Saturday, December 31, 2011

Leftovers never had it so good

OK, I admit it.  I'm nuts.

Leftovers made from Christmas turkey should, on the whole, be simple and straightforward.  And mine were--until I started fussing.  After all, Turkey ala King is nothing more than chunks of turkey in a cream sauce with maybe some peas and mushrooms in it.  You can rustle that up in about half an hour--at most.  Pour it over rice or buttered egg noodles, and you've got a really delightful supper.

So far, so good.  The crazy part is that I thought it would be fun to serve the Turkey ala King not over rice or noodles, but in puff paste shells--vol-au-vents--made from homemade pastry, not the store-bought kind.

So on Thursday, I assembled the dough using Julia Child's modern method in her book The Way to Cook.  That book, by the way, is brilliant and gorgeous.  If you're familiar with puff paste, you know that the traditional method of making it is to make a dough, make a large pat of butter, place it on the dough, and then begin rolling it out and folding it to form layers.  It's a tricky process:  if the big mass of butter is too cold, you can't roll it.  If it's too soft, it turns to mush.  There's a lot of stopping and sticking the thing back in the fridge to firm up, and the whole procedure takes several hours.

Julia Child's updated method has you combine all of the butter with the flour.  The proportions, by the way, are shocking:  you start with six-and-a-half sticks of butter (you read that right) and combine them with four cups of flour.

Once you get a rough dough, you start patting and rolling it.  You make a long rectangle and fold it like a business letter.  As you keep doing that--four times on the first go--it gets more and more like dough.  You chill it for 45 minutes and fold it twice more, and voila!  puff paste ready to bake with.  Wonderful.

I made the dough most of the way on Thursday and made the final two turns yesterday (Friday) evening.  I shaped the dough into vol-au-vents by tracing a cereal bowl on the dough to cut eight discs.  I then traced a mug on the inside of four of them, cut out the center, and put the resulting donut-shaped ring on top of the full discs.  A little magic with some egg wash and a knife and some poking with a fork and a skewer, and they were ready for the oven.  They looked like this:

I set the cookie sheets on a pizza stone in a hot oven for 25 minutes.  Then I scooped out the centers, saving the tops, and slipped them back in the oven for 5 minutes more.  Here was the result:

Not too bad, eh?  And it's huge fun to think of that plain-looking dough turning into those spectacular structures.  I then ladled some of the Turkey ala King into them, and they were ready to serve.  The finished product is at the top of this entry.  They tasted fabulous.

So once in a while it makes sense to fuss--even over something simple.  Now and then, it's worth the trouble.

Happy New Year and much joy in 2012.  I hope your year turns out like a good batch of puff pastry:  unassuming at first, only to blossom into something glorious.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One percent for charity

I had an idea today.  I hope it will catch on.

It was inspired by watching this video.  If, like me, you're impressed by the figures the video cites and you want to help, here's a place to do it.

Now, here's my big idea.

The average American spends something like $650 on holiday gifts (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and others).  Altogether, Christmas and related spending amounts to something like $500 billion a year.  Yup, half-a-trillion dollars--more than we spent (with such horror) to bail out the banks in 2008.  (Not that I'm supporting the bank bailout, mind you, I'm just making a comparison here.)

If we gave just one penny to charity for every dollar we spend on gifts, we'd be giving FIVE BILLION DOLLARS at Christmastime alone.  Five billion.  That's bound to have an impact.

So my new crusade is 1% for charity.  For the average person, that's $6.50.  Some of us will spend more, some less.  But if we all did get the idea.

So think about it.  And if you like the idea, pass it on.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Use for that Turkey Stock

By now, you've probably eaten all the leftover turkey, and all that's left are the gallons of stock you made from the carcass.  What do you do with it?  You make soup, of course (and you save some in the freezer for sauces and to make the next batch of stock for, say, the Christmas turkey).

Here's a very quick, hearty soup.  The secret is using canned cannellini beans rather than dried ones.  That saves soaking them overnight and the long cooking the next day.  We're having this for dinner tonight.  This is the second batch I've made since Thanksgiving--it's that good.  Sue says it tastes like what you might get if a Polish person married an Italian and they made soup together.  I think it just tastes good.

Sausage and Bean Soup
(Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe)


1 small onion, chopped
2 T olive oil
1 lb. good smoked sausage, such as kielbasa, cut into quarter-inch slices
3 - 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large bunch of Swiss chard
1 cup vermouth
8 cups stock, such as turkey or chicken
3 15-oz. cans cannellini or other white beans, drained
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste


1.  Remove the central ribs from the Swiss chard leaves.  If you would like to add the stems to the soup, chop them as you would celery.  Cut the leaves into quarter-inch ribbons (chiffonade).

2.  Put enough olive oil into a Dutch oven or other large pot to film the bottom.  Warm it over medium heat.  Add the chopped onions and sweat them briefly.  If you are using the chopped chard stems, add them after the onions have cooked a bit.  Add the garlic, which should cook briefly but not brown.  

3.  Turn up the heat a little, and add the sausage.  Brown it lightly.  

3.  Turn the heat back to medium.  Add the cut-up Swiss chard leaves and let them cook until they are wilted a bit.  (They will reduce considerably in volume.  When you first add them, they will nearly fill the pot.  As they cook down, they will fill perhaps one-fourth of the pot.)

4.  Add the vermouth and turn the heat up to medium high.  If there are any brown bits on the bottom of the pot from browning the meat, scrape it up using a wooden spoon.  It will give the soup more flavor and a nice color.

5.  Add the stock and bring it to a simmer.  Let cook 5 or 10 minutes, until the chard is fully cooked.

6.  Add the drained beans, and cook until the beans are hot.  Stir in the parmesan cheese.  Taste and correct for salt and pepper.  (Do this at the end so that you don’t oversalt it--you probably already salted the stock; the sausage is salty, and so is the cheese.  It may not need any salt at all!)

Serve with crusty bread and pass some grated parmesan for people to add if they like.

