Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Fragile (with comfort food: Arroz con Pollo)

Early in quarantine (maybe April, maybe May ... time had already started to flex and stretch) I was talking with a friend of mine about motivation to get out of bed when it felt like groundhog day over and over. She owns a relatively new shop in town, one that sells American handcrafted goods and art, largely women and folks of color. Her shop had shuttered its doors temporarily, due to state executive orders, and she didn't have an online shop; there wasn't time, and she only has a few of everything ... there are all kinds of unique things there (she now DOES have an online presence and it's neat to browse).

I suggested that because I was up and getting ready for work and had my coffee then, anyway, she should text me a photo of her coffee every morning at 8am. No conversation, no zoom presence required, no judgment for missed days or late texts, no getting dressed. Just coffee, which we should share together, in solidarity and silence.

The first day, I texted her my photo just after 8. She came back with hers closer to 8:30, and apologies. I reassured her that this was a no judgment zone. The second day, she texted me hers at 8am sharp. And so it went, her text, my text, day by day. A series of coffee cups. Sometimes these were interspersed by snippets of conversation, but more often, just the coffee, and a reaction. A heart. A hug.

After a month or so, I finally commented on the mugs. As someone who sells gifts and art, and whose mom also had a store that sold gifts and art when she was a child, my friend has a beautiful collection of handmade pottery mugs. I'm a sucker for pottery, in case that wasn't obvious from my years of posting food photos. In fact, I'd been coveting a beautiful large tumbler from her shop windows -- the kind with a drip blue and white glaze pattern over a brown base -- and told myself it was too expensive, that it was too much to spend on myself. Weirdly, I didn't ever really drink from either of my two small handmade mugs. I rarely ate from my handmade bowls, except when company came, and even then, we mostly used them for serving bowls. So my photos of coffee were a series of pictures of a plastic United Way tumbler.

My friend told me that she always drinks from her pottery mugs, because handmade pottery is meant to be used, and because it's a way of celebrating the ordinary, by elevating the ordinary to something special.

I loved this idea. But I still couldn't bring myself to buy the tumbler from her shop window.

One morning, in August, my friend invited me to her back yard for socially distant coffee at 8am. The shop had been open, and things were as back to normal as they can be, at least for now, and she thought it would be fun to catch up before she headed in to work. She was waiting for me, our chairs set up before I'd arrived, and at mine, a gift bag, from her shop. 

It was the tumbler.

A thanks, she said, for getting her up during those first hard days.

I nearly wept.

And so I've been using it ever since, every morning, making my coffee in this beautiful tumbler, appreciating the colors, the shape, the feel, the warmth, the sweet of the honey I add, making the ordinary feel special.

Until on Saturday, my daughter was drinking the dregs of my coffee and milk foam, and knocked the tumbler over on the counter. Which, of course, cracked it.

I was weirdly inconsolable. This tumbler had become something more than a piece of pottery. It was a celebration of the ordinary beautiful things. It was a connection to my friend. It was something normal when everything else felt so shitty, when we had all lost so much. When I was mourning yet another loss, this time, an amazing blogger friend who had died of cancer. And now it was cracked; usable, but not for long.

I thought a lot about the tumbler in the days that followed. About how fragile so much is right now. Our health. Our relationships. Our democracy. Though I guess everything was always this fragile, right? So it's a matter of making the decision to use these fragile things anyway, to use the vessels we have to hold the things that might slip away, to accept the possibility that they might slip away or change. Maybe to appreciate the ordinary beautiful things a little more if we can. It's not a new lesson to many of us who have lost what we love, over and over again. Somehow it doesn't get easier to learn.

(I always have a recipe, so here's a comfort food from my childhood, for moments when you need a full belly and things are slipping away and you need to be grounded. I ate it from a piece of pottery made by another friend, who uses clay he finds locally, with all of the stones and pebbles still visible. You can make a vegetarian version of this by skipping the first part of the process and using vegetable broth instead of the home-made broth, but I do recommend adding Sazón to whatever you're using as your broth base. I don't use Goya any more, if I can avoid it.)

Arroz con Pollo

Original at http://www.mycolombianrecipes.com/chicken-and-rice-arroz-con-pollo

Chicken and Stock
2 whole chicken breast, bone in and skin removed
1 scallion
½ white onion
2 garlic cloves
½ tablespoon ground cumin
½ tablespoon Sazón with azafran
1 bay leaf
Salt and Pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ cup chopped red bell pepper
¼ cup chopped green pepper
1 cup long- grain white rice
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 chicken bouillon tablet
2 ½ cups chicken stock
½ tablespoon Sazón with azafran

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
½ cup frozen peas
½ cup frozen diced carrots
½ cup frozen diced green beans

Place the chicken breast, 5 cups water and the remaining ingredients for the stock in a medium pot. 

Bring to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the chicken rest in the pot for about 15 minutes covered. Let it cool, shred and set aside. Strain stock and measure 2 ½ cups and set aside.

In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, green peppers, garlic and red bell pepper. Cook until the onions are translucent, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the rice, tomato paste, chicken bouillon and sazon goya. Stir until the rice is well coated about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the peas, carrots and green beans and cook for and additional 7 minutes, add the shredded chicken and cilantro, mix well with a fork, cover and cook for 5 minutes more.

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Friday, August 7, 2020

Athena's Breastplate, and Cauliflower and Potato Masala

My daughter has already started making her Halloween costume.

I'm actually pretty happy about this, on the one hand, because she's been bored out of her little skull these past few weeks, quarantining at home all summer with little to no regular contact with other humans her size (besides a week here and there of half-day-masked-and-socially-distanced-dance-camp with two other girls in attendance). And there's a pumpkin growing in our garden, so it seems weirdly apropos. Maybe we'll carve it up and celebrate early.

