Wednesday, February 25, 2015

the least i can do

Four years ago around this time we were thick into protests. Our then newly-elected governor, Scott Walker, had introduced a bill known as Act 10 that effectively made unions for public sector employees powerless. The protests (in which I was a frequent participant with my children, then age 5 and 3) made national news and continued for weeks, even in snow storms and bitter cold. There were lawsuits, there was a failed recall election, and daily singalongs in the Capitol rotunda...

...and now here we are four years later with Gov. Walker still in office and the Wisconsin state legislature more conservative and Republican than ever. Boy is he ever taking advantage of it, too. Scott Walker has refused federal expansion of Medicaid, slashed K-12 education more than SAM BROWNBACK (governor of Kansas; this should tell you something), pushed vouchers for private schools, cut $300 million from the public universities while suggesting that all professors should teach extra classes every semester to pick up the slack, cut funding to the office of Secretary of State by more than half, cut funding for people with disabilities, suggested that the DNR receive no tax money, and put off paying the state debt, all in the name of fiscal responsibility and at the expense of nearly every citizen of the state of Wisconsin, in particular the most vulnerable.

(Rather than link up everything individually I'm just going to send you to the Scott Walker watch page from the can find just about everything you need to know there about his budget.)

Then last night, the state senate voted in a "right-to-work" law after abruptly closing comments, claiming that the long line of citizens awaiting their turn for public comment were posing a threat (for SHAME). It was a nasty little move, but not a surprising one, given recent history. (I've always hated that phrase "right to work"; it implies that passing such a law somehow increases workers' rights rather than restricting them and giving permission to corporate management to treat workers however they want with few or no legal consequences.)

In short, our current governor and the majority Republican legislature have managed to eviscerate just about every public program that makes (made?) our state a good place to live. Everything from public schools to higher education to our state parks and natural resources to workers' rights are on the chopping block and thus ripe for privatization and exploitation. In a relatively short amount of time - four years, just one election cycle - we have gone from a relatively progressive state to a giant boner for the Tea Party. Even if Walker leaves here next year to run for president (heaven help us), the damage has largely been done.

My dear friend Laura often says she is "having some feelings" when she gets emotional about things. Readers, I am having a LOT of feelings about the political climate in my state right now. I am angry, discouraged, disgusted, disappointed, and not particularly hopeful, I have to admit. But I'm not going to lob insults or go on a rant of righteous indignation. I am past that now. I am truly fearful for the future because my children are only about a decade or so away from becoming young adults who have to live in the world the current leadership is forming for them.

So those are my feelings about the state of my state at the moment. As discouraged as I am, though, I'm going to keep on keepin' on. I will still bake bread, knit hats, make music, grow a garden, donate my time to the school's outdoor program, and encourage my children to think and create for themselves. And I will VOTE. It's the least I can do.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Tuesday night fun cooking! on Sunday with Stuart

Tuesday night fun cooking! is not happening this Tuesday because I have a long block of rehearsals right around dinner prep time so the kids will be eating leftovers or hot dogs or something while I'm running contest pieces with high school students. Not my ideal schedule, but some weeks are just like that.

In any case, we thought it would be fun to move Tuesday night fun cooking! to Sunday! and include Stuart. We've all been hankering for Banh Mi lately, and since it was just Vietnamese New Year, it seemed an appropriate dish to make together.

(Aside: we are not Vietnamese, nor do we have any particular ties to Vietnam. However, one of Daniel's good friends at school was born in Vietnam, and their family celebrates Tết so we've been learning about the traditions associated with it.)

In case you are new to Banh Mi, not to worry. I'd never heard of it before a few months ago when my brother Joe texted me. We text about food a lot, which is normal, right? He texted me that they were making banh mi and I texted back that I'd never heard of it so he texted a link to a recipe, which I made a week later and we all loved it. Of course that link has long since been buried in a backlog of other texts about food and other things, but in the meantime I've made it enough times that I can pretty much do it by feel. In short, banh mi is Vietnamese-style sandwiches: pork meatballs served in French baguettes with pickled vegetables and hot sauce. There are probably a thousand variations, but the recipe I'm sharing below is the way I've been doing it.

