Don’t Say the “R” Word

Retirement. Like most people who have been working since they finished school, I thought about how glorious retirement would be. No alarm clock for starters. Lots of time to travel, learn new things, read for unlimited periods of time, cook gourmet meals every day, do some volunteer work, maybe even improve my pitiful excuse for housekeeping skills. However I thought about it though, I thought about it being in the distant future.

I thought I would teach until I didn’t love it anymore, or until I felt that I had lost my edge. I never for one moment thought a virus and a pandemic would force me into the decision to not teach this year.

See what I did there? Even after 35 days since I called my principal with my decision, I still can’t force myself to say the “R” word. I haven’t posted much about it on my social media platforms, mostly because I am still rather heartbroken about it. I miss my colleagues, I miss the students, I miss the well-earned and well-spaced breaks throughout the school year, I miss summers off, and most of all, I miss feeling like I was making a difference, molding young minds, getting 8th graders ready to read and write for high school and college. I miss feeling important.

My parents were hard workers. My dad worked two jobs to put us through school. After a full day at work, he drove the late bus for my high school, which I found embarrassing at the time because he was stern with the football players and cheerleaders, universally known as the popular kids. Being in marching band and library club, I didn’t need anything else to distance me from the popular kids.

My mom was a legal secretary and renown for her typing skills, until the day they yanked her IBM Selectric away from her, replacing it with a word processor. She hated that machine with a passion. I think that’s when she started planning.

One morning, dressed and ready for work, my dad came into the living room to see my mom still in her duster and slippers (that’s what she called her robe, which she also used as an apron when she started cooking dinner still in her work clothes). He asked her why she wasn’t dressed for work, and her reply was, “I retired.” She said she had told him that she would retire on her birthday but never mentioned it again. No party, no send-off, just there one day and not there the next. I have no idea if she gave her boss notice or not. She was a tough-as-nails Scottish lass until the very end.

My dad worked until my mom’s health deteriorated to the point that he felt he needed to stay home with her. His heart wasn’t in it anymore any way, as his work, where he was a manager, had been farmed out to a third-party consultant, and boy, did they make a lot of changes. Unfortunately, my dad did not fit into their plans, which included a laptop and a cellphone, and they made life difficult for him. So, he retired. I tried to get him to pursue litigation for age discrimination but he would not have it. He said he was quite happy to sit on the sofa with my mom, remote control in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other.

I’ve been complimented in year-end reviews for my work ethic, particularly during the 20 years I worked in the legal field, where being a workaholic is as highly praised as a Harvard law degree. I know I got it from my parents, and maybe that’s why I’m struggling with the “R” word. If I were younger or in better physical shape I would be in my classroom right now, grading summer work, sanitizing everything after the kids left for the day, laughing with colleagues, doing lesson plans.

But, I’m not younger or in better shape, so I’m not teaching this year. I’m going to tutor students via Zoom. I’m going to write more, and hopefully get a piece of fiction published. I’m going to make dinner for my family every night. I’m going to walk my dog. I’m going to read A LOT more. I’m going to improve my knitting and crochet skills. I’m probably not going to improve my housekeeping skills, but hey, that was a pipe dream anyways. I’m just not going to say the “R” word. Not yet.

Calling Doctor Zatarain …

Have you heard the term “doctored up,” or is that a Southern phrase? It means to add your own twist to something, usually to improve the taste or appearance of something, as in, “She doctored up the punch with a bottle of rum.” (LOL. Sorry, that’s the covid talking.)

Yesterday I wrote about buying fresh seafood at my local farmers’ market, specifically a pound of shrimp and a pound of fish filets each Saturday. I lauded the benefits of cooking with fresh ingredients instead of processed foods. Well, there a few exceptions, and one of them is Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix, which I made last night after having doctored it up to my own tastes.

I grew up eating jambalaya, always made from scratch, and usually made by my Uncle Joe. He isn’t really my uncle, but the brother of my dad’s brother-in-law. Uncle Joe could have won any cooking contest on earth with his jambalaya. What made it special was his addition of lima beans…just a sprinkle for color and an extra veggie boost. Not traditional, but I love it this way.

I sometimes see jambalaya on restaurant menus, but I never order it. Why? Because it is never, not ever, jambalaya. Let’s start with what jambalaya is NOT. It is not stew over a bed of rice. It is not soup with rice in it. It is not made with pasta (?). It does not have tomatoes in it, unless you are Creole and not Cajun.

So what IS jambalaya? It is a rice and meat dish that is cooked together slowly until the liquid is absorbed into the rice while flavoring the meat. Good jambalaya is tricky because rice can be tricky. Too wet, too mushy, too crunchy, too dry, too gloppy, too gummy. There are lots of ways rice can go wrong.

