Atomic Dark State

On teaching one year into the pandemic and on the eve of schools re-opening

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ATOMIC DARK STATE*

You try to push a large fridge made of a sturdy metal and fully filled with frozen blueberries. When you push, your hand easily bends the metal and passes through into the blueberries. How likely is this to happen? Why? What would have to change to make this scenario happen all the time (if anything)?

***

Faculty meetings these days always devolve into a civil but increasingly sharp conflict about computer or iPad cameras. Our students’ cameras to be more specific, and our students’ cameras when they are turned off to be extremely specific.

Some teachers feel like the turning off of the camera is the biggest remote learning sin and needs to be prevented at all costs. Otherwise, the student and the class have all been doomed to fail in a way no less dramatic than some biblical disaster. Some were themselves students until recently, or still occasionally are, so they sympathize with the feelings of hypervisibility and hypersensitivity that too much Zoom usage blends into one potent source of fatigue and anxiety. Everyone agrees that we need to present a united front on the camera issue because different rules and different standards for different classes are confusing. Everyone agrees that we have already confused our students enough with incessant rule and norm changes that have been a staple of high school education since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we cannot agree on what that front should be nor do we seem to be able to unite behind some yet to be fully named values as our shared motivation.

The issue of students’ cameras is layered, gluing the personal to the systemic. For some students, keeping their camera off is an issue of self-esteem, of anxiety, of having started classes in a new school without meeting anyone in person, of worrying about what an old camera may do to their face. But these are not actually personal issues.

We know that beauty standards are shaped by whiteness and mainstream culture so anxiety about having your face plastered on someone’s screen must be that way as well. We know that economically disadvantaged students may not want to show us their homes or let us know they’re sharing a room and bandwidth with siblings that are also in Zoom school. Economics are also correlated with other identity markers, race being one of the big ones. We know that some students who opt to make themselves invisible on Zoom may be ones that already feel made invisible by our culture – imagine the energy and the effort it would take to put yourself out there when you know the mainstream wants to keep you hidden and marginalized.

For some students turning on their camera is always a bit of a battle. At some point last semester, a students shared with me that the Zoom issue had been a huge source of stress and a detriment to completing in-class work for them. I helped them set a goal to keep their camera on for one class every day. Making this happen was the student’s New Year resolution. A few weeks later, I was listening to another teacher claim that only students that are unmotivated can’t find a way to show their face on Zoom.

I am sympathetic to many of those students even if they really are just unmotivated. In some sense, it is mildly miraculous to me when I notice that many of them still are motivated at all, even after a year of remote learning, of quarantine, of the particularly heavy New York City dystopia, of teachers yelling at them about their Zoom habits. And I wish I could say that I am sympathetic because I can vividly remember what it was like to be a teenager, but in reality I sympathize because a year of remote teaching as a graduate student and as a full-time teacher, has taken a toll on me as well. In every faculty meeting when student motivation gets litigated yet, I play a fantasy scenario in my head in which I unmute myself and yell “It’s a pandemic, no-one is motivated, we’re all sad!”

Sadness, fatigue and anxiety should be respected as valid ways to feel and be in a time like this. Our students’ autonomy, their privacy and their ability to make their own decisions, even when they’re not the best decisions for their education, should be respected as well. I don’t want to feel like it’s my job to control their behavior and to police how they display themselves. I want to cultivate opportunities for them to do so in ways that feel authentic, safe and productive.

The terrifying thing about being a teenager is exactly the sense of being on the edge of adulthood, the edge of being allowed to do what you want and the edge of being taken seriously when you say what you think and feel. It’s the being on this edge but not quite on the other side that is so difficult. Since completing my PhD, one of my big struggles has been to take myself seriously as an adult, to stop feeling like I need permissions and approvals from older folks around me. I realize that this is the same shift in attitude I was chasing at sixteen when I moved from Croatia to the United States, pretty much all by myself. My students have no foreign country to run to. Really, they have very few spaces where they can seek any sort of comfort or refuge – we’re all still maintaining something very close to quarantine in a city that is usually full of movie-like, scenic, escape opportunities. Most of my students are stuck in one physical space so when they meet me in the virtual realm, I feel like it is a huge part of my job to let them build some of our shared virtual space, to make it big and designed the way that actually works for them. Even if they can’t quite summon their full motivation every day, show up to class with the willingness to stare down the camera every single time, they need to know that they have a say in what school can be like for them whenever they feel ready to speak up.

