Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why We’re Here

           From the title, you might be expecting an essay on existentialism. Sorry to disappoint, but a few days ago I promised an explanation of why we are in Belgium and here it is:  We are attending a conference or as I like to think of it, we are getting brain massages.  Educators take in a lot of training; it’s almost constant.  Most of us are learning about and trying to implement new methods and materials as fast as our brains can take them in.  I actually love that about my profession, but sometimes I wonder if we are persisting with better light bulb making.  We do a lot of reinvention of say, teaching literacy, but the root assumptions about how one learns to read and write have existed for a long time.
 Allan and I are attending a TED conference.  If you are unfamiliar with TED, it is a series of conferences featuring speakers who have something of value to share and 18 minutes in which to share it.  The presentations are all video recorded and posted on their website where they are available to the world, for free.  This is just simply the dissemination of thought provoking information and research;  it is left up to individuals whether or not they can make any application of it.  If you are open to new possibilities, however,  something you hear here could potentially give you a vision for turning a current paradigm you work under, on its head.
An interesting twist has been added to this particular TED conference.  It is being hosted by St. John’s International School in Waterloo and they invited the participation of 50 children who were born in the year 2000.  This makes them 11 years old and I teach 11 year olds.  In fact, two of my students applied and are at the conference.  I don’t know what to expect, exactly, but I am going to watch presenters engage this group of children in some learning activities that will challenge them for the moment and will hopefully challenge my teaching for the long term. 
If you want to participate remotely, the conference will be live-streamed on Wednesday, June 1st, from 9:00 AM Brussels time at the following link: TEDXBrussels .  Before you begin watching, however, take a few minutes to watch the link called Kids’ Videos, at the top of the page.  They are asking children some key questions regarding their perceptions about how they are currently taught.  There are some responses in there that make me think, I can do that better.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Good Things Begin with Letter "B"

            Many good things today began with the letter “B”.  There were boats, and Belgians (horses), blossoms, and, I could extend this alliteration much too far, it all happened in Brugge.  Cottonwood pollen doesn’t start with a “B” it starts with a “C” which may be why it almost ruined the day.  But there were too many other good things to enjoy and antihistamine starts with “A” and that was very, very good.
            We took the train to Brugge, about one hour out of Brussels.  It is called, “The Venice of Belgium”.  I was just in Venice last November so I am familiar with the reference points.  I have to agree that in its own distinctly Flemmish way, Brugges is much like Venice.  It has meandering canals and lots of cobble-stoned streets, almost paths,  that lead to hidden squares where you find houses, churches,  and shops.

          Both cities have alternative transportation to motorized vehicles.  In Venice, it’s the foot and water taxis.  In Brugges, it’s bicycles and Belgian horses.  There must actually be a city ordinance allowing horses the right of way because the few cars we saw in the city came to a screeching halt if a Belgian-drawn carriage entered an intersection at the same time as a car.

          We had lunch at Den Dyver.  You could tell walking in the door that this place pays close attention to detail, yet in a comfortable, natural style.  They had a set menu, which I love because it's all surprises.  You could pair it with wine or with beer so we chose to sample the beers they suggested went with these foods.
          The first course was a timbale of crab and trout, topped with lightly pickled vegetables and finished with a foam of some delicious sort.  With this they paired the darkish Rodenbach.  This beer went with the dish so similarly to wine.  It had a dark sweetness but then finished with a little citrus and bitterness.

          The main course was a white fish, a potato mash, and roasted fennel.  I want to just point out here that most of the vegetables I have seen on this trip have been white:  white asparagus, endive, leeks, and now, fennel.  Anyway, white or not, it was an exquisite combination of flavors.  With this, they paired the slightly comic looking Urthel Saissoniere.  This blond beer was spicy and matched up to the fennel, which is a strong flavor.

          For dessert, we had an all-red fruit stew over chilled marscapone cream, sprinkled with mint.  Sweet, creamy, and refreshing.

