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A Different Kind of Recipe

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Ah, teaching…and summer’s off. If you’ve been reading recently, I hope I’ve conveyed my gratitude for the time to spend with family, read, cook, travel, and write. Summer’s off are such a beautiful thing. But I think many teachers would agree that summer’s off are also, in many ways, summer’s “off.” The teaching must go on, come August or September, and so there is curriculum to be written, errands and doctor’s appointments to be scratched off the personal to-do list, and resources to be gathered.

The resources to be gathered part…

I’m trying crowd funding for the first time. I spend plenty of my own money on resources for my classroom — last school year, having shared classrooms for four years, I had to start from scratch when it came to decorating my own room. Also, my projector didn’t work, something I use everyday, so I was left with no choice but to buy my own, justifying it as an investment in my teaching career. When I tried to get creative, scissors and glue sticks and graph paper and construction paper were all on me, which added up. I had to scrounge for my own pencil sharpener, replace my own dying markers, provide lotion, and sometimes buy my own kleenex. Then I purchased graduation gifts for a some of my seniors. This is the norm in teaching.

And another norm in teaching: asking people you know — family, friends, readers of your blog — to fund resources that your school cannot provide. In some ways it’s a beautiful movement, and in some ways, it’s a very sad reflection on the lack of funding in schools, especially when schools have such high expectations for their students and their teachers. But I’m asking all the same.

Here is my site, Chromebooks for Writing Classes with a video of me talking about how chromebooks — even a few — would help my students and help me do more as a teacher. Things like project-based learning, in-class research, increased student engagement. In the video I focus on how these chromebooks would benefit my classroom, specifically, but I would share them with my colleagues, and so, in reality, they would benefit an entire English department. If you can give, thank you. If you can share on social media, thank you. If you can click on the link and give it some of your attention, thank you.

As I share in the video, here’s “a different kind of recipe,” written by my student Kumari, a sweet reflection on what it takes to write a good essay:

The Perfect Essay

Ingredients

4 cups of sole-purposed brain power
4 teaspoons of creativity
4 cups of dedicated research
2 cups of MLA format sourcing
5 tablespoons of brainstorming
4 cups of editing

Directions

  • Place brainstorming in bowl. Let it sit for a few hours. Then, when it feels right to YOU, add in the dedicated research and stir.
  • When the mixture is smooth, begin adding in the sole-purposed brain power and the creativity alternately, while stirring.
  • When both are in the bowl, grab a blender and blend until the mixture is fluffy and smooth.
  • Then add in the editing and MLA format sourcing, alternately until both are in. Stir.
  • Next, put the mixture in the fridge and take it out everyday and mix it for one to two hours until the mixture is absolutely perfect.
  • Then give the mixture to your teacher, get her opinion on it, and with her advice, polish and add ingredients as you see fit. Put the mixture into the oven and wait until it is golden brown.
  • Take it out and enjoy it, a steaming sweet taste of success 🙂

I’d argue that as technology is increasingly a part of the workplace and our personal life, the only thing missing from this recipe is technology. It has a prominent place in our world, and it deserves a prominent place in our classrooms. So consider this “ask” a recipe in the works for better learning, better writing, better teaching. Thanks for considering.

 

Chekhov: A Biography and The Signature of All Things

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I have a tendency to pick up thick, dry (well, actually sort of musty) biographies and stubbornly plow my way through them. Admittedly, I called it quits on page 600 of Chekhov: A Biography by Ernest J. Simmons in favor of the above mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert novel, which is about the same length and which I tore through in the matter of about a week, but more on that later.

The back cover of Simmons’s bio reads: “This work reads like a massive Russian novel, but one in which a real hero dominates a tapestry of real life.” Let me assure you, this is false advertising – it reads like a halting, over-wrought research report in which the minutiae of Chekhov’s day-to-day existence is loyally recorded in painstaking detail. As with biopics, I think there is an art to writing biographies in which the story of a person’s life can be both well-researched and selectively rendered so as to leave the reader with a more memorable, vibrant impression of the essence of who that person was, and I’m fascinated by that art. Simmons’s approach is less than inspiring. But it was certainly informative, and inspires me to delve deeper into Chekhov’s body of work, of which, when I say deeper, I confess I am treading in very shallow waters. My exposure to Chekhov, embarrassingly, is limited to some of his short stories, adapted to the stage for a show I worked on called “Chekhov’s Life in the Country.”

Chekhov was a physician, first, then ever-increasingly, a writer. He called medicine his wife and literature his mistress (quite literally – he married very late in life). He constantly gave away his medical services for free and started writing humorous stories for cheap magazines as a way to make money for his large family. He wrote under a pseudonym, and he wrote hastily. This business of writing was a mercantile one in which he churned out stories for small sums. Simmons never goes into much detail about Chekhov’s early life as a reader; rather, he gives the impression that Chekhov was full of stories and gifted with powers of observation and imagination — that the stories just poured out of him.

