Monday, December 18, 2006


It's wintertime here in Pasadena, which means I am blessed with day after day with cleansing sunshine, bracing wind, and brooding mountains. A typical Pasadena winter day looks like this:

The Meyer lemons and clementines drip with juice, and the farmers' market is flush with them. While the dates have reached their caramel-y state of perfection, the new crop of walnuts and pecans has just arrived; the combination means that it is time to bake. But even as the winter harvest of goodies lures me towards the kitchen, something very special is happening outside, something even more special than the glorious mountains.

The citrus trees are blooming. The air near a lemon, orange, or any member of that happy family pulses with the cleanest and most cheerful scent that exists on this planet.

All of this natural and culinary wonder begins right now, right when I'm in my mad rush to get grading, planning, and related paperwork done before winter break. I have a daily debate over whether to spend my time in the kitchen or outside, when I really need to have my butt glued to a chair in a coffeeshop with a stack of papers in front of me.

I have hope though. It's only four days until break. Four days.

The mountains have lasted millenia: I think they can wait for me for four days. The citrus trees, though more transitory, have some time left in them too. It's going to be okay.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What Works

This teacher is a hypocrite.

I haven’t done what I’ve been asking my students to do. I haven’t been, as my students say, when they try to take my words and make them their own, “metacognating.”

I haven’t been taking the time to reflect on my own life and recognize where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. I haven’t been talking to God. Instead, I have been, as you’ve clearly seen in some of my more recent posts, unhappy. For a long time now, I’ve been complaining about how busy I am and how I can’t do all the things I want to do; however, I finally got the kick in the head I needed to get myself together and realize that, even if I had 36 hours in the day, I’d never have enough time to do all that I think I need to do. I’m not one to covet things. Not me, no. I covet verbs.

Sitting down with CD a few weeks ago helped me remember my past and where I was twenty -odd years ago, living on a little ranch, loving my horse, and playing in the treehouse with my brother. Those memories sparked others of high school in Minnesota, where my snot froze as my friends and I secretly sledded down the ski slopes after the parks closed, and of college in DC, where I met people who would change my life and worked with the crazy (Mafioso?) Italians at the florist. I remembered starting to teach ten years ago, and how each day was its own plot structure, complete with conflict, rising action, and one hell of a climax. These memories were fascinating to relive, but they still weren’t enough to get my brain off of its lazy ass and start doing some real thinking.

The spark came from my former roommate EH. She stopped by for a surprise visit the other day, bringing me persimmons and life updates, and we went for coffee. Over Mexican chocolate mochas at Zona Rosa’s, she told me that she planned on taking up one of my habits: regular walks. She said, “I think that your walks are one of the ways that you celebrate Sabbath and enjoy God’s creation.”

Well, shit. They sure were, back when I took my regular walks.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I would walk at least three times a week. There were no short jaunty strolls. On my most frequent route, I would walk from my house on 24th and I to the Capitol (that’s 3.2 miles for those who were counting), run up the steps of the building, then walk back. I would always go alone, walking fast. Even though I walked fast, I still moved slow enough to see everything. I saw the White House elms’ umbrellas start as lime green lace, turn to emerald capes, dingy yellow blankets, and finally black scraggly calligraphy against the sky. On these walks, I sometime listened to music, but more often listened to the noise of my brain. I’d start out with arguments in my head. I’d yell at people I was angry at and think of all the ways I could prove them wrong. I would work myself up in a fit of fury and pound out my frustration the on concrete squares of sidewalk. Then, perhaps as a way to calm myself, I’d start to pray. I’d list long needs and want for myself and the people I knew; eventually, I’d get to world concerns, but frankly, I’d get bored of those pretty quickly. Then I would stop asking and just be quiet. After a while, I wouldn’t think about much of anything. I’d have actual chunks of time where my brain would be completely serene. Sometimes, on the way home, I’d have ideas about how to deal with whatever crap was making me frustrated, but most of the time, I wouldn’t even worry about it anymore. Whatever angers I had started with stuck like old gum to the dirty sidewalks and rarely followed me home.

I continued this practice for many years here in California. I walked around the Rose Bowl, through Old Town, among angular Craftsman homes. I’ve worked through most of my life’s worst issues this way, and (six or seven years ago) even wrote a self-conscious poem about it:

What To Do
What to do when I am
so sad that even my




Walk to see the random secrets of
the seasons creep up or
settle into the crevices of a city.

Walk to see the morning routines of
bartenders and waiters,

arriving at the lonely restaurants,

leaning against the bar,

drinking orange juice

and talking quietly over breakfasts.

Walk to be overwhelmed by the
clean scent of eight old magnolia trees

trapped amid the geometry of buildings.

Walk to feel the rhythm of my steps fall into
the cars

jutting left elbows and

sliding out pieces of songs,

the cracked sidewalk,
and the parrots squawking

so happily in this strange,

foreign city.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good poem.

But here I am now, not currently practicing the type of meditation that I know has worked for years for me. I walked a couple weeks ago, the day after EH reminded me that it was something that I did, but I haven’t walked alone since then.

Girlfriend has got to get it together.

I’ve been working too hard and too long on the elliptical machine, pumping away, working up a sweat, but never getting anywhere. It’s time for me to lace up those walking shoes. I know what works. It’s time I get to work making it work.

Lemon Curd that Works

My friend RWW asked for this recipe the other day, and while writing it down for him, I remembered how well the combination of five ingredients comes together. It’s simple, it’s delicious, and it works every time. In fact, it’s worked for over 300 years, as this particular recipe was first recorded in 1682. To make it, use the best lemons and butter you can get your hands on. I usually use the Meyer lemons from R and SWW’s tree. Wowsers, those are good lemons.

You will need:

The finely grated rind and juice of two excellent lemons
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs (remove whatever white strands you see around the yolk)
1 cup of unsalted butter, cut into chunks

To make the lemon curd:

Hand-beat the eggs together well in the top of a double boiler, mix in the sugar, then add all the other ingredients. Place the double boiler over medium heat then stir the mixture consistently, with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. The butter chunks will melt into the mixture as it heats. Cook until the mixture reaches the consistency of a thick cream sauce, and remove immediately from heat. Pour the mixture into jars to cool.

The lemon curd lasts for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator, but I think you’ll eat it well before it might spoil. Spread it on toast, between the layers of a white cake, on eggy crepes or craggy English muffins. You’ll find you’ll want it all the time.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

I'm UP!

Spoiler alert: the reader will not find a recipe at the end of this post.

Last Monday, CD sat at my dinner table, and I began to remember something about myself that I had forgotten.

I first met CD when I was ten years old. Technically, that means that he has known me for longer than anyone outside my immediate family, and I am sure that he can remember my hair parted down the middle, barely held in place by brightly colored barrettes that matched my corduroys. I remember him unable to hold still, sporting stonewashed Z Cavariccis that hung on his bony frame, and spouting crazily brilliant ideas. He was a slob: his Banana Republic t-shirt always had a bit of shmuts somewhere on it. Although he nearly drove our teachers out of their minds, he kept me constantly entertained with his fierce wit and unorthodox perspective. In junior high, we encountered the terrors of pubescence together, and in high school, loyally fought each other's battles. We were the best of friends for a long time, for a solid five years, until I moved halfway across the country to the frozen tundra of Minnesota. We tried to keep in touch. He even visited me one summer for a week or so, but distance is awfully hard for teenagers to overcome. So, after a few years of thousands of miles and infrequent phone calls, we lost track of each other.

We didn't know each other for a long time.

About three years ago, my mother was working in the kitchen of her New Mexico home. She had the TV on for background noise and she heard something she hadn't heard for years--CD's voice. She rushed out of the kitchen to the living room to check, and there he was, all grown up, on TV. When she called to tell me, her voice shook with excitement. "You wouldn't believe who I saw on TV," she said. And when she told me, I hardly did. I looked him up on the channel's website, happily finding his work email address there, and I emailed him. He replied within an hour, and since then, it's like our friendship never had a vacation. I've stayed at his home, he at mine, we've met each other's friends and lovers, and this year, we even shared a holiday together.

