Friday, July 31, 2009

How I Decide What To Cook For Dinner, Part II: Nutritional Categories

So sorry. I am still in the process of learning to be on time and so on. I do have other accomplishments under my belt; I can read and write, for example; but the basic skill of being dependable is one I'm still working with myself to develop more fully.

All right. Simplified nutrition next. How simplified? Umm, well, for starters, I only have three food groups.

When I am trying to decide what to fix for dinner, I want to have something starchy, something vegetable-y, and something protein-y.

Why no fruits? Because I love fruit so much and eat so much of it during the rest of the day that I don't worry about it when I'm planning for dinner. (And I KNOW that that is an example not everyone would be well-advised to follow, but I already wrote my disclaimer for that.) Oh, yes, and dairy: I will just say that I and various family members have various non-lovely reactions to dairy, so it gets lumped with "protein-y" and those of us who worry about osteoporosis try to get our calcium in other ways. The nutritional level is the one I think about on a day-to-day basis (versus a "recipe repertoire" or "when I'm going shopping" basis, though of course it comes in to play there, too, mostly in trying hard to help my yummy vegetable recipes keep up with my delumptious dessert recipes). I (theoretically) already have my pantry stocked with pretty healthy stuff, so I just try to figure out what strikes my fancy on a given day and then build a balanced meal from that point.

So, this is what my pantry and recipe book think like (I mean, how they appear to my brain) from a nutritional standpoint (yes, I really do have my recipe book divided out this way-- you can come over and check):

  • potatoes: (cheap and nourishing, not everyone loves)
  • rice: (same as potatoes)
  • bread: (takes a long time, but home-made bread makes a meal Fancy)
  • pasta: best if you can make this whole-wheat pasta
  • corn or corn-on-the-cob
  • tortillas
  • Stir-fry (also encompasses protein-y, depending on how you fix it)
  • baked spinach with cheese on it (not a centerpiece, but fills out a meal nicely)
  • green salad with yummies in it (you know, almonds, cheese, craisins, mandarin oranges, etc.)
  • a baked winter squash
  • ratatoullie (for a Mediterranean-inspired meal)
  • green beans with fried onions (SOO yummy-- but then, it's French)
  • stir-fried broccoli
Protein-y (you don't really need my help in this area since it seems like every cookbook from The Dawn of Time is divided in to "fish, veal, beef, pork, chicken, other forms of dead animal you've never heard of or thought of eating, etc." but for what it's worth, here's my partial list):
  • curried chicken
  • curried chicken salad
  • store-bought rotisserie chicken
  • pork chops
  • pork roast
  • beef roast
  • hummus
  • refried beans, burritos, enchiladas
  • lentils
  • tofu! (I will share a yummy recipe... soon... relatively soon...)
Mixed Category:
  • Pizza
  • Soup
  • Stir Fry
  • Tacos
  • Hawaiian Haystacks
  • Sandwiches
Absolutely you are not getting my help on this one. You and I both know that our recipe boxes have at least ten times as many excellent dessert recipes as we could ever, ever healthily make in a hundred years. My main defense against getting fat from eating desserts is a combination of laziness and cheapness: I don't buy them at the store because I figure that mine taste so much better that I'd rather make them myself, but once I'm home, I am too lazy to make them except on very rare occasions. I do not count fruit as dessert. That's cheating. Fruit is food, and I treat it as such. (But if it works for you, go for it.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An extra note on shooting for delicious

(This is a footnote to the last post, as opposed to its sequel, which I have half-typed in preparedness for Thursday.)

I find it helpful to remember what so few food critics, professional and otherwise, seem to forget: taste is individual. If I make something that not everyone likes, well, that doesn't mean I am a bad cook or that it is a bad recipe. I TRY to find recipes that everyone likes-- I spend significant amounts of time in this endeavor-- but in the end, my "eaters" also have responsibilities: if they want to like their dinner, they should at least know what they like (you would be surprised...) and then they need to let me know their prefrences, not assuming that any decent cook is going to be able to mind-read. Also, if I like something and you don't (grapefruit, anyone?) I am truly not sad: that really does mean that there is more for me, which does make me happy.

Going back to the French Toast story: my current policy is that I do not knowingly fix any food that a person who will be eating it actively dislikes. (No, I have never had to cook for a picky four-year-old on a regular basis, so there is no way that I would put judgment on someone who did.) I often ask what people think of dinner-- yes, because I'm fishing for compliments (sometimes), but also because I want to know how a given recipe has gone over for a particular crowd. I am always looking for more recipes that have universal appeal, that are easy, cheap, and healthy, and also recipes which appeal to me personally. Most of the recipes I post on this blog are "universal appeal" recipes, though I also post recipes which have gotten a strong enough good reaction from a large enough number of people that I feel they will have high value to others.