***

Draw a free body diagram for an object that you can see right now and send a picture of it to your Designated Collaborator. Ask them to guess what the object is and write that down in their Diary. When they send you their diagram, insert it here and write down your guess.

***

Before I started teaching in August, I spent a few weeks trying to plan a month or so of lessons in advance. I wanted to really nail down my schedule, teaching goals, and resources I’ll be able to rely on. I’ve changed much if not all of those things once we left the physical school building.

I more or less gave up on homework and decided to ask students to complete work during class time so that they could get credit even if their homes are too busy and noisy, or their devices too buggy, to do work at night. I converted much of my assignments to group activities or work in pairs to give students a chance to speak to peers they might not meet in person for much longer and to make them feel less alone when confronted with a new teacher and a new, difficult subject. I started asking every one of my students to share guided journal entries with me so that I would get a sense of their voice and how they’re assessing their work even if they are too shy to unmute themselves in class or just don’t know how to navigate banter and chit-chat that happens before and after lessons virtually. I decided to offer revisions and second chances on all assignments so that students feel like even in these most stuck-in-time-and-space times growth is the most important thing. I slowed down all of my schedules so that there are catch-up days and homework co-working hours for those that struggle with time-management. I started writing reminder and check-in emails after one or two missed assignments instead of waiting for a more problematic work pattern to emerge. I stopped expecting that students will reach out for help just because I tell them that they can and decided that the onus should really be on me – the person with more power and more stability and more knowledge – to be proactive and offer to catch them even before they admit to themselves that they are falling.

I am working constantly. Constantly grading, re-grading, writing feedback, writing emails, managing long threads on Google Classroom, keeping up with Zoom chats while lecturing, visiting breakout rooms during group work, calling counselors, emailing parents. I am pouring energy into trying to be equitable and compassionate and it is exhausting. It is mostly exhausting because the way we have been doing school for years before the pandemic hit was just not built to support or reward this mode of work. Some days I really don’t want to turn on my camera either, not just because sometimes I draw my eyebrows all wonky, but because I worry that students are studying my face and seeing how hard showing can be for me too.

***

Alice and Bob are astronauts floating some distance apart in space. They are joined by a safety cord whose ends are tied around their waists. If Alice starts pulling on the cord, will Bob move closer to Alice, or will Alice move closer to Bob, or will both astronauts move? Explain.

***

In New York City, high-schools will start in-person teaching again in three days. Me and my students will again be commuting to our lower Manhattan classroom where we will sit or stand six feet apart and try to hear each other through our masks.

The discourse around re-opening schools is, in part, so infuriating to many in my position, because for us and our students, schools never closed, they just got compressed enough to be taken into our bedrooms and living rooms. Once they were there they started expanding again until they filled up every little nook and cranny. Because the buildings closed, we lost the ability to arrive to school and leave school. Maybe that’s why when I grade something on Google Classroom on a Saturday night some students still email me about it within the hour – neither of us can leave school because it’s always there.

When podcasters, pundits, politicians and privileged parents with loud Twitter accounts speak about re-opening schools, they mean re-opening the buildings. They mean getting school out of their sight because they are used to not having it so visibly take up space in their worlds. They mean getting school off their hands and putting it back strictly back into those of people like my students and people like me. They mean that we have to stuff education back into its little, walled off corner so that life can go back to the kind of normal where we pretend that schooling and learning and growth don’t also happen and aren’t actually influenced by so much more than what takes place in a physically distinct classroom.

And it’s not so much that the strain that remote learning put on parents and other caretakers has left me cold – I can’t imagine how much their work resembles mine and then all the other regular parent stuff gets piled on top – as much as I have become really aware of how little support we as a society generally put into caring for and nurturing our young people. After all, childcare as an industry has in this country always been built on backs of black and brown women working for minimum wage, probably somewhere out of sight. We do not treat childcare as a public good and public education has systematically been defunded over the last decade. The pandemic very rudely reminded us that this is unsustainable and unjust.