But back to this Monday. We sat at my kitchen table, under the ceiling mural he inspired, and ate Moroccan chicken I had made because I knew he'd love it. We caught up over the few months it had been since we'd last seen each other, laughed at his jokes (he's much funnier than I am), and enjoyed the comforts of knowing each other. When I sat with him on Monday, I saw the ten year old CD inside the thirty-one year old. He still rolls his eyes exactly the same way he used to, and most of his couscous ended up in his lap, rather than in his mouth. But he's different than he used to be as well; experience has centered him, and time has given him exceptional compassion, much more than he had as a child. He isn't exactly the person that I expected him to become when we were ten--in fact, he is much more than what I expected. Always an impressive person, he is now remarkable, and I am so proud of how well he overcame the many obstacles life presented him.

My growing understanding of CD has been underscored by watching the Seven UP! series. On Friday, suffering the nigglings of a cold and a food hangover, all I could do was lie on the couch and watch TV. I never just lie on the couch and watch TV. I can't sit still very long, and when I watch something for longer than a half-an-hour, I inevitably end up multitasking. But, on Friday, I couldn't do anything more, and therefore decided to at least make watching TV worthwhile. My friend SM had recently given me the series, so I put the first DVD in the player and became so engaged I had to watch every installment. Midnight yesterday found me still on the couch, watching people grow old in very different ways.

For those who aren't familiar with it, I'll give a little bit of background. The Seven UP series documents the lives of 14 very different British children, beginning in 1963 when the children are seven, and it tests the Jesuit premise, "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." Every seven years, a film crew and interviewer return to each of the documentary's subjects, and try to get at the heart of who each is and where each is going at that point in time. It is like time-lapse photography of the personality. The series begins with the clear intention of proving that environment and early opportunity shape what a person becomes. What the series proves, however, at least up to age forty-two--the last episode which I have seen--is that life is not nearly as predictable as that.

What fascinates me about the show is this: where one comes from isn't necessarily where one will end up. Granted, a child's early upbringing certainly does affect where that child goes in life, but of the fourteen children the series follows, only one pursues without straying his early trajectory. Every other subject holds at least one major surprise; one subject has a life that holds surprises within surprises.

The second point that the show proves, without seeming to intend to, is the effect a spouse has on the success and contentment of an individual. When I say success, I mean it in the whole definition: health, wealth, happiness, security, confidence, and just about any other quality of success one could identify. Unhealthy marital relationships seem to hold the subjects back, while healthy ones appear to have the power to completely revolutionize lives. I know that idea is old-fashioned and unpopular to many, but in the context of the series, it is true.

I am purposefully unclear on the specifics of the series. I do not want to give away what happens for the documentary is too important to summarize here. However, I do want to present a theory that I've developed as a result of seeing the show. Because they are the subjects of a recurring documentary, some of those subjects are more able to break out of the pattern in which they begin life. I don't mean that they receive extra money or confidence or anything like that due to this series. I mean something much more personal. Because they are interviewed every seven years, because they watch themselves as children, teenagers, and adults on a regular basis, the subjects can't avoid self-reflection. They are periodically forced into a metacognitive state. The subjects can see where they've been, what they don't like about who they were or are, and have a reason to change, for they'll be public to the world again in a few years.

This is an extreme example of what I try to teach my students. The only way one can take control of one's own learning--about any subject, one's life included--is to look back on successes and failures, realize the lessons in both, and set specific goals for continued growth. The subjects of the show have a structure that forces them to do just this, but most of us don't live on television and must do it ourselves.

I thought about all of this and more on my evening walk today. I walked under the same camphor trees under which I've walked hundreds of times, and as I did so, I completely remembered that thing which I had forgotten.

And now, I'm going to leave you wondering what it was that I remembered. I know. It sucks not knowing what is going to come next. It's just like life.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Comma, Not a Period

These pictures are proof that I haven't fallen completely out of touch with myself and stopped cooking.

But mostly, I have been stewing.

I've been stewing in frustration with my inability to be the complete person I want to be. I don't know how to simultaneously be a friend, a homekeeper, a responsible citizen, a daughter, a girlfriend, and a teacher. Of all those roles, the teacher is the most all-consuming. No, contrary to public opinion, I do not show up at school at 8am and leave promptly at 3pm. Nor does the myth that all after-school time is mine hold true.

I could spend hours complaining here, but I am not going to. Instead, I'm going to disappear for a week or so from A Thinking Stomach, perhaps a smidgin' more, and get my head back on straight. I'm going to go camping and spend hours climbing around tidal pools and soaking up woodfire smoke.

I need to get my happy self back, and I'm going to do my best to find it. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Waste (Water and Beef) Not

Today, some of my students filled a bucket with water, coffee grounds, soy sauce, trash, and broken pieces of chocolate that looked, quite on purpose, like poo. It wasn’t a Halloween trick. It wasn’t to harass me or to annoy other students. Instead, these students created this ugly example to change the world.

These particular students are the officers of the Environmental Club, a club dedicated to educating members and others how to take better care of the earth. I advise this club, and as its advisor, am constantly amazed by the wonderful things the students do. A couple years ago, the club began our school’s recycling program. Each Friday, club members empty the beverage container bins that they are responsible for monitoring and walk over to the recycling center down the street. They bring back the cash refund, deposit it into the Environmental Club account, and at the end of the year, decide to which environmental charity to send the money. They do not keep any of the money for themselves, but instead spend the money they collected by protecting the earth on protecting the earth. Last year, the club bought two acres of the Amazon rainforest through the Nature Conservancy as well as a heifer for a family through Heifer International.

This year, the officers attended a training in the early fall (through Treepeople) that gave them tools to be better educators to their club members. In the first couple meetings of the year, the officers led the group in getting acquainted and setting goals, but this week, they got down to business. They divided the club into three groups; they assigned one group the roles of the internal water system (pipes, sewer system, water treatment plant, and so on, eventually leading to the ocean), another group the roles of the external water system (gutters, storm drains, and so on, once again leading to the ocean), and the third group activities that used water. As each member of the third group read their water-usage activities, the other two groups decided whether the water from the activity would go through the external or internal water systems. The water system groups pulled a scoop water from a bucket of clean water. The club officers explained what kind of pollution may end up in the water based on the type of water usage activity. For example, they explained that washing one’s car in the driveway may send used oil down the external water system, and eventually into the ocean. To represent the car oil, they poured soy sauce into the scoop of water. The external water system group relayed the water down to a bucket that represented the ocean. By the end of the demonstration, the “ocean” water was filthy, and the club members had a good idea of how simple water decisions they make everyday eventually affect the health of our oceans.

Through the entire demonstration, I watched and took pictures. I didn’t teach a thing. I didn’t need to; the kids were the experts.

Who says a role model has to be one’s elder?

In the spirit of waste elimination, I have spent the last two days gleaning the most out of the couple ounces of leftover beef from this weekend’s barbecue.

Last night, I made a spinach salad with a pomegranate molasses vinaigrette. I tossed in a few ruby jewels of a pomegranate I had around, chunks of salty stilton, and a couple slices of the aforementioned beef. The pungency of the stilton turned creamy against the beef, and the tart crunches of the pomegranate kept the whole salad from becoming too rich. The dressing, silky, tart, and sweet enough to balance enhance the blue of the stilton felt luxurious on a Monday night. It’s an easy meal, one based on leftovers, but it feels elegant enough to hold its own.

Tonight was different. I heartily embraced leftoverness and made myself a sandwich of the last of the thinly sliced beef with Dubliner cheese, spinach, and balsamic-spiked mayo on sourdough. The meal came together quickly but didn’t feel like fast food; however, it didn’t compare to the pleasures of last night’s salad.

Waste Not Salad

You will need:
enough spinach to make a meal-sized salad
whatever thinly sliced meat you have leftover
an ounce or so of crumbled stilton
a handful of pomegranate seeds
1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon of pomegranate molasses
a couple tablespoons of good olive oil
salt to taste

To make the salad:
Toss the meat into a pan with a drizzle of the olive oil. Reaheat until hot, but do not overcook the meat.

Meanwhile, put the spinach, stilton, and pomegranate seeds in the salad bowl. Remove the meat from the heat.