Because on the other hand, who even knows if there will be Halloween this year? Things are changing at the speed of light, and schools that were opening are now not opening, and wandering around a crowded street during a pandemic taking candy from neighbors and SO MUCH TOUCHING of things other people have touched ... well, that seems ... unwise.

I hate to disappoint my daughter by telling her this. She's had so much disappointment these past few months, which she has handled mostly with grace, but also by sheltering in a little closer, by asking me to lie there next to her in bed while she goes to sleep, by patting me gently on the arm as she walks by, knowing that I'm stressed, too, asking me when it will all be over.

And there's something about this particular choice of costume that I don't want to discourage. My daughter has been deep into Greek mythology this summer, and has learned more about it than I ever knew, for sure. She loves the whole pantheon, is enthralled by the stories (which she can retell in exquisite detail), and has chosen Athena as her alter ego: the goddess of war, strategy, wisdom, crafting. It's not a bad choice for someone who is as active and creative and stubborn and determined as she is.

She's going to need a breastplate and sword for the fall.

And so might we all, right? I've been drinking Emergen-C and turmeric tea with ginger and taking Vitamin D like my life depends on it, because I worry that it very well might (anyone else in the room start experiencing all coughs and aches with a sense of panic? Yeah, me, too). I am deeply anxious about our kids going back to school, even though I know that they really want to be there and that our district has such carefully crafted plans to avoid and contain an outbreak. I worry about what will happen to families that can't afford to juggle the hybrid model or be remote when the time inevitably comes to do that, if their school district isn't already doing it in September. I worry about the families who are enduring ongoing trauma as a result of this situation. And in my darkest hours, I worry about the very real possibility of loss, which is always there, haunting you, which never really goes away after you've lost a child, no matter what they say about kids not getting as sick as adults do.

I am so very blessed to have the breastplates that I do have: a house, a job that will continue to pay and allow me to work remotely, caring colleagues who are friends, friends who are not colleagues. But we are not, like the Greek gods, immortal.

What are your breastplates? How are you taking care of yourself?

Cauliflower and Potato Masala
because we might as well eat turmeric and ginger, just in case.

1 c. potato, peeled and cubed
1 c. cauliflower, blanched
1 T. oil
1/2 t. mustard seeds
1/2 t. cumin seeds
1 t. chana dal
1 t. urad dal
1 pinch asafoetida (optional)
1 t. ginger (grated or paste)
1 cup onions, thinly sliced
1 sprig curry leaves
2 green chilies, chopped or sliced
1/4 t. turmeric
1/2 to 3/4 t. salt (adjust to taste)
2 T. cilantro, finely chopped

Steam cauliflower and potatoes until not quite cooked. Heat oil in a pan and add the mustard seed, cumin seed, and dals. When the dal turns golden, add asafeotida. 

Add the grated ginger and saute until fragrant. Add onions, chiles, and curry leaves, and saute until the onions are slightly golden.

Add the potatoes and cauliflower along with the turmeric and salt. Add 2 T. water, and saute well for about 2 minutes. Add cilantro and serve, in a dosa, with naan, with dal, with rice, or just as a side!

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Vacation All I Ever Wanted: Cannellini Bean Salad

Ages ago, before children, S. and I biked the P'tit Train du Nord, a rail trail in the Laurentians in Quebec. I can't remember how we happened across the trail any more -- it was probably something S. found -- but it was a unique experience, and one of two times I've ever done a multi-day bike trip. When we did it, you could make arrangements with bed and breakfasts along the way, and a company would transport your luggage for you, so all you really had to do was keep pumping (it was entirely up hill) and enjoy the scenery.

It was along that trail that I ate one of the more memorable meals of my life, in a little bed and breakfast (I think this was it) in the village of Nomininigue. The meal wasn't elaborate -- in fact, the beauty of it was its simplicity. There was celeriac soup, and vegetables fresh from the garden, and a bean salad -- chickpeas, if memory serves -- that made me wonder if I'd ever really eaten chick peas before. I remember the air being crisp and clear, with perhaps a hint of sharp wood smoke and pine. I marveled at how the bounty on my plate could all come from the garden out back, how our host (Guillaume) managed to turn next to nothing into a feast.

Our vacation plans have been thwarted multiple times over this year. First we canceled our trip abroad back in April, seeing the inevitable beginning to unfold. Then we canceled all of the kids' camps, with the exception of a two week part day dance camp for N, which kept her from climbing the walls, at least briefly. All the while we've both been working. And finally, when I thought I would catch a break next week and be able to take a long weekend away from my computer, my boss scheduled two important meetings for the days I'd just asked to take off. To say that I was upset about losing my most recent attempt at some mental health time would be an understatement.

But this weekend we somehow managed to slow down, just for a little while, and it reminded me of the magical night in Nomininigue, the way we stopped to watch the blue sky and the clouds, the things we marveled at growing in our own garden (including a full fledged pumpkin), a half an hour of wading in a creek when we'd been looking for a way to cool off for weeks. And at the end of the day on Saturday, there were heirloom tomatoes still warm from the garden, and home grown cucumbers, and a simply herby bean salad. And just like that, a weekend felt just a little bit like a vacation.

Here's wishing you some small peace in your little corner of a quarantined world.

Cannellini Bean Salad
h/t to Yotam Ottolenghi, whose recipe in Plenty More was the inspiration for this salad. He uses quinoa, which S. is allergic to (and he couldn't find any in the store), but double the beans worked out just fine.

