Thursday, December 23, 2010

Eat: Broccoli even my dog can enjoy

Around Thanksgiving, I wrote about my dog's favorite Brussels Sprouts.  I was pretty amazed that a dog whose diet consists mainly of raw beef could be enticed by a Brussels Sprout.  I am even more in awe, though, of her love of this broccoli recipe, which, unlike the other dish, includes no meat at all. 

This Oven Roasted Broccoli recipe by Alton Brown is quick enough for a weeknight and tasty enough even for those of us who are not broccoli fans.  What I love about it is the texture; while broccoli is so often served as an oversteamed pile of mush, this is crisp and really flavorful.  The stems are truly a revelation.  I always thought that stems served only as a cost cutting measure in school cafeterias, augmenting a pile of soggy florets; here, though, they add great texture and with the salt and garlic are almost chip-like.

The dog agrees.  If only I could get the kids on board.

Ingredients    

1 head of broccoli

1/3 cup of panko

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1/2 tablespoon of kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper  (A pinch of red pepper flakes might be nice here, but I don't think it would sit well with the dog.)

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese


Preheat the oven to 425.

While the oven heats, chop the broccoli.  Start with the stem, slicing it into thin rounds and then break down the top into bite-sized florets.

Chop the garlic into very small pieces.  The cook time is short, so you want to make sure that it is small enough to cook through to avoid a raw garlic taste.

Once you've chopped the broccoli and garlic, put it in a large bowl and toss it with the oil, salt and pepper.

Next, pour the panko into a 9x12 cake pan and brown it in the oven.  This step wil probably take two minutes.  Be attentive, as it burns quickly.

Once the panko is browned,  pour it from the pan into the bowl with the broccoli, toss it around and reurn the whole mixture back to the panRoast it in the oven for 10 minutes.

While the broccoli is roasting, wipe the bowl clean and add the grated cheese.  Save yourself some dishes by grating the cheese directly into the bowl.

After 10 minutes of roasting, return the broccoli to the bowl and toss it with the cheese.  If you wish, grate a little additional cheese over the top and serve immediately.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Play: The turd or the treasure

Until last week, I had only been to one water park in my life. From that one day I have two very vivid mental snapshots: one of a fly-infested wound, the other of a lone piece of excrement lying poolside.  And so it surprised even me when the grand gesture that I proposed to alleviate my birthday party guilt was an overnight trip to a local indoor water park to celebrate Little E turning four.

Let me first explain my previous water park experience.  It was Water Country USA, during a family trip to Williamsburg, Virginia the summer before ninth grade.  As was the case with most of that vacation (and most of being 13 in general), I enjoyed it but chose to focus on its least enjoyable aspects. 

My most indelible memories, besides those of the water park, are miserably posing for photos with my head and arms in stocks in Colonial Williamsburg, watching a mulleted couple pass cigarette smoke mouth-to-mouth as they made out in a roller coaster line at Busch Gardens, and leaving much of the skin from my left knee on the sidewalk of my cousins' suburban Jersey neighborhood after tripping during a jog.

The last of these resulted in the gaping wound that after a day of soaking in chlorine attracted a swarm of tiny flies, many of whom became stuck.  I discovered the insects adhered to my flesh only after I spotted a piece of feces abandoned by the edge of the obstacle course pool. 

I still have a scar on my leg from the festering scrape that attracted the flies, but it is that second thing that has really haunted me.  When I told my mother about it at the time, she brushed it off, saying that it had probably been inadvertently dropped from a sagging diaper.  I maintain to this day that it was far too large, perfectly formed, and, well, mature for that to have been the case, and its origins confound me. 

With this close in mind, I stepped into the water park on Thursday night.  As it turned out there were no skinned knees, no flies and, best of all, nary a bowel movement in sight.  And just when it seemed I'd been all wrong about water parks, an enormous bucket perched atop the structure where we stood dumped a torrent of water upon us that nearly swept Little E away.  I now had a new image to add to my previous collection: terrified child, wrapped shivering in a towel and refusing to budge from her lounge chair.

I was tempted to revert to my 13-year-old self, as I often do.  But I realized I had a choice:  I could choose to focus on the bucket-dumping disaster or the fact that I was lounging on a chaise in 80 degree heat on a December night; I could see the turd or the treasure.

I'm proud to say that --at least this time-- I made the right choice.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Work: Looking a gift horse in the mouth

My students have been really nice to me lately, and their benevolence concerns me.

