Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Work, Kids, and Women Entrepreneurs

Jason just sent me an article from NY Times on why women make such good entrepreneurs even when they have to balance work and family. It brought up all the usual reasons: women are good at multitasking, women are more compassionate, blah, blah, blah... I sometimes get annoyed at these stories because they try to make women look more angelic than they are in real life. This article was more realistic and did mention that women can get just as power hungry as men in the workplace and can take their aggression out on their co-workers even more than men do.

But I think the discussion completely missed the real reason why women often start successful businesses. I believe it's our willingness to start small. Very small. All those start ups that get millions of dollars of venture capital because they want to revolutionize this industry or that industry? Those are started by men. The women interviewed by the NY Times reporter for the article were starting businesses like nanny agencies, and renting “stork announcement” yard signs for new parents. These businesses don't look like much at first, but they are usually profitable from day one because the expenses are so low and before you know it, they can turn into much larger enterprises, like the Tupperware or Mary Kay empires.

Most men (and the academic / corporate culture) encourage people to think big. And most successful women entrepreneurs know how to think small. I don't mean "small" in the negative sense of the word -- just the opposite. When you think small, you make sure you can sustain your business at all stages of development. Besides, there is always room for growth. Could it be that this philosophy comes from women's innate desire to nurture children? On one hand, a new baby can't do much -- no talking, thinking, or walking yet. On another hand, she can't really get herself into much trouble (I am a little scared of the time when Sammy starts to crawl and walk, by the way). But by the time she'll be able to do those big people things, I hope to be more prepared for them. At least that's my theory, but my knowledge of bringing up children is limited to 3 weeks for now.

Why am I writing about women and business all of a sudden? Because I have a baby girl and a toddler of a business. Helen's Kitchen has really taken off since I started it in 2005. By the end of 2006, I managed to quit my software job and teach cooking classes full-time. Obviously, I am taking a break at the moment, but it's time to think about starting to teach again since I have to post the class schedule and start registering people at least 2 months before the classes start. I am planning to start small (that's my strategy with everything in life). On September 15th, I'll start teaching once a week and gradually add more classes after Sammy starts daycare.

Just the thought of all this is scaring me to death at the moment. When will I go shopping, make hand-outs, and clean up the kitchen? When will I process all the registrations? Jason will take care of Sammy while I am teaching, but what if she cries? What if she'll need me and I won't be there? How will I survive taking her to daycare for the first time? It all seems completely overwhelming at the moment. But so was posting the schedule on-line by the end of July. The first 2 weeks, I barely checked my e-mail and just the thought of processing class registrations gave me chills. But here we are: the schedule is up, I am still alive, even after registering 12 people in 2 days, and Sammy is doing well (she loved our first playgroup meeting today :). I did have to reply to lots of registration requests while pumping milk for my little sous-chef (thank god for hands-free pumps!), but women are supposed to be good at multitasking, right?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

1 in 2 million servings

One of my students just sent me an excellent article from NY Times about eating sushi during pregnancy. Finally -- a real analysis of the risks from a major publication! Steven Shaw wisely points out that if you take raw and partly cooked shellfish out of the equation, the risk of falling ill from eating raw fish (tuna, salmon, bass, etc) is 1 in 2 million servings. The risk from eating cooked chicken is 1 in 25,000. No, there is no typo here. You are actually safer ordering sushi than chicken. This is due to cross-contamination risk (raw ingredients coming in contact with cooked ones), and this risk is unavoidable when you eat out, and even eat in if you are not careful.

Monday, July 23, 2007

First Sandwich, BBQ, and Food Shopping Trip

"Guess whom I brought!" I told my butcher. He leaned over the counter and looked at my much smaller belly. "The baby is here?!" he said. "She sure is and this is her very first food shopping trip," I replied pointing to the stroller. Actually, it was second, now that I think about it. She came with us to the farmer's market on saturday. She also went out for her first lunch, BBQ, and coffee this weekend. There she is in her car seat -- ready to explore the world.

