Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gone for a bit AGAIN

Hi All,
I'm off for a bit between now and next Sunday. I may be reading, but I may not be. I may be posting, but I may not be. How's that for commitment??

Have a lovely, happy, healthy week!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Summer Reading and a PSA

One of the things I love most about summer is having the time to read what I want to read.

During the school year, I have a great deal of reading to do for the lit. classes that I teach, and while I love those classics, I like being able to choose based on whim, rather than sequence.

After school was out in May, I began devouring books, and while I've slowed down a bit, (simply because there are school and other obligations creeping into the summer), I'm still happily reading, reading, reading.

We're blessed with a wonderful library system in Ann Arbor, and while you might have to wait a while for a book (my record was waiting five months for a copy of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova), you can usually get what you want.

For those in the U.S. with much smaller libraries, keep in mind that most states have wonderful interlibrary loan systems.

Okay, so here are a few of the books I've been reading, with completely subjective reviews:

Lush Life by Richard Price. I found out about this book through a post by Karen Olson on First Offenders. She raved about it, and since I love the books that Karen herself has written (Sacred Cows, Second Hand Smoke, Dead of the Day) I figured this was high praise. As it turns out, it was accurate praise. This is a truly extraordinary book, maybe destined to become a modern classic. It's not easy to read. I don't mean in terms of the prose or plot, both of which are rich and complex but not dense, but it's hard emotionally. The story concerns a murder in a section of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is currently populated by a mix of various low-income groups, some recent immigrants, some not, and the kind of up-and-coming, young artist-types that are portrayed in Rent. The themes are huge - life, family, redemption, stepping up and survival. The book doesn't feel in the least bit heavy handed. The beginning sections are a bit slow going, but once the police team of Matty Clark and Yolonda Hernandez come into the picture, the entire novel pops, and sucks you in through the last pages. If you can handle raw, harsh (but beautifully-written) material, this one's for you. Amazing.

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. Okay, so I am reading this for work. This 1200-page classic, by a contemporary of Shakespeare's is full of surprises. I haven't dipped into it in many, many years. The humor is sly and Shakespearean and the chapters read like miniature episodes. There's some incredibly bawdy and gross stuff, but in general, the humor tends to poke fun at Spanish society in the early 1600s, which is why some of it is going to slide right by us. My main objection is that there is a sameness to the chapters, but since I'm only about a quarter of the way through, I'm hoping there will be a stronger story arc for our hero eventually.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke. Funny, funny, funny, if a bit off-color. This is about the adventures of a mild, British business man, who just wants to drink a reasonably-sized cup of coffee and get laid during his year in Paris setting up British tea rooms for a French business concern. He finds that he's not a perfect cultural match, or perhaps any match, for his Parisian colleagues, who seem to live a life of incomprehensible rules and delights. If you've ever lived in Paris, gone to France, loved someone who is French, hated someone who is French or are either a Francophile or Francophobe (or all of the above), this is a very funny read.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I was really disappointed by this one. There are some great insights on growing up caught between two cultures, which is definitely an interest of mine, but I couldn't ultimately find a character who I was excited about, and the main character, Gogol, seemed fairly morally bereft in a way that I couldn't become involved with him. I was fascinated with the early story of his mother, Ashima, but then she was just left in the dust, only to make very brief appearances later in the story. Lahiri's prose is crystal and gorgeous, but the characters left me cold, and I guess it's a good character that draws me in more than anything else.

Well, enough of this for now. I'll post on a few more shortly.

What have you been reading this summer?

PSA: “Do you know anyone who has Pulmonary Haemosiderosis?”

Marie, a friend of Jo Beaufoix's has been diagnosed with this extremely rare disease. If you know of anyone who's had this, who has information on this disease, or who knows of support networks for this disease, please contact Jo. You can read her post here.

Thanks to Lilac Specs for spreading the word.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Home... again

We are at an awkward time within my family.