I've experienced this before.  Years ago, when I returned to work still shaken after travelling to my grandmother's funeral, one student quietly spent an entire class period organizing and arranging every messy, overstuffed cabinet and shelf in my classroom.  In the last swollen, lumbering days of both of my pregnancies, an immediate hush would spread over the room any time I hoisted myself from my chair.  If anyone failed to quiet quickty enough, I could count on someone to come through with an angry hiss, "The baby!"  And of course, there was last year when among the various kind gestures from my students, there were countless back pats and shoulder squeezes.

In my experience, my students' solicitousness is directly proportionate to my own piteousness.  Only I'm not currently mourning, pregnant or fired.  Lately, I'm just a little...batty.  I'm trying to keep up with new curriculum and mountains of grading at work; I'm mounting Big E's dog-themed birthday party complete with homemade puppy cake, dog bone cookies, and tableclothes handstamped with pawprint paths; I'm replicating the same party for Little E this weekend --with the addition of the in-laws and a grilled cheese-themed dinner; I'm shopping for Christmas; I'm writing and losing lists; I'm trying not to think about the untouched stack of Christmas cards that must be addressed; and I'm kind of losing my head. 

The messy collision of work, birthdays and Christmas has me feeling frantic.  I find myself speaking at a pace my seventh grade English teacher once compared to a runaway train.  I am running down hallways and across parking lots, and --because as I am busy lately, I am vain always-- my rapid little high-heeled steps only make me look all the more deranged.

Recently, a student in my senior class cocked her head at me as I fumbled for a pen just before I started class.  "Are you...okay?" she asked, prompting me to launch into a rapid-fire recount of the previous evening's cookie-baking and tablecloth-stamping.  She has gently asked me the same question every day since. 

On Monday, after flying through Act II, scene i of Othello with a class of sophomores, I stopped for a breath and somehow managed to knock over my entire bag full of papers.  I waved off the students who rushed up to help and instead proceeded to tell, from my hands and knees (and like a runaway train), the story of how the dog had gotten into the birthday party trash, then my husband had set the alarm clock wrong, then he stepped in dog vomit, then he walked the dog vomit around the carpet... Since then they have eerily quiet and disconcertingly polite.

This year is supposed to be about equilibrium, but lately I feel like I'm hustling through life trying to balance a heavy tray cluttered with brimming glasses, overcompensating with every attempt and making a mess of everything.  I'm just hoping 2011 brings steadier hands ...and a lighter tray.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dream: For my girls, on the close of another year

I was raised without religion and as a result, my knowledge of The Bible is basic at best. Yet at this time of year I reflect on my cobbled understanding of the Christmas story, and I feel a rush of recognition; though I'm pretty sure this is sacrilegious, I find communion in the story of a woman who, in the dark stillness of a December night, experiences a miracle of birth and light. 

It happened to me, too.  Twice.

Big E emerged into the December darkness to make me a mother seven years ago.  I labored for 24 hours, battered by the pain but unrelenting in my determination to have a drug-free birth.  In the last late night hours before Big E was born, I was delirious with pain and fatigue, moaning to the midwife, over and over like a mantra, "I'm dying; you're killing me."

When my husband and I headed to the hospital through a cold, dark December night four years ago, I thought they'd probably send us home.  Though the contractions were coming a minute apart, they were nowhere near as crushing as I remembered from Big E's birth.  No longer as rigid in my convictions, I was open to an epidural this time around, but the opportunity never presented itself.  Little E was born 45 minutes after we arrived at the hospital, to the sound of the Christmas carols our nurse had switched on in the birthing room.

Their personalities often seem as polar as the circumstances of their births.  Big E, on turning seven, has graduated from little kid status to just plain kid and scolds her sister for talking too loudly while she's trying to read, which she does almost ceaselessly.  Little E, now just about four, still hangs on my leg to be carried.  When I tell her she's too big, she pouts that she's just a little baby and I give in, wishing she were right, still loving her clinging presence on my hip.  While good girl Big E stands rod straight and loudly enunciates a line from the Daisy Scout Promise to the crowd at her investiture ceremony, comedienne Little E, slumped on my lap, slaps her forehead and moans, "Oh brother, this is taking forever," to the amused agreement of the parents around us.

