Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lemon Curd

Passover is nearly here, my long stage of denial is over and I'm now in the frantic activity mode. I've had years when I really went nuts getting rid of every speck of chametz and completely changing over the kitchen to dishes and cookware used only during Passover. In the past we've been joined at our seder by friends who are considerably more detail-oriented Jews than I am but I always wanted them to feel comfortable so I prepared a bit more thoroughly . This year is simpler but nonetheless there's a ton of cleaning to do, all the regular cookware and flatware I'm intending to use needs to be made kosher for Passover through immersion in boiling water, the counters are scrubbed, the refrigerator is throughly cleaned and the cupboards are emptied of non-Passover foods and wiped down. And, with a houseful of guests coming Monday night for the first seder, there's plenty of regular old run of the mill housecleaning to do as well.

I try to look for the spiritual metaphors of liberation, freedom, and rebirth as I scrub but honestly, I just want to prepare the kitchen so I can get to the cooking. I was pretty wiped out after cleaning tonight, but I simply had to start my official Passover cooking with a batch of Meyer lemon curd.My email pal Ruth gave me this recipe years ago and it's become tradition in my home. When eating matzoh for a week, it's nice to have a special spread. The original recipe called for regular old lemons but I love Meyer lemons so much that I tried using them a few years ago and found that they make a delightful curd though I did cut the sugar back slightly as I like my lemon curd quite tart. It's remarkably easy to make, one of those things that comes out looking far more fabulous than the work really merits. I make a few jars each year, enough for us and to share with friends. The recipe is here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

An Outing

The Spouse was able to rearrange things at work and I am still desperately trying to deny Passover's imminent approach so we decided that a trip to Seattle sounded much more pleasant than cleaning kitchen cupboards.

We packed up the kids after a long debate about bringing laptops along. Needless to say I found that issue less urgent than my boys did and, to punish me, they spent the first 30 minutes of the 3 hour drive squabbling loudly. Then, praise God, they fell asleep. The Princess kept busy with a bag of amusements I'd packed for her so "when-do-we-get-there?" wasn't repeated too many times.

It wad a gorgeous, sunny day and we were blessed with very little traffic and an easy entry into Seattle despite its mind boggling freeway system which includes numerous mysterious offshoots and exits off both the right and the left sides which strikes me as particularly demented and makes for slightly stressed out day trippers. After wedging the mighty minivan into a tiny underground parking space with a whole 4 inches to spare on either side, we walked out down to the Pike Place Market, a Seattle institution that I loved visiting as a kid. There's enough going on there to keep everyone interested and amused for the day.

We met up with good friends who were also visiting the city this week. The Princess and her best buddy posed for pictures with the pig:We did a little shopping, lots of browsing, and lots of eating (which is described in detail, with photos, here). I enjoyed showing my children some of the things I remembered from childhood visits to my beloved aunt including the original Starbucks, the crumpet shop, and Market Spice tea.

We gave each of the boys a little spending money to play with and they'd brought a bit of their own. MonkeyBoy spent a few dollars on tooth destroying candy and then gave quite a bit of money to the street performers. As we were leaving the market and walking back to the car at the end of the day a woman who was clearly needy asked us for a little something. I gave her a couple of dollars and then noticed MonkeyBoy reaching for his wallet once again. He was a bit troubled but gave the lady the $5 bill that he had left. He actually hesitated because, he later told me, he'd planned on using that money as his contribution to the MS Walk in 2 weeks. Maybe it's easy for him to give away money because he's rarely ever earned it, but I was very proud of his generosity. Given what an absolute pill he can be much of the time, it does me good to know he has such a giving and non-judgmental nature.

The Dark Lord seemed to have a fine time despite spending a fair amount of time showing us the teen attitude he's perfecting these days. (I've recently stumbled upon the term bershon which pretty much sums it up.) What amazes me is how the kid manages to retain the bored/cool/whatever look while chowing down on a giant cookie! His observations on the day in Seattle can be found here.

It's not such a long drive, really, and The Princess travels well as long as I have the foresight to burn through a bunch of ink downloading enough things from Enchanted Learning to keep her entertained, so we might make the trip more often. A change of scenery is good.

Eating at Pike Place Market

We found ourselves suddenly able to take a day off today and decided to pack up the kids and head for Seattle. We had neither the time nor the money for an overnight stay but figured a change of scenery and a few hours at the Pike Place Market would be a perfect outing.

I hadn't visited the market in years but it was a regular stop on visits to my aunt when I was young and I figured there would be enough there to keep all the kids amused for the day. We made a few stops that honored my childhood memories. At The Crumpet Shop I was delighted to buy my kids warm crumpets with butter and honey--a sweet, sticky, and perfect snack. My aunt took me there during my Anglophile phase and I never lost my fondness for a good toasty crumpet. At Market Spice I was able to pick up a bag of their famous tea, rich with orange and cinnamon which was a favorite of mine growing up.

