Saturday, February 27, 2016

travel, food, and vin d'orange

This post started as quick recipe for vin d'orange - a refreshing orange-infused liquor that Stephen and I sipped all summer long last year. And just as it should, food (or in this case, a drink) sparked a memory, which turned into a story, and I couldn't bear to give you one without the other.


During the summer of 2013,  Stephen and I brought nine-month-old Charlotte with us to Europe to visit David, Kelly and their two young girls, some of our dearest college friends who were living in Germany.  David, Kelly, and Stephen are travelers and adventures by nature.  They are people who would happily leave on a moment's notice to go anywhere in the world, throwing a few items into a bag and trusting they'll find food, shelter, and friendly people to help when needed.  They are flexible, up for anything, and can spin a traveling nightmare into a hilarious memory.  I need these people in my life because as much as I love traveling while in the midst of it, the planning and preparation is exhausting.

I have spent time in Europe, Africa, Asia and all corners of the US, and before each trip, I have the same internal dialogue.  The homebody in me is anxiously screaming, "It would just be so much easier to stay home," and the adventurer in me, who for years has been fighting to get out from under a pile of practicality, is faintly heard in the background, reminding me I'll love it once I just get out of the house and make it to the airport.  

This exact scenario played out as I prepared for us to visit David and Kelly, and after weeks of self-doubt, followed by self-talk, I locked our front door and headed to the airport, ready to brave an eight-hour flight with a nine-month-old, who by the way was an absolute rock star.  She slept nearly the entire flight there, and I was appalled that the other passengers weren't applauding for us as we exited the plane in Germany.  Didn't they know how many hours of worrying went into the planning of this flight? And surely it was those well-spent hours of worrying that contributed to such a successful journey.

David picked us up at the airport, and despite our desperate need for a change of clothes, a shower, and a toothbrush, we went out for pastries and espresso instead.  I love Europe.

For the next two weeks, we piled three car seats into the back row of David and Kelly's mini van, and our team of seven took western Europe by storm.  We drank too much beer, ate too much schnitzel, and sadly bought nowhere near enough pastries from the morning bread truck.  We strapped our children into Ergos as we roamed cobblestone villages and held on for dear life as David drove that mini van up the narrow, windy roads of northern Italy during our four day stint on Lake Como.  And because David and Kelly are awesome like that, they encouraged us to leave Charlotte with them for a night and hop on a train to Paris.  (I try to use the phrase "hop on a train to Paris" as much as possible in my life because it makes me sound way cooler than I am.)  We left Germany in the wee hours of the morning, and made it to Paris in time for an early lunch and a day of sightseeing.

Paris has always intimidated me.  I have not one trace of French in me, and I am quite certain my Chicago accent, boot cut jeans, and inability to even look at pâté immediately foiled my best laid plans to pull off Parisian class.  Nonetheless, we did Paris right.  We saw the Louvre, toured Notre Dame, and took at least forty-seven pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower.  We wandered bookstores and art galleries, kissed on the Locks of Love bridge and, most importantly, sampled the best of the Parisian cafés. 

Stephen and I can hold our own in various food situations.  We can pound greasy burgers from a hole-in-the-wall diner, and we can happily overpay for small portions of pretentious food.  We like trying strange unique foods and approach our travels with an "eat as the locals do" kind of attitude.  The vast majority of time, this theory has served us well, leaving only a small handful of times we couldn't quite stomach the local delicacies.  But we certainly weren't expecting French food to give us any trouble. I am embarrassed to admit we still have not lived down the shame of our one and only dinner in Paris.

Stephen found a small, charming restaurant, A la Biche au Bois, that online reviews raved about, dubbing it a local, affordable gem not yet taken over by tourists. Sounded perfect. It opened at 5 pm, and there was a short line waiting outside the door.  The restaurant was small with one main room and tables no more than 12 inches apart. The maître d' began seating guests, filling tables in a counterclockwise system, beginning with the table in the front right corner.

Stephen and I were the third party to be seated, and we squeezed into a tiny table, carefully keeping our elbows tucked to our sides lest we bump the lady who was sitting alone at the table next to us.  The maître d' promptly sat the next guests at the table on our other side and continued down the row, filling up all the tables on the right side of the restaurant; it didn't seem to matter that there were a couple dozen empty tables throughout the room.  The method was clear - pack 'em in tight and do so in an orderly fashion.

