Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Braised Short Ribs

My friend Mark Hoff made these short ribs for me during one of my family’s semiannual visits to his home in Providence. My daughter, Abigail, liked them so much she insisted that I learn how to make them. This incredibly rich dish goes especially well with fresh fettuccini, which Abigail likes to make, but a good dried penne will do nicely.

 (serves a crowd)

olive oil
2 oz pancetta, finely diced
5 lb beef short ribs
3 medium onions, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
28-oz can whole or diced tomatoes
12-oz can tomato paste
several sprigs of fresh thyme, to taste
kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
beef stock, as necessary (about 4 c)
red wine, as necessary (about 1 bottle)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a Dutch oven filmed with olive oil, render the pancetta over medium-low heat, about 8-10 minutes. After moving the pancetta to the outside of the pan and raising the heat to medium-high, sear the short ribs for 3-4 minutes per side. Do this in as many batches as necessary so that the meat isn’t crowded. Remove the ribs and set them aside.

3. Reduce the flame to medium-low. Add more olive oil, if necessary, and sauté the mirepoix (onion, carrot, and celery) until wilted but not browned, about 10-12 minutes.

4. Place the meat on top of the mirepoix. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, thyme, salt, and pepper. Then add equal parts beef stock and wine until the level of the liquid approaches but doesn’t completely cover the top of the meat.

5. Braise the ribs uncovered in the oven for at least three and up to five hours, adding liquid as necessary to keep up the level.

• When the ribs are tender, the bones and spent thyme sprigs can be removed easily with tongs.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rosemary Focaccia

The most important ingredient in this recipe is time. There’s not much work involved, but you’ve got to allow several hours for the dough to rise. If you’re tempted to hasten the process, remember that the more time you allow, the better the focaccia will be. After all, you’re not making matzoh here.

2 c warm water
2 Tbs sugar
2 pkg active dry yeast (not rapid-rise)
5 c unbleached flour
2 tsp kosher salt
4 sprigs fresh rosemary, stripped and minced
¾ c good olive oil
1–2 Tbs sea salt

1. Pour the water into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. Stir in the sugar and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let the yeast proof for 5 minutes. (It should foam slightly; if it doesn’t, the yeast is dead, and you should start over with fresh yeast.)

2. Add the flour, salt, half of the rosemary, and ¼ cup of the olive oil. Mix very slowly until the dough forms a ball, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium slow and knead for 3 minutes. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, then knead again for another 3 minutes.

3. Oil a mixing bowl large enough to handle twice the volume of the dough, pooling about a tablespoon of oil in the bottom. Transfer the dough to the bowl and roll it in the oil so that the dough ball becomes coated. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until the dough doubles in volume, about an hour.

4. Line a rimmed cookie sheet (also known as a jelly roll pan) with parchment paper and oil the paper well using another tablespoon or two of the oil. Transfer the dough from the bowl to the pan and drizzle it generously with more oil, about another 2 tablespoons.

5. Spread your fingers and point them downward as though you were preparing to play a piano. Use the tips of your fingers to dimple the dough, starting in the center and pressing down and slightly outward as you go. Your goal is to spread the dough to the edges of the pan. In all likelihood, the dough will begin to resist before you get there. Stop at this point, cover the dough with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 20 minutes. Then drizzle on more olive oil and dimple again until you reach the pan’s edges. Cover again with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature for another 2-3 hours, or at least until the dough’s volume has increased by half.

5. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

6. Just before baking, remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle the dough with the remaining rosemary and the sea salt.

7. Bake in the middle of the oven, rotating the pan front to back after 10 minutes. Begin checking the bread after another 7-8 minutes. It’s done when it turns golden brown. Remove the bread from the pan and let it cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with olive oil for dipping.

• If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can make do with a stainless steel mixing bowl and a large spoon. Just keep dipping the spoon in warm water so that the dough doesn’t stick to it. Letting the dough rest occasionally also helps make the kneading easier.

• Coating the dough well with oil and covering it with plastic wrap prevents a nasty dry crust from forming during the rising.