Though the kids found it dull as anything, I was loving all the gorgeous produce. But after a fair amount of aimless wandering we found ourselves good and hungry and needing a proper meal. With all three of The Picky Ones giving input, choosing a lunch spot was tedious as no one could agree on anything. We tried one of the venerable old restaurants in the middle of the market but once seated we were rather abruptly moved from a perfectly nice booth with a lovely view to a table back in an upstairs corner with a view of cleaning supplies. After the move we were ignored by the waitress, which gave a us a long time to contemplate a menu that, though extensive, grew rather less appealing with each reading. Despite rumbling stomachs, we (politely) up and left in the hopes of escaping an unpleasant and overpriced meal. I'd run out of patience for juvenile kvetching and made everyone grab a stool at Piroshky Piroshky which proved to be a brilliant move. The kids had the potato and onion pastries which were hearty and savory and absolutely without surprises or green matter so they were happy. My selection was filled with deeply browned onions and cabbage that was sweet and delicious. The pastry dough was both light and rich and had I not been perfectly satiated I might have sampled some of their sweet pastries which also looked divine. If I hadn't been so busy hoovering down my food I might have taken a photo or two. I wish I had because in addition to being extremely tasty, the piroshki were also very pretty.

Once fed I made a stop at Beecher's Cheese for some of their Flagship cheese. I was quite proud of my foresight because I even remembered an insulated lunch bag just in case anything needing needing to be chilled caught my eye. Later I couldn't pass up a giant molasses cookie at Cinnamon Works bakery which had the perfect chewy/crunchy thing going on and had just a bit of a kick from the ginger.

All in all it was a fine day, a perfect little escape, and a lovely chance to share some of my childhood memories with my kids.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

An Old Favorite

A simple dinner tonight: creamy polenta topped with garlicky sauteed chard and crumbled sheep's milk feta. There's not a whole lot to say about this dish except that it's easy, healthy, and delicious. My friend Laura and I often share this meal when we're lucky enough to spend the day together.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Watch This Movie

Wetback: The Undocumented documentary--I came across this film because a Manu Chao song was used in the soundtrack. It's an amazing film about undocumented immigrants--what drives them to come here (poverty--big surprise) and the many dangers they face on the journey. Because I work with these kids I feel it my obligation to learn what I can about them, but anyone who's ever wondered why there are so many undocumented laborers in the US needs to see this movie. The movie presents very moving personal stories, but also some amazing facts, including that undocumented workers account for over $15 billion in contributions to the US economy,this being the difference between taxes paid and services used. The movie is skillfully made, the music is outstanding, and you will not regret having taken the time to search this one out.

Macaroni and Cheese

Passover is rapidly approaching and I find that my cupboards are still brimming with chametz, the various grain products that Jews are prohibited from eating or possessing during the eight day holiday. Forbidden foods include oats, barley, corn, and the vast number of wheat related products that we rely so heavily on: bread, pasta, tortillas, crackers, and so on. While I rather enjoy having a week that's so very distinct from the rest of the year, getting ready is rather tiresome.

A dish of delicious homemade macaroni and cheese could serve two purposes: using up pasta and reviving my spirit for there's little in this world I love more than a good homemade macaroni and cheese. It's taken me years to settle on just the right formula. Many pounds of perfectly good cheese have been wasted in the search for the perfect mac. I settled on Jack Bishop's recipe (with a few alterations) sometime last year and haven't looked back. His preference is for more bread crumbs and I prefer somewhat fewer and with a garlicky kick. He's adamant about specific cheeeses and I am far more flexible with good old Tillamook cheddar often providing the bulk of the cheesy goodness. My take on Mr Bishop's fine recipe is here.

The pickiest of The Picky Ones won't touch homemade macaroni and cheese with a ten foot pole. Announcing my dinner plans, he began to work himself up into a frenzy of indignant kvetching about how I never make anything he can eat. I regularly offer to teach him to make anything he thinks he could choke down but his general response to that is a rather loud refusal. Oddly enough he decided he'd try this time so while I made our macaroni and cheese, he made a simple red sauce and we were able to use up two pounds of pasta in one meal. The yummy macaroni was served with leftovers of what we now refer to as Orangette carrot salad followed by slices of leftover orange cake. All in all, a perfect little meal.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

An Indian Supper

I spent much of the afternoon in an overstuffed chair at a cafe with a new library find: The Indian Spice Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj. This treasure covers, in delicious detail, the spices, herbs, produce, and other ingredients that make the cuisines of India so distinctive and includes a couple of recipes to highlight each ingredient. Needless to say, dinner would be Indian. We made a quick stop at the local Vietnamese market for ginger, chiles, cabbage, cilantro, and a few other things because, naturally, surrounded by all that produce, the menu just kept growing in my mind.

