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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Teacher

I don't know if its true or not, but I feel like everyone has "that teacher." The teacher that inspired them and challenged them and changed their life. I was lucky that my high school, despite being in a decidedly unglamorous district surrounded by better funded much sparklier schools, had many amazing teachers. I would estimate that each year, I had at least 3 impressively high quality teachers. These teachers were organized, enthusiastic, hard-working, and persistent. They made me feel like their classes were extremely important and that my performance mattered. I honestly did not want to let them down, and while I was a perfectionist back then, and would not be happy with a grade less than 98 in a class, part of my motivation was pleasing teachers that I looked up to. I will not forget these teachers, but there is one teacher that stands out among the rest. Mr. Jester, or just "Mr. J." is one of the most amazing human beings I have met.

Mr. J was my ninth grade biology teacher. As a middle schooler, my overall GPA was literally 99.9 while taking all honors classes and two high school courses in 8th grade. When I started high school, I got a bit distracted by the older students and bigger school. I would ask to go to the bathroom and go to the cafeteria instead. I snuck out to lunch a couple times. I had crushes on senior boys and would walk through the senior hall way between every class, even if it made me late to my next class. My dedication to having a perfect GPA slipped. Freshman year was also the year I had the least fabulous teachers. My history teacher was nice enough, but not tough, my English teacher was flighty and not very organized, and my Math instructor was bullied mercilessly for her weight. Mr. J really shone in that cast of characters, but he would shine in any group of people. He demanded our full attention in a playful and serious way. He kept me aware that I cared about school and wanted to be a good student despite all the distractions in high school and he showed me that science is and always will be the most important class.

In Mr. J's class, we could not be late and we could not slack off in class. If we were caught yawning, we would be shot in the face with a water gun. If we did something truly unintelligent, we would be chastised as "smooth-brained cretins" or we would hear Mr. J mutter under his breath, "strong like bear, smart like tractor." He kept us on our toes by requiring us to call back phrases whenever he brought up certain topics. For example, when we were learning about photosynthesis he would flip off the lights when he wanted us to exclaim emphatically, "the dark reaction!"

Back when I was in high school, teachers still used overhead projectors instead of power points. He would write out notes on the overhead projector and then take down the notes and put up a Far Side comic with the names of the school administrators written in as the butt of the joke. He taught us that school administrators were essentially worthless, and at our school I think he might have been right. He would pull the comic down quickly with a little chuckle and then keep teaching about whatever it was that we were learning about.

We had massive amounts of homework, or at least it felt like it. Regardless, I spent all my time working on my biology homework. I wanted to be perfect for Mr. J. I particularly remember a winter break in which my classmates and I spent two full days in the town library sketching anatomical renditions of different organ systems in earthworms. I suspect that he assigned such a large project over break specifically so that we would spend the break in the library working together. When I finished that assignment, I was really proud of what I had accomplished and it felt really good to hand it in. Mr. J kept a tradition of "the frog test tube award," which was given to the student with the highest grade on each test. The award was really just an old test-tube with a dried up dead frog in it and frog stickers on the tube. The tube was inside a wooden box with tissue paper and other padding to protect the test tube. The award created fierce competition to score highest on each test. The winner kept the award until the next test and brought her class and herself so much glory! Because Mr. J had taught at the school for so long (even when I went there), students in my class had parents and aunts and uncles who had also been students of his and they would always ask us how Mr. Jester was and if he was still giving the frog test tube award or if he was still telling a particular joke. Mr. J created a tradition of dedication to learning biology that spanned across generations!

I wish that I could say that Mr. Jester inspired me to become a biology teacher, but he did not. What he did do, however, was convince me that science is the most important and most interesting subject to study, and when I went to college I majored in Biology. I knew that I wanted to study science, but I wasn't sure what kind of job I would train for. I figured that doctors use a lot of biology, so I should be pre-med. It never occurred to me that there were other career fields that were available and worthwhile. And, it certainly never occurred to me that I could be a science teacher! As an undergrad, I took a field ecology course and discovered that research science could be really fun and interesting and applied to graduate school instead of medical school. In graduate school (studying marine science), I had my first real teaching opportunities; I taught a microbiology lab and two general chemistry labs and then went on to volunteer to teach a marine science course for the WISE program at Stony Brook. These experiences opened my eyes to the joys of teaching. It was actually fun and rewarding! And it is a good thing that I liked it, because shortly after graduating, I moved to Albuquerque where there is no marine science to be done. I found a teaching job in a private school, teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade science and have since learned much more about what it means to be a teacher.

I would love to think that I am as inspiring as Mr. Jester, but I know I have a long way to go. Mr. Jester  has been teaching for decades and I am only in my second year. I suspect that he was not quite as dynamic and charismatic his first year teaching. I also know that middle school teachers are not as influential in a students life. I barely remember the names of my middle school science teachers let alone what I learned from them. I honestly cannot remember a single thing I learned in 7th grade science. But, I do hope that I bring the same enthusiasm towards science that Mr. Jester brought and I hope that, if I stay in teaching, that someday I am as influential and inspirational as Mr. Jester. I would like to be "That Teacher" for at least a couple students.