Having the whole family cook together is an experience. The kids do pretty well when they're given instructions but they need to be told every little step. Stuart and I kept going back and forth on who was in charge of what (I was telling everyone what to do but didn't want to get my hands dirty because I was putting the whole thing on IG, like you do). And we were all stepping on each other because our kitchen is so damn small. Still, we had fun, the final result was delicious, and mostly importantly, there are leftovers (I have a lot of rehearsals this week).

So, here is your parade of pictures! These are all on IG, too #tuesdaynightfuncooking #cookingwithkids

Recipe follows the photos. Enjoy.


Daniel is silly

I don't think it occurred to Anya that she could move that chair out of the way before chopping herbs.

Adding salt

Daniel is still silly. Also, our sink is so gross. 

*whimper* "My hands are frozen!"

Stuart gets in the action.

Redheads making meatballs

Browning the meatballs

It seems like my food photos never look as good as everything tasted. I need to work on that. I bet the quality will improve once we have natural light in the evening.

In any case, here's how I make Banh Mi:

Finely slice a variety of vegetables (we used the slicer attachment on the food processor) and gently mix together. We used:

  • cucumber
  • carrot
  • scarlet turnip
  • red bell pepper

Other vegetables that work nicely are: radishes, green onion, cabbage, kohlrabi, or basically anything crunchy and colorful
In a small saucepan, combine the following, bring to a boil, then pour over the sliced vegetables:

  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp brown mustard
OK, I'll be totally honest here and admit that I'm totally guessing at the amounts I just listed. And you can leave out the mustard if you want; I just like the pickle to have some kick. Anyway, let the vegetables sit in the brine while you make the meatballs and get everything else ready. It will keep several days in the fridge, too.

Pork meatballs:
Mix together in a bowl

  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 2 T soy sauce (we added salt in the picture above before I remembered the soy sauce! oops)
  • 2 T chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 T chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp fish sauce
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped (I actually left this out accidentally and we didn't even miss it)

Form into meatballs and brown on the stovetop for a few minutes, then bake at 350 until done, about 20 minutes. (Tip: these freeze really well after they're cooked. Sometimes we make a double batch and freeze the leftovers for another time.)

You'll also need  good baguettes (we always just buy them, but one of these days I'll make baguettes from scratch just for this dish), and a mixture of mayo and sriracha, and some finely chopped lettuce. For the spice-sensitive amongst you, plain mayo works fine without the hot pepper paste. To assemble the sandwiches, cut the baguettes long ways like a hot dog bun and line up the meatballs inside. Top with pickle, the spicy mayo mixture and serve the lettuce either on the sandwich or on the side. 

Trust me, it was delicious.

Friday, February 20, 2015

five on friday: mid-winter survival edition

I think it's time to revive Five on Friday posts. Pick a topic and find five things to say about it! How hard can that be? Today my topic is "mid-winter survival" because the fact is, at this point we're all just kind of hanging on by a thread, waiting for the snow to melt, the thermometer to be above zero in the morning and the rate of tissue consumption to dip below two boxes per week. Our winter hasn't been as brutal here as in Boston, but we've had snow and plenty of frigid temps. Here's how we get through the winter up north:

  1. Gripe. This just in: complaining is good for your health!! Now I can bitch about whatever I want and magically have more antioxidants in my system, right? Or something. Anyway, complain to your spouse or your journal or your twitter feed or your pillow, and revel in the negativity. It might do you some good.
  2. Hot chocolate. I mean, why not? It was -20 windchill when Stuart walked the kids to school yesterday (I had to get to work early) and not a whole lot better when I picked them up. Today was only a slight improvement and the wind was whipping so fiercely that whatever the thermometer said didn't really matter. It was so miserable walking home from school I thought my whole face might slide off in a sheet of ice. Knowing we could make hot chocolate when we got home made it just this side of bearable. Here's how you do it the fancy way: on the stove over med-low heat, melt 2oz bitter chocolate in 1/3 cup water, then add a tiny pinch of salt, 1.5T sugar and 1.5 cups of milk. Whisk until it's all hot enough to drink and pour into mugs. 
  3. Work. I'm working more now than I have since I was a grad student. It's been a challenge in terms of time management (sick days get complicated now that I have more obligations outside the house) but it feels good to have some structure to my week and gigs to get to. I have actually turned a few things down, which is good in a weird way. I think my next steps are to update my professional website, re-evaluate my hourly rate (I haven't given myself a raise in more than 6 years) and start thinking about longer term goals. For as much as I'm working, I should be making more money.
  4. Exercise. If I keep moving, it helps me get out of my own head. I go running and commute by bike when possible, even in winter. My patience has been tested of late, with subzero temperatures (I don't bike when it's below 10 in real temp or below zero windchill), slick roads and lots of flat tires. Even so, I've managed to find at least a couple days a week to bike to work or go for a run, just enough to keep me from going stir-crazy. One particularly miserable morning earlier this week, as my fingers went numb and I was breathing into a frosty balaclava I did consider joining a gym, but by this point it's almost March. I think I can hold out.
  5. Knitting. Not only is this a way to keep my hands busy in the evening after the kids are asleep, but if I knit long enough, I eventually end up with more warm things to wear outside in the cold. Win-win!
How about you? How do you get through winter where you live?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! pseudo-retro edition: delicious chicken parts, crispy potatoes, and a bit of nostalgia

There's some back story to the chosen recipe for this week's Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! When I was a kid, maybe around Daniel's age, my mom saved a bunch of proofs of purchase from Gold Medal Flour and got a free children's cookbook called Alpha-Bakery! Or maybe she had to send a check for $2 or something to pay for the postage, I don't remember. I also don't remember how many of the recipes we actually made, but I remember looking through it many times because I liked the hilarious illustrations and fun recipe titles like "Elephant Ears" and "Xtra-Special Celebration Cake." When I told my mom about our Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! experiment, she sent me Alpha-Bakery in case it would help inspire some menu ideas.

As you might surmise from the title, Alpha-Bakery includes 26 recipes, one for each letter of the alphabet. They all are fairly simple, all call for Gold Medal brand flour, and all are geared towards what children presumably like to eat, particularly children in the 1980s as the book was published in 1987. I'm pretty sure we never made "Q is for Quick Cheeseburger Pie" when I was a kid, but I bet I would have liked it at the time. It actually calls for chopped dill pickles and dill pickle liquid. And milk.

When the book arrived a few weeks ago, Anya and I looked through it and read through every single recipe. She actually read every ingredient list out loud. She was not impressed with the recipe for Quick Cheeseburger Pie, thankfully, but one called "Delicious Drumsticks" caught her eye, so we put it on the list for Tuesday Night Fun Cooking!

I'd say this week's Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! is retro, but I've never made anything like "Delicious Drumsticks" in my life, nor do I remember eating anything like it as a child. I don't even know that we had chicken all that often; my mom's brothers raise grass-fed cattle so we were always well-stocked with beef and ate a lot of that. In any case, given the history of the Alpha-Bakery cookbook and its re-apparance in my life, we can call this edition of Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! pseudo-retro.

The "Delicious Drumsticks" recipe really is quite easy. The only hiccup, really, was when I went to buy drumsticks during my weekend grocery trip and The Conscious Carnivore (which is a fantastic butcher shop, and if you're local to the Madison area and you're not vegetarian I highly, highly recommend it) didn't have any drumsticks. Not unless I bought several whole chickens just for the drumsticks but there was no way I was going to do that. I contemplated a special order, which wouldn't have cost extra but would have taken a week to come in and thus would have disrupted our Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! plans, and decided to buy thighs instead. "Delicious Thighs" doesn't have the same ring as "Delicious Drumsticks" (plus it sounds kinda risqué for a kid activity don't you think?!) I'm not sure what to call it.

Contemplating how to measure 1/4 cup butter from a stick wrapped in paper. This photo is TOTALLY posed because 2 minutes before I took it they were fighting over who got to unwrap the butter. Yes, really.