          We have learned a lot about beer on this trip.  One of the most important things has been that Belgians don't drink huge pints of beer, or at least not all of the time, but more like  wine glass size pours that bring to focus the almost infinite characteristics of the beers. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday in Brussels

            Yes, we’re in Brussels.  I’m not even going to explain why yet; I’ll get into that later in the week.  Suffice it to say that we have a purpose in being here and we came a couple of days early to enjoy Brussels.  I have been fascinated with Brussels for about a decade.  After our first year of working in Singapore, we had a period of weeks where we thought we might not stay there past our first contract of two years and we started poking around at other available positions.  There was a high school principal’s job posting in Brussels and we spent at least a couple of weeks researching and starting to think it would be pretty cool to live here.  Allan was soon after offered a different position where we were so we ended up staying there for five years, but I’ve still always wanted to see Brussels.  It has seemed to me like a city that can kind of laugh at itself.  I get that from the surreal art and comics they are known for.  I also get an attitude of “So what if half of our historic architecture was destroyed during World War II, we rebuilt modern buildings so get over it”.  I might be putting words in their mouths with that last assumption.   So far though, I’m finding Brussels down to earth and incredibly approachable.  At one point, I called it the European Seattle.  At lunch and at the jazz festival we went to, we met, and had meaningful connections with, three different couples.  By the way, thank you for learning English at some point in your lives, all of you.  If I lived here, they would all be invited to our place next weekend for dinner.  Nice people, very open.
            Here’s what we saw.

            Three exclamation points are not too many to celebrate asparagus!!!  By the way, those white sticks on the plate are asparagus.  I went with the vinaigrette along with a mountain of beef tartare.  

            We are officially having chocolate with every meal this week.  It seems we are unofficially having frites with every meal.  They just appear.
            There are six beer breweries in the world today that can state that their beer is brewed by trappist monks.  What are trappist monks, exactly?  They are a branch of the Cistercian order of monks, which is a stricter version of the Benedictines.  Founded in 1664, they are noted for their austere rules, including a vow of silence.  Five of these six breweries are in Belgium so we thought it would be a small enough goal to try and sample beers from these five monasteries this week.  Don’t expect much here.  My friend Patrick writes a true blog about Czech beers and it’s funny, has a rating system, and even a guest taster who has razor-sharp beer insights.  Allan and I are going to taste five beers this week and say either,  “I like that” or “I wouldn’t have that again”.  

 We started with the Chimay, also called the “Burgandy of Belgium”. 
  It was dark and a little bit sweet and not my favorite.   

 We then had the Orval.   

This beer is made at an abbey that is home to 25 monks.  They are technically contemplative, I’ve been there, brothers, and have chosen to live in silence and solitude.  To break up the day, they make beer, though they say that the proceeds only go to support the monastery and some other good causes.   The beer is medium colored and tasted like summer to me since the only time I drink beer is when I’m home in the summer and have access to the tasty Northwest microbrew beers.  

Finally, we had the Westmalle.  

 It was of similar body to the Orval, but just didn’t quite have the characteristics that say “vacation”. 

 So there they were.  Two more to go...

 I leave you with a picture of the all red fruit stand.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Oui Chef or Field Trip, Part II

            Back on the spice trail with my 40-11 year old friends.  This time, we only went to the nearby Tunisian suberb of Les Berge du Lac where we were booked at Mille et Une Saveurs cooking school.  We had told them about the spices we had been tracking through history and economies:  pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, saffron, and vanilla.  They agreed to teach us to make several dishes using all of them.
            We were greeted in the stylish, efficient preparation space by chef Wafik and the staff who had clearly anticipated our needs throughout the entire experience.  I will say that when you choose to take bus loads of children out for an experience in the community you are hoping, at least, that the presenters are able to teach them what you hope they will learn.  If those people happen to be naturally wonderful teachers themselves, able to break complex information into active learning steps, then you have made a great connection.  Chef Wafik was exactly this type of teacher.  He had a dozen tricks to keep our students engaged, using all of their senses.  He also knew a thing of two about group management.  One of his tricks was when he clanged together two pot lids like cymbals all of the students shouted back, "Oui chef!"  Working with them in such a fun way made the students  happy to comply.
            They began with an introduction to hard spices and leafy herbs and the types of dishes in which they might be found.
            We layered the lasagnas, using preassembled, spice infused bolognese and b├ęchamel sauces.

