Monday, May 28, 2007

Overdue Thanks

[My kindergarten teacher is retiring this month, and her colleagues asked former students to contribute their memories to a book for her. I sent in the following, and am killing two birds with one stone by also posting it here. Just be grateful I don't do the same thing with my grocery lists. I have changed her name below to protect her from the internet, which as you know is always going after retiring kindergarten teachers.]

The trouble with preschool is that no one respects you. It’s true that they’re all very kind and they let you dunk your graham crackers in apple juice, but they also crouch down on their haunches and talk to you in sweet sing-songy voices that make it clear you are not to be taken seriously. This bothered me. I was just as serious-minded as the next human being, and it was irritating that they didn’t acknowledge that. I suppose it’s possible that my fat cheeks and fluffy hair and the way I couldn’t bring myself to stop chasing that red-headed boy could have distracted them, so I really can’t blame them for their lack of perception, but I knew I was ready for the big time. The big K. Kindergarten.

Thank goodness for Mrs Rush.

I have never moved to New York and started a job at a prestigious ad agency, but that’s as close as I can come to describing how I felt starting kindergarten. Mrs Rush was a kind, glamorous leader, dispensing wisdom and sharing the secrets of the Grown Up World: Show and Tell. The Sand Table. Mucilage. Paste. All wonders, and all a part of the new, sophisticated world of Kindergarten. I remember telling my mother about mucilage one day after school, and being astonished that she already knew all about it. But she wasn’t in kindergarten! How could she be privy to the sacred mysteries? Now, did I know then that my mother had been a kindergarten teacher herself before my brother and I were born? Yes, I did. Did that sway my conviction that only Mrs Rush could know about such impressive things? No, it did not.

Mrs Rush gave us challenging and engaging projects, and we earnestly did our best. As we shared our accomplishments with her and each other, she was proud of each of us, every time. I admit that I still feel a surprising amount of personal pride when I remember the tinfoil boat I made to sail in the Water Table. One might even wonder if my entire career (industrial designer, artist, potter) can be traced back to that first satisfying moment when I looked up from sinking ships, sloshing water, blue plastic, and the herd of fellow five-year-old engineers and said to myself, “I have made something, and it is good.”

For me, kindergarten was a splendid combination of industry, loving kindness, and respect. Mrs Rush never spoke to us as if we were children, or at least that’s how it felt at the time. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize she must be one of the few people who know how to speak to children not as if they’re messy and/or adorable half-persons, but truly as if they’re children. As if they’re the willful, perceptive, curious creatures that children are, that we all are, when you really pay attention. So, from my inner five-year-old and my outer thirty-one-year-old: Thank you, Mrs Rush; Mrs Lencester; May. Thank you for paying attention. You are a fantastic teacher. Happy retirement.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

No, really. I'm totally serious.

Those of you who know me in real life should have a seat. Or, if you must stand, try to stand on a resilient surface. Lava fields? No. Rope bridges across South American ravines? Please get all the way across before reading further. Hardwood floor? Edge towards a carpet, or at least a substantial pet. Everyone ready? Good.

I have joined a soccer team.

I haven't actually set foot on a field yet, but I've invested enough money that there's no chickening out now. Did you know that shin guards are now a high tech item? Did you realize that these advances in technology mean that the good people of City Sports can soak you for a good forty five bucks before you walk out even minimally outfitted? Apparently, you have to wear special socks over the sophisticated shin (and ankle!) guards, and oh yes, a pair of shorts. Cut off jeans are apparently not recommended.

This all started yesterday, when I was inspecting a strange bug in my front yard. A neighbor was walking by, and I asked if she was familiar with the little thing, and whether I should greet it with a chipper "Hello little fellow!" a vengeful "Die! Die!" or a detached, enlightened "Enjoy your meal, I'll buy you some more plants next week." She didn't know, I didn't know, and so the conversation moved swiftly on to, "Would you like to join a women's soccer team?" And bless my soul, I said yes. I should add that I gathered the following details before I said yes: All the players are over 30, half the women had never played soccer before this, and everyone stops playing when someone falls down. She told me I should definitely get some shin guards, and maybe some cleats if I got serious about it, but that as far as she was concerned, the cleats mostly just make you feel tough. Which is not a function that should be dismissed in an over-30, women's only, neighborhood soccer team. I have not yet bought cleats. Perhaps a shot of tequila? Cheaper, and possibly just as effective. I will pass a couple of bars on the walk from my house to the field. We'll see.

