Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Variations on Leap Day: Chickpea, Squash and Lentil Stew

I don't get out much these days, but last week I got to see a friend of mine star in a community theater production of 33 Variations.  In a nutshell, the play is about a musicologist with ALS studying Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, racing against time to complete her manuscript before she loses the ability to do so, while struggling to understand and communicate with her daughter.  She is baffled by Beethoven's interest in what she considers an insignificant, trifling theme, and pores over his manuscripts, trying to understand why he would invest so much time and energy in exploring and composing variations on a little waltz so beneath him.

In the end -- both of the play and of her life -- she realizes that Beethoven's approach to the theme -- writing an entire variation on the opening turn, the descending fourth and fifth, the repeated notes and so on -- is an attempt to warp time, slowing it down, exploding something that would take only 50 seconds into something that takes 50 minutes to play.  He can slow down time, by appreciating the minutiae that is usually lost in our rush to finish the waltz.  The gift of this understanding comes just soon enough for her to appreciate her last few moments with her daughter, and for her to pass on her insight to her and her boyfriend, who are about to embark on a new life together.

It's a beautiful play, heart-wrenching because the understanding comes so late, but hopeful, because of what the musicologist offers to us, the audience.  How many times have we wished we could stop the inevitable forward march of time?

Today is Leap Day.  The amazing calendar phenomenon that happens once every four years.  I once had a babysitter born on Leap Day, and though I was barely six at the time, I remember her joking that she was still a teenager, since her birthday only came every four years.  Lots of people apparently get married on Leap Day, because it's something really special.  If you celebrate a special occasion on Leap Day, you really savor it.  It's like a stolen day.

I was thinking about this and about the play yesterday afternoon, sitting outside with my daughter.  It was a beautiful afternoon, the first in a long time when it was light enough and warm enough to go outside after her afternoon nap, and we sat in the waning sunlight on the edge of the sidewalk, pulling blades of grass and turning them over in our fingers.  There were airplanes to look at, and people passing by walking dogs, and the occasional car going by.  And through my daughter's eyes, you could hold a year in every one of those moments.  The awe with which she saw things.  The newness.  The brightness and sharpness of sound and color.  The clarity.  So much of it is a blur for me, on any other afternoon.  Knowing that things may change again around here in the not so distant future, that the pace may quicken, I found myself feeling grateful for the minutiae.  The blades of grass.

Like a lot of lentil stews, you could easily see this as a blur of orange and brown.  But try to really taste it.  Find the lemon.  The garam masala.  The tomato.  The firmness of the chickpea.  It's almost meditative.  Maybe dinner will last a little longer than usual.  That's not such a bad thing.

Chickpea, Butternut Squash and Red Lentil Stew

2 t. cumin seeds (I used 1 t. cumin)
2-3 t. garam masala
1 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. red lentils
4 c. vegetable broth
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped into ¾ inch cubes
1 can chickpeas
juice of one lemon
salt and pepper to taste
small bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped (save some for garnish)

Heat a large pot and dry-fry the cumin and garam masala for about 30 seconds, until just fragrant.  Add the olive oil, onion, carrot, garlic and saute for 5 minutes, or until the onion and carrot are softened.

Stir in the lentils, stock, tomatoes and butternut squash, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the lentils are cooked, about 20 minutes.

Stir in the chickpeas, lemon juice and salt/pepper to taste, heat gently. Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro. Serve with a garnish of cilantro.
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Friday, February 24, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again: (Not) Irish Soda Bread

Maybe it's because I live passionately.  Because when I put myself into something, I give 200%, so when it's over, it's like I've created a black hole.  Maybe it's because I am an emotional person.

Whatever it is, I have left some cities on bad terms.

In the middle of graduate school, it was LA.  I was the first in my class to take my comprehensive exams.  I prepared for them for months, nun-like in my devotion.  The day arrived; it went horribly.  I had three professors on my committee: an older conservative male writing his magnum opus, a recently tenured modernist powerhouse male, and a young feminist.  They used me as a pawn to have an argument about what was important in literature, and I didn't perform.  The end came, and I waited outside, in tears.  The feminist came out and told me that they passed me "in spite of" my performance, because they knew I was ready to advance.  I, on the other hand, knew I was ready to leave.  I haven't been back in over twelve years.

More recently, my last position.  A bad situation, after twelve years of earning accolades.  To this day, I have only driven back to that city once, and then, to its outskirts.

Until the other day.

I had occasion to go back to the city today, to campus, for a meeting.  Some consulting work, you might say.