             There was also a vegetarian preparation using pasta, b├ęchamel, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and cheese.  That is the dish I chose to make at home over the weekend.
            The most challenging element was probably the tart, requiring meticulous rolling, cutting, pinching, and filling.  Each one had a unique personality.
            Finally, students decorated cinnamon/vanilla cupcakes.
            And then we sat down to eat together. 
            Mille et Une Saveurs  primarily hosts events for adults.  I hope to book some group cooking school time when my new friends move here in August.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Peche Season

            It was a beautiful day here on the edge of Africa.  Spring rains and winds have let up and today was sparkling, brilliant, warm, breezy.  We got on our bicycles and rode to the beach, just the way we imagined we would do last summer when we were in the US and packing out for this life.  There, we bought new bikes and beach towels and sent them in our shipment, but those things didn’t reach us until well after we were out of time and summer to enjoy the beach.  My bike, an Electra Townie, is a cool step through.  You just walk into it and start pedaling.  You can ride this bike in a skirt, and I did.  We went to the beach and lay on rocks, like seals, and watched young men play soccer on the sand and terns do straight dives into the sea to attempt a catch of some dinner. 
            This morning, at the market, I found, finally, fresh thyme plants and also the new season of fruits:  peaches, apricots, and plums.  I decided to cook up a pork rib roast with a thyme and breadcrumb crust, alongside a peach and sage chutney. 
            Beginning with the pork rack, the process is beaten eggs, flour, back to the eggs, and then the crust mixture, which is bread, garlic, fresh thyme, salt, and pepper whirled in the food processor.  Bake the rack at 350 degrees until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F.

Peach Chutney
Makes 2 ½ cups

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tablespoon fresh sage, finely diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
1 ½ pounds fresh peaches, blanched and diced
½ cup sugar
¼ cup white wine
½ cup cider vinegar
Salt and pepper

Melt butter, add garlic, shallot, sage, and peppers and sweat for 1 to 2 minutes, add diced peaches.  Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, add sugar, deglaze with white wine and vinegar and allow to cook on low heat until peaches are soft.  Season with salt and pepper.

 There were a couple of jars for the pantry.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Field Trip, Part I

            Today I went to the coastal town of Nabeul with about 40 of my friends.  OK, they were all 11 years old, but they were good company and we had a fabulous day.  We are on the spice trail.  It began with the surprising reality that the early European explorers to the New World were partially in search of spices, in fact would kill and plunder for them.  We continued with a look at the modern day producers and economies of some of our most common spices:  pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, and dear to our Moroccan hearts, saffron.  Now, we’re looking at the spice production in our own back yard, right in Tunisia.  Today, we visited a botanical garden in Nabeul, featuring herbs, fruit trees, and cacti all having use as food or medicine.  We have a follow up surprise that will take place a week from tomorrow.

            But Nabeul is primarily known for its handmade pottery and so we also witnessed an exhibition at a factory where they are creating charming sets of pottery that are high temperature fired so you can bake in them and are also lead free.  It was here that I bought my first tagine.

            We ended the day at the Hammamet Fort, a stunningly renovated structure, right on the sparkling waterfront, with shops and open space to enjoy the massive structure, softened with pines.  


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fragile Situation in Tunisia

You may have heard that Tunisia is back under curfew due to engagement between the police and protesters.   Following is a story NPR ran about the current situation.  

