Monday, August 27, 2012

Perfect Moment Monday: Cookie Dough

Perfect Moment Monday is a monthly blog hop/writing prompt, sponsored by Lavender Luz at Write Mind Open Heart, about noticing a perfect moment rather than creating one. Perfect moments can be momentous or ordinary or somewhere in between. On the last Monday of each month we engage in mindfulness about something that is right with our world. Everyone is welcome to join.

When I was in college, a slightly-more-than-friend (not quite a boyfriend, but not quite a friend, either ... remember those kinds of relationships?) took me hiking.  We wound our way up a rocky trail that looked out, at the top, over a stunning valley on fire with the color of autumn.  He took me in his arms, bent me over backward so I could see the bowl of the valley and the bowl of the sky in perfect opposition, upside down, and whispered in my ear: "take a good look, and remember this."

And to this day, I do.

I've written before about in-betweenness and about stillness.  About how I'm not good at either one of those states of being.  How they are uncomfortable places for me to inhabit, because I just want to get there.  To the end of things.  Or at least, to keep moving.

But there's also something stunningly beautiful about that liminality, too, the second of stop-motion between here and there, when you're exactly in the middle, even if you're in the middle of chaos.  If you can be aware enough to notice those moments, they can take your breath away.

Which brings me to my Perfect Moment Monday.

Usually my Perfect Moment Mondays (or Perfect Moment any days, for that matter) are quiet affairs.  So it was a good challenge to notice one during a particularly chaotic day.  I was in charge of four kids today, two of my own, and two that belong to my friends.  I love these kids, because they mix so well with my own: the older boy is a year older than my son, but is a good match for him in terms of interests and challenges him to keep up physically, and the younger boy is a gentle but ever-so-slightly mischevious spirit whom my daughter adores.  And yet, having four kids to watch, especially when one of them is a toddler, is a lot.  On days like this I always think of two moms with four kids who live on my street, and marvel that they do this every day.

After a long morning cooped up inside because of the rain, and a long hour of reluctanctly patient quiet trying to let my daughter nap, everyone needed to get out.  We took a variety of wheeled things (bikes, scooter, wagon) to the park up the street, which was--miraculously!--not drenched, and spent some time climbing on the playground and zipping around in circles.  Eventually, my daughter found her way over to the swings; when she tired of the "baby swing," I took her in my arms, sat with her in my lap on the "big girl swing," and held on tight around her waist as I began to pump, sending us higher.

"Higher," she said, "higher ... higher ... squeee!"  She squealed with a mixture of delight and fear as we rose higher into the air, nesling into my chest like she rarely does at home.  The air was warm and thick, but the wind on our faces and in my hair felt good, and suddenly, I reached that point where the chain on the swing just about goes slack before gravity takes over and you arc back down again towards the ground.  I felt her whole body tense with pure joy at that moment, enjoying the place where she held her breath, between "up" and "down."

And I heard my friend's voice, as I often do during moments like this, when I notice them, saying "take a good look, and remember this."

That space between, when it's not one thing any more, and yet not quite the other, either.  Delicious.

Cookie Dough Balls
After the cake yesterday, you're going to get the wrong idea.  Trust me, it's not all sweets around here!  I made half of this recipe in order to put them into ice cream that we made together today as a treat for the boys.  They're not yet ice cream, and they'll never be cookies, either, because they don't have any baking powder.  But you can eat the dough because there isn't any egg in them.  Vegan cookie dough.  Two versions: one not really healthy, and one healthy, with nuts.  Your choice.  You can't go wrong.

The standard sweet version:
1 c. turbinado or coconut palm sugar (brown sugar will do, too)
2 T. sugar (your choice)
1/2 c. nondairy milk (I used soy)
1/2 c. nonhydrogenated margarine, like Earth Balance

1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
1  3/4 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
 1 1/4 c. dark chocolate chips

In a large mixing bowl combine sugars and nondairy milk until sugars are moistened.  Beat in margarine and vanilla creaming until combined.  Add flour and salt and beat to form a soft fluffy dough.  Fold in chocolate chips.  Place a sheet of waxed paper onto a cutting board.  Scoop out balls of dough onto waxed paper (I used a 1/2 t. scoop) and freeze 1 hour or until firm.

The healthy version, from Love Veggies and Yoga:
2/3 c raw cashews
1/3 c oats
2 T. agave
1 T. maple syrup
1 t. vanilla
1/4 c chocolate chips

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

What You Need: A Recliner, Chocolate Cake, and Perspective

When I moved out to LA for graduate school, after living my entire life in NJ, I piled all of my worldly possessions in my little blue-green Ford Escort: my books, my CDs, some clothes, my bedding.  I figured that we could get anything else I needed when I got there.

My mother drove across the country with me, helping me with the move and the transition to a life 3000 miles away.   I'd secured a place in a one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, large enough for a futon in the bedroom, a beanbag chair and a smaller futon for the living room, some upside down crates that I used as tables, and a piece of plywood laid across two crates that I used as a desk.  At Kmart, I splurged on a tiny cheap wooden dinette set with a white table and farmhouse chairs, and I think I found a used swivel chair curbside somewhere off of Melrose Place.  I was living in the lap of luxury.

Sometime in the fall, my father came to stay with me for a visit.

For all of his risk-taking and adventuring, my father was also a creature of habit, the kind of guy that fell asleep in front of the television every night, head tilted back, mouth open slightly in a light snore.  Like Archie Bunker, whom he vaguely idolized, he had his chair, a recliner that no one else sat in (mostly because when we were at home, he occupied it).  I remember talking with my mother about the upcoming visit, laughing nervously, wondering where my father would sit.  She told me he'd make do.  I was dubious.

When we climbed the stairs and opened the door to my apartment, I held my breath.  What would he say about this, my first place of my own?

I entered the room, a few steps ahead of him, and turned, stepping aside with an arm flourish a la Vanna White.  "So?  What do you think?"

He was gaping.

Uh-oh, I thought.  I braced myself for the firestorm of disapproval.   Wondering what he was seeing.

"But Tinita," he said to me in all seriousness, in his slight Spanish accent, "where do you sit?  Where is your recliner?"

I almost peed myself laughing, though I knew I couldn't possibly laugh out loud.  Having refused any financial support from my parents, determined that I was going to do this doctoral degree thing alone, I was living close to poverty level.  Rice and beans and tortillas were my staples.  The improvised desk, the crates for bookcases and tables, the cheap pots and pans that leaned backwards from the weight of the handle when I put them on the stove, all of this carefully selected with a graduate student budget in mind ... and he wanted to know where my recliner was?

He insisted that we go, straight away, to a furniture store to procure said recliner. 

"But Dad," I said, as gently as I could manage, "they won't deliver it today."   You will, I thought, still laughing to myself, have to plant your ass on my cheap carpet.

My father was a stubborn man, though, and would hear none of my logic.  I was able to delay the trip to Levitz for a day (because heaven forbid we go somewhere sensible like IKEA), but eventually, he won out.

I dimly remember the visit to the furniture showroom, feeling like I was having an out-of-body experience.  We sat on recliner after recliner, my father and I, opening and closing them with great gusto.  Looking at fabric samples.  A strange father-daughter bonding.  "This one has a HANDLE!" he would exclaim, legs flying out with a thunk as I sank down into a green model further down the row, bouncing a bit to test its resilience.

We finally settled on one, a wide seat with low armrests, a deep forest green fabric with barely visible multicolored stripes, and it arrived on the day my father was to leave.  He sat in it for a good long while before we left for the airport, and when I returned home, it still smelled like him, a combination of hard work and aftershave.

I still have that recliner, 17 years later.  It's worn, like any piece of furniture that has lived in a graduate student apartment and made its way across the country.  But I can't bear to get rid of it.  Right now, it lives in our bedroom, where sometimes I sit in it, looking out the window, or curl up in it and cat nap.  Sometimes our kids rock in it for a minute or two while I'm folding laundry.  It reminds me of my dad, sitting in his recliner on a weekday night, falling asleep in front of the news, completely at peace.

I didn't need a recliner.

