Saturday, November 28, 2009

Four turkey sandwiches, and one soup

So it's time to eat leftover turkey. In the past, I've not been very fond of the stuff, mostly because I would always find it masquerading as other meats in places where I didn't think it belonged (tacos ... "beef" stroganoff ... spaghetti). And turkey does have a very distinctive flavor which doesn't blend well with everything -- especially the dark meat.

Therefore, as I eat my leftover turkey, of which I have a good quantity, I'm trying to stick to a few turkey-appropriate recipes and not wander too far off the beaten path. This is especially important considering that I am pretty sure my husband does not want turkey curry or turkey stirfry, or indeed anything international and strongly flavored. (More's the pity.)

So far, I have come up with a very large pot of soup. I estimate that the turkey carcass got me at least a half gallon of stock, probably more. I put a quart in the freezer and made soup out of the rest. John and I ate, between the two of us, about four bowls of soup. The rest fit into a medium-sized pot, which will probably serve us for at least one more dinner and one more lunch.

My recipe for the soup was very basic: the turkey stock, the meat from picking over the carcass (this was actually enough, without getting into any of the carved meat. It included the neck meat and the giblets, as well as all kinds of little bits that clung to the bones and were really nasty to pick out this morning from the cartilage and fat), brown rice, peas, onions, and carrots. These last two I sauteed in butter before putting them in.

Now this made a very boring soup, even after I salted, peppered, and garlicked it. However, I knew it had been as seasoned as John would like it. So I left it as it was, but in every bowl of it I eat, I intend to season it a little more. Today's dinner was turkey curry soup. I put in a good shake of curry and some sour cream. It was delicious! Other ideas include soy sauce and Mexican spices (not at the same time!).

Aside from the soup, I've also been enjoying the turkey in sandwiches. I find sandwiches are best with the white meat ... at any rate, that is how I like to eat all that white meat. (This turkey had so much white meat and so little dark! How do turkeys walk when they're so ... well-endowed?) I have come up with four different combinations, not all of which I've tried this time around, but which I intend to.

1. Turkey on white bread with cranberry sauce. That's it. It was delicious toasted.

2. Turkey on wheat bread with lettuce, tomato, onion, and ranch dressing. Also good toasted. Would have been even better with bacon.

3. Turkey on white bread with gravy. Traditionally served hot and open-faced.

4. Turkey on wheat with lettuce, tomato, etc. (John's sandwiches get very vegetable-y, to good effect: lately cucumbers and green peppers are in evidence) and brown mustard.

I've read up a little on turkey sandwich combinations, but unfortunately most of them are loaded with ingredients I don't have. I just don't keep avocado or kale around the house in case of a sandwich craving, and I don't really plan my grocery shopping around gourmet sandwiches. Luckily all of the above sandwiches are made with things most people have in their fridge this time of year. Let me know if you improve on any of them ... or have another easy-to-make turkey sandwich idea. I've got to eat lunch all week, after all.

Friday, November 27, 2009

My first solo Thanksgiving

>sigh<

No one is blogging today.

So I had better blog myself! I have not been blogging all that much these days, yet I still get annoyed when my favorite blogs don't update. Time to do my part.

This year was the first Thanksgiving where I cooked the whole dinner all by myself. I do remember that last year I did most of it myself, because Charles had just been born. But I did get a good deal of help/advice from my mom, and I think other relatives who were there too.

This time, it was just John and me, no other family, so we invited a few friends over to make it a "real" Thanksgiving. (My opinion on Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday which must not be celebrated alone. Christmas can be very special with just immediate family, but Thanksgiving requires company.) So our old blogfriend (and real friend) Dr. Thursday came over, and a friend from choir.

Here is what I prepared:

Apple-cranberry casserole. This is our family tradition and cannot under any circumstances be skipped. It is also delicious. I made this on Wednesday. Aside from all the apple-chopping, it is extremely easy to make.

