The Recipe That Made Me Cry 'Uncle'

So, how’d it go? The “whole foods, nothing processed” for a week thing? Oh, let me tell you.

  • Monday=fine
  • Tuesday=fine
  • Wednesday=fine
  • Thursday=laying on the kitchen floor crying ‘uncle.’
  • Friday=pizza

Last Sunday, we kicked off a week of eating like it was 1947. The goal was nothing processed from bag or box. I wasn’t particularly interested in WWII-era recipes. We just had to make food at home that our grandmothers would recognize.

Why? It was challenge to me as the main food-fixer. My style is semi-homemade. Each meal is a mix of scratch and prepared foods and I thought I could do a little better. It was also a challenge to the family as the main food-eaters.  I’d give us a B+ in family eating overall. We only eat out once a week. We even have a garden (that I’m pretty sure is trying to kill me- but that’s a story for a different post.) And, no one is super picky but, again, I thought we could do a little better.

The plan was to make dinner at home each night as we normally do. Only, I was going to sub-in home-made versions of familiar foods that I typically buy pre-made such as meatballs and fish sticks.

Whole foods meal plan

Whole foods meal plan

I’d also found 3 non-dinner recipes to try for foods we typically buy: bread, breakfast sausage, and cheese crackers.

To help you gauge the level of difficulty for me, I assign a “sweat score” on a 0 (easy) - 10 (crazy hard, never doing this again) scale for each.

Let’s begin.

Monday: Sweat score = 1.

We started off nice and easy on Monday. All I had to do was open a can of beans, put some brown rice on the stove, and microwave some sweet potatoes. I hate to brag but I could have made this on the back of the van with only a knife, a bottle of Aquafina, and a strong magnifying glass. I’ll concede the point that I should have baked the sweet potatoes but the heat index made it feel like 104 degrees outside. I couldn’t stand the thought of turning on the oven for 45 minutes. With a quick chopped salad and a couple of hard-boiled eggs for Brian and me, we were all set.

Because I have awesome ideas, we also made lemonade. No surprise here. They liked it. And, I’m pretty sure they were eating spoonfuls of sugar when I turned my back. Oh well.

Tuesday: Sweat score = 3.

Taco Tuesday was up next. The recipes weren’t complicated but the circumstances made things a little tricky. We’d planned to go to the pool and eat. That means packing everything up in the cooler. It seems like one extra steps that is actually about 40 extra steps and as many dishes to wash. There were a couple flashes of heat lightning which meant the pool was closed. We were back around the dining room table and eating out of our 40 little Tupperware containers. Part of this menu was corn tortilla chips from scratch. It’s one of those non-recipe recipes where you cut up corn tortillas, fry them, and then put as much salt as as your little heart desires. I typically like these, but I burned almost every single one. The kids ate 1 or two and Brian mercifully ate the rest. Love that guy.

Wednesday: Sweat score = 6.

Wednesday’s spaghetti and meatballs meal should have been easy. Marinara is the first thing I learned to cook in college from my dear friend and cooking mentor, Lianne. I managed to get the basic sauce and meatballs into the pot before I picked up the little kids. Win! And, then UGH. I started to sweat. I felt crunched for time when we got home. Brian had a late meeting, so I was on my own.

All I had to do was make the pasta and shred some zucchini for myself and that suddenly felt really hard. I’d promised the kids a make-up trip to the pool but didn’t want to pack everything up. They were bouncing around as they changed. Little balled up socks and underwear were all over the kitchen. They couldn’t have cared less about eating. Meanwhile, I’m stressing about checking the box on some arbitrary challenge I created for myself and asking myself why.

Thursday, Thursday, Thursday. Sweat score = 43.

I was on my own again because Brian was working late. (I should say for the record that is incredibly rare and should have made me reconsider making this “whole foods” week.) I’d been in back-to-back meetings all day (meaning no time for food prep) and had to pick up all of kids. You’d think being reunited with your children after a long day would be a joy. Well, let me tell you, this “joy” of motherhood get sucked right out when it gathering them up takes an hour+ round-trip in Northern Virginia traffic. So even before things got bad, I’d been doubting myself and my plan for the night.