So yesterday I said yes, today I bought my gear, and my first game is tomorrow. I'm a bit nervous, and starting to wonder what in the world I can be thinking.

The whole process is reminding me very clearly of the spring of 1985 or -6. My brother was getting ready to go to Little League registration, and my parents asked if I'd like to sign up for baseball too. I had never considered it, but what went through my head at that moment was, "It's not as if they'll take one look at me and say no way. It's not like picking teams in Gym. If I say I want to sign up, they'll have to take me! And I bet all kinds of not-very-athletic kids sign up for Little League. I can't be the only one. I could actually do this." And then I started imaging how cool it would be when it turned out I was really good at baseball, and how I'd look all sporty in my uniform, and there would probably be cute boys on the team who'd be impressed and grateful when I led our team to an undefeated season. I was ten-year-old bookworm, and tended to live in the world of my imagination a little more than was strictly healthy. Luckily, once we arrived at the middle school cafeteria for registration, the small part of my brain that still had a grasp on reality looked around. The place was filled with wiry, coordinated boys of all ages, and a few formidable girls, all intent on the serious business of filling out forms, waiting in lines, and looking very, very athletic. My brother fit right in. He walked into the crowd and disappeared in the sea of tan limbs, scuffed with activity and action. I, on the other hand, if I remember my 10-year-old vibe correctly, was probably quite pale from being inside all the time, wearing a pink and white jumper with red leather shoes that buckled,* and sniffling into a kleenex with my interminable seasonal allergies (so thoroughly seasonal, they included all the seasons). The reality-grasping part of my brain registered all this, got the attention of the rest of me, and I realized that my chances of a triumphant, against-all-odds summer filled with baseball victories were probably not very good, and I told my parents I had changed my mind about baseball. Just as they had nonchalantly accepted it when I had told them I wanted to sign up for baseball, they listened without a blink when I changed my mind.

If I were more in tune with feminist conventional wisdom, I would now lament that I allowed cultural expectations and gender norms to affect my choices and prevent the beginning of an illustrious athletic career. Well, I'm sure our patriarchal society oppressed me in all kind of tragic ways, but this is not one of them. I would have hated baseball. There was no chatting! No reading! No making ...things out of ...stuff. And not even anything to snack on until after the whole thing was over. And it was dirty, sweaty, so! boring!, and occasionally required one to think and run at the same time. None of that added up to a good time when I was ten.

Now, however, facing soccer, I have no romantic delusions about how terrific I'll be. I know what I can realistically expect from myself (no skill, little endurance, bad jokes, good attitude) and what I can expect from my teammates (camaraderie, earnest effort, some skill, good humor), and it's starting to sound like fun.

I'll keep you posted on how long I stick it out. Although, both having bought the gear and now told the internet all about it, I don't see this ending with another swift, graceful departure from team sports. I'm bracing myself for a sweaty summer full of indignity, minor injuries, and excellent blogging material.

*You think I'm exaggerating? I am not. I loved that jumper (my mother made it), and I wore those shoes so often, I wore right through the soles and then asked for another pair just like them.

Post-Game Show:
So, I was, ah, awful. I had to quit playing before my lungs rebelled and sought work outside my body, I turned the color of the other teams' pinnies (red! bright, sweaty red!), and I almost scored a goal for the other team. All in all, it was fantastic. It was exhilarating and satisfying and, well, fun. I'm totally going back.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bulghur for Boneheads

Bulghur wheat varies so much, it's practically recipe-proof. You never know quite how what you have in your kitchen relates to what the writer of the recipe had in their kitchen. There's bulghur, there's the (sometimes) different cracked wheat, there are fine, medium, and coarse grinds of both, and there are both red and white varieties. It can be spelled bulghur, bulgur, bulgar, burghul, burghal, birghil, etc, etc, which makes it hard to google recipes. Add to all that the fact that one man's medium grind is another man's fine, and you have an unpredictably and eccentrically named group of ingredients. Cooking one kind of bulghur with a recipe meant for a different kind can lead to bad results. Well-made bulghur can be fluffy and tasty and nutty. Poorly-made bulghur can be soggy and pasty, or tough and hard to chew.