It took time for Chekhov to see and embrace that he had a special genius, and he slowly graduated from the popular magazines to publications of literature. His relationship to the theatre and playwriting was a bit rocky; his plays were often ill-received at first, as they didn’t adhere to the conventions of Russian drama. Tolstoy criticized him for writing “the world as he saw it,” rather than infusing his work with a moral perspective, but Chekhov and Tolstoy eventually developed a mutually admiring relationship. Chekhov had tons of friends, and when he wasn’t writing, he was usually entertaining a group of visitors – he also loved to garden and became something of a real estate enthusiast near the end of his life. He was extremely close to his sister, and held out on marriage until late in life when his tuberculosis was in full swing, when he married a Moscow actress named Olga. Interestingly, he launched on a journey to Siberia in the middle of his life and wrote a report on the treatment of prisoners there. And… I’ll leave you there. I’m a bit Chekhov-ed out. But suffice it to say that the book only builds up your admiration and even, affection for this literary giant – it does humanize him and portray him as a likeable, relatable figure.

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In contrast, The Signature of All Things was a quick read. It starts with the story of Henry Whittacre, a scrappy, poor boy who grew up the son of an orchard farmer and longed for a bigger, better life. He starts stealing flowers from a famous botanist for chunks of money from aspiring botanists, and ends up going to work for the famous botanist. After sailing the world, he marries a Dutch woman, takes her to America, and builds a formidable estate in 19th century Philadelphia.

From then on, it’s his daughter Alma’s story. Her relationship to her adopted sister, Prudence, her sexual awakening starting in her father’s library, her unrequited love for the printmaker George Hawkes, her silly friendship with a young woman who later becomes George’s wife and later still, goes insane, her mother’s death, her obsession with mosses to counteract the loneliness of spinsterhood, her fleeting marriage to an orchid painter named Ambrose Pike, her father’s death, and upon learning some surprising information from her mother’s nursemaid, the decision to leave the estate to Prudence and sail to Tahiti…

The book gets its title from the Ambrose Pike character, who confesses to Alma that he went insane when he thought he could discern God’s imprint on every trace of the natural world. Alma’s own life story is infused with a deep devotion to and lifelong study of nature, and so, in her own, more grounded way, she sees God’s signature in nature, too.

Following her travels to Tahiti and around the world, when Alma seeks to resolve her conception of the mysterious Ambrose Pike, she settles in Holland with her mother’s relatives. As an old woman, her study of mosses leads her toward her own theory of natural selection, but she resists publishing her theory because she can’t bridge the gap between the self-sacrificing nature of people like her once-despised sister Prudence with the idea that struggle and conquest define human nature. So at the core of this novel is the tension between the natural world, in all its beauty, and the unique beauty of humans.

In many ways The Signature of All Things reminds me of the novels I enjoyed as a girl – and one of my favorite novels to this day, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which Padraic is finally reading this summer, to my delight. You have a precocious, curious, slightly unconventional female heroine free to study or explore in a world buoyed by inherited wealth, a historical setting around the 1800s, and an epic, birth-to-death scope. I couldn’t help but notice that the character Prudence’s story, heavily intertwined with the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, is sidelined, in favor of privileged Alma’s love interests and reverence for mosses. Perhaps it would be more edifying to write, or read, a book about Prudence. The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love – is also steeped in the world of privileged white women.

So it’s in many ways an old-fashioned tale, if such a thing exists, but a delectable, escapist one, perfect for car rides back to Chicago, which still feels like my second home, or outdoor evenings in Saint Louis spent rocking (as in, a chair) and reading.

My parting advice – skip the Chekhov biography for a collection of his short stories, starting with The Lady with The Little Dog (I love this story), or a cold read of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, and in the meantime, if you’re looking for a virtual garden in which to explore, curl up with The Signature of All Things. Enjoy 🙂

A Chance of Meatballs

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So I hadn’t cooked for a few months — dinners at the Ginger and Padraic O’Donnell house consisted of me working at my computer and snacking on Skinny Pop and Padraic, gracious and accepting of my flaws whilst being settled into more healthy routines — whipping up some scrambled eggs or roasted salmon or low key tomato sauce and pasta. But — my mother and father in law were coming for their second stay at our newish house, and gosh darn it, I was DETERMINED to make spaghetti and meatballs.