  • 2pm: Consider scrapping the whole thing and just going to Panera. I’d forgotten to take out the fish and the dishwasher was already full of dirty dishes- two seemingly little things that felt insurmountable.
  • 2:15: Scold myself for being so weak. “Just stick to the plan, just stick to the plan” is the self-talk in my head while nodding politely to my client across the table talking about her upcoming retreat.
  • 3:15: Leave client meeting, running behind schedule. Pick up hot and sweaty kid 1 and hotter and sweatier friend 1. Deliver friend 1 to her house and head home for no more than 10 minutes of email to close out the day.
  • 5pm: An hour and 45 minutes later, leave to get kids 2 and 3. Tell them in the car that if they cooperate while I’m making dinner I’ll take them to the concert in the park.
  • 6pm: Get home. My bribe backfires. The kids start fighting over camp-made slime while commanding Alexa to play Imagine Dragons 45 times in a row. Linc polishes off 4 packets of applesauce while deploying all of his emergency vehicles. He must have had a feeling some shit was about to go down. The firetruck, police car, and ambulance were around my feet.

Meanwhile, I’m frantically trying to bake salmon and bread fish sticks.

I manage to get those in the oven and then read the tater tot recipe for the first time.

The most ridiculous tater tot recipe in the history of the world starts something like this…  

Boil your bazillion potatoes and, then while they’re still hot, peel them, grate them, and form little balls with a bunch of other sticky stuff. Gently place your little balls in 100 gallons of boiling oil and poke them softly with a spoon so they cook evenly while the splatters burn off all of the skin on your hands.

No. Just no. Fuck that. I’m sorry. No fucking way. Nobody even really tater tots (this is a lie.) You're a poor excuse for a spud. I fucking hate you While I’m cussing out this recipe (in my head, Dad!), my salmon caught fire.

Unfortunately this wasn't a recipe for blacked salmon- robin camarote

I scream. Then, like magic, the kids stop screaming. They look at me. Blinking. If the floor wasn’t so disgusting, I would have literally laid down. Uncle!

  • 6:38pm: Wipe a little tear from my eye and put what I have on the table: scraped salmon, fish sticks, every piece of fruit I could find, and a couple of lonely carrots from the bottom of the fridge. For the first time in their lives, my little people had a dinner with no starch. They nibble politely.
  • 6:54pm: Walk out the door. Every dish in the house is dirty. Bits of slime, flour, and an ambulance are on the counter.
  • 7:04pm: (I'm now settled on our blanket at the park listening to this adorable polka band while the kids play.) Get frantic call from Brian who’s now home and has seen the mess. He’s sure we’re in the emergency room somewhere. “Nope, honey. I just gave up. See you in a few. Kisses!”
  • 8pm: Bring happy and still-hungry kids home to a sparkling clean kitchen. Feed them ice cream for dinner and give them extra squirts of chocolate syrup to help erase their memories.

Friday. Sweat score = -8.

We order pizza by the pool while I drink Chardonnay from a paper cup. Life is back to normal and all is well.

Reflecting on the week, here’s what I learned:

  1. The kids didn’t miss the chips and pretzels. They were fine.
  2. I CAN bake! I conquered this overnight bread recipe on the second try (and after getting some yeast that was younger than Linc.) It might have been the best thing I’ve ever made. I’ll work on the breakfast sausage and cheddar crackers later in the summer.
  3. Semi-homemade works for me. Taking a couple of short-cuts saves the whole meal. If I had to do everything from scratch all the time, I’d ‘cry uncle’ and hit the drive-through way more often. That’s a 2017 advancement I think the grandmothers would approve of.
Perhaps the best thing I've ever made

Perhaps the best thing I've ever made

The experience gave me even more respect for Connie, Frances, Emily, and Jesse- four amazing women, our grandmothers. I can only imagine their “sweat score” feeding 27 kids with less money and less time. By the time I got to know them in their 60s, they seemed pretty chill as they sat back with their white zin with an ice cube in it watching their kids (our parents) sweat it out. Circle of life, I guess.

So, what's on the agenda for our Summer "Learn to Try" Challenge for Week 4?

Ride in the first car of a roller coaster. No sweat!

If I don't say thanks, I'll cry

It’s June 22th, and I can’t believe it. It’s not June’s fault. I’m just amazed that the month is two-thirds over. And since summer is only three months long, two-thirds of one-third equals, like, some significant portion over. There’s a reason Brian does our taxes.

