Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How to subdue a pumpkin

I love pumpkin. It has this delicious, neutral, slightly sweet taste that makes pumpkins perfect for a wide variety of dishes - soups, pies, quiches, cakes. Not to mention the lovely bright orange color. It's just that, whenever I'm faced with a nice fat chunk of pumpkin, the question is - how am I going to cut it/slice it/grate it? Uncooked pumpkin so hard that, whenever a recipe calls for pumpkin, most of my work actually involves dealing with the unruly vegetable. 

So today, when I wanted to make pumpkin fritters, I came up with a brilliant but simple solution: I took the whole piece, boiled it in a large pot, and when it was done (which doesn't take a long time), I could just scoop the pumpkin from the rind into a bowl, easily mash it up, and voila - it's ready for the making of fritters. No fuss, no mess, no sweat. 

Here's to kitchen tips that make life easier! Especially now that so much of my time is taken up with preparations for the house move, which is due to take place in about a week and a half. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Orangey orange cake and a lot of cardboard boxes

Packing is now in full swing here. Our guest room is bursting with boxes, the closets are almost empty, the curtains have been taken down, and I have this uncomfortable and slightly melancholic feeling I always experience as I look at an emptying house. So many memorable times were spent here, both sad and happy. So many dinners, lunches and cuppas with friends. So many leisurely evenings with propped up feet and a good book, or curled up in an armchair with some yarn and a crochet project. I am so looking forward to when we have moved into the new house and I can start the hard but satisfying work of unpacking, after which everything will be in proper order again. 

Since we have at least two weeks left here, though, my kitchen cupboards are still full and cooking/baking is going on as usual. Today I decided to go ahead and try the orangey variation of the lemony lemon cake. My husband surprised me with a bag of oranges last week - they couldn't be fresh at this season, of course, but they served well enough. Instead of 2 large lemons, I used 4 small oranges - 3 for the batter and another small one for the syrup, and was able to use a little less sugar. 



Mmm... tomorrow, I think I'll make orange juice to go with breakfast. Nothing jump-starts a day like a small glass of fresh orange juice. Why small? Because I'm too lazy to make enough for a big glass for everyone. ;o)

I have detached myself from the news websites a little in the past days, because I felt that anxiety about what is going on was making it difficult for me to cope with the several high-pressure personal situations we are currently facing as a family. I do have to say, however, that while I am generally focused on my private little corner with its chickens, whatever is cooking or baking, and getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a child who woke up with a cough, I also live in Israel. Moreover, I unashamedly live in the "disputed" area of the so-called West Bank, and indeed, as a Jew who believes in the Torah I believe Jews have a right to live - and live safely - in all parts of Israel. While I will never be a second Daniel Greenfield, I will very occasionally share my opinions on certain regional hot topics. 

I am not an authority on anything; not an official, not an expert, not anyone's representative. Since this is a private corner of the web, I did not sign any contract that states my content must be consistent, or that I am under obligation to read, publish, or respond to every comment. Really, if I did, I think my mind would go numb. Just today I received a mile-length scathing retort which stated that, as I admit I was born out of wedlock, this fact must have affected my thinking abilities (!). While it was mildly amusing, I didn't bother to finish reading. I had more important things on my agenda (like packing all my husband's jeans). 

And thus, dear friends, I reserve the right to be as eclectic, inconsistent, and unprofessional as I please. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Breastfeeding questions and concerns

A couple of days ago, a friend emailed me with some concerns about breastfeeding, and I thought I'd share several of the general points here, because they are often asked by mothers of new babies. I'm not a lactation consultant, of course, but as a dietitian and as someone who loves breastfeeding, I often find myself answering questions such as what a mother should eat while nourishing a baby at her breast, when baby is supposed to start solids, etc. 

1. Crying baby = hungry baby = "you don't have enough milk"

Are you familiar with this scenario? You go on a visit to your relatives. After some time, your baby starts crying. "She must be hungry," rightly observes the nearest auntie or your mother-in-law. You go and feed the baby. Half an hour later, the baby is crying again. "Oh no!" cries the concerned relative. "The baby is obviously still hungry. You don't have enough milk" (variation: "your milk must not be nourishing enough"). 

