She’s the co-author of our new favorite cookbook Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen, founder of the blog Devil and Egg, and mom of Belle (10) and Conor (6), and, lucky for us, willing to give us her whole story of how she got to where she is today, along with some real pearls of wisdom. (We can’t wait to put into practice this holiday season what she taught us!)
Give us a little background on yourself/what you do/how you came to it.
I have worked in publishing and magazines for most of my career. I pretty much always knew that I wanted to be a writer or editor, so after college and a brief stint at a non-profit arts program for teenage girls, I attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course) and then took a job in book publishing. I had made the mistake of romanticizing the book-world a bit too much—I imagined everyone wearing tweed, reading heaps of brilliant manuscripts, martinis for lunch—instead I was given a desk in a former broom closet and had to process subsidiary rights deals. So pretty quickly I made the jump to the magazine world, which had a bit more glamour and a faster pace. My first job was as an editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping and then I made a lateral jump to GQ. This was before I had kids so I had the time to hustle, attend events, work late, and get promoted, first to books editor and then senior editor. When I got pregnant I moved to Glamour, and then I bounced around a lot before landing my dream job at Saveur magazine. Unlike the large magazines I had been at before, Saveur was a small and scrappy place. Everything was much more hands on. I got to work alongside some of the most knowledgeable food editors, learn from chefs and home cooks all around the world, and eating was part of job (I think half of my salary was paid in bacon and artisanal cheese). There was a bit of a shake-up at one point so I left, had another baby, and arrived back at Glamour. I started my blog Devil and Egg at that point because I missed writing about food and the blogging thing was just taking off. It has been a great exercise because it forces me to write and photograph regularly, giving my passion for food a bit of structure. The blog is also a journal of sorts, where I can look back and read about what I was cooking for my family when we lived in the city and the kids were babies, or when I can’t remember the name of that great breakfast place we stopped at once in La Jolla. Three years ago my friend and former co-worker from Saveur—Kathy Brennan—and I were having one of our regular phone chats about work and family and food, and we realized that all of our conversations could be turned into a cookbook. We both thought there was a big disconnect between the professional food world (with all of its aspirational, locavore, heirloom, curated dinnerscapes), and the real world where parents we knew were in the trenches just trying to bang out good meals night after night. We didn’t want to give people a heap of recipes and say ,”good luck!”, but also provide them with confidence-building tips and strategies for shopping, stocking a pantry, seasoning, and such. Kathy came up with the brilliant name, which comes from the Saveur test kitchen: When a recipe from a story you were editing came out delicious and flawless they’d call you at your desk and say “it’s a keeper!”. Working on the book was pretty epic, but it helped to have a partner who is also a mom so we could relate to one another’s work-life balance issues, and also keep each other focused and sane when it seemed like we’d be working on the book forever!
Where do you live?
Gladstone, New Jersey. I call it Brigadoon because it’s kind of this hidden little village, more country than suburbia. When friends from the city come to visit, they’re always surprised that New Jersey actually has this beautiful countryside. I like that we’re still on the train line into the city (the last stop!), but that our kids see farms with horses, cows and sheep on their bus ride to school.
Do you work in a home office, and if you do, how do you deal with working from home (while parenting)?
I do work from home. I turned the sitting room of our master bedroom into an office, and put my desk in front of a big window overlooking the backyard (the dog has a bed between me and the window so he actually has the best view). I’m not completely disciplined in my work routine. The hardest thing about being home is that everything is a distraction: the dog, the laundry, and especially the kitchen. Because I write about food and I enjoy cooking, I sometimes wander in to make lunch and the next thing I know it’s two hours later and I’m roasting vegetables, making pizza dough, starting a soup. When Kathy and I came to the part of the cookbook process where we were done testing and had to focus on the writing, I actually moved into a corral at a nearby library so I could focus. But from a parenting point of view I love working from home because I used to spend about 4 hours a day commuting into the city and I felt like I was missing everything.
What would you say is your “mom uniform”?
Well there’s bus stop uniform and then post-bus stop uniform. This time of year the bus stop outfit consists of yoga pants, one of my husband’s college sweatshirts, beat-up Uggs, and one of those North Face coats that looks like you’re wearing a down comforter (Have you ever see Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr.? When Hunter’s mom, played by Anne Bancroft, picks her up at the airport in one of those floor-length puffers? That’s what it looks like. Also I love that movie and watch it every Thanksgiving).
Post-bus stop it’s usually Rag & Bone Jeans (the best jeans ever), Frye motorcycle boots, one of those tissue-thin JCrew vintage t-shirts, lots or random bracelets (my kids have joined the Rainbow Looms craze and we keep all the bracelets they make in a communal jar in the kitchen), and a striped pullover (I have a stripe obsession).