But sometimes, the things you didn't need turn out to be exactly what you needed after all.

Have you ever been surprised to "need" something that arrived at just the right time?

Six Minute Chocolate Cake
Adapted from the original Moosewood Cookbook.  My husband informed us tonight, as we were playing in the kitchen after dinner, that some chocolate cake would be exactly right.  You never need chocolate cake.  But this one comes together quickly, is vegan, and you don't have to feel too guilty about eating it.  A five year old can (and in fact did) make it mostly on his own.  It's not drop-dead fabulous cake, or rich gooey cake.  It's good, un-fancy cake for when cake is really, deep down, what you need.

1 1/2 c. flour 
1/3 c. cocoa powder 
1 t. baking soda 
1/2 t. salt 
1 c. sugar (coconut palm if you like)
1/2 c. oil (melted coconut oil would be great here)
1 c. cold brewed coffee (or water if you don't like coffee)
2 t. vanilla (or 1 1/2 t. vanilla and 1/2 t. almond extract)
2 T. apple cider vinegar 
chocolate chips (optional)
Glaze (optional; I rarely do this)
1/2 lb bittersweet chocolate 
3/4 c. hot water or 3/4 cup milk 
1/2 t. vanilla extract 
Preheat the oven to 375F.  Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt and sugar into an ungreased 8 inch square or 9 inch round baking tin.

In a 2 cup measuring cup, measure and mix the oil, water or coffee and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingredients into the baking tin and mix the batter with a fork or small whisk.

When the batter is smooth, add the vinegar and stir quickly. Pale swirls will occur where the vinegar and baking soda react (this is actually really entertaining for a five year old). Stir just until the vinegar is even distributed throughout the batter.   If you're feeling crazy, toss some good chocolate chips on top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes. Set aside the cake to cool.

If you are making the glaze, reset the oven to 300F. Melt the chocolate in small ovenproof bowl or heavy skillet in the oven for about 15 minutes. Stir the hot liquid and vanilla into the chocolate until smooth. Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake. Refrigerate the glazed cake for a minimum of 30 minutes before serving.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Coming to Terms (and Honey Lavender Ice Cream)

I lace up my sneakers, open the door, and step out.  It's only been three days since I've gone running, but it feels like an eternity: my limbs feel like stone.  I have already decided that I'm going farther today.  I reach the street, lean forward, take a breath, take a few steps, quicken my pace, and begin.


Before I got pregnant with my daughter, I had a dream that is still vivid in my mind.  I am walking down the sidewalk, perhaps towards downtown, perhaps towards the farmer's market up the street; the sun is warm and the light is dappled on the pavement.  Ahead of me, my son walks with my husband, holding his hand, sometimes skipping away, then running back to him, like a boomerang.  Sometimes he climbs up onto my husband's shoulders, ruffling the leaves playfully when his head nears the branches.  I am walking a good distance behind them, more slowly, carrying a child in my arms.  A daughter.  She is heavy, thoughtful, watching the world go by with solemnity.  I want to hold my boomerang child, too, but I know I must carry this one right now.  I feel like I'm being left behind, even though I'm not alone.  I feel my throat tighten, watching them head into the light without me.  Without us.


Yesterday I went to yoga class for the first time in weeks.  It's been too easy to miss class lately, with my husband's business trips, and our (too short) vacation, and the loss of momentum.  I dragged myself out, knowing that there would probably be a sub because my teacher goes to India every year at this time, also knowing that I need ... something.  Recentering?

The sub was someone I know fairly well, a woman who is in the 500 hour training this year.  My teacher had given me her name as a reference when I was exploring doing teacher training, when I had given up on getting pregnant after years of loss after loss and had just been handed a diagnosis of unexplained secondary infertility.  I had decided I was going to give myself a different goal, just a week before discovering I was pregnant with my daughter.  Seeing her always reminds me of one of the alternate universes where I didn't end up, the one in which I become a wildly successful certified yoga instructor, but have only one child.

Her style is a little different from my regular teacher, but you can also tell that she was my teacher's student.  She does more than just talk about asanas; she talks about philosophy.  And last night she talked about stillness, that we need to find that place in us that doesn't move, the center around which chaos swirls.  My teacher calls this sattva.

I find some irony in this.  On the one hand, I have a hard time not getting swept up in the chaos.  Chaos has defined my life for the past 38 years.  But on the other hand, I am the center now.  I'm the one who isn't changing, who is just watching the world dance around me.  And I don't always find it a welcome place to be.


I am running through the better part of town now, through the Mc Mansions.  I hate these houses, this sprawling treeless suburbia, and yet, I want them.  Or more correctly, I want the ability to have them if I wanted them.  There are other things like that, too.


You should know this about me: I was a valedictorian.  I was the one who was always ahead.  I was the smart one, the one in the gifted and talented classes.  The first one in my class to take my exams in graduate school.  The one who won the fellowship.  The one who started new programs at my former place of employment, turning them into some of the most highly visible features of the university before I left my job, unable to turn a blind eye to culture that openly permitted sexism.

Now I applaud with humility and jealousy when the accolades get handed out.  I'm no longer the best in show.  I watch others walk into the light, and wonder if I'm not running fast enough to keep up with the chaos.


My son starts first grade in two weeks, riding the bus for the first time.  My daughter is beginning to put words together to form stories: "Eat.  Elmo. Eyeball.  Nomnomnomnom.  bwahahahaaaaa!" (in reference to consuming an Elmo cupcake last week.)  My husband orbits us, coming and going on business trips and busy with work.  My former colleagues' lives march onward in Facebook, with posts about new student orientations and other harbingers of the new academic year.  My non-work friends have their own chaos, some of it not good at all.  My blogging colleagues and friends have theirs, some of it very good chaos, indeed.

And I sit here in the middle of it, just watching.  Feeling jealous of the movement and strangely disappointed by the stillness that this teacher says I should cultivate.


I am three miles out from home, feet falling rhythmically on the pavement, my mind spinning, the air thick with jasmine, gardenia, lavender, and I realize I am gasping for breath. I stop, resting my hand on the splintered wooden fencepost, and am surprised to find that I am shaking, dry-heaving.  It comes, like a tidal wave.  My face is wet.  I brush the sweat away, but it's not sweat.

I am tired of death.  I am tired of giving up, of renouncing.  I am tired of the lives that didn't make it to term, the dreams I had to leave behind, the losses I had to cut.  And I am tired of the stillness that invades even the motion of running.

I am shaking my fist ungratefully at the sky, at the miraculously blue sky.   An older couple drives by in a beat up green pickup truck, waving, thinking I am waving at them.  I wave, take a deep breath, curse everyone, and pick up my feet, half skipping to start myself moving forward again.


When I first got our ice cream maker, I was surprised to see that the paddle stayed still in the middle while the bowl turned around it.  It makes perfect sense, of course, given that you want to continually give the ingredients new contact with the coldest surface in order to convince them to freeze evenly; it had just never occurred to me that it would work that way.

Maybe it's a useful metaphor.  Maybe I am running to stand still.  The flower around which the bees work, collecting nectar to bring back to the hive.  Honey.  Lavender.

I crest the hill, and turn down, towards home.

Honey Lavender Ice Cream

2 c. milk
1 c. heavy cream
1 T. + 1 t. corn starch
1 t. lavender
2/3 c. honey
3 T. cream cheese (or goat cheese, thank you Healthy Foodie!)

