Friday, June 29, 2012

Learning to Un-Mother: Chard Pie

"Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?"  It's certainly not a new question, but judging by the number of tweets and shares that this week's New Yorker article continues to accumulate, it's still a popular one.

Elizbaeth Kohlbert describes, among other things, two ethnographic studies done collaboratively by two anthropologists in the early 2000s, in LA and in Peru, which found drastically different approaches to parenting and--as a result--patterns of behavior: the Peruvian children were cooking their own food at age 3, left to their own devices by their parents; the eight year old Angelenos were still asking parents "how am I supposed to eat" when they found no silverware on the table, despite the fact that they knew perfectly well where it was kept, and parents would whisk away to get them utensils.

There's a pretty common name for the phenomenon among my higher education colleagues: helicopter parents.  It's not meant to be derogatory so much as descriptive: the phrase conjures parents hovering above their (semi-adult, in this case) children, ready to swoop down at a moment's notice to fix whatever it is that needs fixing. In most cases, the children don't even ask for help; it simply appears.

I read the article with interest, because I think we tend to do a bit of both over- and under-parenting.  Our son is Montessori-educated, and Montessori philosophy teaches that children are capable of doing a great deal by themselves, and that we should only help if they ask for it, that we should allow them to become self-reliant.  (This holds true even when responding to the incessant questions children ask: we often start with "what do you think," rather than offering an immediate answer.)  Our house is not child-centered, but child-friendly: the shelves are filled with both adult books and with toys, there are few toys on the floor in shared family spaces, and we periodically purge their rooms of clutter.  On the other hand, there are times when I just need to get out the door, and I've been trying to get out the door for fifteen minutes already, and it's easier to carry my son, protesting all the way, than to make him walk.

So: what do you think?  Do we do more for our children because we have a lower opinion of our children's capacities?  Is it that we fear they won't "make it" in this competitive economy, and so we overparent in hopes that we might be able to control their advantage?  Are we prolonging adolescence in preparation for an increasingly complex world?

Chard is typically a slightly bitter green.  We've been getting quite a lot of it in our CSA share, and I like it in this dish because the chard is not overpowering, and it's certainly not bitter.  It's like motherhood and apple pie turned on its head: you sneak that bitter vegetable into the flaky pastry crust, bake them in cute little muffin shapes, and no one is the wiser ... but everyone gets more than their daily recommended allowance of vitamins A, K, and C.

Chard Pie 

1 pound Swiss chard, stems and ribs removed
1 small onion, finely diced
1 T. butter
1 1/2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 15-ounce container part skim ricotta cheese
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan
2 large eggs
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. minced fresh thyme
1/4 t. minced fresh oregano
1/2 17.3-ounce package frozen puff pastry (1 sheet), thawed

Cook chard in large pot of boiling salted water until just wilted, about 2 minutes. Drain. Squeeze out liquid. Chop chard.

Melt the butter in a heavy large skillet over low heat.  Add the onions and cook slowly, stirring often, to caramelize, about 5-10 minutes.  Empty onions into a bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic; saute
 1 minute. Add chard; saute until excess liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Transfer chard mixture to large bowl. Cool slightly. Mix in onions, ricotta and next 5 ingredients.

Position rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 375°F. Roll out 1 pastry sheet on lightly floured surface to 12-inch square. Cut into 9 equal squares.  Transfer pastry squares to 9 muffin cups (either lightly oiled with cooking spray, or preferably, use silicone).  The corners will overhang the sides; that's OK.

Fill pastry with 2 t. or so of caramelized onion and then chard mixture. Bake until pastry is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, but serve warm!
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Didn't We Almost Have It All? Oatmeal Cookies

About a year ago, Esperanza posted a response to an article in The Atlantic entitled "How To Land Your Kid In Therapy."  It was, in short, a piece about telling our children (and our parents telling us) that they (we) can have it all, and the fallout when they realize that they (we) can't.  At the time, the post really resonated with me, not because I ever told my son that he could have it all, but as a professional who had just recently become a stay-at-home-mom (temporarily, I thought), I found myself wondering whether it really was possible for women to "have it all," and what that really meant, anyway.  Esperanza concluded that we are encouraged to want too much, and that we need to learn how to be satisfied with what we have; I wasn't entirely satistfied with that answer, but I've been mulling it over ever since.

This week, The Atlantic's cover article, entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," went more or less viral.  In it, Anne-Marie Slaughter talks about her decision to step down from a position at the State Department in order to prioritize her family life, and what she thinks would need to change in order to make "having it all" a real possibility.  Though it focused, I feel, mostly on how the dilemma played out for the working mother,  responses by other Atlantic writers offered additional perspectives on the conversation, suggesting everything from "the problem isn't women, it's about the pressures of elite jobs" (I disagree) to "women who whine about it make us all look bad" (I also disagree).