It has revealed a lack of safety net for both parents and educators.

When you read the New York Times or listen to TV news you can easily get a sense that parent groups and teacher unions are warring over who exactly the kids should be handed off too during these tough times. This conflict, as real or unreal as it is depending on your geography and community, is another reflection of a scarcity attitude, a scarcity philosophy, that capitalism has gifted us, that keep us angry at each other instead of at the structures of power that have failed to support us across the board. Schools should be hubs of community care, of mutual aid, of sharing joy and uplifting of everyone involved and instead they are a tricky budget item, a political hot potato and something to complain about over brunch. None of this will change once we return to brick-and-mortar school buildings, it will just be less obvious in the same way that the labor of parents, often those with least means and least privilege, will also be rendered invisible yet again.

***

Hi everyone,

I hope you've been having a nice break. I just wanted to give you a small nudge to try and challenge yourself to speak up more in physics class this week. 

I haven't heard much from many of you, and some of you have not spoken at all in the first two weeks of the semester. I understand that the new bigger class and having a new teacher can be awkward and uncomfortable, but participation is part of your grade and part of what you're supposed to learn in this class is not just how to do science, but also how to explain it in words.

Don't forget that you have a huge say in what this class is like - if only a few folks chose to participate then that sets the tone for everyone that's staying quiet. The best way to make this class better for yourself is to participate. 

As I noted at the beginning of the course, chat messages also count as participation and if you'd rather I call on you instead of waiting for you to raise your hand let me know and for sure I can do that too.

***

February was Black History Month, so I put together a short, 50-minute, activity on Black physicists, engineers and inventors for my 9th grade Conceptual Physics class. It wasn’t fancy, just a brief introduction to set the tone of the activity then a list of names of Black scientists that students could look up and make slides about. They worked in groups, researching for half an hour or so, then talking about the people they had chosen to focus on to the whole class. I told them about how dire numbers in physics are when it comes to representation and inclusion of Black physicists, but also stressed that we’ll focus on celebrating Black excellence and success instead of spinning another tale of adversity. I told them that to do better as a community, we need to amend our history to include all the forgotten stories of Black greatness alongside working on being more equitable going forward. I’m not sure how much a 9th grader studying Newton’s Laws thinks about being a part of the physics community writ large, but I always err on the side of giving my students the benefit of the doubt and treating them as adults more than I do as children. If the pandemic has taught us anything when we had to splinter off into our own tiny bubbles, then it is that we do all belong to something bigger.

Across the board, my students responded well to the activity. They made colorful slides and found some great photos of scientists from the past in addition to uncovering long lists of awards and accomplishments for each. A few days later when I sat down to read their journals, I found that many of my students were disturbed by learning that there are many Black scientists that did important work that they had never learned about in other classes. It disheartened me tremendously me to see some of my Black students write this, some going so far as to say they did not know that Black people invented any gadgets and tools that we use in everyday life. Quite sharply, one student noted that most Black figures in history they learned about in school so far were in some way involved in events like the Civil Rights struggle, and not in any sort of a success. Many shouted-out the inventor of the Super Soaker, Lonnie Johnson, who was also a very prolific NASA engineer. This reminded that they are still kids, but also that so many things that they may like have probably been presented to them with no contexts whatsoever and no history. The Super Soaker led me to stumble upon an intertwining of failures of formal and informal education, an effect of blind spots in our culture as it shows up in living rooms and as it is codified in classrooms.

Though the work my students put in delighted me as much as the echoes of systemic racism in their lack of familiarity with any Black scientists saddened me, mostly I was reminded of how important school actually is – and for reasons that have nothing to do with action/reaction force pairs or defining photons. In contrast to students that seem to choose to erase themselves from our Zoom classrooms when they turn off their cameras and get in trouble for it, there is so much that we have as an institution just surrendered to invisibility and marginalization without anyone calling us out on it.