I came home and whipped up the following three dishes: Punjabi aloo, chana masala, and spiced cabbage. Aloo means potatoes, and this dish is the first Indian dish I mastered years ago using a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian. It's very versatile and can be made in a number of different ways. Sometimes I add peas for color, greens for the vitamins, or chickpeas for extra protein. It hardly matters what you do as the dish will still be delicious. You can find my take on the the original recipe here.

The chana masala I've written about before. I found the recipe on Orangette a few weeks ago and have now made it 4 times. It never disappoints, especially reheated for breakfast.

As for the cabbage, it was a snap. I heated some coconut oil and added mustard seeds, waiting until they popped. Then into the pan went a thinly sliced red bell pepper and a good pinch of turmeric. Once the pepper was soft I added half of a green cabbage, very thinly sliced along with a pinch of salt. I stirred and fried until the cabbage was soft and sweet.

Early on in the process I'd thrown some rinsed basmati rice into my darling little rice cooker along with a broken cinnamon stick and a few crushed cardamom pods. Of course I wished for some freshly baked flat breads and a nice chutney or two, but this was spur of the moment and I was quite happy with the meal I'd whipped up. I think The Picky Ones ate sandwiches, which left us with lots of tasty leftovers.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Last night of the term

Tonight was the end of winter term. I've been through this dozens of times over the years but for some reason I had a lot of students who were hard to let go this time. Most of my students come into the class at least somewhat literate and with enough educational background to learn the material in 11 weeks and then they move on to the next level. Those that need to repeat are the ones I get to know. I was able to pass a number of repeating students this time around, including one boy who had come into my class barely literate and is now moving on after three terms with me. He's a sweet boy and I'll miss him, but the smile on his face when I gave him his final exam results was radiant and I won't soon forget that. All three of my east African girls are moving on as well. My classroom will be a less vibrant place without their musical voices and fluttering veils. As a parting gift, Yasmin offered to decorate my hands again which I find so exotic and beautiful.

In the coming days I need to get my house Passover ready and plan and prepare a seder. Not really a vacation by any means as I will be crazy busy but hopefully I'll find a few minutes for recharging.

Egg Salad

Egg salad? What's the big deal, right? Who doesn't know how to make egg salad? But this egg salad is something special.

I'm not a very enthusiastic egg eater but my doctor is now urging me to consume what strikes me as an insane amount of protein. I think she'd be happy if I consumed half a cow a day. She knows my feelings on meat and has consequently encouraged me to up my egg intake.

You won't see me wolfing down a plate of scrambled, fried, or over-easy eggs. I like my eggs hidden, disguised, tucked away. A sandwich is perfect but the standard, bland, full-of-mayonnaise egg salad has never really done much for me. Years ago I read the wonderful memoir Miriam's Kitchen in which author Elizabeth Ehrlich explores both the spiritual and culinary sides of Judaism at the side of her mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor. I loved the book, but all I ever cooked from it was the egg salad which is so distinctive that it really has little to do with the pale yellow goo we call by that name. This egg salad is special, you need to plan ahead just slightly and everyone who eats it will ask for more.

It starts, as so many good things do, with lots of deeply browned onions. Three or four onions to half a dozen eggs is a good ratio. Slice them thin or dice and then sauté in a mixture of 2 tablespoons butter and the same amount of olive oil. Here is where you need patience because the darker and sweeter you let the onions get, the better the egg salad will be. Boil half a dozen eggs, cool, peel, and chop finely in a good sized bowl. When the onions are perfectly dark and sweet, scrape them along with all the pan oil over the eggs. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with finely chopped fresh dill. That's it, really.

I served this today along with some freshly baked honey-whole wheat rolls and it was just about perfect with the windows open and a lovely blossom-scented spring breeze drifting through the kitchen . The friends who were supposed to come for lunch were unable to make it (now they know what they missed!) but we enjoyed the meal nonetheless.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Turkey Sandwich

I've finally decided to faced the fact that we are a mere two weeks from Passover. The more ambitious of my tribe have been cleaning, scrubbing, and planning for weeks while I've merrily had my head in the sand. The friend who normally prods me into action as we plan our shared family seder is no longer speaking to me, so I've been a state of denial and realize that I'm going to have to make it happen without her which is both overwhelming and quite sad.

I made the initial crosstown trek to the one Albertson's store that carries all the kosher-for-Pesach items and bought the initial round of supplies including 10 pounds of matzah and the nasty kosher marshmallows that my kids seem to find a reasonable compensation for a week without bread, pasta, tortillas, cereal, and crackers. I've never understood th attraction of the marshmallows but they keep the kids happy.