In a small bowl or cup, mix the dijon mustard with the balsamic vinegar and pomegranate molasses. Whisk in whatever drippings there may be in the mean pan, then add the olive oil in a slow stream, whisking continuously. The mustard should help the oil and vinegar emulsify. Whisk until the ingredients come together and thicken.

Pour the dressing over the greens, cheese, and pomegranate seeds, and toss to coat the spinach leaves. Place the meat slices on top, and there it is, the lovely salad that will be your dinner tonight.

P.S. In the effort to waste even less . . . I have a huge quantity of pumpkin seeds in my refrigerator from this weekend's carving. I'd like to roast them, but have had varied success with my pumpkin-seed-roasting efforts. What's your best recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Green Goods for a Busy Man

Fall means apples, and at the farmers’ market on Saturday, apples began their fall glory. My favorite apple stand had flame streaked Braeburns and dusty rose Cameos. The Mutsus and Orins sported jaunty golden shoulders over their green bellies. As I methodically chose apples to bring home to my apple-loving man, a sharp tug startled me. I yelped, turned, and found my friend RWW, who smiled and asked me about my apple choices.

After I explained what I had chosen to purchase and why, I asked him and his wife if they’d like to wander through the market with me. As we walked from stand to stand, RWW told me about how busy he’d been with his classes for his Masters in Landscape Architecture. He’s taking as many classes as he can so that he can start his career as soon as possible. He told me that he’d struggled with maintaining his home, yard, and everyday responsibilities as he put in the time and attention his projects needed for the type of results he wanted.

I can relate. Every year the same thing happens to me. I love my job more than I ever knew I could—my students enchant me with their curiosity and humor. They make me think, laugh, cry with pride, and spend hours poring over their writing. The parts of me that make me a teacher are some of my best parts, but every year, when the schoolyear starts, the other parts of me disappear.

First, I lose any ability to clean my house.

Then, I stop spending much time in the pottery studio, and most of what I end up producing is C-R-A-P.

I stop reading anything other than texts that I’m teaching or that help me teach. I fall behind on laundry, forget to water my plants, neglect my friends, neglect my always-too-slender relationship with God, and even, if I’m so busy I can hardly breathe, lose my desire to cook.

On Saturday, after poking through the stand where I often buy my green vegetables, I chose a black-green bunch of kale. I showed it to RWW who asked me how I cooked it. When I told him, his eyebrows first rose with excitement, but nearly immediately fell again. He sighed.

“I wish I had time to cook it. I just can’t spend as much time in the kitchen as I want to.”

I nodded. Heaven knows I understand the feeling.

His unhappy face flashed resolution. “Screw it. I’m getting some too. I’ll find some time to cook it this week.” Despite his wife’s doubtful wrinkles in her forehead, he went ahead and purchased the bunch of kale.

I came home tonight to an empty house (ECG’s on an out-of-town job interview) and knew that what I wanted more than anything was that green kale waiting for me in the crisper. I took it out, rinsed it off, and celebrated the way the water holds its silver spheres on the green waves of each leaf. I thought about RWW and hoped he had the time this week to enjoy the same thing.

RWW, I made this tonight while thinking of you, hoping that this week gives you the chance to breathe, sleep, and do something great with that beautiful bunch of kale.

Kale for RWW

You will need:
1 bunch of black kale (at my farmers’s market, the bunch is relatively small—about 2 inches in diameter)
good olive oil
1 clove of garlic, roughly chopped
a couple tablespoons of toasted pine nuts
a couple tablespoons of golden raisins
a splash of red wine vinegar
course sea salt

To make the kale:

Set a medium pot full of salted water on the stove over high heat. As the water is coming to a boil, wash the kale well in a colander. After cleaning, strip the large stem out of the center of each leaf. This is easy and fun to do: grab the stem with your right hand, and place your left thumb and forefinger on either side of the stem. With some force, squeeze and pull down at the same time. You should be able to unzip the leaves from their stems.

Pile the leaves on a cutting board and roughly chop. By this time, the water should be close to a boil. Once it boils, drop in the kale. Give the kale a bit of time to blanch, no more than two minutes. If you start to smell the distinctive sulfuric cabbagey scent, you are on the edge of overcooking. Remove the kale from the heat, drain through your colander. Let the kale sit in the sink to drain more as you begin the next step.

Drizzle a tablespoon or so of olive oil into your frying pan. Once the oil heats to the point wear it easily coats the bottom of the pan, drop in your garlic. Sauté until just golden. Take the kale from your sink, and dump the colander into your frying pan. It will sputter and jump with the moisture left on its leaves. Move the kale around continuously, stir frying as the remnants of water disappear with the heat. As soon as the remaining water disappears completely, toss in the toasted pine nuts and raisins. Remove from the heat, add a splash of red wine vinegar and stir to incorporate it, then spinkle a crunchy shake of sea salt over all.

This serves one greens-loving busy person.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bread for a Barn (and Everywhere Else)

It's beautiful, isn't it?

It certainly looked like everything I expected it to be: tender, light, elegant, and very different from the standard sweet-potato pie.

But let me tell you something. Martha Stewart lies.

She (or more truthfully, her magazine) claimed that this sweet potato soufflé pie was easy to put together and delicious. First, in no way was this pie easy. Second, although the pie was sweet and pleasant, it certainly was not delicious. If I were to make it again, which I definitely won’t do, I would add much more ginger, eliminate the superfluous vanilla, and somehow or another figure out more “punch.”

I don’t want you to think that I dislike Martha Stewart. In fact, if you only knew how much I look forward to that day, each month, when my mailbox holds that long-awaited gift, my new issue of Martha Stewart Living, you might worry about me. When I open my mailbox and there it is, the walk back to my front door is so sweet. I walk slowly, paging through the magazine, looking at each lovely picture. This month, I got to see Martha’s barn—simple, slightly modern, and perfectly neat. Four very lucky Shire horses live in each corner of the barn, but for the Thanksgiving issue magazine spread, the horses are just decoration. Perfectly dressed, elegantly multiracial people populate a large table that extends through the center of the barn. Yes, Martha Stewart apparently hosts Thanksgiving feasts in her impeccably clean un-barn-like barn.

In each issue of the magazine, I find at least one thing that I look forward to trying out in the kitchen. More often than not, I’m delighted by the results of Martha Stewart recipes; however, there are always recipes like the sweet potato soufflé pie I mentioned above: pretty, but quite frankly, a lot of fluff.

When I want fluff, I don’t want insipid fluff. Instead, I want dense, moist, crust-covered fluff. I want bread.

This Sunday, ECG and I had S and RWW over for a simple pasta and salad dinner. Frustrated with the sweet-potato pie from the night before, I knew I had to make bread. I set out with some leftover mashed potatoes and a couple recipes from various sources (including Beard on Bread and Food Network’s Potato Bread recipe), and I ended up with something wonderful.

It’s not beautiful, tender, light, or elegant. In fact, it’s a tad old-fashioned and heavy, with a rough crumb, and it bakes up to the immodest size of Andre the Giant’s bicycle helmet. It’s a great bread to sponge up smears of sauces left on dinner plates, to spread with a thick layer of good butter, or, after it has gone stale, to toast and top with a barely-set fried egg. This bread will never make it to an issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Potato Bread

You will need:
1 cup leftover mashed potatoes
½ cup leftover potato cooking water
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
5 cups bread flour
4 tablespoons flax meal

To make the bread:
Stir together the yeast and warm water in a large bowl.

In a medium-sized saucepan, heat milk, potato cooking water, butter, salt, and sugar to just below boiling. Take the pan off the heat, stir in the leftover mashed potatoes. Use your finger to test the temperature of the mixture—it should be warm, but not hot. Make sure that it is cooler than your body temperature; let it cool if you need to.