This will warm the coldest night--or just a chilly one.  (We only think it gets cold in Phoenix...)  And what's better than a little warmth?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lard? Oy vey!

A few notes in followup to yesterday's cooking frenzy:

PIE:  For years, I've sought the perfect pie crust.  I was once completely taken in when my boss's wife made a pie with a fabulous crust.  When I asked how she made it, he gave me this whole rigmarole about temperatures, brushing the top with milk, and a few other ritualistic exercises.  Turned out it was a Pillsbury crust from the supermarket.  But the hunt was on.  I thought I was doing pretty well until I tasted a pie Melissa Solomon made.  This woman, a former student of mine, is not only a to-die-for soprano, she makes heavenly pie crust--light, delicate, flaky.  I asked for her recipe.  It was identical to mine.   

I'll never match Melissa's light touch, but I came close yesterday.  The secret?  Lard (God forbid! my Jewish ancestors are saying) and vinegar.  I know.  Lard sounds positively awful.  Just saying the word makes my arteries harden. But nothing makes a better crust, and believe me, I've tried about every option there is.  I use half butter and half lard in mine, and it's fabulous.  I also tried another trick I'd read about:  adding a small amount of vinegar.  Remarkably, this doesn't affect the flavor.  (It's all the more remarkable because it turns out I haven't got any white vinegar in the house, so I used cider vinegar.  No problem.)  Apparently the acid in the vinegar inhibits the development of gluten.  While you need gluten in cakes and breads, it's the enemy of flakiness in pie crusts.  (By the way, Melissa has no need of such crutches as lard and vinegar:  her crust is made with shortening.)

By now, you probably want the proportions, so here they are (click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe):

2-1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
8 tablespoons lard (leaf lard is best, I'm told, but the plain old variety I found in the store worked fine)
1 tablespoon vinegar
1/2 cup (or less) of ice water

You probably know how to make a pie crust, but just in case you don't, here's the method:

1.  Combine the flour and salt.

2.  Cut the butter and lard, which should both be ice-cold (even frozen) into small chunks and put it into the flour.  Give it a quick stir to coat the lumps of fat with flour, then, using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  Be sure to use a cutting, rocking motion with the pastry blender rather than a mashing motion.  Mashing will tend to encourage the formation of gluten.

3.  Add the vinegar and 1/4 cup of ice water.  Using a fork, stir things gently, adding more water bit-by-bit until the dough just comes together.  If it's a tiny bit crumbly, it'll be hard to roll but all the more flaky.

4.  Divide the dough in two and form each portion into a disk about an inch thick and about six inches across.  Wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and chill for at least half an hour.  (You can chill it longer, even a day or more.  Just take it out of the fridge for a bit before you start working with it.)

5.  Roll it gently and quickly on a floured board until the disk is about two inches wider than your pan.  So for a 10-inch pie, you want a 12-inch disk.

6.  I recommend chilling the crust after it is formed.  I pop mine in the freezer while I mix up the filling (be sure you use a Pyrex dish!).  If I'm blind-baking the crust (baking it unfilled), I chill it in the freezer for 15 - 20 minutes before baking.

This will make two single-crust 10-inch pies or one double-crust 10-inch pie.  If you don't have a use for the second portion of dough, freeze it.  It will keep a long time that way. 

TURKEY:  The salting method I got from Saveur produced a bird with a beautiful bronze skin.  The meat was juicy and flavorful, but I think not as flavorful as a brined bird.  My 15-pound turkey, stuffed, took about 4-1/2 hours to cook.  I was careful to take the turkey out of the fridge about two hours before I wanted to cook it:  that shortens the time in the oven.  After about 45 minutes, I covered the breast fairly closely with a double thickness of foil more or less shaped to cover only the breast.  I heard about this trick someplace; the idea is to slow the cooking of the breast so that it doesn't overcook while the dark meat cooks--the dark meat needs to reach a higher temperature.  I think it worked pretty well.  On the whole, I was satisfied with this, but truthfully, I think a brined bird has more flavor.  So my latest thought is to combine the two methods:  brine the bird for 12 hours or so, then let it sit on a rack in the fridge for a day or two.  I think the result would be spectacular--I suspect the skin of the salted bird comes out so well because the turkey is completely dry when it goes into the oven.  Basting every hour or so also helped make the bird look spectacular, so I'll use the Saveur idea of putting a couple of cups of stock into the roasting pan when I put the turkey in the oven.  I've used a covered roaster in the past, but I think an open roaster actually works better.

And today, of course, it's leftovers.  I love leftovers--but none so much as those from Thanksgiving.  As much as I enjoy cooking, it's nice to get a second meal from all that effort.

Of course, there might not be enough after I have a turkey sandwich for lunch...

Thursday, November 24, 2011


A quick note while the turkey roasts.

I love Thanksgiving.  It's basically an excuse to cook as much as I can stand--and I can stand a lot of cooking.

But--and this may surprise you--I don't do anything ambitious or fancy for Thanksgiving.  To me, Thanksgiving isn't a gourmet occasion; it's a time for nostalgic food, well prepared.

So here's what's cooking:

Mom is bringing cheese, crackers, and a spinach dip she makes using a packet of Knorr vegetable soup.  I think the recipe is on the box.  We'll nibble on those beforehand, in case the turkey takes longer than I thought it would in the oven.  (Have you noticed that timing the roasting of a turkey is a distinctly iffy business?)

We're having turkey, of course, with stuffing.  I do cook the stuffing inside the bird, despite all the snobbery against it.  I'm sorry; it just tastes better when it's soaked up all those juices from inside the bird.  My stuffing is bread, onions, celery, and chestnuts with some seasoning.  OK, so I got adventuresome this year and threw in the grated rind of a lemon, the juice from said lemon, and two chopped Granny Smith apples.