2/3 c. flat leaf parsley leaves, finely shredded
2/3 c. mint leaves, finely shredded
3 to 5 green onions, green and white parts only, thinly sliced
2 cans cannellini beans, drained
1 large lemon, skin and seeds removed, flesh finely chopped
1/2 t. allspice
1/4 c. olive oil
salt and pepper

Add the parsley, mint, onion, beans, lemon, allspice olive oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt and some black pepper to a bowl. Stir together and serve. 

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Pools, Being Neighborly, and Tres Leches Cake

I am six, maybe seven years old. I'm wearing a purple bathing suit and a fuzzy white beach cover up. My legs are hot and sweaty, sticking to the vinyl in my father's tank-like Mercedez Benz, the only car he would buy until late in his life, even if he did have to save up for years to get them third hand. My head aches. It's Sunday, a languid New Jersey summer day, the sun blinding me as it darts in and out of the trees. I'm imagining how good the cool water will feel.

We never belonged to a pool when I was growing up. I was never sure why, because I felt like everyone else in town did, and it wasn't like my parents were working during the summer and couldn't take us, since they were both teachers. Maybe it was too expensive. I longed for access to the local pool, though, for late evenings with the ice cream truck and sparklers and the company of kids my age, who all seemed to disappear there during the day. Luckily, occasionally the weekends were punctuated by a trip to my parents' friends' house in Montvale, where we would go swimming.

I could never tell whether we'd invited ourselves over or not, because I always felt welcome there. It didn't matter whether they had other people over. We'd arrive, there would be hugs and handshakes, and Leo (that was my father's friend's name) would look me up and down, squint, and tell me how much I'd grown since last time. He would know; at six feet, his ample hairy chest and stomach spilled over his red swimming trunks. He was a large man, in every sense of the word.

For me, summer will always be associated with the crystalline waters of Leo and Mimi's pool. I wasn't a good swimmer, but I would bob up and down, play with their pool toys, and then, lips blue, I'd finally climb out to dry off, and, while my parents looked on disapprovingly, they'd encourage me ("honey," they'd say) to go to the poolhouse refrigerator where there was always cherry soda and leftover vanilla cake covered in whipped cream frosting, likely left over from one of their famous parties, to which hundreds of people would be invited, covering every inch of their ample lawn.

I think about Leo's pool a lot these days, in this long dry pandemic summer. Usually my kids go to day camp where there is some kind of pool access, and in years past we've had some friends who owned a pool and would invite us over on the weekends sometimes, like Leo did, and we'd go bearing chips and sangria and cake, grateful both for good company and a chance to cool off. But this summer, there's none of that. Just endless days of stepping outside into a sauna or being stuck inside while I'm working long days. I know they--and I--should be grateful for our air conditioning.

Our neighbors down the street have a pool that my son and I can see when we go walking at night, and I will confess that I've become a little obsessed. Sometimes they're using it, but often they're not. This baffles me. I fantasize about sneaking in through the back gate that opens onto our street and leaving twenty bucks on the umbrella table for an hour of submerging myself in the clear blue water. Sometimes I wonder if I've said something to make them hate me so much that I'd never be invited there anyway. Sometimes they're there with other neighbors with whom we're friendly, not socially distancing, and they all wave to us, almost like we're waving to each other from different planets. I find myself--unreasonably--hating them for this. I think to myself that if had a pool, I'd make sure the neighbors felt welcome there, whether I was using it or not, even--especially--in the middle of a pandemic.

S. had heard enough of my complaining about our lack of pool the other day, and found swimply.com, which is essentially, it seems, like Air B&B for pools. People can put their pool up for use by other people when they're not using it, and make a few bucks. We haven't tried it yet, though this seems pretty brilliant, even if it's a little weird to be swimming in water where people you don't know were just swimming hours ago. I mean, the chlorine kills anything anyway, right? Right?

Still, it's not the same as the magical pool of my childhood summers, the open welcome to share the water with friends, the refrigerator perpetually full of soda and cake.

Do you have a pool? Do you have a friend with a pool? Would you lend yours to a stranger for an hour, for a price?


Tres Leches Cake

With gratitude to Brown Eyed Baker for the original. While this isn't exactly what they had in the poolside refrigerator in those lovely days of shared poolside snacks, it's about as close as I'd come.

For the Cake
1½ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
5 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
For the Three-Milk Glaze
12 ounce can evaporated milk
14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half-and-half
For the Whipped Cream
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9x13-inch baking pan; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

Beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread into an even layer. (This will appear to be a very small amount of batter.)

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees F. Remove the cake to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.

In a 4-cup measuring cup, whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half. Once combined, slowly pour the glaze evenly over the cake. Refrigerate the cake for at least four hours, or overnight.

Using an electric mixer, whisk together the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla on low speed until stiff peaks form.

Increase to medium speed and whip until thick. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Leftover cake should be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day.
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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Ingenuity, Zoom Faux Pas, and Chicken Lettuce Wraps

My daughter was bored.

To her credit, she is has been a real trooper this summer. After the stay-at-home order was imposed in NJ she has seen almost no friends in person since March (except at a playdate in the park wearing a mask and staying 6 feet apart), she's had very little camp (except for two half-day weeks of dance camp, with a mask, dancing outside, six feet apart), and both of her parents are still working full time, albeit remotely. She reads incessantly, she cooks every once in a while, and she plays with her dolls, but as someone who thrives on social interaction, she's been starved.

And it's not like the boring summers of our own youth, that still involved friends and swimming holes and trips to the library ... this is really just boring.