Mix about 2 T. of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry.Whisk the cream (or goat) cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

Combine the remaining milk, cream, lavender, and honey in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes, Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

Gradually whisk the hot milk into the cream (or goat) cheese until smooth. Submerge the mixture partway in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

Strain out the lavender as you pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy. Pack the ice cream into a storage container. Press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Serve sprinkled with a few lavender buds, toasted almonds, or a square of good bittersweet chocolate.
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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Neighbors: Peach Upside Down Cake

When I was growing up, there was a petite Italian lady named Mrs. B. who lived across the street from our house.  She was well into her eighties, but she was a spry, feisty little thing.  Despite her fairly constant claims of heart palpitations, telling us she "felt nervous" about one thing or another, we'd see her out sweeping her sidewalk almost daily in the summer, and raking endlessly in the fall, when her towering maple seemed to catch fire before it would drop its leaves.  In the winter, she would don her plastic bonnet with its chin-tie, and shovel herself out in the middle of a Nor'easter.  She drove her cream-colored Oldsmobile Cutlass long past the time when she probably should have stopped driving, giving us a near-heart attack every time we saw her backing out of her garage.  She had an opinion about everything, and she was quite eager to express it, motioning us close so she could stage-whisper conspiringly in our ears, shaking her head and wringing her hands at the absurdity of whatever happened to be the subject of the day.  Though we sometimes joked that she was the neighborhood busybody, she was also, admittedly, an effective one-woman Neighborhood Watch: she would peek out from between the Venetian blinds periodically when something was happening outside, and if she was concerned (which was more often than not), she'd give us a call.  We felt completely confident leaving our house on vacation, knowing that she would look after it for us.

As she got older, she would often come over to ask us for a favor: help her back out of the garage, help her lift something heavy, help her to reach something by climbing up a ladder.  Most times, when we'd do something for her, we could expect a cake to appear within the next few days.  We would joke about that, too, ask each other when the cake was coming if we thought we'd done something important.  But really, it was a generous gesture, and the most genuine way, for her, to properly express gratitude.

When we moved into our current house, I had pretty low expectations of my neighbors.  Besides Mrs. B., I'd had few experiences of close relationships with the people who lived next to us.  So I was pleasantly surprised when our neighbors began to become friends.

On one side of us lives a couple who is now in their nineties, an old farmer and vet whose wife reminds me a great deal of Mrs. B., armed year-round with her broom and her sharp tongue.  They brought food when our children were born and remember them every birthday and holiday, they lend us things like eggs and garden tools, they look after our house.  We shovel them out in the winter, help them with small maintenance tasks, and take an interest in their lives.  My husband often sits out on their porch in the evenings with Mr. H., drinking a beer with him and listening to him talk about his years in the war.

On the other side of us lived a woman who was the director of our county's domestic violence agency.  She had two older children, but adopted us soon after we moved in: she brought me chicken soup when I was sick, came over with tea to tend to me during the worst of my miscarriages, took in our trash cans, worried over us during visits from our parents, wrote love notes and gave gifts to our children.  We baked her birthday cupcakes, shoveled her out in the winter, lent her eggs, listened to her when she needed a convenient ear, and finally, hearts heavy, helped her to sort out her belongings to get rid of some before her move to the West Coast.

Our new neighbor, who moved in when she left, is different: still neighborly, as my husband described him, but not a friend.  He waves and makes polite conversation with us when we see him.  He bought lemonade when our son was selling it from our driveway.  He is still someone who we'd be willing to let borrow our hose and ladder, but not, perhaps, someone who would remember our birthdays, or pick up my son in a bear hug, or take care of us when we're sick, or come over for a lazy beer and talk after the kids go to bed.  He often makes a point of telling me how hard he's working (on his house and elsewhere), as if suggesting that I'm somehow not.  The other day when I was outside, he asked me where I. was, and, learning he was at camp, asked if there weren't other kids in the neighborhood he could play with if he'd been home.  I felt like he was criticizing me, but I didn't feel like telling him it was none of his business, nor did I feel like explaining to him about my job limbo, about what it's like to have two kids who are far apart in age and stage of development spend every waking moment together.  He's just not the kind of person I feel I can confide in.  After having such fabulous neighbors for seven years, I have to keep reminding myself that just because my neighbor isn't my best friend doesn't mean he's not a good neighbor.


There's been a lot of discussion around my little corner of the blogosphere lately about what makes a good member of the blogging "community."  For me, it's a lot like remembering that there are different kinds of neighbors.  Though we all live on the same block, our relationships can be very different.  Some of them we hold at arms' length, borrowing eggs and garden tools, waving when we see them outside.  Some of them come over for tea, take care of us when we are sick, remember our birthdays, become our friends.  Some of them argue with us about the fences between our properties.  And some of them watch over our houses from behind the venetian blinds, keeping us safe, and occasionally bringing us cake.

What kind of neighbors do you have?

Peach Upside Down Cake
adapted from Fatfree Vegan Kitchen
One of the cakes my neighbor Mrs. B. was known for was her pineapple upside down cake.  I had a peach version the other night that reminded me of her.  The one I'm posting here today is probably healthier for you than hers was, but it's still baked with love.

Dry ingredients:
1 1/2 c. unbleached white flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. sugar
1/8 t. salt

Liquid ingredients:
1 c. vanilla soy milk mixed with 1 t. lemon juice
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 t. lemon zest

4 c. peeled and sliced peaches (about 4 peaches)
1/2 c. brown sugar, divided (2 T. and 6 T.)
6 T.  cup natural, raw or brown sugar
2 T. water

Preheat oven to 350F.

Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Combine the liquid ingredients separately. Set aside without mixing them together.

Combine the peaches with the 2 T. of sugar. Wipe or spray a 10-inch, well-seasoned cast iron skillet with oil. Begin heating it and add 6 T. sugar and the water. Heat and stir until the sugar is completely melted and the mixture is bubbly and slightly reduced (but be careful not to burn it). Place the peaches on top of the sugar and remove from heat.

Add the liquid ingredients to the dry, stirring briefly, just to moisten. Pour the batter over the peaches, covering them entirely. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the edges of the pan and a toothpick comes out clean (about 30-40 minutes).

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 15-30 minutes, and then run a knife around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Place a large plate or serving platter over the top and invert the skillet. Remove the skillet carefully from the cake, and sprinkle, if desired, with a little bit of extra cinnamon.
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Aloo Baingan and the Art of Efficiency

I pride myself on efficiency.  When I had boring jobs back in high school and college like stuffing envelopes, I would spend the first few minutes figuring out how I could optimize envelope and paper placement so that I could move at the fastest speed.  When I'm cooking, I tend to try to do as many things at the same time as I can, stirring two pots with two spoons at the same time, doing dishes while something is simmering.

Which is why I had such a hard time in graduate school figuring out why I simply couldn't get it all done.  I found out later that no one else was actually doing all of the assigned reading, so my whole efficiency approach was shot to hell; it wasn't physically possible to do all of the reading.

Post-BlogHer, I made a commitment to myself to be more active in social media.  I already comment as much as I can on other people's blogs, especially if I know that that person is reading this blog (with apologies to WordPress people whose blogs don't always show up in my reader).  I have a Pinterest account where I pin beautiful food that I publish here and that I find elsewhere.  I created a Facebook account for this blog so please go make my day and like me there, and I've made more connections on Twitter (tweet me!).  Part of my previous reluctance was an attempt to keep my "real" identity separate from my blog identity; I think I've finally given up on that semi-anonymity.  So now I'm trying to keep up with all of it.

I still haven't figure out yet, though, how to be efficient about all of it.  Reading and commenting take up a lot of time.  And then reading Facebook.  Forget the Twitter feed, which is gone instantaneously if you're not watching it scroll by on your phone, or managing it on Tweetdeck, and if you follow a few people who post things every thirty seconds.

The efficient perfectionist in me hates this.  I keep thinking, there must be an easier way.

The SITS Girls tweeted on Thursday, asking tweeps what advice they'd give a new blogger.  I replied, "Build a supportive community by being a supportive community member."

But what does that mean?  How do you keep up with the social media maelstrom, especially if you want to engage people in meaningful conversation?

One place I love to be efficient is in the use of our CSA veggies.  When I can find a recipe that combines several vegetables from the share for dinner, I feel like I've conquered the box.  Here's one we ate this week.

Aloo Baingan
(adapted from here)

1 T. olive oil
1 medium eggplant, cut in half lengthwise, then cubed in 1/2" pieces
1/4 c. water
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

2 T. olive oil
1 t. mustard seeds
1 t. cumin seeds
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 t. grated ginger
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and cut into rings (1/2" thick)
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 4 wedges (you can also cut them into cubes)
2 c. water

1 t. coriander powder
1 t. curry powder
1/2 t. garam masala
1/4 t. turmeric

Heat 1 T. oil in a non-stick pan on medium. Add the eggplant, a little salt and cook for a few minutes on both sides until it turns slightly dark and starts to soften. Add tomatoes, water, season with salt and pepper and cook covered for a few minutes until the fresh tomatoes are soft.  Set aside.