* * *

This nap's activity is blogging. Next nap's will be cooking. I found some huge zucchini at the farmer's market, and today Samantha and I picked up some ground beef and stuff for the sauce. I am making my Mom's stuffed zucchini. It's one of my favorite Russian summer dishes. If I'll have a bit of quiet time over the next couple of days, I'll try to post her recipe.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Feeding Samantha and us

You know you are a geek when your one week old child has a blog. I must say that it was Jason's idea. I was way too overwhelmed the first week to write anything. But I am finally getting into a routine. It looks something like this.
  • Feed Sammy
  • Change a diaper
  • Feed Sammy some more (she likes a little dessert after a diaper change). In fact, she likes multi-course meals. Sometimes we end up going through 4 breasts in one feeding. I mean she'll eat some on the right, then take a 5 minute break. Then some on the left. Another break. Then right again, and left again.
  • Swaddle Sammy
  • Put her in the crib
  • 5 minutes later Sammy is crying because she managed to unswaddle herself and can't fall asleep.
  • Reswaddle her, rock her, and put her to sleep again.
  • Phew -- try to eat and drink to get ready for the next feeding.
  • Rinse and repeat
Today was going so well, that I even managed to write a little post about breast feeding on Sammy's blog. If that's a topic near and dear to your heart, check it out. But I assume most of you care more about what Jason and I have been eating than what Sammy's been eating. So here is a little update.

For the first week and a half, we are eating amazingly well. A lot of it is thanks to wonderful friends, and Jason's willingness to go food shopping and help in the kitchen.

The hospital food was horrible (no salt, vegetables cooked beyond recognition, overcooked fish and meat, and unbelievable amount of mayo). But Zia Gaia and Zio Jerome (zia and zio are aunt and uncle in Italian) came to visit us the day after Sammy was born with prosciutto wrapped pears, zucchini hummus rolls, pasta, carrot fennel salad, roasted salmon, fruit tarts and champagne! I've never felt so pampered in my life :) Maybe I should give birth more often...

A few days later, I got an e-mail from Genieve signed "Your pregnant friend." That's to remind me who she was because we just met in a cafe a few days before I gave birth. Oh, but how could I forget! Genieve is due in a few months and we hit it right off talking about pregnancy, babies, food, and France. I couldn't believe that someone I've only met twice would be so kind as to leave food by my door. It couldn't come at a better time since we were in the middle of a little breast feeding crisis that day and the last thing on my mind was what to feed Jason and myself.

Diana and Tse Wei of Love + Butter and Off the Bone blog have offered to bring food too. I feel almost guilty accepting their help now since we are getting back to normal, so I am taking a rain check till another crisis which I am sure will arise earlier or later.

What have we been eating otherwise? Pretty good stuff:
  • Tuna sashimi (courtesy of Carl at the New Deal Fish Market). On our first day from the hospital, Jason stopped by to tell Carl the good news. Carl insisted on sending him home with a gift of a gorgeous piece of big-eye tuna. The easiest meal for nursing moms: slice, eat, and enjoy! All you folks concerned about me eating tuna while nursing, please don’t waste your effort on warning me. I’ve looked into this issue in great detail and came to a conclusion that one piece of tuna every few weeks will do way less damage than the “nutritious” food given to us at the hospital.
  • Broiled bluefish and bass. Best 10 minute dinners. Jason cooked us a large pot of lentils and we’ve been having it as sides combined with some roasted or sautéed veggies.
  • Braised short ribs with noodles. I had some left in the freezer from BC era (that’s “before children”)
  • Seafood and corn bisque. I had that one in the freezer from BC era too. After defrosting, we added some canned crab meat, frozen corn, cream, and ta-da – looks like we are having a fancy meal.
  • Burgers – that’s the one thing I didn’t eat during pregnancy. A medium-rare burger. We opened a bottle of Vietti Barolo that we brought back from Italy 2 years ago to celebrate Sammy’s one week birthday. Of course, she woke up demanding food as soon as I put the burgers on the grill and there went the relaxing dinner :) But Jason and I did have a quiet and awfully good glass of wine once she was fed, changed, and quiet again.
  • Beat risotto with Swiss chard – Jason picked up our farm share on Sunday which made side dishes very easy for this whole week. All we have to do is stop by the fishmonger or butcher to pick up some protein. But since the local fish shop was closed yesterday, we just had a vegetarian meal. It was a nice change after burgers.
That’s all the news from Lake Wobegon (Fresh Pond in our case), where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Sous-Chef Has Arrived!

Samantha Lyra Rennie was born on July 7, 2007 at 7:07 EST. She weighed in at exactly 3 kilograms (6 lbs., 9.8 oz.). She and mommy are learning how to breastfeed together.

-- Daddy (Jason)

Update (7/12/07): Added link to Samantha's blog.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

America's Test Kitchen (behind the scenes)

Do they really make 250 cheesecakes or 300 steaks? And does Christopher Kimball wear a bow tie every day?

Yes and yes!

A few weeks ago, a chat window from Jason popped up on my machine. "Would you like a tour of Cook's?" he wrote from his office. I was speechless for a moment or so (or is it chatless?) "Cook's? You mean, THE Cook's?" I've learned to never underestimate the power of the geek industry, but how could he possibly get me a tour of Cook's?