I never could have known seven years ago what my children would be to me.  How could I have realized they would render me at once so immune and so vulnerable?  Their existence blunts the stings and throbs of my daily life, yet even the tiniest harms they encounter sear my heart.  They are my beacon, the beam that guides me, that filtered through the gray haze of hormones and sleep deprivation after Big E's birth and burned through the dusky gloom of my work troubles last year.  If they are okay, my world is okay; thus, I must always make my world okay so that they will be, too.

I cry nearly every time I have to clear their drawers of outgrown clothes, reminiscing over every chocolate stained T-shirt and threadbare pair of jeans, and yet I thrill at every new stage, every little skill mastered, every small step taken.  I hate that we have moved through another year, but I would never want to miss knowing the women they will become.

And bittersweet as it is to mark a year gone, I know that as long as my girls are anywhere in this world there will be light in mine.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Eat: Peppermint Bark

I recently volunteered to contribute to my very first PTA bake sale.  I planned on baking some cookies and reveling in the satisfaction of finally being a full-fledged grown-up.  Then the bake sale coordinator e-mailed to thank me in advance for my donation of baked good and something she called "candy treats."  And so, because I am not quite a full-fledged grown-up, I panicked.

Candy involves thermometers and, as far as I know, a whole lot of mystery, and yet, I didn't want to fall short of proving myself a responsible community member and sufficiently devoted mother.  So, I did some research and came up with a "candy treat" that is suitably festive, but requires no thermometer and less effort than a pan of brownies: Peppermint Bark.

This recipe is so easy that, despite my lifelong aversion to candy canes, I've already made it twice.  Little E and my husband like the white chocolate and Big E and --much to my surprise-- I like the dark.  It is very reminiscent of a Thin Mint, the only minty food worth eating.

Peppermint Bark

1 12 oz. bag of white chocolate chips
1 12 oz. bag dark chocolate chips (60% cocoa Ghiradelli chips worked well)
12 candy canes


Line two  9x12 pans with foil.

Unwrap the candy canes and put them all in a large zip top bag.  Place the bag on a cutting board and then use a mallet or rolling pin to smash them into pieces.  This is very satisfying, particularly at this time of year.  You don't want the pieces too large, but you also don't want to turn them all to dust.  Stop when the largest pieces are no longer than they are wide.

Put a colander over a bowl and in the crushed candy canes, stirring and shaking so that only the larger pieces remain in the colander and all of the smaller bits and dust is in the bowl.

Melt one bag of chips by microwaving for a minute, stirring, then microwaving in 30-second intervals, stirring after each, until the chocolate is smooth.  The white chocolate will need more aggressive stirring than the dark, as its consistency tends to be on the chalky side.

Once the chocolate is melted, stir in half of the small candy cane bits and dust from the bowl, then pour and spread the chocolate into the lined pan.  Sprinkle half of the bigger chunks from the colander over the melted chocolate, lightly pressing them in so they are firmly affixed.

Repeat with the other bag of chips.  Refrigerate both until solid, about 45 minutes. 

Finally, remove them from the refrigerator, peel the hardened chocolate from the foil  break into pieces.  I made mine roughly 2"x2", which seemed a reasonable serving size.

The simple preparation made them a good Christmas "cooking" project to do with the kids on a weekday afternoon, and packaged in little cellophane bags, they made a passable "candy treat" for the bake sale.  And panic-free.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Play: You know you're a mother when...

You know you're a mother when even a birthday party comes wrapped in guilt.

Big E's first real party, when she turned 3, was a direct result of my guilt about the baby that was about to shatter her attention-soaked little world.  She had some friends over to do craft projects, eat pizza, ransack our home and force their hovering parent to make awkward introductions and small talk.  This was nice and all, but it couldn't quite offset having to share a bedroom, so she we threw her another party with the family.  Then we sent her to school with cupakes.  Then we had a smaller, more intimate party for the three of us.  And I still felt guilty.

By the time her fourth birthday rolled around, I realized that all that baby guilt was unnecessary.  Big E had taken easily to big sisterhood and was proud to have Little E at her party, held in the gymnastics center at the local Y.  Kids bounced on the trampoline, parents walked the balance beam, and I very nearly escaped any feelings of guilt.  I would have called the whole thing a success had it not been for the one little boy who clung to his mother's leg and covered his ears at every loud noise.  I felt bad for the boy, but, having been there myself at many a party, I felt worse for his mother.  And so I fretted for days about whether I'd appropriately communicated my sympathy.