• If you get a late start, you can keep the first rise (in the bowl) to an hour and the second rise (in the pan) to whatever time remains. But shortcutting the rise will yield a much denser bread.

• You can’t use too much oil when making focaccia because it’s all absorbed during the baking, imparting a wonderful flavor as long as you use a decent oil.

• I specify sea salt for the topping because the crystals are large and thus make a bright splash on your tongue. Using ordinary table salt would simply make the bread taste generally saltier.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Au Revoir

A Carter Work Project often feels like summer camp. You leave your daily life behind to spend a week in the company of other like-minded campers. You eat together; you bunk together; you travel from place to place together. Everything is provided for you, so you can focus entirely on the experience.

I didn’t realize how distracting my normal routine was until I left it behind. What a relief it has been to focus on just one thing—building House 2—knowing that everything else is being taken care of. And what a joy it has been to unwind at night with other people enjoying the same difficult, rewarding experience. It’s no wonder that so many people leave these builds with new, close friends. I know I will.

Now that the build is ending, everyone is mingling in the hotel lobby, enacting the usual end-of-summer rituals: tearful embraces, the exchanging of addresses, promises to visit in the months ahead, promises to return next year.

All of us want to keep the moment going as long as possible because we know that we’ll miss not only the fun but also the opportunity we’ve been given to step outside our binding home and work relationships to become, for a short time at least, the kind of adults we wanted to be when we were thirteen, instead of the adults that various circumstances have influenced us to become.

That the build gives us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves is fitting because, in a larger sense, the Carter Work Project reinvents the world. For a week, within the confines of Chiang Mai, Thai and foreign volunteers alike get to live and work in a world characterized by cooperation, generosity, kindness, and compassion. Who wouldn’t want to keep such a world alive? Who wouldn’t want to return to it year after year, as so many volunteers have?

Much came into focus for me during President Carter’s closing remarks. As at the opening ceremonies, the president was greeted with a loud and lengthy standing ovation, conveying the personal devotion that so many Habitat volunteers feel toward him and Mrs. Carter. When they applaud President Carter, they’re not merely acknowledging what he and Mrs. Carter have done for other people; they’re also showing their appreciation for what the Carters have done for them, specifically by creating a meaningful way in which volunteers can share in Habitat’s work of transforming the world.

The exhilaration recedes, of course, especially as the gravitational pull of doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher conferences and family dinners reestablishes itself. But there’s one part of the experience that I know won’t recede, because so many volunteers have told me that it doesn’t.

Many people wish for a better world. Some even conjure up elaborate fantasies of what such a world might look like. We call these imaginations utopias because, like Thomas More’s “no place,” they exist only in the mind. During this last week in Chiang Mai, however, the world in which I lived was, if only fleetingly, a better place; and having been part of it in real time and real space made an indelible impression. I’m in no position to tell you whether what happened here can be repeated or extended beyond the next Carter Work Project, but I can tell you with assurance that better is possible because I’ve seen it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jasmin and I Plant a Tree

I’m usually pretty good at remembering names—I think it’s an important way to show respect—but I admit that I’ve been having trouble all week. We had introductions on Monday, but those were a bit rushed, and there hasn’t been a quiet moment since in which to fix names to faces. Everyone wears a name tag, which should help, but most of the Thais go by nicknames that bear little relation to their given names, so I’m often lost.

Our homeowner, for instance, has a name tag that says Chanida, but she goes by the nickname Jasmin. Initially, because Jasmin is Muslim and wears a hijab that covers much of her face, I thought she and Chanida were two different people, both very shy. By Wednesday, however, with the help of the Thai Amway ladies, I began to recognize Jasmin and also to pick up a little more information about her.