I do agree, though, that there is no such thing as "having it all."  Because in addition to a problem of labor relations (because workplaces really are not very family-friendly as a rule, to anyone, women or men), which is potentially correctable, it's a fundamental problem of definition: not our definition, but the definition that someone created for us.

What is "having it all"?  Is it reaching the top of your field, sitting in the corner office, controlling the finances and having all of the decision making power?  Is it having the perfect family with 2.5 children who attend all of the right preschools, later getting into Ivy League schools?  Is it having both of these things effortlessly?  According to whom?  Is full time parenthood even compatible with a family-friendly workplace?  Maybe it is, but I don't think that it's possible to spend 24 hours a day at work AND 24 hours a day at home.  That's just not good math.

The other day, I was at my annual ob/gyn visit, and was saying something morose to my midwife about not being able to lose the last few pounds of baby weight.  She looked me square in the eye and said, "well, maybe that's just where you're supposed to be right now."  I must have looked surprised, because she continued: "You're healthy.  You exercise.  You eat well, and you allow yourself indulgences.  I'm not unhappy.  You shouldn't be, either."  It's not a matter of being happy with what we have, or "settling," but adjusting our scale so we measure ourselves, and not someone else.

Bessie Stanley, in 1904, published a short statement that is often misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson in a slim volume of collected words of wisdom from readers of Boston's National Magazine.  You've probably heard it somewhere before.  It goes like this: "He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has enjoyed the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; and whose memory a benediction."

I'm not saying that we ought not to strive or to achieve things.  If you read this blog enough, you'll know that I'm about as feminist as they come without the bra-burning (I draw the line at panty hose), and that I think that the glass ceiling is still very real, and needs breaking.  Slaughter makes some important points about workplace attitudes and policies that need adjusting, not just for mothers, but for the sanity of all working parents and non-parents.  I'm just suggesting that the achievement is not the same for everyone.  Maybe some people (fathers included) can be great at having a high-pressure job, and they can come home and eat family dinners and be present for their children.  They should be given the opportunity to do so.  It so happens that I think I'm a better parent when I'm working outside of the home, though I know now that I need to be home for dinner, and at night; that I don't want to be the president of anything.  It's true, I probably wouldn't sing as many songs or talk to my kids as much as another parent, but they will probably not turn out to be cretins.  (Well, they might be cretins, but it won't be all my fault.)  Maybe that will be my "all."  Still: that is not everyone's measure of success.  And that we ought to stop pretending there is a single measure, and looking down our noses at everything else.  Because if we can, if we are encouraged and given every tool to achieve what we feel is important (and I'm talking about all of us here, the blue-collar workforce as well as the white-collar professionals), and not what someone else feels is important, then we will have it all.

These are for Keiko, long overdue.  I promised her an oatmeal cookie recipe, and I'm finally posting, in the middle of CSA season, no less, when I ought to be posting about chard.  (Don't worry, that's coming.)  Keiko is a great example of someone who has come up with her own measure of success, and continues to change that measure as her goals change.  I really think that the "Fertile Life" she describes may be as close as we can come to "having it all."  Which is something, in principle, I think we can all aspire to.

Have you read the article, and what did you think?  Do you think it's possible to "have it all," and what would that mean for you? How do you measure success? 

Oatmeal Cookies

1 1/2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
3/4 c. flour
1/4 c. dark raisins
1/4 c. golden raisins
1/4 c. dried cranberries
1/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
6 T. unsalted butter, softened
1/3 c. packed brown sugar (I used light)
1/4 c. sugar (or sub evaporated cane juice for both sugars)
1 egg
1/2 t. cinnamon
4 T. dark raisins for topping
4 T. golden raisins for topping

Preheat oven to 350.

In a medium bowl, stir together oats, flower, raisins, cranberries, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.  Combine dark and golden raisins for topping, and set aside.

Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy.  Add egg, cinnamon, and vanilla; beat until combined.  Gradually add oat mixture and mix well.  Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls, about 2 inches apart, onto two baking sheets.  Place 1 mounded teaspoon of raisins on top of dough.  Bake until cookies are golden brown but still soft, 12-16 minutes.  Cool 5 minutes on sheets; transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Food of Summer: Creamsicle Cupcakes

Summer has definitely arrived in New Jersey, and I've been reminiscing about my own childhood summer days.  There was the town camp one year, with the unforgettable taste of orange drink, and the constant sound of nok-hockey.  There were long bike rides to the reservoir.  There was summer reading club at the library.  And sometimes, there was the beach.