As to be expected, the menu was written in French and the server only spoke French.  We began pointing to items on the menu and hoping for the best.  Various wines, salads, soups, and pots of bubbly goodness came to our table, and to our delight, everything was outstanding.

Midway though our main course, the lone lady next to us had finished her entrée, and the server brought her out a glorious site - a large tray filled with at least ten different cheeses.  The customer pointed to the cheeses she wanted, and we watched as the server cut off unlimited chunks of cheese and piled them onto her plate. 

Stephen and I could read each others' faces: what did we have to point to on the menu to get that tray? 

A few minutes later, the server brought the same tray over to another table, and we watched in awe out of the corner of our eyes.  We soon came to realize that this heaven-sent cheese tray was offered to all guest between their entrée and dessert.  Can you imagine?  A limitless cheese course, in Pairs.

Stephen and I lean toward excessive, unabashed enthusiasm when it comes to good food, and we totally wanted to pull a Zach Morris "time out" moment to scream our heads off with excitement.  It took every bit of self control in us to maintain our Parisian demeanor. 

We picked up speed during the second half of our entrée and eagerly watched as our dishes were cleared.  We must have been giddy with glee when the server lower that glorious platter down to our table.  The language barrier couldn't stop us now; cheese is a universal language, and we had our plates piled high with samples of nearly every type of cheese offered, far more than we saw anyone else take.

I remember the next moments vividly.  Stephen, whom I have watched devour an entire block of bleu cheese entirely on his own, went right for the veiny wedge while I scooped up a chuck of what appeared to be brie.  Within three seconds, our childish, goofy grins turned to confusion, then shock, and finally pure disgust.

What was in our mouths? Our senses were awaken to the taste, smell, and feel of rotten just sitting on our tongues.  We starred at each other, unsure of the next move.  Stephen finally close his eyes and swallowed; I honestly thought he was going to hurl. I wasn't as brave. Ever so mindful of the other guests just inches away, who just minutes earlier had happily consumed their own cheese plates,  I casually brought my napkin to my mouth and disposed of the rancidness.

Again, how badly we needed a time-out moment to figure out what had just happened.  Cheese platters are our love languages.  We both looked down at our plates which still contained a small mountain of various cheeses.  We couldn't stop now and embarrass ourselves by becoming those wasteful Americans who couldn't even handle real French cheese.

Maybe we just had a rough start.  Surely they couldn't all be so foul.

Take two.

Oh boy. Same scenario.

Stephen somehow managed to get it down, while my napkin again came to my rescue.  I was ready to call it quits, but Stephen is much too prideful when it comes to cheese.  I knew he'd never surrender to thought of being taken down by a cheese course.

"Put it in your purse," Stephen quietly commanded me.

"Are you kidding me? I'm not putting chunks of cheese into my purse."

Stephen whispered, over pronouncing each word.  "Wrap them in your napkin and put the napkin in your purse."

"You want me to steal the napkin?" I responded, hopeful that we really were the only ones who spoke English.

"We cannot leave all this cheese on our plates.  If we do, we might as well leave our dignity, too."

Over the course of the next five minutes, I slowly managed to get most of the uneaten cheese into the pockets of my purse.  We'd like to think no one saw, but there really is no way to be sure.  We watched that cheese tray come and go from each table, hoping we'd see another diner who thought something was off.  But alas, it seemed all of Paris was happy with the contents of this platter - a platter we could only presume sits out at room temperature for weeks on end.  

It's been nearly three years, and we still carry the shame of the cheese tray. 

The fateful platter


Soon after returning from our weeks in Europe, Stephen declared he wanted to cook more French food.  I have learned that when Stephen makes such a declaration in the kitchen, it is best to respond with great enthusiasm and then step out of his way, keeping all feelings of hesitation buried as Amazon boxes begin arriving at our doorstep with the needed cookbooks, tools, and unusual ingredients for his culinary adventures.  Anything less than enthusiasm might be portrayed as unsupportive and result in banishment from my role as official taste tester. 