If you had to compare jambalaya to something, it would be the famous Spanish dish of paella. The cooking techniques are similar, although the spices and seasoning differ greatly, with paella relying upon saffron to bring its color and unique flavor to the dish. Uncooked rice is added to a pan where vegetables and aromatics have been sautéed together. Liquid is added, just enough to cook the rice and get completely absorbed, along with spices and seasonings. Seafood, sausages, and other meats are added in stages, depending on their individual cooking times. It is cooked slowly, stirring every now and then so it doesn’t stick to the bottom (which is the main difference from paella where the burned rice at the bottom is highly desired).

So, how do I make my doctored up jambalaya? This is not so much a recipe as a suggestion of how to go about making something that looks and tastes like jambalaya.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a heavy-bottomed dutch oven with a tight fitting lid. Sauté chopped onion, garlic, green and red bell pepper, green onions, celery, and parsley in the oil until soft but not brown. Season with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the Zatarain’s mix and the water as indicated on the box. The Zatarain’s box calls for 1 pound of meat: cubed chicken, sliced smoked sausage or andouille (sauté first to reduce the greasiness), and/or cubed ham. It could be one type of meat or a mixture. It can be left-over pork chops or left-over rotisserie chicken. If adding seafood, add it closer to the end of cooking time so that the seafood doesn’t get rubbery. (Here’s where you add the lima beans, straight from the freezer bag!) Stir together and bring to a boil. Cook tightly covered 20-25 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Stir every now and then to prevent sticking but over-stirring will break up the rice and make it gloppy.

When I make this with shrimp, I always make a quick stock with the shrimp shells (heads and tails included) and I use this instead of the plain water called for on the box. This brings so much flavor to the table.

If you have a family of yankees who don’t like spicy Cajun food, you can add 1/2 cup of long grain white rice (uncooked) and an additional cup of water to the mix. This will dilute the heat a bit.

Serve with a green salad and some crusty French bread. Louisiana heaven–albeit doctored up and not from scratch–on a plate! Bon appetit!

Teach a man to (cook) fish. . .

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way many shop for groceries; my family is no exception. At the start of the lockdown, my husband shopped for groceries at our neighborhood Safeway every two or three weeks. He went during the “senior hours” to reduce some of the risk. Our millennial daughter suggested Target’s shop online and deliver service, and we soon switched to that until we got a gallon of milk that was already past its due date. At this stage we are doing Target for non-perishables and Safeway for meat and dairy, but for the last two months, we have been shopping at a small farmers’ market every Saturday morning for produce.

I’ve always loved shopping at a farmers’ market. For the two years I lived in Belgium, it was a fun family outing on Saturday morning to pick up fresh produce, Italian deli items like pancetta, and of course, cheese. The cheese truck always had the longest line but it was well worth the wait. On the way out, we would stop at the poulet roti truck for a rotisserie chicken, roast potatoes, and sausages, for our lunch.

Surprisingly, while the pandemic had a drastic effect on farmers selling to restaurants, farmers’ markets sales remained static. An interesting look at the numbers can be found here.

The quality of the fruits and vegetables purchased at the Pike Central Farm Market is far superior to anything we can buy at Safeway. The first nectarine I sliced and passed around to my husband and daughter sold all three of us. With our newly earned status of “regulars,” we are in and out in no time as we, duly masked, make the small circuit to our favorite stalls: multi-grain seeded bread, nectarines, watermelon, tomatoes, burrata, corn, bell peppers, and fish.

Fish at a farmers’ market? Buying fish at Pike Central Farm Market is the closest experience I’ve had to my childhood of eating really fresh seafood every week. I grew up in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, nicknamed “fisherman’s paradise.” Weekly we feasted on freshly caught shrimp, crabs, crawfish, oysters, redfish, catfish, flounder, and more. I had no idea how good I had it until I moved away and had to {gasp} pay for seafood.

Each week at Central Farm Market I buy a pound of shrimp and a pound of whatever fish they have on offer. So far we’ve had flounder, halibut, red snapper, and bronzini. The shrimp is easy as I have a plethora of recipes from my Cajun upbringing to rely upon: shrimp creole, shrimp étouffée, seafood gumbo, shrimp and corn soup, and for tonight’s dinner, shrimp jambalaya.

Shrimp Creole

The fish preparation has sent me to my cookbooks, especially types of fish I didn’t grow up eating like halibut and bronzini. Trying to cook and eat in a more healthy manner, frying fish would negate adding more fish to our diet. In my research, I’ve found that baking fish at 375° for 12-15 minutes on a sheet pan, well-seasoned with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and a pinch of dried thyme, pretty much works for all types. If the filet is thicker, like salmon or halibut, it may take a few additional minutes. Add a steamed veggie fresh from the farmers’ market and you have a lovely and healthy meal.