Pour the warm potato mixture into the bowl with the yeast and water. Stir in the flour and flax meal with a wooden spoon. Most likely, you will be unable to completely incorporate the flour into the mixture, but don’t worry, because you’re going to spend plenty of time kneading it all anyway. Turn the contents of the bowl onto a smooth surface (a granite counter-top, a glass cutting board, or something of the like) and begin to knead. Lift the mass of dough, let it fall a bit in your hands, then slap it down end-first on the counter. Repeat this action for seven or eight minutes. As you knead, you should be continually working air into the dough, which will allow the yeast to grow freely. You will also be building gluten proteins, those delightful substances that make bread a bit chewy.

Place the rounded ball of dough in a floured bowl, dust with flour, then cover with a cloth. Let it rise about 45 minutes or an hour, until it has doubled in size. Knead the dough another time, shape again into a ball, and place on a very well-floured baking sheet for its final rising. Cover the dough with a cloth. Let the bread rise for another 45 minutes to an hour, until it has once again doubled.

While the bread is rising, make sure you have a baking sheet or baking stone on the oven shelf on which you plan to bake the bread. The bread will rise even more, so make sure you have plenty of room for it in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Slide the bread off of the sheet on which it was rising (it may need a little help with a wooden spoon or a careful hand) and onto the hot baking stone or baking sheet in the oven. Spritz the inside of the oven a couple times with a squirt bottle, and close the oven. Don’t open the oven again for the first ten minutes of baking, or you won’t have a good crust. Bake the bread approximately 35-40 minutes, or until it sounds hollow when you knock on it.

This is a bread you can eat anywhere, even a very barn-like barn.

Monday, October 09, 2006


I believe in God. I struggle with this belief almost daily, but I can still say, despite my doubts over all the intricacies of my belief, that it never completely evaporates.

I try hard, but my relationship with God comes in and out of focus.

A couple of Sundays ago, I had a moment of extreme clarity. As it was the first Sunday of the month, according to Presbyterian tradition, the church celebrated communion. My church prefers communion by intinction: participants walk down their pew to the center aisle, then up the pew towards the front of the sanctuary. A church member holds the communion bread, the participant breaks off a piece of bread, and the bread-holder murmers, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” The participant then dips the piece of broken bread into the cup of grape juice, held by the minister who reminds the participants, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Each Communion Sunday, I pray and try to focus on the meaning of communion, but often the reality of forgiveness and divine acceptance seem so far away.

On that particular Sunday, visitors sat in my same pew. As they were new, they caught my attention. The group of three each differed from the next: a young girl—maybe ten years old with freckles and a paradoxical cheerful primness—sat next to a twenty-something man who could have been her brother, and next to him sat another twenty-something man who appeared to be connected to the other two by friendship. The man in the middle, the assumed brother who I will name George, nodded his head vigorously during parts of the sermon. He jostled his legs restlessly, stared at the ceiling and stained glass for periods of time, then his attention would return to the events of the service, and he’d focus intently as long as he could.

When communion time rolled around in the service, I discovered that George had a lot to teach me. He didn’t rise for the communion when the ministers invited us to take part. His younger sister passed him to participate as he and his friend tucked their legs under the pew to let her pass. They had to tuck their legs even tighter against they pew when my large ass and I had to pass. Two soon-to-give-birth pregnant women followed me out of the pew, and as they passed, the men had to pull their legs up on top of the pew and lean back.

I took my bread and grape juice (communion always reminds me how much I like grape juice and how many pleasant childhood memories it conjures), then returned to my pew from the other end and sat down to pray for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes again, I saw George rocking back and forth in indecision. Finally, he stood up, pushed himself past his friend, and joined the line to participate in the sacrament. He shifted from foot to foot while in line, then took his bread and juice, crossing himself afterwards. Returning to the far end of the pew, he encountered the two pregnant women. They both looked up at him, smiled but didn’t budge, promptly returning to their prayers. George grimaced. I watched him try to figure out what to do.

He looked down our aisle at where his seat waited for him, blocked by two contentedly large pregnant women, me and my large ass, and his sweet little sister who had her head bowed and hands folded like the image embroidered on “Now I lay me down to sleep” children’s pillows. The possibility of reaching his seat? Zero to none.

Hope lay in the pew behind ours. It held only one person, a slender man that George passed easily. He reached the spot directly behind his previous seat and hesitated. I could feel him behind us, thinking about what to do. I could hear that he hadn’t sat down; his shoes softly whined against the hard linoleum.

Suddenly, brown shoes flew over the top of the pew, followed by long legs and the rest of George. He had vaulted himself over the pew, feet over the head of his praying sister, and into his seat. Upon landing, he curled forward to pray, as if in one smooth motion.

Oh George, I loved every moment of your communion because I understood it. I know your indecision, your awkwardness, your sincerity, and your inadvertent clumsiness before God and others. I know these things because I experience them almost every day. I have felt every moment of your discomfort and confused devotion. This is faith, the simple faith most of us know. It isn’t fancy or easy, and it certainly doesn’t glimmer like a static-free channel of Divine Inspiration. Instead, it is the clumsy expression of the essential human self searching for God.

This Saturday, I made what I think is the culinary equivalent to George’s sacrament of communion. It’s messy, simple, and certainly not fancy, but it is the essence of itself. It is the simple concentration of one of God’s perfect creations: the ripe tomato.

Homemade Tomato Paste

I sized-down the recipe from last week’s LA Times Food Section to be more manageable after one trip to the farmers’ market. It’s messy, but it makes the house smell of sunshine and every tomato-based memory you have ever tucked away.

You will need:
2 ½ pounds of your favorite variety of ripe tomato

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for storage

½ teaspoon of good-tasting salt

To make the tomato paste:
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Dice the tomatoes, then toss them in a large frying pan with the oil and salt. Heat the mixture just to boil and keep on a low boil for a couple of minutes. Don’t fry; you are just trying to soften the raw tomato.

Let the mixture cool for a few minutes while you lightly oil a large baking pan with sides at least an inch and a half high. In batches, puree the mixture in your food processor. Using a rubber spatula, work each batch through a sieve, pushing the juice and pulp into the baking pan. This will take some patience. Discard the seeds and pieces of skin left in the sieve. Don't be alarmed by your product--the liquid in the pan will look like tomato juice. Oh, but what it will become!

Place the pan in the heated oven. Set your kitchen timer for four hours. Every half an hour or so, stir the tomato paste. You will notice that the volume will decrease substantially each time you check on it. If the mixture starts to brown slightly at the edges, don’t worry; just stir the carmelized bits into the beautiful red paste.

After four hours at 300 degrees, your paste should be getting pretty thick. If it isn’t shiny and dark brick red yet, lower the temperature to 250 degrees and continue to cook, stirring it every ten minutes or so. When it gets near to ready, it starts cooking fast, and as you don’t want tomato fruit roll-ups, I recommend you keep a close eye on it. Once you have a dark red, shiny, thick and incredibly fragrant paste, remove the pan from the oven. With a flexible rubber spatula, scoop the paste into a clean glass jar. You will have just under a cup of paste. Pour a half-inch of good olive oil over the surface to help your concentrated sunshine last.

This will keep for months in the refrigerator, as long as you maintain the protective layer of olive oil.

This is spectacular stuff, and you will want to eat it by the spoonful, by itself or on toast. Try it everywhere you’d regularly use tomato paste—in coq au vin, pasta sauce, soups—and you’ll notice it’s authentic tomato-ness.

Messy? Yes. Time consuming? Yes. Honest? You bet.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Two Fruity Cookies for Two Kooky Fruits

I took this picture as ECG and I wandered among the historic trains at the LA County Fair on Sunday. I loved the cracking paint, the rust peaking through the white surface, and the three-dimensionality of the number two. I also loved watching ECG examine each engine in the train exhibit. When he looks at machines, he can see how each part works together in small movements to make one large movement. He can see the direct line between each rivet and a cross-country train trip. He can see the whole of a machine when all I see is thousands of individual parts.

But, I can do things that he can't do. I can read an entire book in one sitting. I can multitask like a rockstar, and make pottery, good food, and lesson plans that can turn non-writers into writers who are proud of what they write. I can identify this purple flower as a member of the Passiflora clan in less than a millisecond. He appreciates these qualities in me, just as I marvel at the miraculous things he can do. I don't expect him to be just like me; in fact, I expect him not to be. I found an incredible person who differs from me in every way possible. Why did I choose someone so different?