Her sister and her brother are also partner families. In fact, they’ll be occupying the houses on either side of House 2, and their mother will be living with Jasmin. I haven’t found out what Jasmin does for a living yet, but I did learn that she has a digital camera, as well as a little English. I was somewhat surprised to see the camera, but then I remembered that Habitat doesn’t serve the deeply indigent, because they can’t afford even the most modest of mortgage payments. Rather, Habitat serves the working poor: people who have some income but not enough to afford a decent home. Habitat puts up the money to buy building materials for the house and arranges the volunteer labor, but the partner family pays Habitat back over time and contributes its own labor as well.

For most of the week, I wasn’t sure how to relate to Jasmin. I’d heard plenty of stories about the bonds that develop between homeowners and volunteers, and President Carter had explained to me very clearly that the point of Habitat, as far as he was concerned, was to span the chasm between the haves (me) and the have-nots (Jasmin). So by Thursday I was feeling a little guilty that I hadn’t crossed the chasm myself. Even so, I knew that I couldn’t force a relationship, nor should I, because to do so would be patronizing. Instead, I interacted with Jasmin in the same way that I interacted with everyone else: Can you help me with this? Can I help you with that? She probably felt equally at sea; after all, this was her first Habitat build, too.

And so the work proceeded until Friday, when I took a tumble during the afternoon and dislocated the middle joint of my pinkie. Not a big deal, but I had to go to the medical tent and get a temporary splint, which meant no more work on the fascia boards for me. Instead, my wife, Julia, told me that plants for the yard had just arrived and that they needed to be put in the ground immediately. She also told me to make sure that Jasmin had a say in their placement.

I hailed one of the roaming translators and got her to ask Jasmin where she wanted the plants to go. Jasmin replied that she wanted me to decide, because that would be a “symbol of good health.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but the impression I got was that she thought it would be good luck, or good feng shui, for me to choose the locations. I said I wanted to take a walk around the block to see what other houses were doing—at which point one of the Thai Amway ladies suggested that Jasmin accompany me and help with the planting.

We had fun. She was able to explain to me the growing habits of the plants—big, less big—and, because I’m a gardener at home, I was able to come up with an out-of –the-ordinary plan that she liked. As I watched Jasmin digging the holes and watering the plants into the ground, I got a strong sense that her dreamed-of house was finally becoming terra firma. I really enjoyed being a part of that.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I’m so tired that you won’t be reading this today. I’m having difficulty focusing my eyes on the screen of my laptop, and I can’t trust myself any longer to catch typos. More importantly, until I get a little sleep, I can’t be sure that what I’m writing will make any sense.

Here’s what my schedule has been like: I’ve been getting up, along with everyone else, at four-thirty in the morning. Breakfast begins at five, and the first buses leave for the build site at six. By seven, most people are hard at work on their houses. With a short break for lunch, work continues until five.

Because afternoon traffic is a little worse than morning traffic, the buses don’t get back to the hotels until a little after six; and because we’re all filthy with sweat and cement dust, it takes a while to get ready for dinner, which usually begins around seven.

The dinners are a great example of the long and intense planning that goes into a Carter build, especially one held overseas. Last night, all two thousand volunteers in Chiang Mai were bused to a large public square and served a buffet dinner. Then we were treated to a performance of traditional Thai dance and the lighting of enormous paper lanterns that floated high into the night sky, forming shifting constellations as they drifted slowly away in a long chain. Quite a stunning sight.

It took something that dramatic to distract people from their conversations. More than any other time of the day, dinnertime is when volunteers get a chance to process what has been happening to them—and, believe me, there is a lot to process. I’ve written an entire book about what happens on a Habitat build, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect; and yet my expectations could never match the reality of taking part myself, because hearing other people talk about a feeling and feeling it oneself are simply too different.

What Habitat volunteers hope to build is more than a house, of course. They—I mean, we—are hoping to build human relationships as well; and because food and drink are conducive to this, dinners often linger as people share their experiences. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and I usually don’t get back to my hotel room until ten. The first couple of nights, I powered through my blog posts, but not tonight. The sleep deficit has caught up with me, and it’s not only making me a little loopy; it’s also reducing the separation between my personal and professional worlds to the point that it’s hard for me to tell the difference anymore.