Most of 2020, however, was something like one big, shocking, rattling call-out and 2021 should really follow suit, even though the political climate has, on some shallow level, softened a bit. We don’t just need our students to be visible, but we need to make it in-your-face manifest that care and compassion are valued, that labor is valued, that honest histories are worthwhile and that retooling broken structures is the only way forward. Maybe if we made things that matter more apparent, more students would choose to share their full, vibrant selves with us too.

Best,

Karmela

* In atomic physics, a dark state is a state of an atom that cannot absorb or emit light. In quantum mechanics, atoms have discrete energy states. They can only transition from one energy state to another – change their energy – if they are given some extra energy or if they release some of the energy they have already. These amounts of energy have to be exactly right: if they are not a certain special “quantized” number the atom remains stuck with whatever energy it currently has. Often, these special amounts of energy are thought of as some number of energy chunks or energy quanta. One way to change the energy of an atom is by absorbing in or releasing a chunk of light or a photon. However, some transitions between energy states are simply not allowed and no light can make them happen. States marked by these forbidden transitions are consequently referred to as dark.

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ABOUT ME LATELY

WRITING

The last few weeks have been really productive for my writing. Though getting commissioned to write pieces while also trying to find and pitch new stories makes my schedule, already quite busy with teaching and grading, pretty unforgiving at times, I am feeling really enthusiastic for and fulfilled by my writing work. Transitioning back to in-person teaching will make commuting become another variable in my time management equation, but I am hoping to stay organized and keep at least some of this good writing momentum going forward. And I am really trying my best to allow myself to feel more confident in my writing skills and to take myself more seriously as a writer now that I have effectively been one for almost a whole year.

For Physics World, I wrote about using quantum computers to simulate quantum processes inside particle colliders and about a light-based quantum computer that has already been miniaturized, integrated onto a chip and can be accessed through the cloud. I seem to have landed on the quantum computing beat at Physics World which is does not exactly align with my research background, but I have been really enjoying it nevertheless. These two stories made me engage with two different aspects of quantum computing, one geared towards research and the other towards a more broad base of consumers, and I was slightly wowed by how far the field has come in recent years.

For WIRED, I wrote about a team of physicists at the University of Hamburg engineering the densest ultracold plasma yet. This plasma effectively mimics interiors of white dwarf stars and, possibly, gas giant planets so this work could lead to scientists being able to test theories about these hard-to-reach astronomical bodies in their table-top laboratory experiments. This is research that I would have loved learning about as a scientists and research that I loved writing about now. Using ultracold atomic systems as emulators and simulators of quantum systems we don’t fully understand yet has always fascinated me and this particular experiment represents truly boundary-pushing work.

For Scientific American, I wrote about one of my all-time favorite topics: ultracold atoms in space. In 2017 a team of German scientists launched an ultracold atom experiment into space on a sounding rocket and their data analysis, published in February, has now shown that they actually managed to successfully perform a fundamental quantum mechanics experiment onboard. The success of this experiment, as the new paper explicates, points to a future that may be riddled with space-based quantum mechanics experiments, some of which have, since 2017, begun to be performed on the International Space Station as well. My past research made some contact with a different spaceborne ultracold atoms experiment so it felt particularly meaningful to shout this one out.

LEARNING

In the past month I reached an unexpected adulthood milestone of being invited to give a virtual Career Seminar at my graduate alma mater. Before an email found me somewhat well, I didn’t even realize that it had been more than a year since I had successfully defended my PhD. It was surprising and somewhat unsettling to realize how much time had passed since I left Illinois in the early days of the pandemic, and how little awareness I have of myself as someone who has a real post-doctoral career already. I framed my talk as simply laying out the order of events and decisions that led me to where I am today rather than explicit advice, but being put in a position of relative authority over past colleagues that Zoomed into the seminar definitely made it impossible to forget that I was there as someone presumed to be knowledgeable. It is still hard for me to think of my career path as a success story and, for reasons of emotional inertia and overall overwhelm, I have not fully been able to process just how much shame from having left academic research still lingers in my mind. Because of this, I’m grateful to have been invited to give this talk. It made me think through everything I learned and built for myself in the past year and it challenged me to communicate my post PhD path with the kind of clarity and optimism that I strive for whenever I am given a platform to speak (you cannot just mope in an invited talk).