D and I met during a summer when I was walking across the country on a U.S./Soviet Peace Walk and he was off for a bike trip across Nova Scotia. When we both returned, I hosted a group of Soviet teachers who were in the U.S. for a conference. D was fascinated by my travels and by my traveling spirit. I had arrived from my teaching exchange in Russia the previous fall, and I had set up shop in the corner of southwestern Massachusetts in order to have easier access to the borders of New York, Vermont and Connecticut, where I took displays to area schools and taught the children there about Soviet life and culture.

The fall after we met, I packed up my stuff, which fit in my Dodge Omni, and moved to Cambridge to graduate school. The following summer, I was back to the Soviet Union.

I was on the move. Always had been. Assumed I always would be.

My moving, my travels, my way of life were attractive to D. He'd done some traveling, too, but not to the extent that I had. And I brought him on travels in our future together - Jamaica, hiking across England, Scotland and France, traveling about the East Coast, moving to the Midwest.

C has never been the world's greatest traveler, although we were game in his early years. He'd been to NYC, Toronto, Chicago, up and down the East Coast, Florida and Hawai'i, and various Caribbean islands (via a cruise), all by age 7. At 10, he went with me to Amsterdam and Germany. At 11, we went together on a homeschooling cruise to Mexico.

In the past couple of years, however, it's been harder and harder for the three of us to find successful vacations together. We don't quit "fit". D and I love museums and restaurants; C doesn't. C and I love quirky, pop culture stuff; D doesn't. C and D love heights; I don't. D loves the mountains; C and I love the beach. D and I love a big city on occasion... C, not so much.

We'd planned out a couple of last, "big ticket" vacations together prior to C's leaving for college. We were supposed to go to Europe this past winter to see our exchange kiddoes, but changes in their schedule and the deflated American dollar canceled that at the last minute. As for our other two "plans" - Alaska and England - I'm not sure we're going to be able to afford either. And no big deal - it's just the way it goes - we have enormous happiness and love in our life and we've already traveled to many places together.

For our summer vacation this year, we decided to go to Chicago. It was nearby, cheaper than many choices, and would provide visits with friends and family, as well as some memorable attractions (ie. we ALL love aquariums).

When we got there, however, nothing worked - the weather was horrendously sticky and humid, the streets crowded and noisy, and everyone was having a serious freak-out. When we added how much we WOULD be spending for this vacation, the solution seemed obvious - we packed up and went home.

We did manage to see the people we wanted to see before we came home, and we spent the last couple of days happily ensconced at home with books, movies and some delicious food. Which seemed to be more what we had wanted in the first place... I guess.

As a mom, I want to give my child wide experiences. I want him to step out into the world, to know that there are places in the far beyond. Yes, I know we've done that, but as we all grow older as a family, we are truly becoming homebodies. It's weird. I know that, for me, part of the issue is that I find these days when I travel, there's so much that's the same. What I loved about travel in my youth were the differences I could find in languages, stores, food, etc. I find those differences not as pronounced these days, and it saddens me. It's one of the reasons that I'm supporting my local EVERYTHING. (Okay, so that's for another post).

So, I have a question for you, wonderful readers (and a HUGE thank you, by the way, for all the wonderful wishes for a good trip): how have your travel habits changed over the years? Are you doing more of it? Less?


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the Road Again...

Time for some family time.

I won't be readin' or writin' 'til Monday.

Have a lovely few days!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What's Cooking Wednesday: Simple Summer Supper

Please go to Shan's place for more What's Cooking Wednesday participants.

I love the simple pleasures of summer: hot sunshine, cool breezes, a chilled glass of wine, a dinner of salad and something from the grill.

During green bean season, one of our favorite salads is what I've named "Scaletta Green Bean Salad".

Scaletta Ristorante in New York City has long been a part of my family's New York celebrations. It's near my mother's apartment, and the Croatian owners, Freddy and Omer, are two of the loveliest men you'd ever want to meet. Freddy was a former football (soccer) pro, and the pictures of him in his glory days are quite something. Omer is the wonderfully talented chef.

