Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tom goes to Russia

Last week I felt pretty lucky. In other years I’ve gotten to take students on field trips to theater performances and to conferences, but this year I was asked to chaperone a weeklong trip to St. Petersburg Russia with my IB seniors. (Unfortunately Karissa had to remain behind to teach, though it is likely that she will get to take choir kids on a free trip to Spain later this year.)
There is a lot of paperwork that goes into a trip to Russia, and a lot of money, so I was glad that the school took care of both! Moroccan visas to Russia cost around $30US, whereas US visas cost $300. Moroccans list a few details about their travels on the paperwork to Russia, whereas I had to forfeit every piece of personal information I knew to the Russian consulate, including the names and contact information of supervisors at all of my previous jobs. Likely the KGB is stealing my identity as I write this, but hey…free trip to Russia!
            We arrived in the airport in St. Petersburg to the sight of snow. The kids huddled together and shivered as they would do all week, but for me it was a wonderful break two months of unchanging heat. Over the week, we explored palace after palace, museums, prisons, and stunning cathedrals. The city itself is beautiful, having been planned by Peter the Great to look like the most beautiful European cities he had seen. Canals and rivers crisscrossed the city, and every building face seemed like a piece of art. Shopping centers had carved marble statues bigger than me built into the walls, as if holding the weight of the building upon their sculpted muscular shoulders. Gardens were everywhere, thick with leafy trees and bushes.
            The palaces from the imperial days were stunning examples of beautiful excess. Each had far more rooms than the White House, and every room glowed with gold, which snaked up each wall in Baroque florid engravings and which gilded columns and chandeliers. There was an entire room covered in a solid mosaic of precious amber, accented with patterns of gold. In the light of the chandeliers, every wall glowed. Every ceiling was hand painted, and every surface seemed covered by the work of artists. I had learned a little of the history of the conditions of the serfs at the time, so my reaction was a mix of amazement at the level of self-serving materialism as well as simple awe at the beauty and artistry that filled the place.
            The churches, also, were works of art. After leaving the first cathedral we entered, filled floor to ceiling with paintings and golden sculptures depicting sacred imagery, and filled also with the sounds of a small choir singing part of an Eastern Orthodox Mass in Russian, one student remarked that he wasn’t spiritual at all, but it was hard not to be in such a place with such music. My favorite church was The Church of the Spilt Blood, constructed after the assassination of a Russian Czar. From the floor to the ceiling, hundreds of feet above, every surface of the church was covered with pastel mosaics. For twenty-five years during construction, artists pieced together the mosaics using tiles the size of my thumb. The effect was amazing and beautiful. I felt so small surrounded by such immense artwork which flooded the senses.
            We learned also of the brutal history of Stalin’s time. I stood inside the cold concrete prison cells which held prisoners as they awaited transit to the Siberian work camps of the Gulag. We saw the memorial to the 1.5 million Russians who had died in the two-year siege of Leningrad in WWII. Our tour guide told the story of the starvation in the city and the attempts to escape over the water at night as one who’s father had lived through it, and as one who’s grandfather and aunts all succumbed to starvation.
            It was a trip I will never forget, and it was a powerful experience for students. I’ve included just a few of the pictures, though it was hard to capture the immensity of the places I tried to photograph.


CAS Seniors and teachers outside of Peter the Great's Summer Palace

Church of the Spilt Blood over a St. Petersburg Canal

Mosaic and Chandelier interior of Church of the Spilt Blood
(you can almost see the mosaic detail)

Mosaic Ceiling of Church of the Spilt Blood

Monday, October 19, 2009

Chicken Tagine

Today we had no school, so I asked our maid, Fatima, to show me how to prepare a Tagine, which is a traditional Moroccan dish. Tagines are basically meaty dishes with a bit of vegetable or sweet. We've had beef tagine with green beans and olives, or chicken tagine with prunes and almonds. Once you make this tagine, you can make some of the other lovely combinations!

We started the morning by going to the market for ingredients. I watched as a man weighed a small, live chicken on a scale. He took it aside to be killed, defeathered, and boiled while we went to find other ingredients. I was amazed at the prices she was able to get for our food- only about $3 for the chicken, plus about $3 more for the rest of the ingredients.

We returned to start cooking. I'm attaching the recipe below, with pictures. Unfortunately, I didn't time the cooking, but I think if you keep following the recipe and checking to see if things are done, that it will turn out well. We used a clay tagine pot to prepare the tagine. If you don't have that, a dutch oven is a good second choice, a saucepan is a third choice. Below is a picture of our clay tagine.

Enjoy! And let me know if you decide to cook this!

Moroccan Chicken Tagine
As prepared by Fatima

1 large clay tagine
(A dutch oven will do)

1 small chicken
7 medium yellow onions or vidalia onions
1.5 cups of yellow raisins (Fatima says to use 10MAD worth)
1 small bunch parsley, tied in a knot
1 tomato, grated
4 pinches of saffron threads
salt and pepper to taste
"Ras el Hanout" spices to taste(optional)- see for more information
(if you don't want to make the Ras el Hanout recipe, look for Moroccan spice mixes)
paprika to taste
sugar to taste
cinnamon to taste

Slice the onions thinly. Keep one onion separate from the rest.

Cut up the chicken: spine to front breast, then cut about 6 pieces from each half

Soak the chicken in water, salt, and lemon juice for 5-10 minutes, then remove the skin and rinse the chicken.

Tagine mixture: Heat the tagine pot on high, adding the one onion that was set aside. Add oil (Fatima uses at least a couple tablespoons). Set the chicken pieces on top. Sprinkle salt, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, and couscous seasoning on top.

Allow to cook a few minutes on high, uncovered. After some time, bundle some parsley in the center.

Grate a tomato on top. Cover. After a few minutes, turn the chicken over. It should be simmering in juices; no need to add water.

In another saucepan, combine the 6 other onions with oil (again, about 2-3 Tablespoons), salt, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, and couscous seasoning. Cover and let cook. (Onions should get tender and should not burn to the pan. You will need to use enough oil.)

Soak 2 pinches of saffron in about 2-3 tablespoons of hot water. Pour this water over the tagine mixture. Soak the same saffron again in hot water, pour water over the tagine. (Fatima does not add the saffron threads to the tagine, just the water.)

After about 10-15 minutes, turn the tagine with chicken and onion to low temperature. Keep covered. By this time, the clay pot has absorbed much of the juices.

Add saffron water (2 pinches of saffron with hot water) to the onion mixture. Also add the raisins, sugar to taste, and cinnamon.

Pile the onion/raisin mixture on top of the tagine mixture (see first picture). Serve, and enjoy!