What concerns me, is that teaching is not seen as a particularly respectable career field in the US. Teachers make rather pathetic salaries and are not revered the way pedagogues in history were. There is of course the saying "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Even Mr. Jester joked about this and poked fun at himself as a teacher. I often feel like I have not reached my full potential because I am teaching instead of pursuing a PhD. I absolutely know that this is not true for all teachers, but I think it is at least common among science teachers. My 10th grade chemistry teacher, for example, was a chiropractor who broke his hand in a car accident and had to leave his practice. He hated teaching and he took it out on us.

I think that it is important that intelligent and capable people feel like teaching is a worthwhile career choice rather than a fall-back option. In order for this to happen though, our attitude towards teachers must shift and people and the government must be willing to compensate teachers more fairly. If we want to have good teachers, we must make good teachers want to teach.  And, I think this may start with the teachers that are teaching now. Even if we don't feel appreciated, we should have an attitude that what we are doing matters so that our students consider teaching as a career as they move forward, and we should encourage that choice. If a student excels in science class, why not be hope to be a science teacher when they grow up? While I look up to Mr. J in every way, I hope to be different only in that I would like to inspire the next generation of teachers as well as scientists.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Clear Broth Soup: The new comfort food

When I received my Yoga Journal this month, it was during winter break, so I was able to sit down and read it cover to cover, for the first time I think. The food section, "Eating Wisely," was actually quite wise and very applicable after gorging during the holidays. The article points out that most of the foods we refer to as "comfort foods" generally make us feel terrible. When feeling sad many indulge in french fries, fired vegetables, ice cream, or heavy cheesy pasta. When we are done eating, rather than feeling comforted, we feel bloated, gassy, and guilty. It just so happened that I listened to "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me's" food special that same day and one of the guests was Paula Dean, who gushed over deep fried mac and cheese. With the image of Paula Dean's special mac n cheese in my mind and snacking on breaded, deep fried pickles Jamie brought me, I read this article, and the validity of the central theme became abundantly apparent.

The tradition of eating "comfort foods" does not need to continue as is. When we eat these foods, it is so habitual that we barely even taste the food, we don't notice how much we eat, it does not inspire good memories, and the experience is almost numbing. But there are definitely other, better choices we can make; there are so many things that when eaten, actually make us feel better. I know that when I have a lightly dressed salad of fresh greens, avocado, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and garlic, I actually feel refreshed and nourished afterwards. It comforts me. The author of the article, Tamar Adler, suggests a redefining of comfort foods as foods that make us feel better after we eat them than we did before. For her, comfort foods are very simply prepared dishes that remind her of things that she loves. Very salty, clear broth soups remind her of the sea and by adding eggs and fresh greens, she makes them very nourishing. Her lyrical description of these soups cannot be matched, I have to quote it:
"Many of my most comforting meals rely on the quiet tranquility of eggs. It's easy to keep eggs from pastured chickens in the house, and each time I cook one, I know I am supporting good environmental stewardship. They also pair well with the terrestrial solidity of beans, good bread, or rice. 
I'm drawn, too, to olive-oily, garlicky cooked collard greens or kale, as well as a handful of raw roughly chopped parsley or cilantro. Greens remind me that soil exists, which is grounding. I also know how kind I am being to my liver and my bones.
 I like there to be a few contrasting textures. I prefer highly seasoned broths because liquid reminds me of the sea, and strong seasoning evokes an unkempt sea, and both are true and good."

 I read this excerpt out loud when I was reading the article, and Jamie and I laughed a bit. We are not generally people that describe greens as "grounding" or broth as "true and good," but the article spoke to me, the recipes looked delicious, and Jamie was coming down with a cold, so it seemed it was the perfect time to evoke the sea and make some soup. There were two recipes, Rice and Lettuce Soup and Garlic Soup with Poached Egg, and we had the ingredients for rice and lettuce soup, so that is what I made first.

First, I cooked two small chopped onions in olive oil over medium heat. When they had softened I added 4 cups of vegetable broth, 4 cups of water, 1 vegan boullion cube, some epazote, and 2 cups of white basmati rice. I allowed the mixture to reach a boil and then lowered it to a simmer and held it there for about 30 minutes (until the rice was very soft), while stirring occasionally. I sliced the red head-lettuce into ribbons and added them to the soup, allowing them to wilt. I mounded the rice and lettuce in the middle of each bowl and poured the broth over top. I finished by drizzling olive oil and sprinkling black pepper over the rice and lettuce. The bowls of soup looked fancy and gourmet and the soup was perfectly delicious. After taking my first bite, I couldn't help but reflect that the Yoga Journal chef was right about the ocean in the soup. Maybe it was only because it had been suggested, but my memory went to swimming at my home beach and having my sinuses filled with salt water from the crashing waves. We had this soup for lunch and dinner and there were no left-overs for the next day. I know that no left-overs mean that the dish was delicious, but when there are not left-overs, it is always when I want there to be left-overs the most.