My parents started going to Scaletta when my father was still alive. He was already quite sick with cancer at that time, and he could be quite fussy about things like lighting and temperature. Everyone at Scaletta treated him like gold, and they've done the same for my mother ever since. She can not have a dinner there without being offered an after-dinner drink on the house. She knows all the servers and they greet her warmly. They manage to know all our preferences. We held Mom's 80th birthday party there. Their Lasagne Bolognese Al Forno brings lasagna to a whole new level.

You won't see the green bean salad on the menu. It is apparently an occasional special, but somehow whenever we go in, all we need to do is ask and somehow, they have it.

I won't even pretend to say that I've imitated Omer's recipe fully, but I guess this is my homage to my favorite place to eat in all of New York. So I present to you:

Scaletta Green Bean Salad

3 cups green beans
1/3 medium red onion, sliced thin
3/4 cup red, ripe tomatoes chopped
1 oz fresh mozzarella
1/3 cup canned cannelini beans, rinsed
1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 TBS white balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1. Snap and steam green beans until tender, but not overcooked. Rinse them in cold water to stop cooking.
2. While beans are steaming, rinse cannelini beans, slice the onions and chop the tomatoes. Cut the mozzarella into 1/4" cubes.
3. Toss everything together. Sprinkle the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and toss well. Adjust the seasonings.
4. Marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
This salad is even better the second day.

Number of Servings: 6

Nutritional Info
Fat: 3.3g
Carbohydrates: 10.9g
Protein: 3.7g
Nutrition information supplied by

So what did we have for our simple summer supper? I made a batch of this lovely salad, and then threw some chicken in a bag with the rest of the red onion, cut into chunks, a few sprigs of rosemary from my balcony, 1 TBS olive oil and the juice from 1 lemon and left it to marinate.

At supper time, I lit the grill, took a baguette and brushed some olive oil and a garlic spice blend on it, wrapped it in foil, threw the chicken on the grill and halfway through, had the bread join it.

The results are below. Easy peasy.

Monday, July 14, 2008

They Say It's your Birthday...

Okay, so it was yesterday.

Via the miracles of Facebook, the cat was let out of the bag for some of you.

I have so darned much I want to write these days, and yet a lot of things are holding me back. What is holding me back, you might ask? (Or might not.) Hmmm.... probably summer and laziness, honestly.

There was something else legit, though, and it had to do with this particular b'day, which I celebrated yesterday (and speaking of which, Happy B'day to Heather and Peter M., and Jim's wife, Lisa, too!).

This was my 49th birthday. Usually, the big 5-0 is the one that gives people pause. I, however, have no qualms about that one whatsoever.

I really don't have an issue with aging. Truly. I see each age as unique and having advantages and disadvantages. I'm not crazy about some of the health issues with aging (two pairs of glasses, anyone?), but other than that, I have no worries.

My issue with 49 had to do with my sister.

My half sister was 11 years older than I. I could write many, many posts about my family, and my sister's and my relationship, and the complications of all of that. I also suspect that most of us could write complex things about relationships with our sibs and families.

My sister and I were diametric opposites in many, many ways. My basic spirit is chaotic; hers was orderly; she was quiet; I am loud; she was a waif-like, strawberry blonde; and I am a short, squat brunette.

I was healthy as a horse (and still really am), and she was... delicate.

She once said to me that the thing I had in common with our shared father was my intellect, and what she shared with him was her poor health.

At 18, she developed melanoma, and survived.

At 45 or so, she started having a strange pain in her lower spine, which was basically ignored by her primary care physician. This pain became steadily worse over the years, and when she went in for a check-up in the fall of '96, at the age of 48, she was so weak that her physician finally took massive action.

As a non-smoker, she had lung cancer, and it had spread to her brain.

Despite periods of fighting and modern medicine (neither of which my sister fully believed in), Kathy finally succumbed on May 30th, 1997, two days before her 49th birthday.

Her death has affected me in many more ways than I can possibly put into words. I've tried writing about it, writing about her, and honestly, those pieces have sucked.