Heat 2 T. oil in a pan on medium. Add the mustard and cumin seeds, cover and let them splatter. Add garlic and ginger and sauté for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the onion, a pinch of salt to help it soften faster, and cook covered for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the red pepper rings and sauté for a few minutes. Add the potato wedges and cook covered for another few minutes, turning them around from time to time. Finally add the water, enough to almost cover the potatoes, the spices and cook covered for 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are tender but not easily breakable and the liquid has reduced.

Add the eggplant/tomato gravy and cook together for a further 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed. If the curry is thick enough, keep the lid on for the last minutes. If it's still liquidy, keep it uncovered until it has the right consistency.
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Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Half Baked Breakfast: Cinnamon Buns

Mornings in my house usually go like this: N. wakes up at five thirty and stands with her nose hung over the gate at her door, shrilling "MOM!  momEEE!  MOM!  momEEEE!  mooOOOOoom!"  This means: "come get me out of this prison, please don't change my diaper because I hate that, and give me my sippy cup of milk STAT."  So I roll out of bed, oblige her (except for the diaper part, because as we all know I am the Cruelest Mom in the Universe), and begin to make breakfast while I get lunch together for my son to take to school or camp.

I. comes down at around six, and climbs up onto the kitchen stool with a surly scowl.  If I have, by some bizarre chance, not yet poured a glass of milk for him, because I was oh, I don't know ... doing TEN other things? he snarls, "Where's My MILK?"

Yep, I just can't wait to wake him up for high school.

I dish out whatever fruit we happen to have on hand (N. demanding "Tay? Tay?" meaning "Excuse me?  Put the fruit on my TRAY!  NOW!") while I'm finishing up lunch preparation, and then I. is on his own to find the rest of his breakfast, because I'm on N.-meal-supervision duty.  Though I often need to run through the list of options, usually, he's pretty good about this: he rummages through the cabinets to find cereal or granola bars, is capable of toasting himself a waffle, climbs up on top of the stools to reach condiments while giving me heart palpitations, and has even, on rare occasions, made French toast with minimal assistance.

Yesterday, when I asked him what else he was going to have for breakfast after he finished his bowl of canteloupe, he looked me square in the eye, crossed his arms, and whined dramatically, "MOM, there is NOTHING here to EAT.  I'm BORED with this food."

I laughed, told him that we had all kinds of things to eat, and he needed to choose one, and continued with the morning routine.  He grumped for about two minutes, and then poured himself a bowl of Life.

But because like my surrogate Jewish mothers I am very sensitive about the issue of having enough tasty things around the house for people to eat, it nagged at me all morning, until finally I decided to do something about it and make cinnamon buns.

My husband is the bread baker in our house, but it would probably never occur to him to make cinnamon buns, because for him, bread is a straightfoward if variable affair involving yeast, flour, water, salt, sweetener for yeast food, and heat.  It never would have occurred to me, either, except that I was going too slowly in the refrigerated dough section of our grocery store last week, saw cinnamon rolls there, and felt nostalgic for Talkeetna.


In 1996, the summer after my first year in graduate school, my father got it into his head that I should take a vacation.  I was living alone in LA at the time, and had been traveling up and down the West Coast to visit friends in Berkeley and San Diego, drinking in as much of the Pacific as I could, but I hadn't yet ventured too far north.  My father, in his infinite wisdom, declared that I should go to Alaska.  And, despite my insistent refusal, that he would pay for it.

It was settled.  I planned the entire trip online, in the still-early days of the internet, when first generation web pages were still the standard currency, before Twitter and Facebook, so everything was sight unseen.  I would fly to Anchorage, rent a car, drive to Seward, then backtrack north to Talkeetna, finishing in Wasilla (I had to laugh that I actually knew where Wasilla was during the last presidential campaign) and back in Anchorage.   I made reservations at B&Bs in town at all of these places, so I could walk where I needed to.  Except for Talkeetna, where there was no B&B in town.  And when I drove into Talkeetna in my rented compact, and parked at the Fairview Inn, where I'd reserved a private room, I started to worry.

You see, the Fairview was a bar.  Is a bar.  A historic bar, a lovely bar, perhaps, but a bar nonetheless.  In Alaska.  Where the town bar is just about the only entertainment in town at night.  If you've never slept in a room locked with a hook and eye closure above an Alaskan bar, well ... let's just say it's a unique experience.  You survey the situation.  You decide that it's in your best interest to get to know the locals before you go to bed.  You order a Diet Coke, because you don't dare order a beer.  You strike up a conversation with a mountain man and pilot who hands you his business card: it reads--I kid you not, look him up--Trigger Twigg.  You notice that people carry weapons instead of handbags.  You retire early, and you carefully lock your little hook and eye closure, inspecting the door frame, which is ... historic.

I spent most of the night sitting up in my bed, listening to the raucous laughter downstairs, wondering if one of the locals might, in their excitement, come beat down my door.

I survived, but the next morning I moved to the Talkeetna Roadhouse.  I'd originally been hesitant to go there because it was more like a hostel, with multiple bunks, but it was the only other option in town, and for a woman traveling alone, it seemed like a better choice.  It turned out that the bunk room was empty anyway, so I got my privacy.  I bolted the door that night, slept like a baby, and in the morning, I woke up to the incredible smell of baking cinnamon buns.  I think I wept for pure joy when I arrived downstairs.

I curled up on the couch with a book from their chockfull built ins, and dug into a dinner plate-sized fresh cinnamon bun with a vat of coffee to wash it down.  It was, quite possibly, the second best breakfast I'd ever eaten.
I set to work during N's always-too-short afternoon nap, mixing the ingredients for the dough, setting it to rise, making the filling.  By then N. was awake, and I peeked at the dough, which wasn't rising.  I realized I'd set it on the cold countertop, which wasn't warm from the sun as it usually is, and moved it closer to the stove.  After a little while longer I decided I couldn't wait, and attempted to roll out dough while she pulled on my leg: "SEE? SEE? roll, roll.  Roll, roll."
They smelled fabulous while they were baking.   They looked fabulous when they were done.  And smeared with icing?   I was determined that my son, too, would weep for joy when he arrived downstairs for breakfast.

Unfortunately, this morning, he decided that he didn't want cinnamon buns, either.  Madness, I tell you.

Can't win then all, I guess.  More for me.  Here's looking at you, Talkeetna.  I still remember you fondly.  Maybe if you read this, you'll send me your recipe for cinnamon buns.  I promise I'll guard it with my life.

What was the best breakfast you ever ate?

Cinnamon Buns
Adapted from here.  I halved the recipe and it still made eight ... though I suppose if you want to make them Alaskan size, like the Talkeetna Roadhouse did, you could get twelve from the full recipe.  Or eight, but that might be a little crazy.

1 package dry yeast
3/4 c. warm milk
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/3 c. butter, softened
1 t. salt
2 eggs
4 c. flour

1 c. packed brown sugar
2 1/2 T. cinnamon
1/3 c. butter, melted

8 T. butter
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. cream cheese
1/2 t. vanilla
1/8 t. salt

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk in a large bowl. Add sugar, butter, salt, eggs and flour. Mix well.

Knead the dough into a large ball, using your hands dusted lightly with flour, and adding flour a little at a time if the dough is too sticky. Put in a bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place (not the countertop, like I did!) about 1 hour or until the dough had doubled in size. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface, until it is approximately 21 inches long by 16 inches wide and 1/4-inch thick.

Preheat oven to 400F.

Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Spread the melted butter over the surface of the dough, then sprinkle the brown sugar and cinnamon mixture evenly over the surface. Working carefully from the long edge, roll the dough down to the bottom edge. Cut the dough into 1 3/4-inch slices, and place on parchment on baking sheet (or in a baking pan if you don't like your rolls "free form"). Bake for 10 minutes or until light golden brown.