My parents were both teachers, and because they had summers "off," we would usually take a day trip to the beach at least three or four times per season.  My father, who loved the beach, would start to pack the car at dawn with two raucous plaid lawn chairs and a chaise lounge strung with orange plastic tubing (why we needed three chairs for two adults, I will never know), our carpet-like beach blanket, his blue and red Martini and Rossi umbrella (which could be seen from a mile down the beach if you happened to have taken a walk and lost your way in the sea of bodies and towels), the oversized cooler (always filled with 7-Up we weren't allowed to have, tortilla espaƱola, fruit), and too many plastic beach toys.  When we got there, he'd head down to the water, get out beyond the breakers, and float on his back, dark sunglasses still on his face.  My mother used to say she worried that some day he'd float out to sea; I thought that was sort of his intention, at least for a little while.

As a child, I never liked the beach much, which is apparently abnormal for someone who grew up in a state where "down'a'shoah" (down the shore) is a single word in the vernacular.  Though I liked building sand castles as much as most kids, I also have vivid memories of sand getting stuck in sensitive places in my overly frilly bathing suits, sand that burned my feet as we carried the mountain of beach gear for what seemed like miles to the water, vicious waves that sucked at my knees (I never could swim very well, and contented myself with standing in chest-deep water, pushing off as the waves came barreling in towards the shore).  I preferred the rocky, sometimes-cloudy coastline of Maine, where my grandmother lived, and where I could clamber over the jettys, searching for shells and seaweed.

One thing about the Jersey shore I did love, though, was the food.  Something about the salt in the air made everything taste better.  I often lobbied to go to Point Pleasant instead of Sandy Hook just so we could go to the Lobster Shanty on the way home, where they had a salad and hot food bar with strange and wondrous things like hush puppies and shrimp cocktail, and New England clam chowder that I'd order even on the hottest days.  Though we were never allowed to eat boardwalk food, my mother would reminisce about the orange-vanilla custard (that's soft serve or "creamies" to you non-Jersey folk) at Kohr's on the boardwalk at Asbury Park, where she went to the beach with her mother for a week every summer.  A foodie from a tender young age, I vowed to myself that as an adult, I'd come back and eat my way through the boardwalk, consuming as much custard and salt water taffy and lemonade as I could stand.

The first time I had a creamsicle, I was in college, on the boardwalk with friends, tasting the forbidden fruit of my childhood.  We stopped at Kohr's and I ordered an orange-vanilla twist.  Maybe it was the salt in the air combined with the sweet of the custard, but it was like a revelation.  It was like summer in my mouth.  It almost made me love the Jersey shore.

It's been a while since there have been cupcakes for your viewing pleasure, and since my new business card claims that I am a "cupcakepreneur" (yes, I totally made that up and I'm sure it's grammatically incorrect), I thought I'd post one.  I've been wanting to create a creamsicle cupcake for a while, and this was just about perfect.  It reminded me of everything I love about the Jersey shore, without the sand in my bathing suit.

What are your memories of summer?

Creamsicle Cupcakes

1/3 c. canola oil
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. soy milk
1/2 c. orange juice (fresh squeezed is best)
1 t. vanilla
1/4 t. orange or lemon extract
1 1/3 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 T. + 1 t. finely grated orange zest.

Measure the flour into a small bowl.  In a large bowl combine the oil, sugar, soy milk, orange juice, and vanilla and orange or lemon extracts.  To that mixture add 1 T. of flour and mix until combined. This will help emulsify the mixture.

Sift together the remaining flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in three batches, mixing well after each addition until smooth.  Fold in the orange zest and mix to distribute. Fill each cupcake liner 2/3 to3/4 of the way full.

Bake for 20-22 minutes at 350F. The tops should spring back when touched, and a toothpick come out clean when inserted into the center of a cupcake. Remove from the muffin tin and cool completely on a baking rack before frosting.

Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

1/4 cup cream cheese
1/4 cup butter or unsalted margarine, softened
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 T. fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. orange extract
a few drops each of red and yellow food color
sea salt, for garnish
festive sprinkles, for garnish

In a small bowl combine the cream cheese and butter until well combined.  Add the confectioners sugar in about 1/2 cup additions.  After each addition of sugar, add a splash of orange juice and beat well on medium speed. Add the vanilla and orange extracts and orange zest, and beat for another 3-5 minutes until the frosting is smooth, creamy and fluffy. Add red and yellow food color to achieve your desired color.

Frost cupcakes, and sprinkle ever so lightly with sea salt; if you're feeling young at heart, with sprinkles, too.
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Monday, June 18, 2012

No Place Like Home: White Beans with Chard

I live in a modest house in a county of extremes.  Around my slightly-larger-than-mile-square town, sprawling mansions dot the former farmland punctuated by hayfields and rustic farmhouses.  In town, the older Victorians on one side of the main street stand in sharp contrast to the apartments and row houses on the other.  Some people refer to our town as "the hole in the middle of the donut" of the Township; it's not an entirely inaccurate way to describe what the demographics look like.