Today also is this sneaky fox's last day of kindergarten.

Marin with fox face paint

Marin with fox face paint

Every time I take a precious minute to reflect on time, I feel a little disoriented and out-of-breath. Still all I feel like writing about today is time and how it’s flying but, I won't. We all know it and saying it over and over again doesn't seem to help. There isn’t a thing any of us can do to slow it down, you know, aside from standing in line at Target with a toddler who has to pee. Unfortunately, I can't do that everyday.

So instead of talking about flying time, I'll do what I think Oprah would want me to do and focus on gratitude. And, what specifically am I thankful for this school year? I don't know- a lot.

While my brain was getting warmed up, I asked Marin in my awkward mom-to-6-year-old concept translation, “what happened that made you really happy this year?” Of course, she immediately rattled off all four of the right answers: her teachers, the fun stuff she got to do, meeting new friends, and lunch. And, of course, she’s totally right.

sikora shazadi kindergarten teachers

Here are her teachers. They’re seriously awesome. These two people are smart, creative, and infinitely kind. And perhaps most importantly if you have to work in a confined space with 24 people repeatedly calling your name, they are a really fantastic team. We couldn’t have asked for a better start for Marin. They’re so great, in fact, that we're hoping to go kindergarten again with them next year when Baya starts school. Yep. It only took about six months for me to do what I said I never would. I became "that parent" and name-requested these teachers for my kid. Actually, I name-requested these teachers for Brian and I. We're not quite ready to leave Room 2. 

To her second point, below are just a handful of the great things she got to do this year. There were field trips, art shows, music shows, high school sports, community events, special classroom guest speakers (Grandma!), and more, more, more. It made me want to be back in elementary school—except as an adult who could drink wine at night with her chicken nuggets after a long day reading, adding, and gluing tiny pieces of paper together.

And yes, she made some new friends. They’re delightful. I get to overhear their hilarious conversations when they compare knowledge on reptiles and Sketchers shoes. They sing loud and demand attendance at impromptu talent shows that, frankly, would benefit from a little more planning and rehearsing.

Lastly, lunch. I guess I understand why she was thankful for food each day but lunch definitely did NOT make my list. Lunch-making must be the most mind-numbing, monotonous task ever. It makes me want to do laundry. Night after night after night, I made the exact same thing: a sandwich with one slice each of ham and turkey (no mayo or nothin’) cut in half and put into the baggie, one bag of Fritos, one Tupperware with fruit, and an occasional stray cookie. It looked nothing like the fresh and colorful bento boxes that all the better moms on the internet were fixing. Sigh.

In addition to Marin's list, there are a handful of other things I’m thankful for…

I'm thankful for the couple extra minutes she and I had by ourselves on my drop-off and pick-up days. I'm not sure what we did with this time except take a lot of silly selfies.

I'm also thankful for these two. Seriously, they’re wonderful friends and are the only reason we never missed the bus. Not once. People who know me know what a truly remarkable feat this is. They’re like a Swiss train and could be counted on to be on our corner at precisely 8:10 every day with a cheerful “good morning!”

I’m also thankful for our community and how everyone just shows up- both literally and figuratively- for our kids and each other.

falls church community school bus stop

Last but not least, I’m thankful for Brian. Few people know his "less is more" communication style was the inspiration behind Twitter’s 140-character limit. And though he says few words, the ones he does make a ton of sense.

So, I might not be able to stop time but I can say thank you for the gifts. Through the blur, it was a truly been a wonderful school year.

Do you have a condiment?

Some people don’t like them, but I won’t eat dinner without ‘em. It’s not just about whining-prevention- they enhance the experience.

The picture below is the line-up from the other night. These jars and bottles are patiently waiting to be transferred to the dining room by wobbly little, table-setting gnomes.

I'm not sure it matters but I'll tell you anyway. We were having salmon, potatoes, peas, salad, and watermelon... and each of these condiments was ESSENTIAL! Here's the issue. I’ve gone way back to basics recently with cooking so I don't have to consult a recipe amidst the chaos that's common in my kitchen. This basics-only approach frees up the time and mental energy I need to repeatedly yell, "BACK up, that’s hot!” 