Here's why. I have a beautiful model of two people, different in every imagineable way, who have survived 35 years of marriage: my parents.

A week ago today, my parents celebrated their 35th birthday. To stay married this long to my father, my mother had to make all sorts of sacrifices, including homes, peace of mind (Dad will be a risk-taker until the day he dies), and her career. To stay married to my mother, my father had to sacrifice his devil-may-care attitude and the frequency of his being "right." My parents don't have the same approach to problem-solving, to physical endeavors, or to most social situations, but those differences have allowed for both parties in the marriage to grow. Both of my parents are better people because of the experiences that they've shared with each other, and both have learned compassion in accepting each as the other is. Their marriage hasn't been an easy one, but it is the best model of love, forgiveness, and acceptance that I've ever seen.

To ensure that my parents had a sweet reminder of each of their 35 years, I made them two batches of cookies. Since it is fall, I felt the need to base my recipes on the autumnal bounty of good fruit, so I made them apple-oat cookies and my favorite spicy cookie recipe, persimmon-ginger cookies. The apple-oat cookies are good, but the persimmon-ginger cookies are great. Each cookie is moist, laden with the pumpkin-ish flavor of cooked persimmon and spices, a little nippy with ginger, and chewy from the raisins. Autumn, you've arrived, in form of a cookie.

Persimmon-Ginger Cookies

I found the inspiration for this recipe on the Carnegie-Mellon's School of Computer Science's Recipe Archive one day when I was searching for ways to deal with the glut of persimmons that I received from my friends S and RWW. Trader Joe's bags full of fruit cluttered my counters, so I needed good ways of cooking the orange beauties. The recipe did not work well as written, so I tinkered with it quite a bit to make it produce the tender bites of the season it now guarantees.

You will need:
1 cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter
1 egg
2 small very ripe Hachiya persimmons
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped candied ginger
½ cup golden or red-flame raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts

To make the cookies:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rinse the persimmons and remove their stems. Plop the fruit, skin and all, in a food processor. Add the teaspoon of baking soda, and whirl the fruit to form a puree. Let the puree sit for a few minutes as you prepare the next step. You’ll find that the addition of the baking soda to the fruit will make the persimmon pulp gelatinous. (It’s a fun little science experiment!)

Cream together the butter and the sugar until fluffy, then add the egg and beat until it is well-incorporated. Add the gooey gelatinous mess of persimmon puree, and beat again to mix well. Set the beaters aside as you won’t need them any longer for this recipe.

In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, spices, and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the persimmon mixture. Don’t beat, but mix thoroughly. Fold in the raisins, ginger, and walnuts.

Drop the cookie dough by the spoonful on Silpat or parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake the cookies for 15-17 minutes, until they are a rich, coppery-brown. Let cool on a rack. Dig in.

Monday, September 25, 2006

What to Eat When You Feel Like Dying

Sick, sick, and even more sick. Since Thursday, I've battled fever, swollen glands, and enough snot to drown large mammals.

What do you cook when you can't smell, you can't focus your watery eyes, and the last thing you want to do is stand on your feet while you figure out something complicated over the stove? The answer is very simple: a roast chicken. The beauty of this meal is that it lasts over the course of your illness. You can eat it with a roast sweet potato and coleslaw when you're in the denial stage, make sandwiches with it when you've accepted your illness, and make a garlicky soup with it when you're ready to just get the damn thing over with.

Liberally salt a small chicken, slide a few branches of thyme under the skin, and set the chicken in the refrigerator overnight. When you're ready to start thinking about food, preheat the oven to 480 degrees Fahrenheit, take the chicken out of the refrigerator, set it on a cutting board and pat the whole thing dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Set your cast iron skillet on the burner to get nice and hot, then, place the chicken--breast side up--in the skillet. Protecting your hand with a mitt, place the hot skillet in the oven. Go take a decongestant-induced half hour nap. Come back, remove the skillet from the oven, and using large forks, flip the chicken over to be back side up. Place it back in the oven and take another nap, this time only twenty minutes long. When you return to the kitchen, your chicken will be almost ready. Take the skillet out of the oven and flip the bird over one more time, breast side facing up again, and place it in the oven to re-crisp the skin over the breast and legs. This should only take five or ten minutes, enough time to down a combination of Airborne, echinacea, and Tylenol. Remove the skillet from the oven, place the bird on a platter, and let it rest for a couple minutes. The skin will be crispy brown all over and you may even get a whiff of it's delicious thyme-y sent through those clogged up nostrils. If you're feeling half conscious, you can figure out something to do with the drippings; don't feel guilty if you don't do anything with the drippings though. Take solace in the fact that your nose is dripping so much you can't even take the word "drippings" seriously, and if you were healthy, you'd come up with something wonderful to do. Tell yourself that when you're healthy, you are master of all that is culinary, and when you are sick, you can still roast up a tasty little fryer.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

On Being (Temporarily) Manless in September

Bleached out, saggy summer takes her leave. Finally. Fall has fallen and the evenings have cooled off enough to throw open the windows and throw on another blanket. Cold feet feel great after months of sweaty ones. The early autumn light drenches an extra layer of color on every surface. And, after months of being too hot to dance around my house when I clean and cook, today I found myself straight-out jamming to Lauryn Hill. I'm feeling hip-hop.

It's great. Except.

Halfway across the world, ECG is presenting at several conferences, making connections, and exploring job opportunities. He's getting a chance to see where his dreams may take him. After a week in Gottingen, Germany, a city he found exceptionally livable due to the culture of quality work and attention to detail, he's now spending a week at another conference in Rome. I don't think he is enjoying Rome nearly as much as he did Germany.

I'm so happy that ECG has this chance, but I miss him. In the last few days, the missing him has overwhelmed the excitement I feel for his opportunity to adventure. In addition, as much as I am enjoying the onset of fall, I keep enjoying it in the ways that I think about explaining it to him. My appreciation of it has been filtered through his absence, so each experience becomes a story directed towards ECG as my audience. We've been communicating almost entirely through email, with one five-minute conversation on Friday morning before the line went dead, when instead of ECG's voice, quiet filled my ear. In each case of emailing or conversation, I am trapped because I want to tell him every detail of each day and how I feel about all of it, while hearing all of his details and feelings, but it's impossible to keep up on the daily-ness of one's life when one isn't around to experience it with you. Together at home, we spatter our conversation onto the mirror during morning toothbrushing, we shoot each other brief funny emails through the course of the day, we come home and take turns complaining, laughing, and chatting. We problem solve over dinner and house organizing. We talk in front of the TV, tease each other, gripe about doing the dishes. As we cuddle, we murmer, and fall asleep tangled up. Our words are tangled, our bodies are tangled, our thoughts are too. So, as every couple knows, it sucks being apart.

Next Saturday can't come fast enough.

While I wait for ECG's return, I have been staying late at work grading papers and planning. I haven't cooked much, nor have I spent as much time outside celebrating the onset of fall as I usually do. This weekend, I decided I had to remedy that. I love this season, after all, and whether ECG is here or not to celebrate it with me, I need to appreciate the bounty the season offers. So, last night, I made a hearty vegetable soup, rich with greens and completely void of any form of meat, the kind of meal that ECG would not even recognize as a meal. Oh man, it tasted good. And today, I wandered through The Huntington grounds, thrilling in the September light and colors. I took pictures with ECG in mind. With each shot, I remembered the ways that ECG has taught me to use my camera, ways that I never knew before I knew him. It's just one of the many things I never knew before I knew him.

So here, ECG and whoever else may read this, is my Sunday afternoon at The Huntington.

Bright colors.

Variations on the theme of green.

O, las floras.

Critters, or evidence thereof.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


He has no butt. He wears his jeans too high—nearly to his ribcage—and appears unable to cleanly shave the silver stubble under his chin. His face is unremarkable, one that wouldn’t catch my attention if I saw it anywhere other than on stage. But, with that guitar, scarred, signed by nearly every musical luminary of the past fifty years or so, marked with a splintery puncture hole, Willie Nelson made Los Angeles stand in thunderous applause last night. No one in the audience could help but pay attention.