Cranberry sauce. I had never made this one before. I made it Wednesday because I had leftover cranberries. Unfortunately I messed up the recipe at the very beginning -- it was supposed to be twice as many cups of cranberries as water, and I put it twice as much water as cranberries. The first time I tried to "jell" it, it didn't jell at all. So I added the last of the bag of cranberries, which wasn't much, and boiled it for longer. This time it did jell, though rather softly. At least it was a sauce in consistency, and not a syrup. It tasted better than the canned stuff, too, and had the advantage of having whole cranberries in it instead of just clear jelly. I did skim out the seeds, though.

Deviled eggs. Made these Wednesday too. I forgot to set a timer on the eggs, and as a result overboiled them so that their shells came off very stickily and messily -- so they were not beautiful. They tasted good, though. I put them out as an appetizer when the guests came. One didn't eat eggs at all, and I didn't notice the other one eating any, but John and I ate a lot. We hadn't had lunch.

Then on Thanksgiving itself, the real cooking got started. I made:

Sweet potatoes. I did them in the slow cooker; they were incredibly simple. I just peeled them and cut them up, and put them in with some brown sugar. Before I served them up, I mashed them and put in some butter. (Our choir friend was in the kitchen with me at the time and exclaimed, "That's a lot of butter!" I guess I'd forgotten that not everyone considers butter a health food. But neither of us is trying to stay skinny at the moment, and butter is a good source of healthy fats and vitamins, too.)

Mashed potatoes. Very standard -- made with butter and hot milk. Yummy.

Stuffing. My one cut corner -- I made it from a box. I have never been hugely into stuffing, and the stuff from the box tastes just as good to me, so I went for it. It was good, too. I did add extra onions.

The Turkey. This 12-lb. monster took awhile to cook. But he was worth it. I cooked him breast-down, despite the standard advice for breast-up. I think breast-up is mostly just for ease in carving, and to get crispy skin on the breast. But I don't care so much about the breast skin. Mostly I just care about having the breast less dried-out than it tends to be on a roast turkey. So breast-down it was, although it took a lot of work to turn him over when it was time to carve him!

I was limited a little bit by materials. I do not have a roasting pan, so I had to roast the bird in a Pyrex. So the drippings formed a little lake around the bird. I ladled some out periodically, but there wasn't a whole lot I could do. As a result, the breast got fairly marinated in the drippings, which was, in my opinion, an improvement anyway. I also didn't have a meat thermometer, so I had to err on the side of cooking too long. I don't know if it was due to this, or because of the swimming pool of drippings, but the bird fell completely apart when we tried to carve it. I took hold of the drumstick as the instructions told me to, and tried to pull it gently away from the carcass. Instead, the meat slipped right off, leaving the bone on the bird! The same thing happened with every piece I touched. Again, I don't think this made it any worse. I don't particularly like fighting with meat on the bone. Everyone just got hunks of meat that were pretty unrecognizable -- but tasted good.

The piece de resistance -- The Gravy. I was so worried about this gravy that I dreamed about it the night before. Gravy is one of the few things I've actually been taught to make, but it's also so easy to mess up. First, in the morning, I began my giblet stock. I soaked the neck and giblets in a tiny bit of vinegar for a half-hour, as I do with chicken stock. I'm not sure this was such a good idea, or else I put in too much -- when I tasted the stock later, it seemed too sour. I also had onions and carrots in there -- we didn't have any celery.

I knew the only thing that would make the gravy any good was to have delicious, and sufficient, pan drippings. Luckily there were a lot, even once I skimmed off the fat. (I hope turkey fat is good to fry in -- I added it to my "frying fat" can. When the can is full, I'm going to try fried chicken.) They were also a nice brown, unlike the pale, translucent turkey stock I had come up with. And they smelled divine. Hope began to dawn in my breast that perhaps the gravy would not be nasty after all.

I made a roux with the turkey fat. I was taught to use a flour-and-water paste, but this time I decided to try roux, because I have had some failures with the paste method. (Lumps in beef stew--yuck!) Normally they tend to say not to let the roux cook by itself for gravy, but to use a "pale" roux, but I did cook it a little bit, on the grounds that gravy looks more appetizing when it's a little darker. Then I added the pan drippings, and finally the turkey stock, one ladle-full at a time, until I felt it was thin enough. (That left some stock unused -- but I think it's better to have less gravy than watery gravy.) I let it cook in the saucepan for awhile while I mashed the potatoes and put things into their appropriate dishes. Then I tasted.