So, our dinners are super simple: a protein, veggie or starch for the kids, salad, and fruit. It’s like eating an outfit from the Gap. Because the menu is so dull on it's own, accessories become pretty important. That's why at Chez Camarote, we have a "thing" for condiments.

Allow me to make some introductions.

I’ll start with the reining king and queen: ketchup and honey mustard. Purchased separately, these two are always combined on the plate to make “hetchup.” Hetchup goes great with everything. From fish sticks to apple slices, my kids don’t eat without it. These two darlings are so essential to dinner that we keep backups in the pantry. Running out of one would mean one of parents would be running out to the store for more. If you look closely in the picture above, you can see the ketchup top is broken. That was my fault. Those bottles get slippery after being handled by thirty small, slimy fingers. I was trying to put it away the other night when it hit the kitchen floor head first. Now Linc reminds everyone, every single dinner that “Mommy broke the ketchup. It was an accident. No problem.” Aw, thanks bud. It's like he's heard those words himself 1,000 times before.

Butter. While a condiment in most people’s book, butter is considered a side in our house. The dish goes to the table last. Forget knives and matches; my kids require constant supervision around butter. Without one of us hovering, they’d eat an entire stick with their bare hands. We're so proud.

The olives, sundried tomatoes, and feta in the back were for me. I love Greek salad more than I should admit. I have fantasies of someday laying on the beach in Mykonos on a bed of spring mix with a bottle of SPF15 vinaigrette. I'm alone.

Remoulade. I have a problem. I love having stuff and hate clutter at the same time. I’m in a constant cycle of buying and then immediately trying to get rid of whatever I just purchased. I got this remoulade for crab cakes a month ago. It was pretty good, but we’re not getting through it fast enough. In fact, there has been no progress in weeks. I keep just putting it on the table hoping someone (the kids, maybe) will be confused, think it’s hetchup, and eat some. No such luck.

Panera salad dressing. This cutie is just one of five siblings that live in our fridge. One more trip to Target and I'll have the complete set. I love Panera. I love their salads. And, I love that I can now buy their dressings at the store. Store-bought dressings are such a gamble. With these, I already know how they taste. Delicious. 

One of my “go to” homemade dressings, a jar of pesto, and a ramekin of dijonnaise complete the picture.

  • The dressing in this recipe is super simple: lemon, garlic, onion, Dijon, and olive oil. It’s like my hetchup. It truly can go on anything.
  • I’ve talked before about my love of pesto and Ina Garten. I typically use this on eggs, but it can parachute in to save any other boring protein on a moment’s notice. It’s another one that’s always in the fridge.
  • Lastly, I throw together the yummy mayo/Dijon combo just for salmon. If you like patronizing recipes, here’s “expert advice” how to assemble these 2-ingredients from Epicurious. Thanks, assholes.

Salt might be the spice of life, but there are an army of condiments in the running for second place. I don’t know how we’d get through our meals without them.

What about you? What are some of your must-haves for dinner?

How Not to Take a Picture of Your Wife

(especially when she asked nicely, and you’re not doing shit)

I occasionally ask my husband to take my picture like when I've just given birth to our first child, or I just got my haircut. It’s a rare request and here’s why. He acts like a big baby about it and doesn’t do a very good job.

So, when there is an urgent need to document a moment and a random stranger isn’t available, I take a deep breath, quickly lower my expectations, and say, “Hey honey, can you take a picture with my phone?”

A perfectly fine and nice way to ask, right? I think so but...

I know what’s going to happen next. First, I get an eye roll. Next, he puts his hand out like I’m giving him a dirty diaper. And then, I have .2 seconds to get ready. Sometimes, he’s not even looking at me or the camera. I know going in that he only has the energy to take one. It’s like it’s 1987 and we must conserve film to avoid another trip to Rite-Aid in the Taurus. So, before he halfheartedly clicks, I make a little wish to the universe that it turns out okay. It never does. Let me show you.

Below is the picture he took last Saturday of me and my lovely friend and neighbor, Jen. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s Jen. It’s hard to tell because it’s WAY too dark. No filter is going to fix this. Our other neighbor’s house looks great though.

