Sunday, October 28, 2007

What They Will Become

On Saturday, I attended a conference for AP teachers at Occidental, organized by the College Board. College Board holds these conferences periodically to guide AP teachers towards helping high school students meet the high expectations of the university level. As a teacher, I find it a thrillingly challenging task to get juniors in high school to think and write at a level not usually achieved until college.

Right now, a quarter of the way through the school year, my students are scared. They enter my class and think that they can write, then get papers back from me that score so low on the AP rubric that they begin to wonder if they are the writers they thought they were after all. Some of them are so used to doing well, that they do not know how to respond when they don't get automatic As. These students have been passed along because they do their work and do not need the basic instruction of many of their peers, but they are unaware that they can grow too.

And grow they do. By the end of the year, my students have style. They can build arguments on strong logical foundations and appeal successfully to their audience's expectations and beliefs. Even better, by June, the kids can look at their work from the course of the year and chart their own progress. By June, these students know they can write.

The conference on Saturday gave me more tools to use with my students to help them exceed the goals that they are just learning to set. It helped me learn to set higher goals too, and guided me towards achieving them. With more workshops like these, more experience, and more reflective thought, I hope to become a teacher that can look back and chart her progress as she grew to be powerful AP teacher, as she grew to become a teacher who
knew she could teach.

Roasted Parsnips and Carrots with Rosemary

In the garden, the carrots have just sprung their lacy first "true-leaves" and the parsnips are finally beginning to emerge. (I tried a Pat Welsh experiment with them when I first planted both the carrots and the parsnips, but I think they would have done just as well had I planted them directly into loose soil and kept them consistently moist.) Like teeth, white and sharp, the garlic has pushed first leaves through the soil. In the markets, the first fall parsnips, plump and ivory, are beginning to arrive from farms in higher elevations, and local carrots are available year-round. This tasty side dish is a regular on my table, one that I look forward to making with carrots, garlic, and parsnips from my own garden. They'll get there.

Roasting the carrots and parsnips with rosemary highlights their natural sweetness and the citrus notes of the parsnip. Adding a necessary depth to the dish, garlic cloves melt into spreadable goodness. Before I roast the vegetable mixture, I add a teaspoon of caramelized honey to accentuate the browned flavors. (Caramelized honey is less sweet than regular honey, and if you are able to find it at your local green market or natural foods store, I recommend giving it a try. Its bittersweet floral flavor works well in both savory and sweet dishes.) However, if you cannot find caramelized honey, regular honey would be just as nice in the dish, or you could omit the honey altogether, as the vegetables are already nicely sweet.

Serves 2-3 as a sizable side dish.

You will need:
2-3 large parsnips, washed well and peeled
4-5 carrots, washed well and peeled
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed and roughly chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled, but left whole
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
salt to taste

To roast the veggies:
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chop the carrots across the widths into 1" chunks. If your parsnips are as large as mine were, you'll need to quarter them, then cut those quarters into 1" long chunks. Try to get the veggie pieces approximately the same size.

Toss all the veggies, garlic, and herbs into a 9x12 roasting pan. Drizzle the olive oil and honey over all and salt liberally then use your hands to mix the ingredients in the roasting pan, so that each vegetable chunk gets a slick of oil, salt, honey, and rosemary. Spread the veggies around into as close to a single layer as you can get them.

Place the pan in the oven. At 25 minutes, check to see if the veggies are roasted to tenderness. If not, give them 5-10 more minutes, checking occasionally, until they are browned slightly and tender inside.

Friday, October 26, 2007

I Want to Bake Everyone Cookies

I began blogging over a year ago as a means of keeping accountable with my writing. I needed a place where, if I didn't write, I wouldn't have an audience, and since I knew I needed an audience to keep writing, I had to keep writing. (Circular reasoning I know, but it worked for me.) I needed to write in the first place because I teach writing, and I'm a firm believer that one must do to teach.