So when she decided that she was going to start making clothes for her Barbie dolls out of balloons, we were fully supportive. My husband even ordered balloons. Anything to keep her busy.

You can imagine what these clothes look like.

Spandex. Very, very revealing spandex.

This has been making us all laugh, and so when I was talking with a friend on a zoom call over lunch the other day, I thought I'd share it as a parting image. So I'm describing this, and we're both laughing, and she says "Streetwalker Barbie!" and we're both STILL laughing when I realize that ... my student appointment has just joined us from London.

Because I forgot to re-enable the waiting room.

(We both stop laughing, wide-eyed, and she disappears hastily from my screen while I try to recover myself in time to have a serious advising conversation.)

What's your most embarrassing zoom moment?

Here's something my daughter made, NOT using balloons, based on a recipe that her principal made and shared via the morning video announcements back when she was in school. He is by far the coolest principal I know.

Mr. Friedrich’s Lettuce Wraps

4 t. extra virgin olive oil
1 c.chopped yellow onion (1 medium)
2 carrots, shredded
1 t. grated fresh ginger
2/3 c. sweet chili sauce
¼ c. low sodium soy sauce
8 cloves garlic minced
Big spoonful peanut butter
1 head lettuce
1 c. finely chopped cabbage
1 lb chopped boneless skinless chicken breast

Heat the pan, add the oil. Add the chicken, garlic and onion and stir until cooked. Add salt and pepper, stir. Add the ginger, carrots, and cabbage and keep stirring to cook.

In a separate bowl combine sweet chili sauce with peanut butter, soy sauce. Stir until smooth. Add the sauce to the pan, stir to combine. Then add the cilantro.Spoon into lettuce and enjoy!

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Friday, July 3, 2020

Independence Day, Freedom, and Koshari

I am a cisgender white woman who had a brown father with a Hispanic (and I use that word intentionally, because he was not from Latin America) last name, which became my last name. I grew up in a largely white suburban neighborhood in a house on a corner property where my window was the closest to the street for drive-by egg-throwing, teenagers—students of my mother’s—running away, laughing, shouting “Spic.” One of my most vivid memories from childhood is waking up hours after going to bed to a loud crackling sound, and realizing the bushes in front of our house had been set on fire, the flames leaping up towards my window. I am a cisgender white woman who grew up understanding that difference could be dangerous, and knowing I would enjoy the privilege of being white.

Maybe partly because of those formative years, I have spent the past 20 years of my career, getting on close to half my life, in higher education work, where I have tried to listen to and amplify the voices of less-heard people. I am not a constitutional law scholar, and I didn't take many politics classes, so perhaps my education is not as broad as it could be. I am a humanist, a reader and teller of stories. I studied with giants in the world of literary criticism like Cheryl Wall and Val Smith, Black women who cracked open the literary canon. My heroes of educational philosophy are people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene and John Dewey. I learned, through my undergraduate and graduate study, how the stories that we all grew up memorizing, the lenses we were given to look at the world, often did not represent the stories of people who had less power.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a resurgence of the outcry to defend free speech at our university. As some of our leaders have decided to break from the shibboleths of the past, unfortunately giving little credit to the protests of students from a few years ago, these students are clamoring for more due process, for the University to reconsider and do something different than other institutions who are rethinking and discarding their own historical giants.

Some students took to our student-owned listservs (intended for advertising student events and locating lost items or sharing rides) to express their opinions, to publish what amounted to political treatises. Others took up the mantle and offered counterarguments, trying to educate their peers about systemic racism as they feel they’ve been called to do time and again, without any official backing by the university, who typically stands neutral. A few responded to the messages in defeat, saying how much they hate it here. After much consideration, we finally decided to intervene, emailing our community to remind people of their responsibility to make our community a place where everyone feels welcome; without that element, the most vulnerable and marginalized people will leave the dialogue, and we’ll find ourselves right back where we started.

We were lambasted for our email, and informed that we’d created a “chilling effect” on speech.

I don't ever claim to have everything right, and I've been thinking about our decision to write what we did over and over again, second-guessing myself and then finding reasons to justify what we did. It seems fitting to reflect on on all of this going into the weekend when much of our nation will celebrate, in whatever limited way we can during a global pandemic that demands our attention to public health, our Independence Day.

I believe that with power comes responsibility. And because of that, I believe that free speech should be couched in humility. I believe that free speech should be accompanied by a generous helping of empathy. And I believe that our free speech should come with the attendant curiosity about the human experience that makes for rich and fruitful dialogue that is the hallmark of a healthy liberal arts institution and a healthy democracy. I don't know; maybe what I believe is flat-out wrong, and maybe that makes free speech less "free."

I believe that we should appeal to our right to free speech with appreciation for the fact that there are some who enter that arena with much less power, carrying hundreds of years of generational trauma. No matter what we might think, no matter how it might look, the table is not yet round, and not everyone gets to sit up close. Witness, for example, the differential treatment of largely white protestors with weapons in front of statehouses, arguing about their rights to open bars and salons, and diverse but largely Black and non-white unarmed protestors who have been physically abused and tear-gassed at Black Lives Matter protests.

I believe that our free speech comes with responsibility for deep listening. Otherwise, it’s just grandstanding. And I happen to think that kind of speech is best served chilled.

My education is probably biased in a different way. But if free speech comes without the other stuff—without humility, empathy, and curiosity (and in our national case, without appreciation of intergenerational trauma) and without all of the things that make us such a unique community—I'm less sure it's worth celebrating after all.