Tunisia Seen As Laboratory For Arab Democracy

Tunisian riot police face protestors in the center of Tunis on May 6 during a demonstration organized by youths denouncing the transitional government and calling for "a new revolution." Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisian riot police face protestors in the center of Tunis on May 6 during a demonstration organized by youths denouncing the transitional government and calling for "a new revolution."

May 9, 2011
In this season of uprisings in the Arab world, Tunisia was the first country to throw off its dictator. That event inspired similar revolts across the region. Four months later, with the country's first democratic elections approaching, Tunisians are both hopeful and fearful.
Tunisia, and especially its capital, Tunis, is a bubbling cauldron of excitement and ideas. More than 70 new political parties have sprung into existence and hundreds of citizens' organizations have formed. Fares Mabrouk, head of the Arab Policy Institute, was finally able to create a think-tank — something inconceivable under the former regime.
Mabrouk says Tunisia is a laboratory for democracy in the Arab world.

"Is democracy possible in the Arab world?" Mabrouk asks. "The question will be answered here in Tunisia."

A Fragile Situation
But amidst the excitement, says Mabrouk, the situation is still very fragile. Many Tunisians fear the former regime will return. Over the weekend Tunisian authorities had to set a curfew after violent protests were fueled by rumors of a coup.
But although there are occasional setbacks, the freedoms brought by the revolution are obvious everywhere. Upbeat and peaceful street demonstrations have become a part of daily life as everyone clamors to be heard.
The once-harassed street vendor now plies his wares freely from the sidewalk. The young Tunisian who ignited the revolution by setting himself on fire last December was a street vendor, and today the profession is sacrosanct.
Once cowed, Tunisians seem to burst with creativity and gall. The words of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's last speech, mockingly set to a rapper's beat, blares from a cafe.
Mustapha Saheb-Ettabaa, who is running for a seat in the 260-member constitutional assembly, says for Tunisians it's like a dream.
"Because perhaps 70 or 80 percent of the Tunisian people never went to put an envelope in a box," he explains. "So for us it will be a very, very great day the day we will go to the elections."

Tunisian women listen to Hammadi Jebali, secretary general of Ennahda, Tunisia's largest Islamic movement during a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, on April 17. Political parties like Ennahda were once banned under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule.Hassene Dridi/AP

Tunisian women listen to Hammadi Jebali, secretary general of Ennahda, Tunisia's largest Islamic movement during a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, on April 17. Political parties like Ennahda were once banned under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's rule.

It will be the assembly's job to draft a new constitution. The election is scheduled for July 24.
'How Can We Actually Trust A Political Party?'
At a town hall meeting in a middle-class Tunis neighborhood, Ettabaa fields questions from citizens. Many people are concerned about the economy and security.
One woman asks, "How can we actually trust a political party?"
Such uncertainty is stoking fears. For the first time, bearded men in religious clothing walk the streets of Tunis. And many women now speak of being harassed by Islamists who tell them to cover themselves with a veil.
Ali Larayedh spent 13 years in a jail cell for membership in the outlawed Islamist party Ennahda. Today, with the ban lifted, he's the party's official spokesman. Larayedh says the fear over his party is unfounded because it wants a democracy too — but one that reflects the Tunisian identity.
"The Tunisian people are at peace with their identity as Arabs and Muslims, and they don't want this questioned," Larayedh says. "We must have a space for religion. Only a small minority on the left thinks this is a problem and wants a strictly secular state that would deny our Muslim identity."
But more radical elements have split off from the mainstream Islamist party. A group of about 1,000 religious conservatives — mostly bearded, robed men — held a rally in the center of Tunis to demand the implementation of Islamic law. English professor Mounir Khelifa watched the demonstration from a cafe.
"Tunisians feel that this is un-Tunisian. Tunisians are moderate and pragmatic people. The kind of radical, extremist discourse does not ring true to a Tunisian ear," Khelifa says.
Taking A Patriotic Year
If the young people continue to live their life and don't involve themselves in what's happening in Tunisia, it will be done by others. Maybe we will regress.
As it turns out, the hardliners have no permit to assemble, and their demonstration is soon disbursed by riot police firing volleys of tear gas. Cafe patrons also scramble for cover. It's a typical afternoon in Tunis.
Whatever their viewpoints, most Tunisians agree on protecting the values of the revolution: democratic elections, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech. This sentiment is especially strong among Tunisian youth, and thousands of young people are now taking what they call a "patriotic year," dropping whatever they were doing to help build their country.
Amazzine Khelifa, 28, left her husband and an engineering job in Paris to return to Tunisia at this historic time.
"The feeling is that something very important is happening in our country," she says, "and if the young people continue to live their life and don't involve themselves in what's happening in Tunisia, it will be done by others. Maybe we will regress."
We can't trust anyone with the fate of our revolution, says Khelifa, except ourselves.