On Saturday morning, towards the beginning of my run, I passed the dilapidated two-family rental that always seems full of shouting.  There was a lot more junk than usual at the curb today, though.  It looked like someone had emptied the entire contents of their house. There were toys, and furniture, and even food: boxes and boxes of canned goods, pasta, baby food, toddler meals, tossed haphazardly into the front yard.  A sign on a plain white sheet of paper taped to a chair read, simply, "FREE."  And then, I knew: this wasn't junk.  This was the scene of a disaster.

Seeing me pause in front of the chaos of boxes, the landlady, a leathery woman, stuck her head out of the second-story window.  "Take as much as you want," she yelled encouragingly.

"What happened?" I asked, knowing.

"Tenant didn't pay up," she said, disgusted.  I nodded; she waved and went back inside.

I stood gaping at the piles of belongings.  It was hard to look at.  But most difficult of all: the impossibly small pair of red sequined shoes--ruby slippers-- smaller even than my own daughter's foot, whose owner could no longer even click them together, and think, "there's no place like home."

I didn't take anything.  It would have been a violation of something I felt was sacred.  But for the rest of my run, I was haunted by the piles of belongings, the ruby slippers.  No matter what the tenant had done, it didn't seem fair to the kids, who, judging by the size of that shoe, couldn't have done anything wrong.  Where were they now, I wondered?  Did they have a place to stay?  And the food, all of that food ... were they hungry?

When I got back home, I found my son playing Legos in his pajamas.  "Come on," I told him.  "I need your help.  We're going on a mission.  You can keep your pajamas on."  He protested; he was, after all, happily playing.  And maybe it was voyeuristic of me, I don't know.  But somehow, I felt like he had to see this.

I grabbed the camera, some brown bags, and my car keys.  I'd gotten it into my head that it would be better if I delivered that food to the food pantry.  I felt powerless, and I needed to feel like I could do something.  That at least maybe, even if we couldn't help those kids, we could help someone else.

My son hopped into the back seat, full of questions.  Where were we doing?  What were we going to do?  Why was I in such a hurry?  Why was it a secret?  Not knowing what we'd find when I returned there--I'd been running for at least another half an hour, plenty of time for people to collect things--I stalled.  But when we pulled up to the curb, everything was untouched.  I explained, as best I could, what we were looking at, and what we were going to do.  He nodded solemnly, took some bags, and began to transfer some of the canned goods out of broken boxes and into my trunk.  Some of the canned good were expired, and judging by the assortment, had come in a basket of Thanksgiving items from the food pantry; I tried to sort those out, wondering, worrying about what the children had been eating.

We had been working for a few minutes when the landlady reappeared in the open window, encouraging us again to take more.  I told her that we were going to take the food to the food pantry, if that was all right; she said of course, saying she'd thought about doing so, but just hadn't followed through.  I told her I understood, that after all, she had a lot to do, to empty the apartment.  It's not for me to judge.

Seeing me look again at the ruby slippers, she asked if we wanted more shoes.  Some little boys' things, she said.  At first, I told her no, but then: "wait ... yes."  I could find new owners for the shoes.

She came down with a bag, and as she emptied it for us, displaying the contents, she told us that there had been five children living there, between the ages of 2 and 15.  That the mother, according to the accounts of neighbors, had often been high.  That the oldest son quit school to hang out.  It was awful to hear, her context for the piles in the yard, even if only part of it was true.  They lived just a few blocks away from me.

When we'd filled my trunk with food and shoes, we got into the car and drove away.  I asked I. what he thought.  He said he felt sad, sad for the kids especially, and then asked me why adults don't pay rent.  I thought of those five kids, about the parents-in-waiting who would give anything to provide a child a home, and I bit my tongue.  In a way I hoped he could understand, we talked about poverty.  About how it can have many faces.  About how it's a complicated thing, and there are no easy answers.  Because I will never know what really happened in that house, and because life happens to all of us, and sometimes we are called to make impossible choices.

We dropped off the food in a bin for the food pantry, and headed back to my son's Legos.  I wish I could have done more.  I wish the gulf between us hadn't been so wide.  I found myself holding my kids a little more closely today. 

Tonight, wherever she is, I hope that the little girl who is missing the ruby slippers still feels like she is home.

Alubias Estofadas
White Beans with (Sausage and) Chard
This homey stew uses canned beans, like the ones we found in those boxes, and the chard in season at our CSA.  It's good for cooler nights that we've been experiencing around these parts, or for using up frozen chard you put up during the winter.  You could omit the ham hock if you are vegetarian, but the chorizo does lend a smoky flavor, so I recommend finding a vegetarian andouille sausage to substitute.

1 lb. Great Northern white beans
1 lb. ham hocks
1 whole medium onion, plus two medium onions, minced
2 bay leaves
salt (optional)
3 T. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 lb. chorizo
3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped (see note below)
1 small bunch chard, washed well and chopped

Soak the beans in cold water to cover overnight.

drain the soaked beans and place in al arge pot with the jam hocks, whole onion, and bay leaves.  Add coled water to cover 3 inches above the beans.  Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium, and simmer the beans until tender.  This may take as long as two hours, but check them after about an hour or so.  Season the beans with 1 t. salt during the last 30 minutes of cooking if desired (I didn't do so, because the meats are salty enough for me).