This morning, I happened across Frederick Douglass's speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Written nearly 200 years ago, it's a poignant reminder of who has the rights we so cherish, and how far we still have to go. May it not be too late to make sure that other folks are free.

I was originally going to post this dish right around the time the protests started in the wake of George Floyd's murder, but then decided that as a white woman, I didn't need to take up more space and talk about my experience of protests. This dish is a dish of colonization, a dish that the British brought to Egypt, since neither rice nor pasta is native to those places, but that Egyptians made their own (and is now the national dish). My daughter learned about it during remote schooling this year, when she learned about a few non-Western cultures, and asked that we make it. As we ate it, she talked about Islamic traditions of charity, and recounted a story about children who took up a collection for their bus driver. I love all of its layers, and the colors, and the ways that the flavors blend together, just as I love the empathy, the curiosity, and humility my daughter brings to her education.


Spice mix:
1 T. cumin
1 t. paprika
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 T. coriander
1 t. lal mirch (or a sprinkle of cayenne)
1 t. black pepper

Tomato sauce:
14.5 oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes or 4-5 blanched tomatoes
2 T. olive oil
1 med onion, chopped
1 t. garlic, crushed
1/2 t. salt
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 T. vinegar
1 t. lal mirch (or a sprinkle of crushed red pepper)
3-4 T. water

3 T. olive oil
1/2 c. basmati rice
2 c. water
1 t. salt

1 1/2 c. black beluga lentils, soaked and boiled until done
1 c. boiled elbow macaroni
15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 onion, sliced thinly and fried in a bit of oil (see below)

In a small bowl, mix cumin, paprika, nutmeg, coriander, red chili powder, black pepper; blend well and set aside.

Add tomatoes to a cuisinart or blender; puree and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat; add onion and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and mix well. Now add 2 T. of prepared spice mix, salt, cinnamon stick, and bay leaves and mix well. Add tomato puree; mix well and cook for 4-5 minutes. Add vinegar and crushed red chili; mix well. Add water and mix, cover and cook on low flame for 10-15 minutes and set aside.

In a medium-large pot, heat oil over medium heat; add rice, mix well and cook for 5 minutes. Add remaining spice mix and mix well. Add water and salt, mix well, and bring it to boil over medium heat. Cook until water is reduced, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover and steam cook for 5-6 minutes. Set aside.

In yet another small saucepan, add the oil and heat over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion, stir and fry until crispy.

In a serving plate, layer the cooked rice, then boiled black lentils, macaroni, chickpeas, prepared tomato sauce, fried onion and serve.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Re-Entry, and Biscuits

I haven't left the house much in the past two months, except to go to the doctor for my follow up surgery appointments. Oddly enough, as those have become less frequent, the world is simultaneously starting to open back up, and we're being asked what we want to make of it.

The weirdest part of it all is that I feel like there is no road map for this. Some call it a vacuum of leadership. Some call it regional discretion. Despite the ridiculous amount of reading I do, I just feel confused. I have a mask that someone made for me, which doesn't fit me particularly well. I have a few masks I bought, in different shapes and sizes, so I could try to figure out what DOES work, in the case that I have to go back to work with a mask on, which seems both likely and unlikely at the same time.

I've started to walk a little farther each day, most days anyway, just to get some exercise and make my foot remember what it's supposed to do. Generally speaking people seem to give each other a wide berth, which is nice. A lot of people wear masks around their chins, and yesterday I even saw someone wearing one around the back of his neck. I'm really not sure what he was planning to protect with that approach.

Today, S. and I went to get our wills signed. Sort of morbid, but honestly, a lot of the reading makes me worried because it seems like there are quite a lot of people who are healthy and on the cusp of middle age just like me who are fine one day and intubated the next. So I finally got around to making a phone call I'd been putting off, to a former student turned lawyer, someone I've always thought of as a genuinely nice human being.

We had our first appointment via zoom, and that was fine, but there are things like notaries involved in will-signing. So we pocketed our masks, and headed out.

Have you noticed that in a lot of parking lots, even the cars seems socially distanced? Admittedly, I don't get out much, but it's seemed that way to me. So it struck me as strange to see all of the cars huddled together in the parking lot of the law office when we pulled in.

It was probably an omen, though, because we masked up, walked in, and quickly discovered that we were the only people wearing masks in the building. I immediately felt both a little uncomfortable, and a lot conspicuous, but even more determined than before not to remove it. I thought about all of the people whose lives these people touch. I thought about the super-connectedness of the human race that thought of ourselves as individuals. And I confess, I was stunned and a little bit horrified by the dish full of Hershey kisses still out the for the taking.

My former student turned lawyer greeted us, and reassured us that we were welcome to wear masks, but they don't. I wondered what it would take for the office to mask up, like the articles I've been reading by health professionals suggest we should do to slow the spread, not just now, but for a long time.

I still like my former student. He's still a nice guy. I don't regret asking him to prepare our wills. He donated a huge amount of KN95 masks to nursing homes recently, where a lot of his clients and clients' parents live. The visit was friendly, and we made small talk about our favorite restaurants in my town, and agreed that the biscuits at one of them really just don't measure up. But the experience gave me a small taste of what life will be like for a while if it remains the case that there is no universal guidance, like we're all flying blind. And I confess, I was more than a little glad to be back home, with the door shut, and where I didn't have to worry about the choice any more.

How about you? How are you making sense of the choices before us right now, if you happen to have one where you live? How are you coping with the choices that other people get to make?

These biscuits are way better than the biscuits we both agreed were terrible at our local restaurant. I was feeling like we needed bread with soup one night, and it was too late to start something in the breadmaker, so this is what we ended up with. And best of all, we don't need yeast, which you can't find anyway. For best results, chill your butter in the freezer for 10-20 minutes before beginning this recipe. It's ideal that the butter is very cold for light, flaky, buttery biscuits.

