Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Pasta for the Protein-Deprived

Greetings, dear readers!

I just arrived home from my first visit to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, that mecca for molecular biologists. After attending the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting, I am left with one feeling: humility. There is just so much knowledge within biology, and I have only the faintest clue about most of it. Within the confines of circadian rhythms, the field in which I am doing my thesis research, I am well-informed, but once we move outside of rhythms, it's difficult for me to keep up with all the research talks: eight or nine 20-minute talks during one session with seven talk sessions held over the course of five days. Whew! By the time I had presented my poster on the third day of the conference, I was wiped out. I bumbled my way through the rest of the conference and gratefully boarded that plane that took me back to Chicago.

The conference had its high and low points. I loved meeting other Drosophilists! I presented my work during one of the poster sessions, and my poster presentation went really well: I had many visitors who expressed a lot of interest in my thesis work, so that was exciting. My advisor is a bit of a celebrity within the fly research community, so my work was popular because it's also his work. Most of my visitors were quite nice and very supportive, and they made me feel great about my work. I had a few visitors who were openly challenging and critical, which is also good because it forces me to think more deeply about the data and the conclusions we are drawing from those data. It is uncomfortable when a poster visitor immediately begins criticizing the work. For me, I think the discomfort is a result of having no rapport with the critics; it's hard not to feel defensive when one's work is being criticized by a perfect stranger. So it takes a great deal of grace and objectiveness to accept criticism openly and kindly. In my quest for scientific success, I continue to strive for grace and patience in all my interactions, whether with people or with my experiments.

While the science was overwhelming and humbling, the food was less than thrilling. There was a serious lack of decent vegetarian options at some meals. I found myself forced to choose between sticking with my vegetarian habits and eating protein. For several meals, I chose the latter, knowing that I desperately needed some protein besides cheese. At home I tend to eat a lot of legume-based protein: beans, tofu (which are really just soybeans in a new costume), peanut butter, plain nuts. The lack of protein and the stress of being in an unfamiliar place with new people and new science bumped up the amount of junk food I ate. I tried to stick with eating healthier sweets like fresh fruit and granola bars--I tried--but I also ate my fair share of cookies, my favorite kind of baked good. While I can easily pass on cake, cookies call my name and woo me with their delightful sweetness, crunch, and adorable size. I paired a two-pack of crunchy Pepperidge Farm dark chocolate chip cookies with a strong iced latte and a great conversation with a new friend about serotonin receptors and cocaine responsiveness in flies--now THAT was wonderful!

After this whirlwind trip to New York, I found myself back at home on Sunday night. I was hungry and exhausted, so I needed to throw together a fast, easy, delicious dinner that would provide some leftovers for a satisfying Monday lunch. I decided to make a new addition to my Penne Pasta with Ricotta-Pesto Sauce: canned chickpeas. I borrowed this idea from a pasta dish in Crescent Dragonwagon's Passionate Vegetarian in which she combines pasta shells with a dollop of pesto and a can of drained chickpeas. I love her pasta, and I love it even more with my ricotta-pesto sauce. The chickpeas add their nutty-beany flavor, tender texture, and protein. So the next time you find yourself in need of a quick, protein-packed dinner, consider this pasta dish.

Penne Pasta with Chickpeas in Ricotta-Pesto Sauce
Makes ~3 generous servings to feed exhausted travelers
2 c. dried penne pasta, preferably a brand with some fiber and protein
¼ c. ricotta cheese
¼ c. best quality fresh basil pesto (I like Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto)
1 14.5-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained.
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 plum tomatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces*

1) Cook penne pasta according to package directions.
2) While pasta is cooking, combine ricotta cheese and pesto in a large mixing bowl.
3) After pasta is done cooking, drain the hot pasta and add it to the ricotta-pesto sauce. Toss vigorously to coat pasta with sauce.
4) Add the chickpeas to the pasta and toss again. Add salt and pepper to taste. I find that this dish usually needs a lot of salt and pepper.
5) Place pasta in individual serving bowls and top with chopped tomatoes. If you are feeling ambitious, eat this pasta with a side salad.

*If you don't have any tomatoes on hand, as I didn't on Sunday night, this pasta dish is still wonderful without them. If you have tomatoes, go ahead and use 'em--they'll make this dish even better!

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