Scooping flour

Grinding pepper

Stirring the flour mixture. This took because he had to pretend it was a volcano first.

Dipping chicken parts.

Daniel REALLY doesn't like handling raw meat. 

We also recently came upon a recipe for homemade potato crisps that the kids love and they usually don't like potatoes at all, so we made those to go with the Delicious...chicken parts. They wanted to slice the potatoes themselves but that made me so nervous - rolypoly potato, big sharp knife, innocent little fingers - that after they each did about 3 slices I took over. They had fun pouring olive oil, sprinkling salt and grinding pepper, though. In fact, it was a little too much olive oil (that's what you get for giving a 7yo a giant jug of olive oil, no measuring apparatus, and the instructions, "just a quick little glug") but those potatoes were delicious, if a tad too greasy.

(Insert sharp intake of breath here.)
Ay yi yi.
Getting silly with potato slices.
In fact, the only thing I would change about this meal is that the chicken and potato crisps both made for a rather heavy meal. That chicken was really tasty but fairly greasy, and a side of rice pilaf or bread or plain mashed potatoes or any starch not smothered in oil might be a better choice in the future. That said, everything was delicious and the kids gobbled it up, even the side salad I made while the chicken and potatoes were baking, so all in all I'd say the meal was a success!

Delicious Drumsticks (from Alpha-Bakery Children's Cookbook):

1/2 cup flour (Gold Medal, of course!)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp pepper
6 drumsticks (about 1.5 lbs)

1/4 cup margarine or butter, melted and cooled (Margarine? How 80s is THAT?)
Heat oven to 425.
Mix flour, salt, paprika and pepper in a bowl.
Dip chicken drumsticks into butter; roll in flour mixture to coat.
Arrange in an ungreased pan.
Bake uncovered until done, about 50 minutes.

Potato Crisps:

Slice several potatoes (russets are best, truly) 1/8" thick, rinse with cold water and pat dry. Toss the slices with a couple tablespoons olive oil, appropriate salt and freshly ground pepper. You don't really need that much olive oil, just enough to coat. Spread on a large baking sheet or two (depending on how much you're making) and bake at 400 or 425 until the slices are nice and crisp, 20-25 minutes.

Oven baked chicken, potato crisps (with ketchup of course) and salad. Pretty good.
I have to add here that this recipe was GREAT for Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! because the prep was relatively short and then everything had to bake for a while, giving me a change to send the kids downstairs for a little screen time while I cleaned up and got the salad ready. Win-win. Sometimes it's mad rush right until you eat, but not this time.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tuesday night fun cooking! spaghetti with meatballs and marinara sauce

It's been kind of a hectic day. After hurrying the kids to school, I was teaching all morning, then went straight to the school of music to play for some singers. I left with barely enough time to get back to pick up the kids, but alas, upon unlocking my bicycle, I discovered that the back tire was flat. This is at least the third time this has happened in the last month, and I had a flat in December, too. I don't know if all the extra crud on the roads (salt, sand, snowpack) is the problem or if there is something wrong with the wheel, somehow.

It's really aggravating because my bike is really the most reliable way I have of getting around, even in the winter. I won't go when it's pouring rain or when the roads are covered in ice (I learned my lesson about that a few weeks ago when I crashed; those bruises are still healing) or when it's below 10 degrees. Generally, though, I'd rather bundle up for the cold or live with a muddy butt than deal with the expense and hassle of parking or waiting for the bus.

I had to take the bus today, though, but not until after I made frantic calls to the school and then my friend H to see if she could pick up my kids (she said yes and is an angel among us) while I waited for the bus to arrive and then wrestled my bike on the rack in front.

I finally got the kids and got home, and then Daniel got deep into a DIY project which required a trip to the hardware store and Radio Shack (yes, Radio Shack! the one on University Ave hasn't closed down yet...), so we were kind of late getting started with dinner, and there was still homework to be done and piano stuff to practice.  Days like this - when everyone is tired and we are rushed to get something ready to eat, and there is a lot to do and the kids are picking at each other and Stuart won't be home from work until after bedtime - it's so tempting to send them off to get those things done and just make dinner on my own. This evening, I was close, but I didn't give in. I am determined to make this project work. They need to learn how to cook, to share responsibility, and it doesn't matter how busy and tired we all are, we still need to eat.