In the past, I've brined the turkey, and it turns out well.  There are two drawbacks:  first, it's murder to find something large enough to hold the bird that will also fit in the refrigerator, and second, it can wreak havoc with the stuffing--all that salt water soaks into the stuffing, making it both too salty and rather soggy.  So when I heard of a different method that involves salting the bird but not using water, I thought it worth a try.  It was discussed on NPR last Sunday, and the article describing the method is here, in the latest issue of Saveur, a great magazine.

Along with the turkey and stuffing, there's gravy, of course (Miriam thinks this is absolutely crucial).  We're sauteeing Brussels sprouts in olive oil and garlic, we'll steam some butternut squash, and we'll have mashed potatoes.  Sue will probably make a salad with some nice Comice pears we found in the market.  (I love Comice pears.  This is the variety made famous by Harry & David; you can find smaller specimens that are just as tasty for a lot less money in many grocery stores these days.)

We have some students joining us.  Justine will bring some homemade cranberry sauce--otherwise, I would have made a compote of cranberries, apple, pear, orange, and pecans.

For dessert, there's pumpkin pie and chocolate cream pie.  The second strikes me as unusual, but another student, Melissa, adores this and for her it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it.

Some years ago, we began inviting students to join us--I hated the idea of students who couldn't get home having no place to go on this family-oriented holiday.  Each time, I've asked them to tell me what dish says "Thanksgiving" to them, because to me, that's what it's all about:  that one dish that just takes you back to those Thanksgiving holidays of your dreams.  One student said it was creamed corn; she was astonished when I pulled out the corn, butter, and cream.  I think she was used to something from a can or a frozen packet.

I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving with that one dish that is de rigueur.  I know we'll be enjoying ours--the turkey smells amazing!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Getting Ready (a baking spree)

Last Saturday was the inaugural concert of the Barrett Choir, my new group at ASU.  So how did I prepare the day of the concert?  I baked.

See, the program was fairly short, and I thought that people should have a good reason to hang around for a while.  I had suggested that the students might want to organize a reception, but this is tricky for undergraduates who live in dorms and don't have ready access to a kitchen, ingredients, etc.

So I sallied into the breach.  The fruits of my labors are in the photo.  I baked two batches of pumpkin bars (I found several recipes for these online--all alike.  I chose to top them with a dusting of powdered sugar rather than ice them with cream cheese frosting.), a batch of my peanut butter cookies, two big batches of Toll House cookies--nothing fancy here, just the recipe on the 24-oz. bag of chocolate chips--and a batch of spice cookies.  I'll give that recipe below.

Sue was understandably worried:  we don't like to have a bunch of this stuff around the house, because we're always watching our weight.  She need not have been concerned.  There was a good-sized audience, and they scooped everything up in a heartbeat!  There wasn't a crumb left.  (The concert was pretty good, too.)

Now, the spice cookie recipe.  I'm a little apprehensive about posting this, because I honestly don't remember where I got it!  So if this is your recipe, I heartily apologize if I've stolen it.  It's really good, and it's quick and easy.

(click on the title to open a printer-friendly version of the recipe in a new window)


2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and cooled to lukewarm
2-1/2 cups of white sugar
1 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cloves, and ginger
1/2 teaspoon each of ground cardamom and nutmeg
1 beaten egg
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of baking soda (yes, a TABLESPOON) dissolved in ¼ cup of warm water
¼ cup molasses (warm it briefly in the microwave for easy pouring)
4 cups flour


1.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the melted butter with the sugar, spices, eggs, and salt.

2.  Mix up the baking soda-water mixture and pour it into the batter; stir to combine.

3.  Stir in the molasses.

4.  Stir in the flour; the dough will be quite stiff.  Keep working it with a wooden spoon until it is well combined.

5.  Drop the dough in walnut-sized lumps onto greased cookie sheets about 2 inches apart.

6.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 8 - 12 minutes, until brown and crackled.

Makes about 4-1/2 dozen cookies.

There are lots of ways to make people happy.  One is to sing beautifully to them.  Another is to give them a tasty homemade cookie.  And sometimes it's nice to do both.

We're coming to the season of tasty treats.  I hope yours are delicious and gratifying as a song.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

You only THINK you're popular

Traffic on the blog has been reasonably steady even though I've been delinquent in posting.  And I'm getting hits from all over the world.  Great, right?  I'm famous, right?  And popular?!  (Finally!  I was such a nerd in high school...)

Not so fast.  It turns out that the biggest number of hits is coming from the fact that I used a photo of a rubber ducky to illustrate one blog post and a famous Pogo cartoon to illustrate another.  People looking for images of ducks and that particular Pogo cartoon are landing on the blog...but I don't think they're staying long.

But heck, it's better than nothing.  And who wanted to be famous or popular, anyway?  (I did!)

(Oh, and in case you missed it, I posted a good chili recipe the other day.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

It's Chili Outside

It's actually getting cool here in Arizona, so it's time for chili.  Now offering a recipe for chili is a very risky business.  If you have a recipe you adore, don't let me stop you!  If you think beans in chili are an abomination, that's OK by me!  But if you need a good basic recipe, this is for you.  You don't need to buy overpriced "chili kits" in the grocery store.  Just a few basic spices--and some chili powder (purists are cringing)--will produce really fine results.  I like Gebhardt Chili Powder, by the way, but the choice of chili powder can also be fightin' words.

Chili is really simple to make, and it can actually be fast.  My recipe suggests that you cook it for two hours (six if you use a crock pot), but if you only have half an hour or 45 minutes for it to simmer, it will still be good.  No worries about under-cooking it, either:  the beef is essentially cooked when it's browned.  The longer cooking changes the texture of the chili (it'll be--how shall I say it?--smoother, more amalgamated) and allows the flavors to come together more.

So here goes.  My friends from Texas need not read on.