Willie and his family band played their hearts out to us. His sister pounded away on the piano while his son gave Stevie Ray Vaughan a run for his money, making the electric guitar wail like a woman weeping over lost love. Willie’s long time buddies, including the famous Paul (of “Paul and Me”) played and sang with him the way they’ve been playing for years. We all know that the life he loves is “making music with [his] friends,” and last night, the audience could feel the love he has for his life. His music is rough; it has texture. The lyrics are simple, usually about women he’s done wrong or his own music-focused lifestyle, all sung in a Texas twang, yet somehow they brought all of us together, and it felt great. In fact, a couple of times, I even got a bit teary. I’m not one to feel remarkably patriotic. I enjoy the freedoms living in this country offers, but I have a hard time saying what this country is. I’ve lived in enough different cities in the United States to know that the differences between the cities is extreme enough to make each seem likes its own nation. However, last night, seeing Willie Nelson sing and play, I felt a deep love for this mixed-up country.

In the second half, the LA Phil left and it was just Willie and the band. The almost-full moon rose, huge and orange, over the hills, and a cold breeze made sweatshirts futile. It felt like fall feels everywhere I’ve lived. The crowd of thousands sang along with familiar songs, just like any other Willie Nelson crowd would. Wannabe rebel punkers sang, the wrinkled couple holding hands sang, the gay men in wire-rimmed glasses sang, the Asian kid with the handheld video game sang, the middle aged married couple in leather vests and cowboy hats sang. I sang.

It was as American as American could be. American like baked beans.

Patriotic Beans
ECG and I hosted a barbecue last weekend to celebrate the end of summer, the start of school, and our now official cohabitation. Working his magic on the grill, ECG fed the crowd smoky tri tip and burgers. I made baked beans from scratch, and I’ve got to say, these are the best baked beans that I’ve ever had, even though there is no baking involved. I adapted the recipe a bit from’s Blue Smoke’s baked beans recipe—it says it feeds twenty, but it doesn’t really. They’re too good and they go too fast for twenty people to get to them. They’re sweet, smoky, and have just the right bite. Even better, they’re thick and chunky. The combination of a couple types of beans means that the softer pintos or cranberries cook down into a velvety base for the perfectly intact, but very tender navy beans.

Beans—a legume native to the Americas—flavored with chili—also native to our eclectic continent. How much more patriotic could you get?

To cook the beans:
1 lb dried cranberry or pinto beans (or a mix of the two)
½ lb dried navy beans
4 peeled carrots, chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 small onions, peeled
4 bay leaves
4 generous branches of thyme
4 teaspoons salt

Soak the beans separately overnight and rinse the next day. Cook the cranberry/pintos in one pot, and the navy beans in another. To each pot, add two of the carrots, one onion, two bay leaves, and two branches of thyme. Add enough water to cover the beans and ingredients in each pot by two inches. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, then cook for about an hour or so—just until the beans are tender. The two pots may take different amounts of time to cook, even up to two hours. Just as the beans are finishing, add two teaspoons of salt to each pot. When the beans are finished, drain, reserving a couple cups of the cooking liquid. Discard the spent carrots, onions, bay leaves, and thyme. They’ve done their duty. Now you can dump the separate beans all in one bowl. (You can do all the of this they a day or two before you plan on finishing the beans. They’ll keep if covered in the refrigerator.)

To finish the beans:
6-7 ounces of bacon, diced
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1 red pepper, chopped finely
1 red-ripe jalapeno, chopped very finely
1 ¾ cups ketchup
1 ½ cups bean cooking liquid
½ cup dark brown sugar
2 ½ tablespoons spice mix (see note below)
1 ½ tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon spicy mustard
1 teaspoon chipotle Tabasco
¼ teaspoon smoked (Spanish) paprika

You’ll need a large stockpot or Dutch oven in which to make the beans. Over medium heat, cook the diced backon until the fat has rendered and the pieces are crispy. Add the onion, garlic, and peppers and cook until the onion starts to get the sweet brown edges that we all love so much.

Add everything except the beans, and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the beans and bring to a simmer, cooking for at least 30 minutes. Truthfully, you can let the pot simmer for much longer, occasionally stirring to keep the mixture from sticking, as all the flavors combine into bean-y deliciousness.

Spice mix note: Blue Smoke calls this mix Magic Dust and deems it the spice cabinet’s culinary gift to all of mankind. I took the original recipe and added fennel. Why? Because I like it and think nearly all barbecue-y spice mixes should include fennel seed. This makes more than you need, but the spice mix tastes wonderful rubbed on a skirt steak before tossing it on the grill, or sprinkled on buttered corn-on-the-cob. Don’t worry. You’ll use it.

To make the spice mix (aka Magic Dust), combine:

¼ cup paprika
3 tablespoons ground dried medium-hot chili
2 ½ tablespoons dry mustard
2 tablespoons coarse salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed

Keep it a glass jar in your spice cabinet.

P.S. I'm having issues posting pictures on Blogger lately. Has anyone else been having any trouble? Do you have any advice?

Friday, September 01, 2006

A Cast-Iron-Sand-Down

An apology--it's been too long to go without a post--I'm sorry. (Also, I have pictures to accompany this posting, but I got in a fight with the server trying to upload them. They'll have to come later.)

I just finished Undaunted Courage. I knew Meriwether Lewis would kill himself in the end, but it still made me cry. There was no one better suited for his job exploring the American West, but the very things that made him so ideal for such a job limited his ability to survive in any other setting. He didn't know how to help himself change. He hadn't learned the tools he needed.

I'm trying to learn the tools I need to help myself change right now. Recently, I've run into short corriders of my personality that close off the opportunity to build or strengthen certain relationships. I've got to start ripping out some personal drywall, and I'm trying to figure out just how to do it. As I'm mulling over my personal reconstruction, I've been wholeheartedly consumed with actual projects that require sandpaper and screwdrivers.

ECG has moved in, which necessitated a new entertainment center to accomodate the huge TV, Tivo, and cable that follow him. A couple months ago, we found an Ikea "media shelving unit" that fit our budget and our needs, so we tried to buy it. Unfortunately, our local Ikea only had the bottom part of the piece. We purchased that and asked the friendly salesman how long it would be before the top part--the essential bookcase section--would be in stock. Just a few weeks, he assured us. A few weeks came and went, and by that time, no one in Southern California stocked the top portion of the piece. In fact, only one store in all of California had it in stock: Emeryville. ECG and I decided that we had to complete this project before school started, so we thought we'd drive up one day and buy the piece, crash at CD's that night, and drive back down the following day. When I called CD up to ask if he could accomodate us for the night, he firmly told me no. "We love you and would love to see you, but you may not drive up here to simply buy some furniture." He told me that he'd purchase it for us then send it down on Greyhound. Greyhound? Who knew Greyhound was a shipping solution?

CD promptly fulfilled his promise and sent down our new piece of furniture in heavy boxes. It arrived with minor dings, not enough to discourage us, and we spent most of a day putting it together. School starts tomorrow and it will be harder for both of us to commit time to house projects, but at least we finished the "media shelving unit." Now we can listen to music, watch cooking shows on TV, and play video games with no difficulties. As you can see, we've got our priorities straight.

ECG's move into my house has also meant a complete reorganization of every closet, a reassessment of all my material goods (determining what should stay and what should go), and a major construction job in my garage. ECG and our friend SM built hefty shelves that now line the garage. Suddenly, much of what we own is hanging two feet below ceiling level, and the garage has a new purpose. As ECG's personal workshop and darkroom, every shelf and hook now holds the weight of future projects. I've never seen ECG so completely consumed with a project as he is by the garage. For the past few days, he's spent hours working down there, my cat Reggie keeping him company, and I can hear little bits of conversation float upstairs from the two of them. ECG asks where he should put a certain box, and Reggie replies with his startlingly human sounding, "Mwowowow." Whenever I go down the stairs to see what's happening, I find ECG ripping open a box to determine its contents, painting the shelves, or finding a new way to hang the bike. He has a the radio on down there, and more than once, I've found him dancing as he's organizing. Yes, dancing.