Find a farmers’ market near you and see what is available. Buy what you can eat in the coming week and store it properly once you get it home. It’s healthier than processed foods or foods that have traveled many miles to your local supermarket, and you can help out a farmer along the way!

Year 1 (again)

My new “classroom,” a/k/a our home office

In the days ahead, social media will be flooded with photos of kids holding signs indicating their new class year at school. There will also be pictures of teachers proudly displaying the same sentiment, “My 5th year teaching!” or “My 14th year teaching” which is what my sign would have said this year. But for COVID-19.

Due to falling into a category where chances of a difficult recovery from COVID-19 are statistically higher, I’ve elected to sit out this year. My school, which I dearly loved, is celebrating the start of the new school year today, August 25, 2020, in a hybrid formula, with some students in class five days a week, and some students attending school virtually throughout the school day. I wish my former colleagues the best of luck during this stressful time.

Today, I am holding the #1, marking my first year (again) in a career situation. I will be offering my services to tutor and/or teach via Zoom, while continuing with my freelance writing career. These are all things I had planned on doing during retirement, but I was hoping to decide when that would be, not based upon my doctor’s recommendation, my family’s urging, or my concern over my own health.

My first career, from 1978-2002, was in the legal field, primarily in commercial real estate and shopping center management. For two years my family lived overseas where I volunteered at the international school my daughters attended. Upon our return to the US, I began working in education, first as a youth minister from 2004-2007, and then as a middle school language arts teacher from 2007-2020. While teaching writing to 7th and 8th graders, my own creative juices pushed me into my third career, as a freelance writer, with profiles and articles being published in regional parenting magazines from my area.

As I struggled with my decision all summer, I experienced the same anxiety and restlessness that many teachers and parents have felt. While I will greatly miss the daily contact and connection with my students and colleagues, I know this is the right decision for me.

My goal is to document this first year of change here on this site with daily posts about all of my favorite things in life: family, friends, faith, food, teaching, reading, and writing. Follow me on this journey as I begin with Year 1 (again).


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No Gobble Gobble for Dinner

Enjoy this short comic piece of mine recently published by The Daily Drunk Literary Magazine! You may enjoy it even more if you knew my father Roy Blanchard!

https://thedailydrunk.com/f/no-gobble-gobble-for-dinner

 

 

Book of the Day!

Enjoyed the original format, the movie, and now reading the Young Readers’ Edition by @scholasticteach @scholasticbookclubs

Can’t wait to teach it next year! #amreading #amteaching #amwriting #lessonplans #summerreading #teacherlife

Thanks @marthastewart48 for the lunch idea! #lunchonthepatio watermelon 🍉 mozzarella 🧀

#hiddenfigures #blacklivesmatter

Shielding our Differences

The summer before my first year of full-time teaching in middle school literature and English, I looked over the textbooks I would be using. As a second-career teacher with no formal education courses behind me, I had no idea how to plan a unit, but I knew how to read and analyze a piece of literature, and more importantly (to me), I loved talking about literature. Friends had told me over the years that I made a book seem so exciting they couldn’t wait to read it. This is exactly what I wanted to do in my classroom: instill in 7th and 8th graders my love of reading.

In the 7th-grade literature anthology there was a short story called “Suzy and Leah” by Jane Yolen. It was very different from other short stories in the anthology. I hadn’t really seen anything like it before, and certainly not for young readers. The story is told from the perspectives of two different 7th grade girls as excerpts from their diaries. The story is laid out such that Suzy recounts the activities of a day in her life, and directly below that, Leah recounts the activities of the same day in her life.

These girls are polar opposites. Suzy is a white American born and living in Oswego, New York. She is pretty, blond, and popular. She has everything she has ever wanted, including a closet full of pretty dishes and a mother who prepares home-cooked meals every day.  One might say that Suzy is a spoiled brat with no idea what is going on outside of her own little bubble of a perfect life, which is not entirely her fault.

Leah is a Jewish refugee who has been sent to America with other Holocaust survivors. She has lost everything, her parents, her younger brother, her extended family, her family farm, her security. She has nothing of her own and is given Suzy’s hand-me-down clothing to wear. Because of her experiences in the concentration camp, she is terrified of everything and everyone. The Americans tell her she will be fine, but that is what the Nazis said as well – at first.