Do not mistake my sarcasm for complaining; I love when Stephen goes all Top Chef in the kitchen.   If you follow our Instagram account, @bakeitlikebecker, you know Stephen has been in a homemade pasta-making craze for the past year, and despite the influx of new cookbooks, awkwardly shaped gadgets, and fifteen bags of imported pasta flour (I wish I was kidding), I have nothing but good things to say about his culinary endeavors. (And, for the record, Stephen's ragù is otherwordly.)

And just because writers give three examples to prove a point, I will also tell you that we have 700 bags of organic black tea, glass bottles of various shapes and sizes, and a giant SCOBY (which has an eerie resemblance to a placenta) growing in our pantry from Stephen's days of homemade Kombucha making.

He is so ridiculous, and I absolutely love him for it.

The following recipe is one of many perks from Stephen's French cuisine phase.  He saw this recipe for vin d'orange on The New York Times, and since we already had all those class jars and bottles (thank you homemade Kombucha), we made it last spring and enjoyed sipping this liquor all summer long.  We just mixed up another batch this weekend and since it must sit for 6 weeks, now is the time to get started. 

Your summer evenings on the back patio will thank you.

  • 4-5 oranges (If you can get your hands on Seville oranges, you will be a purist in vin d'orange making and don't need to add the grapefruit as Seville oranges already give a slightly more bitter flavor. But Seville oranges are hard to find in the US, and other oranges will work just fine.)
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 grapefruit
  • 1 1/2 cups of sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, split in half
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 bottles of rosé wine
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup dark rum (optional - this can be added to the finished product if you want a slightly less bitter flavor)

Wash your fruit well since anything in the peel will be brought out by the alcohol.

Slice or quarter your fruit. 

Add one bottle of wine to a large glass jug.  Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.

Add the fruit, vodka, and as much of the remaining wine as will fit into your jug. 
 (Feel free to drink the rest.)

Stir everything together, and then throw in your vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. 

Cover your jar and store in a dark, cool place for six weeks (no need to refrigerate, but you can if you want). Stir occasionally throughout the six weeks. Practice your patience. 

After six weeks, remove the fruit, vanilla bean, and cinnamon stick. Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth several times to remove all the pulp.  

If using rum, stir that in.
At this point, some recipes say to let it rest in your fridge a few more weeks before drinking, but let's be honest - no one is doing that.  

Traditionally, vin d'orange is served over rocks or neat as an apéritif on a hot summer day, but we also liked it mixed with champagne or sparkling water. 

Here's to travel, stinky cheese, and culinary adventures.

P.S. Stephen is determined to go back to that same restaurant in France to conquer that cheese plate once and for all. 
I'm bringing Tupperware in my purse just in case.

Monday, February 15, 2016

fight for fun

There are three books that have shaped my teaching more than any other: Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller, Teaching with Intention by Debbie Miller, and Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop by Patrick Allen.

In Patrick's book (I'm pretending we're on a first name basis), he recounts a conversation from years ago that he had with a friend and colleague.  They were out for coffee, chatting about former students and retired teaching friends when rather out of the blue, Patrick's friend asked him:

"What are your guiding principals?  What are you willing to fight for?"


I can only imagine these questions begin thrown out by a wide-eyed, inspirational administrator to kick off the first staff meeting of the year.  There's a brand new group of kiddos ready to trample the doors in less than 24 hours.  Welcome letters need copying, desks need name tags, and hallway displays already need more tape. Teachers' minds are swirling with to-dos, and we are being asked to consider our guiding principles.

Double ugh.

These really are the kind of questions that make the teacher in me cringe. Not because they aren't important questions, but because I should have a really good answer, and up until a few years ago, I didn't.

My guiding principals were whatever my mentor teacher told me to do, and I was fighting for survival, fighting to get out of my school by 5:00 at night, and fighting to stay one day ahead on lesson planning.  And let's be honest, I was totally losing those fights.

I was comforted my Patrick's response. 

"I don't know."

He, too, was taken off guard, claiming the casual conversation between colleagues was feeling more like a job interview.  He ended up rattling off some answer about every child being a learner, thinking strategy instruction, building community, blah, blah, blah.  His colleague called him out on such a ridiculous, fluffy answer and told him to really think about these questions. 