So together we made marinara sauce and meatballs. Because time was short and the kids had things that needed to get done, I cooked the spaghetti and made a side dish. And you know what? It was fun! The three of us really were able to let go of the pressures of the day and had a good time together. Daniel and Any love having the responsibility of cutting things up. Daniel used the big chef's knife, which made me really nervous, but he did just fine.

This made me really nervous

This made me a little nervous, too
Fresh basil in a cute little colander

Spaghetti, meatballs, marinara, and seared/steamed broccoli on the side

15 minutes ago, after we ate and I washed dishes (for the third time today), I told them to practice/do homework/pick up their stuff from the middle of the floor and instead they started running around like hooligans. So I did the only thing I could think of to stay sane: I poured a glass of wine and sneaked downstairs to start this blog post. I managed a good ten minutes of uninterrupted time before someone came down to complain that he couldn't find his math homework...

Well, you didn't come here to read about my day. Really, this whole thing was a long explanation about why I only have a few photos of Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! for you, because I had my hands full with the actual cooking part this time. Recipes below!

Meatballs (I think this is originally a Mark Bittman recipe):
Mix in a bowl:

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 2T fresh herbs or 2tsp dried herbs (we used dried oregano but fresh parsley is good)

Form into golf-ball sized balls and bake in a 350-degree oven until the meatballs are done, 20-30 minutes

While the meatballs are baking, make the marinara sauce:

Marinara Sauce (from the Williams-Sonoma Best of Vegetarian cookbook, adapted a bit):

  • In 2T olive oil, sauté one medium onion (chopped), 2 cloves garlic (diced) and 1/4 lb. mushrooms (chopped) until everything is soft
  • Add 1 28oz can crushed tomatoes,  2oz tomato paste (about 1/3 of a small can), 1/3 cup water or dry red wine (we used water), and 1 tsp salt
  • Cook the sauce 10-15 minutes while you prepare the spaghetti according to the package directions
Broccoli side dish (this hardly warrants a recipe, but here you go anyway)
In a thick-bottomed skillet, preferably cast iron, melt 1T butter over med-high heat and scorch about 2 cups broccoli florets for 1-2 minutes, turning once or twice. Add 1/2 tsp salt, a sprinkle of garlic powder, and a few tablespoons water. Take it off the heat and cover with a lid for 3-5 minutes. The broccoli will finish steaming in the pan without getting mushy. Stuart and I really like eating broccoli this way. The kids don't love it, but they'll eat it - certainly an improvement from a few years ago!

Saturday, February 07, 2015


Daniel is nine today. Nine! It's his last birthday in the single digits. How time flies and all that.

We are fairly low-key about birthdays around here, but treats include: finding presents (rather than wrapping gifts, we hid them in a closet and left a trail of badly-written poems as clues for Daniel to follow), choosing the menu for the day (thin pancakes for breakfast, lasagna for dinner, birthday cake), and playing on a piano recital. (The piano recital isn't a birthday treat, actually; it just happens to be scheduled for today!) We'll make cupcakes to bring to school on Monday to share with his class and his teachers, but other than that and celebrating as a family, we have no party planned. I do feel guilty about this, but throwing a birthday party - even a small one - takes time and energy that I just don't have right now.

Anyway, in honor of Daniel's 9th birthday, I've composed a list of nine things Daniel likes:

1. Disc golf. Stuart started taking the kids to the local disc golf courses last summer. They went just about every weekend and Daniel especially took a liking to it. On one hole he even got a better score than Stuart.

2. Minecraft. Big surprise here. He is a 9yo boy. He likes to quiz me: "Mom, do you know how many whats-it blocks it takes to craft a thingamajig?" "Uh, no. But please, please tell me."