(click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe)

1 large onion, chopped
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, chopped

2 - 3 tablespoons vegetable oil--enough to coat the bottom of the pot lightly
2 lbs. 80% lean ground beef
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, with their juice (don’t drain the tomatoes), plus one can of water
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon smoked paprika (you can use regular paprika if you like, but smoked adds an interesting depth of flavor)
1and ½ tablespoons ground Mexican oregano (
if you only have Greek or anonymous oregano, it won’t be the end of the world)
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (more or less to taste)
1 or 2 teaspoons salt (start with 1--you can always add more later)
generous grinding of fresh black pepper
optional:  2 15-oz. cans kidney beans, drained

1.  In a dutch oven or large saucepan, sweat the onions in the oil over medium heat.  Then add the garlic and cook briefly (do not let the garlic brown, or it will become bitter).

2.  Add the ground beef, breaking it up with a fork, and cook until it looses its raw, red color.

3.  Add the spices and cook briefly. 

4.  Add the tomatoes, then fill the can with water and add that.  Add the tomato paste.

To cook on top of the stove:  bring to the boil, then reduce to simmer and cook for approximately 2 hours.  Stir occasionally, and add a little water if the chili seems to get too dry.

To cook in a crock pot:  place everything in the crock pot, set the heat to low, and cook for 6 hours or more.  Stir occasionally, and add a little water if the chili seems to get too dry.  

Taste and add more salt if needed before serving.

Optional:  In the last half-hour of cooking, you may add 2 15-oz. cans of kidney beans, drained.

Serve with garnishes as desired:  grated monterey jack cheese, sour cream or yogurt, crackers, tortilla chips, hot sauce, etc.

This will serve four hungry people.  My college roommate liked to serve chili over rice--that can stretch it further if you like.

Make something hot:  we can all use a little warmth now and then.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Occupation

When I taught at Salem College, I didn't always see eye to eye with the college president, Julianne Still Thrift.  But she once said something that I have never forgotten:  "Capitalism, unchecked, is prone to greed.  The role of government is to constrain that greed before it gets out of control."  I think she was right, and I think that could be the manifesto of the Occupy Wall Street (and a lot of other places) movement.

What the Wall-Streeters seem to get that the Tea-Baggers don't is that we need both government and business.  In a way, smaller government (especially when it concerns regulating businesses) means bigger business.  This is good for people who own businesses and get rich from them; it's not so good for the rest of us.  Not only has business grown, but personal wealth--at the top of the ladder--has grown by leaps and bounds.  At the bottom, things are pretty much stagnant.  That has been going on for the last thirty years--significantly, in my opinion, since about 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Don't take my word for it; have a look at a new report released today by the Congressional Budget Office.  In 1979, the top fifth of the population earned an average income of $136,400.  The top 1% earned an average of $534,800.  In 2006 (the most recent data year), those figures were $248,400 and $1,743,700.  That means that income for the top fifth more than doubled, and the top 1% saw its income grow more than three times.  That might be OK, were it not for what we see at the other end of the spectrum.

In 1976, the bottom fifth averaged $16,200 a year.  In 2006?  Wow.  They'd improved their standing by a whole thousand dollars to $17,200.  In fact, their income has gone down:  in 1999, the average for that segment of the population was $18,000.  Note that at the top of the scale, income has increased pretty steadily.  Those folks saw some declines from 2000 - 2002, but they've more than made up for it since.  The poorest earners in our population haven't caught up to where they were in 1999.

I'm all for capitalism.  In a fair capitalist system, everyone has a chance to improve themselves.  What I'm against is stacking the deck.  In our present setup, where politicians are largely bought by corporations and rich people and where their information mostly comes from highly paid lobbyists, government is essentially in bed with the wealthiest segment of the population.  Everyone else has to fend for themselves, and they're generally not faring very well.

Banks are too big to fail and get bailouts in the billions.  Homeowners, on the other hand, have watched the value of their homes plummet in the last three years.  Something like a fifth of all mortgages are higher than the value of the home--and in some areas of the country, like Arizona where I live, the proportion is much higher.  For those homeowners, there doesn't seem to be a lot of help--not even from the banks that we so generously saved with our tax money.  President Obama has put a new program in place that is designed to address this, but even the White House acknowledges that at most it will help about a million homeowners.  That's a lot, but there are something like 11 million homeowners who owe more than their house is worth.  In other words, that program will benefit less than 10% of the people in trouble.

This is only one example.  There are signs everywhere that as government has gotten smaller and supposedly off our backs (I dunno--somehow they can still tell you who you can marry...), income has risen exponentially at the top and only glacially at the bottom.

This cannot go on.  Ronald Reagan famously declared in his first inaugural address, "Government is not the solution to our present problem; government is the problem."  (Interestingly, the official text of the speech didn't include the forthright statement that "government is the problem," but Reagan said it--perhaps ad libbing?--when he gave the address.)  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you say that government is incapable of solving problems--or indeed, that government causes problems--then you never call on government for solutions.  And lo!  Suddenly the government can't solve anything. 

The present gridlock in Congress, which renders solutions to even the most urgent problems impossible, is the ultimate outcome of this thinking.  We have reached a crisis point, I believe.  We can all agree that we're frustrated with government--it seems incapable of doing anything.  We may not agree about where the solutions lie.  There seem to me to be two choices:  you either shut government down altogether, which is apparently the ultimate goal of the Tea Party, or you fix it and make it more robust.  Personally, I prefer that we try to strengthen government.  The alternatives--unbridled greed from corporations and the wealthy (an oligarchy, in other words) or outright anarchy--don't seem very palatable to me. 

To demand stronger government and true democracy should be the mission of the Occupy Wall Streeters. They are standing, scrappily and disjointedly, for a kind of justice, a restoration of a moral barometer that reminds us that we are all responsible for one another.  We can't just take as much as we can grab and leave everyone else the scraps.  We shouldn't do it in the world as a whole, and we shouldn't do it inside our country.

So I emphatically disagree with Ronald Reagan and with his fundamental philosophy that has brought us to this pass.  Indeed, I believe that the only solution to our present problems is to restore a strong democracy by wresting it from the clutches of the wealthiest and greediest members of our society.  Only then will have both government and an economy that work--for everyone.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Odds and Ends

Blog?  Did somebody mention a blog?  Sheesh.  I haven't been very conscientious lately.