There are, of course, the negatives: I think about her almost every day. I miss her, despite our ups and downs. I miss not having my one sibling. There are things my nephew has gone through that I wish he hadn't. I'm sad that C never really got to know her because she absolutely delighted in C. She was too damned young. The whole thing just wasn't fair. And yes, I could keep going on and on in this way.

There are also, for me, some positives, although hopefully I would have had other ways to learn these lessons: I don't take anything for granted. Truly. I keep my loved ones close to me, and they are my priority. Always. I have my brother-in-law's wonderful second wife and her amazing family in my life. There are other lessons, too, but these are the main ones.

But oh... getting to that 49th birthday. This date with destiny has been plaguing me for months. I felt a lot better after talking with a psych friend who told me that this is absolutely normal in cases where a sibling, spouse or parent dies young. Be that as it may... it haunted me. Would I live long enough to make sure that C was protected from the things my nephew experienced? Would I accompany D into old age?

Anyway, I made it. And as other friends who have experienced similar anniversaries reassured me, the relief is enormous. Today, the next day, I feel as if I'd never had those anxieties. It was a great birthday, and a perfect birthday weekend, really. The weather was lovely and I had a fabulous event on Saturday night (non-birthday-related, but still great fun) and a day yesterday full of lovely greetings, good entertainment (Hellboy II... yeah, but it was fun!) and a lovely dinner.

The main thing, though, is that today is the next day in the rest of my life.

Forty-nine, here I come.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I Don't Like Fennel

Just sayin'.

I'm not a big fan of anise, either.

Are there any other "special" ingredients that you see over and over again that you just. don't. like?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What's Cooking Wednesday: Power Muffins

Please go to Shan's place for more What's Cooking Wednesday participants.

As so many of us these days, I struggle with my weight. For that reason, many of my recipes have been designed with health in mind. As I've learned how to bake over the years, I've found that far less sugar is usually needed no matter what the recipe, and that whole wheat pastry flour can often be subbed for white flour, depending on the recipe. Other "finds" have included buttermilk instead of fat, olive oil to sub for some butter on occasion (milder oils, too), and that oat bran can really help muffins, scones, etc. to be tender, when fat is cut severely or all together. Egg whites, as well, can be subbed in various cases, and when you use all these tricks, you can create some very healthy treats.

The muffins below contain all these treats, and the result is a great-sized, tasty, healthy muffin for about 85 - 95 calories a piece. The fat content is usually negligible - 1.5 grams, at the most. The reason I'm guesstimating here, is that I make and remake this recipe all the time, depending on what I have on hand. The original base recipe called for 2 mashed bananas and chocolate chips; the version I made here was blueberry/cherry/strawberry, with a sprinkling of granola on top. I've made these successfully with peaches, pineapple, apples... you name it.

My favorite "power breakfast" is one of these with about a 1/2 TBS of peanut butter for spreading, and 8 oz. or so of skim milk. That will easily tide me through my morning. Enjoy!

Jen's Blueberry/Cherry/Strawberry Power Muffins


1 cup oat bran
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 egg whites or 1/2 cup egg substitute
1 cup lowfat buttermilk
2 cups mixed blueberries, strawberries and cherries (pitted)


1. preheat oven to 400.

2. spray muffin pan with cooking spray.

3. Mix dry ingredients up through the salt.

4. Mix wet ingredients in a separate bowl.

5. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients.

6. Stir in the fruit

7. Drop into muffin tins in even amounts (I use a scoop for this).

8. Bake at 400 for 20 - 25 minutes or until done.

Number of Servings: 12

Nutritional Info

Fat: 1.1g
Carbohydrates: 17.5g
Protein: 3.2g

Nutrition information supplied by

Friday, July 4, 2008

How We're Celebrating July 4th

Between conferences abroad, camps up north, pet loss, sewer line problems, teeth breaking, summer planning, syllabus work, and various power outages, we are blitzed.

Our dream Fourth would probably include massive celebration, friends for a cookout (which we are, in fact, doing tomorrow), tripping our way downtown for Top of the Park, and just a huge togetherness fest.