Better Biscuits

2 c. flour
1 T. baking powder
1 T. granulated sugar
1 t. salt
6 T. unsalted butter very cold
3/4 c. whole milk

Preheat oven to 425F and line a cookie sheet with nonstick parchment paper.

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and mix well. Set aside.

Remove your butter from the refrigerator and either cut it into your flour mixture using a pastry cutter or use a box grater to shred the butter into small pieces and then add to the flour mixture and stir. Cut the butter or combine the grated butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Add milk, use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir until combined (don't over-work the dough). Transfer your biscuit dough to a well-floured surface and use your hands to gently work the dough together. If the dough is too sticky, add flour until it is manageable.

Once the dough is cohesive, fold in half over itself and use your hands to gently flatten layers together. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and fold in half again, repeating this step 5-6 times but taking care to not overwork the dough. Use your hands (don't use a rolling pin) to flatten the dough to 1" thick and lightly dust a 2 3/4" round biscuit cutter with flour.

Making close cuts, press the biscuit cutter straight down into the dough and drop the biscuit onto your prepared baking sheet. Repeat until you've gotten as many biscuits as possible and place less than 1/2" apart on baking sheet. Once you've gotten as many biscuits as possible out of the dough, gently re-work the dough to get out another biscuit or two until you have at least 6 biscuits.

Bake for 12 minutes or until tops are beginning to just turn lightly golden brown. If desired, brush with melted salted butter immediately after removing from oven. Serve warm.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Abby Normal, and Rustic Cabbage Soup

I don't know about you, but some days I feel like I've become, a Vonnegut puts it, a little "unstuck in time." Other days I get up and think, OK, I can do this. I've been having more of the latter kinds of days recently, and I feel my sense of normal shifting a little bit.

Yesterday, at a meeting with some senior administrators, it became clear that there was a real possibility that we wouldn't be back at my university in the fall. I guess that had always been a possibility, but I guess I've been coping pretty well because I'm living in denial. And suddenly I felt like the ground moved out from under me.

It was a familiar nausea, a small part of something like what I felt when I lost my second pregnancy. I had all of these plans, plans that were made not just with me but with other people -- family, colleagues, friends -- and then the plans suddenly were not-plans. I didn't know how to live in the world any more, when the reality I'd imagined for myself was suddenly no longer even possible. And further, it was never going to be like it was "before."

My yoga teacher wrote something the other day that her teacher taught her about patience, and that really struck a chord for me. She wrote that "patience is not when we're sitting and waiting for something to be over" (that's more like tolerance); rather, patience is "staying present while knowing you don't know when, or how, or even if it (whatever it is) will end. What you do know is that you can't do anything to speed the process along." And what happens in the course of that kind of patience is that we emerge, from whatever it is, changed.

Like many of you, I suspect, I've felt frustrated and sad that the world I'm used to moving through isn't here, and from all indications, it's not likely to be back to that kind of normal any time soon. Or ever. People will die. People will lose jobs. Our whole economy is likely to change. That realization is sort of like being at the top of a roller coaster, and knowing that there is no way out but down; frankly, it makes me a little queasy, as unknowns tend to do. But maybe there's something to be gained from the practice of patience in the way my yoga teacher describes it. Normal wasn't working all that well anyway for a lot of people; if nothing else, COVID has laid bare those failures. Maybe we begin to cobble together something different, and eventually something better, than the normal we had before. Arundhati Roy has written about the how the Pandemic is a Portal: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next…We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”  And Ruha Benjamin reminded us in a talk she gave at our local independent bookstore Labyrinth recently, hope isn't something we have, but something we do.

You may not feel like you have the energy for that right now. I don't consistently have the energy for that, either. As a blogging friend said to me: there are "no words of wisdom or inspiration that are going to spiritually bypass us out of this one." But instead of waiting for it all go to back to the way it was, maybe there are small ways in which I can reimagine what's normal. Being present, being patient, showing up for whatever the hell this is, and being willing to be changed.

We've been making a lot of soup around here, because they're filling, comforting, and not too expensive. Good pandemic food, and good for a different kind of normal. This one is easy, uses things you are likely to have in your pantry or can find in a store.

Rustic Cabbage Soup
courtesy of 101 Cookbooks

1 T. extra virgin olive oil
a big pinch of salt
1/2 lb. potatoes, skin on, cut 1/4-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 c. stock (I used chicken stock)
1/2 c. soaked dried white beans (you can also just use 1 15 oz. can, see note)
1/2 medium cabbage, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch ribbons

Warm the olive oil in a large thick-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the salt and potatoes. Cover and cook until they are a bit tender and starting to brown a bit, about 5 minutes - it's o.k. to uncover to stir a couple times. Remove to a bowl.

Stir in the garlic and onion and cook for another minute or two. Add the stock and the beans and bring the pot to a simmer. Cook for about an hour and a half, and then add the potatoes back in. Cook for another 20 minutes or so or until the beans are soft.

Stir in the cabbage and cook for a couple more minutes, until the cabbage softens up a bit. Adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

Serve drizzled with a bit of olive oil and a generous dusting of parmesan cheese.

*Note: if you want to use canned beans, just add them into the potatoes along with the stock, and then add the cabbage without the long cooking time in between.