In truth, there may be a million reasons why babies cry. Maybe they are hungry; maybe they just messed up their diaper; maybe they are tired, have a rash, or are fussy or over-stimulated. Or maybe it's colics/teething. I realize how comforting it is to think that we can always pinpoint and control the reason why a baby cries, but it just isn't so.

2. "Perhaps the baby is colicky because your milk is of 'low quality', and formula would be better"

Baby colics - inexplicable tummy pain that doesn't have to do with a known issue such as reflux - are commonly thought to be related to the growth process of the digestive system and the muscle spasms associated with it. The symptoms certainly aren't caused by "low quality milk", and though it isn't scientifically proven, my logic tells that the food of nature - mother's milk - is certain to be gentler on a new and sensitive digestive system than a bottle of something based on cow's milk.

3. "It isn't normal for a baby to be hungry so often. Your sister-in-law's baby is fed formula and usually looks satisfied for a much longer time after a bottle."

It's normal for babies to have growth spurts and, at a time, nurse more often than usual. It's also normal for breastfed babies to determine frequency of feeding - for example, "cluster feed" in the evening (which is when things get a little crazy, because you want to have your dinner, and the baby wants to have his!) and sleep for a stretch of time at night. It's normal for breastfed babies to nurse more often than formula babies take a bottle, because the proteins in mother's milk are more easily digested than cow milk protein, and also because a breastfed baby isn't urged "to finish these last 20 ml from the bottle". Think how you feel after a light, easily digested meal, vs. a big, heavy meal. Most likely you will want to lie down and have a nap after the bigger meal. This doesn't mean that it's healthier.

4. "I think my baby is gassy because of what I eat!"

Often mothers will ask me, "what should I eat while breastfeeding?", and more importantly, "what shouldn't I eat?". One was particularly anxious recently. She asked if she must exclude cabbage, oranges, chocolate, beans, milk, eggs and a million other things from her diet, because she "heard it might give the baby gas". The thing is, food passes through our digestive system and breaks down. Then it is absorbed into the blood flow. Then it's made into milk and is received by the baby. So, while it's true the baby is getting his nutrition from you, it's not like you ate cabbage = the baby ate cabbage. Sure, you might have indigestion, but the baby's digestive system isn't dealing with it all - yours does the job! 

Or it might work the other way: "my baby was absolutely miserable until I eliminated eggs, all dairy products, all grains, beans, and almost all fruits and vegetables from my diet. Now the baby is happy but I don't know what to eat." 

First question is: how long ago did you do that? It's very probable that the baby's colics/gas/whatever symptom was development-related and has passed on its own, while the mother is convinced her diet was the culprit and continues to needlessly restrict herself for months (frustration and early weaning, here we come!). 

Second question: did you eliminate all those foods from your diet at once? More often than not, the answer is yes. If so, even if one of the foods in question was indeed the cause of the trouble, you have no way of knowing which. Consider: there was a wave of crime in the neighborhood, and ten suspects were arrested. The crimes stopped, so obviously you've caught the culprit. The problem is, nine innocents are held captive for no fault of their own. Obviously the investigation must continue until we can pinpoint the criminal! 

If you are suspicious that a particular food is giving your baby certain symptoms, you might want to eliminate this particular food from your diet for a week or two, then re-introduce it and see what the effect is.

I hope all breastfeeding mothers out there eat well, drink plenty, and are happy and healthy. I wish you all a long and successful breastfeeding relationship with your baby, and hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed mine. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Israel's "fault": not enough civilian deaths

Today, while browsing some blogs, I came across a post (written by an American, Christian blogger) which can be summarized as the following: Israel, so far, has suffered far less civil casualties than the residents of Gaza. Conclusion: Israel is somehow at fault, because not enough of our citizens are dying.

It's pretty obvious what we need to do in order to gain worldwide sympathy, right? Just die in larger numbers... um, no. Sorry, we've already tried that multiple times in history. Doesn't work.

In addition, the operation in Gaza is "an act of excessive revenge for the kidnapping of three people". No mention that the three kidnapped teenagers - Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel (who, by the way, was an American citizen) - also happened to be brutally murdered.

I will not link to that blog because I don't want to give it traffic, but here is a copy of the email I sent the blog author:

***

Do you wonder why much fewer Israelis than Arabs have, so far, been killed in this conflict? 