There’s a backstory here…

I like white noise when I work, so I often grade to the tune of Barefoot Contessa on YouTube, and I was smitten with the episode where she surprises her boss by making him something down-home and casual, and of course the best version of down-home and casual — a rocking plate of the best meatballs and homemade tomato sauce you’ve ever tasted, plus homemade garlic bread. (Actually, let me correct myself — I’ve probably never had a strong craving for spaghetti and meatballs, but from a cook’s perspective, I feel like meatballs combine the best of baking and cooking — instead of balls of dough, you’re crafting cute balls of, eh, ground meat, and laying them out neatly on a cookie sheet, plus the idea of spaghetti and meatballs, such a classic, stoked my enthusiasm… And, garlic bread, that I can eat for days…) I was also enamored with the idea of simply replicating an entire Barefoot Contessa episode, just following, which is a fun and delightfully brainless way of cooking that I often fail to consider.

So what started as a simple family dinner — my parents, my brothers, and my mother and father in law — quickly amassed into four pounds of ground meat and two loaves of ciabatta fit for a feast:

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I make sense of my impulse toward massive quantities of meat this way: First, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the passionate cook in me who has been lying dormant in lieu of what Padraic just today, on summer break, referred to as the “grog” — is that a word? I knew exactly what he meant — a sleepwalking state of grading, planning, waking up at 5:30 am, and then repeating that process for weeks on end. By god, I shall awake myself with copious amounts of Italian food! seemed to be the work of my unconscious. Then there’s the factor of in-laws-visiting-our-newish-home, and the internal pressure I felt to redeem myself after treating them to sloppy, mediocre Mexican delivery around a folding table when they visited in October — then, our very new house was a very slow work in progress, and my head was half in my work. Then there’s the factor of my parents coming over, as well as my brother, and this sudden feeling, “We live near my family now! By god, we should make memories! And entertain!” And finally, there’s the f— it mentality I have when called upon to make rough mathematical calculations — more is more, we have a freezer, and it’s easier to double a recipe than it is to one-and-a-half it.

The meatball event started with a trip to Bolyard’s Meat and Provisions, which I can’t help but tout since I am now a proud resident of the Maplewood corner of Saint Louis, formerly known as Maplehood and now dubbed Mapleweird. It was my first time visiting my local butcher, and look, I found this:

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And this! I envision my future nephew to be a hip little dude, if his older sister is any indication. So I figured he needs a fresh start in this world with a touch of the Mapleweird:

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Now commences the meatballing:

Ina Garten’s “Real Meatballs and Spaghetti”

Adapted & Doubled by Yours Truly

Serves a small army*

Materials

Big mix bowl
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Liquid measuring cup
Small bowl and fork for beaten eggs
Two clean hands
Large pot or dutch oven
Kitchen tongs
Several sheet pans (preferably rimmed)
Parchment paper
Paper towels
Can opener
Mixing bowls of various sizes
Two large skillets

Meatball Ingredients

3 pounds of ground beef
1 pound of ground pork
2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (I used Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread)
1/2 cup seasoned, dry bread crumbs
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup store bought fresh Parmesan cheese
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil
Olive oil

Sauce Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup red wine
2 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pasta Ingredients

3 pounds spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
Parmesan cheese

  • Dump the meat, bread crumbs (dry and fresh), parsley, Parm, salt, pepper, nutmeg, egg, and 1 1/2 cups warm water in a bowl. Mix lightly with your hands.
  • Line several sheet pans with parchment paper.
  • Using your hands, lightly form 2-inch meatballs and place them on the parchment. (Don’t be afraid to form solid, cohesive, meatballs than won’t break apart in the cooking oil. I took the injunction to “lightly form” a little too seriously and some of my first meatballs fell apart in the dutch oven. A deft but firm touch when forming meatballs…)
  • Pour 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup olive oil into a liquid measuring cup. Pour the mixed oils into a large pot or dutch oven and heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat. As the oil heats, cover a dinner plate in paper towels and place it next to the dutch oven on the stove.
  • To test whether the oil is hot enough, see if the oil sizzles when you add a meatball. If it sizzles, you’re good to go. Reduce the heat to medium-low and fill the pot with as many meatballs as you can, assuring that they have room to float around a bit. Let each batch of meatballs cook for 10 minutes in the oil, turning them regularly with your tongs. Drain the balls on yet another sheet pan lined with paper towels.
  • Once you have your small army of meatballs cooked, set them aside. Chop and measure out your ingredients for the sauce — chop your onions, garlic, measure out your red wine, open your cans of tomatoes, chop your parsley, and measure out your salt and pepper. Pour out the oil in your dutch oven or pot while pouring scalding hot water from the faucet down the drain at the same time. Then let the dutch oven or pot sit in the sink and soak with dish soap as you continue with the sauce.
  • Place two large skillets on two burners, side-by-side. Pour a tablespoon of olive oil into each, and heat it over a medium flame. Add half the onions in one skillet, half in the other. Sauté the onions until translucent, about 10 minutes. Divide the garlic and cook in each skillet for 1 more minute. Turn up the heat to high and split the wine between the two skillets, until almost all the liquid evaporates. Stir in the tomatoes (one can per skillet), as well as the parsley, salt, and pepper (divided into two skillets).
  • Divide the meatballs into the two skillets and let them simmer in the sauce on low heat for 25-30 minutes (or less, if you’re getting hungry).
  • Meanwhile, make 3 pounds of spaghetti according to package directions.
  • Serve, and grate a little extra Parmesan on top.