Here’s another example. Now, I should have set this up better and just swiveled around on the stool. I blame both Brian and sleep deprivation for missing this chance to document baby Linc and I bonding over our love of stripes.

Aw, here’s one with me and my girls after hiking up a large-ish hill to see this waterfall. It’d be an okay picture except my eyes are closed. Of course, that’s not technically his fault either. But can anyone explain why he is only capable of shooting a single picture?! Asking for a tap, tap, tap is apparently too, too, too much.

Here’s one of me and my friend Liz getting ready to run a half marathon. I specifically asked him to get the start line in the background. Check. But in the excitement, I apparently forgot to ask for her lower jaw, as well.  She has a chin but I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it. 

An actual photographer told me once to be careful not to indiscriminately cut off limbs in pictures. Subconsciously, it makes people uncomfortable. I see his point. This picture makes me squeamish, but that might be because I look like a hard-boiled egg. 
Let's move on.

Here’s a recent shot of the extended family heading out for a wedding. It’s not often that we’re all together in metallics. Let me be clear about my issue with this picture. Yes, my daughter Baya was distracted by something on TV. Annoying but no problem. Kids are kids, and they’re notoriously difficult to pin down for posed pictures. I have 7,256 pictures on my phone that prove that point. 

No, my issue with this picture is that a large sea creature appears to be either sucking my brains or telling me a secret. Either way, I don't like it.

Again, I take responsibility for not anticipating this problem with the background in advance. However, a little input from his vantage point would have been welcomed. He doesn't robotically execute any of the rest of my commands so, why just this?
Brian didn't actually take this last example. (I’d already cropped the fuck out of the similar ones on my camera.) However, they're worth including because they illustrate a common problem: WAY too much background.

My otherwise darling brother-in-law, Mike, took these pictures of my sisters and me after lunch (and a lot of rose) at their house. Mike is very smart and has an actual Ph.D.-- just obviously not in photographic composition.

He took a couple pictures and proudly handed the phone back. Upon getting clear and immediate feedback about the amount of brick wall, he did something interesting though. He smiled and took the camera back to try again. He then shot 22 more identically bad pictures, but I appreciated the effort. He’s Canadian.

In the hopes of getting a different reaction to my most recent request, I tried a different tactic. I told Brian that the picture was for his mom. I was thinking he'd see the obvious value in having two women he cares about happy at the same time. No such luck. The words he said back were deeply concerning. “No need. I send her pictures of the kids all the time.”

So, Lynda. Mrs. Camarote. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that was happening. If you don’t mind, please delete everything he’s sent you over the years. I'll forward a new batch straight away. Forget whether they’re too dark, too far away, or oddly cropped, you shouldn’t be receiving any pictures that aren't prescreened for cuteness and cleanliness. If any made you think the carpet needing vacuuming, I assure you that’s not the case. It’s an optical illusion created by your son’s crappy photography.

All's well that ends well: Linc's birth story

So, you think YOU’RE a procrastinator? I had this baby in a car.

Lincoln James, May 26, 2014

Lincoln James, May 26, 2014

It was just about 5am, and I was in the front seat. My husband Brian- completely calm- was driving about 80 miles per hour towards the hospital. Though we were only a few miles away, I knew we weren’t going to make it. The speck of my brain that was still thinking rationally was telling me not to push. But when I say I had to, I HAD to. It’d be cliché (and not quite right) to say it was like trying to stop a train. It was more like I’d jumped off the high-dive and changed my mind mid-air. There was just no way to stop this gravity-like force. The baby was coming out whether I was in the stirrups or not.

My body took over, and after a couple of hard pushes, the head was in my yoga pants. Then slip, slip, slip as they do, the rest came out. I pulled the little body to my chest. There was no cry but just the sound of strong, raspy breathing in my ear and my husband casually turning to me to ask, “Is this where we turn?”

Minutes later, we pulled into the ambulance bay at in front of the emergency room. Brian got out to tell someone, anyone. I sat there stunned and alone with this new baby. We were now in the light, and I could see it was a boy. It was Lincoln!

The only thought I had was, “thank god it’s over.” The pain, I mean, the pain. The chaos of the emergency room, the doctors and nurses, the car mess, wondering if my mom had made it to our house, and the transition to being parents of three, three and under was just starting.