So. Good. I had forgotten how much I love homemade turkey gravy. There is just no substitute.

We also had macaroni and cheese at dinner, which our choir friend brought. (This was not Kraft mac 'n' cheese, by a long shot. It was a baked macaroni and cheese casserole kind of thing, with a crispy au gratin topping. It was so delicious ... I am just polishing off the leftovers of it as I write this.) Apparently it is an African-American Thanksgiving tradition. All I know is, I'm making it my tradition. It was just too good.

Due to budget consciousness, I didn't buy our family's favorite Thanksgiving drink -- sparkling apple cider -- and got a jug of regular apple cider instead. Dr. Thursday brought wine, but the only one who was neither pregnant nor driving home was John -- so he was the only one who had any. I hear it was good, though. I am going to get a taste of it myself when I use some of the leftovers in my next beef stew. Wine is one of the things that might make my actually like stew, instead of just putting up with it. I don't mind stew, but it is generally so boring. (I think this is why John likes it so much.)

And that was it for our dinner! I should have taken a picture of the table. We only have a little card table, which takes up half the living room as it is, but we pulled it out from the wall to be able to seat everyone. John did it up all nice -- the white tablecloth we got for our wedding, our red-flowered dishes (I love these!), and the fancy silverware John's mother gave us. We even pulled out the wine glasses, which are cut glass and look so beautiful. Of course, with such a small table, the food was served buffet-style in the kitchen.

I believe a good time was had by all. They said they liked the food. And the conversation never flagged for a moment. We played Scattergories before dinner (two English majors, one guy-who-knows-everything, and one expert at the game, led to some serious competition -- and some strange words), talked about the Rosary, talked about Vatican II, talked about science, talked about gratitude, just talked ... It was great fun. I am so glad we did it like this, and I think the day was a huge success.

Today's job: pick over the turkey and use the carcass for soup! Also: not go shopping! Poor John is working at the bank today ... I do not envy him. As for me, Black Friday is the one day I just will not shop on.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Being thankful

On my way to work the other day, I was worrying. A lot. I have kind of a lot that can be worried about these days. It occurred to me that my attitude wasn't the most grateful, Thanksgiving-ish spirit I could possibly have. Instead I was grousing about the things in my life that aren't the way I want them.

These days I feel like Jeremiah: "You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed." The whole state of our lives right now feels like a trick.

A month before we got married, everything in the world was going for us. John had a job; I had a lead on a job. John was promised a 20% raise that would allow me to quit work if I had a baby (something very important to me as well as practically necessary). We were being welcomed by the people up here; this "strange city" promised to be very friendly to us. Already people were bringing us into their circles. We had some good plans. John would stay with the paper and make good pay; I would work for the school year and then probably quit. The money I made in that year would pay off at least one of our loans.

Then the paper folded. We were left with no job and a month till the wedding. We decided (maybe a bad decision -- but it was ours) to stick with our plan to live in Philly. I took the teaching job that was offered to me here. The contract would last a year.

Soon after the wedding, the paper restarted. It looked hopeful. But soon we found that not only weren't we getting the expected raise (this was not surprising), but we got a large pay cut instead. Also, they would no longer cover any benefits. John's job wouldn't pay all our bills in itself. My paycheck couldn't be used on debt; it would have to be used to make ends meet.

Around that time we discovered we were expecting. This wasn't a bad thing, of course, but the timing frightened me and still does. I will have to stop working in April, before the end of the school year. That is one paycheck, and possibly two, that we won't have.

We've made some slight progress -- John now works at the bank, which is better in terms of stability and benefits, even though the pay is no better. But we're stuck in a bind, because we can't leave Philadelphia until the end of my contract, and then the instant the contract is over, we are no longer breaking even. John's bank is not headquartered here; the jobs within the company that he would like to get are all in other cities. So he is stuck at present as a teller, and we pray that the perfect job will show up at the perfect time. (Perfect jobs have shown up before -- but the timing was wrong, and they had to be passed up, more than once, because of my contract. That job is making ends meet now, but it seems to be hindering us in the long term.)