It was to my great advantage that I was reading this book during the summer.  And not just any summer - a summer before I had children.  Can you say "time on my hands?" To my credit, I used this time wisely and really thought about how I'd answer these questions.

By the end of that summer, I'd typed out my answers, and they've been in the front of my lesson planning book for the past six years. 

What are my guiding principles?  

There are a million ways to run a classroom, many of which are effective, but what beliefs would determine each decision I make? I wrote out eight beliefs, but number three seems most applicable to my current musing.

Children learn best when I am engaged and genuinely enthusiastic. 

What am I willing to fight for?  

What do I believe to be so important to the education of my students that if someone told me "Uh uh, Mrs. Becker, no more of that," I would be passionate enough and knowledgeable enough to fight for?

Fun. I would fight for fun.

A few weeks ago, a teacher popped into my office after school.  State testing season is just around the corner, and the stress of it is bringing out the crazies in us all.  We got talking about numbers and percentages and who passed last year and who didn't pass and by how many points and bubble kids and rubrics and constructive responses and testing tips and tricks and pretty soon we just had to laugh at how ridiculous we sounded. 

"Are you having fun teaching?" I asked her.

"I always have fun teaching," she said.

"What about your kids?  Are they having fun at school?"

"Yes and no.  I've worked hard to create an environment that allows for fun, but they dread the repetition and the demand.  They know we are all pushing for a better score. "

I hated that she was right. 

"We're really gonna have to fight for fun around here, ya know?  But I think it's possible."

Since that conversation, I keep thinking about that phrase - fight for fun.  The fun isn't going to just happen; we will have to battle through standards, assessments, teacher evaluations, assessments, data charts, and yes, another round of assessments to find it. But hidden at the bottom of that pile is the thrill of learning and the joy of teaching that drove every educator into their classroom.   

We've started to convince ourselves there isn't time for fun.  We aren't allowed to have fun because  fun isn't rigorous enough.  (Good grief.) 

At the beginning of this month, I became a "traveling  instructional coach," working now in three  elementary schools instead of just one which has given me a great opportunity to be in even more outstanding classrooms. Every moment in a classroom is a confirmation to me that teaching is hard.  Education is an exhausting place to be right now, and the government isn't doing anything to make it easier. But I still believe that fun is possible. I believe it because I see it. I see classrooms dancing, singing, and laughing.  I've seen art projects,  paint, and even glitter.  I have seen science be an icky, sticky, mess and social studies involve costumes.  I've listened to teachers read books in such a magical way that a carpet full of seven-year-olds break out into applause. And it is no surprise to me that in those classrooms, the ones where teachers are fighting for fun, all those assessment and testing scores just kinda fall into place. 

(I will now dismount my soapbox.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

lentil chili (sausage optional)

I have made this chili a handful of times and usually end up standing over the pot, shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth while I'm supposed to be doing dishes.

It is everything you hope for in a chili -  filling, flavorful, freezable, (I really didn't intend for all my descriptors to begin with f) and easily adaptable to what I feel like or have on hand.

Most weeknight meals in our home are vegetarian, and this one has definitely claimed a spot in my wintertime rotation.  However, this past week I had some chicken sausage links already opened, so I threw them in.  You can't go wrong by adding sausage, but truthfully, this chili is equally fantastic without.

Either way, make this soon.

  • 4 links precooked chicken sausage, sliced into coins
  • 8 cups vegetable (or chicken) stock, divided
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 package of lentils (16 oz. bag)
  • 2 (15 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
  • a good handful of chopped cilantro (Unless you're making this for my sister-in-law who doesn't like cilantro...what?!?!? Crazy.)

Heat a large pot on medium high heat. 

If you are using sausage, drop that in and let it cook for about five minutes, until lightly browned on both sides. 

Add onion, red pepper, carrot, and garlic.  Cook, stirring frequently until the veggies start to stick to the bottom of the pan - about five minutes. 

Add 3 TB of broth and continue cooking the veggies until soft and lightly browned. 

Add chili powder.  Stir constantly for one minute. 

Add lentils, tomatoes, and the rest of the broth.  Bring to a boil. 

Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, on medium low heat for about thirty minutes. 

Uncover and cook for about ten more minutes.

Stir in cilantro and serve.

Go back for seconds.