I spent a good part of the morning using a hammer and a nail punch to make identical J-bolt holes in the large, rippled cement-board tiles that will make up the roof of House 2, so I had a little time to ponder my expectations for the build and how these have differed from what has actually taken place. The metaphor that came to mind was a rollercoaster. You can observe people riding a rollercoaster, see them waving their arms excitedly and listen to them screaming as their car takes a dive; you can even talk to them about it afterward; but until you take the ride yourself, you can’t fully understand what it’s like.

For first-timers like myself, the rush of emotion is difficult to manage in any kind of temperate way. As when one’s first child is born, the experience is life-changing, and the world suddenly takes on a different character. Trying to explain (and thus understand) this within the context of a Habitat build is rather easy, because the veterans have all been through it themselves, and they smile bemusedly, remembering their first times and sometimes chuckling at my newbie excitement.

But explaining what has been going on to you is more complicated; and adding to my difficulty has been the fact that I’m feeling a little off-balance, which is unusual for me. It’s an uncomfortable position for me professionally, but personally it seems liberating. I’m so far out of my normal daily routine, I guess, that anything could happen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hump Day

Today was the day we finished the walls on our house and set the roof trusses. These are the triangular frames that span the house’s walls, support the roof, and tie the structure together. They’re twenty feet long and weigh over 350 pounds, so they’re difficult to work with and a little scary, too, because they have to be lifted up ten feet by hand.

Until today, the male Thai volunteers had worked on the back wall of the house and the attached bathroom, constructing these parts largely on their own using their own methodology. Or, viewing the situation another way, the Americans worked on the front and side walls, constructing these parts of the house largely on their own using their own methodology.

In setting the roof trusses, East met West, literally. That is, the walls that had been built independently by the Thai men and the Americans had to be fit together. Also, there was no way that any of us could set the trusses without the help of all the available manpower.

The sense of apprehension was fueled by a couple of mistakes that, I think, had undermined some of the Thais’ confidence in the efficacy of the project’s American leadership. In other words, rather than coming together, the people on our job site seemed to be feeling frayed.

Although we didn’t set the trusses until two o’clock, the hour felt a little like high noon. As it approached, one of the Thai Amway ladies who has been translating for us in between filling mortar holes asked me privately (and somewhat nervously), “Do you have a manual for this?” I think she wanted to be reassured that we weren’t making things up as we went along, but that was difficult for me because, for my part, I was.

When the time finally came to set the trusses, my fellow countryman Greg and I discussed staging a dry run, pretending to have the truss in hand and rehearsing its placement, as the house next door had. We abandoned that plan, however, quickly realizing the difficulty we would have describing the process to the Thai men and their likely preference for work over pantomime.

When we started to lift the trusses, I knew the first name of only one of the four Thais who have been working on the house since Monday. By the time we finished bolting in the purlins (the horizontal bars that tie the trusses together), I knew all four of their names, and I even had an idea of what each did for a living.

I don’t know whether they were just pulling my leg or not, but two of the guys told me their “nicknames” were Bert and Jack. Bert had been working hard all week, but today he really shined.

There were two small purlins that were supposed to connect the middle truss to the front and back trusses, respectively. They were supposed to be bolted in early; and by the time we realized our mistake, we had already installed and tightened most of the other purlins. When we finally put in the short purlins, we found that they didn’t reach the far end of the house because of a bow in the front wall. The only way to fix this, we were told, was to loosen all of the purlins we’d installed and try to pull in the bow.

The prospect of loosening all those recently tightened nuts and moving the heavy purlins back onto the ground was highly demoralizing, but then we rallied.

Bert, who is stronger than a speeding locomotive, leaped onto the scaffolding beneath the troubled purlin, grabbed it, and somehow pulled the house together, allowing the most troublesome bolt to be hammered into place. I really wanted him to know how much I appreciated what he had just done.

“Superman!” I cried, hoping, he would get the reference; and he did, smiling broadly. So did all of the other Thais on the job site. I think we all knew then that we were going to get our house done.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Matter of Mortar

Mixing mortar is like mixing pancake batter. The most important thing is the consistency, which should be neither too wet nor too dry.