*Make this in two batches. You will not have pots and pans large enough to make it in one big batch.

While I’m at it, here’s Ina’s recipe for the garlic bread. I’m sure her recipe writing skills are better than mine. If you want to “adapt” it my way, just double it:

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This tale ends with packets of frozen meatballs doled out for days to grateful grandmothers, hungry neighbors, and one overstuffed husband. Meanwhile, I learned, a couple times, how easily frozen garlic bread thaws in the microwave, which translates to, send the garlic bread home with the fam next time. 

Despite the tight fridge space, the freezer bags, the monotony of one plate of leftovers after another, and probably a few other inconveniences, I learned that if food is love, and love and family go together, I have plenty of love to go around. Here’s to this guy, arriving soon!

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Homemade Thin Mints, à la Emily D.

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.39.16 PM“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers Chocolate
That perches ‘tween the teeth
and hurling down one’s gullet,
inspires the soul beneath,

And sweetest in the home is made;
And sore must be the soul
keeping it at bay
when 1/4 teaspoon salt + 1 1/2 cups flour + 3/4 cups cocoa powder
need whisking in a bowl,

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1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter need mixing with the goal of becoming smooth, plus 3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract + 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract beaten into the electric mixer bowl,

plus 1 cup sugar added in three additions and 1 large egg, whole,
beaten until blended then fold
in the flower mixture gradually (don’t overmix, dough will be sticky) and roll

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.42.15 PMdough into two discs, between sheets of plastic, keep cold
in fridge for a few hours then preheat oven to 350, line baking sheets with parchment and re-roll

dough to 1/4 inch thickness, cut cookies with cookie cutters, bake about 15 minutes, dole
out onto cooling racks, melt 6 oz of bittersweet/semisweet chocolate in bowl, cool slightly, dip fork into melted

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chocolate and wave back and forth over cookies, that’s all.
Chocolate can be tricky, whether tartlet, sherbet, nougat
But this humble, girl scout wafer, in its minty purity
didn’t ask a crumb of me —
this was chocolate at its finest; I ate the crumbs with glee.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts.

Writer’s Block: Riffing on a Recipe

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Food is an inspiration to me in the most free-floating, free-association way possible. I don’t write recipes, I just follow them pretty well and I have an urge to document and share the ones that tasted especially good.

That said, I’ve noticed that recipes have a few things in common with poetry: line breaks, sensory details, precise, concise language, to name a few. So I’m taking some of my favorite recipes, adding some whimsy,  turning them into “food poems,” and calling them “Recipe Riffs” (whoa, alliteration.) That’s my spin — “chopping” my way through food writer’s block with some wordplay (whoa, the puns!) And there’s a recipe involved. The muse for this one is Ina Garten’s “summer garden pasta” recipe, which I’ve enjoyed all summer long 🙂

LBD

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Depending on your sensibilities
(fashionista versus foodie)
this is a term for
Little Black Dress
or Light & Basic Dinner

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Have it either way.
In the case of a young Sophia Loren
or muddled tomatoes

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both are Italian-inspired,
Heirloom-worthy
Or effortlessy elegant

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as dolce vita
as Dolce and Gabbana.

The light-and-basic-dinner
creates Madonna’s nirvana

with a bowl of steaming noodles
(a pound of angel hair, to be precise)
1 1/2 to 2 cups of shredded mozzarella
and the following, caprese-style marinade:

cherry tomatoes (4 pints, halved)
six cloves garlic (minced)
olive oil (1/2 cup)
basil (a fistful, julienned)

with a sprinkling of

red pepper flakes
salt (1 tsp.)
and pepper (1/2 tsp.)

a meal of unstudied elegance
best consumed in stylish black
worthy of Ava

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or Ina, or for that matter,
any barefoot contessa.

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[Photos in order: http://www.modcloth.com/shop/dresses/where-to-tonight-dress?SSAID=687298&utm_medium=ad&utm_source=affiliateprogram_sas&utm_campaign=sas_feed&utm_content=687298, my camera,  Lexinatrix flickr photostream, shutterbean flickr photo stream]

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