Arriving at Virginia Hospital Center

Arriving at Virginia Hospital Center

Within seconds the car was surrounded by dozens of people- including several people who appeared to come from the waiting room (like that guy on the far right!) The emergency room doctor opened the car door and said, “Hi Mom, how are we doing?” And before I could answer he started giving instructions to someone else, “…I need an OB kit with a plastic clamp…”

I looked up at him and said, “The cord is still attached.” The look on his face said, ‘Dumb Ass: You’re the one sitting in the front seat of a car with your pants down in front of 25 people holding a slippery baby. Who’s the idiot here?’ Instead, he just said, “I know.”

From there it was a blur. I got on the rolling bed. Hospital staff checked me, and they checked Lincoln. Fine and fine. They patted Brian on the back and handed him a pack of industrial-sized wipes and wished him good luck with the car. Not so fine.

I briefly wondered if they’d let us stay. They did. (As a side note for anyone considering this strategy to save money, please don’t. You pay twice.) Anyway, we then went up to Labor and Delivery to get our ice packs and paper underwear. We were completely average again.

When I tell people this story, they immediately ask, “Are you kidding?” When they realize I’m not, they ask, “How did this happen?”

My canned answer is that he just came really fast. That’s sort of true. The reality is that I didn’t leave my house in time. It was my third pregnancy and I was totally “fucking over it.” This is the actual medical term for the 40th week of gestation. (The language only gets more colorful for those moms who go into week 41 and beyond.) I was big, worn out, generally sweaty, and anxious to meet this baby.

Leading up to my due date that holiday weekend, I put my multi-pronged eviction strategy into effect. Brian and I did a 4-mile hike and I'd tried on clothes from my Stitch Fix. I’d had labor-induction foot massages and was eating a whole pineapple per day. The day before, we took the girls to the zoo, set them up with art projects outside, and then walked to dinner.I was trying everything Google suggested- except for the “Italian method” which was out of the question.

I was trying everything Google suggested- except for the “Italian method” which was out of the question. The problem with using any multi-pronged approach is that you have no idea what works. So, I’m sorry. When I approach in line at the grocery store with unsolicited advice, I’ll tell you to try it all too.

The night labor started, the signs were there. I’d woken up with contractions. I laid there for a while switching between timing them on my phone and reading about Lucky Lindy in “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson. I’d hoped this would be a funny distraction, it wasn’t. The contractions came every 18 minutes, then every 12, then 7. When I got up to go the bathroom and get a drink, suddenly it was 5, 4, 3, 2… grunt. I had the urge to push and knew I then I was officially running late.

My mom wasn’t yet there to watch the girls, our doula was 45 minutes away, and I hadn’t even called the midwife yet. When labor started, I’d hesitated. I knew as soon as I made all those calls, several people were going to spring into action. I didn’t want to bother anyone until I was sure. By the time I was certain, it was too late. I kind of set myself up.

Oh well. They say, and I believe it, that- all’s well that ends well. Linc’s arrival was dramatic but uncomplicated. The girls slept through the whole thing- only waking up after grandma had arrived. Brian was able to trade in the car without having to confess to its gory past. And, of course, we got another great kid to go with a story we’ll never forget.

Back from maternity leave

I got a question from a reader last week about how to prepare for his boss's return to work from maternity leave. I answered here with some help from my little guy, Linc.

For the team welcoming someone back into the office after any extended absence: let them set the pace. Ask when when and how they get briefed on what's happened while they were out and then honor those wishes the best you can. By the middle of the second week, the person transitioning back into work should largely have their routine down and start feeling somewhat "normal."

Answering this question, though made me think about the flip side-- what if you're the one coming back?

My take is this. When coming back from maternity leave, your first two words in the office should be, "thank you." And you should mean it.

Some (thankfully few) returning moms come back with the completely wrong attitude. If you expect to be an exception to the rule now that you have a family at home, think again. Of course, no one would say this out loud. However, thinking you're owed something because you're a mom now becomes obvious when your problems suddenly become everyone else's to solve. Spreading this unique brand of entitlement around the office only fuels frustration and resentment on your teams. And if you're the boss? Woah, it's just worse. Avoid the heartache and hassle with a little appreciation for everything that was accomplished in their absence.

Thank you.