Socially, the people who opened their arms to us so much when we first arrived have lost interest, for complicated reasons. We don't really have a social life anymore. I realize more and more how far away we are from the people we love. It is lonely here, and I wish so much that we could be near family. This Christmas, we can't go home because John is new at his job and can't get the time off. I wish so much that we could.

All in all, I feel like God has tricked us. Like he dangled all kinds of good things in front of our noses to convince us it was a good time to get married, and then pulled those things away. Like he lured us to Philadelphia, while making things different here than we thought.

But when I hit on this thought, I realized that maybe this is exactly what did happen. God wanted us here, wanted us married right now, wanted me teaching where I am and John working where he is. So he arranged things so that we could and would end up in these situations. For most of us, he doesn't appear to tell us where to go, but acts through our circumstances. Aren't these circumstances his acting as well?

I am not going to presume to know God's reasons for bringing us here. Instead, I will point out a few good things that happened because we came here.

First, we did get married. We had waited until the "prudent" moment, but when it came down to it, our circumstances weren't any better than anyone else's. I feel that we did our part in trying to set everything up before we got married, so I don't think we were irresponsible. But we were made to rely on God's providence (and the kindness of others) from the very beginning. How would I feel if we'd had to wait longer, if I were still living on my own and missing John? I would be missing out on the happiness of being with him -- a happiness that isn't lessened at all by my worries about practical things.

Second, because we got married when we did, we are going to have this baby when we are. All the "tricks" God had to use to get us to this point suggests to me that he wants this baby very much, more even than we do. That gives me a sense of holy wonder: "What, then, will this child be?" I do not think I have ever been more grateful for anything than I am for this baby. I know none of this was my doing, that the creation of a new life is something only God can command. I'm just the place where it's happening ... which is a deeply humbling thought.

Then there are a thousand smaller things. The reliance on each other we are learning as we survive in this city with little money and few friends. The blessings I receive every day from my job -- teaching children is one of the most beautiful and humbling tasks there are. The pride I feel in keeping my little house and making my little dinners. The time I have for prayer on my long commute every day. The closeness I feel to my own parents, even though they are so far away. The courage and faith we are being taught as we face up to the uncertain future.

From time to time I worry and even panic, imagining a future I can't see and wondering how things will come together. But most of the time I feel a great peace. Things I don't need are being taken from me: certainty, stability, the goods of this world. But things I do need are mine in abundance. All my life I have wanted to have a family of my own, and here it is. In the evenings I sit in our tiny living room, and I am sometimes overcome with thankfulness. Here is my husband, my best friend, part of my family forever. Here is our child, who is quietly growing now, but who soon will be right there to see. I have never laid eyes on him, but I love him more than I could ever say. The family I was born into is far away, but the family I am making is with me daily.

My life has never been so uncertain, but I do believe I am more thankful this Thanksgiving than I have been any year of my life. I have never in my life had so much to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thoughts on education

So, I've been reading some more of this man John Taylor Gatto, whom I posted about below. I hit on him by accident in the course of my blogreading, but on further research, I'm discovering a thinker who voices (much more clearly than I) my own views on education. I'm reading one of his books, which luckily is available free online: The Underground History of American Education. It traces our current state of education all the way back to Plato, and with fascinating conclusions.

His basic point is that education, as practiced today, teaches very little that children cannot learn with relative ease outside of school. However, what it does teach is the concerning part: unthinking acceptance of information presented to them, the stratification of society (through class rankings and grades), blind obedience to authority, and sameness. These things are very useful to the leaders of society -- it is good for them to have a populace which is ready and willing to obey and slow to question, and handy as well to have adults appear on the scene already pre-sorted into "gifted" and "delayed." But they are not particularly good for the children themselves, and they are certainly not good for the American ideals of individual ability, responsibility, freedom, and self-government. We complain constantly of how the general mass of people accept unquestioningly what is offered to them by the media or the government. Yet I have not often realized that this acceptance has been taught to them from the age of six, or even earlier, in our schools.