In an effort to actually invest in my career some more, I have also been participating in a college advising program within my school. So far, this has mostly included working with a small group of high school seniors once or twice a week in order to help them get a head start on their college applications. This work was assigned to me as a faculty member, but I was happy to be asked to do it, especially in light of my past mentoring efforts where I had often helped college students with graduate school applications. I am still a huge believer in mentoring and want to contribute the mentoring skills I already have to my new school community. Engaging in college advising itself has been in many ways eye-opening, but predictably so. It is remarkable and devastating how much of college planning is hindered by or centered on financial concerns, and how fraught all related conversations are with class issues. I am lucky to work in a school that has much more resources than many other public high schools in New York City, and many of my students and advisees do have the kind of privilege that makes college a viable option for them. The fact that they get personalized advising is itself an advantage that cannot be understated. However, even from that standpoint, a few weeks of meetings and Common App and scholarship application talk have me convinced that the higher education system we currently have has little to do with talent or learning more than ever before.

READING

I have slowly been making my way through Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude Jr which is something like a nonlinear biography of James Baldwin with extras. It is subtitled “James Baldwin’s America and its urgent lessons for our own” and it lives up to that as each of the book’s chapters tackles a theme in both Baldwin’s writing and contemporary American politics and culture. I have been rather enamored with Baldwin since I saw I Am Not Your Negro in theaters five years ago and I bought this book somewhat impulsively after I heard Glaude speak about it on some podcast – he just seemed to be really, genuinely enamored with Baldwin too. This is a wordy book, a bit less tightly edited and a bit more didactic than it probably needs to be, but nevertheless fascinating and at times packed with meaning. The connections that Glaude draws between racialized politics of Baldwin’s time and his work in racial justice efforts and those that we have seen in recent years are not always unexpected, but seeing them all laid out is powerful. Glaude also does not shy away from inserting his own opinions and experiences into the story of Baldwin and America (or maybe America vs. Baldwin vs. America) which I have begun to appreciate in writings about history and in criticism more and more. The personal lens of the writer certainly informs their reading and framing of their subjects and in a book dealing with fraught topics of identity, many of which were a point of focus for Baldwin, it seems crucial to make that lens explicit. In the past year, I have been pretty terrible about reading actual books, but I think I’m going to make it to the end of this one.

This letter about divorce and unequal marriages by Jessica Valenti. Her argument that expecting women to leave bad partners adds yet another piece of work on their plates resonated with me. I also appreciated her critiques of gender gap commentary we have seen during the pandemic and her call for shifts in our overall culture. For instance, Valenti writes

“This doesn’t mean we don’t fight for legislation—just that America needs a cultural shift that changes men’s hearts and minds alongside that policy progress.

Take media coverage on women and the pandemic. Nearly every headline is some version of “Covid forces women out of the workforce,” rather than the much more simple and truthful "men’s refusal to equally parent rolls back women’s progress.”

Imagine if instead of quotes from harried moms, we saw profiles of men trying to explain why their time and work is more valuable than their wives’. What if there were magazine covers framing this as a national scandal: Men across the country do nothing as the women they love lose jobs”

And then

“And divorce? Instead of “just leave him”—which feels like yet another way to make men’s issues women’s problem—we could ensure that men get truthful messages about marriage.

Right now, American culture paints marriage as something women are desperate for and men desperate to avoid. But studies show that women are more likely to initiate divorces than men, that women tend to be happier than men post-divorce, and that marriage benefits men more than it does women.

If men truly understood that their happiness is much more dependent on marriage than it is for women, perhaps they’d work harder to make sure their wives weren’t miserable.”

Poetry: Nothing to Declare by Lauren K. Alleyne and Dispatch from Fantasy Island by Tracy Assing. These are both political, but also immensely personal and rather gorgeous.