I was feeling generous and decided to splurge a bit and buy The Dark Lord some flesh. While we have the requisite two sets of dishes (more actually) and all the cookware and what have you to enable us to cook and serve separate meat and dairy meals, meat is rarely seen in our house. I'm just not much of a meat cook, mostly because there's not a whole lot of meat I like. I did order 5lb of beef brisket which, when cooked according to my grandmother's recipe, really isn't meat at all as it melts in the mouth..."like buttah". I'll pick that up next week and cook it to serve my family midweek when the post-seder grumbling begins.

But today I bought the kid a pound of sliced kosher turkey so he could make a bunch of sandwiches and grow a few more inches. I can only buy this stuff at the one store across town so it's a bit of an occasion but I was happy to get the kid his much loved meat. He hoovered down a couple of sandwiches this afternoon and was eating the turkey once again when I came home from work this evening. I noticed that he had his meat sandwich on a dairy plate and was pointing out the error when I realized that he'd also put a bunch of cheese on his turkey sandwich. Now, mixing up plates I can understand. We eat meat so rarely that it's not uncommon to reach for the default (dairy) plates but someone usually remembers. But it's rather hard to accidentally put cheese your turkey sandwich. When I asked him about it, what I heard was something along the lines of "the rules are stupid, I can eat whatever I want, and I'm not even Jewish anyway".

Whew. It felt like one of those handle-this-correctly-or-you're toast parenting moments. I tried to stay calm which wasn't easy while The Spouse (who, I'll just add here, isn't even Jewish) tossed the whole $6.50/lb turkey sandwich in the trash which rather ticked off both The Dark Lord and myself as I was busy trying to determine my best response.

I know I can't force my kid to be Jewish. I can't (nor do I want to) tell him how he has to be Jewish. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that he be expected to respect the rules of this house. We keep kosher. Not by Chabad standards, but biblical kashrut is an important part of my keeping a Jewish home and it's been that way since The Dark Lord was tiny. I have no idea why he wanted to flaunt the rules so blatantly tonight. I kept trying to imagine what he hoped to accomplish with that turkey and cheddar sandwich. Why was it so important to him? And to me?

Judaism and I have a complex relationship and I tend to move in and out of my need for traditional observance. Sometimes I attend services regularly and other times I just can't be bothered. Sometimes I am bowled over by the wisdom and beauty of Jewish ritual and sometimes I think it's all hooey and I'd rather just knit. I've had periods when I examine the mitzvot (commandments) in great detail and try to increase my level of observance and other times I dig deep and realize that I can't in good conscience participate.

But the thing is, kashrut is easy. My friends who have more liberal diets will think I'm crazy for saying so, but really, it's easy once you get the hang of it. And it's concrete. There are things Jews don't eat and there are ways that Jews don't eat. There's nothing inherently wrong with shrimp or bacon or cheeseburgers--we just don't eat them. I don't have to dither around about what's permitted or how I can justify something. The food is either kosher or it isn't. And every time I choose the hechshered sour cream over the one with gelatin, every time I order the only vegetarian dish in a restaurant, every time I drive across town for kosher meat then I'm making choices that affirm my Judaism. At least that's what I've always thought.

I've always been squeamish about meat. I can't really choke it down unless I block out images of dead animals. Kashrut requires separate meat and dairy meals--you make one or the other. I like to say that I'll take butter over meat any day, but really I find it rather nasty to cook and eat meat so 99% of the time we eat dairy or vegan around here. We're always told that kosher slaughter is more humane but in the end, the cow is still dead and probably isn't able to distinguish between the relative merits of a bolt to the skull or a sharp knife to the throat.

Today as the man in the kosher deli sliced up my Rubashkin turkey I couldn't help but think of all the horror stories I've read about the kosher meat processing plants. It's bad enough that the meat's not sustainably raised and that the animals likely don't have much of a life before slaughter. It's also very likely that the meat was processed by exploited laborers who work a miserable, dangerous job for shockingly low pay. And my buying this "kosher" meat perpetuates all of this. What, I wonder, is Jewish about that?

So in the end all I could really do is talk to The Dark Lord about respecting his parents by respecting house rules which, if you know your ten commandments falls under number five. That teen bravado that's been flexing its muscles backed down pretty quickly. He couldn't say it or anything, but I knew he was sorry when he started baking cookies and brought me the first fruits of his labors.

MS Walk

A couple of people have asked how they can donate to the walk I'm doing to raise funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society on April 14. Any generous souls who are interested in supporting the team named in honor of my mom are more than welcome to visit here and make a donation. Many, many thanks!