(Note that I do not say public schools. Private schools fall prey to many of the same problems. In many ways, it is near-unavoidable that these problems be continued in order for school to do the job it is "supposed" to do.)

Anyway, that got me thinking about alternatives. Another part of my reading that has touched on school lately was my rereading of the Little House books. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a teacher, after all, and so education comes into her books a lot. In those days, school was pretty different from the way it is now -- John Dewey hadn't yet appeared on the scene, and there weren't any other interests deciding what children learned besides the practical interest. The school boards were local, and the purpose of the schools was basic: teach children to read, write, and cipher; have them learn something of history; introduce a little literature. The students were all the same building, but they weren't expected to be on the same level. The stratification of students didn't happen to the same extent as it does now.

So I pondered what qualities of the one-room schoolhouse might be introduced to today's schools. Would the mixing of grades together help? Small class sizes? Or can the results of those schools be duplicated without the universal standards of discipline and good raising that the children arrived at school with?

It occurred to me then that Laura Ingalls Wilder learned most of what made her a great writer outside the walls of any school. She didn't even go to school until Plum Creek, when she was around eight. She could not read a single word before she arrived at school, either. However, she knew dozens, perhaps hundreds, of songs by heart. She knew how the words came together to make something beautiful. She also knew more about nature, about everyday life, about basic survival, than most of us ever learn. If her education had been expected to come exclusively out of that one-room schoolhouse, she never would have been the great writer she was.

The book I read last was Farmer Boy. This, of course, is the story of Laura's husband, Almanzo Wilder, and his childhood on a farm in New York. What amazed me about that book was how little Almanzo went to school. He started at eight. Then he was allowed by his parents to miss school for his birthday, if there was work to be done at home, or to learn some new aspect of farming. Then he dropped out of school as soon as he could get away with it. Very little of the book takes place in school.

One day he is sitting at the dinner table, thinking about the business of the farm, and says absently, "Fifty bales of hay at two dollars a bale is one hundred dollars," or some such math problem. His father smiles and says he can stay home from school, because he is putting his learning to work. Many times Almanzo begs to stay home to bale hay, or break oxen, or go to town and sell their crop, and his father just says, "You won't learn any younger," and lets him. Almanzo learns how to follow his dream -- being a farmer -- by watching his father farm, by helping out on the farm, and by taking on responsibilities himself. Half the time he is not even told how to do what he does: he learns by doing the work wrong, and then figuring out how to do it right.

If there were an ideal educational system, this would probably be it: a small amount of book-learning -- preferably based on the child's interests as much as possible, as Almanzo is motivated to succeed in school by knowing a farmer must know math -- combined with a large amount of real life.

We tend to isolate our children from the grown-up world and give them special children's things to do and places to be. Instead of real things, they are given toys and games. This is all very well, but it does not force the child to stretch out and try something beyond him. He is given something exactly at his level -- and therefore he remains at his level. He further learns that what he does does not really matter. If he messes up, he will lose points in his game or perhaps break a toy, but none of his actions have serious consequences. This artificial children's world leads to a delay in adulthood. While maturity used to be considered reached in a person's teens, now it is pushed back, not just to eighteen or twenty-one, but indefinitely.

Grown children live at home years after they are capable of moving out. Then they do move out, but live a sort of bohemian existence with friends for years more. When they finally have their life "put together," at the age of thirty or so, they still don't have the air of an adult, of someone who takes full responsibility for his life. Instead they blame others for their failures, move from job to job and relationship to relationship, delay marriage and children, and in response to criticism, answer, "But I'm only thirty-five. But I'm only forty."