Elizabeth was in town this weekend, and she's on a bit of a pumpkin kick.  Since she arrived the day after her birthday, I decided to bake a pumpkin cake.  It was a layer cake with pumpkin pastry cream between the layers and a cream cheese frosting, and it tasted good!  I have some kinks to work out:  when I do, I'll post the recipe.

And Thanksgiving's coming:  any special recipe requests?

Presidents Crow and Obama at ASU Commencement, 2009

Meanwhile (because you need something to read, obviously), Arizona State University president Michael Crow has published this very eloquent defense of the liberal arts in Slate Magazine.  To the governor of Florida I would make this observation:  it seems to me that the idea of deciding how many of each occupation was needed and training the population accordingly has been tried before--by the Soviet Union and Maoist China.  Last time I looked, those were, um, communist countries.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oh yeah.... (a skeptic 'fesses up)

I never saw a gavel used,
but it seemed like the right image for this post.
I think I used to keep a blog...

Sorry it's been so long since I've posted anything here.  I'd give an excuse, but it would be lame.  We're all busy.

I guess my big news (it isn't, really, but it makes conversation) is that I served on a jury this week.  I spent Monday being interviewed, which means that you sit in a courtroom with a lot of other people responding to generic questions like, "Is anyone in your family a police officer?"  (Actually, the questions tend to sound more like this:  "Is anyone in your family a police officer?  Do you have any close friends who are police officers?  Have you ever met a police officer?  Do you know anyone who has ever met a police officer?  Do you know anyone who knows anyone who has ever met a police officer?"  And then after someone responds, "My sister's brother-in-law's cousin once had a date with someone who may have known a police officer," the judge asks, "And do you think this would impair your ability to render a fair and impartial verdict in this case, in which there will be testimony from a police officer?"  Your correct response is, "I couldn't possibly render a fair verdict.  She said it was an awful date.")  The people who are left after this winnowing process form the jury.  They are suckers like me who try to answer the judge's questions truthfully and who are very bad at guessing what answers will actually get people excused.

Take the beginning of the selection process.  The judge read a very clear statement about the legal reasons he could excuse a juror automatically.  Basically, they were 1) if you were in poor health, or 2) if your being on the jury would adversely affect the public welfare (in other words, if you're a firefighter, we want you out fighting fires, not cooped up in a trial for a couple of days).  Eight or ten people claimed that they should be excused for one of these reasons.  The judge asked each one to explain.  One lady said, in accented but otherwise good English, that she had trouble understanding English.  The judge asked her if she had understood everything he had said.  She replied that she had, but she was worried she might not understand someone else.  She was excused.  Another lady said she had to meet her son when he got off the school bus.  She was excused.  Someone else had to help his wife change her oxygen tank once a day.  He got excused.  Now I'm not saying that all of these things weren't important.  It was just that I didn't think any of them met the test that the judge had articulated.

It went on like that.  One by one, people were turned out of the room.  The last question was, "The defendant has chosen not to appear in court for this case.  Would this affect your ability to render a fair and impartial verdict?"  Four or five people said, emphatically, "yes," and off they went.  I missed my one best chance.  So of course, I was seated on the jury, along with one of my former students, which no one should have allowed.  (People whose prior relationships put them in unequal power positions shouldn't be in a situation where they have to come to a unanimous decision.  It's not fair to either of them, but it's especially not fair in this case to the student.)

The case involved a man who had been punched in the eye so badly (how many times wasn't clear) that his eye was swollen shut for several days.  During the incident, his phone was taken from him.  The person accused of doing this was charged with aggravated assault and aggravated robbery.  The claim was that a second guy held the victim down while our guy did the punching.  Then the second guy took the phone.  At least that was the story the prosecution presented.

It was a plausible story.  The trouble was, there were equally plausible stories.  We were first told that the victim had gone out with his girlfriend at 11:30 at night to buy cigarettes, were accosted by these two guys who first asked for a cigarette and then started taunting the victim about being older than his girlfriend.  Words were exchanged, blows were exchanged, the victim ended up on the ground beaten, and the guys who beat him up somehow got his phone.  Open and shut case. 

But not so fast.  It turns out that the victim and his girlfriend may not have left the house together.  She may have left because he had gotten angry with her (no one ever said about what), tried to hit her, and tried to lock her into her room.  She went outside and met up with these two guys in the street, who she later referred to as her "homies," although she later denied knowing them.  Out comes the boyfriend to try to find her.  He's mad.  He starts cussing out the guys because they're with his girlfriend, and as far as he's concerned they're flirting.  There's an exchange of unprintable words, and then he kicks one of the guys in the groin (which he demonstrated on the stand).  Evidently he does this several times.  The other guy tries to pull him off; the guy who he's been kicking punches him to get him to stop kicking.  It ends with the so-called victim down in the street.  His phone is gone.  This story seems just as likely as the first story, and things are now not so clear.

There's a further problem:  no one can tell this story (or any story) in a consistent manner.  Indeed, at some point, the victim gave some part of both those sets of facts.  Our poor victim, a 225-pound guy who I sure wouldn't tangle with and yet who clearly got the tar kicked out of him, couldn't remember statements he'd made only a few minutes before.  So we had exchanges like this for the better part of a morning:  "Mr. D, you said earlier that you and your girlfriend left the house together.  Is that correct?"  "No, it isn't." "You didn't leave together, or you didn't say it."  "I didn't say it." (But we'd just heard him say that very thing.)  "All right, Mr. D.  Did you leave the house together?"  "No."  "Mr. D, on February 10 of this year, you stated under oath that you and your girlfriend left the house together.  Do you remember testifying to that?"  "No, I don't."  "OK, Mr. D.  Take a look at the transcript that's in front of you.  Look at page 27, lines 5 - 9.  Read it to yourself.  Does that refresh your memory?"  (man reads)  "Well, I guess I said it, but that's not what happened."