The answer is simple. The Israeli protect their citizens. We invest much in devices such as the Iron Dome. Actually, to the best of our ability, we protect Gaza citizens, too. It seems Israel cares a lot more than Hamas about the citizens of Gaza. Hamas uses live people as a human shield and the death of citizens is conveniently utilized as propaganda. 

Meanwhile, Gaza and West Bank Arabs continue to receive complex and expensive treatment in Israeli hospitals, at Israeli expense. And I'm not referring to war casualties, either, but to things such as children's oncology. I saw it with my own eyes when I did my hospital internship. 

Ask yourself: can you imagine an Israeli being thus treated in a hospital in Gaza? 

Ask yourself the following question: if (hypothetically, of course) rockets were constantly launched at the southern cities of USA from across the Mexican border, how would USA react? How long would it be until a full-blown war on Mexico? And how would the lives of USA citizens be valued, against the lives of Mexican citizens? Somehow, I think Israel was a lot more patient than America would be. Israel has tolerated things that are beyond anything any reasonable country would put up with. 

Israel vacated the Gaza strip in 2005. It was a one-sided act; it was also a mistake. Why? Because ever since, the citizens of southern Israel have known no peace. Such a situation as they have been living in is intolerable. I do not doubt that the kidnapping and murder of Naftali Frenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach served as a catalyst for the current operation in Gaza. However, this doesn't mean that the operation was unwarranted. On the contrary, I believe it was tardy in coming. I am certain that if you lived in Sderot, you would feel the same.

I also believe Israel has no way to ensure its safety but re-take control over Gaza and wipe out the Hamas entirely. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Lemony lemon cake



For those who have been wondering about us, we are doing good, despite the turbulent events in Israel. In fact, there have been no missiles in our area at all - this doesn't mean we are unconcerned by what is going on in the rest of the country, of course, but we're keeping up a normal life around here.

Yesterday, I decided to try a new lemon cake recipe on the spur of the moment. I have tried to make lemon cake several times in the past, and it always came out too dry; the taste of lemon wasn't sufficiently pronounced, either. Well, let me tell you, this recipe isn't only the simplest I could find, it's also very, very satisfyingly lemony. You will need:

1.5 cups flour
1 cup sugar (reduced from original recipe) + 1/4 cup for the syrup (again, reduced)
3 eggs (I used 4 small ones)
2 large lemons, as fresh and juicy as you can get 
1/2 cup oil - you can replace it by butter if you wish, of course
A pinch of salt
3 tbsp. water (if the batter seems too thick)

Grate the lemon peel, making sure you only take off the yellow part. Juice the lemons. 

Mix flour, sugar, salt and baking powder, and add the eggs, oil, lemon peel, half of the lemon juice, and water if it's needed. Keep the other half for the syrup. Line a pan with baking paper, pour the batter in, and put in the oven. Bake at medium heat for about 30 minutes, or until knife comes out almost dry from the middle of the cake. Don't overbake!

While the cake is baking, make the syrup. Mix 1/4 cup of sugar with the second half of the lemon juice in a small pot and heat, stirring often, until the sugar has melted. The syrup comes out rather runny. 

Once the cake is baked, take it out of the oven at once and poke some holes in it (with a fork, for instance). Then pour the syrup over the hot cake, trying to spread it as evenly as possible. Let it sit and cool for a while before serving. 

I'm sorry, but I was too lazy to whip out the camera before the cake was gone. If you like lemons, you will enjoy it! I plan to try re-making this same recipe with oranges, when they are in season, and then maybe I can reduce the sugar even more. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Parenting, schooling choices, and being good enough

I would like to share with you a comment I received on my previous post; I'm sharing it because I believe it raises some important points and deserves to be addressed.

By an anonymous commenter:


"The current mode for being down on formal education, even at the primary level, and attempting to disavow exams, reminds me (sadly) of the current vogue for claiming that vaccines cause autism and similar nonsense: It is most vehemently embraced by people whose own lives are largely devoid of memories of a society without the availability of widespread basic education, or one haunted by fear of such diseases as polio and whooping cough. Those memories fade, and people start to think, "Hey! We don't need to get "experts" to educate our children, and we don't need to set baselines for achievement! And we don't need vaccines--those diseases won't come back!"