On the houses we’re building in Chiang Mai, we’re using mortar made of three parts aggregate to one part cement. Its purpose is to bind together the courses of LEGO-like interlocking blocks that we’ve been laying.

When you’re building with LEGO, even cement LEGO, you need something permanent to bind the blocks together. If the holes in the blocks were perfectly round and perfectly aligned, you could perhaps use metal rods. But the holes are square and irregular, and the blocks aren’t perfectly aligned, so you need a plastic material like mortar that can take the shape of the holes before curing in place.

The small rocks in the aggregate give the mortar strength, but they also make it difficult to pour the mortar down the inch-and-a-half-square holes where it needs to go. On the first day, we struggled to force the mortar (using a funnel and rebar) down several courses at a time.

Because the method of construction we’re using requires so much mortaring, coming up with a better method was an important priority. Once I had a little quiet time last night, I analyzed the problem and decided that, because I couldn’t think of any better way to cram the mortar down the holes, the solution must be to make the mortar wetter so that it would pour easier. The mix couldn’t be too wet, however, or else it would seep out of the walls.

Next, I needed a way to explain this new method to the Thai ladies who were doing most of the mortaring. I ruled out a lecture about the physics of surface tension and decided instead on a show and tell. First, I mixed up a bucket of mortar; then I loaded some into a funnel. I showed the ladies that the mortar was dry enough to hold in the funnel yet wet enough so that if I tapped the funnel end, globs or mortar would flow out. Finally, I demonstrated how using a piece of rebar to break the surface tension at the funnel end would allow them to release mortar easily into the holes.

All of this left me feeling rather pleased with myself. I had made effective use of my tenth-grade chemistry, and afterward the mortaring went noticeable faster than it had before.

How else could I improve things around the job site, I wondered. Then I overheard one of our crew chiefs, Jason, a staff member from Habitat Newark talking to Greg, a chief information officer from Hong Kong. Their conversation went something like this:

“The cement we’re using here is much weaker than the cement in the states.”

“Oh, really.”

“Yeah, you know the tensile strength of American cement, right?”

“Sure, three thousand pounds.”

“Well, the tensile strength of this stuff is only fifteen hundred pounds.”

“You don’t say.”

After hearing that exchange, I decided to take a break from saving the work project and found some plastic mortar buckets that needed a good washing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

There Are Many Ways To Build a House

The Carter Work Project volunteers are building eighty-two houses in a field outside Chiang Mai. All have identical building plans. All are being built out of identical materials with identical tools. But don’t let that fool you: there are still many ways to build a house.

Some homes are being built by groups of volunteers who know one another well, such as the employees of a sponsor company or the members of a particular Habitat affiliate. These crews are organized, they have established chains of leadership, and they communicate easily. As a result, their work is relatively well coordinated and efficient.

Then there is my house. Along with the homeowner, our crew includes half a dozen Americans, half a dozen ladies from Amway Thailand (a principal sponsor of the build), and half a dozen Thai men. The Americans speak no Thai, and the Thai men speak little or no English. Fortunately, the Amway ladies speak enough English to translate the occasional query, such as, “Have you seen the rubber mallet lately?”

First thing this morning (after a 5 a.m. breakfast and a 6 a.m. bus ride), the Americans caucused. We wanted to make a plan. What was the day’s goal? What resources were available? How should those resources be deployed? The Amway ladies waited eagerly to be shown what to do. Meanwhile, the Thai men simply began to work. Without talking to anyone else, they began laying courses of the interlocking cement blocks (an adult version of LEGO) that make up the house’s walls.

The proper way to do this, our American house leader explained, was to put up a string line, level it, and then use it to run a single course of blocks all the way around the house. No new course should be added until the preceding course had been completed and checked.

It quickly became clear, however, that the Thai men were utilizing a different method. By the time we Americans had gotten our bearings, the Thai men had already put up half of the back wall. They were using a string and tapping blocks gently into place, but they weren’t using a level, and they certainly weren’t on board with the one-course-at-a-time plan.