It's a weird thing, to go back to a place like that, where you've left on bad terms.  You feel a strange longing for its familiarity; you know its secrets, its shortcuts, its back alleys.  You look for the things that have changed in your absence, surprised that it could go on without you, wishing it had all stayed the same.  And yet, at the same time, you are thankful for the emotional distance, and you still feel a little sick in the pit of your stomach, finding yourself back there.  You feel relief, passing through, knowing that this is just a visit, not a forever-stay; that this place is no longer yours.  That you know where you don't belong, and that you have somewhere else to go.  Maybe you feel defiance.  With any luck, you feel peace.

I know I can't go home again to the places I've left.  Even if I left them on better terms, I am a different person, and they've changed, too.  And that's not a bad thing.  We've created ourselves anew.

The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (with thanks to JeCaThRe for posting that link last year) would have us all make it the way it was always made, not the way the grocery stores make it for St. Patrick's Day.  There were no eggs or sugar or raisins or baking powder in those breads.  They were brown breads, made with everyday ingredients.

But the damage has been done, and most people now think of Irish Soda Bread as that sweet cake-like bread with the raisins that you get at the bakery in March, even if it's actually Spotted Dog or Railway Cake that they're eating.

You can't go home again.  We can't turn back the clock and pretend that the name of this bread hasn't been co-opted.  But if we don't want to make plain brown bread, we can come to some middle ground, and make peace.

This isn't really Spotted Dog or Railway Cake, because it doesn't have sugar and eggs and all of the other things that make it more like cake; it may have raisins, but at least it's closer to what they had in mind over at the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.  Hopefully my Irish friends will forgive me.

Have you ever left a city on bad terms?  Have you gone back?  Where do you fall on the Irish Soda Bread debate?

(Not) Irish Soda Bread

3 cups (12 oz) of white flour
1 cup (4 oz) of wheat flour
1 1/3 c. buttermilk (pour in a bit at a time until the dough is moist)
1 t. of salt
1 1/2 t. baking soda*
3/4 c. raisins
 * if you are cheating and using baking powder, I found that 3/4 t. baking soda and 3/4 T. baking powder will also work

Soak the raisins in warm water for 5-10 minutes; drain well.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Sift all of the dry ingredients into a large bowl and mix well to combine.  Add raisins and mix to coat.

Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough. Place on floured surface and lightly knead (too much allows the gas to escape).  Shape into a round flat shape, place on parchment, and cut a cross in the top of the dough.

Bake for 45-55 minutes.  Your bread will be done when it sounds hollow if you tap it on the bottom.  Cool and serve with a generous slather of butter!
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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cooking for Others: Italian Wedding Soup

Today the ALI blogging community grieves with Mo, whose water broke last night at just over 22 weeks.

Friends have written beautiful eloquent posts about that grief, and about Mo.  I don't know her very well, but I do know that I am heartsick tonight for her, just as I was when Rebecca's beautiful Lillian Grace was born at 22 weeks, just as I've been too many other times these past few years for my fellow bloggers.  Because as much as we find it difficult to wrap our minds around it, we are part of the interconnected web of human existence.  We are each other.

I hope that there will be lots of people taking care of Mo and her family.  I wish I were there to offer her some comfort, even if just to sit silently with her.  I would probably bring a meal, because that's what I do.  Food is easier than words for me at times like this.  (I add the vegetarian meatball version in case you're cooking for a vegetarian or someone who keeps Kosher and is OK with food cooked in a non-Kosher kitchen like mine.)

I don't know when Mo will be updating her blog, but please go leave her your love.

Italian Wedding Soup
adapted from Williams-Sonoma

2 1/2 quarts (10 c.) low-sodium broth
2 c. water
4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 T. (about 3 cloves) minced garlic, divided
1 bunch kale, stems removed, leaves cut into thin strips

1/2 c. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 c. plain bread crumbs
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1 lb ground pork

for vegetarian meatballs:
1/2 onion, chopped, roasted
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped, roasted
1/2 carrot, peeled, chopped, roasted
Salt and pepper
1 t. olive oil
1/2 cup cooked French lentils

1 1/2 t. balsamic vinegar
1 c. cooked brown basmati rice 1/4 c. breadcrumbs
1/3 c. oat bran

2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 T.  fresh parsley, chopped
1/8 t. nutmeg

1 T. fresh basil, chopped
1/2 t. kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 T. almond milk (soy or regular work too)
2 T. grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg white, beaten

1 1/4 cups ditalini pasta (or other small shape)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, and spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine the chicken broth, water, carrots, 2 teaspoons of the garlic, and the kale in a large Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the carrots are tender, about 30-40 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine meatball ingredients in a medium bowl (or if using the vegetarian version, process in a food processor). Use a small cookie scoop to portion the mixture into roughly 1-inch meatballs and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.