It basically went on like that for about two hours.  The girlfriend also varied her story.  There were minor inconsistencies in the police accounts.  (One was positively out of Sherlock Holmes.  An officer testified that she had received a radio call from 911 telling her to look out for two males and a female.  We had heard the 911 call.  The caller--the only person who gave clear and consistent testimony--distinctly said that he could tell nothing about the people he thought were doing the beating.  He had been specifically asked about their genders and he replied, "All I could tell is that there were three people.  I couldn't tell their gender, age, or race."  He gave very average height estimates.  So how did the officer know to look for two men and a woman?  Probably because the officer who found the victim said that, and she conflated the 911 call with the second call from the other officer.  I quite enjoyed noticing that, even though it didn't materially affect anything about the case.)

The testimony took a day.  The next morning we heard closing arguments and got instructions from the judge.  By then it was lunchtime.  We chose a foreman, broke for lunch with everyone saying, "Well, this won't take long."  We came back after about an hour and took a vote:  we were split exactly down the middle, half of us thinking the accused was guilty and half thinking he was not.

What fascinates me about this is that everyone was convinced of their own point of view to such an extent that no other conclusion seemed possible to them.  I think all of us figured the first vote would be unanimous or nearly so, and I include myself in that.

Two hours of lively discussion followed.  Gradually, as we focused not on what we thought had happened or could have happened, but on whether or not the state had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that their version of events was the true one, it became clear to everyone that the state had failed.  There were just too many questions, and the case seemed to rest primarily on a witness who, for whatever reason, couldn't corroborate his own statements.  It was a very weak case, and it didn't hold up to scrutiny.  It seemed equally likely that the victim had picked a fight, that the two guys were defending themselves in some form, and that the victim got badly beaten because he kept fighting the other two.  No one, not even the prosecution, could clearly explain what had happened with the phone.  Had it fallen on the street and someone picked it up?  Was it taken from the victim's pocket?  Had the victim's girlfriend picked it up and handed it to one of the other guys--who, by the way, she walked off with, leaving her boyfriend bleeding in the middle of the street, a fact that still puzzles me.  We voted to acquit.

This was the outcome I expected, and yet I felt terrible when the process was over.  It wasn't fun trying to convince people that they were wrong and that they couldn't be so sure they knew what had happened.  It was even less fun to let the person who probably had done this go just because the state had failed to meet its burden.  It was also frustrating as a taxpayer to think of all the resources, including the time of all those jurors, that had gone into trying to prove so fragile a case.

The word "verdict" means "to say the truth."  I am not sure what the truth is or was in this case; it's probably different depending on who is telling it, which in itself is fascinating.  I doubt anyone consciously lied in that trial.  They may have embellished; they may have filled in blanks because they wanted to give a good answer to someone asking them a question--we all do that.  The problem in a court of law, though, is that you have to prove that your version is true beyond a reasonable doubt.  And it seems to me that if there's another equally plausible explanation that fits everything we know, then nothing's been proven.

I'm not sure what I learned here.  I had a glimpse into a world that I don't ordinarily encounter (I don't think I've ever seen a real-life photo of a beating victim).  I found that when people hear a story that is likely to be true, they will accept it as true, even if there isn't a lot of evidence to back it up.  I found that people had trouble separating two ideas: what happened?  what did the prosecution prove happened?  It's possible that it happened the way the prosecution said it did, but it's at least reasonable to suppose that it didn't.  The whole thing was sordid, and I'm glad it's over.  Next time somebody asks me how impartial I can be, I will say, "Not at all.  I'm a bigoted SOB, and I'll convict anything that breathes."

Or maybe not.  See, I can't decide:  would another jury have convicted that man?  Would that jury minus me have convicted that man?  Did I help to keep an innocent man out of jail, or did I let a bad guy walk the streets to hurt someone else another day?

My life is full of ambiguities.  But frankly, I'd rather be mulling whether I should go faster or slower in a passage in a piece of music than deal with anything like what I was trying to decide in that trial.  My kind of ambiguity is just a matter of taste and affect.  It doesn't affect people's lives.  I'll stick to my kind, thanks very much.  But I guess, if called on, I'll try again to listen carefully and decide if something's been proven or not.  Trouble is, I'm a hard sell.  Your case had better be ironclad, because my natural habitat is one of doubt--reasonable or not.  I'm a skeptic.  I've made a career of it, because that's what academics do.  So you probably don't want me on your jury if you're the prosecution, because I'm tough to convince.  Is there such a thing as an open and shut case?

I doubt it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

More About Schools: A Great New York Times Article

This essay by Charles M. Blow, "In Honor of Teachers," speaks for itself, and I proudly link to it here.

"No profession is full of peak performers. At least this one is infused with nobility."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Rant about Schools

It's the beginning of another school year.  Sue has already been teaching for several weeks, as have most of her colleagues in Arizona.  Elsewhere, they're gearing up for the traditional post-Labor Day start of the academic year.  It just occurred to me that 50 years ago next month, I was starting kindergarten.

Lately, it's become a bit of an indoor sport to bash public school teachers:  threaten their retirement, undermine or banish their unions, cut (or threaten to cut) their pay, you name it.  It won't surprise you that none of this amuses me.

Throughout my career as a college professor, I have had the privilege of teaching people who aspire to be teachers.  Not one of those students has been lazy, or lacking in motivation, or unfeeling.  On the contrary, they are driven by a sense of mission, they care about children, and they care about being good teachers.  Nobody--and I do mean nobody--goes into the profession of public school teaching thinking that it will be a cushy job that they can do for 25 or 30 years and then retire early and comfortably.  Some of my music students have started out trying to hedge their bets as performers by also qualifying to be teachers.  And while a few them have dropped performance to become teachers, most of those students don't finish the education degree.  They realize that you must have a passion for teaching if you are going to teach.

Are our schools perfect?  Far from it.  But the knee-jerk response is to blame the teachers, as though they were the only ones or even the most important ones shaping our schools.  Sadly, they are not.  If they were, our schools would run a great deal better than they do now.