Sunday, March 18, 2007


It's not in the least bit likely that I could be found in a Methodist church early on a Sunday morning. In fact, it's happened exactly once and it was today. I accepted an invitation from one of the Kateri Park volunteers to attend a service where her choir would be providing the music. Svila is a women's choir which performs Balkan songs. A few years ago I worked with another member of the choir and always lamented the fact that I was never able to attend a performance due to my work schedule so I jumped at this invitation, even if it meant going to church which, I confess, always freaks me out just a bit. I'm always afraid I'm going to blurt out some Hebrew or something. I am familiar with this particular church's basement from years of playgroup but I'd never really been upstairs. This is a very open and progressive church and I don't know what I was worried about--we were warmly welcomed.

And the singing! Absolutely breathtaking. Anyone familiar with albums like Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares will know this style of singing, full of rich, complex harmonies,haunting tunes, and joyous bleats as punctuation. This was my first experience with a live performance and it literally brought tears to my eyes as the six women filled the sanctuary with their spectacular voices. I can't wait to hear Svila again.

The pastors of the congregation reminded us more than once of the big peace rally planned for today, the 4th anniversary of the Iraq disaster. I knew this was coming up but I had forgotten and made plans to take two of my students out to Fabric Depot this afternoon. So The Spouse headed out with both boys who made their usual grumbly noises upon leaving the house but had plenty to report once they arrived back home. I wish I could have joined them as I am as furious as anyone about the war, but I had to honor my promise to take these young women out. And we had a lovely time gushing over silks and petting the yarn together. While part of my family was marching against the war, I figure I was doing my bit for improved Jewish-Muslim relations. The photo from today's rally was taken by The Dark Lord, whose account of the event can be found here.

Not even a recipe

...more of a reminder, really, that such simple, tasty things exist. When I was pregnant with my daughter 5 years ago I gave up coffee, wanting to do what I could to make up for the ancient, broken down body the poor child had to grow in. But I never lost my need for something warm to get my day started. Most mornings during that winter and early spring I'd make hot chai-spiced milk sweetened with a touch of honey. I have no idea why tonight it struck me as the perfect follow up to a delicious pizza 'festosa' from Pizzicato but once the little one was asleep and the males of the family headed downstairs to watch a movie, I wanted nothing else to keep me company as I do some writing and catch up on what's going on in the world.

Heat milk (even faux milk works) with a dash each of ground cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger and the tiniset bit of freshly ground black pepper. Add a splash of honey and, if you're feeling extravagant, half a vanilla bean. Simmer gently for 10 minutes or so and squeeze the vanilla seeds from the pod into the milk. Drink slowly from your very favorite cup--mine was appropriated from my husband who bought it at a ceramics sale last December. It's without a handle and has darling little feet. I'd never use it for coffee but it's my vessel of choice for anything warm and milky.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


They seem to be popping up everywhere. We saw a pair of bald eagles overhead a few weeks ago, last week at the beach one flew by the beach house, no more than 6 feet from the big picture window. Today we spent most of the afternoon outside, The Spouse toiling away in the garden while I sat in the sun and spun up some new roving. Looking up I spotted first one, then two bald eagles lazily circling overhead. And then, I swear, they began tossing to each other as they flew through the sky. This went on for ten minutes or so, allowing each of us to get a good look at them as they went on about the business of perpetuating the species.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


My doctor called recently to remind me that she needed my blood tested every three months or so to keep an eye on the thyroid hormones and make sure I am staying "balanced" so I made an appointment for yesterday. I've always appreciated living rather close to the naturopathic clinic since I seem to spend rather a lot of time there when things get wacky. But I've always driven--it's a short drive which is helpful when I am running late (my usual state of affairs). Yesterday, though, I decided that if I got up early enough I might just manage to walk at least one way. I brought change for the bus in case I needed to ride home but I ended up walking there and back. It took me nearly an hour and a half including the time I was at the clinic, so I didn't cover the distance particularly quickly, but it was quite enjoyable with my iPod playing one of my very favorite albums. Given how rotten I felt less than a year ago, I am very grateful that I have the energy and strength to be able to walk four miles.

Four miles is slightly less than I've signed up to do next month for the MS Walk. Both MonkeyBoy and The Dark Lord will be walking with me. My mother has MS and we've seen up close what a devastating disease it can be so we thought it would be a good way to honor her struggle.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Dinner

It must have been this morning's 4 mile walk that caused me to be ravenous enough at midday to plot out a relatively complex meal for dinner. It wasn't really a complex meal in the least, but since I've been spending so little time in the kitchen lately, it felt like a big deal.

I started some bread and then went to Jack Bishop's A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen for inspiration. The recipes are simple, use relatively few ingredients, and make the most of seasonal produce. I ended up making a salad of tiny lentils with dill and feta and served a pecan and arugula pesto over fresh linguine. I wasn't thrilled by either dish but I think the lentils will improve overnight. The pesto was just a bit odd, I guess. I love the flavor of arugula with mixed greens in a salad or tucked into a sandwich, but the heat of the pasta caused that distinctive flavor to dissipate and the final dish just Not a bad thing, but not what I was hoping for.