While of course it is right and wise to examine, on a regular basis, what it is we want out of education and how we are assessing its progress, I'm cautious about the current vogue for saying that anyone can educate a child in any way he or she likes, and it will be good enough. This is especially concerning among certain groups that actively encourage parents to remove children from formal schools and school them themselves, regardless of the parents' own literacy levels, teaching abilities, or basic intelligence (frankly--it's not like one has to be bright to reproduce). While in many cases this will produce engaged, interested, well-informed children, in just as many cases it may not--and the very idea that all children being homeschooled, with progress assessments left to...well, honestly, I don't even know what, will _not_ result in marked disparities of ability and knowledge among large groups of children who otherwise would at least have been measured by a common baseline (however low) strikes me as naive, at the least.

Again, I'm not saying that there isn't some real thinking to be done on these issues. But I think we should consider very carefully how we demonise things like formal education and/or examinations just because they may cause our children to feel bad sometimes. There's a real danger of throwing out babies with bathwater."


***


As far as I understand - and do correct me if I'm wrong - widespread public schooling was initially established to ensure a basic level of literacy for all. This was, of course, good for children who would have no other opportunity to learn to read and write, but attendance was not compulsory at first. Many children in well-to-do families continued to be instructed at home - at least until a certain age - by their parents and often with the help of private tutors or governesses, and nobody seemed to think that those children are missing out on something. If the family was respectable and the parents were educated themselves, nobody doubted their ability to teach their children. It was only later that school attendance became mandatory, taking a large bite out of parental authority.


I believe you extrapolate - if we all say no to vaccines, dangerous diseases will come back. If we all say no to schools, levels of literacy will fall again. The first might be debatable; the second I frankly do not believe to be a valid argument at all. You see, it works this way: people learn what they use. People learn what they need. The illiterate world was largely rural, a world comprising a society where you could get by without reading and writing and still become a respected individual. Today's world is full of the written word; it is based on technology. An artisan village carpenter before the Industrial Revolution didn't need to know how to read and write. An artisan carpenter today has a website where his products are promoted, and he gets orders from clients by email. I just don't buy the idea that we might all sink back into illiteracy if schools are abolished.


Not that they are likely to be abolished. Truly, I don't think the school system has anything to fear from the relatively small number of parents who want to educate their children at home. Only a minority of people have the time, energy and desire to teach their children at home, or even to keep them home through preschool. In Israel, you'll be hard-pressed to find 2-year-olds who are still at home. 


I've never said homeschooling is for everyone. I'm not even sure it will be the right path for us in the future, because after all each child is an individual and each situation must be assessed and re-assessed individually. But I do believe it should be a real option, a socially acceptable option for families who want/need it. As for who is good enough to teach their own children... my personal opinion is that to have a decent shot with homeschooling, you must:

1) Be literate. That's a really basic requirement almost anyone can comply with. You don't need a teaching degree, a college degree or even a high school diploma. My father-in-law has no higher education, but he is one of the most intelligent people I know, with a vast amount of knowledge on just about anything. 

2) Desire to homeschool. This should include the understanding that you will spend much more time with your kids than is considered normal these days. I believe that the desire to teach one's own children usually belongs to people who are passionate about education and think outside the box; thus, the very fact that you want to homeschool, usually means you can


I repeat: there is no one-size-fits-all mold. There is no right choice for every family or even for every year of every child in the same family. It's important to evaluate burn-out correctly, too. There is a family in our area whose children move in and out of public kindergarten and school, according to their wishes and needs. There is another family who was much more zealous and whose daughter, aged 10, eventually begged to go to school. She was allowed to go and is happy. Her sister, aged 9, is now following in her footsteps. Some families will decide, "no homeschooling this year because we're having a new baby". Some will say, "we're homeschooling our son because he can't function in a school setting without Ritalin, but our daughter is doing fine so she can continue to go to school if she wants to." What matters is educational choices. Choice - real choice, and the right to teach one's own children - for every family. 


Edit: In Hebrew, the Ministry of Education uses a word to define itself - "chinuch", which is actually different from "education" the way it is meant in English. It's meant as something more all-encompassing, and I'd say it translates closest to "bringing up". Well, perhaps I'm making much out of nothing, but this "ministry of bringing up" term really bothers me. The modern state of Israel was founded on communist principles. In the kibbutzim - which were the home of Israel's early elite - children were separated from their parents in "children's houses" for most of the day and all night, and some people (incredibly) are still nostalgic about it. But we live differently now. So get this "bringing up" out of your ministry, people. Your job, at most, is to provide education. Bringing up is the family's task. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Low grades, anxious parents

I've finally started the packing frenzy today, and after stuffing four huge boxes full of our things, I looked around in exasperation and it seemed as though I hadn't even made a tiny dent in everything that needs to be packed in the House of Never-Ending Stuff.