An unexpected byproduct of blogging has been discovering the worldwide community of kind, thoughtful people in which I have found myself. I've made friends through this writing experiment, friends who have checked in on me in the last week to make sure I'm okay.

I am okay. Thank you so much for checking. You've gladdened my heart in many ways for thinking about my well-being, even from so far away. I wish I could bake each of you a dozen cookies, your favorite variety.

I live in an area of Southern California that has not been directly threatened by fires this past week. Fires circled Los Angeles to the north, east, and south, but the central basin and its immediate suburbs are, for the most part, intact and not on fire. Evidence from the fires is everywhere though: soot has settled on the blue broccoli leaves, everything smells burnt, and our mountains, the landforms that serve as a compass to us all, are smudged with smoke.

At first I thought this week's sunrises and sunsets were disturbingly beautifully in the midst of all the destruction that encircles us here in the LA area. They seemed wrong--insensitive and mocking.

As this week progressed, my opinion of the skies changed. They don't mock; instead, they remind us how much we don't control. They also remind us that we need to take care of them, for on them we rely. I hope these fires and these skies serve as instigators for widespread change in our attitudes towards the world in which we live.

Tomorrow's forecast is hopeful: cloudy skies and gentle sprinkles.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Go Tos

I've seen a rash of it around lately. It sneaks up on my students and renders them heavy-lidded and drooly after lunch. It infects the undereyes of my peers, making them darken and sag. Friends whine more than usual, coughing up their versions of the disease. My own movements are slowed, weighted down by too much to do and too little time to do it, with little opportunity to catch up. To quote The Red Hot Chili Peppers, "I'm getting sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Yup. It's the October Blues.

October and March are the two most dreaded months in the school calendar, for they are break-free and loooooooooooong. Right now I'm caught in what seems like the unending month, panting for November with its two mini-vacations and an even more refreshing vacation promised in December. So, instead of trudging through much writing (for tonight, it really does feel like a trudge in my state of mind), I'll offer a photo-essay instead. This is a photo-essay of no-brainers, things from my repertoire that require little thought and produce great pleasure. This is a brief list of my Go Tos when I'm out of other ideas.

Looking for something edible, floral, reliable, and downright pretty for the winter vegetable garden? My Go To: Violas.

When I'm searching for a fascinating place to bring out-of-towners , I know exactly where to take them. My Go To: The Huntington Library and Gardens (especially during the Southland Orchid Show and Sale) .

And when I need a reliable, yummy trick to woo coworkers to yet another meeting, I have this Go To: Brandon Fishbine's Grandmother's Oatmeal Cookies.

This recipe comes from one of the most entertaining (yet least well-organized) cookbooks I've ever owned, The Ex-Boyfriend Cook Book: They Came, They Cooked, They Left, by Erin Ergenbright and Thisbe Nissen. I found the book on a discount rack a few years ago, bought it for a buck, and have been giggling at it ever since. Not every recipe in this book is a winner, and if you do find one you like, good luck finding it again, because there is no table of contents or index! But (and that is a big but indeed), it is full of fun stories, collages, and it gave me this recipe, which has turned out to have the best proportions I've ever discovered for good ol' oatmeal raisin cookies. I've tweaked the ingredients slightly to fit my palate (and added flax meal because I add flax meal to almost everything I bake); however, the basic recipe is from the unlikely, but happily-found source.

You will need:
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tablespoon flax meal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup raisins
2 cups raw rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
1 cup broken walnut halves

To make the cookies:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, salt, spices, and flax meal. Set aside.

Beat together the butter and the sugars until they have increased in volume slightly and thoroughly incorporated into each other. Add the egg and milk and beat again until the mixture is completely homogeneous; then, add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and stir until combined. Fold in the raisins, oats, and nuts.