So for the next few hours, as the Amway ladies got busy pointing the blocks (that is, filling in the seams with mortar), all three of our house’s constituencies worked if not at cross purposes then certainly without coordination. It was a little frustrating, because everyone was motivated and working hard—the basis for some real camaraderie was clearly there—but we weren’t yet able to overcome the language and cultural barriers that separated us. And by we, I mean especially the men.

We needed a bridge, and it was the Amway ladies who provided it. Contributing both energy and goodwill, they engaged the American women and provided at least some cross-cultural communication. By lunchtime, the American men had realized that, although not necessarily skilled tradespeople, the Thai men were more experienced than we were in this type of construction. The walls they were building looked good and indeed were good.

For the rest of the day, we worked on some walls, and they worked on some walls, and the women pointed more blocks. B y the end of the day, we had reached the top of the windows on three of the house’s four sides, just one side short of our goal.

I felt pretty good about what we had accomplished, especially as I walked off the job site and saw that quite a few houses were three or four courses behind ours. I will be pointing this out to the Thai guys tomorrow—to my Thai guys tomorrow. If they don’t understand what I’m saying, I’ll ask one of the Amway ladies to translate for me.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Rehearsal Dinner

More than two thousand people from thirty countries attended the opening ceremonies of the 2009 Carter Work Project, held tonight in a lush botanical gardens outside Chiang Mai. The crowd trailed back so far from the stage that most people had to watch the welcoming speeches on large video screens, but the reception was hardly an impersonal event. In fact, it was almost like a wedding—a truly enormous wedding.

One reason it felt this way is that a lot of people already know one another from previous Carter builds. Some have been taking part for ten or twenty years, so there’s a lot of familiarity. Exclamations of recognition followed by hugs of greeting are commonplace, and people seem always to be catching up. The interesting part is that , as at a wedding, the spirit of inclusiveness extends to everyone.

At a good wedding, the guests are pleased, not because the food is good or the liquor is plentiful, but because everyone is happy for the bride and the groom; and the commonality of feeling binds the group together. No matter whom you may encounter at a wedding, there really are no strangers, because you know instinctively that everyone you meet shares your delight at being part of the celebration.

The same is true of the Carter Work Project. When you’re standing next to someone on a breakfast line or waiting for an elevator, it’s natural to introduce oneself and begin chatting, because you know that you and the other person are joined by a special, common enterprise. At least that’s what I think is going on. In the moment, it feels as though all of us are distant cousins (which is a little strange, because I never knew that I had so many relations in, for example, New Zealand).

The opening ceremonies had some lovely pageantry, of course, highlighted by traditional Thai drumming and a spectacular fireworks display over a beautifully lit temple that looked like a Siamese version of Cinderella’s palace. But I doubt that many people will write home about what they saw, because they were too deeply engaged in conversation—some with people they’ve know for years, others with people who just happened to occupy a nearby chair.

One gets the strong impression that a lot of these people have experimented with several different philanthropies before settling on Habitat. Now, they’ve finally found something that works for them, and the fact that you’ve found it, too, suggests to them that you’re a fellow traveler on the same road. So why not relax a little and enjoy some camaraderie as the miles roll by?

Except the opening ceremonies aren’t entirely like a wedding, and here’s why: The work isn’t over—in fact, it hasn’t even begun—and tomorrow’s wake-up call is scheduled for 4:30 a.m. So perhaps tonight was more like the rehearsal dinner.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not the Same River

Like most people, I suffer from mild travel anxiety. So when I woke up this morning at about four o’clock, knowing that I had a twenty-four-hour flight to Chiang Mai ahead of me, I had a little trouble getting back to sleep. As I flipped and flopped, I got to thinking about something I had read on the Internet the night before.

A Google News Alert had tipped me off to a blog post relating to my new book, If I Had a Hammer. Its author wondered why I hadn’t recounted any negative experiences people have had with Habitat for Humanity. Surely I must have heard of some.