Once the carrots are tender, and while the meatballs are baking, add the pasta to the soup. Continue simmering until the pasta is tender (check the package for cooking time). Add the meatballs to the soup (heat briefly to rewarm if necessary). Season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish each bowl of soup with more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano before serving, if desired.
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Friday, February 17, 2012

Parenting in the Age of Facebook: Nut-Free Healthy Trail Mix Cookies

First, some housekeeping: anyone looking for a BlogHer '12 roommate?  (Yes!  My husband got me a registration for my birthday back in December, and I hope I'll see many of you there!)

Now, for the real meat of today's post:

This morning I took I. and N. for a walk downtown to get a bagel for I.'s breakfast.  It was an exciting trip not just because N. got to wave to the garbage men, or because I. got to wear his rain boots, but because the bagel store has TV.

Yes, it's true: we have no TV in my house.  Not even one on which we watch videos.  But before you pass judgment, know that we have a Netflix subscription that gets watched on a laptop (though we use it at a snail's pace), and that there are plenty of opportunities for my five year old to use the internet--supervised, of course.

Today, as my son was selecting and paying for his honey wheat bagel (because I think it's useful for him to make small transactions like this on his own, with me standing a few feet behind him), I found myself watching TV, too.  Because up there on the flat screen I saw the video I'd seen a few days ago on YouTube, posted by a FB friend, of the father who'd shot his daughter's laptop (which he bought and just upgraded) in response to her FB post about her allegedly demanding parents.  When I watched it the other day, I found myself angry, but not wanting to feed into the (social) media circus already surrounding this family and their choices about conflict resolution.  My son caught it out of the corner of his eye, though, and wanted to know what it was all about.

I explained what had happened, and how her father had reacted, and then asked him what he thought.  Was the girl right?  Was the father right?  We talked about what was missing in the exchange, what they didn't use: their words.  Communication with each other, instead of through a third party: the faceless audience of the internet.

We worry about our children and cyber bullying.  But what are kids learning from their parents about the proper use of media?

Over the years, the internet has made it easier for me to talk to people.  The blogging community has been a source of encouragement, support, comfort.  Sometimes I feel braver, say things I might not have said in person, even when I'm writing to people I know.  But we can't use this media to shout at each other, or worse -- to shout past each other -- if we hope to teach our children love, respect, and tolerance.

I think that parents have the responsibility to build the foundation for communication early on; this doesn't just mean playing with your kid, but really talking with them, trusting them, treating them with respect, and entrusting them with real responsibilities, letting them know that they're an important part of a family partnership.  Sometimes that means baking cookies with them, like I did with I. the other day.  Sometimes it means asking them to take out the trash.  Sometimes it means telling them a difficult truth.  Sometimes it means letting them sit on your lap and saying nothing at all, and really listening when they have something to say.  And then, I think, it's up to us to show them how the internet is just a tool to extend those same principles of communication.

Where does the internet fail you?  What do you think are the limits of virtual communication?  Have you seen the video, and what are your thoughts about parenting in the age of Facebook (Twitter, etc.)?

Healthy Trail Mix Cookies

2 c. old-fashioned oats
1/2 c. whole-wheat flour
1/4 c. ground flaxseed
1/4 c. wheat germ
1/2 t.salt
6 T. unsalted butter, melted
3/4 c. white grape juice concentrate
1 large egg
1 t. vanilla
1/2 c. dried cranberries or raisins
1/4 c. dried apricots, chopped
1/3 c. cacao nibs (or nuts if you prefer)

Preheat oven to 325F. Line baking sheet with parchment.

In large bowl, combine oats, flour, flaxseed, wheat germ, and salt. Add the melted butter and mix well. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combined egg and grape juice concentrate. Pour over the oat mixture and stir well. Fold in fruit and cacao nibs.

Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheets, spacing about 1 inch apart. Flatten slightly with the back of the spoon.

Bake 13-15 minutes, until lightly browned but still soft in the center; do not overbake. Let stand on baking sheets a few minutes to firm up, then transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely.

Store cookies at room temperature, tightly covered, for up to 5 days, or freeze for 1 month.
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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Love Letter: Raspberry Streusel Muffins

Valentine's Day is probably one of those political things that you shouldn't post about if you want to make all of your readers happy.  Because while some people have great relationships, some people are struggling with their significant others, and others have joined in solidarity at the Black Hearts Party.  Then there's the great Valentines Day retail machine: according to the National Retail Federation, the average person celebrating the holiday will shell out $126.03.  Yikes.