Given how exhausted we all are, what the reality became was lying around the couches and having the following discussion:

"Did you post the thing on your blog yet, Mom?" asks C.

"What thing?" responds D.

"You know, the cartoon we told you about," respond C and Jen in unison.

"Oh, the internet thing?" responds D.

"Yup," says C.

"Nope, I'll do it later," replies Jen.

So here it is:

You can find this comic strip here.

Then D had a brilliant idea. "I know what we can do for the Fourth! Let's correct EVERYTHING that's wrong on the internet!"

"Starting with Wikipedia!" shouts C.

Oy. Are we a nerdfest or what?

C U l8r - we have some serious internet work ahead of us.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What's Cooking Wednesday - Jen's Rockin' Summer Vegetable Soup

Please go to Shan's place for more What's Cooking Wednesday participants.

I think if I were going to create a dedicated food blog, I'd call it Vegetables in My Sink. Now, that might not sound very appetizing, but one way I can know if I've had a good cooking day is if there are vegetable bits in the sink, because that means I've been using my cutting board repeatedly. I compost, and we don't have many scraps, but inevitably bits and pieces stray from the board or my favorite santoku knife.

One of my favorite summer vegetable preparations is real Russian Borsch. This has nothing to do with the jarred "stuff" you get in the supermarket and serve chilled. I know that's an addiction for some, but it almost permanently put me off beets.

Until I lived in Russia and had the real thing. Now, Borsch in Russia varies by region and maybe even by town, and shows the individual stamp of that part of the country. I was first taught how to make Borshch from my friend Rimma, and she taught me a Ukrainian variant, which made sense, because I lived in Krasnodar, which is not far from the southern Ukraine.

I make Borsch all summer long. I wait until Tantre has delivered beets and carrots and cabbage to my box, because those are the basics for my version. A couple of weeks ago, there were beets and carrots, but no cabbage (it's just too early). It was also getting to be the end of my Tantre week. I not only wanted to use those beets and carrots, but I had some other things to use up - spinach, chicken broth (my Borsch recipe is vegan, so I couldn't use the broth for that), and carrot tops (which are excellent in soup, btw).

So, I decided to experiment - I was going to combine Borsch with another summer tomato soup favorite, and use the chicken broth. Well... this was one of those experiments where you say, "ALL RIGHT!" when you're done, and if you feel like doing a victory dance, well, you can do that, too.

You pour this baby over some stale baguette or any other bread broken into pieces, shave some good quality parmesan (hey, use some Reggiano, if you've got it), and you are good to go for a RICH, lovely meal. So I give you...

Jen's Rockin' Summer Vegetable Soup

2 cups of chicken broth (home made, preferably)
4 cups of organic vegetable broth (or, for a vegan version, use all vegetable broth)
2 - 3 beets, peeled
equivalent of 2 - 3 carrots (I used 8 tiny carrots from our farm share)
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes (or stewed or the equivalent)
equivalent of 1 medium onion, thinly sliced (I used 8 spring onion bulbs)
2 cups of carrot tops, chopped
6 cups of spinach, rinsed well and torn into small pieces
1 pinch each - dried oregano, dried parsley, cayenne pepper and 2 - 3 pinches of dried basil

1. Heat broths (or broth) to a low boil.
2. Add whole beets and cook for 10 minutes
3. Using a food processor or grater, etc., julienne cooked beets. Julienne the carrots, as well.
4. Add all the other ingredients.
5. Heat at a simmer for 1 - 1 1/2 hours.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Good Reasons to Have a Bunch of Friends Over for Book Club

1. You get to stay up past your bedtimes.
2. Laughter.
3. You have a nice, clean house the next day.
4. Your friend's lemon pound cake.
5. An excuse to make these.
6. Your son is happy to watch a movie and eat what you had an excuse to make (ie. he's happily occupied, and so are you).
7. The realization that none of you really liked the book that much.
8. Allowing the not-so-great book to provide a great springboard for discussion about ethnic heritage, backgrounds, and parental expectations.
9. Going off topic. Repeatedly.