The year she turned five was rough.  Her closest friends had left daycare for kindergarten, but, because of her December birthday, Big E was still there and not too happy about it.  Determined to make sure that she had high attendance at her party, I invited all of the girls in her class and all of her old friends to a party at Build-a-Bear, followed by a restaurant lunch.  It was great, until, as I led a line of teddy bear-toting little girls through the mall, I remembered that not only were there starving children in Africa, but possibly within spitting distance of the mall.  And my daughter was dressed in a tiara and tutu.

Last year's pool party at the Y was fine, and still I woke at 2 a.m. consumed with guilt.  Despite spending the rest of my pre-work sleeping time replaying every minute of the party, I couldn't pinpoint the source of my self-reproach.  Apparently, at that point it was simply habit.

This year Big E has asked to have her party at home.  There will be a craft, pizza and a movie.  The only extravagance, assuming I can pull it off, will be the from-scratch cake decorated to look like a puppy.  I should feel okay about this year's party; I'm fulfilling her wishes while maintaining a reasonable scale. 

My guilt this year comes from doing for one child what I'm not doing for the other. I am not having a full-blown party for Little E.  There are various reasons for this, chief among them the fact that I just don't think she would enjoy it.  Instead, we'll spend the night at a local hotel with an indoor water park and have a family party, where both sets of grandparents can make awkward small talk and I will again attempt the puppy cake.  So as not to deny her the spotlight that I suspect would ruin a party for her, I'm also going to send her to school with goody bags and cake.

I think I'm doing the right thing, and yet I worry that Little E will see it as inequity and that it may breed resentment for her sister, become fodder for a therapy session down the road, or, worse, make her feel less loved.  Here's the truth:  I love them both to a degree so unmeasureable as to make it impossible to compare my love for one to that for the other, yet I love them as individuals.

And I really hope that I'm right to treat them as the individuals that I know them to be.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Work: On sacrifices and sensitivity

My part-time schedule has made me the Boo Radley of the English Department.

I'm a phantom, slipping out quietly while all of those around me go about their middle of the day business, no longer in meetings where I would have been vital last year, not even copied onto e-mails I might have been sending last year.  Stripped of my own classroom due to my part-time status, I spend prep periods in the windowless department office where the motion-sensored lights shut off so frequently that I've mostly given up trying to keep them on and have learned to make due with the one lonely fluorescent panel that acknowledges me.  Yesterday a co-worker ran into my cave to use the crusty office microwave; she startled when the lights went up and she saw me hunched over a pile of essays in the corner, cringing  from the sudden glare.  Boo.

In the classroom, though, I'm still there.  In fact, I'm feeling better than ever about my teaching because I'm not hassled by building politics or harried by five classes worth of planning and grading.  This makes it easier to live with the fact that I'm feeling vaporized in every other aspect of my career.  The decision to go part-time was not made in the interest of advancement; it was made in the interest of my family and my sanity.

My family is happy with the change.  And yet my sanity is tested.

My latest grievance is with world's lack of consideration for working parents.  I've long resented the lack of story hours and organized parent-child activities outside of working hours, and when Big E started school the stakes grew.  She may not have known that they were missing out on a mommy and me music class, but it's hard not to notice that all the other kids had a mother to wave to at the school Halloween Parade. 

The tipping point, though, came recently.  After I expressed some concern about Little E's lack of coloring skills and her teachers seconded it, I set out to address the issue.  This meant that, after some calling around and a fruitless doctor's appointment, I actually needed to speak with someone in the building where I work.

To admit that there might be any obstacle --no matter how small-- between my sweet daughter and whatever she might possibly want out of the world was excruciating, so the conversation would have been difficult no matter what.  That she spent most of our time together reading from a list of pre-schools attended by current kindergartners and suggesting that though she wasn't terribly familiar with any of them they would all be good alternatives to Little E's current school, which she said diplomatically, was not one they typically recommended, did not help. 

The common denominator in the list of acceptable schools?  They were all part-time programs whose exorbitant rates and unaccommodating hours made them impossible for our family.  I could have pointed out her insensitivity or the fact that Big E spent four years in the same program and is now the strongest reader in her class, instead I added this to the sagging sack of guilt I'd been carrying around since I'd spoken to Little E's teachers.  Drank Diet Coke while pregnant, once accidentally went through the car wash with her window slightly open, sent her to daycare for two and a half years...

My frustration over this issue is probably compounded by my concerns about Little E.  But if someone who works less than five hours a day feels the pinch, what about someone who works ten?

If only some noble-hearted Atticus Finch type could take up the cause...