3. Lasagna. He's chosen this dish for his birthday dinner tonight and has specifically requested the kind with MEAT.

4. Making lasagna! I haven't managed to post about this cooking project yet, but...

5. Numbers. He is very into math.

6. Scrabble. He can really whoop my ass at this game. It's humiliating.

7. Reading. Daniel is whizzing through the Septimus Heap series right now.

8. Sledding. The bigger the bumps on the hill, the better.
Sometimes he likes to push the sled uphill. I don't know why.

9. Bugging his sister. Lest you think my children are angelically well-behaved Daniel is diligently perfecting the art of annoying his sibling. She is perfecting the art of taking the bait.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Tuesday night fun cooking! calzones

Predictably, when I ask my kids what they want to put on the menu for the week, the first things they rattle off are variations of starch+cheese+tomato sauce, preferably adorned with meat: pizza, lasagna, spaghetti, you get the idea (last week's hummus and fattoush was a rare exception).

This week was Daniel's turn to choose the menu for Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! and we made calzones. Calzones are a favorite for all of us, but I don't make them all that often. They seem like a lot of work, though come to think of it, it's no more time and effort than pizza, and I make pizza all the time. In fact, a calzone is basically a little pizza folded in half. That's not so hard, is it? Scroll down to the end of this post for my recipe.

I try to have the kids do as much as possible, both so they are learning by doing and also so my hands are free to take pictures. I managed to get several posts on Instagram within an hour before I had to put my phone down and help things along. (I created a new hashtag, by the way: #tuesdaynightfuncooking and I'd love to see some more people join in.)

We started off by mixing up the dough. I had stirred up some semolina, yeast and water to proof, and it was up to the kids to add salt, olive oil and the rest of the flour. They each had a turn adding those things and stirring them in, but they still managed to fight over it (sigh).

Anya refused to smile. She was still upset about the salt. 

We set the dough aside and went to work on the filling. This is what takes so long making calzones. I mean, you could just grate some cheese and be done with it, but it's better to add some other stuff, too. 

Anya likes to grate cheese. Daniel does not. One less thing to fight about, at least.

Daniel likes to chop things. Slowly.

Please ignore the sopping pile of dirty rags on the counter.

Anya opens the package of ricotta with gusto. "Take THAT!" Notice Daniel is still chopping that mushroom.

Daniel carries chopped mushroom across the floor to the stove one handful at a time. He only drops a few on the way. 


"Oh no you don't, you're not going anywhere near that pepperoni!!!"

Roll it out and make it round-ish.

There it is: calzone, marinara, and salad.
Calzone recipe
For the dough:

  • Mix 1 1/4 cups semolina flour with 1 T yeast and 1 cup water, and let it sit for an hour or so
  • Add 2-3T olive oil, 1.5tsp salt, 1/4 cup whole wheat flour and stir together
  • Add white all-purpose flour a few tablespoons at a time until you have a ball of dough that is soft but not sticky; you'll use a cup total or less
  • Leave the dough in a bowl, cover with a plate and set aside while you make the filling
For the filling, mix a tub of ricotta with a fist-sized pile of shredded mozzarella and whatever else you want. Tonight we sautéed mushrooms with garlic and onion and mixed that in along with some fresh basil.  In the past, I've cooked up Italian sausage and chopped kale and nobody complained about it. When it comes to vegetables, you just have to make sure you don't have anything too watery like fresh tomatoes or uncooked spinach; better to save those things for a side salad.

To assemble the calzones:
  • Divide the dough into 6-8 pieces slightly larger than golf balls 
  • Roll each piece out into a round that is about 1/4" thick; any thinner and the filling will ooze out
  • If you are using pepperoni (we did), layer a few slices on one half of the rolled out dough, then spoon 2-3T of the cheese filling on top of the pepperoni
  • Fold the other side of the dough over the filling and pinch the edges shut to prevent the filling from leaking. Usually it does anyway, but you can say you tried.

Bake at 350 degrees 30-40 minutes, or until the calzones are golden brown.
Serve with marinara sauce for dipping, and fresh vegetables or green salad on the side.