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Friday, April 10, 2020

Acknowledgements, and Cinnamon Buns

Every Friday, I write to the senior class, in a series I call my "senior thesis Friday" emails. All of our AB students (about 75% of them) write a senior thesis, and a good chunk of the engineers do, too. It's something between a rite of passage and hazing ritual, I guess, and it's hard enough to do under normal circumstances, never mind during a pandemic when you've been scattered away from your community of friends, and are now REALLY writing this thing alone. I am worried about them.

I always try to offer some practical advice (like break down a larger thing into small manageable uber-specific chunks, or get enough sleep) and encouragement (the equivalent of "you got this"), and I always include an inspirational song (I always wonder if they follow the links and ask each other whether they think I really listen to Lizzo and Andra Day and Gorilla Biscuits).

We're getting closer to the University deadline, and I have no idea how many of them may not make it over the finish line this year. It's right around now when I start to worry about the ones we haven't heard from, and at least when we're on campus I know how to find them. Now, I really don't even know where to begin if they go MIA and stop answering my emails and texts.

Knowing that it's getting both close to the end and also getting more difficult (as people continue to get sick, and the markets tank and job offers are revoked or not extended at all, and as students lose motivation and a sense of purpose), my piece of advice this week was to write the acknowledgements. It seems a little crazy to do that before you finish, but it's better to do it when you're not exhausted anyway, and I tell them that it will make them feel good to remember the people who have been there all along and are still cheering them on, and that it can motivate them to keep going when things feel impossible. It's like gratitude, I guess, right? When we express gratitude, we feel better about the world, we notice positive things, we feel loved and cared for. The acknowledgements, in a weird way, engender hope.

If I had to write the acknowledgements for what was a particularly sucky week, I think I'd have to do something along these lines: 

I want to thank everyone who helped me get to Friday this week. To my orthopedic surgeon, who continues to see me in 3D for follow up care and makes me feel like an important patient, for not laughing at my crazy jury-rigged pink bandanna mask, and for making me feel like I was doing a good job at something (sitting on my butt), at least. To my colleague A, who invited me to zoom happy hour for two in the middle of the week, and reminded me to take care of myself and stay sane. To the amazing chocolatier that I know on a first name basis, who overnighted a SECOND package of Easter bunnies to us after the first package was lost to the UPS black hole (I know that UPS folks are completely overwhelmed and hope someone is enjoying an early Easter present---you seriously need to order yourself some of his macarons). To the people at my car dealership, who, in a turn of insanity that I can't quite wrap my brain around, risked their health to come pick up my car with the perpetually dead battery from my house and drive it to the dealership for repairs so I didn't even need to worry about how I'd get it there with a broken foot and only one other driver in the house. To my long time friend who checked in on me randomly, even though I should be the one checking in on him. To the kind people who welcomed me back so warmly to my little space here, which I hope I can try to inhabit again for a while. To my husband, who has been pretty patient with me, and who has tried to anticipate my needs. To my son, whose dry and flat sense of humor and ability to be amused by pretty much everything continues to me to maintain perspective. To my daughter, who, in needing lots of hugs this week, also gave them to me. This week would not have been survivable without their support.

We are going to have to talk, at some point, about the problematic nature of acknowledgements. The people who are most endangered by this. The people I can thank, but for whom "thanks" is really not cutting it. The people who need better pay for what they do. Health insurance. Better housing. The people who allow me, who has done nothing to deserve it, to stay home.

It's Good Friday, speaking of acknowledgements (because isn't that what Easter really is about? about someone who made the ultimate sacrifice for human beings? to give them hope?), and I probably should be posting a recipe for hot cross buns. But no one except me likes them around here, so I've got the next best thing: cinnamon rolls. Which my daughter made. The one who needs, and gives, hugs.

What do your acknowledgements look like this week?

Cinnamon Buns (from the Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook)

1/4 cup warm water
1 Tbs (1 package) active dry yeast
1 Tbs granulated sugar
2/3 cup whole milk
1/2 stick (4Tbs) butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar

Cinnamon Filling
1 Tbs butter, melted
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 Tbs ground cinnamon

1 cup confectioner's sugar, sifted
4 oz cream cheese, softened
1 Tbs heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla

Combine the water, yeast, and 1T sugar in a small mixing bowl and set aside until puffy.  Heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan (or the microwave) until the butter is melted; set aside. Whisk together the flour and salt and set aside. In yet another bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar, then whisk in the milk-butter mixture. Add the yeast and egg mixtures to the flour and stir to combine (it's helpful to whisk 1/2 cup if the flour into the egg mixture first until smooth before combining everything).

Knead the dough until it's smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turing to coat, and cover. Leave in a warm place until doubled in size, 1.5 to 2 hours.

Grease and flour a 9x13" pan. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll (or press) out into a 16x12" rectangle. Brush the melted butter over the dough.

Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle generously over the dough within 1/2" of the edges. Roll up the dough long ways and cut off the messy ends if you want (I didn't). Use dental floss (no, really!) to cut the roll in halves until you have 12 rolls. Lay the rolls in the prepared pan and leave them to rise until the rolls are all touching and reach the rim, about 1.5 to 2 hours (or overnight in the fridge, which is what we did).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake the rolls for 20 minutes until golden brown. Let the rolls cool for 10 minutes before inverting the rolls out of the pan, and then flipping them again onto a serving dish.

To make the icing, beat the icing ingredients together with a fork (if you don't sift the powdered sugar, the icing will be lumpy). Spread the icing over the warm rolls and eat as soon as possible. They really don't keep well for more than a couple hours!
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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Notes from a Small House: Pandemic 2020 and Vegetarian Korma

When I broke my foot nearly four weeks ago walking down the stairs, minding my own business, feeling perfectly able-bodied, I could not have known that walking would be my only escape from my house for the next four weeks, and, if we're to believe the models, even longer.

