Monday, January 29, 2007

Smart Food in a Beautiful Place

This weekend, four very smart people, three very intelligent pets, and myself went on a trip. There, we were surrounded by beauty and science, always the best of combinations.

There, we also had a smart breakfast. Artists and scientists (and people who were both artists AND scientists) alike devoured this breakfast, and everyone proclaimed it delicious. None of them realized the intelligence of the breakfast, that it had the power to help lower cholesterol and protect against a variety of cancers. That didn't matter though, because if they knew the science behind it, they may not have enjoyed the art of it quite so much.

When Art Meets Science Banana Bread

The magic ingredients are the flaxseed, whole wheat, yogurt and walnuts. Two superfoods and two super-fibers in one heavenly loaf. But even better, this is a moist banana-y bread, especially delicious when smeared with butter or cream cheese. Does that defeat the science of it? Nah.

You will need:
1/2 cup butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons flaxseed meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about three)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup coarsely chopped walnut halves

To make the bread:
Preheat your oven to 350 and butter a large loaf pan.

In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and beat to combine.

In another bowl, sift together flours, flaxseed meal, baking soda, and salt. Using a spatula, mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture, folding until just combined. Add bananas, yogurt, vanilla and mix gently, again until just combined. Fold in walnuts.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for an hour and ten minutes, or until your finger doesn't leave an indentation when you gently press the top. Remove from the oven and let the loaf rest for ten minutes or so before releasing it on a cooling rack.

The bread should keep, if wrapped, on the counter for a week.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Bit Small

Big decisions ahead right now are making me feel like this:

This is a portrait of a little, pale friend I found on farmer's market produce last week. If you click on the image, you'll zoom in enough to see the reflection on her frail shell.

I put her on one of my hoya vines, the one suffering a scale outbreak, hoping she'd lay eggs and her offspring would eat the baby scales. She preferred the blank expanse of an open wall.

I wonder what happened to her.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Chocolate: Mightily Persuasive

I’m taking a quick break from reading rough drafts of my AP English Language and Composition students’ persuasive papers. They’re writing papers that identify the responsibility of the American citizen in today’s society, and these papers must draw from the essays and speeches we’ve read in class so far. My students must position themselves within the grand conversation of poets and philosophers, but make their argument relevant to their generation. They’re writing to each other as their audiences, telling each other how to be better citizens of this beautiful and frustrating country. The process of writing this particular paper is both driving them crazy and thrilling them, perhaps in equal measure.

Although assigning this essay means that I have to read stacks of rough drafts and provide helpful guidance on each, the experience of watching my students determine their responsibilities as members of our society is fascinating.

First, I’m amazed how completely the essays fall into two camps. Many students are writing essays that position the individual as the cornerstone to a healthy society, and because of that, the individual has the responsibility to make change happen if society doesn’t follow the standards of his conscience. Therefore, in the face of injustice, the individual must protest, publicly assert his opinion, or in some cases, even break laws. The other camp places the common good over the individual’s conscience, and claim that the individual must sacrifice comfort, privacy, and sometimes even freedom of speech to ensure the health and safety of our nation. This divide, of course, mirrors many of the conversations our nation has with itself every election season. When I read these student papers, I keep looking for a paper that somehow shows that the two truths aren’t mutually exclusive, but in fact are dependent upon each other. I keep searching for the paper that recognizes that the individual voice protects the multitudes which in turn protect the individual. We can’t have a healthy nation without healthy individuals and vice versa. I haven’t found that essay yet.

Second, this essay is leading more students in for extra help during lunch or after school than any essay I’ve assigned (and the AP students have written A LOT of essays already this year). I’ve found that the problems with which my students are struggling are not in synthesizing the ideas of the past, but in making them relevant to the present. The first camp has no problem telling me that Thoreau was correct in arguing:

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? (Civil Disobedience)

However, the same group struggles with what that means for the teenager of today. The other group that claims the primacy of the community struggles just as much. None of my sixteen year old students seem comfortable telling their peers that they need to take action in some way. I know how hard it is to learn to assert one's self. I’m 31 years old, and still trying to figure out how to do it, but at least my students are learning now. Because, whatever they believe they are responsible for in American society, they will never make it happen if they can’t assert its truth.

And finally, what is perhaps the most fun part of the assignment is seeing my students learn to use the tools we’ve been analyzing in other texts. I hear snippets of conversations like, “Maybe I could use an analogy to make my point clearer,” and “Hey, that’s nice deductive reasoning happening in that paragraph.” They’ve moved beyond just recognizing how arguments are made and are now finally applying these tools. The shift from recognition to application is so gratifying for me to observe. My students may not be aware of it, but now that they have begun to use these tools, they have changed their futures. Suddenly, they are armed with some very powerful weapons.

Irrefutable Logic Brownies
Adapted from Epicurious

Last night, every part of my body screamed for chocolate. I considered mixing up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but that wasn’t enough. I needed lots and lots of chocolate wonderfulness. I needed brownies.

I’ve made brownies quite a few times. Every recipe I’ve tried has had some issue. Some recipes don’t have that crackly-caramelized crust that is necessary for a good brownie, and some miss out on the dense, fudgy interior. I do not want my brownie to be cake. Brownies and cake are completely different foods and should never be mixed up. Anyhow, last night I found the recipe that meets all of my brownie needs, and what’s more, it’s as easy as making brownies from a mix. (I’m telling you the truth, KL.)

These are brownies that I could never argue against. Why would I want to? They are as persuasive as chocolate gets.

You will need
10 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) of unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups sugar
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large cold eggs
½ cup flour
⅔ cup walnut pieces

To make the brownies
Preheat the oven to 350 and place the rack in the bottom third. Lay two pieces of parchment paper or foil across each other in an 8 inch square baking pan to line the bottom and sides of the pan. Leave the edges of the paper or foil hanging over the sides of the pan.

In a microwave-proof bowl, melt the butter in the microwave until just completely melted. It shouldn’t take more than thirty seconds. Stir in the sugar, cocoa powder, salt, and coffee granules. Stir vigorously to combine. Place the bowl back in the microwave and zap it for another thirty seconds to help melt the chocolate and sugar. Take it out and stir some more. The mixture will look granular.

Stir in the vanilla then add the eggs one at a time. Make sure the first egg is completely integrated before adding the next egg. After mixing the eggs, the batter should look shiny and stick to itself more than to the side of the bowl. Stir in the flour until it disappears, then beat the mixture for 40 strokes (more or less) with whatever you’re using—wooden spoon, spatula, whatever. Stir in the nuts, then spread the batter into the pan.

Bake until a toothpick gets only slightly smeared with moist batter when you stick it in the center of the brownies, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool (yeah right), lift the brownies out of the pan by the paper edges, and cut the chocolaty-ness into whatever size will satisfy your need.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Holiday Senses

I've been out of town, celebrating Christmas with my family in New Mexico and ECG's in Houston.

I heard:
A very happy bird in a juniper tree
My mother's whistling kettle
Lots of lovely Argentinean Spanish

I smelled:
Vinho verde
The hot brown butter in which crêpes fried

I felt:
The damp velvet of Spanish moss, recently fallen out of an old oak tree
Cold-stung eyes
Family’s arms

I tasted too much to tell, but here is some of what I saw:

Happy New Year everyone. May each of us, and the world, find peace in 2007.