"You know how we hired this lady to do our focus group at Stylefeeder?" said Jason. "Well, turns out she works for Cook's Illustrated. When I mentioned to her how much you love the magazine, she said she'd be glad to show you around the test kitchen."

* * *
I was waiting for Melissa (my tour guide) at the Cook's reception area when I saw a tall gentleman in a bow tie walk down the stairs and greet another guest. It took me a second to register that this was Christopher Kimball. Seeing him in color and moving was like watching one of the characters from a Dr. Seuss book come to life. The only images of him that I've seen were the pencil drawings in Cook's magazine. The backwards person that I am, I don't watch TV, and have never seen America's Test Kitchen cooking show.

In a few minutes, Melissa came down and led me to the kitchen. She was really sweet and just as food and travel obsessed as I am.

"Can someone please taste these triple chocolate cookies for me?" asked one of the cooks as we walked in. No one wanted to volunteer. It wasn't surprising considering that the counters were packed with sugar cookies, pistachio cakes, spice cakes, and something called Texas sheet cake (I've never heard of this one before -- it looked kind of like brownies). I guess I must have gotten there on a sweet day. It was late in the afternoon and all those poor cooks were probably baking and tasting this stuff all day.

The space felt like a cross between a commercial and a home kitchen. The enormous amount of space and some of the equipment was far beyond any home kitchen, but the pretty wood cabinets and windows made it feel less industrial (most of the commercial kitchens that I've seen didn't have windows). I was trying to figure out what was so unusual about a dozen or so test cooks deep in thought over their projects. In spite of their chef's whites, they didn't look like the cooks I was used to seeing in restaurants. They were too calm and not sweaty. I am used to people in chef's whites moving at a frantic pace with sweat rolling down their brow. These guys had spotless uniforms, and instead of juggling 7 sauté pans, they were juggling 7 surveys on the different aspects of cookies. On a closer examination, they looked more like scientists in lab coats than chefs in whites.

That's one of the reasons I love Cook's Illustrated. They are willing to take a scientific approach to such a culturally and emotionally loaded field. Some people might find their approach dry -- there are no romantic stories about fishermen in Marseilles or someone's first trip to Rome. There is just a description of characteristics the test cook wanted to achieve in the dish and procedures they followed in their experiments to reach that goal. Since my interest in food is more epicurean than cultural, I find this approach fascinating and don't mind giving up some traditions for the sake of taste. Take the Cook's recent article on steaks, for example. It has none of the testosterone, flame, smoke, or sizzle of a raw hunk of meat hitting the grill that we associate with a good steak. What does it have? A very low heat and a thermometer, and yes -- a little sizzle in the end. I don't know of any cuisine that cooks their steaks this way, and yet, it is the best steak I've ever had. Would it be possible to come up with this idea in less than 300 steaks. I am pretty sure it would be. But it probably does take 300 steaks to make sure there isn't an even better method.

When I mentioned the steak story to Melissa, she said, "Oh yes, Kenji Alt did that one." "Is he around?" I asked. "I think we'll see him," she said. And sure enough -- 5 minutes later, she was introducing me to Kenji. I am not sure if Kenji felt like talking about beef after cooking 300 steaks, but I just couldn't help it. I was so excited to meet my steak hero that I tried to ask him all those things about beef that still puzzle me (grass-fed vs. grain-fed, dry-aged vs wet-aged vs not aged, etc). Kenji didn't have any empirical data on this stuff since it's not Cook's territory to get into such specialty ingredients, and he was reluctant to give me any information not supported by proper testing. But surely a guy who cooked 300 steaks had an opinion. Before Melissa dragged me away and rescued poor Kenji, I managed to learn that he does like dry-aged beef when he cooks at home and that the Whole Foods by MGH in Boston carries it at only moderately high (vs. truly insane) prices.

When it was finally time to go, Melissa loaded me with goodies (a few books, DVDs, and a spice cake). I couldn't thank her enough for her hospitality and generosity. It was like spending an afternoon in a cooking Disneyland.

The DVDs are still sitting on my coffee table (what is it with me and TV?), but the books have kept me nicely occupied. Oh, and that spice cake with cream cheese frosting -- it was awesome! They must be in the later stages of testing on that one. I am not normally a cake person, but I would actually like a recipe. I guess I'll have to wait for the January 2008 issue -- that's the one they are working on right now.

I wish you all a Happy and Yummy 4th of July! And I realize that it's one of those holidays that calls for a grill (even if there is a better way to cook a steak ;)