To make icing: While the rolls are baking, combine 8 T. butter with cream cheese. Beat well with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add sugar, vanilla, and salt, and beat again until the mixture becomes spreadable.  When the rolls are cooled, spread with icing.

You can keep these in the refrigerator and warm them up the next day in the microwave for about 15 seconds.
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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Left Behind: A Time Warp Tuesday Post

My blogger friend Kathy  at Bereaved and Blessed sponsors a monthly blog hop called Time Warp Tuesday in which she challenges bloggers to revisit and reflect on an old post relating to the month's theme, and offer some observations about change over time.  This month’s theme is Left Behind, and she asks us to find an old post that tells what it was like to live on after the death of a loved one, and then to write a new post explaining why I chose that post and what has happened in my life since.

I had a hard time choosing a post, because the person I wanted to write about is, I was surprised to discover, all over this blog, and yet there's only one post I found that talks about him and his life: My Dad and Chickpea Soup.  It's sort of a nostalgic post about missing my father and his unsolicited advice, but also missing his love of the earth and the garden, which is now in the midst of its summer abundance.

On the one hand, I'd say that not much has changed about my life since that post.  But on the other hand, everything has changed since that post.  At the time I wrote it, I was home on maternity leave with my daughter, but hadn't yet left my job.  Even though I'd been a parent for four years when my daughter was born, over the past year, I've had to adjust to the different demands of being home all the time, which requires a patience that I've had to work hard to cultivate; I had to learn how to be with my daughter without the benefit of inhabiting some different head space at work during the day.  And in some respects, that journey has also meant revisiting and reprocessing my relationship with my father.

Most of the posts about my father here have been about his garden and his food, and how memories of him are so closely intertwined with the way I cook and eat, even as I've talked vaguely about my conflicted feelings about my relationship with him.  I've posted about black bean soup, tortilla a la espanola, caldo gallego, and his kohlrabi plants and tomato garden. I've also posted about his willingness to take risks, my memories of the way he'd celebrate Fourth of July, his preparations for a trip to the beach, his presence at midnight mass at Christmas.  And then there's all kind of mentions of him, little sayings, things that I guess impressed me more than I realized.  (There are, I discovered, very few mentions of my mother, comparatively speaking, which both surprised and didn't surprise me.)

My father was not a very patient man, and he had high expectations of me.  He was verbally and sometimes physically abusive in a way that I suspect was culturally acceptable where he came from, even if it wasn't acceptable in the U.S.; he never actually hit us, in the way that we usually think of abuse, but he was strong, and I have vivid memories of him grabbing me, shaking me, yelling at me and demeaning me as I watched the thick purple vein pulse in his temple, feeling the terror that would well up in my heart.  It was strange to watch him die over the course of just three months, succumbing to cancer, becoming a shell of the larger than life presence he had been throughout my life.  I'm sure that he never intended to hurt us, but parenting didn't come easily to him, and he reacted to conflict or disappointment in a way that I determined I never wanted to react, when I became a parent myself.

Now, I am with my daughter all day; while in many ways she is a delight, she is also headstrong and--at the tender age of 18 months--defiant.  I feel my father's temper rise in my own heart more often because I am home, and I've had to train myself to react differently to her behavior, and to my own feelings.  On the one hand, I want to give my children things my father gave me: appreciation for the world and its many cultures, love of the earth and its fruits, appreciation for beautiful things, his sense of duty to help other people.  And those are the things I miss about him.  On the other hand, I want to make sure I don't pass on his parenting style.

I still love my father.  I still think he would have been a wonderful grandfather.  I'm grateful for the many gifts he gave me, and I still miss him.  But I'm also grateful for the gift of insight, the gift of clarity, that I've given myself.  And I will honor him in the way I parent my children, in the best way I can.
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A House of Compromise: Napa Cabbage Salad

I might as well confess this: my husband is a Republican.  In case you haven't been reading for very long, and didn't notice my political stripes ... well, let's just say I'm not a Republican.  Luckily we agree on the important ideological issues (at least, the ones I think are important), and disagree when it comes to issues of government size and fiscal responsibility.  It works for us.

As you found out in his guest post, my husband is an engineer.  He sees things with a scientific, rational, logical mind.  Me?  I was an English major, a Psychology minor, and got my doctoral degree in the Sociology and Philosophy of Education, heavy on the Philosophy.  I see things through the lens of metaphor, I am more likely to be emotional even when I'm being rational, and I am drawn to ideas about culture.  The difference offers us balance, most of the time, like when I want to cry about laundry detergent.  (Maybe sometime I will tell you that story, but not today.)

My husband is a carnivore.  He would be perfectly happy with a meal of hot dogs and mashed potatoes.  In fact, Thanksgiving at our house falls just short of a world war every year because though I am not exactly a vegetarian, I often eat that way, and I am the lone voice protesting the preponderance of starch and animal protein.  (A meal of sugar and fat, though?  Oh, ho!  Not a problem.)

Unlike most of our differences, which are completely surmountable or even useful, this last difference presents a challenge given that the CSA share is ... well ... full of vegetables.  And not just the flexible jack-of-all-trades vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes, but things like napa cabbage.  And eggplant.  And tomatillos.  I am way too lazy to make stuffed cabbage, and the idea of a whole head of cabbage worth of stuffed cabbage makes me a little weak in the knees.  I have eaten more baba ghanouj this summer than I thought possible, because everyone else who lives here thinks that eggplant is slimy.  And will someone please tell me what people do with tomatillos besides make salsa, or throw them in stew, which I really would prefer not to do when it's ninety degrees out?

I love my CSA.  LOVE, love my CSA.  But this is tricky business.

I remember having long conversations with a former colleague about her split household, and how she managed, as a vegetarian, to cook for herself and her vegetable-hating husband (not that my husband hates vegetables ... he just doesn't love them like I do).  At the time, they seemed like perfectly reasonable solutions: add beans to one half the meal, meat to the other.  But sometimes, like when you have a cabbage to contend with, it works less well.

You can, however, take a deep breath, compromise a little, and present your husband with a rack of ribs to grill as an enticement to eat said cabbage.  Which is exactly what I did.

Napa Cabbage Salad with Red Bell Pepper, Cilantro, Almonds, and Dijon-Ginger Dressing
(Adapted from Kalyn's Kitchen)

1 medium head napa cabbage, chopped (about 5-6 cups chopped cabbage)
1 red bell pepper, very thinly sliced into same-length slices
1/3 c. thinly sliced green onion
1/2 c. chopped cilantro
1/3 c. chopped almonds, toasted (or roasted, salted)

2 T rice vinegar
2 tsp. grated ginger root
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
3/4 tsp. sesame oil
1 T. agave nectar or 2 t. honey
salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
3 T. light olive oil

Stir together the rice vinegar, grated ginger, Dijon mustard, sesame oil, agave nectar/honey, salt, and pepper, then whisk in the oil one tablespoon at a time.  Set aside and allow flavors to mingle.

Toss together the chopped napa cabbage, red bell pepper, green onions, and chopped cilantro in a medium-sized salad bowl.  Add desired amount dressing and toss to coat the salad.  Place in salad bowls and top each serving with chopped almonds.  Serve and eat immediately, since the cabbage will begin to wilt in the refrigerator.
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Monday, August 13, 2012

The Body Electric: Basil Pine Nut Praline Ice Cream

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems[.]
                                                                     -- Walt Whitman, "I Sing the Body Electric"

My friend's heart turns one this month.  Actually, I guess it really turns 61, or something close to that, but it will have been his heart for a year.  And to look at him, you'd never know he had a heart transplant.  It's astounding.  He is astounding.

Before the transplant, he was a runner and a cyclist, one of the healthiest people I know, doing half marathons without blinking and riding centuries regularly on the weekends.  He didn't smoke or drink.  He cooked for his family from their organic co-op vegetable share, and fed them (much to his Southerner wife's disappointment, sometimes) a mostly plant-based diet.  When he was rushed to the ER for what they thought was asthma, they discovered that his heart had been operating at 6% of its capacity for quite some time; it was heavily scarred, and he'd been overcompensating.  It was a blow to all of us: he was our age, had two young children, was a fabulous stay at home dad.  How could this happen to someone like him?

