Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quick and Easy

The second sentence on the US Census form, and one that most people will probably skip right over, says "It is quick and easy, and your answers are protected by law." For me to fill out this form will, in fact, be both quick and easy. I live alone, and I can comfortably answer, for Question 8, "No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" and then for Question 9, "White" - not everyone has such form completion luxuries. I can't figure out who (or what) my answers are being lawfully protected from, but that sounds fine.

Each Wednesday evening, for about 10 months now, I have taught English to a class of adults (funny, interesting, complicated adults) at a learning center operated by the Minnesota Literacy Council (MLC). Between 5 and 15 students show up each time (they commit to attending two hours of class, four nights a week, and this is on top of jobs that often require a more than eight-hour-a-day commitment, and family responsibilities). Tonight, I decided that day 7 of 12 in the health unit (symptoms, body parts, and how to make a doctor's appointment) could be swapped out for another reality based unit: the US Census, why it's important, and how to complete it.

I received my Census form in the mail this afternoon. As I mentioned earlier, it will take me all of 2 minutes to complete, and that's if I read the first section about how I shouldn't count any relatives that are living away from home, in an institution (jail, college, or the Armed Forces), or at a nursing home. It took my students that long to sort out (in a general way) who the US Department of Commerce is, and why their Economics and Statistics Administration is sending this form to every home in the country. This information is in fine print at the top right-hand corner. I bet you didn't notice it on your form.

I learned this evening that my students, who tested into "High Beginner, Low Intermediate English Class" at the MLC, and who have jobs, pay taxes, and send their children to American schools, knew of the Census, but didn't know much about the Census. One woman told me that she had completed her Census form carefully and thoroughly, but was told by her coworkers that she was crazy, and that she shouldn't send it in - she cleans planes at the airport, and specified that her opinionated coworkers are "American and not American." Another woman arrived at class concerned that she had thrown out her Census form but now wants to complete it, and anxiously wrote down the number I gave her (which was on the back of my Census form) in hopes of requesting another one. Yet another woman proudly produced the empty Census envelope out of her purse, though she had left the form itself at home for safe keeping.

Before we even looked at the form, I introduced the big picture concept: the United States, tries, every 10 years, to pick a day and count everyone. This thought received a round of laughter from the 12 students in attendance, who began to consider the size of such a challenge. We talked about how schools, hospitals, roads, and even English class, receive funding from the government based partially on how many people they think live in that community. We discussed the fact that the Census Bureau can not legally share this information with anyone, anyone at all, but that struck some students as hard to believe. As I saw the doubt on their faces, I too found it a little hard to believe.

So we started at the top of this form, and we began to read through. The guidelines that are offered make the whole thing seem quite complicated, actually, and so I kept returning to the original idea that the government is actually just trying to count everyone. Once.

I was asked, among other things:
- Should I count my son's child, who is living in a foster home now? No.
- Should I count my daughter, who is currently in Mexico on a trip, but usually lives with me, and will be back shortly? Yes.
- Should she count her baby? (this from a woman sitting next to the visibly pregnant woman she was referring to) No, not if the baby isn't born yet on April 1.
- Should I count my son if he is in jail? (this was posed as a hypothetical question) No, he will be counted by the jail.

After all the time we dedicated to these guidelines, we were pleased to discover that the whole purpose of Question 2 is to confirm that you read the guidelines and answered Question 1 correctly: how many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2010. A number of students indicated that life isn't terribly predictable, and so they'll wait until April 1 to complete the form. One woman suggested that it wasn't very clever of the government to pick April Fool's Day as the one time, after 10 years, to count people. She has a good point.

Questions 3-7 were simple, and had obvious answers. Rather than tell you what these questions are, I encourage you to keep an eye out for your Census form. Be counted!

Question 8 asks if the person in question is "of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" - and for about half of my students (and myself), that was an easy "No" - for the other half of my students, they were then faced with a variety of "Yes" options, most of which tied this same person in question to a nationality as well. One student discovered that he'd have to select the 4th "yes" - "Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" and then take the "print your origin" option, to fill in "Guatemalan" in the space provided.