Remove the ham hock,onion, and bay leaves from the beans.  Discard the onion and bay leaves.  Cut the meat from the ham hocks and discard the bones.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium low heat and cook garlic and minced onions until soft (about 5-7 minutes).  Add sausages (whole if they will fall apart if sliced, then slice them after they firm up).  Cook for about 5 minutes.

Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes but not to a paste; the tomatoes should still be juicy.  Stir in the chard and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes.

Add the chard mixture to the bean mixture, and cook over medium heat for another 30 minutes for all of the flavors to mingle.  If it's too dry, add water, and if it's too soupy, cook over a higher heat.

Serve with a crusty bread.
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Thursday, June 14, 2012

That's a Wrap: Kindergarten Graduation and Lettuce Wraps

On Monday night, I found myself at kindergarten graduation.  It was a small affair, with ten children and their parents and family, in the auditorium of my son's school.  Most of the ceremony involved the children singing songs, and comments from the president of the Board of Trustees (whose dry remarks went over my head, and I'm sure went over my son's head, too, judging by the spacey look on his face during those five minutes).  Towards the end, each of the children were recognized separately: the children's teachers had written a few sentences about each child, describing them--what "work" they loved best, what characteristics made them stand out, how they fit into the classroom community--and these comments were read as the children were called up to receive "memory books" that they'd made (not diplomas, thank goodness).

It was an emotional affair for me, because it was the first public milestone for my little boy, who, I guess, is no longer really that little.  I watched him up on stage, filled with pride and joy but also with wistful longing for the small, exuberant form that has somehow morphed into a gangly first grader.  There will come a time, soon, when he no longer wants to crawl into my lap, or hold my hand when we go for a walk, or hang out with me and talk on our front porch swing.  I will miss those things, more than he will ever know, even though I know I'll be proud of the person he will become.

My son was feeling a little mixed, too, I think.  Up son stage, as the children sang "What a Wonderful World," his face changed, and he looked upset; my husband made faces at him to try to get him to smile, but I. told me later how he was happy to be graduating, but sad that he would be leaving his teachers and friends.  "And Mom," he said, "sometimes you just feel happy and sad at the same time."  Smart boy.

I'd just watched, a few days ago, the video of Wellesley High School's commencement speech, which has been making its way around the internet,  and couldn't help but think about its message, about the fact that no child is special.  And yet, here we were, recognizing each child individually, in the classic Montessori way.  How to reconcile those things?

Back where I used to work, we had just shy of 1,500 students participating in commencement ceremonies each May.  And still, we called every name (even the completely unpronounceable ones); every student walked across the stage, some in ridiculous high heels that practically ensured they'd trip, some in boxer shorts and flip flops, some in the traditional formal dress of foreign countries.  They waved to their parents and friends, they beamed when we called their names.

The thing is, every person is special.  Yes, there are thousands of valedictorians, quarterbacks, prom queens, presidents of the student council.  But that doesn't cheapen the achievement for the individual, or the fact that the individual matters.  Maybe sometimes we lose sight of the journey in pursuit of the achievement; still, the achievement deserves recognition, not because it's unique, but because the person who achieved it is.

I know that the point of McCullough's speech was that we should seek knowledge and experience for its own sake, not for the accolades that we can earn as a result.  And I couldn't agree more.  I don't want to raise my children thinking that they are entitled to advantage; the students who brought that attitude with them to college were the ones who invariably failed, either in academics, or in their interpersonal relationships.  But I do value the name-calling of every child who graduates, and the celebration of their unique contributions to the world.  Because they are all, every one of them, a gift.

Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps
For the dipping sauce
2 T. agave
1/2 c. warm water
2 T. soy sauce
2 T. rice wine vinegar
2 T. ketchup
1 T. lemon juice
1/8 t. sesame oil
1 t. hot water
1 T. mustard
2 garlic cloves, minced

For the stir-fry sauce
2 T. soy sauce
1 T. agave
1/2 t. rice wine vinegar

For the stir-fry
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. sesame oil
1 package of extra firm tofu (12.3 ounces), chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
8 oz. radishes, sliced
1/2 onion, diced
2 T. fresh ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 c. rice noodles, cooked according to package directions
6-8 large leaves of iceberg lettuce

Make the dipping sauce: In a medium bowl, dissolve the agave in 1/2 cup of warm water. Add the the soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, ketchup, lemon juice, sesame oil, mustard, and garlic. Mix well.  Cover and refrigerate. Immediately before serving the wraps, mix 1 teaspoon of hot water with the mustard and garlic.