I do NOT think that someone who doesn't take my approach (food=love) is a bad person, a bad mother (fathers tend not to worry about that sort of thing so much), or a bad cook. If one of my recipes flops, I don't feel like a bad person or a bad cook. Well, except for that time when I melted a hot pad so bad that it stank up the house for weeks and the soup turned out inedible, and then the very next night a pyrex pan exploded in my (hot-pad protected) hand because I stupidly tilted some water from one spot to another, extra-heated spot, but then I was worrying that it was my brain itself that was going bad on me, rather than that I as a whole was bad. But I didn't fret too much. A little failure is good for you: it keeps you humble and lets you know that you are pushing the boundaries of your abilities, which is generally a good thing.

How I decide what to cook for dinner, Part I: Basic Principles

I have mentioned that I started learning to cook when I was ten. Those times were pretty fun. When you are ten, basically you make what you want to make, like a zigguraut-shaped cake on which may be used not one but two whole cans of chocolate frosting. From my vantage point now, I'm not even sure how we fit that much frosting ON to the cake, let alone ate it afterwards. Like I say, good times.

When I was fifteen, however, I graduated to cooking for the entire family on a regular basis, and it suddenly got a lot harder. I remember the first time I plunked some French Toast in front of one of my younger sisters: she said, "but I don't LIKE French Toast," and I started in to the well-known "you WILL eat what is set before you" speech, but luckily my dad saved me from it. Meaning, my sister and I quite possibly have a much better relationship today because I was never allowed to make that speech. I do still try to balance the needs of the cook with the needs of the eaters, but I have also come to feel that cooking something to the best of your ability, with an eye to both nourishing and delighting the person(s) who consume the food, is truly and deeply an act of love. It's all a matter of balance.

As with all advice at all times, please take what you need from the following and huck the rest. But, especially, really-- you will see that my methods are particularly particularized for me especially, which I am well aware of, so I'm saying--well, I said it.

The first thing I figured out was which principles I wanted/needed to balance. I tend to apply these to individual recipes which are auditioning for my recipe reperitoire. A good/great recipe maximizes deliciousness and nutritiousness, while minimizing the time and expense involved in making it. Basically, I want recipes which give me good output for what I put in to them.

I am, believe me, WELL aware of how difficult it is to get all of these things in one recipe, but think of it this way: it isn't that hard to imagine a recipe from a mediocre cookbook which takes forever to make, has expensive ingredients, doesn't taste that great once it's done, and isn't even good for you. If THAT is possible, why not the reverse? Well, OK, so lots of reasons, but I'm digressing here.

When I am fixing dinner, I try to average out which categories my recipes fall in to. Here are a couple of examples:

If I am fixing stir-fry, which is mildly expensive (fresh produce) and tends to take forever (chopping-- I just don't have those mad knife skills, but Mom is talking about buying a food processor) but is very healthy and delicious to boot, then I take it easy for the rest of the meal and fix just plain rice for the starch. Or, on days when I fix home-made bread or rolls, the stuff that goes in them is likely to be leftover meat and maybe some lettuce and tomatoes; the bread took long enough to make, already.

The principles of balance also come in to play when I am planning menus and going shopping. Only one example here: at Thanksgiving, when deliciousness is at a premium, I figure out which dishes I want to invest some time in (like curried chicken and lemon meringue pie) and which ones I want to not spend as much time on, but may spend more money on (pre-washed spinach salad with Craisins, or basmati rice).

Whew! Got that? If you don't, I hereby forbid you from reading the next post (coming on Thursday) until your brain has had a chance to absorb. It only took mine about five years.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Snarfable (grown local)

(The picture: blueberries; my feet; one-half of my summer garden (a potted parsley plant-- the other one is basil); and parts of two Pothos plants, all hanging out on the balcony at my parents' house, because inside there isn't enough light for my camera to want to take a picture without a flash, and fruit this gorgeous deserves to be photographed in 100% natural light anyway.)

Today, a meditation on the snarfable fruits of summer.

You know how to pick a watermelon, right? You go around thunking on them (some people flip them with their fingers, but that hurts my fingers, so I just knock and it works fine for me) and listen for one with a nice, low tone. I personally feel that my success in the field of watermelon picking is partially due to my years playing cello under a strict teacher who made me listen carefully to the pitch I was making; it isn't so hard to transfer the skill to a pitch played on melons instead of strings.

Then you take it home and wash it off and cut it in half and then cut off an entire circular slice and cut off the rind and snarf it. Then, unless you were foolish and already ate some other kind of lunch, you eat another entire slice. (Also, please forgive the junior-high-ness of this, but part of the joy of this experience comes from the fact that watermelon burps are some of the best.)

This sort of event (specifically, melon-snarfing) has been repeated throughout my childhood, teenager-hood, and adulthood. I have also experienced heaven in the form of peaches the size of grapefruit, grown on the tree next to our front door, with skin so thick and sturdy and unattached that you just peel it off with a knife. Also, of course, are the lazy summer days when you wake up and think, "I'm starving and I just don't feel like fixing breakfast," and then you remember that the apricots are on, so you stumble out to the apricot tree (it's between the front and back yards, so it's a little further than the peach tree) and pick four or five ripe ones, and take them inside and rinse them off (just in case of-- um, diseased ants walking on them, or something) and by the time you are done eating them, you feel quite human.