I'll admit that we did our little Valentine's Day exchange this morning.  My son got a cookie pop shaped like a heart from me, and a box of Yodels from my husband (there's a longer story there about a Drake's truck on the highway, and curiosity about Yodels, which have never before made an appearance in this house, but I'll leave it at that).  I cut a heart shape into the middle of his avocado and cream cheese sandwich.  I sent him to school with his box of sticker puzzle valentines, and he will come home later, thrilled to show me what he got in return, and as he's pawing through them for the fifth time, we will probably have a discussion about gender norms and why not all girls like princesses and why not all boys like race cars.  We made our own valentines for each other (even for my daughter, who happily ripped hers to shreds), and sent my husband on his week-long business trip this week with an envelope full of handmade cards and a box of conversation hearts, to be opened on Valentines Day.  (I secretly hope that he stashed them in his pocket today and is munching on them surreptitiously during his very serious meetings.)

But as I've been doing all of this, I've been thinking, even more so than usual, that we shouldn't save our hugs and cards and wishes for Valentine's Day.  We should tell people we care about -- not just our significant others, if we have one, or our kids, if we have them, but everyone that we love -- what they mean to us every day.

I am the first one to admit that I'm not very good at this.  I don't make random phone calls to people.  There are several people who are on my list of people to whom I really owe a letter (you lovely ladies who live in Carmel, you know who you are!).  As life has gotten busier, sometimes I even forget to tell my husband I love him when he leaves for work in the morning.  I tell my kids I love them when I kiss them good night, but that's not the same as taking time out of our busy day to do something different, to stop the train barreling down the tracks for a minute.

People aren't around forever.  Friends come and go.  Parents age and die.  Kids grow up and move away.  Colleagues change jobs, get promoted, leave.  Students graduate.  Isn't part of why we're here to leave our beautiful, unique, messy handprints on the hearts of other human beings?  We crave connection with others, and most of us want to feel like we've made a difference in the world.  Why don't we spend more time acknowledging the ways we change each other?

And while we're at it, why don't we spend more time loving and taking care of ourselves with the tenderness and joy we deserve?  Because how can we properly express love for other people if we don't love ourselves?

Back in July, we had a bumper crop of raspberries.  On the advice of friends, I froze a bunch of them and stashed them for use in some undetermined future recipe, to be enjoyed in the middle of winter, when I needed to be reminded of summer days drenched in sunlight.  I finally dug them out this week, when the February weather has taken a turn for the cold and grey, and made these muffins for coffee hour at church.  I wondered what took me so long to use them; after all, we have so many, and more will come in the spring.

Here's my thought for today: do something nice for yourself.  And then tomorrow, when they least expect it, send a love letter to someone who really needs to know what they mean to you.  Maybe, if you're really feeling ambitious, you can make them muffins.

Raspberry Streusel Muffins


1/3 c. all purpose flour
1/3 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 c. brown sugar (or date sugar!)
1/8 t. salt
1/4 t. ground ginger
3 T. butter, cold (you can sub Earth Balance if you like)


1 c. all purpose flour
1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
3 T. coconut oil, melted/cooled (or butter)
3/4 c. sugar
1 large egg
3/4 c. buttermilk
1 1/4 t. vanilla
1 1/2 c. frozen raspberries*
Preheat oven to 350F. Line a standard muffin tin with 12 paper liners.

In a small bowl, make the streusel. Stir together all dry ingredients, then cut the butter into small pieces and add to flour mixture. Rub in butter thoroughly until mixture is very fine and sandy. Pick up the streusel mixture and squeeze it in your hand to form small clumps, repeating until streusel appears to have a much coarser texture. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder and salt.  In a large bowl, stir together melted oil/butter, sugar and egg until well combined. Stir in half the flour mixture, followed by the buttermilk and vanilla extract. Stir in remaining flour mixture, mixing just until the dry ingredients are incorporated and no streaks of flour remain. Fold in raspberries (toss frozen berries in 2 tsp of flour to keep them from “bleeding” into the muffin batter).

Divide muffin batter evenly into prepared baking cups. Cups will be fairly full. Divide streusel mixture over the muffins (be generous, and don’t worry if some of the streusel doesn’t seem to “stick”)

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached.

Turn muffins out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Cooled muffins can be stored in an airtight container.

Makes 12 muffins.

*Note: If using fresh berries, you may need to reduce the baking time by 1-2 minutes.
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Friday, February 10, 2012

February is the C(r)oolest Month: A First Birthday Cake

(First: Thanks, all, for your recent comments on my little mini-series.   I try to leave replies for every comment, so please don't forget to subscribe to follow ups!  I'm giving Blogger's new threaded comments feature a run for its money.  *grin*)

February is a month fraught with mixed emotions for me, which may be one reason I've been feeling so existential lately (hence the "why are we here" posts).