Mix the soy sauce, brown sugar, and rice wine vinegar in a small bowl. In a wok or large saucepan over high heat, add the oils and heat until shimmering. Add the tofu, occasionally stirring, until lightly browned about 6-7 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium, and add the water chestnuts, mushrooms, onion, ginger, and garlic. Pour the prepared stir-fry sauce over the veggies and continue to cook until heated through, about 5-6 minutes or so. Remove from the heat.

In the meantime, prepare the lettuce leaves by placing the desired amount of rice noodles in the center of each leaf. Add the stir-fry mixture as desired and serve with the prepared dipping sauce.
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Friday, June 8, 2012

Nothing But The Truth: Can Bloggers Have Their Cake and Eat it Too?

I have been a member of any number of organizations over the years that have made me promise to behave myself in a manner befitting the dignity of the organization.  I'm sure you have, too: think back to those oaths you might have taken as an inductee to the National Honor Society, or in 4H, or in the Girl Scouts ... they probably said something about your actions out in the world representing the group as a whole, something about you being an ambassador, right?

But what about personal bloggers?  Especially the ones who are "big" enough to be public figures?

Recently, MckMama, a well-known mommy-blogger, found herself at the center of the social media spotlight during her bankruptcy hearings.  The story, as well as I can piece it together (I welcome corrections and additions), goes like this: MckMama was a fairly small-time blogger, until her unborn son Stellan's heart condition and her plea for prayers increased her traffic dramatically.  She won what is described by a number of sources as a lucrative advertising contract with Blog Her, and was able to secure other opportunities as a result of her readership.  A lot of what happens next is murky, but it *is* clear that she was living large--larger than her blog income would support, all the while painting a rosy picture of her domestic life, and claiming later in various blog posts that she and her husband were paying off their debts.  It's fairly certain that she was dispensing marriage advice while in an abusive relationship of her own.  And it turns out that MckMama also plagiarized some of her blog posts, resulting in the termination of her BlogHer advertising arrangement.  While there doesn't seem to be one single obvious reason for people's hatred of her, many people claim that she inappropriately used her blog to gain personal and financial support over the years, and some of those people used her blog to track unreported income and send it to the bankruptcy court judge.

I am not a judge, and I'm not about to pass judgement on MckMama's actions; I simply don't know enough about what has happened, and there isn't enough unbiased information online.  It's not clear whether the bankruptcy scandal will have any real impact.  She continues to write, to post what are (in my opinion) lovely pictures of her children (and other people's children).  But what is interesting, to me, is what this all suggests about our expectations of personal bloggers, and personal blogging.

Personal blogging offers the illusion of truth: when you blog about your life, readers begin to trust you, to believe that you are a truth-teller, even if you're not necessarily revealing all of the more sordid details of your experience.  So when they discover that you're not really the truth-teller they thought you were, or when they discover that you've omitted important details in your narrative, even if your dishonesty has nothing to do with the stories you told them (*though in this case, some people may have been conned out of money by the story, or at the very least emotionally manipulated), they may, understandably, feel betrayed.

The complication is that blogging is storytelling.  Like we would do with any narrative, we choose pieces of the story to tell that suit our purpose.  We don't film ourselves 24/7 (at least, most of us don't ... though I recall a few bizarre experiments in which people tried this).  Even the most "real" personal blogs are fictions, because of these choices.  And yet.

And yet, we hold bloggers accountable to certain standards, don't we?  To standards that we don't even use, perhaps, for celebrities, whose images are more obviously cultivated for public consumption?  Just like we expect the Girl Scouts to act a certain way even when they're not in uniform?

I'm not defending MckMama here.  But I'm interested to hear what you think.  Do personal bloggers take an unwritten oath to tell the truth?  Do you expect personal bloggers to be truthful even in situations that have nothing to do with their blogs, outside of their blogging personae?  How, if at all, do you think the size of a blogger's regular readership shapes our expectations of their actions?  What about the blogger's content (e.g. do you have different expectations of a food blogger, an ALI blogger, a mommy blogger, a wellness blogger, a DIY blogger, a political blogger, etc.)?  Does this expectation extend to photos (e.g. a food blogger's photos that he/she has manipulated using Photoshop)?

And: as a personal blogger, can you have your cake and eat it too?

(Optionally Gluten Free) Tarta de Naranja (Orange Cake)
This cake is the sort of cake you can have, and eat, too.  It was the last treat I made for my son's Spanish club meetings, and its flavor reminds me of a dessert my family loves at our favorite Basque restaurant.  Adapted from Savoring Spain and Portugal.

1 1/4 c. flour (you can use almond flour; just add a bit more baking powder)
1/2 t. baking powder
3 eggs, separated
1/2 c. plus 2 T unsalted butter
2/3 c. sugar
grated zest of one orange
1/2 c. fresh orange juice
1/2 c. confectioners' sugar
orange sections (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.  Butter an 8 inch pan, cut a round of parchment paper for the bottom of the pan and place it on top of the butter, butter the parchment, then flour the entire pan.