Use a large spoon to dole out balls of dough (with diameters of about 1 1/2 inches), spaced about 3 inches apart, onto a Silpat or parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Bake for 12 minutes, or until toasty-brown on the edges and peaks of the cookies. Remove from the oven, cool on racks, and keep in a sealed container at room temperature.

These babies won't last long.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Local October Color

Three weeks ago, I complained about the rain, but now that it feels like it is the right time for it to rain, I can't get enough of it. Last night, while sheets of water slid off the tile roof and onto the driveway below in huge splats, I smiled. I didn't care if it woke me up. Nope. I was just happy that the rain poured hard enough to wash of smoggy leaves and brighten up our mountains.

More times than I can count, I've heard people argue that Southern California just doesn't compare with other places with seasons. Seasons, they claim, don't appear in Southern California. Perhaps they haven't spent much time here or have built their opinions entirely on Hollywood images, or maybe they are just so in love with the beauties of their own homes that they are blind to those elsewhere, but folks who claim Southern California doesn't have seasons are wrong, straight-out-dead-wrong.

Fall here isn't greeted with waves of brilliant-hued trees. Here, it is a shift in the smell of the air, when everything is perfumed with a haunting sage edge that reminds us all that the days will continue to shorten. Heavy pods fall from trees, some full of flaming red magnolia seeds, others hollow rattles that could appear as musical instruments in some half-remembered society. As arroyos refill, the mountains begin their transition from gold to green. And while some species are throwing off their glorious harvest, others are just beginning again; finally, after being held back by heat and dry weather, a gardener can plant seeds again and see them sprout mightily, powerfully shoving aside damp soil.

The rain turns simple plants into garden jewels.

The change in weather sparks a change in attitude. Usually, Southern Californians are a forward-looking folk, but when October rolls around we begin reminiscing. Halloween isn't as much a time for ghouls and witches as it is a time for family memories and funny skeletons. All over, cities and subarbs alike begin to reflect, and sugar skulls and marigolds flank alters commemorate dead loved ones for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos.

In my garden, mid-October means the first fall harvest comes in. Two weeks ago, I planted the first round of winter crops, and by now, many of them are up in the thinning stage. To allow the plants to grow comfortably, with as few hindrances as possible, it is essential that a gardener thin out plants that are crowding the strongest specimens. (ECG calls this unnatural selection.) My Golden Ball turnips have come in so mightily that it seems as if every single seed I planted has germinated--today they were in desperate need of thinning to free up some stretching room.

Now, I've heard that some folks compost the seedlings that they thin from their rows, but as for me, I eat them.

Seedlings are the mildest versions of the adult plants they will become. My Golden Ball turnip seedlings were sweet little crunchy greens, free from the fibers they'll later develop in their leaves. Arugula seedlings are nutty without heat, lettuce seedlings are sweet and tender, and baby onions don't ever overwhelm. Consider tossing rutabaga, broccoli, kale, tatsoi and other cruciferous seedlings into your salad. Did you plant your beets or chard too thickly? No worries: the thinned seedlings will brighten up a salad with their salty-sweet succulence.

I'm looking forward to many riffs on the seedling salad theme in the weeks to come, but today's version started me off on such a high note that I've got to share its simple melody with you.

Turnip Seedling and Apple Salad
Serves two as an appetizer salad and one as a meal

You will need:
At least two cups of very well-washed turnip seedlings
5 or so onion seedlings, cleaned
One large apple
1/4 cup broken fresh walnuts
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

To make the salad:
Cut the apple in half, core it, and with a mandoline or sharp knife, thinly slice it from top to bottom. Take the pretty heart-shaped slices and pave the perimeter of a serving plate with them, slightly overlapping them like shingles. Toss the onion seedlings and turnip seedlings together and place the fluffy greens in the center of the plate. Sprinkle the walnuts over all.