I know it is a little risky to allow children access to real, grown-up things. The world is not as safe as it was. And it's not just the children we worry about harming. We don't want to trust real things to children for fear of messing up our own projects. It is much easier for a mother to cook the dinner herself than to step back and let her child try to do it. She's got to keep an eye out for danger, to answer questions, to deal with the possible failure. She has to leave herself open to the possibility of having peanut butter and jelly for dinner, in case the pizza burns. And this is only a small instance -- what about bigger things? If we give children real responsibility, we will have to accept that they will not succeed on the first try. It is a good deal easier to give them a video game and go about our own business.

On the positive side, however, children are incredibly eager to get their hands on real responsibility. It seems to be innate, and indeed it makes sense for it to be: where would our species be if we were born preferring games to life, the false to the true, meaningless competition to meaningful success? These twisted preferences are born from habit rather than nature. It takes years and years of giving games to children to break them of their desire for work. But it is what we are teaching them, isn't it? Isn't this the way the average Gen X-er or Y-er is tending?

Now, I don't think I'm an unschooler in my outlook exactly, even though what I have laid out sounds a little like unschooling. I do think that book-learning is important, especially in our modern day when things like SAT scores can determine our destiny. And, though I think children should be encouraged to follow their interests, I know it is bound to happen that a child will truly need to learn something that he would rather not learn.

However, more of school needs to be directed toward life, and less toward "educational goals" or the framework of a certain curriculum. Obviously I am a fervent believer in homeschooling. But I will go a step further and say that there is no need for homeschoolers to "justify ourselves" by assigning twice as much book-learning as the public schoolers are doing, or spending seven hours a day on school and giving homework at the end, simply because the public schoolers spend that much time on it. I truly believe that, without the trouble of "classroom management" (a job which is 90% of any teacher's job description), the essential things can be learned in a fraction of the time schoolchildren spend. The rest of the time can be spent on other essentials: life skills, the adoption of responsibilities like chores and jobs, watching adults at their work, following interests, studying things not in the curriculum which might someday blossom into a career or might not.

This is just the overflow of my mind at the moment, filled with all I have been reading and pondering. Later, I hope to develop my ideas further and have a more organized statement of my educational philosophy. Suffice it to say that I have had a fire in my belly for years about education, and I am still waiting for a chance to try things my way. I am just hoping that, by the time the opportunity is ready for me, I am ready for the opportunity.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Interesting article on education

I'm sicker 'n a dog right now, as my grandma would say, so the book review I've been working on for you will have to wait until I recover from the virus that's got me down. (Yup, this time it's not the kiddo -- it's the side effects of being a teacher. I was sick all last winter, too -- one cold after another.)

So, to make it up to you, I'm posting a link to this intriguing article on education in America. If you know me, you know that I am in favor of homeschooling -- that all my time teaching in institutionalized schools has only served to solidify my distrust of them. As the writer of this article says, schoolwork is largely busywork. Learning seems to happen very little.

However, at least in the Catholic schools where I've taught, this isn't part of any conspiracy. It's simply in response to the fact that it is easier to teach large groups with busywork. Furthermore, it is easier to grade them with tests. And students raised on lots of tests learn for the test, study to the test, and forget after the test. Any time I would try to make them think, to analyze, to wonder, inevitably they would smack me back to reality with a raised hand. "Will this be on the test?" And if you answer "no," they tune out instantly.

Luckily the younger kids are not yet so conditioned, and I try to avoid doing so. Yet it is almost impossible to teach them without streamlining them more than is good for each of them individually. It's a case of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," so I have to hurry one up who is still struggling to understand and force one to wait who has grasped the material days ago, even though I long to teach to each of them.

I can't testify to what this author says about public schools, never having taught at one, and having little memory of anything I learned while going to one. In my experience, public school teachers are enthusiastic and try extremely hard to break the pattern of busywork and failure that cripples their students. However, there seems to be something intrinsic in the structure of schools, even in the nature of any school so long as it is institutionalized, that makes this pattern almost impossible to break. Schools seem to encourage mediocrity, blind and thoughtless acceptance instead of critical thinking, and learning that only lasts until the exam.

So, read the article and tell me what you think. I know it does seem a little extreme in parts. But whether there is an agenda behind the failure of schools or not, the failure is just as evident, and the author's solution is just as necessary.
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