LISTENING

The Raging River by Cult of Luna. I’ve mentioned being excited for this record in past letters and now that it has been released, and my vinyl copy arrived a few weeks later, I have given it a fair amount of listening time. It is a really solid record, marked by their typically rich yet dissonant sound and a somewhat moody texture. The Raging River has less of the desperation that 2016’s Mariner conveyed, and it is less grating than 2013’s Vertikal. It is a natural successor to A Dawn to Fear from two years ago and it even has a bit more peace to it while not necessarily sacrificing that noisy quality that I really love. The transitions between the songs are a bit harsh on this one, not necessarily tying the record into one neat whole, but it is overall still rather compelling.

Hollow Earth by Outré, a complex and heavy black metal effort reminiscent of Ash Borer and Unortheta by Zhrine, another very atmospheric, slightly melancholy black metal album that is as enjoyable as it is loud.

Infrared Horizon by Artificial Brain, a really solid science fiction themed black metal record that made me think of what some of my favorite Vektor records might sound like if they were less melodic and more, for the lack of a better word, growl-y. I did a fair amount of my science writing to this album, just for the idiosyncratic satisfaction of its theme.

A bunch of universally good albums that always hold up: Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, High Voltage by AC/DC, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! by Janis Joplin and the recording of Jimi Hendrix playing the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970. These are all sonic comfort food for me, not always intellectually challenging, but often surprisingly resonant and full of lightness.

WATCHING:

We watched Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max and though my first impression was not bad, the film grew in my estimation as I kept thinking about it in the following days. The thing about this movie is that it is styled as a subterfuge story or maybe something like a noir which at times obscures how much politics and emotion it actually contains. Though there are a few scenes that feel almost over-stylized, showing us already very arch characters being even more cartoonishly arch, for most of the film its stars really shine in their seemingly perfectly fine-tuned performances and the whole thing also just looks really good, really polished and very dynamic. This is not at all a feel-good story nor is it necessarily a call for a revolution, but it’s worth spending time with.

We finished watching the Wire and, like many before me, I felt that its fifth season was somewhat unnecessary. The story simply did not have to go to all the places it ended up venturing in, and for the first time I felt like the writing had gotten sloppy. At the same time, the world of the Wire becomes so immersive that you just can’t rage quit it over a bad half-episode here or there. It was in many ways odd to watch the last two seasons of the show as I have professional brushes with both public schools and journalism yet was definitely completely oblivious about both at the time when the Wire was filmed. Regardless of all the shortcomings of its late seasons, the Wire is for the most part excellently constructed, and I kept being surprised by how many of the issues it weaves into its five-season arc are still beyond relevant today. This was a longer watching project than my partner and me usually embark on, but for sure an enjoyable one.

Two Nordic crime shows: The Head and The Investigation. The first is a pretty entertaining but ultimately ridiculous story about crime at a science station in Antarctica populated with an unreasonably sketchy international group of scientists. You can probably skip this one, but if you give it a shot you can count on both shock and outrage in between trying to parse all the accents. The Investigation is in many ways the opposite. Though it is based on a true story it stays very far away from being anything like salacious and commits itself to very slowly showing the viewer all the details of a real criminal investigation. It is boring and oppressive in the best way possible. Its commitment to being thorough and as bleak as real life sometimes gets is so strong that occasional forays into the investigators’ private lives (a mainstay of American crime shows) feel very unnecessary. This show chooses to never show us the perpetrator of the gruesome murder at its center, fully focusing on the investigation and the victim’s family which was really refreshing – it’s time for true crime fiction to stop being mostly a vehicle for lionizing killers and worse.

We were clearly quite late to Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You but this is probably the best and most horrifying show I have seen in a long time. Every episode is different in tone, every issue that is weaved into its story feels raw and relevant, no emotionally difficult subject is left safe or oversimplified, and you still manage to laugh out loud at least once in every one of its half hours. I am tempted to compare this show to Fleabag, but it is in many ways much richer and much fuller of both content and visual flourish. It made me more anxious than most horror movies, but I looked forward to watching it. As a content warning, this is a show about rape, sexual assault and complexity of consent. At times it really is fairly upsetting, but I would still recommend it. Its approach feels new and important: it almost fully lives in a gray area that is not the strawman that lawmakers and pundits often invoke, but rather something that feels like the lived experience of either many of us or our dear friends.

