise has a pretty limited function and essentially the same usefulness as all other flashy toys - find what makes it light up, press it, repeat until bored, and the toy has outlived its usefulness.

Character toys are designed to create consumers out of our kids. If our children have a beloved toy that is a Sesame Street or Disney character, and they then see that character on a lunch box, back pack, article of clothing, or on a children's snack at the grocery store, and they'll want that new item. In the grocery store in particular this can cause some major problems with whining and bad nutrition choices if you give in - this isn't how we want our kids choosing their foods!

Toys based on movies, books or cartoons also can lead to "scripted play", where children will use them only to re-enact what they saw in the movie rather than making up their own story lines or uses for the toys. It is easier for children to play creatively with dolls or stuffed animals that haven't already been given roles by the media. When children role play using their own ideas, they're more likely to play school or house than when using toys that are already outfitted for violence (action figures) or shopping and dating (Barbies, Bratz dolls, etc.).

We want our kids to be creative, but if we give them toys that do all the work for them, by lighting up and making noises and already having a complete story line behind them, we take away incentive and opportunity for them to be creative.

Plus, some of the collectible toys worry me, because often as soon as a child has one, they want the next one, and it leads them into a negative cycle of consumerism where they're happier shopping than owning. That's not something we want our children to turn into, because this type of consumerism and materialism doesn't make people happier. Some toys even have associated websites where children get "points" for collecting, can join networks with their friends, and then rank one another based on their possessions. Wow.

There are fantastic toys out there, and a lot of them we recognize from when we were kids. Blocks that can be made into castles, stacked in different shapes and designs, be pretend grocery items placed in a bucket for a shopping cart. Traditional dolls that allow children to play family, act out their day, or have a backyard space adventure. There are a lot of great toys that let kids be kids and decide how they want to play with them.

After seeing cautions about popular toys pop up in so many of the books I've read and parenting lectures I've attended, I have started to really think about how the toys Will plays with may impact his development. I'm not getting rid of every toy in my house that lights up, but I may take the batteries out of some of them, and I quite shamelessly sent all of Will's grandparents a link to the toy guide published by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment, or "TRUCE". You can find it here: http://www.truceteachers.org/guides.htm After all, they also want what's best for Will, and the time to talk to them about better toy choices is before they buy them, not after Will has unwrapped them.

If you're interested in learning more, the TRUCE website is a great resource.

So as Will gets older, I'll try to give him a blank piece of paper instead of a coloring book, and toys that he can choose what to do with. I'm sure there will be compromise, and some less than ideal toys will make it into his toy bin, and that's ok. My goal isn't to be perfect, it's to make better choices whenever we can. And we'll tackle peer pressure and tv advertising when we get there!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cherry Tomatoes!

We've got cherry tomatoes! This is the first year we've grown tomatoes, and I love going out each morning to pick the ripened fruit. Greg and one of his coworkers made "earthtainers" this year, and the plants responded by growing like CRAZY! (For more on earthtainers, check out the website, http://www.earthtainer.org/ where you can find free blue prints to make your own.)

Greg, Will, and one of Greg's amazing earthtainers growing cherry tomatoes. That's one tomato plant, which was only four inches tall when we brought it home from Volante Farms!

At first I was worried that we'd have too many tomatoes, but now I'm starting to wonder if there is such a thing. I love cooking with these! We've had mozzarella, basil and tomato salad, pasta with fresh tomato and white wine sauce, Tofu Bhuna Masala, and my grandmother's amazing vegetable soup, all made with fresh tomatoes from the garden. I haven't even had to make sauce and freeze it yet, and we've eaten over 150 cherry tomatoes from this plant! (Not exaggerating or joking. Look at that thing, it's a monster!) Of course it helps that I have six basil plants in my herb garden that I started from seed in April. Now if only there was such a thing as a mozzarella plant...

Our most recent culinary use for cherry tomatoes was a Martha Stewart recipe for Cherry Tomato Mozzarella Zucchini pie. I followed the recipe to a T, homemade parmesan pie crust and all (Will was with Greg!) and it was pretty good. My slice would have been better if someone *cough*Will*cough* didn't steal most of my tomatoes, but it was still worth making :)

Her recipe is online here: http://www.marthastewart.com/317661/cherry-tomato-bocconcini-and-zucchini-pi

Mine doesn't look as nice as hers, but whose does?! It still tasted great :)