The surprise was dessert. While I am in no hurry for Passover to be here, I am mindful that the holiday is approaching and there's quite a bit of flour around here needing to be used up so I spent some time with King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking which I'd recently checked out from the library. It's a huge book full of all kinds of things, but the whole grain orange cake caught my eye. Made mostly with whole wheat pastry flour, it was delightful: moist, light, and with a heavenly orange aroma. It had tasty glaze which surely would have made a white flour cake cloying but took this more substantial cake from sturdy to special. The resident teen was only to happy to gobble it down, as were the rest of us (in a slightly more restrained fashion). The recipe is here.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Beach

Every time I've gone to the beach in the last 30 or so years I've thought about a childhood visit we made over spring break. We rented a place in Cannon Beach when I was 11 or 12 and every morning my sister and I went out looking for Japanese glass floats. I was horribly jealous the day she found not one but two floats, one of them bigger than our heads.

It's silly but I think of that crazy jealousy every time I see the ocean. My sister and I (along with our parents, kids, and spouses) spent the past weekend at the beach. Despite the expected chaos of 4 huge boys and one small girl in one house, it was a lovely getaway full of stormy vistas, plentiful food, games, and laughs. I told the story of my long held float envy yesterday morning, realizing even as the words spilled out just how stupid I sounded.

I had a wonderful beach day yesterday. We walked in the rain while the kids explored. We strolled along the bayfront and watched the sea lions barking at one another. We swam at the motel pool and visited the Marine Science Center. And late in the day my sister gave me a beautiful glass float that she'd found earlier (in a shop, not on the beach), a gesture which made me inexplicably happy.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Blog Against Sexism Day

Blog Against Sexism Day

In honor of International Women's Day it's also Blog Against Sexism Day and I thought I'd add my voice to the mix.

My recent Barbie musings, my attempts to raise a strong daughter and fair-minded sons--this is how I've thought of my feminism in recent years. But the following factoid from got me thinking:

Of 876 MILLION illiterate adults in the developing world, two-thirds are women.

Since I started teaching English as a second language, the vast majority of my students have been male. But I do get female students, perhaps one or two for every ten males. Many of them do, indeed, have tremendous literacy challenges. Many of them work outside the home, most cook and keep house for their families, and still they find the time to come to school, to study, to dream of the stability and security they never knew in their countries of birth. They know that education is the key to these dreams and I try to instill in them that it is also the key to their independence and power.

I've seen many of these strong young women over the years, their eyes bright with the excitement of grasping a new idea, of beginning to communicate and express themselves in their new language. Yasmin from Somalia has been one of the most memorable of these students. I had her sister in my class before I met her. Her sister was brilliant, a very quick learner, outgoing, and full of self confidence. Yasmin came to my class a few months later, so different from her sister. She was quiet and struggled persistently with learning English. Nothing came easily to her and there were no other Somali students in the class to help her out. She worked so hard and it broke my heart when she failed the final exam in December. Nonetheless she generously offered to decorate my hands, not holding it against me in the least that she had to repeat. I really felt I'd failed her and spent a lot of time thinking about how I could make things work for her in the coming term.

It's like night and day now. There's another Somali girl in the class along with a young woman from Ethiopia. They speak different languages, but having this female African presence in the class has changed things. They're an outgoing bunch all draped in colorful veils. They lend each other support and it brings me such pleasure to see them tucked in at their table, front and center in my classroom. They're all doing well, but Yasmin has really taken off and it's clear that she's taking great pride in beginning to grasp her new language. I'd begun to have such high hopes for her future.

A couple of weeks ago she announced to me, beaming like the moon, that she's pregnant. Of course I tried to express happiness for her but I knew what this meant for her education. The odds of her continuing on in school are slim. The odds of her mastering English are similarly slim. All her hard work, all her progress may fall by the wayside as she tends to her new baby and those that will surely come after. Her husband will learn his way around in English and she will be dependent on him for information, for money, for everything. I know it's wrong to apply my American values to people with other beliefs but it does sadden me that she'll have no more independence here than she had in Somalia. There is safety and material comfort which must mean a great deal to her, but I imagine her life as a woman will not be significantly different than if she hadn't come to the United States and I can't help but feel that's a shame.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

An Angry Girl

The Princess fell apart today. It wasn't the first time, of course, but it hit me particularly hard. I think it began with cleaning her room which is no easy task. The child is a pack rat (not unlike others in the family) and simply can't manage all the stuff that she feels is important, to the point that her room is often so cluttered with "treasures" that it's nearly useless as a play space.