Do you cook much–if you don’t, what are your ways around not cooking, and if you do, what are your go-tos–both for yourself, and for your kid?
Because I write about food, I cook all of the time. When we were writing Keepers my family was my test kitchen, they literally had to eat some dishes over and over while I was getting them right. There was some grumbling, but there were also a few things that I think they’d happily eat on a daily basis: the Skillet Lasagna (a fast, one-pot version of the marathon lasagna you never have time to make once you have kids), the Chicken Pot Pie, and Taco Night. You can’t ever go wrong with taco night.
What’s your weeknight family dinner routine?
I try and start dinner by 6:30. If I plan ahead then I’ll get a few things started during the day, like roast a few trays of vegetables (last night I did string beans and these delicious Japanese purple yams), cook a pot of brown rice or grains, mix up a vinaigrette, wash a head of lettuce, or make a quick tomato sauce.
While I’m getting dinner ready, Tim or my mom is usually helping with homework. If homework is not an epic drama then they will play a game—our neighbors turned us onto Blokus, which is great, and our other family favorites are the Scrambled States of America and Trouble, although for some reason that game brings out everyone’s mercenary side. I love having my family nearby when I cook but with the exception of tossing a salad or grating some cheese, I’m not a fan of having the kids cook with me on weeknights when I just need to bang things out. For me cooking is something I do for them and I figure they are still getting a positive message by seeing a home cooked meal being made.
Most nights we all eat together, including my mom (unless she has a hot date!).
The kids are in charge of setting the table, clearing the table, and loading the dishwasher (there’s usually some squeaking about this last part).
I live in the boonies, so there are no take-out options like when we used to live in Manhattan. So unless we decide to go out for dinner on Friday or Saturday night, I still usually end up making dinner on the weekends, but it’s always something fun and loose, like 7-layer nachos (chips, black beans, cheese, green chiles, tomatoes, guacamole, Greek yogurt with lime juice (for the sour cream) or Jim Lahey’s Roman-style pizza that you can make on a baking sheet.
How do you celebrate your child’s birthdays?
The one thing I always do is decorate the kitchen the night before so when Belle and Conor come downstairs they see balloons, streamers, gifts on the kitchen table and usually a big banner (this year I was in a rush at the party store and instead of buying a “Happy 10th Birthday” banner for Belle, I bought “Happy 1st Birthday”, which they thought was hilarious). I also decorate this giant chalkboard in the kitchen-eating area that I had asked a carpenter to make when we first moved into the house.
Best kid purchase/bang for your buck?
When Conor was little we bought him one of those Dutch wooden gliders called a Skut. The ideas is that you learn to balance in such a way that you can transition to riding a bike more easily and never need training wheels. Some people (my husband) were skeptical, but Conor loved that thing and literally glided everywhere, even to the bathroom. A year or so later, when he was about 2 1/2 he crashed it and broke the handlebars off. I immediately thought we had to get him another one because it was his favorite thing, but Tim was like, “let’s see if these Dutch bike people are legit.” He put Conor on a small two-wheeler I had bought at a rummage sale (thinking he’d use it in the way future), and with just one push, he was literally riding the bike. He was so small it looked crazy, like a squirrel was pedaling, but the Skut did the job. So worth it.
Any rules about TV/screens?
When my husband and I got married, maybe even before then, we made a pact that we would always be a no-video game family. It’s not like we’re hippies or anything—I love television—but we didn’t grow up playing them and I hate seeing kids staring at a DS in a restaurant or shooting zombies when they could be building a fort. Conor still plays the occasional Angry Birds on my phone, but that’s about it. As for tv—during the week it’s pretty much on lockdown, but on weekends we let them watch Saturday morning cartoons, which is when they sort of binge (I once read about how the tv programs you watch as a kid are your “cultural currency”, which I agree with). And we have a few programs we watch as a family. Randomly the kids’ favorite all-time show is the British program Top Gear. They absolutely love those guys. Belle also likes Love It or List It. If there is something kid-friendly on 60 Minutes we’ll record it to watch together (the recent segment on the Go Pro being a good example) and any Nature program (there was a terrific one on last week about Parrots…I know, it sounds like a snore, but it was amazing). Also, my daughter has been watching the Oscars since she was like 2.
What websites inspire you and for which parts of your life? Preferred social media is….?
I absolutely love Instagram. I feel like it was invented for me. I follow ridiculous people like supermodels and Miley Cyrus but I also follow a lot of food people—right now a Scandinavian home cook named Mrsmettedam is my favorite.