The truth is, I heard fewer complaints than one might think; and of those I did hear, nearly all went like this: I called up the local affiliate several times to volunteer and never got a call back. Whether the snub was due to ineptness or cliquishness—I’ve heard stories of both—or whether it was simply the result of a lack of follow-through on the part of overworked volutneers, the experience was, I’m sure, unpleasant and frustrating. I’ve made several offers myself over the years to local nonprofits, only to be similarly rebuffed, so I know how it feels.

But are such complaints a fair criticism of Habitat for Humanity International? And, more importantly to me, should I have included those stories in my book? I had, of course, thought about these questions before; but the blog post made me think about them again.

The most important thing to understand about the way Habitat works is that it’s highly decentralized. With few exceptions, volunteers have little direct contact with the international headquarters in Americus, Georgia. Instead, they work with locally chartered affiliates that raise and control their own money, make their own decisions, and create their own group cultures. Some of these cultures are, regrettably, less welcoming than others.

I chose not to include the occasional griping about local affiliates in my book because I think there is a distinction to be made between the ideas espoused by Habitat and the ways in which those ideas are sometimes applied (or ignored). Human nature being what it is—imperfect—there can hardly be good without blemishes. Is this a reality worth noting? I didn’t think so.

What I really wanted to write about was the wisdom and cleverness of the mechanism—what President Carter calls a bridge—that Millard Fuller and Clarence Jordan created four decades ago. Fuller and Jordan actually figured out a way to channel people’s natural aspirations into productive activity—and I’m not merely speaking of the partner families here. Fuller and Jordan believed—with good reason, I think—that the path to personal redemption for all people lies in making some meaningful connection to other humans.

So what if a few of the twenty-three hundred Habitat affiliates aren’t run as well as they could be? It seems to me that the important lesson to teach our children isn’t that great ideas don’t always produce great results; rather, it’s that great ideas sometimes do transform people’s lives—a lot of people’s lives.

Among my favorite Bob Dylan lyrics is the last verse of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” (That’s the song with the chorus, “Aw, mama, can this really be the end?”) It goes, “And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.” Yes, it’s a cynical refrain. But now as I sit here on this Korean Air Lines 777 atop the world on my way to my first Habitat build, Mr. Zimmerman isn’t speaking to me quite so strongly. Instead, I hear Mao Zedong talking about rivers. You never step in the same one twice, he said.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pad Thai

I made this for the family last night, and it was a big hit. As with any stir-fried meal, it’s really important to get all the prep work done in advance. Those small Pyrex bowls really come in handy.

(serves two parents and two children)

1 7-oz pkg rice noodles (stir-fry style)
peanut oil
juice of a lime
2 Tbs fish sauce (nam pla)
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 Tbs oyster sauce
2 Tbs sugar
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tsp red pepper flakes
½ lb shrimp
1 lb firm tofu
3 large scallions
2 c bean sprouts
½ c peanuts, chopped
a handful of cilantro, chopped
4 large eggs
Asian hot sauce (such as Sriracha)

1. Cover the rice noodles with very hot water. Let stand until they soften but still remain a little chewy (al dente). Rinse with cold water, drain well, and coat with a little peanut oil. Set aside.

2. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar to make the sauce. Set aside.

3. Combine the garlic, shallots, and red pepper flakes. Set aside.

4. Shell and devein the shrimp. Dice the tofu.

5. Slice the scallions (both the white and green parts) into half-inch lengths. Combine the scallions with half of the sprouts. Place the remaining sprouts on the table as a garnish, along with the chopped peanuts and chopped cilantro.

6. Beat the eggs with a little salt.

7. Heat a wok (or a large skillet) over a high flame until very hot. Add 2 Tbs peanut oil. Let the oil come up to temperature and pour in the eggs. Stir-fry the eggs until they set, about 1 minute. Remove to a cutting board and chop.