His hospital stay was a long haul, involving medications, multiple surgeries with balloons, until they finally decided to move forward with the transplant.  Then an infection, and more surgery.  We prayed a lot.  We weren't sure he was going to live.  I visited his wife at the hospital, trying to make her feel better; often, she made me feel better.  Her courage was humbling.  I organized a meal train for them, doing the only thing I knew how: feeding them and anyone else who came to stay with the kids.

My friend pulled through, came home shortly after the hurricane that left his family without power or water for two weeks, and slowly, one day at a time, began to look more like himself again.  He was a walking miracle to me.  When I started to see him regularly at the Y, I knew that he was on his way to a full recovery.  Seeing him made my heart happy; everything about him exuded LIFE. 

This weekend, my friend ran his first 5K since the transplant: in his birthday suit.  (And I'm sure he won't mind me posting that information, as long as I'm not posting pictures.)  He's not a nudist, but he loves his body.  And I think that this year, this race, this first race since his transplant, was a reason for him to celebrate every inch of his being.  I respect him, not just for running in the Moonshine race (along with the 70 or so other runners who also participated in this 5K, yes it's an official event, and not even on a college campus!), but for genuinely appreciating the body he was given, and the body he was gifted when he got his new heart.

How many times have I hated my body for what it couldn't do, for what it did, for what it looked like, for what it didn't look like?  How about you?

Today, with my friend, I sing the body electric.

Basil Pine Nut Praline Ice Cream
(adapted from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home)
Basil and pine nuts are both known aphrodesiacs (from the Greek Aphrodite, goddess of love, desired by all men). Give your body a little love.

2 c. whole milk
1 T. plus 1 t cornstarch
3 T. cream cheese softened
1/4 t. fine sea salt
1 1/4 c. heavy cream
2/3 c. sugar
2 T. light corn syrup
1 large handful fresh basil leaves cut to small pieces
1/3 c. honey nut pralines (see below)

Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry.Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

Combine the remaining milk the cream sugar and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes, Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

Gradually whisk the hot milk into the cream cheese until smooth. Add the basil. Submerge the mixture partway in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

Strain out the basil. Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy. Pack the ice cream into a storage container, folding in the honey pine nut pralines as you go. Press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Honey Nut Pralines

1/2 c. pine nuts, walnuts, black walnuts, or pecans, halved if you prefer smaller bits
2 T. light brown sugar
2 T. honey
1 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Combine the nuts with the remaining ingredients in a bowl, tossing to coat.  Spread out on a baking sheet and bake for 8 minutes. Stir and bake for another 5 to 6 minutes, stirring twice; the nuts should look bubbly and somewhat dry. Remove from the oven and let cool completely, stirring the nuts every couple of minutes to break them up.
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Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Road Diverged

I am standing in the corner of the bar at a farewell party in a local gun and hunting club, Diet Coke in my hand, surrounded by staff from the Y who have clearly been here drinking--and not just Diet Coke--for a while.  I don't like guns, I don't really drink, and I hate parties that require me to mingle with a drink in my hand.  I look around, and there aren't many other members here, anyway, just staffers.  They're dressed for a party, and I'm dressed to go grocery shopping, in my yoga woman T shirt and brown cargo capris.  I'm having a moment.  Maybe you've had these moments, too.  These "how the hell did I get here" moments.

It's been over a year now since I've been gainfully employed.  I've certainly been busy, because taking care of an infant who becomes a toddler is a full time job.  But I haven't seen a regular paycheck in 14 months.

And it's a strange place for me, as strange as the gun and hunting club.  I've written before about how I never intended to be a SAHM.  Yes, I made the decision that set this chapter of my life in motion.  But there were many chapters that came before it, and many of them were written by other people, or by the universe itself.  If I hadn't lost pregnancies, if I hadn't been diagnosed with secondary infertility, and since we weren't planning to have more than two children, maybe my daughter (or not-my-daughter) would have been born earlier, instead of being born at the same time as I got a new boss at work.  If I hadn't been on maternity leave during said new boss's early tenure in his position, he may not have been able to get away with some of the things he did while I wasn't there.  Maybe I would have had more support.  Maybe I would have felt differently about the relationship.  Maybe I could have fought back better.  Maybe I wouldn't have resigned.  Maybe I wouldn't have found myself still unemployed when my daughter reached the age of 18 months.  I wouldn't have taken the Y up on the three month free membership that I won in a raffle, to give myself an excuse to get out of the house on a regular basis and exercise while someone watched my daughter.  I wouldn't have met my instructors.  And so I wouldn't be saying goodbye to this particular one, who is moving to another state; I don't know where I would be, but I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty that I wouldn't be standing in the bar at the gun club with a Diet Coke in my hand.

On the other hand, I might not have met you.

When I was a child, I loved those Choose Your Own Adventure books.  I loved the fact that you could request a do-over, start from a place where you were happier, or more confident, or had a sword, and find a better ending, or even a better, or more interesting, middle. I used to back up through them, as if they were mazes: if you didn't like where the story was going, you backtrack and make it right by simply choosing the opposite direction.  Back then, I think I believed that you could make more choices, that life didn't happen to you, that you made life happen.

Now I think there's some combination of destiny and choice at work, and it's a mixed blessing.

Because I love my beautiful, feisty, happy, smart, amazing daughter.  I feel lucky to have her.  And when you add a child to your life, you have to expect that your life is going to turn upside down.

It's just that some days I wonder about the parallel universes.  The ones that didn't lead to the gun club.  The ones in which I had a sword.
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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Now You See Them: Nonchiladas Verdes

Our new neighbor has been working on the house next door since he moved in a few months ago.  I'm glad; my former neighbor was like a surrogate mother to me, but it was hard for her to care for her house: the exterior paint was peeling, the landscape was a little overgrown, and parts of the roof needed TLC.

Like many people around here do, my new neighbor hired a day laborer to help him paint.  Though I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the country, my town has a its share of poor immigrants, and there is always a group of men needing work who congregate at a convenience store down the street.  Most of them, according to the Latino cultural organization in the county, are undocumented.  I think of them often during the summer, when the temperature is in the 90s and the humidity is about a billion percent.  The sun is brutal, and there is very little shade at the convenience store.  If they are lucky enough to find employment, they ride bicycles to work, often carrying nothing more than a single water bottle.  Some employers are more considerate than others, but no one, of course, offers health insurance.

My daughter and I have been watching this man patiently scrape and paint for days now, making his way around the house and standing precariously on the top rungs of his ladder, and yesterday, I happened to notice his shirt.  It was a long sleeved tee advertising a new residence hall that had opened at my former place of employment just a few years ago, a residence hall known for its posh amenities and slightly higher cost for board.

The juxtapositions were hard to ignore.  The oppressive heat, and the long sleeved shirt.  The classy residence hall name plastered across his back, and the beat-up bicycle with its single water bottle parked in the driveway.  I wondered where he'd gotten the shirt, knowing from my few conversations with him that he didn't speak much English, and suspecting that he probably didn't have children he was sending there, either, at least, not children who were living in that hall.  The shirt and the job were both cast-offs, things that no one wanted.  Things that he was grateful to have.

I thought about how this man was a strange combination of visible and invisible: visible because it's hard to ignore the day laborers at the convenience store, invisible because people see him as just another nameless worker, someone we look past, look through, someone who is reduced to a body part, a "hired hand."

Over the years, I worked with undocumented students at the university level.  These students had made it through high school, had been accepted to a moderately competitive college.  All of them were smart; some of them were downright brilliant.  And having worked so hard to achieve their goals, they were faced with dreams deferred.  With taking the cast-offs.  They, too, often vanished after graduation, becoming invisible, because that was their only option.