The conflict of this story is that Suzy has been assigned to be Leah’s buddy at school, to help her get oriented and learn English. Suzy is unhappy about this because of Leah’s sullen personality, which Suzy takes personally as she has no idea what Leah has been through. Suzy’s mother goes through Suzy’s closet and donates some of her older clothing to the refugee camp and as luck would have it, Leah wears Suzy’s favorite dress to school the first day. To add insult to injury, Suzy’s mother invites Leah over for dinner and instead of eating the food, Leah wraps it in her handkerchief and sticks it in her pocket. She is bringing food back to a young boy in the refugee camp who reminds her of her now-deceased brother. The climax of the story is that Leah falls ill and is rushed to surgery for a burst appendix. She nearly dies because she hides the pain so long, afraid that the same thing that happened to sick people in the concentration camps will happen to her if she admits she is sick. It is during her convalescence that Suzy reads Leah’s diary and begins to understand what Leah has been through and why she is so sullen. In response, and as an apology, Suzy brings her own diary to Leah in the hospital, so she can read it and see Suzy through her own eyes. It is through the willingness of the girls to share their fears and failings that they become friends, letting down their individual shields and getting to know each other, an important lesson for our world today.

Jane Yolen was once asked why she wrote “Suzy and Leah” and her response was that she wanted to write a Holocaust story for her young children to read, something that brought to life the horrors of what happened in Nazi Germany while setting the story in the safety of American soil. At my end of year survey, “Suzy and Leah” always ranks in the top three of things my 7th graders have read. It is a gateway piece of literature for further study of the Holocaust for my students as they mature.

The alternating diary excerpts and contrasting perspectives of the two girls is very compelling. Jane Yolen did a masterful job of developing the character and personality of the two girls in such a short space. She is a great storyteller. Not only that, this short story completely changed the way I view epistolary novels as I had previously not been a fan of the genre. For me, “Suzy and Leah” was a game-changer. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is available as a stand-alone piece of literature or as part of a collection of short stories that can be purchased. I’ve only been able to find it as part of the Prentice Hall Penguin anthology for 7th-grade literature, which is a great collection. If you can find it, I highly recommend you get to know “Suzy and Leah.”

Book of the Day!

Can’t wait to dive into this one! Beautiful day, great coffee, great author. Loved #deadwake and have read several books on #churchill already. #amreading #teacherlife #summerreading #readingteacher #communitycoffee #ErikLarsonfanclub

The “Pan”-Demic Experiments

“Sometimes you feel like a nut / Sometimes you don’t / Almond Joy’s got nuts / Mounds don’t” was the jingle used during the 1970s to advertise two of my favorite candy bars. 

SONY DSC

By Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11364190

And, likewise, sometimes, I feel like doing culinary research for several hours, shopping at multiple grocery stores and markets, gathering stand mixer, blender, bread machine, and an array of measuring cups and measuring spoons on my countertop, to create a dessert worthy of the final round of Food Network’s Chopped. However, sometimes, I just want to whip up something quickly with what I have on hand, get it in the oven, and have it on a saucer thirty minutes later. 

Yes, these sorts of desserts rely heavily on packaged, processed elements, but while this pandemic has bestowed upon us all ample time for big projects, it hasn’t always given us the energy or enthusiasm for them. I do enough cooking and baking from scratch that it doesn’t bother me one bit to give my family something made from a box once in a while. 

One recent COVID-19 night my older daughter, who lives and works from home, was itching for a brownie. We had no packaged brownie mix, and we had not found a source for all-purpose flour yet, which was nowhere to be seen on the shelves of our local grocery store. We did have a chocolate cake mix, though. So, off to the internet we went where we quickly found a food blog about cake mix brownies. I’ve been making cake mix cookies for years–one cake mix, two eggs, and a half-cup of vegetable oil mixed together by hand with a wooden spoon, portioned out with an ice cream scoop onto a baking sheet, and voila, a batch of cookies before you can bat an eye. But, brownies? 

Our first experiment produced something that totally satisfied her craving for a brownie, moist and slightly gooey, definitely chocolate and cakey. The best part was that it only required four ingredients and one bowl, a wooden spoon, and one pan: chocolate cake mix, two eggs, half-cup of vegetable oil, and a cup of chocolate chips, mixed by hand and spread into a greased 8×8 square cake pan. Baked for 20 minutes at 350°, the results were amazing, and better yet, FAST.

Yesterday, I decided to experiment again, this time with a yellow cake mix, which I mixed with the requisite two eggs and half-cup of vegetable oil, but I also added one teaspoon of cinnamon, one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, and a cup of cinnamon chips I had stashed away in the freezer. After I spread it out into the greased 8×8 square cake pan, I sprinkled the top with cinnamon sugar and baked it for 20 minutes at 350°. Cinnamon Chip BrownieMy daughter said it tasted like the cinnamon swirl coffee cake at Starbucks, which I haven’t tried but I’ll take her word for it. Suffice it to say, we were all happy to sit on the back patio with a cup of coffee and a quick treat that didn’t leave the kitchen looking like a White House State Dinner had just been prepared. 

Next on the list for experimentation: strawberry brownies! Stay tuned!

Peace

#alllivesmatter #prayforpeace ☮️ #prayforjustice🙏 #prayforequality🙏🏽 [image not mine]