In a small jar or cup, mix the mustard with the sherry vinegar until uniformly combined. While whisking, drip in the olive oil and continue whisking until the mixture has emulsified. Whisk in salt and pepper to taste, and drizzle the mixture over the salad plate, making sure to get a little bit everywhere. Serve and enjoy.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Growing Babies and Love to Share

Last Sunday, I planted garlic and many of my winter crops in my vegetable garden. By Wednesday, I already had several types of sprouts.

And by today, there were many more.

Baby vegetables are almost as cute to me as baby animals. I've been dragging friends through the garden, pointing out the beet and lettuce sprouts, crooning, my voice high and juvenile, "Look at how cuuuuuuuuuuute they are."

I'll be rotating winter crops in and out of various parts of the garden as they mature; as well, I'm starting some vegetables at different times to allow for a steady stream of produce, rather than an overwhelming glut of green followed by a dry spell. Because they must be kept evenly damp for up to (and sometimes beyond) two weeks to even get them to sprout, a very difficult task here in Southern California, carrot family members are notoriously difficult to start: I've held off planting my carrot family seeds (parsnips included) since I wanted to try an experiment that Pat Welsh, author of Southern California Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide, recommends to start these persnickity seeds.

She suggests mixing enough seeds for the anticipated row with a handful of damp peat moss on a paper plate.

She then advises to stick the whole plate in a self-zipping plastic bag, freeze the package for twenty-four hours, then place the plate on a warm electronic device to provide electronic heat. So now, in my house, the DVD player and Tivo are serving double duty as seed incubators.

According to Welsh, the seeds should sprout within three days, and I should then sprinkle them directly where I'd like them to grow. I'll let my readers know if it works for me.

On another note, I've collected the seed that I had air dried from my gorgeous display of Nigella damascena that I grew for color and interest in my summer garden.

Nigella damascena, also known as Love-in-a-Mist and Devil-in-a-Bush (interpret those names however you wish--I know my mind has gone all sorts of places with them), is a fascinating plant. The flowers are framed by soft, spiny fronds and appear in shades of blue, pink, and white.

After blooming, nearly every flower develops a ballooning seed capsule that stands erect above the bush.

Some people cut the seed capsules and dry them for flower arrangements.

Nigella damascena is a close relative of Nigella sativa, the spice commonly found in Eastern European and Indian dishes, known by many names--black cumin, kalonji, black onion, etc. Some people, when unable to find kalonji seeds, have substituted Nigella damascena seeds. Although I don't intend to use the seeds I have for cooking, of course I had to give them a taste . They taste fruity, sort of a grape meets oregano flavor, quite pleasant.

After collecting, I have found that I have quite a few more seeds than I need for next year. If you find this plant as fascinating as I do, and you'd like me to send you 15-20 seeds to plant in the spring, send me an email with your address, and I'll share my bounty with you.

And, tonight, I have one more quick little secret to share. As my extra time has clearly been spent with my hands in the dirt, I haven't been applying my creativity quite as frequently to my kitchen. In short, I've been the barest-of-bare-bones cook. However, sometimes simplicity yields its own rewards. Craving something for dessert after a yummy (but quick) pasta meal, I scavenged my kitchen for something that would fit the bill. This is what I came up with, a dessert so easy, quick, and delicious that ECG and I scarfed it up before I could get a good picture.

Gingered Cream with Pears
This is hardly a recipe, just guidelines for a fall treat, sweet and juicy with pears and warmed with the bite of ginger.

You will need:
Enough heavy whipping cream (organic, of course!) to have a scant 1/4 cup whipped cream for each serving
1 juicy-ripe Bartlett pear for each pair of people you are serving
A chunk or two of candied ginger for each person you are serving, finely minced

To make the dessert:
Cut each pear in half and scoop out the seeds. Slice thinly and arrange each half in a fan-fashion on a dessert plate.

Whip the cream until it makes soft peaks. Stir in most of the minced candied ginger. Scoop dollops of whipped cream on the pears on each plate. Sprinkle the remaining candied ginger over all.

Easy. Good. Now go lick some beaters.