But These are My Friends

     Am I the only sad specimen of a person who has developed a deep bond with strangers over the internet?  That didn't come out right.  I happened upon The Perennial Plate website as a link to a link to a weekly food blog I receive.  I normally wouldn't even take a look, but I liked the title and gave it a click.  I found here a homemade, authentic, hardworking website about a man, Daniel Klein, and his girlfriend, Mira, who met in film-making class. As Daniel was a trained chef and from solid Minnesota stock, they decided to make 52 consecutive videos last year about seasonal cooking in Minnesota.  I already mentioned Daniel in "The Abundance Gene", referring to his skillful processing and preparing of exactly 25 ducks.  They are trying to make the connection with people between the foods they eat, or could eat, the people who produce them, and methods of preparing them.
     Now, they are taking this around America.  They have been in a fund raising stage- an extremely modest $20,000 dollars, yes, I am a supporter at the t-shirt level, but this week are beginning a year-long journey around America, visiting organic farmers, artisanal cheese makers, community garden projects, just any and all conscientious food producers who are trying to help Americans eat real food.  That's it.  Yea!
     Check in with these two.  They're not asking for anything and they are going to be offering some images that can change how we eat.  They write some fun blog entries, too.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The End of the Artichokes

     My parents grew up in Texas and Arizona and so even though our family lived in southwestern Colorado when I was a child, my mom would occasionally splurge for some artichokes at the grocery store.  I was well aware of how dear these were, I'm not sure we even got one each, and I have loved them my whole life.  I took a packet of seeds with me to Kathmandu and our gardener, Ram, put them in.  We may have had 12 plants one spring and it was so much fun to bring basketsful of them to our faculty room to treat Americans and Europeans who pined for them.  Our Nepali friends wanted to get in on it, but there's just too much to cooking and eating one.  I didn't know where to begin to explain it. 
     The abundance of artichokes in Tunisia has been a wonder.  They have been coming in by truckloads for several months, giving an interested cook that opportunity to finally explore all of those artichoke preparations she had read about, but never tried.
     But I can tell that we're getting down to the end, now.  They are still in good shape in the market, but there are just a handful.  I wanted to buy 20 artichokes on Sunday and I bought 18, cleaning out that vendor.
     I wanted to can artichoke hearts which sounds to me like a completely luxurious thing to do.  I couldn't even quite think of how to do it and then when I was in Rome, I met Giorgio.  I was at a dinner party on the first night and my table companions were lamenting about a little brain drain that is happening in Italy with many of their brightest and most talented moving off to London or New York, but this is not where I met Giorgio.  I met him the next day at a bookstore with an English section.  He is a celebrity Italian chef who owns a famous restaurant in London called Locanda Locatelli.  He is exactly what my dinner hosts were talking about and he has a beautiful cookbook that I will cook through page by page... this time.

     He did offer a recipe for canning artichokes a sort of hmmph... who would need instructions on doing that anyway.  It wasn't actually that bad to hand peel 18 whole artichokes.  My hands are a little tender today, but no permanent damage.  I would say end to end, it only took me two hours.  I haven't tried them yet, but all of the jars sealed, which is the first triumph of canning.  And now I can let the artichoke season pass in peace.