Now I am benched during a pandemic, a kind of ironic twist of fate that is requiring double patience. I have slept and worked and eaten and read on this small corner of the couch, which is sinking from my constant presence, contorting my back into postures that would make the ergonomics people at work quiver. I have just recently graduated to walking with one crutch, and I am finally managing to take some kind of a half-shower every day, which goes a long way towards making me feel like a human being.

We'd never heard the phrases "social distancing" or "flattening the curve" before just a few weeks ago, but now I've not seen other people in 3D -- besides the folks at the doctor's office -- in weeks. When Steve goes to the grocery store at the crack of dawn with a mask on, he comes home, and we wipe down everything with sanitizing wipes. At the beginning, after surgery, I was running a low grade fever, and I took my temperature constantly, sure that I'd contracted COVID-19 and would have to go to the hospital alone with a broken foot and pneumonia. Now, nearly four weeks after the surgery, I'm no longer running a fever, but every once in a while a warmth creeps over me, and my chest tightens, and I clear my throat, and feel dread.

So many people have died. There are refrigerator trucks parked outside of hospitals, makeshift morgues because there is no longer room for the bodies elsewhere.

My students are grieving a loss they can't describe, fearful and anxious for the future. They ask if we will be open in the fall, whether things will be back to normal. I can't tell them, and I tell them that I can't tell them, but that I hope so. They deserve my honesty. Advising conversations often feel a little bit like the advising conversations I had after 9/11, when everyone was raw and vulnerable and hungering for connection but unsure of what fresh hell the next day would bring.

I scroll endlessly through Facebook, trying to stop myself but unable to do so, drawn in both by the bountiful supply of information about COVID-19 and trying not to judge the memes about hunkering down with kids, or oblivious-sounding posts about rainbow painting and baking, and photographic evidence of continued lack of attention to social distancing requirements. What new hobbies are you cultivating, they ask? Old hobbies, I answer, under my breath. Anxiety. Long work days. Ignoring my kids. I feel unreasonably angry at people who are quilting and bread baking and learning to play the ukelele, at the same time as I feel deeply grateful for a job that lets me work remotely, and a job that is unlikely to lay me off any time soon. We are the fortunate ones, and I am fully aware of my privilege.

My kids are on spring break this week, after two weeks of online school, where my son sits in the office and my daughter in the playroom, earbuds in and headphones on, respectively. We are lucky that they're good students, that they're old enough to be mostly self-sufficient, and that this transition has not been as bumpy as it could have been. Still, N's favorite time of the day is her virtual meeting with her class over zoom. I's favorite time of day is when it's all over and he can go read his book on his phone; he prefers to turn off the webcam and his microphone when class is in session, in true introvert fashion. N needs physical contact; she comes over and hugs me randomly throughout the day, and I hug her back. She says this is the worst time of her life. But she doesn't cry. Neither does my son. They are, on the whole, handling this really, really well.

I did, though, this weekend, finally lost my shit, tired of being cooped up, tired of feeling like sickness is just there hovering at the doorstep, tired of convalescing and working in this small space. I had just found out my undergraduate thesis adviser had lost her life. Ironically, my bracelet from the Shiva Lingam Puja in India, over a year ago, had finally just fallen off my wrist. Shiva is known as the destroyer of evil, the light of consciousness, and the bracelet is a symbol, among other things, of protection. I wonder what evil is being destroyed, and whether this destruction we're witnessing now is the beginning of rebirth or the end of something else, whether this is a reminder to look inward. I know that there is less pollution, that the earth is changing, like when the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and the course of the rivers changed.  Still, I feel like I've been caught a little unprepared.

Steve has been cooking, just as he's been doing the shopping. Mostly I am putting together menus and a grocery list, a sort of amalgam of comfort food and convenience since neither one of us have time to cook during the day despite the fact that we're all here within 20 feet of the kitchen.

It's been a while since I've shared a recipe, or anything for that matter, and this one can't quite be made from just the items in your pantry because it requires fresh vegetables, but cauliflower doesn't seem to be flying off the shelves like toilet paper and beans are. And somehow there are chickpeas there when there aren't other kinds of beans. It's the first meal I made in a long time, because I managed to stand, one-crutched, in the kitchen for a whole half an hour. It was a small triumph, and it made me think of you.

Here's hoping the quarantine finds you as well as you can be, and knowing that we're all just doing the best we can.

Chickpea and Cauliflower Korma

2 T coconut oil or olive oil or unsalted butter
1 T mild curry powder
2 t garam masala
1 1/2 t salt
1 c roughly chopped carrots
1 onion, peeled and roughly cut
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 (28 oz) can whole plum tomatoes  (or 2 15 oz cans fire roasted diced)
1/2 c canned coconut milk (or more if you like)
1 15-oz can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
1 T lemon juice
2 T chopped fresh mint or cilantro, to serve (optional)
slivered almonds, toasted, to serve (optional)

In a large pot, heat oil or butter over medium heat; add spices, salt, carrots, onion, and garlic. Sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, until onions are translucent.

Add tomatoes and coconut milk, bring to a boil, reduce to medium, cover, and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until vegetables are very tender. Transfer to a blender or food processor or use an immersion/stick blender directly in the pot, and puree until smooth. Add back to pot if necessary along with chickpeas, cauliflower, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, reduce to medium, cover, and cook until cauliflower is extremely tender, about 15 minutes.

Serve hot with brown rice, basmati rice, or quinoa, and a scattering of mint or cilantro and toasted almonds.

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