On August 15, eligible undocumented immigrants can apply to receive a 2-year deferral on
deportation and a 2-year work authorization card.  In order to be eligible, they must have come to the U.S. before the age of sixteen; have continuously resided here for at least five years; currently be in school, have graduated, or be honorably discharged; have not been convicted of a significant crime; and not be above the age of thirty.  The provision would make it easier for some of my former students to pursue their dreams; I can think of one, for example, who recently reappeared on my Facebook feed, who wanted more than anything to be a teacher, and knew that pursuing her teaching degree was a fruitless effort because of her illegal status: she'd never be able to get a job.

At the same time, this Friday, the State of Arizona is due to respond to the currently blocked provision of a law that requires police to conduct immigration checks on people they stop, question or arrest whom they suspect are in the country illegally.  Making Latinos more visible, on the one hand, susceptible to profiling, and invisible, on the other, erasing people's identities.

I have been thinking about what the way we treat immigrants here, especially the way we treat undocumented immigrants, has in common with the way that women are treated, or the way disabled people are treated, or the way that other marginalized groups are treated in the U.S.  On the one hand, they are too visible.  Visible when it's convenient, when we need them to work, or when they're complaining too much, or when they're becoming a financial burden; invisible as long as they don't rock the boat, or when they are easier to ignore.

The man painting my neighbor's house is not invisible to me, or to my daughter, who watches him with rapt attention.  We brought him some ice today, to let him know that we see him.  I hope he understood.

Nonchiladas Verdes
I call these nonchiladas because we generally don't use chiles in sauce; my kids don't like it too spicy.  But the cilantro and garlic impart lots of flavor, so we don't miss the spice.  Now you see them, now you don't.

1 1/2  lbs. boneless chicken OR 3 c. white beans/cooked rice
1 small onion, halved crosswise
2 garlic cloves
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 c. loosely packed fresh cilantro
1 1/2 lbs. tomatillos, husked and rinsed
8-10 six-inch corn tortillas 2 oz. queso blanco or Monterey Jack cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup Greek yogurt, thinned with 2 T. water

Place chicken, onion, the garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, 18 to 22 minutes. Reserve 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid; set aside.  (If you're using beans or rice, you can cut up half the onion and saute them with the beans/rice; use water later instead of cooking liquid.)

Let chicken cool on a plate. When cool enough to handle, shred.  Set aside.

Preheat broiler, with the rack about 6 inches from heat source. Broil tomatillos and chiles on a rimmed baking sheet, rotating them as they blacken, 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool. Remove the blackened skins, stems, ribs, and seeds (optional) from chiles. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Coarsely puree tomatillos in a blender with remaining 1/4 t. salt, cilantro, and reserved 3/4 cup cooking liquid (or water). Take 1/4 c. or so of the salsa and toss with chicken/beans/rice.  Transfer the remaining salsa to a large bowl.

Using tongs, toast tortillas over an open flame of a gas stove, 5 to 10 seconds per side., or heat them in a skillet over high heat.)

Dip 1 tortilla into salsa to coat lightly. Place 1/3 cup chicken on half of tortilla. Sprinkle 2 T. cheese on top, and roll up. Place it seam side down in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Repeat to make more enchiladas, lining them up snugly in dish. Spoon remaining salsa on top, and bake until heated through, about 20 minutes.

Drizzle with yogurt.
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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Promises, Promises

We've recently transitioned my daughter to a toddler bed.  She's only a year and a half old, but she's never liked being contained in her crib (her name, after all, is derived from a Hebrew root meaning "movement," and apparently also means "freedom" in Hawaiian). It's worked pretty well so far: at naptime or bedtime, she climbs up onto the mattress, rolls around until she finally finds a comfortable position, and -- this is the endearing part -- sticks her butt up in to the air, and tucks her arms and corners of her knit blanket underneath her.  This freedom means that when she gets up, she can also get out of bed and entertain herself for a few minutes before she calls one of us to come and get her, which she seems to love, judging by the smiling child I often find standing in a pile of books, waving one she was just "reading."

One of the conditions of this freedom, though, is her unspoken need to have one of us stay with her until she falls asleep.  She'll lie there if we sit in the chair and close our eyes, too, simply being a comforting presence.

This afternoon I watched her fall asleep out of the corner of my half-closed eyes (because you can never let her know that you're looking at her); her own eyes would grow heavy, and then flash open, making sure that I was still there before they closed again.  Yes, I told her, silently.  I'm still here.  Don't worry.  You're safe.

Something about that moment reminded me of the precious moment in New York at BlogHer this weekend, when Write Mind Open Heart's daughter grabbed my hand as we walked up Broadway on Saturday night.  She'd seen something--or perhaps someone--that made her nervous, and though she was already holding her mother's hand, she reached for mine, too.  She asked if I minded, and I said no ... that I was honored.  Because I was.

Later, on the way back to the hotel, I found myself telling her my story of being mugged at gunpoint in Los Angeles.  I don't know how I got on that subject, but a few sentences after I'd launched into it, I stopped, worrying that I was going to upset her.  I asked her if she would be afraid, told her that I wanted to make sure that she felt she was safe here, that we would keep her safe.  She assured me that she wouldn't be upset, that she wasn't worried.

That pseudo-promise has been nagging at me ever since, especially after finding out about the shooting at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee this weekend.  [Edited later to include: Or the shooting in Aurora.  Or the tragedy in Newtown.  Or the Boston Marathon Bombing.]  Because really?  We can't ever make that promise.  We can't promise to keep anyone safe: not men, not women, not children, not the unborn.

I took the kids to our local National Night Out celebration tonight, where there were bouncy houses, and free hot dogs and ice cream and pizza, and a dunk tank, and door prizes, and a DJ, and an antique car show, and lots of fire trucks and police cars to look at and climb into.  It was the kind of thing I try to do a lot, especially in the summer, because I love the spirit of community that I feel at festivals, even when I don't know another soul, and I want my children to feel that, too.  My husband, S., jokes that I have a "thing" for white canvas tents.  That may be true, but the tents have always been a metonym for me, for something much larger, something I can't quite express. Something pure, and lovely, and idyllic, maybe ... something that stands apart from the world that we find scary or overwhelming or unpredictable.

So yes, our National Night Out celebration feels more like a block party than a vigil.   And when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure how effective it is.  After all, no bouncy house is going to stop a teenage gang from putting a gun to someone's head.  No free ice cream is going to prevent us from getting cancer, or getting into a fatal car accident.  No good will is going to prevent pregnancy and neonatal loss.  There's simply too much in the world that is unsafe, too many things we need protection from.  On the other hand, it's a good reminder that sometimes we can find a different kind of security in being open to being together. 

Maybe we can't promise to keep each other safe.  But we can promise to sit and keep watch, and we can hold each others' hands.  And maybe that's the best we can hope for.
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Monday, August 6, 2012

Thoughts on BlogHer'12

You'd think that someone who has lived less than an hour from New York City for most of her life would go there once in a while.  And as you've read here before, I do occasionally venture in for a foodie tour.  But when I was growing up, our twice-yearly trips to the city involved a lot of stress and swearing (at least, in the way my parents would swear, not using four letter words).  My father hated driving there, but would drop us off on a street corner, urging us to sightsee while he circled the block.  My mother hated my father driving there, and hated being dropped off at said street corner in an era before cell phones, not knowing when we would see my father again.  I would sit in the back seat, gripping my door handle and my seat, white-knuckled, sure that this time we were GOING. TO. DIE., and once outside, I'd cower in my mother's shadow, certain that my father would be swallowed up by the traffic at Rockefeller Center, and that we would be trampled by the fashionable crowd.  To this day, I mentally prepare for a trip to the city as if preparing to do battle.
So it spoke volumes about how I felt on Thursday, after braving the drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and across town, that I checked in, got my badge, and ducked back outside into the city to breathe for another hour, and to wrap myself in a sense of ... safety and security?  Laptop clutched to my side, I was surprised to find I felt more calm in the visual noise of Times Square than I did in front of the Grand Ballroom on that first day at BlogHer.