EATING

I tried something fairly new to me and made washed seitan out of a ball of unbaked bread dough then used leftover starchy water to make thick, gelatinous noodles we ate with crunchy veggies and a sesame sauce according to this Chez Jorge recipe. I had no idea that this was one of the traditional ways to make seitan, so it was really exciting to get to try it.

At the beginning of March I went on a minor pancake kick, so I made a Malaysian peanut pancake called apam balik that ferments overnight from the East Meets Vegan cookbook a few times as well as the Japanese okonomiyaki pancake recipe from the same book. Both were really good.

I broke out another cookbook I bought during quarantine and made the mushroom cocktail and the hearts of palm ceviche from LaVida Verde. We had them piled high on some crunchy tostadas with a side of refried beans during a couple of shockingly sunny and warm New York days. The combination of briny, brigth food and golden sunlight all over our apartment was near perfect.

We semi-jokingly instituted an Italian food Sunday night theme (cue in jokes about nonnas in Brooklyn making Sunday sauce) so I half-improvised a batch of tofu ‘ricotta’, spinach and artichoke manicotti, a creamy cashew pasta primavera and a steamy ribollita. All of it was really satisfying and a nice follow-up to previous efforts that included all other pasta-and-tomato combinations such as a Sicillian skillet pizza and an eggplant parm. I am also sharing the ribollita recipe below.

Finally, my husband made us a vegan version of this mushroom tart from the New York Times. Despite all of my skepticism for the Times’ recipe and my concern when my husband started measuring the dough with a ruler, the whole thing  turned out to be absolutely fantastic.

For about 4 generous servings of this vegan ribollita you will need:

3-4 cups of water or vegetable stock

2 tbsp olive oil + more for drizzling

1 onion, finely chopped

3 carrots, peeled and chopped into half-moons or rounds

3 stalks celery, finely diced

1-2 cups thinly sliced cabbage

2-3 cups roughly chopped or torn kale or some other leafy green like collards or chard

1/4 cup chopped parsley

5-6 cloves garlic, crushed or finely minced (more is probably better)

1 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and lightly crushed with a spoon, or one 28 can diced tomatoes

1 can cannellini or navy beans, drained and thoroughly rinsed

2.5 tbsp nutritional yeast (optional, you can also use a tablespoon or so of miso dissolved in as much warm water)

1 fresh rosemary sprig or 1/4 tsp dried rosemary

1/4 tsp ground thyme

1/2 small loaf of Italian bread or a baguette, cut into thin slices

Salt and pepper to taste

1.  Preheat your oven to 500F or as high as it will go.

2. Heat the oil in a large oven-safe pot (chose something heavy if you don’t have one) then add carrots, onions, celery and cabbage. Sauté until the onions become slightly golden and translucent. They should not retain any crunch.

3. Add garlic and sauté for another minute, making sure that the garlic does not burn.

4. Stir in beans, tomatoes, spices and either vegetable broth or water. Stir and break up tomatoes if necessary. Bring to a boil.

5. Turn down the heat slightly, cover and let simmer for at least 10 minutes.

6. Add the kale and stir well. Simmer for another minute or two.

7. If you do not have an oven safe pot, at this point transfer your soup to a casserole dish, preferably one with tall sides.

8. Turn of the heat and cover the top of the soup with the thinly sliced pieces of bread, overlapping them and pushing them down a bit so that some get half-submerged. You are aiming for a full “lid” for your soup.

9. (Optional) Drizzle some olive oil and sprinkle some nutritional yeast and garlic powder over the top of the bread.

10. Transfer the whole pot or the casserole dish into the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes or until the bread starts to look golden and crunchy in places.

11.  Serve with extra olive oil, red pepper flakes and chopped parsley.

Notes: This is a forgiving recipe where adding almost any leafy green vegetable instead of kale, leaving out the cabbage, swapping in butter beans or chickpeas instead of navy beans, skipping celery, adding parsnips or a chopped squash of some sort in step 4, or even sautéing some thinly sliced mushrooms with the onions will still work really well. Do, however, use a crusty bread that you can buy whole – spongy, pre-sliced, American bread will mostly turn into mush.

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