One week ago, my daughter turned one.  We had a small family celebration with just my mother and brother and the four of us.  There was pizza for lunch, which made I. and S. happy.  It was amazing to think about where I was just a year ago, and where I am now.  It's definitely a happier place.

Three years ago, I was in the bathroom of the public library, at the worst point of my last miscarriage, watching my son reading a Dora Valentine book on the floor, barely able to swallow and breathe, trying to hold myself together.  It would be another week before I found myself at the OB, being handed a piece of paper with INFERTILITY printed in big bold handwritten letters across the top.  A referral to other doctors, because they were done dealing with me and my unexplained losses.

Four years ago, I was dealing with the emotional blow of my first pregnancy loss.

Nine years ago, I was visiting my father in the nursing home where he was supposed to be staying temporarily, watching the strongest, stubbornest man I had known succumb to stomach cancer.

And eleven years ago, I was sitting in a Korean restaurant with my future husband, getting up the nerve to declare my love for him in the most backwards, understated way I knew how.

Back in November, I posted about a visit from Buddhist monks, who talked about how life is like an ocean, how what feels like a tsunami at one time ends up being a ripple when you look at the thing in its entirety, and that you feel the most suffering when you spend the most time thinking about yourself and your inappropriate attachment to things that change anyway.  In the past few posts, I've been exploring change and community, and one of the thoughts I'm coming away with is that genuine community withstands change.  As I think about all of these milestones of Februaries past and present, it occurs to me that they're all crests of the tsunamis in my life, the moments of greatest flux, greatest transition and uncertainty.  And that perhaps blogging can help us to feel less suffering (or, to put it another way, to feel more joy) because it helps us to share with others what we sometimes inaccurately see as just our own.  I look back at where I was two years ago in February, at the beginning of this blog's life, and it's remarkable to me how my perspective, my orientation, has changed.

(And: I think about the work that Jjiraffe is doing right now with her Faces of ALI series: that, friends, is an awesome example of how the lines we draw around ourselves are imaginary, at best.  Go read her series, right now.)

So ... in the spirit of community, of losing ourselves in a good way, and of celebrating a life rich with change and challenge: here's a piece of N's first birthday cake for you.  Because it's as much yours as it is ours.  Happy February ... thanks for being here on the journey.

Baby's First Birthday Cake
(adapted from What To Expect The First Year*)
*which I don't think is gospel, but has some useful recipes

2 1/2 c. thinly sliced carrots
2 1/2 c. white grape juice concentrate (you will use slightly less than this)
1 1/2 c. raisins
Vegetable cooking spray
2 c. whole-wheat flour
1/2 c. wheat germ
2 T. low-sodium baking powder
1 T. ground cinnamon
1/4 c. vegetable oil
2 whole eggs
4 egg whites
1 T. vanilla extract
3/4 c. unsweetened applesauce

Combine the carrots with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the juice concentrate in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, until carrots are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add the raisins and process until finely chopped. Let mixture cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Trace the bottom of two 9-inch pans on waxed paper and cut out circles.  Spray pans with cooking spray, place waxed paper in the bottom, and spray the waxed paper again with cooking spray.

Combine flour, wheat germ, baking powder, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Add 1 1/4 c. juice concentrate, oil, eggs, egg whites, and vanilla; beat just until well mixed.  Fold in the carrot puree and applesauce. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans (you may also need to make a muffin or two).

Bake 35-40 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes in the pans, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely.  Frost with cream cheese frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting
(Frosts one two-layer cake)

1/2 c. white grape juice concentrate
1 lb light cream cheese
2 t. vanilla
1/2 c. finely chopped raisins
1 1/2 t. unflavored gelatin

Set aside 2 T. of the juice concentrate.

Blend the remaining juice concentrate, the cream cheese, vanilla, and raisins in a blender or food processor until smooth. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

Stir the gelatin into the remaining juice concentrate in a small saucepan; let stand 1 minute to soften. Heat to boiling and stir to dissolve gelatin.

Beat the gelatin mixture into the cream cheese mixture until well blended. Refrigerate just until the frosting begins to set, about 30 to 60 minutes.
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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Follow Me: Parsnip, Leek, and Sweet Potato Soup

I was never one of the cool, popular kids.  To this day, I have dark, lonely memories of elementary school, when I wore big bug-eye glasses, was a little too smart for my own good, was a little plump, commuted with my mother who taught a few towns away from where we lived, and because of her relationship with the other teachers, was often seen as the teachers' pet.  In seventh grade I got contact lenses and a few new outfits, tried fixing my hair differently, and though it sort of worked--at least people talked to me--it never really changed the reality that I just didn't fit in.  In high school and in college, I found a few friends, and we were our own small islands in the sea of popularity.  I hated and loved it at the same time: I loved the intimacy of a few friendships, and the kind of deep work it took to maintain them, but I hated the people for whom likeability and friendships--or so I perceived them--came so easily.