She has a friend coming to play in a couple of days but I simply couldn't face the cleanup this time so I talked her brothers into doing it in exchange for a great deal of unrestricted computer time. They didn't do a bad job at all, but they had quite a different idea about what was important than she did. It wasn't long before she was in tears, worried that they'd "throw everything away". I called for a time out to examine the pile of , well, junk, that had been swept up and even I failed to see what the problem was in tossing it away. She wasn't able to find what was important or articulate what she needed at all. She just lost it and was in various stages of breakdown for quite some time.

Just about anything would set her off, including a comment about Barbie and how no one ever lets her have what she wants. I tried, helplessly, to explain why I didn't want Barbies in the house. Her brothers even attempted fairly coherent feminist argument with her but she was having none of it. At one point she turned to me with her face all flushed and teary and said, in a shaky voice "Can't you see, Mom, Barbie's just a toy, and toys aren't even important!". Except, obviously, they are and to both of us.

I've lowered my once-high parenting standards more times than I care to admit over the years. It turns out that my boys regularly watch terrible movies, read comic books instead of literature, and play computer games, really lame ones with no educational value whatsoever. I feel like there's this .... something....that boys need that I, as a mother, can't possibly understand but if they have to have their battles then who am I to stand in their way?

So why can't I let my daughter have the same freedom to play as she wishes? Why is so damned hard for me to let her wallow in her girliness? Sure, her brothers roll their eyes at her ballerina tutus and her princess drag and the dolls and fairies.....but honestly, so do I. I don't know what I'm worried about--the kid is strong and sure of herself. I was so proud of her today because even through her anger she was able to stick up for herself and try to make me see things her way. There's no way that a plastic Barbie doll is going to shake that.

Or will it? What is it that we fear so much that we've fought so hard to keep Barbie and Disney and McDonald's and TV out of our home? Why do I feel so strongly about keeping them out of school? I wonder what's wrong with letting them be "regular" kids. The Princess so wants to go to kindergarten next year and I know she'd have a great time. She'd wait her turn and color in the lines and do what she was told all day long if she could be around a bunch of other little girls. I know she'd love it, but I think the experience would change her in ways I don't want her to be changed, ways that might well prevent her from growing up to be herself.

But what kind of mother am I if I won't honor her desires, be they for Barbie or school? No wonder the poor kid is angry. Maybe she needs to throw some plates.

Not a Lot of Cooking Going On

Weekends are one thing....but now it's Tuesday. The last of the chana masala over freshly steamed basmati rice was a perfect breakfast. I really did think about cooking some proper food for everyone today but the sun was out and the garden was begging for attention. With any luck I'll be writing in a few months about the fruits of my lovingly tended blueberries. So far I haven't really had much luck with them, but I think last year's early February warm spell followed by a hard freeze really threw things off.

I could have cooked lunch. I should have cooked lunch. But with the sun shining and my tax refund newly deposited I thought it was surely time for lunch out. I gathered up the kids and we met The Spouse for lunch at Bumblekiss, my favorite tiny restaurant in NE Portland. They have a huge menu with lots of choices even for those who avoid meat and mushrooms. I've had a number of delicious pasta dishes there. Today I chose the rigatoni with blue cheese, broccoli, and toasted almonds. It was delicious. Sitting outside in the warm, almost-spring sunshine it was a heavenly meal.

But this gets me no closer to my goal of making good, healthy everyday food for my family.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Miraculous Chana Masala and Butterscotch Layer Cake

This morning I made uppma for the third time this week. I am hooked! Today's version had bell pepper and peas and I forgot the cashews. I chopped a few and sprinkled them on after the fact, but I much prefer the texture when they're sauteed early on.

I spent much of today reading food blogs, trying to learn a thing or two. There are so many great writers out there! I've always loved Orangette, surely one of the best of the best: lovely writing, beautiful photos, tempting recipes, and a format that is easy to navigate. While visiting there today I looked up a chana masala recipe from some time back, gave it a try and I was not disappointed. It was easy enough to make and turned out absolutely delicious over steamed basmati rice. That would have been enough for me but an actual miracle occurred when I placed it on the table. Neither boy turned up his nose. There were no disparaging comments, and no one went off in search of the peanut butter. They actually ate the richly sauced chickpeas, "weird" spices and all.

That unexpected blessing put me in a fine enough mood to tackle a cake I've long wanted to make. Butterscotch Layer Cake (another Nigella Lawson item) always sounded divine but that bit about making caramel always threw me. I've done it before, but I always find it ridiculously stressful as you stand over the stove and wait and wait and check to see if it's dark enough yet but it's not and you wait some more and then it's burned and you have to start all over again. That whole routine makes me grumpy.