So, while I was taking a well-deserved break I flipped through a magazine and came across an article which, loosely translated, could be called "How Not to Panic When Your Child Receives a Bad Grade Chart." Basically it was a guide on how to deal with low end-of-year grades, and how to motivate your child to achieve higher scores on their school tests. It spoke particularly to mothers of children under 10 years of age.

Now, I must say that, particularly in the case of young children, I find competitive, examination-focused learning with precise grades (in Israel, score out of 100) largely detrimental. The younger a child, the more damaging this practice is. I have tutored children of 9 and 10 years old who have lost all interest in learning and suffered from severe exam anxiety. I remember I would try to come up with interesting things to read (in English), and all they could think of was the upcoming exam. The children were not to blame, of course, but I found it all very sad.

"When my daughter received low end-of-year grades," one of the mothers interviewed for the article tells, "I didn't lecture her. I allowed her to take responsibility. I merely sat next to her on the bed as she cried and cried."


Am I the only one who finds it profoundly sad that a third-grader "cries and cries" just because they were graded as only 60 out of 100 by someone? Or, on the flip side, that a child feels conceited and self-satisfied because somebody had given them a high grade? 


Or consider this:

"My daughters asked me why, unlike all their friends, they don't get a reward for bringing home good grades at the end of term. I told them that the good grades are in themselves a reward for their hard work."

How about if learning were its own reward? The reward for learning to read is access to many wonderful books; the reward for learning math is the ability to count one's change correctly at the store. The reward for learning a foreign language is broadened horizons and a key to a different culture. 

When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher come once a week to tutor me in English. Our work was completely unrelated to school. Basically my teacher and I would gradually read together through interesting texts, until I learned enough to read simple children's books on my own. The teacher would then ask me about what I'd read, and once in a while she would pick a paragraph and ask me to explain what it says. There were no grades of any kind. 

I remember, some years later, trying to plow through Don Quijote de la Mancha, in original. It was hard work, as Don Quijote's language is archaic and my Spanish just wasn't (and still isn't) good enough. But I was doing it for me. My reward was the ability to ask for directions when I was lost in Madrid one day. 

I believe grading has its place, especially for high school and college students, but it shouldn't be all-consuming, and first learning for its own sake must be encouraged and established. Throughout elementary school, I don't recall studying for exams much at all. I always got good grades, but I wasn't fussed. I just read pretty much every book I could get my hands on, including my school textbooks.

Somewhere I read that you can't be a good writer if you only write for an audience, or with the thought of making money, or for any other reason than being simply compelled to write because an idea grabs your mind and doesn't let go. I believe the same principle applies to learning; you can't learn well if you only do it to please others or to achieve good grades.

Of course, in order for learning to be self-motivated, the study subject must be interesting and/or useful, which can't be said about a lot of the stuff that is learned in schools.

Remember the chapter from Pippi Longstocking in which Pippi plays tag with policemen? My daughters keep asking me to read it over and over again, and I'm happy to oblige. It's one of my favorites, too.

"But don't you understand that you must go to school?"
"Why?"
"To learn things, of course."
"What sort of things?" asked Pippi.
"All sorts," said the policeman. "Lots of useful things—the multiplication tables, for instance."
"I have got along fine without any pluttifikation tables for nine years," said Pippi, "and I guess I'll get along without it from now on, too."
"Yes, but just think how embarrassing it will be for you to be so ignorant. Imagine when you grow up and somebody asks you what the capital of Portugal is and you can't answer!"
"Oh, I can answer all right," said Pippi. "I'll answer like this: 'If you are so bound and determined to find out what the capital of Portugal is, then, for goodness' sake, write directly to Portugal and ask.'"
"Yes, but don't you think that you would be sorry not to know it yourself?"
"Oh, probably," said Pippi. "No doubt I should lie awake nights and wonder and wonder, 'What in the world is the capital of Portugal?' But one can't be having fun all the time," she continued, bending over and standing on her hands for a change. "For that matter, I've been in Lisbon with my papa," she added, still standing upside down, for she could talk that way too."