You have to look at the whole system:  what about administrators who generally make things more complicated than necessary or who like quick fixes or who mistake good procedure for good teaching?  For example, it's pretty common around here for administrators to say, "If I come into your classroom, I expect to see your objectives for the day written on the board."  In itself, there's nothing objectionable about this (although I never do it in a college classroom), but do we really think that writing an objective on the board is the same as good teaching?  That's like saying that knowing your destination is the same as safe driving.

How about the school boards and other elected officials who pass policies that make life more complicated for teachers without improving education?  Ask any teacher about this:  they are buried under a mountain of busy work that doesn't contribute to their success as teachers or to their students' success as learners.  Some policies are needlessly complicated and exclude students from great opportunities:  two students from Sue's school got accepted into a prestigious summer program for actors in New York City.  You'd think the school would stand up and cheer and do everything possible to help the kids go:  they'd get to spend a week in New York studying dance and acting with professionals, get to see theater, and generally have an enriching experience.  It was a remarkable opportunity for two kids from South Phoenix, one of the poorer areas of the valley.  Rather than encouraging the students, school policies created all kinds of obstacles.  These are poor kids.  They can't afford a plane ticket or tuition in an expensive New York summer program.

One of the two boys was going to graduate in May.  Since the program took place in the summer after graduation, he couldn't receive any help from the school to cover the tuition or travel costs--even though the department has funds from things like ticket sales that they use for scholarships.  I actually don't know whether he was able to find the money to go on the trip or not.

The other student was a rising senior, so he could get some help.  In order to get at the funds, though, the drama teacher had to file paperwork to get this registered as a field trip.  Everything seemed hotsy-totsy, until it emerged that a field trip, even for one student, requires a chaperone--and the chaperone has to pay his or her own way.  She's finding all this out weeks before the trip, even though she started the process in March.  Well, after helping him raise money for his trip, she didn't have the heart to tell him that it was off, so she decided to be the chaperone--spend her own money to get from Phoenix to NY, stay for a week in a hotel, buy meals, the works.  Yup.  She's just sitting around waiting to collect retirement checks.  (I seem to recall that there were other glitches along the way, but I don't remember them accurately enough to recount them.  One problem, I recall, was that administrators would declare that something was "against policy" but couldn't produce the policy in writing.)

This is just one example.  There are thousands of others, and admittedly, this isn't the worst story out there.  It's just the one I happen to know about.

Finally, there's the world around us and how it affects schools and everyone in them.  Schools are not separate from society.  Public schools have to teach everyone who wants to come.  They can't turn anyone away, no matter how difficult their problems are (charter schools and private schools can be selective--a huge advantage if you're looking at things like overall test scores).  Because everyone goes, all the problems and challenges that people face in our society are right there in the schools.  Our expectation is that somehow teachers are supposed to be able to fix what no one else can.  Here's the latest example--Sue told me about this child at dinner tonight.

One of the students in the dance program has been particularly difficult.  She is unwilling to participate, is belligerent, uses the worst kind of foul language, and is terribly disruptive in class.  By chance, Sue and her colleague ran into the school social worker at lunch, so they asked about this girl.  It turns out that the child lives in a group home, which means that she's the state's responsibility, and the state can't find foster care or an adoptive parent for her.  How did she get into a group home?  Well, her mother is a drug addict (so she probably has some deficiencies because of her mother's drug use).  After her parents divorced, the child lived with her father.  But at some point, the mother kidnapped the child.  She abused the child.  Her boyfriends sexually abused the child.  Eventually, the mother got money for drugs by selling her child for sex.  (I have trouble telling this story:  what kind of monster turns her child into a prostitute?  what kind of monster has sex with a child--and is willing to pay the child's mother for the opportunity?)

To be fair, we don't know what kind of services this child is getting--if any.  That's because of confidentiality rules.  I hope that someone is helping her to cope with all the baggage she has from that nightmarish childhood.  Meanwhile, she is expected to function normally in school--and she just doesn't have the tools to do it.  She doesn't have the social skills or even the peace of mind to pursue learning.  And obviously she doesn't trust adults.

Oh, and by the way, people now want to tie teacher salaries to student performance--including the performance of that deeply troubled child and the many thousands like her across the country.  Social workers couldn't help that child; whatever psychologists or therapists she's seen haven't helped her; but the teachers (who have no training in any of this, mind you) are supposed to help her learn so that she performs at grade level.  Could you do it?  I know that I couldn't.

Are there some bad teachers?  Of course there are, but frankly, not very many.  They don't last.  The vast majority are hard working, dedicated people.  They have to be to face the daily obstacles that stand in the way of good teaching.  Some of those obstacles are unavoidable, but a lot of them are of our own making.

Somewhere in your past, there's a teacher you still remember fondly.  I can still name all of my elementary school teachers in order from kindergarten through sixth grade:  Mrs. Delzitt, Miss Emmons, Mrs. Cheesbrough, Miss Ballenger, Miss Hayes, Mrs. Dennison, and Mr. Galvin.  I might have some of the spellings wrong: you do forget some things over a 50-year period.  I thank all of them and owe each of them a lot for what I am now.  Next time you're tempted to bash "teachers," remember the ones who inspired you.

It's convenient to blame teachers.  They're the front line of our schools.  But as I've said elsewhere in this blog, when public services and government don't work, ultimately it's our fault for putting incompetent people in charge of them.  Remember:  we have met the enemy, and he is us.  Until we fix the world that surrounds our schools--instead of somehow expecting the schools to take care of it--we won't be able to fix education.  So let's get to work.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Too many sweets, not enough meats (a method for roasting pork)

To read this blog lately, you'd think all I ever cook is dessert.  Well, 'taint so. 

Last night I grilled a boneless pork loin using a method I've perfected over the years.  It is very easy--you just put the meat on the grill and walk away--and it comes out perfectly every time.  What's best is that the meat is tender and juicy, not tough the way today's leaner pork tends to be.