As an adult, I've continued to cultivate a small number of closer friendships, rather than a large number of superficial ones, despite what my Fac.ebook following would suggest (many of those were my students, and before FB became the social media megacommunity it is now, it was a good way to hunt them down).

And yet, when I started blogging, part of me had fantasies of becoming the next Moxie or Dooce.

Don't get me wrong.  I started blogging for myself.  I still blog for myself.  But I'm blogging, not journaling ... and oh, the lure of fame and fortune.  Well, just the fame.  Readers and followers are like a narcotic.  You get hooked, without meaning to.  I was thrilled when I hit 100 followers recently.  But I lost two over the last two posts, and started to think "I shouldn't have tried this meta-blogging series" or "I ought to be posting better stories" or "I ought to be posting more vegetarian recipes ... lots of my followers are vegetarian or vegan" or "I ought to be posting more cupcake pictures, yeah, that'll keep 'em" or "I haven't posted about yoga in a while."  Or "gee, maybe I really suck at this blogging thing after all."  But the truth is, no matter what I post here, someone's going to not-care about it, or actively dislike it, or in some way feel disconnected.

Truth me told, I spent the better part of my life trying to please people.  When I was young, it was my parents, especially my impossible-to-please old-world father, who would ask me where the last two points went on a test when I got a 98.  Somewhere along the way it became my teachers.  My boyfriends.  My dissertation advisors.  My boss.  My colleagues.  Because really, if I just made people happy, they'd love me, right?  But it never completely worked, because I was always a little prickly around the edges.

Then again, I think about the Moxies and Dooces and Pioneer Womans of the world.  Yes, they're awesome people--or at least, their online personae are (I haven't met any of them in person, though I hope to at BlogHer'12).  But how many of their followers are friends, I wonder?  How many people is it possible to hold close to you, without compromising the quality of those relationships?  I used to wonder the same thing about people like the president of our university, or any leader, for that matter.  He spent all day being diplomatic, smiling, shaking hands and kissing babies (well, maybe not the babies part), but how many of those people could he really connect with?

The bottom line is that I will probably still continue to worry about what I post here, and crave connection with my readers.  I will be sad when the number of followers goes down, and I will wonder "what did I do to send them away?"  Because just as I couldn't instantly gain friends in elementary school, I don't think I can change who I am.  All I can do is be true to myself.

We're focusing on opening the heart center in yoga again this month, apropos of Valentines' Day, I guess.  My yoga teacher tells us that if we reach out with the heart center, everything we need will be right there.   Not everything we want, perhaps, but everything we need.  I've been trying on ideas, figuring out what it is I need.  Clarity of purpose?  Self-acceptance? Understanding?  Maybe all of those things.

I'm on a soup kick (in case you hadn't figured that out already).  This one is buttery, slightly spicy, and sweet all at once.  Funny thing about parsnips: while the root of the plant is edible, the shoots and leaves contain a photosensitive chemical that can cause phytophotodermatitis, and so when you're gardening them, you actually have to wear protective clothing.  I like parsnips.  I'm also pretty good at the core, but I'm not your harmless garden variety carrot.

How about you?  Do you read big blogs with lots of followers?  Do you feel connected to those bloggers?  How do you approach your own number of followers?  

How do you feel about parsnips?

And what do you need from your heart?

Parsnip, Leek, and Sweet Potato Soup
adapted from here

1 T. olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 c. cooked cannellini beans (or any white beans)
3 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and chopped
4 c. vegetable broth
2. c. water
1/2 t. dried thyme
1 t. dried sage
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
green onions for garnish

Add oil to a large pot over medium heat. Sauté leeks for three minutes. Add garlic and sauté for an additional minute. Add the beans, parsnips, sweet potato, broth, water, thyme, sage, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered, about 30 minutes until vegetables are soft.