It's not that I haven't been to big conferences before.  But something about BlogHer is different.  Because not only have you just walked into a "wall of estrogen," as Katie Workman put it on that first day when I was trying to get a handle on lightning-fast #blogher12 twitter feed, but you've walked into wall of estrogen where everyone, it seems, has been reading everyone else's most intimate thoughts for years.  People were squealing at the sight of each other in the lobby on that first day, and I started to wonder if I'd made a mistake.  Did I mention I'm still recovering from going to an all-girls Catholic high school?

But soon enough, I found my tribe, too.  I met up for dinner that night with some of the bloggers I admire most (Stirrup Queens, Too Many Fish to FryWrite Mind Open Heart, Bereaved and Blessed, Dragondreamer's Lair, A Blanket to Keep and Kir Corner), and though I'd worried that might be all I'd see of them at the conference, it turned out that I got to bask in their company a lot throughout the weekend, at meals, in sessions, at parties.  Being with them was like coming home.  I felt grateful to be there with them in person, to touch them, to know that they were real.  I felt embraced.

As much as BlogHer is a place to find your tribe, it's also incredibly diverse, and it's a good opportunity to move outside of your comfort zone. I had breakfast with some self-described "slice of life" bloggers (hello, Linda and Wendy!); laughed out loud at Shari Simpson and wept listening to Susan Goldman and Barbara Becker read at Voices of the Year; danced with an expat Wellesley grad who lives in Turkey (hi Jules!); exchanged cards in speed dating with a nurse who gives advice to teens girls about sex (hi, Elaine!) and a woman who interviews people about their neighborhoods (hi, Kate!); repeatedly stood in line for the bathroom with a mother of triplets (hi, Kristin!); ran part of the psuedo 5K with the race director and founder of the Rose Run (hi, Jessica!); sat in a Writing Lab next to a woman who lives in the woods and cooks on a hot plate (hi, Ally!); mingled at a party with someone who has been doing NaBloPoMo since January (hi, Dawn!) ... you get the idea.

And I rubbed elbows with fame: Katie Couric gave a fabulous down-to-earth keynote, and Martha Stewart practically made me pee myself when she said that the only things she wasn't good at were things she hadn't yet tried.  (Oh, Martha.  I'll have what you're having.)  As I passed by the Land O Lakes booth at the Expo, there was Ree Drummond, smiling and shaking hands.  Unfortunately, I don't think I won her cookbook.  Oh, well.

BlogHer is known for its parties, swag, and offsite events.  You could spend all weekend just attending these things (and some people did).  Jjiraffe and I couldn't stop laughing when someone approached us at the Expo, asking if we wanted to have our picture taken in toilet paper.  (Why, yes!  Yes, I do want my picture taken in toilet paper!  However did you know?)  I confess I visited the Starbucks suite for a cake pop and a demo of their new coffeemaker.  And somewhere, there are pictures of me at Sparklecorn, wearing glow sticks on my arms.  But you could also spend your weekend talking about writing and technology and social media, which is mostly what I did.  I came away, I think, with some new ideas, with a more sophisticated approach to blogging, and with a willingness to be both more experimental and more critical towards my own work.

Wait a minute.  Did I just call blogging my work?

Um.  I did.

I lingered longer than I had intended over a walk and coffee on Saturday night with Stirrup Queens and Bereaved and Blessed and Write Mind Open Heart (and her amazing daughter who melted my heart by holding my hand as we walked up Broadway), not wanting to leave, not wanting the experience to end.  When I finally couldn't stay any longer, knowing that I had a long drive ahead of me, I said my tearful goodbyes (sappy, sappy, sappy, but true), collected my bag, claimed my car and turned right onto 53rd st., flipping on the radio to keep me company through the madness of Times Square on a Saturday night.  This time, the city felt less like the retreat that it had been on Thursday; now I'd left that place behind me.  And I kid you not, the station in my car came on in the middle of the Beatles' "Yesterday": "Why ... she ... had to go, I don't know ... she wouldn't say ... I .... said ... something wrong ... now I long ... for yesterda-a-a-ay..."

Of course, like the retreats I went on in high school, the afterglow of BlogHer only lasts for so long.  Then it's up to us to do the hard work.  Time is never on my side, it seems, but I'm rolling up my sleeves nonetheless.
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Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Surprising Guest Post (even for me!): the 80/20 Rule

I arrived home from BlogHer last night, and I think I have a lot to say.  I even had a post planned for today.  But it turns out that my husband also has something to say, and asked if he could guest post here.  How could I turn that down?

I talked a lot with the other BlogHer attendees about voice this weekend, about the fine line between telling our own stories and telling other people's stories for them, about the choices we make to include or exclude people or aspects of our lives from our blogs, and it occurred to me today that there's something about putting a voice in context that can give it another dimension.  It's like reading a character in a novel.  We love the monologue if the writing is good, but we read for dialogue, too.

I'll be back tomorrow, but tonight, here's another voice from my house.  Unedited, because you deserve to hear it like it is.  I'll be curious to know whether it helps you to imagine dialogue in my small corner of the universe.  He'll be reading the comments, so feel free to leave one for him, or for me.


Let me introduce myself: I am known as "S." here, J.'s husband. While J. was away at BlogHer the past few days, I played stay-at-home dad, and walked a few miles in her shoes. Part of that walk involves cooking dinner and trying to live up to the high standards that Justine sets for meals in our house.

I am an engineer, and one of the rules of thumb I use frequently is known as the 80/20 rule. Although it has many incarnations depending on your field, for me it means that the first 80% of the job is accomplished with the first 20% of the effort. Taking this one step further, it means that the remaining 80% of your effort is spent doing tasks that aren't necessarily very meaningful. Often those tasks need to get done, but not always. One place with some leeway is cooking.

There is a certain joy in preparing a meal completely from scratch, and assembling it all yourself. It is your creation. It is unique. It feels like you've accomplished something. Unfortunately, it is also a great deal of work. It's even more challenging with a one year old pulling at your legs and demanding constant attention. This is an opportunity to apply the 80/20 rule and make life a little easier.

Although J. shared a pizza recipe with you recently, the job of pizza-making is usually mine in our house. About 80% of the effort (you know where this is going) goes into making the homemade crust. I've experimented with many variations on the crust over the years, including different flours and herbs, trying to make it just right. Last night I didn't. I cheated and tried out a pre-made frozen pizza dough from the grocery store. The result? Certainly not as good as from scratch, but still tasty and it sure did save a lot of time.

Is it really "cheating" to use pre-made ingredients in your cooking?  We all do it to some extent. Many ingredients require inordinate effort, equipment, or time to make. When a recipe calls for yogurt, cheese, mustard, pasta, or a pickle, I think most of us just pick those off the grocery shelf, although we could make it if we chose. This ingredient "self-sufficiency" falls along a spectrum. At one end, if you avoid the pre-made ingredients altogether, it's an impressive statement of purity and devotion. At the other extreme, filling up your shopping cart exclusively with frozen TV dinners won't lead to very interesting blog posts (*Blog Owner's note: assuming you're writing a blog that discusses food, of course.  And even so, there are probably, somewhere out there, amusing TV dinner blogs) or nutrition awards.

Where do you place yourself on this spectrum? Is there an ideal range that one should aspire to? Or does it vary from meal to meal or based on the time you can make available on a particular day?

If you'd like to try my "cheater" pizza, the recipe is below. From start to finish it took just under 40 minutes, and it was enjoyed by both kids and by me. It also used up some of the leading edge of the tomato bounty from our garden and CSA.

Preheat oven to 450 F with a pizza stone in the oven. While oven is warming, slice enough tomatoes to cover the pizza in a monolayer (did I mention I'm an engineer?) and place on a paper towel to absorb some of the moisture. Don't worry about getting the slices too perfect -- that's an 80% task. Grate 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Roll out the dough to the size of your pizza stone. Brush with olive oil and place the tomato slices on top. Sprinkle with cheese, and add a little salt and pepper to taste. Spray on a little more olive oil. Place on the hot pizza stone and bake until crust browns (but cheese isn't burnt), about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and place some fresh basil leaves on top. Slice and serve.

Finally, remember to remove the pizza stone from the oven before your wife tries to make cupcakes in the oven the next night.
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