In a small bowl, sift together flour and baking powder.  In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.

In a large bowl, using electric mixer set on high speed, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time.  Reduce speed to low and beat in flour mixture, orange zest, and 1/4 c. of the orange juice.  Fold the beaten egg whites until just combined.  Spoon batter into the prepared pan.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean, about 30-40 minutes.  Remove from the oven and cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes.  Then turn out onto the rack and let cool to lukewarm.  Transfer the cake to a platter.

In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 1/4 c. orange juice with confectioners' sugar until the sugar dissolves and pour evenly over the cake.  Garnish with orange sections if desired.
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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Picky: Kohlrabi Cakes

As you've probably guessed by most of what I post here, I'm a fairly adventurous eater.  I love beautiful, tasty food.  I love supporting local farmers, and incorporating lots of vegetables into my diet.  I also love the bad-for-you stuff like cake and cookies and ice cream and chocolate, though I have high standards for those things, and try not to waste my calories on the ones that are just sweet, and not toothsome (e.g. high cocoa content dark chocolate with sea salt).  I raise my children to know where food comes from, and I cook pretty much all of our meals.  Very little of what's in my grocery cart is processed, and a lot of the produce we eat during the summer comes from our farm.

So perhaps you can imagine how difficult it has been for me to wrap my brain around my daughter's approach to food, which is decidedly ambivalent, and even occasionally antagonistic.

Like her brother, N. was interested in food at an early age.  I made about 95% of her baby food, which consisted of fresh, and often local, organic vegetables.  Her transition to solids, however, was rocky.  Now, at age 16 months, she eats black beans, chick peas, broccoli, carrots (with hummus), all manner of fruit, avocados, whole grain waffles, cheerios, fish sticks, and yogurt; most of this she refuses to chew.  She won't eat meat (which is fine with me, less fine with my husband).  She will rarely even try pasta (a travesty according to S.), and never actually eats any of it.  She licks bread and puts it aside.  She turns her head from pieces of cheese.  She overturns plates, and if she doesn't have a plate, she sweeps things onto the floor with grand hand gestures.  She is rarely willing to eat what we are eating for dinner, though that's what I put in front of her every night.  She cries inconsolably sometimes when she is presented with her plate of food, as if I have committed some unforgiveable offense.

Some days, I am very patient.  I talk with her, I offer options (different utensils? no utensils? condiments? a different venue? a swig of milk to cleanse the palate? is her resistance about asserting independence? is it an issue of texture or bite size?) without changing what's on her plate.

Some days, like today, I completely lose it.  I walk out, I try to collect myself.  I come back.  And finally, I yell.

In my more crazed moments, I think back to Mel's post about being a picky eater.  And I try to summon my patience back, try to be more understanding, try to remember that she is ONE, that food is still relatively new to her, that our communication, though improving, is still quite limited, that perhaps she really is just a picky eater, and that all I can do is keep trying.

Cup of Jo posted a review today of the book French Kids Eat Everything. I have never read the book, but I'd like to take issue with the review, and with the fact that the French do everything right (French women also don't get fat, and the "bring up Bebe" better, and who knows all what else).

We do all of the things that Jo says the book suggests.  We schedule meals, and eat together (especially at dinner).  We offer the kids the things that the adults eat.  We don't offer food as a reward/punishment/bribe.  We offer vegetables first (though I don't offer "all manner" of vegetables, and my daughter has never once even picked up a piece of carrot salad--one of the options Jo suggests--which I'm sure she would lick and summarily expel from her mouth with her pointy tongue).  We don't offer much by way of snacks.  We eat as slowly as it takes (last night, it took my son over an hour to eat his dinner).

My daughter is in the lowest quartile of weight for her age group, though in the highest quartile for length.  She's a petite little thing.  And she is extremely active, even more so than my son ever was.  So of course, I worry about making sure that she has enough energy in her to burn.  Will she eat something she won't even usually try if she's hungry enough?  Perhaps I've never gotten her hungry enough, but so far, the answer is a resounding no.  She is a mass of muscle and willpower, which will serve her well in the future, but in the meantime, is testing my resolve.

Children don't come with instruction manuals.  They are all different.  And when they're pre-verbal, you simply do the best you can to make sure that you are providing them with a good example while making sure that they grow up healthy.  I'm invoking the authority of DWYNTD parenting on this one.

I tried these on N. the other night, just to see what would happen.  As usual, she refused to touch them (everyone else thought they were just fine), but finally gave in when I put enough ketchup on them, so that she would eat them by mistake while trying to lick the ketchup off of her spoon.

You could even eat them plain.

(And I'd love to hear your thoughts about picky eating, about French child-rearing, or anything else you feel compelled to share.)