Remove the bay leaf. Blend the soup by using an immersion blender or transfering it to a regular blender. (If using a regular blender, be very careful as the steam can sometimes cause the lid to blow off. I recommend allowing the soup to cool for a few minutes, then blending small batches on medium speed while holding the lid down with a large pot holder or towel in my hand). Serve hot, with salt and pepper to taste, and green onions for garnish.
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Monday, February 6, 2012

Building Communities: (Curried) Chicken Soup for the Blogger's Soul

Esperanza and Jjiraffe wrote eloquently this week about community and blogging, more specifically, whether IF blogs have "expiration dates," and what happens when IF bloggers become parents.  They are both gifted writers, and expressed some of what I've been thinking about here: why we write, what happens when a blog changes direction, how we relate to our readers and to each other. You should go read what they have to say, and weigh in.

Many of you commented in response to my last post that blogging was an outlet for creativity, a means of self-expression, and finally, along the way, a means of connecting with others, raising awareness.  Most of us started because we wanted to write, and kept going because we found a community.  That's part of the problem with a change in direction, isn't it?  The fear that the friends we found will somehow disappear, finding us irrelevant, or worse.

The best blogs, in my experience, are not just a two-way street, but a massive tangled intersection.  We write, others respond, and then those people connect to each other; we cite the posts of other bloggers, building a conversation from their ideas, and ours.

Over the past few days, articles about turning blogs into communities kept popping up in my Twitter feed.  There were some interesting ideas: get your followers to create content for you (through guests posts, for example), creating your own social networking forum at places like blokube, becoming a follower of other people and commenting regularly, tapping into existing communities on Facebook or in real life, doing something for your readers, asking questions that can spark conversations among your readers, and promoting your blog through online advertising -- using your url when you comment on the blogs of other people, etc.

I confess that I've never read any of the Chicken Soup series from cover to cover, but I know that they're supposed to be full of short inspirational stories to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. To me, though, the healing properties of chicken soup were never really just about the contents of the bowl.  I sort of feel like community is the equivalent of the blogger's chicken soup.  And while that community may be available on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, I don't think that it's as robust as what we can potentially create here, in our small corners of the blogosphere.

What do you think?  How do you create and sustain community with your blog?  Is doing so important to you?  Do you do it intentionally?  How do you experience the communities created by other bloggers?

Curried Chicken Soup
adapted from Cooking In Sens

2 leeks, thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
2 T. butter
3 carrots, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 t. thyme
2 t. curry powder
2 quarts of chicken stock or water
Salt and pepper
3 chicken breasts, skin and bones removed
4 potatoes,cut into large dice

Melt butter in a large stockpot over medium heat.  Add leeks and celery; saute until soft.  Add the curry powder and thyme and saute for about 1 minute, until fragrant.  Add the carrots, stock or water, salt, and pepper, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the chicken breasts (whole) and simmer for 15 minutes.  Remove chicken, cut into chunks, and return to pot along with the potatoes. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes more.  Serve with a crusty bread.
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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Blogging For Comfort's Sake: Pasta e Fagioli

Why do people read your blog?

I've been asking myself that question a lot lately.  Not so much because I have an inferiority complex (though at times I'll concede that point, too), but more because before I post anything, I tend to give a lot of thought to the reaction (or lack of reaction) from my readers.  And now that I'm across the chasm that found me many of my first followers, I've been wondering (read: worried about) what would happen if I don't write enough what brought people here in the first place.  Because even if this place is my space (oh, we are punny today), the reality is that it's a very public space, and having no one comment would sort of be like going to Times Square, standing on an upside-down trash can, and tell everyone that the world was going to end, while humanity marched past me, thinking that I was a nut case.

I've also been thinking a bit about what makes people blog.  Does anyone remember the .plan, that silly little unix file that was like the proto-blog?  Lordy, the things we put in our .plans.  They were not short commentaries on our whereabouts.  They were funny, sarcastic, silly ASCII animations ... but they were mostly all about us.  And then there was the fact that you had to "finger" them in order to read them.  Yeah, that's not innuendo to an 18 year old college student.

Then someone I knew got LiveJournal.  Browsing LJ was like reading people's diaries.  And who doesn't like reading a good juicy diary?  It's like being given permission to look in people's windows at night.

Somehow, around the same time, blogging became political.  And so the blogging world, in my mind, split: the personal bloggers who were still writing journals, the people who were known for their stance on The Issues, and the people who were somewhere in between.  More recently, companies have gotten into the act, creating what feels to me like yet another kind of blogging, something more like the agora for industry.

A long time ago I wrote that any blogging is advocacy, because we can't help but talk about what makes us passionate.  I read somewhere, though (feel free to help me with the reference if it was one of you!), that one of the cardinal rules of a successful blog is to give your readers something, some kind of take-away ... something that will help them solve a problem for themselves.  Certainly, that's how political and corporate blogs operate.  But personal blogs?  I started mine for several reasons, but it was never originally to give back ... it was more for the same reasons you make yourself a big pot of soup on a cold winters' day.  For comfort.  Is that narcissistic?