Sites: Into the Gloss (I’m not a beauty product fanatic, I just like how you get to peek inside people’s medicine cabinets), The Selby, GaranceDoré, Dinner A Love Story, Cup of Jo, The Chalkboard Magazine , Decor 8 and the Patagonia site, which has breathtaking videos of the great outdoors and adventure people doing things that are just bananas. I watch them with my kids, but tell them they’re never allowed to jump off a mountain wearing nothing but skis and a flying-squirrel suit.
I also have a bad habit (particularly in the winter) of trawling travel sites and booking fantasy vacations. I pick a destination (say Uruguay) and then search for maybe an eco-resort, check the room availability, and do everything but click the BUY button…I have fantasy-booked international travel for my family for years and we have taken some pretty amazing fantasy-vacations. I can waste hours of work-time doing this.
What’s a typical weekend like?
It really depends on the season. In the winter the kids take skating lessons on Saturdays so we normally go to free-skate first so we can all skate together (my husband is from Minnesota where knowing how to skate is part of your state citizenship) and then the kids have their lessons and then we go out for lunch (we each take turns picking where we go). Sunday mornings are the blissful triptych of coffee, newspaper, and pajamas. Good music playing in the kitchen, waffles for breakfast, the dog sitting in the window, the kids playing Legos. In the afternoon, I like for us all to go for a long walk somewhere with the dog. We have a beautiful park near us called Natirar that’s part of an old estate. That’s our go-to spot.
What’s the thing that always stays on your to-do list and never gets crossed off and nags at you?
Scrapbooks!! I bought these two giant Moleskin books (they are like the traditional reporter notebook with the elastic closure but enormous) to start pasting in all of the kids’ keepsakes but I haven’t done a thing. I keep the books and all the stuff to put in them—ticket stubs, art work, special birthday cards, skiing report cards, etc—in a big bin under my desk hoping for an extended snowy-holiday to get cracking.
Do you have a fail-safe beauty product or routine?
I moisturize like the dickens because my Belgian grandmother did and she had no wrinkles well into her 90s. Besides that I love Laura Mercier primer and tinted moisturizer and splurge on bottles of Weleda Pomegranate oil and use that as a body lotion. Once it gets cold and dry out, everyone in my family uses C.O. Bigelow Rose Salve on chapped lips, cuticles, etc. I think it can actually heal anything.
Best family trip?
For the past six years we’ve been going to the midcoast of Maine for two weeks every summer. We rent a house on the water outside of Rockland near the lobstering villages of Tenants Harbor and Owl’s Head. The first year we went was on a whim—I had never been to Maine but for some reason I felt like the state was calling me. We love everything about it: The fish and lobster that you can buy and cook the same day it’s caught, gorgeous views everywhere you look, and the lack of a “scene”. The journey there is as much a part of the experience as the actual stay. On the way up we stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for the night to break up the ride and have dinner at American Flatbread. The next day we stop in South Portland for the best bagel sandwich in the world at 158 Pickett Street Cafe. Then we drive coastal Route 1 north, stopping again in the town of Wiscasset (famous for Red’s lobster roll, but there’s always a massive line) to go to my favorite stationary store, Rock Paper Scissors. Once we’re settled at the house, the days are full of bracing swims, long lunches, berry picking, walks to a lobster shack that was turned into a used bookstore, board games, scrambling on the rocks, making fairy houses in the woods, and then maybe dinner on the water at the Cod End, Waterman’s Beach (they supply the lobster and ice cream, you bring the booze and cheese and crackers for appetizer), or if we’re feeling fancy, the amazing Primo’s. We also take day trips and always discover something new. Last summer it was Salt Water Farm and café in Rockport.
Any personal/parenting “a-ha” tips?
Buy socks in only one type and color. If one goes missing in the laundry you will always have a match for the other.
You feel your best when?
This is going to sound so yuppy-mommy-cliché—but after I stick a headstand in yoga class.
I keep a box of Sour Patch Kids in my car and I don’t share them.
Proudest moment in parenting?
Whenever my children show an act of kindness on their own without my prodding. The other day my son was pushing the cart at the supermarket, which I let him do with some trepidation (the running joke in the family is that he once ran over a baby while pushing the cart…which is actually kind of true, but the baby was fine), when an old woman tapped me not the shoulder in the produce section and said, “is that your son?” I’m ashamed to say that my first response was, “what did he do!?”. But then she said, “he’s a very good boy.” When I asked Conor what happened, he said that he had stopped the cart for her and said “after you”.