Kohlrabi Cakes
adapted from Asparagus to Zucchini

4 kohlrabi, peeled and grated
1 t. salt
1/4 c. spring onions
2 eggs
2 T. panko
1/4 c. corn kernels or diced red pepper (optional)

In a large bowl, salt the peeled and grated kohlrabi, and let it stand for about 15 minutes.  Transfer to a colander and squeeze out as much liquid as you can.

Beat eggs in the bowl, and add the squeezed kohlrabi, along with the remaining ingredients.  If the cakes are not looking like they will hold together, add a little flour or more panko.

Heat a griddle or nonstick pan over medium heat, and spray with cooking spray.  Cook for 3-4 minutes per side, or until browned.  Serve with yogurt, soy sauce and wasabi, or large quantities of ketchup.
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Friday, June 1, 2012

A Baked Anniversary Gift: Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

This weekend my husband and I will celebrate our tenth anniversary.  Ten years feels like a really long time, when you think about it, and then, also like no time at all.  In ten years we've had two kids, moved and bought a house, and gotten comfortable (sort of, anyway) in our conjoined life.

There's something about milestone anniversaries like this that makes you think back, though, to the time before ... the time of courtship, the time of first getting to know one another, the time that maybe you took a little bit less for granted.

Though he often seems reluctant to admit it, S. and I met through an online dating service.  It was the early days of such services, when they were still free and still a little geeky, and I always qualify that comment by explaining that even though we met that way, we didn't actually get together as something more than friends until much later (partly because I was just too stubborn to see how right he was for me).  One of the things I always loved about him, though, was that he could write; it was strangely important to me that my future spouse be able to put coherent sentences together, and make them appealing to read.

And write he did.  Love letters, even.  The sort of thing you'd never expect from an engineer.  I was won over.  (That, and he once encouraged me to order a third dessert for our table for two.  I couldn't believe my ears.)

One month, while we were dating, he was away in business on Singapore.  I remember thinking about how much I loved his letters, and decided to hand-write him a letter almost every day, collecting them together to give to him when he returned.  I felt like I had so much to say, and that he needed to hear, though I'm sure now they weren't earth-shattering news.  On the day before he was scheduled to return, I left the letters, some lego candy and Boston Baked Beans (his favorites), a loaf of banana poppy seed bread from my breadmaker, and this strawberry rhubarb pie (inspired by a comment he made about liking said pie) in the middle of the living room in his apartment.  I wanted them to be the first thing he saw when he got home.  I wanted him to feel like home was me.

Now there are days when I feel like we barely talk with one another, between running around tending to kids, taking care of household chores, errands and commitments on the weekends.  We seem even to have lost our date nights (which consisted of watching House, M.D. together once a week) to my few hours of part-time work and late night dinner preparation for the next day and the neverending piles of laundry.  I miss those luxurious days when we used to talk for hours about nothing and everything.  I miss the minimalist travel to foreign countries, the long bike rides together, the dance of death in our small kitchen when we would cook in parallel.  But I'm also grateful that I have this home we've created together, durable but mutable, half-baked in the best way possible.

S. mentioned to me yesterday that our neighbors will be celebrating their seventieth (yes, that's seven-zero) anniversary in October.  Impressed, I said, "wow, that's commitment."  He laughed, and responded, "yes ... or resignation."  (Which, if you ever listened to our almost-ninety-year-old neighbor hooting for her almost-ninety-year-old husband, who is likely hiding in the garden or in the basement, is probably closer to the truth.)

Happy anniversary, S.  Here's to sixty more years of rhubarb pie.  Thanks for asking of me only that I be myself, certifiable--if compassionate--nut that I am.  I hope you never have to hide in the garden.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

One double pie crust recipe of your choice (I use this one, which is vegan and doesn't require any refrigeration time)

1 lb. strawberries, hulled and halved
3 1/2 c. rhubarb, trimmed and sliced 1/2" thick
1/2 c. (packed) golden brown sugar1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. cornstarch
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. salt

1 large egg yolk beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water OR 2 T. soy milk (for brushing the crust)

Preheat oven to 400F. Combine first 7 ingredients in large bowl. Toss to blend.

Roll out half the dough on a floured work surface to 13-inch round. Transfer to 9" pie dish. Trim excess dough, leaving 3/4-inch overhang. 

Roll out remaining dough on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round. Cut into 1/2 to 3/4 inch-wide strips.  Spoon filling into crust. Arrange half of the dough strips atop filling, spacing evenly. Form lattice by placing remaining dough strips in opposite direction atop filling. Trim ends of dough strips even with overhang of bottom crust. Fold strip ends and overhang under, pressing to seal. Crimp edges decoratively.
Brush glaze (egg or soy milk) over crust. transfer pie to baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350F. Bake pie until golden and filling thickens, about 1 hour 25 minutes. Transfer pie to rack and cool completely.
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