So, to help with this situation, here is a very specific recipe that makes surprisingly delicious bulghur. For best results, follow the instructions precisely. You can never tell what will make the difference between transcendent food of the gods and demoralizing slop. Precision is essential.

1. Have your mother buy a 24-oz bag of Goya Brand Enriched Coarse Bulgar Wheat/ Kiepe-Ble Grueso Enriquecido in a New England seaside town. Instruct her to remove half of the bulghur/ bulgur/ bulgar, and dispose of it as she chooses. It's best if she makes tabbouleh/ tabouli/ tabbooli and takes it on a picnic.

2. Take the uncooked remainder on a 77-mile drive in a five-year old car. Do not stop to pee.

3. Store the bulghur in a cool, dark place for three months.

4. In a twenty-five year old saucepan that has been packed and moved at least 11 times, combine one cup of bulghur, one and three-quarters cups water, and a teaspoon of salt.*

5. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Let it boil, covered, for two minutes. Turn off the heat and let it sit, covered, for twenty minutes. During this time, be overcome with curiosity twice, and quickly lift the lid for a peek. The second time, poke it gently with a fork. Feel slightly guilty.

6. Toss the bulghur with a fork, and then mix in two tablespoons of olive oil.*

7. Eat while warm, or let cool and use in a salad.

If you must, you can try adapting this recipe to your local bulghur brand, just remember: Soggy is bad. Tough is bad. Salt and oil are good!

*This is delicious, but it's not exactly fat-free or low-sodium, (although it's still a lot better for you than a bag of Doritos and a Mr Pibb). If you have salt-sensitive hypertension, bless your heart, you can leave out all the salt. If you're, um... allergic to fat, leave out all the oil. If you're just a moderate kind of person and these amounts seems crazy, halve the salt and oil. It will probably still be pretty good. But if you leave out all the salt and all the oil, and don't have a compelling medical reason to do so, you deserve exactly what you get. The nicest thing you'll be able to say about it is, "My, it tastes so... healthy!"

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Fried Cheese

[I wrote this last fall, when apples were in season and I wasn't on a diet. This kind of food is perhaps why I am on a diet today. Hmmm.]

How can you go wrong? Everything is better with cheese (except, perhaps, heart disease, a jiggly belly, and digestive clarity), and everything is better fried (except ditto). Frying soaks your food in delicious, satisfying fat, and gives you crispy, crunchy brown bits. Cheese is also full of delicious fat, although it's a strange substance when you think about it. I try to forget that it's the mammary secretions of a big smelly animal, left to spoil until solid and moldy.* It's just so tasty!

Cheese: yum. Fried: yum. So, again, how can you go wrong? Here's how:

Being about to leave on a trip, you have carefully planned to run out of food today, so you won't come home to a fridge full of chilled organic garbage. Unfortunately, this means there's not much to eat. There is one perfect apple left in the crisper, and a few tablespoons of grated pecorino romano (I know, better to grate it yourself, thank you, I'm lazy). Cheese and apples being the world's most perfect snack, there must be some potential there. However, alternating spoonfuls of cold grated cheese with slices of perfect Honeycrisp does not do justice to the apple's perfection, or to the whole idea of a restorative snack. And besides, haven't you read about some little Italian delicacy that involves frying grated parmigiano? Doesn't it yield lacy little crisp cheese wafers? Doesn't that sound charming? Wouldn't they be nice with cold apple slices?