Best parenting advice you ever got?
To be in the moment. Childhood goes so quickly—one minute they’re sitting on your lap singing the alphabet song and the next they’re taller than you and have a driver’s license—that you have to be present and enjoy all of those little things (even the things that may seem tedious at the time) before you’re no longer the #1 person they want to hang with. I try and remember this especially while doing the mundane day-to-day things: when we’re rushing around in the car to-and-from activities, reading that fourth bedtime story, scrubbing feet at bath-time, scrambling in the morning before the bus comes, because I think these might be the times you miss most down the road.
You moved to New Jersey and into your childhood home several years ago. I think so many people are making decisions these days to leave the city (whatever that city may be to them) and find a more balanced, less stressed out, more affordable existence in more of a community. Can you speak to this?
About 4 years ago we moved from an apartment on the Upper East Side to an old house in New Jersey. The decision to make the move was due to several things: Our son had turned 2 and was literally climbing the walls of our apartment. He was sleeping in a crib in our bedroom and was quickly growing out of the situation and our daughter’s room was the apartment’s dining room. I had always thought our kids would be “city kids”, but a combination of the growing expense just to live, the stress over schools, the lack of space, and a craving for proximity to the great outdoors, changed my mind. We initially looked in towns closer to the city near where I grew up (South Orange and Maplewood) because Tim and I were both still commuting to work; but around the same time as we were looking my parents were separating after 40 years of marriage and were considering selling the house they lived in (not my childhood home, they moved there when I was in college). It was a beautiful 100-year old tudor with a big lawn and a separate guest cottage, far from the city but too charming to give up. My mom didn’t want to sell so we made a deal: We bought the house from my parents but kept my mom so she could still live in the house she loved and near her friends and neighbors. We figured it would be a grand experiment, if it didn’t work out we could always sell the house and go somewhere else. But we love small town life, I couldn’t imagine going back to the city. There were also the added benefits of having a grandmother in the house to help with taking care of the kids when I had to work or the trains were running late. Even though I no longer commute, my mom is essential to making our family work (I always joke that every woman needs a wife and she is mine!). She has my back with the kids, keeps the household in order (not my strong point) and best of all, the kids are growing up with their grandmother, something that is actually kind of old school until people started to move away from their families. The hardest part of the arrangement is remembering to communicate—what I call the airing of grievances—in a way that’s effective. If any of us are irritated about anything—say, the timeliness of the recycling going out—it’s best to say it in a timely and kind manner…rather than let things pile up and simmer so you end up in a passive aggressive huff.
What is the one recipe you would tell your friend who thinks she/he can’t cook, that is so easy/fast…in your book?
This is exactly the person we are trying to help with our cookbook! First, I would say start with mastering a basic and well-balanced vinaigrette (we have sections in Keepers called Salad 101 and Salad 201), using an empty mustard jar to combine the ingredients. Then move on to Spaghetti with 10-Minute Basic Tomato Sauce (you’ll never buy jarred sauce again), which you can make any night of the week and all of the ingredients can be stored in the pantry. Then move on to Roasted Chicken Breasts with Sweet Potatoes—because you’re making just the breasts, the chicken cooks more quickly than a whole one, and the sweet potatoes are places underneath the bird, so they soak up all of the delicious juices; you’re also using only one pan to make an entire meal.
Any tips for the holidays? How you deal with cooking through the holidays? What are your cheats?
I’d like to say that I have an iron tight system, but holiday cooking for me is always a bit chaotic, although I like to think of it is as a happy chaos. A few things I’ve learned along the way:
-My big cheat is that I like to mail order specialty treats to just have out over the holidays so there’s alway something special for people who stop by. Things like drunken figs, chocolate dipped orange peels, panettone. There’s also a great biscuit company in Charleston called Callie’s that mail orders and they are delicious for holiday brunching.
-Outsource when necessary (my mom is the pie maker in the family, so she is in charge of pies for Thanksgiving.
-Write your menu down in marker on a big piece of paper and tape it to a cupboard in the kitchen. It will help you keep track of what you’re making, and guests like to read it when they arrive.
-Incorporate singing whenever possible. Last year I made everyone sing all the verses of 12 Days of Christmas at the dining room table before we ate Christmas dinner.
Entertaining ideas/cheats for us?
If you make deviled egg and pigs-in-a blanket for any party, no matter how la-di-da, they will be the first thing to go.
Thanks so much Caroline…!! Readers you can keep up with Caroline on her blog Devil and Egg here, and you can follow Keepers on @KeepersCooks (FB, Twitter, Instagram)