Then came Question 9, which asks, straightforwardly enough, "What is Person 1's race?" (it was noted earlier on the form that Questions 8 and 9 are both to be answered, as "For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.") The members of my class who had just searched for which "yes" they should select on Question 8 looked at the form, looked at me, and asked what I suggested that they do. They could pick, as one student pointed out, "White, Black, or Chinese...." (in fact, lots of specific Asian nationalities were deemed to represent a race of people, as determined by this census), but that if you did, in fact, identify as Latino.... you had to select "Some other race", and then "print race" in the space provided. The Hmong students learned that for these purposes, they should check the box "Other Asian" and then "print race" of Hmong (which was one of the examples provided as an "other Asian race"). This series of discoveries motivated me to make an impromptu speech about how forms sometimes try to put us all in a particular list, but that humans are rather more complicated than that, and that I understood if they were stumped by Questions 8 and 9. I encouraged them to use the short answer spaces liberally.

Then came the extra persons. Is person 2 related to person 1 as a boarder or a roommate? An in-law or an "other relative"? What about person 3? And person 4? One student offered that his brother (person 3) and his wife (person 4) live in his basement as boarders. I suggested that person 3 be listed as a brother, rather than a boarder... and that he could pick, for person 4... other relative, boarder, or other nonrelative. I acknowledged that none of those options seemed quite right for his circumstance, as sister-in-law was not one of the in-law options that was provided.

This is when someone piped up to ask what happens if you have, in your household, more than the 12 people for which space is allotted, and someone else suggested that if you called the number I had written on the board earlier, the government would surely send a supplemental form. After all, the goal is to count everyone, right? Right. And that is why I spent an hour and a half of my life this evening explaining the US Census to 12 individuals, and encouraging them to have patience with this imperfect, frustrating, complicated, and entirely necessary form that they received from the US Government.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

An adventure in cooking Ethiopian food, Part One

The meal we made (for two of us, keep in mind) included injera, doro wot, collard greens, misser wot and lamb tibs. I'm going to include the recipes for just the injera and doro wot, because the doro wot was my favorite, and, well, the injera goes with it! I'll also include the recipes for spiced butter and berbere spice, since they are necessary to make doro wot. I'll follow up with the recipes for misser wot and lamb tibs soon!

If you've ever had Ethiopian food, you'll understand why we wanted to make so many things. First off, it's all so delicious, and second of all, I always eat Ethiopian food with a group of friends, we order as many dishes there are people, and it comes on one HUGE serving platter, that we just spin a few degrees anytime someones ready to eat something they can't reach. So we made a lot. We made a few half recipes, but the doro wot and the misser wot were so good, I could have eaten them forever, and they made WONDERFUL leftovers, reason not to make a lot!

Here are the recipes we used. They're all from Recipes from Afar and Near, the cookbook sold at the Lucy's Legacy exhibit at the Pacific Science Center.

Injera (Traditional Bread) Makes 6-8 Eight Inch Injera
Ingredients: 2 cups self-rising flour, 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 cup teff flour (can be found at Whole Foods), 5 cups lukewarm water.
Directions: Combine flours and water and mix into a smooth, fairly thing batter. Let the batter ferment at room temp, covered, for up to 3 days. The batter should be thinner than a pancake batter but not runny. Heat a nonstick skillet until a water drop dances on the surface. Pour a small amount of batter into the skillet, covering the entire bottom in a very thin coating. Cover and let the steam create the injera; this should take about 2 minutes. Do not let the bottom brown. The book says "practice, practice, practice!" and it also notes that though this is the most simple recipe, it is the most difficult part of an Ethopian meal.
Side Note: We messed this up, so it wasn't rising. To make it kind of work, I just used a balloon whisk to whisk the heck out of it till the batter had bubbles and would immediately put it on the pan so that the bubbles would cook into it....a last ditch effort, but it kind of worked! :)

