Teaching brings an unusual kind of balance to my life. Take any individual day, and my life doesn’t seem to have any balance at all. During the school year, I’m out the door by seven, and I barely even pause to eat between then and when I get back home. My life is a whirlwind of teenagers and papers and undecipherable scribblings on the whiteboard. But just when I think I can’t grade another essay or write another reading quiz… voila! Vacation! Balance comes to the force. I go from full-time teacher to the equally full-time task of being a stay-at-home mom. And so when I take the long view–semesters or years rather than days or weeks–I think my work-life balance is just right.
The problem is that I’m not nearly as good a homemaker as I am a teacher. You need someone to teach an English class? I’m your gal. Love it. Can do it all day. You want to talk about symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye? About the futility of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby? Shall we dissect a poem or practice writing essays for standardized tests? I’ve got you covered. Keeping up with laundry and clearing up Toymageddon in the living room, on the other hand? Errr, no. I’m currently surrounded by building blocks, stuffed animals, and partially-folded stacks of clothes. The dishes from lunch aren’t done, although I did wipe down the oatmeal chunks and smoothie dribbles from the dining table–my major accomplishment of the day! I could tackle the rest of the straightening right now, I suppose, but then when would I write this blog post?
What summer vacation buys me, you see, is the opportunity to prioritize things other than schoolwork. I begin every break from school with an unrealistically ambitious list of goals. This summer I’ve got a giant reading list, about fifteen different house projects, a tiny backyard garden (can we say that six plants counts as a garden?), a couple modest exercise goals, some longstanding writing ideas, and prep work for a new course I’m teaching in the fall. Of course, most days I chuck all that out the window in favor of playground trips, finger-painting extravaganzas, and afternoon naps, but it just feels really good to be able to choose my own priorities for a couple of months. Maybe one of these days I’ll even finish folding the laundry.
I am happy to report back on at least one concrete accomplishment of summer break thus far: I’ve checked off my reading list a collection of David Foster Wallace’s essays called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Highly recommend. As a disclaimer, I haven’t read and probably never will read DFW’s giant masterpiece, Infinite Jest. I’m just not that into sprawling postmodern novels. (Sprawling Victorian novels, on the other hand…) But these essays are gold–funny, playful, and packed with insight into the American notion of fun. The titular essay is about the author’s trip on a luxury Caribbean cruise. Whether or not you’re planning to take a cruise this summer (or in your lifetime), this essay will make you think twice about your own notions of relaxation and how it’s being sold to you. Wallace isn’t particularly kind to middle America in this collection, but then again, he turns his incisive observations towards his own neuroses just as frequently–Exhibit A, his hilarious fascination with his cruise ship’s Vacuum Sewage System, or Exhibit B, his “boviscopophobia… the morbid fear of being seen as bovine.”
Also, how did I not know that this book has not one but two essays about tennis? I kind of wish I’d saved them to read during Wimbledon next week! If you follow tennis at all, you’ll love these; the essay about Michael Joyce, in particular, is a great snapshot of the tennis world in the mid-nineties. FYI, I skipped the essay on television (too much has changed in the world of TV since 1990) and on David Lynch (not my cuppa), and unless you love critical theory, you might skip the little piece on post-structuralism as well. But there’s still more than enough here to enjoy.
Back to what I was saying about getting to choose my priorities. Yet another goal on my list for this summer is to try some new recipes. Here’s one that I ran across and just had to attempt, as I’ve always loved the General Tso’s Tofu dish from the Chinese takeout place around the corner. I was thoroughly impressed with the outcome of this tofu stir fry, but I’m pretty sure this is not going to go into my typical weeknight dinner rotation, as it involved multiple pots and pans, three mixing bowls, two cutting boards, a gallon-size Ziplock bag, a cast iron skillet, and even more kitchen paraphernalia. At one point I actually said aloud, “Man, this is complicated!” But I’m definitely going to return to this as a special occasion dish.
Time Commitment: The Minimalist Baker lists twenty minutes to make her General Tso’s Tofu. HAH! Not even close. My slightly edited tofu stir fry took about an hour. It would have taken even longer if #2 hadn’t gone to bed early, giving me a little extra concentration to devote to a cooking project.
Mess: This made a Deepwater Horizon-level disaster zone of my kitchen. If I looked carefully I probably could have found some oil-covered ducks somewhere in there.
Mom Fails: Various and sundry. I forgot to add the dried red chilies in the final minutes of sautéing the tofu. Whoops. That little bit of added heat would have been delicious. Also, Minimalist Baker pressed her tofu for ten minutes, which I also did, even though ten minutes seemed a bit short to me. Should have gone with my instincts, as my tofu was still kinda mushy as I fried it. And finally–yes, ANOTHER fail–don’t be like me and decide to chop your tofu into tiny little cubes. All that means is that you’ll spend thirty minutes trying to flip over teeny tiny squishy tofu bits in an effort to get them to fry evenly. It was annoying, and it didn’t really work. 1-inch cubes will be fine.
For Kids: Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t manage to get the chilies in there, because #1 loved the tofu! We were out of lemon, though, so she refused to eat the broccoli. Apparently now she will only eat broccoli when it has lemon juice spritzed over it. Toddlers. Sheesh.
Tofu Stir Fry
Adapted from The Minimalist Baker’s General Tso’s Tofu
- 1 cup white or brown rice, cooked according to package directions
- 1 12-oz package extra firm tofu
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 1-2 tsp Sriracha sauce (depending on your spice tolerance)
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 Tbsp maple syrup
- 5 Tbsp cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil, for frying
- 4-5 dried red chilies, optional (depending on your spice tolerance)
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
- 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
- 1/4 c maple syrup
- 3 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp water
- A few glugs oil (sesame or otherwise) for sautéing
- 1 bunch green onions, chopped
- 2 broccoli crowns, cut into one-inch florets
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced
- Other vegetables, if desired
- Before you begin, press your tofu to get out excess water. Sandwich the tofu in a clean towel (or between a healthy amount of absorbent paper towel) and set something heavy on top–a heavy bowl, a cast iron skillet, etc. Let the tofu press for 20 minutes or so, as you chop your veggies, cook your rice, and…
- Whisk together your sauce: combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
- Return to your tofu. Cut it into approximately 1-inch cubes. Then place the cubes into a medium mixing bowl and sprinkle with soy sauce, Sriracha, sesame oil, and maple syrup. Toss gently to coat.
- Place the coated tofu cubes into a gallon-size Ziplock bag. Add 5 Tbsp cornstarch to bag and shake gently until cubes are coated and kind of pasty looking.
- Heat oil in medium frying pan. Fry tofu cubes on all sides until golden brown. Once you’ve started this process…
- Begin sautéing your vegetables in a wok or large frying pan.
- Once your tofu is looking brown and slightly crispy, add a few dried red chilies to the pan, if desired. Cook another minute.
- Once your vegetables are cooked to your liking (mine took about eight minutes), add the sauce and tofu. Cook 2-3 minutes more, stirring frequently, until sauce has thickened slightly and coated all elements of your stir fry.
- Serve tofu stir fry hot, with rice.