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.