Over the next week, I'm hoping to do a short series of posts about blogging and communities, my thoughts about followers, and my thoughts on (micro)blogging overload, and I'm hoping that you'll all weigh in.  People have posted about this hundreds of times before, but something about February has made me feel more existential than usual, and I hope you'll be willing to play along.  Tell us: if you blog, why?  If you don't, why do you read blogs?  Why are we here?  And what is the question for which the answer is 42?

Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta And Bean Soup)
adapted from The New Basics Cookbook

1 lb. dried white beans
1/2 c. olive oil
1 1/2 c. chopped onions
3 T. minced garlic
1 t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
3 bay leaves
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 28 oz. can tomato puree
10 c. water
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 c.  ditalini or other small pasta (I used stellini, because they're fun)
3/4 c. chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
freshly grated parmesan cheese -- for garnish (optional)

Soak beans overnight in cold water, covering them so that there's at least 1 inch of water above them.

When you're ready to cook, heat the oil over medium heat in a large pot.  Add the onion, herbs, and spices, and saute about 10 minutes, until the onion is beginning to become translucent.

Add the tomato paste and puree, and cook another 5 minutes.  Add the water, stir gently, and cook over medium, partially covered, for another 20 minutes.

Drain the beans and add them to the pot.  Reduce heat to medium low and cook for another 2 hours or so, until the beans are tender.  Add the pasta and cook according to directions on package, until it's tender.  Stir in the parsley.  Serve with grated parmesan cheese.
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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Try It: Aloo Matar

My daughter's vocabulary is growing at an astounding rate.  She's always been a very social baby, but language makes that even more evident; where I remember my son first communicating in nouns, my daughter has begun her study of language in verbs, and mostly in the imperative.

The most amusing of these, I think, is "tryit."  Usually phrased with the intonation of a question, and a gesture indicating that you (in most cases, I) really ought to try whatever it is she's doing, or eating, or reading, or ... you get the idea.  I've been thinking about why this might be, and I guess it's partly because we're constantly asking her to try things: new foods, clothing, walking, experiences.  So it stands to reason that she would ask us to do the same.

Sometimes she's just offering me things that I've given to her.  A piece of avocado.  A chick pea.  A doll.  A particular book.

Sometimes it's more imaginative.  The top half of a plastic egg, in which there is a hole that she's managed to turn into a whistle by sucking her cheeks in over the rounded tip.  A soft Tigger-shaped pillow onto which she flops her head grandly, bending her small body in half.  "Tryit," she says, encouraging.  Demonstrating.  Like this.  (flop.)

 And honestly, there hasn't been a single time when I've regretted "trying it."  (Oh, that Tigger pillow is so soft, and so comfortable, and who knew -- what a wonderful thing to lay your head down just for a moment!)

I love the fact that my daughter has opinions of her own.  Though there are times that makes life more difficult (during dinner, for example, when her mouth clamps shut if she doesn't like what's on offer), it will certainly serve her well in the future, when people are trying to get her to do what they want her to.  But I also hope that she retains some of this delight in the universe, and excitement at sharing her discoveries with me, and with anyone else who might be willing to "tryit" too.

Aloo Mattar
(because you really ought to try it.)

1 large tomato, chopped
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2-inch fresh ginger, peeled
1-inch piece cinnamon
2 cloves
2 green cardamom pods
3 T. canola oil
1 t. cumin seeds
1/2 medium onion, cut into thin slices
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 t. turmeric
1 1/2 t. garam masala3 c. frozen peas
2 T. cream (I omitted this)
fresh cilantro, for garnish

In a blender, combine the tomato, garlic, and ginger. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

Add the cinnamon, clove, and cardamom to a large pan set over medium heat. Dry roast, stirring constantly, until very fragrant, about one minute.  Pour in the canola oil, and add in the cumin seeds. When the cumin seeds start to sizzle, add the onions. Stir well until the onions are evenly coated with the fragrant oil. Turn the heat to medium-high, and cook until the onions are just starting to brown, two to four minutes. Stir occasionally.

Add the cubed potatoes, and cook, stirring often, for three minutes. Pour in the contents of the blender, and stir to combine.  Add the salt, turmeric, and 1/4 cup of water. Stir well, and then reduce heat to medium. Cook at a steady simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are starting to become tender, and the oil starts to separate from the sauce, about 12 minutes. You may need to turn the heat down to keep it from boiling.

Add two more cups of water and the peas. Simmer about 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add the cream (optional) and garam masala, and simmer gently for an additional two minutes. Season to taste with more salt, if necessary. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves.
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