So here's what you do:

Get a boneless pork loin from your market.  (Not a pork TENDERloin--that's a different thing.  You want a long roast that's about 4 inches across.  They typically weigh 3 or 4 pounds, and they're often sold in a vacuum-sealed bag, like the one in the photo.  Some markets split them up the middle--try to avoid that.  But if that's all you can get, tie it with butcher twine--maybe after putting some luscious herbs and garlic inside.)  Season it thoroughly to your taste.  For example, you could use a commercial seasoned salt, or your favorite dry rub, or you could coat the outside of the roast with a mixture of olive oil, thyme, and garlic, then salt and pepper it generously.

Light the coals for a charcoal fire.  (I don't know how to do this on a gas grill!)  When your coals are hot, distribute them evenly on either side of a drip pan.  I light my coals in a chimney device (like the one in the photo, only rustier) with newspaper on the bottom so that I don't have to use that noxious kerosene stuff.  When the coals are lit, I put a 9 x 13" pan thoroughly covered with aluminum foil in the center of the grill--I use a kettle-type grill--and then pour the coals in two piles on either side of it.  Fill the pan about half full with water.  Put the grill in place above the pan.

Set the roast, fat side up, over the drip pan.  Cover the grill and open the vents in the grill and lid.  Now, WALK AWAY.  Go inside.  Play 4 or 5 games of Sudoku, clean the bird cage, anything--just don't mess with the roast.

After an hour and 15 minutes, take its temperature.  You want it between 155 and 160 degrees, but a little hotter is also OK (because of the indirect heat, it's hard to overcook this).  Once it reaches temperature, which will usually take between 75 and 90 minutes depending on how cold the roast was when you put it on the grill, remove it from the grill and set it on a cutting board to rest for at least 5 minutes.  Carve the roast into 1/4"-thick slices and serve with some fresh veggies and salad on the side.  We like a little dijon mustard with it.

A 3-pound roast will serve 6 people generously.

If your market carries this cut of meat, watch the price--it's a favorite for specials and will often be marked down.  I try to by it only when it's on sale.

I hope you enjoy it!  As I've said before, it doesn't have to be complicated to be delicious. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Recipe: Killer Chocolate Cake

School started last Thursday, so I've been up to my eyeballs and haven't had much time for the blog.  Still, why should this be your problem?  So to make up for my silence, here's a really easy and really delicious chocolate cake recipe.

It started this way (have you noticed that there's always a way it starts?):  Elizabeth observed that most chocolate cakes don't taste very chocolately, and they tend to have a powdery, dry texture.  I observe that often when I really like a homemade cake, it turns out to be from a mix, which frankly drives me crazy.  I mean, shouldn't I be able to make a cake from scratch that's as good as or better than one from a box?  (Of course, I think those box people cheat:  they put stuff in there that you would never use at home--stuff that comes from a factory where people are covered in sterile outfits from head to toe and use robotic arms to handle the products--you get the idea.)  So my mission impossible ("your mission, should you choose to accept it...") was to come up with a delicious, moist chocolate cake.  I've got a couple of contenders; I'll share the first of them here.

This one's incredibly easy.  You just throw a bunch of stuff in a bowl, mix it up, and bake it.   And the not-so-secret ingredient gives the cake an interesting depth of flavor.

Two hints about chocolate:

1.  Dutch-processed cocoa reacts differently with the leavening.  It also yields a darker result with a more intense chocolate flavor.  Definitely use it in this cake, which will come out jet-black.

2.  To be palatable, chocolate needs at least some sweetening, but the sweetener tends to deaden the flavor of the chocolate.  So something that bumps up the bitterness quotient will yield a more intense chocolate sensation.  Julia Child (where I learned this trick) recommends using coffee along with chocolate, and I do that almost routinely.  In this cake, the secret ingredient serves that function.  If you object to alcohol, use some strong coffee in place of the secret ingredient.  If you object to alcohol AND coffee, you can make a really good version of this cake with hot water, but it won't be quite as intense.

A further hint:  you can use melted butter in this recipe if you want, but I find that salad oil yields a moister-seeming cake.  It probably has to do with the melting point of the fat.  In a cake like this, the flavor of butter would be pretty well masked anyhow, so don't worry about the cake being bland if you use oil.

The secret ingredient?  Stout!  If you don't have stout, any dark beer or ale will do.

Here goes.

(click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe)


1 cup stout or other dark beer—it’s better if it’s flat and at room temperature (or you can substitute hot coffee or hot water)
1 cup salad oil
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream or yogurt


1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
2.  Thoroughly grease a Bundt pan, and sprinkle the pan very lightly with some cocoa.
3.  Combine the stout, oil, and cocoa.  Whisk thoroughly to blend.
4.  If you’re using something hot like coffee or hot water, allow it to cool a bit.  Then whisk the eggs, add the sour cream and whisk, and finally add the cocoa mixture.
5.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, sugar, soda, and salt.  Then pour in the liquid and stir it quickly to combine.
6.  Immediately pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and set it in the middle of the preheated oven.  Bake for 50 – 60 minutes, or until baked through.  The cake will fall a little on the top (which is good—it’ll sit nicely on a plate that way).
7.  After removing the cake from the oven, let it cool slightly (about 10 minutes) before unmolding it carefully on a wire rack to cool completely.
8.  To serve, dust the top with powdered sugar, or drizzle it lightly with ganache:  use about 3 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate and 1/3 cup of whipping cream.  Break up the chocolate into a small bowl, heat the cream until it is just boiling, and pour the hot cream over the chocolate.  Stir to melt and combine the chocolate.  You could add a tablespoon of rum, brandy, or other liqueur to flavor it slightly, but that isn’t really necessary.  When the cake is cool, drizzle this over the top—the ganache can still be quite warm when you decorate the cake.

I have to say, I really like this cake and think it is a match for any box cake.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, finally came to the conclusion that she doesn't love chocolate cake all that much.  She'd rather have a white cake with chocolate frosting (I'm happy to oblige) or better yet, a carrot cake.  Why not?

And even if I didn't win Elizabeth over, I got to eat a lot of really good chocolate cake this summer.  What could be bad?