And so to the internet. Type, search, click, read, repeat. Thanks to The Google Cookbook, you seem to have learned something today. And so, back to the kitchen. Sprinkle a little pile of cheese into a hot, well-seasoned cast iron pan and fry for a few minutes. Attempt to flip with a spatula. Switch from spatula to spackling knife and try again. Switch from "cooking the cheese" to "trying to save the frying pan from the landfill." End up with a clean frying pan and a hard, greasy, burnt little cheese turd (like a cheese curd, but much, much worse). Full of misplaced, naive optimism, take a small nibble. Suddenly, instantly, you're full! And you never want cheese again! And you notice that the house in now bathed in Greasy Fried Cheesefunk!

But you will not be beaten. You think that there must be a way to make better fried cheese than that greasy little puck. And there is. Here's how:

You dig out the non-stick, probably-carcinogenic, made-from-puppies frying pan. Heat thoroughly over low heat. Add a little fat, just for the sake of overkill. Sprinkle a tablespoon of cheese in a thin circle, about three inches in diameter. Don't aim for a thick layer of cheese-- little gaps are okay. When you start to see browned areas where the cheese is thin, gently lift with a spatula. It will be surprisingly cohesive, and yet totally non adhesive. Thank the puppies, I guess. Flip, and cook another minute or so. Set aside, and cook the next one (or several, if you have a big pan).

If you wanted to eat some more cheese, which you don't, these would probably taste delicious and be crispy and wonderful and the prettiest thing to come out of the kitchen since you got all dressed up for Thanksgiving. Remember this for later, in case you ever recover your taste for cheese.

Put the cheese wafers in the fridge. They'll probably keep until you get back.

Eat the apple with some peanut butter. Feel better. Go on your trip with a light heart and a full belly.

*So I left out some of the subtleties of the cheese-maker's art, but you must admit it's pretty close to the truth.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Further Adventures of Fiber and Fish Fat: Part Two

And lunch yesterday was also fine, fine, superfine. If I'd known how tasty it was going to be, I would have measured things for you. I have so many lists floating around my computer of precisely measured ingredients that ended up as various mediocre dishes not worth writing home about, it's kind of nice to have it go the other way for once. But I'm sure you can figure it out, and if I make it again soon, I'll come back and edit in some specifics.

canned red salmon, drained and broken up
leftover steamed asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces
mixed greens
grape tomatoes, cut in half

rice vinegar
olive oil

whole wheat tortillas

Make a dressing with that second group of ingredients, and toss it with that first group. Warm the tortillas, make wraps and eat them. Or, if you have an anti-wrap bias, call it a "salad burrito" and eat that. If you have a truly deep and abiding anti- wrap-like-constructions-of-any-kind bias, eat the salad and the warm tortilla separately, and try not to think about the vegetable/flatbread assemblage that's being constructed by your traitorous stomach as you eat.

The Further Adventures of Fiber and Fish Fat: Part One

Dinner was healthy, but delicious! And fast. And pretty. It only fails in one area: this, dear reader, is a budget-buster. Salmon and arugula are not friends to the frugal, but we can't have everything. Serves two.

5 ounces arugula, chopped (if it's big) and washed (regardless)
2 salmon filets, lightly oiled, salted, and peppered
4.42 ounces whole wheat pasta*
4 cloves garlic, chopped
olive oil
lemon wedges

Do the cooking show thing, where everything is clean and chopped and ready, because this is a fast dinner with lots of last-minuting. Put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta, and turn on the broiler.

Then make sure the table is set and line up your family in Get Set position with plates in hand, because everything else happens very quickly.

Put the pasta in to cook and stick the salmon under the broiler. In a large pan, saute the garlic in olive oil until it's starting to look a little toasty. When the pasta is only mostly done, drain it and toss it into the hot garlic-and-oil pan (add a splash of water if things look dry or sticky in there). When the salmon is almost done, dump the arugula in with the pasta. Let it wilt a bit, and toss it all around so the olive oil and garlic get distributed. Serve the broiled salmon filets next to the arugula pasta. If you like black pepper, go nuts. Ditto lemon.

*or, a third of a box of pasta that contains, for some impenetrable reason,** 13.25 ounces.
**what do you mean, "metric"?