My kitchen has not been free from this wave of reorganization. Along with giving every drawer and shelf a specific purpose, I also went through the tools I own and figured out which were still useful. One very important tool stood out as needing some special care: my ancient cast iron pan. I've used it for everything from caramelly-rich tarte tatin to pungent Moroccan chicken, and it's the perfect pan for Saturday morning Dutch babies; however, even though I knew that a good cast iron pan should be relatively stick-free, everything stuck to mine. When I bought it at a swap meet a couple years ago, I followed the generally accepted principle of using steel wool to scrub it down, then lightly oiling it and placing it in the oven on a low temperature for a few hours to season it. Although the steel wool took off years of wear and made it clean enough to consider sanitary, it didn't eliminate the issue of stickiness. When my brother was here over Thanksgiving last year, the pan infuriated him, and he tried the same technique I had used when I first purchased it, with no better results. Last week, after eggs stuck to the pan like a mess of crunchy dried super-glue, I was unable to even use what I had cooked, and I had reached the end of my rope with the pan. So I did my research. I found this site that gave me more ideas than I had even known existed about how to re-season an old cast iron pan. I tried the sanding technique.

I placed newspaper in a large square on the living room floor, put my pan on top of it, and prepared myself with several sheets of medium grit sand paper. And, I began. I sanded. I sanded some more. And more. I spent two hours sanding the inside and most of the outside of the pan. (I didn't worry too much about the handle--as far as I know, no one cooks on the handle.) A huge pile of rusty colored dust collected on my newspaper, and my hands became stained a charcoal-ly black. When I finally rinsed the pan down, all the layers of burnt-on food were gone, and the pan dully gleamed with clean iron. I rinsed it a couple more times, wiped it dry, then spread a thin layer of canola oil all over it. I placed in the oven upside down over tinfoil to catch any drips, and turned the oven on to 350. After an hour, I turned the oven off, but left the pan in to cool slowly.

When I took the pan out, it had a couple spots where the oil had not coated the pan very well, so I repeated the light oiling and heating steps. The pan now resembles its former self in its capacity for even heating and sturdy functionality, but it is better. Now, it is stick-free. My research recommends that I break time-honored rules and maintain the pan by washing it with soap and water after each use, letting it dry over low heat on the burner, lightly oiling it with canola, and then heating it again on the burner. The heat should help the oil bond to the surface. I haven't tried this process yet, but since the sanding was so much work, I'm going to do my darnedest to keep this pan working well.

So, to shape up the pan, I had to give it a sanding to take off years of cooked-on crap and a series of hot ovens to smooth out the newly rough surface, and now I have to perform daily maintenance to keep it healthy.

You know, I think this process might be applicable somewhere else.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Moving Slowly

Last Friday, I kidnapped my friend SWW. Her husband helped in the crime—he told her a wonderful lie to get her to my house (that ECG and I were eloping! Oh my!), and he had even packed her suitcase and a tasty lunch without her knowing. When SWW and her husband arrived at my house early Friday morning, she learned the truth: she and I were about to adventure to and from the Bay Area via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.

It takes over 11 hours to get from Los Angeles’ Union Station to Oakland’s Jack London Square when the train is moving along at its scheduled clip, which it never is. Driving to the Bay Area takes well less than half the time of a train trip. Why bother taking the train?

Let me answer by flashing little images of what happened to SWW and I on the way up the coast. We had two seats next to the stairs on the top floor of one of the coach cars, which meant we served as hostesses to everyone who entered our part of the train. We could greet each passenger as s/he climbed the stairs. SWW naturally draws people towards her; she’s kind and friendly, and people want to talk with her. One of the people who chatted with SWW asked us to play a joke on his wannabe actor son, with whom he’d been traveling for 21 days and who had begun to irritate him to high heaven. She happily obliged, commissioning me to be her wing-woman. We ended up feigning a celebrity sighting, swooning over the offending son, and acquiring a signed picture and hand! The wannabe actor and his prankster father seemed delighted by the performance, for very different reasons.

In the observation car, we had the chance to see a pod of dolphins playing near the shore, shooting straight into the air, silvery arcs of marine joy. We enjoyed this sight with a loquacious abuelito and two of his grandchildren. When abuelito accidentally left his beer at his former seat as he moved to sit next to us, his grandson called after him, “Abuelito, you left your vitamins.” And later, in the lounge car, we sat with Larry, the lounge car attendant (with a very expressive voice—the way the man said, “Try my special cinnamon rolls,” wooo-heeee!) and two conductors as we slowly enjoyed a bottle of wine and our dinners. Each man told us the story of how he ended up working for the trains; each had come from very different backgrounds. One of the conductors told us about his stepson’s first broken heart, and as he told the story, his eyes filled with tears over his stepson’s pain. Larry told us about his own son, now getting his MBA, but who had already been written up in Fortune. Back at our seats, the man sitting behind us told us about the 40-foot sailboat that he and his wife had just bought. He was getting off the train at the same stop as us. His new sailboat waited for him in an Alameda marina. He planned on sailing it down the coast this weekend and meeting his wife in Orange County. Clearly, he could not wait to get on the boat. Everyone had love to share.

The train trip allowed us to soak up the beautiful landscapes that California boasts, and it gave us lots of time to tell each other stories. We were able to read, nap, and talk on our cell phones. Taking the train allowed us a very full 11 plus hours. Sometimes, moving slowly is the best way to get the most done.

We had a very adventurous weekend exploring San Francisco and Alameda on foot and ferry, two other wonderful forms of slow transportation. Our hosts, my childhood friend CD and his boyfriend, provided relaxed, comfortable hospitality. The only time we moved quickly during the whole trip was when CD drove us around Oakland to show us his office and some of his projects. He drives a classic old BMW that is so much fun, but also just a bit rickety. Rocking along in it, we flew by the temple of the Oakland Latter Day Saints, a building CD classified as representative of the architectural period he called, “Late Wizard of Oz.”

SWW’s surprise birthday train trip represents what I love most about summer: having the time to actually live. During the summer, even when I can see the end in sight and I haven’t accomplished as much as I’d like to, I still feel the freedom to read, to putter, to have real conversations without time constraint, and to work on a schedule that isn’t fettered by bells and periods. I can even sleep in on a weekday if I like, and when I sleep in, I can still take the time to make breakfast. Imagine that, making breakfast—a real breakfast, mind you, not just cereal—on a weekday. That indeed is the joy of summer slowness.

Summer Slow Scones
ECG and I had the hardest time getting out of bed this morning, but I wanted to make breakfast despite our tardy rising. The peaches on the counter were calling my name, and I needed to make something to celebrate their incredible summer-ness. These scones, which I adapted from King Arthur Flour’s online recipes, feature not only peaches but also cardamom, my family’s favorite spice. They are delightful, and don’t take too long to make, even if you have the luxury of a slow morning.

You will need:
2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
2 large eggs
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup diced peeled peaches (about 2 small peaches)

To make the scones:
Preheat your oven to 375°F. Line a large baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper.

With a fork, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, cardamom, and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut in the butter however you like, with a pastry cutter, two knives, or just your fingers. After your mixture of butter and dry materials begins to look like a mixture of sand and gravel, stir in the diced peaches.

In a separate bowl or cup, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and the almond extract. Stir this mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. Do not beat or over mix, otherwise you’ll have rocks instead of scones. Drop large blobs of the batter (a little over a half-cup each) on to the Silpat or parchment paper. You should be able to make six breakfast-sized drop-scones with this batter. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 17 minutes or so, or until you begin to see the slightest toastiness on the craggy peaks of the scones.

And just so you know, if you have a morning ahead that isn’t so slow, these freeze well. You can freeze leftovers and reheat them in a toaster oven or conventional oven for a slow-morning breakfast on a fast-morning day.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Power and Rhetorical Jam

This afternoon, my phone rang. I answered it because that is what I usually do when the phone rings.

“We just went blueberry picking and I thought of you,” KRO said, introductions unnecessary. “We picked so many blueberries, and I don’t think the peaches were ripe yet when you were out last year, but they are now, and oh . . . the peaches.”