8. Add 2 Tbs more oil to the hot wok and let the oil come to temperature. Add the aromatics and stir-fry until the garlic becomes fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and stir-fry until opaque, about 1 minute. Add the tofu, and continue stir-frying until the tofu becomes hot, about another 2 minutes. Remove from the wok and set aside.

9. Add 2 Tbs more oil to the hot wok and let the oil come to temperature. Add the noodles. Stir-fry briefly, then add the sauce. Continue stir-frying until the noodles become hot and most of the sauce is absorbed, about 2-3 minutes. Toss with the reserved eggs, shrimp-and-tofu mixture, and scallions-and sprouts mixture. Serve immediately with hot sauce on the side.

• Make sure that you monitor the soaking noodles carefully so that they don’t become limp. One way I manage this is to use hot tap water instead of the boiling water that most recipes recommend. The reduced heat slows down the hydration process so there is less change of overcooking them. I use Thai Kitchen–brand noodles, which are available in most supermarkets.

• If you don't already buy frozen shrimp, start doing so. As it turns out, nearly all shrimp are frozen at sea as soon as they're caught. The shrimp that are sold unfrozen in fish stores and supermarkets have merely been thawed in advance. Better to keep the shrimp frozen and defrost them as needed. It takes only a few minutes in a cold water bath.

• I usually use raw peanuts in my Asian cooking, but for this dish, roasted salted peanuts seem to work better.

The Way I Write Recipes

I can be lazy when reading recipes. Sometimes I'll just scan a recipe before beginning to cook, only to find myself a few minutes later standing over a hot skillet, having only just realized that I need to add a tomato that isn't yet diced. For this reason, I strive in all my recipes to include the preparation work as a step. That way, people following the recipe won't get too far ahead of themselves, as I sometimes do.

I also try to keep in mind the quantities in which ingredients are sold. Although most of my recipes yield enough for two adults and two growing children, when a special ingredient is called for, I try to adjust the yield so that all of a package gets used. Coconut milk, for instance, comes in 14-ounce cans. I don't see the point in using just 10 ounces and letting the rest get moldy in the refrigerator. So I'll adjust the yield of a recipe that calls for part of a can in order to make use of the entire can.

Finally, and most importantly, I try to be explicit about what steps really make a difference in the preparation of a dish. Generally, I have a scientific bent of mind. I really try to understand what makes things work, including good food; so I pay a lot of attention to what makes a dish go right and what can make it go wrong. Some things are okay to fudge; others aren't. I'll always try to let you know which is which (often in the Tips section that follow a recipe, so please don't skip it!).

My Hope for this Blog

The purpose of a blog, as I understand it, is to share thoughts and information with readers. Of course, as an author, I get to do this in the books that I write. But a year or more can pass between the time I start a book and the time you get to read it. I hope this blog will give me the opportunity to speed up that cycle and write about subjects that, while not worthy of book-length treatment, are nonetheless interesting to me and also to you.

I expect that many of my posts will relate to my work. I've often found it ironic that, by the time my latest book reaches the bookstores, I've already moved on to a new project. So, while I'm making appearances in support of a newly published book, I'm really most eager to talk about the book I'm currently writing. With this blog, I hope to pass on some of what I learn as I learn it and thus allow you to share in the creative process, especially the joys of discovery and the aha! moments.

Other posts will, from time to time, relate to current events. My background as a historian gives me a helpful perspective, I think, in untangling much of what we hear on the news. When I believe I have something useful to offer, I'll post it here, especially if the mass media seems to be missing the boat. (But this will not be a political blog.)

Some posts will, of course, simply be fun. At my house, I do most of the cooking, and—as in all things—I like to share what I've learned. For five years, I had a fortnightly cooking show on Northeast Public Radio called "What's for Dinner." That show is no more, but I'm still cooking and still developing recipes, which I'll begin posting here for your culinary enlightenment. My repertoire, which I call family cuisine, is an eclectic mix of ethnic and comfort foods. What all of my recipes have in common, however, is that they're simple to execute and healthful to eat. I'm just a dad who cooks; if I can make it, you can, too.