For the garlic soup with poached eggs, I poured 4 cups of vegetable broth into a medium sized pot, sprinkled in Italian Seasoning, dried thyme, torn fresh sage, and 2 bay leaves. I brought the broth a boil and lowered to a strong simmer for a couple minutes. Next, I used a slotted spoon to remove as much of the spices as I could (I learned this is important or else the spices will stick to the poached eggs). I then added 5 cloves of sliced garlic and quite a bit of salt, and let the soup continue to simmer for about 15 minutes. While the soup was simmering, I cut collard greens into strips and sauteed them with olive oil over medium heat. I had bought a pain paisano loaf from Sage Bakery (the best in ABQ) earlier in the week, and I sliced it thickly and rubbed the slices with chopped garlic. I placed a slice of the thick fancy bread at the bottom of two bowls. To poach the eggs, I added a teaspoon of vinegar to the soup before breaking two eggs into individual teacups and carefully pouring them into the simmering broth. I allowed the eggs to cook until the yolk was just beginning to firm. The cooked collard greens were heaped onto the garlic bread in the bowls and then a poached egg was placed on top of the greens. The broth was poured around the eggs and greens, olive oil was drizzled over the egg, and ground black pepper was sprinkled on the egg as a finishing touch. 

This soup was very impressive. The eggs and the greens with the garlic and saltiness of the soup, along with the soaked garlic bread brought such a full variety of flavors and textures. It reminded me of enjoying french onion soup when I was a kid, but without the overpowering cheeses. Bringing me back to those memories, particularly of eating at La Fondue in Manhattan with my mom before seeing Broadway shows, was extremely comforting, yet upon finishing this meal, I did not feel over stuffed and I did not have a belly-ache. It was perfect. Reading this article and making these recipes will hopefully make me think twice before ordering deep fried foods on the weekends. Comfort food does not have to mean guilty pleasures and I can find more comfort and nourishment in healthy foods that I can eat thoughtfully. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Vegan Chili con Tempeh y Cerveza!

A couple of weeks ago, when it started getting really cold in New Mexico, I decided to make some vegetarian chili. I didn't use a recipe, but rather threw what I had in a pot. It could have been good, but I got distracted and burnt it pretty badly. Since then, I have been thinking about cooking up another chili, but being more attentive. Yoga Journal sends me daily emails that I read about half the time. A recent email included links to recipes from Vegetarian Times, that I clicked on. As happens when wasting time on the internet, I began clicking through the website and browsing many of their vegetarian recipes. The chili recipe that I decided to try caught my attention because it included 12oz. of dark beer. My husband and I recently brewed an oatmeal stout, and I thought a homemade chili recipe would be even more fun to make with homemade brew! (The original recipe can be found here: VegetarianTimes Chili con Tempeh)

As always, I adjusted the original recipe, and added more spice. I used two jalapenos instead of one and doubled the amount of chili powder and chili flakes. I also used Trader Joe's fire roasted canned tomatoes with green chile instead of plain canned tomatoes. Despite these changes, the chili was still very mild. So, if you like things spicy, I would suggest tripling the spicy ingredients instead of doubling.

After gathering ingredients: 2 jalapeno peppers, 1 yellow pepper, 2 carrots, 3 celery stalks, 1 onion, 7 garlic cloves, 2 packages tempeh, 1 can fire roasted diced tomatoes, 1 can tomato paste, cumin, red chili powder, red chili flakes, Italian Seasoning, maple syrup, and Brisbin Oatmeal Stout, I chopped the carrots, onion, and garlic. I put aside 1 tablespoon of garlic and added the rest of the garlic with the onion and carrots to a large pot with olive oil and cooked over medium heat for about 5 minutes.

While cooking the carrots, onion, and garlic, I chopped the celery, jalapenos, and bell pepper. I added these to the cooking pot and continued to cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes more.

Once the vegetables were softened, I added the fire roasted diced tomatoes, tomato paste, 2 cups of water, 2 tsp cumin, 2 tsp chili powder, and 2 tsp Italian Seasoning to the veggies. I brought the mixture to a boil and then lowered to a simmer for 15 minutes.

 While simmering the tomatoes and veggies, I added the leftover tbs of garlic, 1 tsp of red chili powder, and 1 tsp of red chili flakes to my food processor. I then broke up the two packages of tempeh and put them in the processor. I pulsed the mixture until the tempeh appeared crumbled.

Next, I transferred the tempeh mixture to a frying pan with olive oil and cooked over medium heat until the tempeh was golden brown.

Once the tempeh was looking and smelling delicious, and the veggie and tomato mixture had simmered for 15 minutes, I transfered the tempeh into the large cooking pot with the other ingredients. I also poured a pint of our delicious oatmeal stout from the keg that lives in our refrigerator and added it to the pot. Finally, I added two tsp of Vermont Maple Syrup. 

The final mixture simmered for another 15 minutes. 


And, then it was time to enjoy! Although the final product was not as spicy as I had hoped, the flavors blended together extremely well and the crumbled tempeh added the perfect texture to a vegan chili. I had never thought to crumble tempeh before and plan to do it often in the future as a meat substitute in pasta dishes, lasagna, and soups. For anyone looking for a savory, filing, and warming vegan chili, I would recommend this recipe.