KRO was my roommate when we were in college. Last year I visited her at her Washington, DC home, and we spent a day out in Maryland picking blueberries. We picked buckets and buckets of blueberries, so many that a good portion of my remaining days with her were spent trying to figure out what to do with the blueberries. Today, she and her husband picked peaches as well as blueberries, and now have a glut of fruit on their hands. During the fifteen minutes it took to pick more peaches than she and her husband could imagine consuming, the two of them also ate three peaches each. She wondered over the phone what she’d do with all she brought home.

I introduce this reflection by telling you about KRO and peaches, because just at the moment she called, I was making jam, a jam that is primarily composed of peaches. Making this jam was making me think. It made me think about the history of food, and how learning how to preserve food must have been one of the hallmarks of civilization. People have known for hundreds, if not thousands of years that sugar acts as a preservative, so it’s natural to use it in jams to make summer’s fleeting bounty last through a fruit-less winter. (Of course, I’m thinking of places other than my own home in lovely Southern California, where some sort of fruit is available all year long.) Preserving food allowed access to important vitamins and minerals throughout the year, which had to have made people stronger and healthier. Communities who were stronger and healthier were probably much more powerful; perhaps learning the art of preserving was part of how certain ancient communities overpowered others. In reading about how to safely can the jam that I was making, I came across an interesting piece of information from relatively recent history. According to Jean Anderson’s Green Thumb Preserving Guide:
“Napoleon is, in a way, responsible for the discovery of canning although his motives, to be sure, were less for the advancement of mankind than for the advancement of his own armies. With as many of his troops dying unheroically of starvation as heroically in battle, he determined to find a way of keeping them well-fed and strong. So in the early 19th century, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs (about $250,000 at the present rate of exchange) to the man who could devise a way of preserving food safely. The man who did was a French confectioner named Appert. His breakthrough discovery, as guarded a secret in Napoleon’s day as the A-bomb during World War II, was simply to seal food airtight inside bottles and boil it.” (Anderson 18)
Appert developed the water-bath method of canning food as a way to effectively feed an army and build an empire. Really, jam is all about power.
As I mused over the connection between jam and military might (and before being interrupted by KRO’s call), I began thinking about this upcoming school year. Thoughts about teaching began gumming up my jam thoughts, and I struggled to separate the jam from the classroom.

For most of the waking hours of last week, I participated in a workshop designed to prepare me to teach Advanced Placement English Language and Composition (AP English Language) this upcoming school year. I have never taught this course before; in fact, my school has never offered this course before. I pushed to open this course at my school because teaching writing is one of my primary purposes in life, and I felt that, although my school has moved further and further towards incorporating writing into every area of school life (and this is a very smart move), the school still had no opportunity for the students to experience intense writing instruction. Clearly, opening the AP Language class at my school is move in the right direction, and, despite the fact that I learned so much at the workshop, I’m terrified to teach the class.

This might surprise some of you who know me. You may know that the classroom has long since ceased to terrify me, and you may know that teaching is one area in my life in which I have a fair amount of confidence. I’m good at getting students to think deeply, getting them to write, and sometimes, even helping them learn to be independent readers, readers who seek out good books on their own time. Each year, of course, I meet students who challenge me in new ways, and there are the students who I fail to reach—no matter how hard I try. I do my best to keep up on new strategies and new research, and frequently talk with others in my field about how to continue to improve at my job. On the whole, I am proud of the hard work I put into my classroom. However, the AP Language conference has caused me to re-examine my abilities, and frankly, the prospect of teaching this course is giving me the willies.

Why? I took this class when I was in high school and did very well in it. That was so long ago. I’ve examined multiple copies of the test recently, and even taken a couple practice tests, and I've done well on them, but I haven’t been able to complete them in the time limitations that the test requires. I’m out of practice in taking tests. More frighteningly, I’m out of practice in the level of reading the test demands. In the workshop last week, we read Swift, Franklin, Douglass, and Hawthorne. I’ve read my share of Swift and Hawthorne in college and while teaching Senior English, but never Douglass or Franklin. And, college was a long time ago. I haven’t picked up a book whose syntax or diction has challenged me in any way for years. That doesn’t mean I read fluff; it just means I’ve been reading contemporary authors whose ways of using language are readily decipherable to me. (Shakespeare doesn’t count. The texts that I have taught in the last 10 years—Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet—are still delightful and newly revealing to me each time I teach them, but I’ve read and thought so much about them that there is nothing unfamiliar in them any more.) This fall, I’ll be teaching texts that are plain old tough. They’ll be new to me, and I’ll need to approach them with more rhetorical analysis than I have done since I took this class in high school 15 years ago. 15 years is a long time to go without practicing something. My rhetorical analysis skills are more than a smidgin rusty.

During the workshop, my teacher introduced us to many ways to teach rhetorical analysis, all of which were very helpful. But more helpful to me was her reminder of the history of rhetoric. The Sophists (namely Gorgias and Isocrates) developed the tools of rhetoric to help the growing middle class become participants in Greek society. Then Socrates came along, praising the dialectic and complaining about rhetoric because, really, rhetoric doesn’t lead to truth and it can be quite manipulative. Aristotle followed him and balanced out his ideas. He pointed out that, “Rhetoric is the counterpart to Dialectic,” but he saw the value of each. Dialectic leads to truth, but rhetoric leads to power. Quintillian used Aristotle’s ideas and created a curriculum of logic that the Roman Empire used in each territory it entered. This curriculum gave native students the means to enter the grand political conversation. It gave them the tools to explain, persuade, and argue, to become true participants in Roman society. Rhetoric allowed empowered citizenry.

That’s it. I teach because everyone deserves a fair chance and right now, not everyone gets it. I teach so my students have the tools they need to make decisions, to lead, to make change happen. I teach to give my students power. 15 years after learning the basics of rhetoric, I’ve forgotten why they were important in the first place. Now, I wonder why I haven’t more thoroughly explored the relationship between ethos, logos, and pathos, and the connections between speaker, audience, and purpose with each student I’ve encountered in my teaching career.

Next year, I will have to read deeply, think hard, and work my ass off to teach texts that are unfamiliar and difficult even to their teacher. I’ll have to use strategies that are new to me. I’ll be in that place where real learning begins to happen, that uncomfortable position right on the edge of clarity. It is scary to me, but I know it’s the right thing to do. My students deserve empowerment.

And, I’ll have some great jam to make the difficult year just a little sweeter.

Rhetorical Jam
I devised this recipe came after reading so many other recipes, exploring proportions, ingredients, methods, and whatnot, that I cannot say it arose from any one place. In fact, I think that I can safely say the recipe is mine.

You will need:
3 cups of scalded, peeled peaches, finely chopped (see Note 1)
1 cup roughly mashed blackberries
1 envelope of powdered pectin
5 cups of granulated sugar
½ teaspoon unsalted butter (to help reduce foam)
¼ cup of cognac (see Note 2)

To make the jam:
Stir the fruit and pectin together in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to a full boil, stirring frequently. You will only need to boil the fruit a minute or so at this step. Add all of the sugar and the butter and bring the mixture back to a full boil. This may take some time, depending on the size and shape of your pan—it took me nearly ten minutes to get it back to a full boil. Boil for approximately one minute (it won’t kill your jam to boil it a little longer), then remove from heat. Pour in the cognac and stir to disperse. With a large, flat spoon, skim off any foam that has collected.

Pour or ladle the mixture into sterile jars. Process according to your water-bath canner’s directions, or let come to room temperature then freeze.

This recipe makes a little more than 3 pints of jam.

Note 1: To scald and peel peaches, bring a large pot of water to boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. When the water on the stove comes to a boil, drop in the peaches. Leave the peaches in the hot water for about a minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and drop into the ice water. After about a minute in the ice water, you’ll find that the skins have become so loose, you can slip them easily off of the fruit. Slip the skins off and discard (or eat—the skins taste great to me), then chop the fruit.

Note 2: If your alcohol isn’t to your taste, omit it. You’ll still have a wonderful jam. ECG accuses me of adding alcohol to nearly everything, but I love the complexity it adds to flavors. Here, it adds a bass note to the bright fruit flavors.