Doro Wot (Chicken Stewed in Berbere Sauce) Serves 8-10
Ingredients: 2-3 lbs chicken, cut up into small cubes, 1 cup spiced butter, divided (recipe below), 3 lbs onions, diced and lightly pulsed in a food processor (don't puree though!), 5 garlic cloves minced, 2 tsp grated fresh ginger, 3 heaping T berbere (recipe below, or buy at a spice store), 1/4 cup tomato paste, salt, 3 cups water or chicken broth, 10 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and slightly scored.
Directions: Prepare the chicken and score each piece to ensure the sauce can penetrate. In a large stew pot, melt 1/4 cup of the spiced butter. Add onions, garlic and ginger and saute on medium heat for 15 minutes or until the onions are translucent. Add berbere and tomato paste and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes (when we made this, it wasn't at all moist enough to do that, so we skipped the 'simmer for 30 minutes' part). Add salt to taste if desired and slowly add the chicken, stirring as you go, coating each piece well with the sauce. Continue to simmer, adding enough water or broth to maintain the consistency of a thick soup. When the chicken is half done, add the hard boiled eggs and remaining spiced butter. Cover and continue cooking until the chicken is done. Serve with injera.
Side Note: The eggs seem weird, but they taste really delicious, so just go with it! Also, these are forgiving recipes full of delicious ingredients, so if something seems weird, just add more spice, or turn down the heat, or add more chicken broth, and it will work out!

Nit'ir Qibe (Spiced Butter) Makes 1 lb, reduce the ingredients to meet your needs!
Ingredients: 1 lb unsalted butter, 4 t grated fresh ginger, 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped, 5 garlic cloves, chopped, 1 t ground fenugreek, 1 t ground cumin, 1 t cardamom seeds, 3/4 t ground turmeric, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 t dried basil leaves.
Directions: Melt butter in a heavy saucepan on moderate heat. Bring butter to a light boil. When the foam rises to the surface, skim off the top and discard. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Store in a covered container at room temp.

Berbere (Red Pepper Spice Mix) Makes about 1 cup
We just bought this at a local store that sold a wide range of spices, but if you can't find it, here's the recipe.
Ingredients: 1/2 t whole allspice, 1 t cumin, 1 t fenugreek, 2 t ground ginger, 2 t onion powder, 1 t ground cardamom, 1 t ground nutmeg, 1/4 t ground cloves, 1/2 t garlic powder, 1/2 cup dried serrano chiles, ground fine, 2 T salt, 1/4 cup paprika.
Directions: Grind allspice, cumin and fenugreek. Combine with all remaining ingredients. Store in an airtight container.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oatmeal Cookies

Well folks, I've been doing a fair amount of cooking lately, but I've been bad about posting. Early in dating, my boyfriend and I wrestled a fiesty, very large (3 1/3 lb) dungeness crab into a pot and after picking the meat he made delicious crab cakes. On Valentine's Day, we avoided the crowds and instead stayed in and cooked one of our favorite cuisines - Ethiopian! We made Doro Wat, Lamb Tibs, red lentil stew (which I can't recall the name of) and greens. We made injera too, but that wasn't quite so successful, though I'm not giving up! When I find my misplaced cookbook, I will post the recipes for those items, and some pictures too.

As for the this post, as the title suggests, we made oatmeal cookies last night. They are so delicious. The cookie dough from oatmeal cookies is by far the best cookie dough, the cookies themselves are delightful, and they are so easy to make. And they have oatmeal in them, so they've got to be kind of good for you, right? Excellent.

Ingredients: 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup butter (1 stick, cut into smaller pieces), 1 egg, 1 t vanilla, 1 T milk, 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 t baking powder, 1/2 t baking soda, 1/2 salt, 1 cup rolled oats, 1 cup chocolate chips, raisins, and /or nuts (optional).

Directions: In a medium bowl, mix together the sugars and butter, blend a bit with a mixer, and then add the egg, vanilla and milk. Blend until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Blend well. Add oats and stir with a spoon or if you have a strong mixer, continue to blend. If you so desire, add in any other ingredients (though I like my cookies pure!).

Cook at 350 degrees F for 10-12 minutes. Let cool, serve warm with milk(okay, okay, serve however you wish with whatever beverage, but warm with milk is the best way)!