I guess I felt unusually strong this evening. I held out until the caramel just barely smelled burnt and the resulting sauce was delicious and disaster free. The cake itself was not spectacular, it was rather nondescript. Also, while I was certain that I had 8" cake pans, they were nowhere to be found. There's probably a box of baking items somewhere that failed to return from Passover exile--it happens every year--but I foolishly thought I could wing it in 9" pans. And, of course, the cakes were thin and skimpy looking. I was trying to think some way to improve the height factor when bananas came to mind. Nigella even suggests the option of inserting dead ripe bananas between the layers but I decided that bananas sauteed in butter and a sprinkle of brown sugar might be perfect. It wasn't--it was all too sweet and cloying but perhaps I'd simply done too much sampling of the splendid cream cheese-caramel icing. Everyone else was pretty happy with the cake.

Do you need a good laugh?

This is about the funniest thing I've read in a long time. Red Molly has a nice way with words and is often funny but this was above and beyond. I was literally weeping with laughter. I guess being an ESL teacher gives me a special fondness for bad translation.

Shabbos Dinner

One of my goals here is to work on my photography skills. I look at some of the food blogs out there and am blown away by the gorgeous photos. Me, I'm just learning so if it looks totally amateur, well, there's a pretty good reason for that. I keep thinking about how my way of seeing food has become so dull over the last few years and I really need to bring the color and the focus back into my kitchen. I'm hoping the photos are one way to enhance the whole process of making and enjoying food.

We had friends over for dinner last night. Friday night is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, a time for rest and enjoyment and, ideally, a special meal. My only complaint about Friday night is that it comes on Friday night, after a long and busy week. When Friday afternoon rolls around I'm rarely in the mood for a long stint in the kitchen, especially when it's just us (as if there's anyone more important than my family). So, because I enjoy Beth and Liz immensely, and because I really was ready to do some cooking and hang out for hours around the dining table, I made the invitation and got down to bringing the meal together.

I was working with some dietary restrictions which affected my choices but this is how it shook out:

Challah (photo above, shaped and baked by my son)
Hungarian Sweet Potato Soup
Individual Sharp Cheddar Custards
Roasted Multicolored Potatoes
Fruit Salad (pineapple, blueberries, clementines, and Manila mango)
Green Salad (red leaf lettuce, homegrown arugula, carrot, scallions)
Molten Chocolate Babycakes

It was a good meal, not at all difficult to prepare, a little heavy on the custard cups but who can't use a few more tiny Pyrex bowls, right?

I wanted to share the recipes for the soup and the dessert as they have been enthusiastically received by anyone who's eaten them. The soup comes from Passionate Vegetarian, a giant treasure trove of meatless recipes that a good friend recently gave me. This is a delicious soup, rich with the flavors of sauteed leek, dill, and lots of sweet paprika. I first made it to share with friends on a crisp autumn night in a sukkah where it was happily gobbled down by everyone including the pickiest of my three picky offspring who now regularly asks for it. I've made it a number of times since and have somewhat streamlined the author's original process with no ill effects.

The dessert is really only appropriate for people who really, really love chocolate. As I was making it up last night I realized how much like truffle filling the batter is, so be warned. But with a bit of freshly whipped cream and a piping hot cup of coffee I can't think of a better ending to a meal.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Book Recommendation

I recently finished a book that I found very moving. Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail is a beautifully written book about undocumented workers and why they make the risky journey to work in the US. I've worked with lots of these folks over the years, but getting the insight into why they leave and how they get here has really deepened my understanding of their lives. The author is a fine writer and doesn't attempt to hide his sympathies as he speaks with people on both sides of the border. This book is important for anyone who wants to understand the human side of immigration from Mexico (and points south). It's also a really good read.


The Jewish holiday of Purim is rapidly approaching which means two things around here: a scramble for costumes and baking hamantashen. Hamantashen are the customary Purim treat for Jews of Eastern European origin. Triangular pastries enclosing tasty fillings, they are said to represent the pockets (or ears) of Haman, the evil villain in the Purim story.

One thing I truly enjoy about living Jewishly is that time is marked in many ways, including through specific foods. Some have longstanding traditions behind them, others I've made traditional for our family. I only make latkes and doughnuts at Chanukah, I only have lemon curd at Passover, and I only make hamantashen at Purim.

There are probably hundreds of recipes out there for hamantashen dough but I was lucky to find this one early on in my holiday baking experience. It's an easy dough, fragrant with the aroma of fresh orange which compliments traditional fillings perfectly. I've never had any reason to look at any of the other dough recipes because this one is delicious and a snap to make with a food processor.Many people fill their hamantashen with jam or even canned pie filling, both of which are too sweet for my tastes. I like to make fillings from poppyseeds, apricots, prunes, and, for the kids, there are always a few filled with bittersweet chocolate chips which go splendidly with the orange-scented dough. Filling recipes are here. Hamantashen are not the simplest thing to make. Admittedly, they're a bit fiddly and time-consuming. But for a once yearly treat, they're hard to beat.