And what has put me in mind of all these things? Well, a few weeks ago a woman from church emailed people at church and said that her family gets fresh blueberries from an Amish farm nearby every year-- $35 for a 20 pound box-- and if anyone wanted the same deal, she would be happy to pick them up for us. Long story short, the process ended up being more frustrating than I was expecting, and by the end of it I felt like it just wasn't worth the trouble. Not that I'm going to even be in the area next year.

However. I then TRIED the blueberries. Now, I knew that I liked blueberries, because I am willing to pay exorbitant prices for them (frozen, usually-- fresh are too expensive to be worth it) in Utah now and again. However. These blueberries turn out to be on a different existential plane than any I had ever tried in Utah, or even out here for that matter. They were picked-- all of them-- at the peak of ripeness. The first few seem perfectly normal, but then after a bit you realize that there aren't any sour or moldy surprises; they are ALL delicious, and that is when you end up snarfing two colanderfuls of blueberries within the space of half an hour. And this is also when you start thinking to yourself: maybe there really is something to this "eat local" schtick. I realized as I thought about it that probably all of the watermelons I have snarfed in Utah were grown in Utah, and that most of the blueberries I have eaten before now have traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to get to me.

The funny part about all this is that my parents-- and I can say this with absolute certainty-- did not intend to raise me as a food snob. When they grew their own tomatoes and ground their whole wheat as they needed the flour and planted fruit trees, they were following the teachings of the latter-day prophets to be self-sufficient-- they weren't even thinking about how things tasted. I have been a student for so long, SO long, that I only daydream about having hundreds of pounds of wheat in storage and being able to grow a little garden patch, let alone being in one spot long enough to plant a fruit tree (or bush) and being around to harvest it the next year. But as I look forward to a new, slightly more stable, slightly less poor phase of my life, I have motivation for doing as my parents did from two sources: one, my devotion to following the teachings of the prophets; and, two, my ever-growing epicurean streak. Well, that, and blueberry burps.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

And That's What We Think of Them

Last night for Family Home Evening, my younger sister, Patent Office Babe, volunteered to teach us how to use Access, a computer program for managing databases. For the opening song we sang "For Thy Bounteous Blessings," which is nice and slow and easy to follow for my not-as-musically-trained father. It also happens to be in a minor key.

My sister commented, as she was starting in on the lesson, that "I guess it's appropriate to start a lesson about a Microsoft product with a dirge-like song of thanks."

P.S.: My younger sister, Patent Office Babe, has told me that she is "not sure about" being called Patent Office Babe. Quite frankly, I'm not sure how I would feel about it if I were in her place. However, we are both fresh out of ideas. Suggestions?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

List of ESL classes I've taught

I had to do this for a job application. I thought it was interesting and informative-- a little more detailed than my resume about what kind of professional work I've done. OK, well, it was interesting and informative for ME, anyway, to have to write it out like this. Of course, the resume lists the tutoring job and the TA job and the test-question-writing job, but my main Chosen Profession at the moment is being a classroom teacher, so here is the list (just in case you wanted to know):

All courses were taught at Brigham Young University’s English Language Center.

TTTC (TESOL Teacher Training Class, also called student teaching)—community-based, team-taught English class. After four weeks teaching one class, teachers were switched so that they could have experience teaching at two different levels. The students remained in the classes in which they had been assigned; it was just the teachers who changed. During the first half, I taught BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), or “survival English” (e.g. how to do job interviews; how to write checks; how to make reservations). For the second half, I was assigned to the highest-proficiency-level class and we focused more on CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency); in particular, on developing writing skills and cultural understanding of more academic subjects, such as American History and Economics.

After student teaching, I was invited to teach at the ELC proper, where there were five levels. Level 1 was the very lowest level, though it was rare for us to get any true beginners; level 5 was the highest level, in which courses paralleled University courses and were taught in a specially supported ESL environment. Students sometimes left for University studies straight from Level 4; other students decided to study at level 5 before going on to University. Each of these courses ran for 13 weeks.

Grammar 4—Students learned skills from the text Grammar Dimensions 3, by Stephen H. Thewlis and supervised by Diane Larson Freeman. At this level, many students mostly know the rules, but need help remembering to apply them consistently. Because of this, after a skill had been introduced or reviewed, we spent a lot of class time practicing in pairs or small groups and discussing student-generated questions.

Reading 4— Class time was divided evenly between working on intensive and extensive reading skills. For intensive reading skills, we relied largely on Neil Anderson’s ACTIVE Skills for Reading. For extensive reading, we read the campus newspaper during class time, then discussed it; and we read, then discussed novels written mainly for children or young adults. These novels were: Amos Fortune Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis; Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech; The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho; and one book which the students got to choose themselves from a list of acceptable alternatives.

Grammar 1— Taught skills from Focus on Grammar, by Irene E. Schoenberg. Because of the limited vocabulary of these students, as well as their newness to the city we lived in, I linked our lessons as much as possible to what was immediately relevant to their lives. For instance, in teaching and testing about place prepositions and giving directions, I used a map of the city we were in. When we needed to learn about count and non-count nouns, I brought in many pictures of individual food items, and the next week when we were learning about asking for things, I used the same pictures.